I was reading an article recently by Paul Street about Obama’s first year in office and came across an astute observation. Street was comparing the actions of Obama in the spheres of domestic and foreign policy. Although elected on the campaign rhetoric of “change we can believe in” and “hope”, Obama has thus far only confirmed the views of many on the ‘left’ that he would be just another servant of the corporate and imperial ruling class whose main task would be to reestablish the empires’ foundations and reputation abroad and at home. In contrast to what so many in the US hoped for in the run-up to his election, Obama is not making good on the progressive changes that he promised to voters. He is not attempting to alter the corporate-capitalist system that is so intertwined with the imperial goals around the world. To be fair it is hard to believe that Obama could bring about much change even if he really wanted to, due to power and interests that are invested in the current establishment, but I don’t even see the effort. Perhaps he would be met with strong resistance from the established interests of capital and their representatives in congress if he did attempt to advance progressive policies in the areas of healthcare, the multiple wars currently raging in Asia, and the ever more ominous prospect of drastic climate change. In fact it is almost assured that he would come up against this resistance, if that indeed was a path the Obama was actually willing or intending to take. The reality of the situation though is that Obama is here to right the ship of capitalism at home and restore, and if possible extend, imperial control abroad, a system that in so few words has at the heart of it the belief that society is better served by attaining constant economic growth as the harbinger of all that is good. The result of this system in the end is to place the premium on generating profits over addressing the needs of the people. In essence Obama is a re-branding of the imperium without any restructuring of the underlying fundamentals of institutions or ideologies that guide it. (incidentally Obama was awarded Marketer of the Year for 2008 by Ad Age, beating out the likes of Apple and Nike). It is not that he is powerless to address these fundamental problems, although he is certainly constrained, as much as that addressing the fundamentals is not what he is here to do. He is here to reestablish the status quo that has been shaken by the economic meltdown, the endless wars, and the tarnish that the US image suffered abroad during the Bush II years.
An example of this commitment on the behalf of Obama to largely continue in pursuing the imperial interests of the US is evident in the cases of domestic healthcare and the foreign wars of occupation. In a recent study conducted at the Harvard Medical School and published in the American Journal of Public Health it was found that 45,000 deaths annually are associated with lack of access to healthcare in the US. This number is up from about 18,000 annually in 2002 according to an Institute of Medicine investigation published at the time. The studies both used similar methods to reach their findings. This is an alarming indication of just how poorly healthcare is addressed in the US, the county that pays more for care per capita than any other country and more as a percentage of its GNP than any other besides East Timor.¹ ²
While being elected in part by a hope on his supporters behalf for real healthcare reform and a move towords including all those currently left out of the system, Obama has decisively shifted away from that prospect. Instead of presenting any reforms or plans for a new system based on this popular support he immediately signaled that the debate and subsequent reform should take place in congress and with the consultation and backing of congressional Republicans. This ensured that no real reform would take place to address the underlying causes that produce a situation where close to 50 million US citizens have no health insurance. The proposed reform that is currently working its way through congress is one that will only treat the symptoms of the problem and leave the structural cause, a private healthcare industry that views care as a means for generating profit as opposed to one where access to care is a guaranteed right of everyone, essentially unchanged. The urgency, pain, and suffering felt by the millions of uninsured and their families is certainly not being felt at the level of those who control the country.
Or to say it a different way it is being noticed but not actually felt. This is the reality for those in Washington who don’t have to worry about healthcare for themselves of their families. The difference between ‘noticing’ and ‘feeling’ is in essence a difference from being legitamtely affected by uninsurance to the point of being genuinely moved to address it (feeling) and the attempt to rechannel the discontent in a way that does not threaten private corporate interests and if possible takes advantage of it (noticing). This pressure from the majority of citizens in the US is indeed being noticed by the political and corporate establishment, but they are responding to it by spinning it in the media (playing on fears on ‘big government’, ’socalism’, etc.), attempting to ‘reform’ the healthcare system in a way that insures big insurance and pharmasutical companies continue to profit handsomely, or by simply ignoring it in a bid to make it disappear. Now not everyone in government is beyond feeling the actual grievences of the people and some are (and have been) making noble efforts to introduce real change into the system. But by and large it has to be stated that most are coming in on the latter side of the debate. Why can we not even have a debate in the US about a single-payer system in the mainstream media or the political circles in Washington? Is it because the people don’t want it or because the urgency is not there? No. It is because a real structural reform of this type does not align with the objectives and goals of the political-corporate establishment who have vested interests in the maintenance of the imperium. Maintaining and projecting military (read also economic) power abroad comes at the expense of the citizenry in the homeland.
The trillions of dollars that have now been poured into the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan could surely have been better spent on domestic programs in the US. The US Defense budget is continuing to run at record levels. Street breaks it down very nicely in his article:
“Defense” is an interesting label for a giant military budget that pays for two mass-murderous occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and 770 military bases located in more than 130 countries. The United States accounts for nearly half (48 percent) the military spending on the planet. Coming in at $1 trillion (by the measure of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s National Income and Product Accounts) in 2007, American “defense” (empire) spending outweighs domestic U.S federal expenditure on education by more than 8 to 1; income security by more than 4.5 to 1; nutrition by more than 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; and job training by 32 to 1. The military accounts for more than half of all discretionary federal spending.
There is clearly money to be spent (even if its money the US doesn’t have and needs to borrow) on wars and occupations on the other side of the world but not for providing basic needs of its citizens at home. This becomes all the more glaring as Obama has failed to end either of the wars/occupations and is in fact expanded the conflict in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The justification used to launch these wars, the attack of 09/11/01 and the deaths/destruction it brought, pales in comparison to the annual toll inflicted each year by the simple fact the US is the only democratic industrialized country in the world not to provide universal healthcare to its citizens. It is evident that ‘perverted national priorities’, to use a term from MLK Jr., are being advanced by our leaders. Spending on the wars, ‘defense’, and its accompanying waste of resources and labor that go into the production of destructive elements, trumps the human needs of healthcare, education, housing, employment, addressing the ecological crisis, and a crumbling infrastructure. It is this reality that needs to be addressed and changed if we are to progress as a society and species in creating a more just and humane world. I think people in the US understand or at least feel it as an intuition in some sense. It is precisely this understanding or feeling that turned so many people on to the Obama brand during the campaign. He represented a real glimmer of hope for the possibility of meaningful change, at least that was the message he had for us. Unfortunately his role thus far has been that of maintenance person for the Empire, attempting to patch the holes that have opened up over the Bush II years. Instead of bringing real change he has only continued to serve the imperial interests of the corporate elite over the domestic needs of most of US citizens.
For those who saw Obama for what he was before being elected there is no satisfaction in being vindicated by his actions. On the contrary it should only serve to strengthen our resolve to demand a reordering of national priorities that place people above profit. For our national priorities have truly become inverted when the interests of the elite outweigh the needs of the many and when tens of thousands can die every year in the US for lack of health care while trillions are being borrowed and spent on imperial adventures. We are left with an untenable situation that requires an open, honest, and frank discussion of alternatives to the system currently in place. It is clear that mere tinkering around with it through watered-down reforms and concessions will not be sufficient. What is needed is deep structural changes that ensure a system that does not leave a segment of society behind. We must stop looking at and treating the symptoms and get to the cause of the problems we face. This is a national priority of the utmost importance.