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

Monday, February 01, 2010

Liking Obama 

In response to last Friday's post about Howard Zinn and the future of left politics in the US, Joe remarked that he "liked" Obama. It's understandable. Despite his frequent episodes of mendacity, I like him, too, and I can understand why others like him as well. He's an engaging, thoughtful person, one that we'd probably enjoy talking about things as diverse as film, literature, sports and pop music, or even personal things like our families and friends. We'd promptly go over to his house if he called and said that he needed help to move furniture out of his house and into his garage. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, he's the only president in recent memory that comes across as accessible and personable. Paradoxically, also much like Reagan, I'm not sure that he likes us all that much, but I've already addressed that subject.

In any event, the future is going to be increasingly bleak if we don't recognize that capital is exploiting Obama's personal appeal, much like it did Reagan's, to the detriment of the rest of us. While the election of an African American president is an undoubted achivement that was unimaginable until, literally, the moment it happened, I do not consider it to be an achievement of the New Left of which Zinn was one of its most prominent figures. Or, to be more precise, it was a limited achievement related to one of the New Left's objectives, social inclusion. After all, the New Left recognized that the transformation of American society required more than racial integration. Indeed, drawing upon Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and pan-Africanists of that period warned that people in power would attempt to coopt the movement through elevating people of color politically.

Along these lines, one of the consequences of Obama's election has been the proliferation of a revisionist view of the past, especially as it relates to Martin Luther King. With the election of Obama, we are now told that King's vision has been achieved, whereas, in fact, Obama is pursuing policies that run contrary to King's world view in every way. King has been reduced to the role of modern successor to Booker T. Washington. We should be alarmed at the extent of the embrace of this revisionism throughout much of American society, especially within the media, as the intention is to sanitize the rememberance of the 1960s and 1970s of all traces of radical perspectives about the necessity of anti-imperialism and socialism. It is a global enterprise. During his successful 2007 campaign for president in France, Sarkozy asserted that the legacy of May 1968 must be liquidated.

And, what exactly, must be liquidated within the US? Clearly, it's not civil rights, at least as defined within a legal, liberal context, although there is a good argument that another Obama legacy will be the elimination of the infrastructure of civil rights protections constructed over the last 40 years. Perhaps, that will happen. Presently, though, the targets are the New Left emphasis upon anti-imperialism and capitalism, along with civil rights, into a coherent social critique that once appealed to millions around the world. But, in recent decades, if people like Zinn may be taken as representative, the economic component was deemphasized, primarily, it seems, because of the need to preserve the fiction that the Democratic Party was a pathway to a more equitable society. Hence, Zinn's recent comment defending Obama on domestic policy, which, contrary to Joe, I believe speaks directly towards economics (note the emphasis upon "ordinary people").

Middle class and working class Americans are far ahead of people with roots on the New Left on this. They know that Bush, and now, Obama, are pushing them towards marginization. But, the allegiance of many New Left figures to the Democratic Party has prevented the creation of any avenue for them to organize on the left. Unions are complicit in the development of the health care bill even as the EFCA remains dormant, and they have, if Jane Hamsher is to be believed, abandoned a populist public campaign targeting the bailout and the abuses of the financial sector at the behest of the White House. Hence, many Americans are responding to the historic allure of nativism, anti-intellectualism and hostility to the government being put forward by the corporately sponsored Tea Party scene.

Interestingly enough, Chomsky perceives the peril. During an interview late last fall, he emphasized the importance of attempting to reach alienated, working Americans, many of whom have been attracted by Tea Party rhetoric, through an understanding of their economic distress. His remarks were in marked contrast to what one often encounters on the liberal site, DailyKos, where all participants in the Tea Party scene are treated as idiots and racists because of some of the signs that have been encountered there. My suspicion is that these posts are an organized effort to prevent the emergence of a populist movement in the US that would threaten the neoliberal orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.

Of course, Chomsky's advice is consistent with his anarchist background, and his knowledge of what transpired in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. He is encouraging us to try to reach people individually at the level of their personal struggles and hardships, instead of writing them off collectively, as many liberals appear to be willing to do (with the notable exception of Hamsher, and, naturally, other liberals are excoriating her for it). His advice evokes the left touchstone that race, class and religion are used to divide workers against themselves, so as to prevent them from assuming their rightful position of power within society. While such an outreach is fraught with difficulties, and may well fail, he is cautioning us that abandoning these people to the cynical manipulations of others will ensure bad, possibly even horrific, outcomes, as the sub-proletarianization of America runs its course.

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