'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, December 28, 2008

From the Archives: Obama and the Existential Crisis of American Capitalism 

[First posted on November 7, 2008: The third and final selection of the Obama series. It remains fairly close to what I think of Obama today.]

On Tuesday, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States. On Wednesday, US forces in Afghanistan launched an airstrike that killed at least 40 civilians and probably many more. Drones continue to launch missile strikes within the nearby border regions of Pakistan, although it is unclear whether these strikes are being done with the approval of the Pakistani government. Meanwhile, approximately 150,000 US forces remain in Iraq as the US and Iraqi government negotiate over the terms of over their future presence.

Today, the Labor Department announced that the US economy lost 240,000 jobs in October, and revised the number of jobs lost in September from an initially reported 159,000 to 284,000, in addition to revising the number jobs lost in August from initially reported 73,000 to 127,000. Accordingly, it is quite reasonable to suspect that the total number of jobs lost in October is in excess of 350,000. Both GM and Ford are hemorraghing cash, and an anticipated merger of GM and Chrysler may result in the loss of 200,000 jobs. The federal deficit is now over 10 trillion dollars and growing as the bailout is implemented.

Accordingly, as the euphoria over his decisive victory fades, the contours of the challenge facing Obama are coming sharply into focus. A country experiencing one of the most severe economic downturns in its history simultaneously finds itself militarily overextended around the world. It is tempting to construe them, as most liberals do, as the consequences of the policy failures of the Bush presidency. Bush, like LBJ, pursued utopian policies in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres, acting as if American resources to achieve its goals were unlimited.

Domestically, as Robin Blackburn observed, Bush substituted the promiscuous extension of credit for governmental expenditure as a means of constructing his own Great Society:

The Bush administration’s vision of the ‘ownership society’ somehow latched onto codicils of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ to encourage the poor to take on housing debt at the pinnacle of a property bubble. The quality of the arrangements made for poorer mortgagees was manifestly inadequate—they had no insurance provision—and also avoided the real problem, which is the true extent of poverty in the United States and the folly of imagining that it can be banished by waving the magic wand of debt creation.

Internationally, an even more grandiose Bush went far beyond the messianic anti-communism of LBJ in Southeast Asia and launched a self-described global war on terror that has resulted in two open ended wars in the Middle East and the prospect of a third. The US military budget is currently about one trillion dollars, and nearly equals the military spending of all other countries in the world. It constitutes about 8% to 9% of US gross domestic product.

It is therefore tempting to blame Bush for a deindustrialized, bankrupt domestic economy and military entanglements that have spun out of control, but such a personalized analysis obscures the real nature of the problem. In her concise book, Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood describes the current capitalist order, one that aspires that impose itself upon the entire world, as one that requires the US to maintain and deploy the most expensive and most technologically advanced military ever created. It is essential, in her view, for the US to preserve unquestioned military supremacy as a means of effectively arbitrating disputes between competing nation states, all of whom accept the necessity of this supremacy.

Of course, there are ancillary features associated with this order, such as the use of the US military to intimidate what the US rather theatrically defines as rogue states, and the need to periodically display the frightening destructive capability of the military to discourage any country that might be inclined to resist the softer aspects of US coercion as exercised through social and financial institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that, while important, should not distract us from recognizing the fundamental problem at hand.

The US is broke, and, as already recognized by Giovanni Arrighi in 2005, it has failed in this endeavor to impose neoliberal capitalist values upon the world. Soft power, as exercised by US dominance within global institutions, such as the ones already mentioned, along with the financial clout of banking firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citicorp, has been curtailed by a financial crisis that has grown into the first global recession since the 1970s. Hard power, in the form of the US military, has been degraded by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hence, Obama finds himself taking office when the principle around which his campaign was organized, his intention to marry neoliberalism with multiculturalism, is no longer relevant. Walter Benn Michaels has enunciated this principle most precisely:

This is also why the real (albeit very partial) victories over racism and sexism represented by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are not victories over neoliberalism but victories for neoliberalism: victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims. That is the meaning of phrases like the ‘glass ceiling’ and of every statistic showing how women make less than men or African-Americans less than whites. It is not that the statistics are false; it is that making these markers the privileged object of grievance entails thinking that, if only more women could crash through the glass ceiling and earn the kind of money rich men make, or if only blacks were as well paid as whites, America would be closer to a just society.

