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

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Inaugural Note 

I caught fleeting glimpses of the inauguration yesterday morning, while my young son angrily exclaimed his wish to watch Oscar on DVD. Apparently, he preferred Sesame Street to the departing Bush and the incoming Obama.

Filtered through the media, the event came across as yet instance of its inability to present significant social events as anything other than exercises in extravagance. The political and pundit classes fairly swooned over their good fortune in being able to display their rarely seen idealism in response to the inauguration of an African American president. Coverage was devoid of any engaging content at all, much less of the informative political kind. Later, in the evening, I was treated to a fashion designer and a fashion critic gushing over the clothes worn by the Obamas and the Bidens on Larry King Live.

Overall, the impression created was similar to listening to a Mozart symphony performed by an orchestra with several instruments out of tune. Something is not quite right, but you can't identify exactly what it is. One got an inkling of it when the newscasters and hired commentators remarked upon the large emotional crowd. Clearly, if the broadcast images provided an accurate impression, the crowd was disproportionately of color and disproportionately lower income than the composition of attendees in the past. My perception is that there were a lot of middle to lower middle class people there.

But this was not something that the newscasters and commenters could understand, much less attempt to convey to the viewing audience. Instead, we were treated to admittedly moving interviews of African Americans, young, middle aged and old, several in tears, describing how the inauguration of Obama provided them with a feeling of acceptance within a society known for its ingrained racism. When the dress worn by Michelle Obama for the inaugural ball is long forgotten, our memories of these people, and their intense release of the trauma of bigotry, will endure.

Beyond this, the media could not go, because, beyond this, lies the question of what the people who composed the crowd expect of Obama. It is not an easy question to answer, as it requires more than a mechanical application of left sociology, but the mere effort to do so leads in some disquieting directions for the elites that celebrated the inauguration. While it is not possible to project social and ideological values upon these people with clarity, it was evident that they perceive Obama as someone who can change the direction of the country.

For both the elites and Obama, that's something that neither wants communicated too overtly. Hence, during much of the media coverage, we encountered commentators and politicians talking about the crisis facing the country, as if it were some abstract thing that didn't require any fundamental alteration in our political values. Obama has, by and large, limited blame for our current predicament to our alleged lack of bipartisanship He has already signaled that his policies, both domestically and internationally are going to be mild reformist, and it was therefore essential that the crowd be characterized in a hopeful manner consistent with such an approach. His inaugural address, as recognized by many, was similar to past third way repudiations of conservative extremism by Clinton and Blair.

To suggest that the many within the crowd are to the left of this perspective, and reject the effort to resuscitate the economy by pouring trillions into a moribund banking system as well as the imperialism of the US presence throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, is a bridge too far. But they are generally suspicious of policies that appear to benefit the malefactors who caused the collapse of the economy and they do want to see the US presence in Iraq reduced. Most importantly, they want an economic recovery that results in secure jobs with good wages that will enable them to support themselves and their families, and aren't going to quibble overly much about how it is accomplished.

Obama intends to exploit this pragmatism to achieve his primary objectives of the survival of US finance capitalism and the reconfiguration of US global dominance. He recognizes that it will be nearly impossible to achieve them without imposing even more economic distress upon most Americans, thus, his embrace of entitlement reform, or, in plain English, cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, to pay down the debt incurred by the bailout and the impending stimulus package. His hope, however, is that he will be able to ignite a new era of economic growth to soften the blow.

Of course, this is not what many in the crowd had in mind while exhaulting Obama's ascension to power, and it will be interesting to see how they respond when the true contours of his policies are revealed. They heard him lay down his own challenge in his inaugural address. They are going to hold him to his commitment to create a government that works, a government that assists in the reinvigoration of the economy for the benefit of everyone. Will they collectively respond in opposition if he fails? And, if so, will they organize around a ideological perspective capable of shattering the bonds of neoliberalism and militarism? At this point, the answers to both questions appear to be negative, but crowds are notorious for their unpredictability.

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