It is the increasing gap between rich and poor that constitutes the inequality, and rearranging the race and gender of those who succeed leaves that gap untouched. In actually existing neoliberalism, blacks and women are still disproportionately represented both in the bottom quintile—too many—and in the top quintile—too few—of American incomes. In the neoliberal utopia that the Obama campaign embodies, blacks would be 13.2 per cent of the (numerous) poor and 13.2 per cent of the (far fewer) rich; women would be 50.3 per cent of both. For neoliberals, what makes this a utopia is that discrimination would play no role in administering the inequality; what makes the utopia neoliberal is that the inequality would remain intact.

Thus, acutely aware of the tensions lying beneath the surface of American capitalism in its present neoliberal manifestation, it was Obama's intention to construct a winning electoral coalition around the concept of releasing them, or at least the ones associated with racial and gender bias. He obviously succeeded, but failed to take power before contradictions of a more serious nature erupted. Now, as FDR did, he finds himself compelled to preside over an attempt to reform American capitalism in order to save it.

FDR is, naturally, the optimistic scenario, one that invokes that American positivism that the country can overcome any crisis. There are, however, gloomier ones. For example, that old anti-semitic Communist, Vladimir Zhironovksy, has apparently described Obama as an American Gorbachev, a figure that, in his view, will destroy the country through his naive efforts to reform it. While the notion that Obama will destroy the country is over the top, there is some merit to what Zhironovsky says.

Gorbachev initially tried to revitalize Soviet society through mild reforms that did not imperil the Communist monopoly of power. As each successive reform effort failed, he was forced to adopt more and more aggressive policies that reached higher and higher into the leadership. Radicals found such efforts inadequate, and moved into open opposition, while conservatives eventually sought to remove him from office. He was never able to reinvigorate the moribund Soviet economy and the apparat, having masterfully aligned themselves with nationalist forces in the provinces, compelled the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. By the time he recognized this threat, he no longer possessed the capability of forcibly preventing it.

Obama is likely to follow a similar trajectory initially, but with different, unpredictable outcomes. His economic policies are awowedly neoliberal, and, if he persists with them, as is likely, he will fail. In order to move forward, he must bring resources home for economic development by downsizing the US military, but, instead, he has said that he will increase defense spending to provide for an additional 90,000 troops in addition to his commitment to send more troops to Afghanistan. An escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan could entrap Obama, rendering it impossible for him to dedicate any meaningful resources to domestic renewal. Such proposals are consistent with the voracious appetite for military activity associated with the global reach of American capitalism as described by Wood, but the country cannot support it.

What will Obama do then? The American left believes that he will embrace a socially progressive program, and there are at least some indications that his advisors are considering a substantial public works program. Even if they implement such a program, which remains to be seen, it is doubtful that they will eliminate subsidies to the financial sector and reduce the US military presence around the world. So, for now, we can look forward to a meek version of the sort of guns and butter that pushed the US economy into the dark days of stagflation in the 1970s.

Facing economic collapse, Gorbachev, to his credit, withdrew the Red Army from Eastern Europe. Will Obama withdraw US troops from South Korea, Germany, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, to jump start an American recovery? It seems unlikely. He looks too cautious for such a daring move. If forced to choose between aligning himself with the elite, as he has always done, and suppressing social unrest, or bending to the will of popular movements from below, and bravely transforming the power relationships within society, he would probably, unlike Gorbachev, choose the former. Furthermore, he would have to consciously implement policies that would abandon the US imperial role as the arbiter of global capitalism. In short, he would have to consciously bring down the curtain on the American empire.

No doubt, his supporters feel differently. They should, however, ponder a number of things. First, Clinton and Bush have expanded the power of the government over private individuals through surveillance, police action and incarceration. Will Obama consciously refuse to use it if challenged from the left? If so, he would be the first President to do so. Second, while the mass movement created by Obama is celebrated, and rightly so, there is a sinister side to it. Obama has a large group of people that he can call upon to not only agitate on his behalf, but, potentially, in difficult times, to intimidate those who oppose him.

Obama's personality, especially his cautiousness, makes such conduct hard to imagine, although we should not underestimate what political figures are capable of doing when pressed to the wall. In the 1970s, capital interests responded to a global crisis of similar severity by embracing neoliberal policies that rendered the lives of workers more transient and insecure, policies ultimately adopted by both Republicans and Democrats. If capital determines that a merciless regime of subproletarianization of the workforce is required, including recourse to extreme methods of suppression, why should we feel confident that Obama will resist? Obama has skillfully fused his political skills with new technologies to excite millions, but it remains to be seen whether his efforts will ultimately be empowering, alienating, or even a more refined method of social control.

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