Notes on Building a Left in the Age of Obama


Since I wrote a book that comprehensively criticized Barack Obama from the left two years ago,  people are sometimes surprised to learn that my main problem with a lot of U.S. liberals and “progressives” isn’t that they’ve been overly attached to the latest mediocre business- and empire-friendly conservative (Wall Street Obama) to sit in the White House. That gripe continues with many – though I must say a shrinking number – of them, but I have two bigger difficulties with this crowd.  




“That’s Politics”


My first bigger criticism is that so many U.S. “progressives” have tended to buy into our nation’s dominant definition of “politics” as being about little more than big quadrennial corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, and candidate-centered election spectacles. The problem here is not so much their connection to Obama as their privileging of those great staggered big money exhibitions over the hard, day-to-day work of grassroots citizen action. Here I am informed by an excellent passage from the leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky on the eve of the 2004 elections:


The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. 


Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena….A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.”  But it isn’t.  It’s only a small part of politics. ..


The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power…. 


[Election] choices [are]…secondary to serious political action.  The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”


I also take counsel from the late, great radical historian Howard Zinn. In March of  2008, as Obamaphoria was sweeping up vast sections of the U.S. including much what passes for a left in the nation,  Zinn wrote an essay on the “Election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity:


The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.


And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike… Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.


But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.


Let’s remember that even when there is a "better" candidate…that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”


As I read Zinn’s  essay in Iowa City in early 2008, I was instantly reminded of something I had found curious in Iowa (ground zero for candidate-centered U.S. politics thanks to the early presidential Caucus held there every four years) in the months leading up to Iowa’s historic presidential Caucus of early January that year. When I would ask “liberal” and “progressive” voters why they were supporting Obama, many of them would try to argue that that he and/or his campaign (some even said “movement”) were forces for democracy and against militarism, racism, and social injustice. 


This claim had nothing to do with actually “deeply conservative” corporate, imperial, militarist, and race-neutralist (so-called “post-racial”) reality of their candidate, who had been vetted and found safe to corporate and imperial rule since 2003 by the U.S. power elite. (Liberals and others on “the left’ were being sold a false, fake-progressive bill of goods by the expert crafters of “Brand Obama.”). At the same time, it was made by people you never or rarely saw in actually existing local organizations that fought for democracy and against war, militarism, racism, and social injustice on a daily basis beneath and beyond the election cycles. Their definition of “politics” did dot extend beyond Zinn’s “election madness” and Chomsky’s “personalized quadrennial extravaganzas.” It was thus “secondary to serious political action.”



“The Things I Cannot Change”


My second and I think related leading difficulty with progressively inclined Americans is a pronounced tendency to give up on politics altogether.  Most of us are familiar by now with the (substance abuse) “recovery movement’s” famous Serenity Prayer, crafted – interestingly enough – by the leading U.S.-imperial theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”


I would say that half the people I know who identify themselves as left have pretty much  think taken politics (broadly understood) and put it in the category of “things [they] cannot change” and which are therefore “dysfunctional” as a relevant focus for life activity.  The “pessimism of their mind[s]” has overridden the lost “optimism of their will[s]” (to quote Antonio Gramsci) when it comes to extra-personal matters.  They focus on private pleasures, pains, and endeavors” in a society whose ubiquitously authoritarian character strikes them as irretrievably beyond their “sphere of influence.” This is of course a great surrender.


“Obama. It Just Gets Worse”


The first 13 months of the Obama presidency have born out Chomsky and Zinn’s warnings. They have also been richly consistent with “deeply conservative,” corporate and imperial Obama that I portrayed in my 2008 book, Big money and big empire have been the only voices speaking with real authority while the supposedly eloquent Obama has orated at a record pace, epitomizing (as Michael Hureaux Perez notes) the old labor maxim: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (we could add another working class slogan: “money talks, bullshit walks”). The Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama has worked in dedicated service to the combined and interrelated imperatives of corporate and military rule.


Recently the civil rights lawyer Ernest Canning listed some key policy examples in a “troubling litany” demonstrating that Obama is a conscious agent of ruling class and imperial power. Canning observed “the immediate alignment of President-Elect Obama with a bevy of former Wall Street/Goldman Sachs insiders like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, the retention of the CIA-connected Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, the re-nomination of Ben Bernacke,” and “the ‘too big to fail’ excuse that handed Wall Street the keys to the National Treasury, even as Goldman Sachs/AIG executives gorged on seven and eight figure bonuses.” 


Canning also noted  “the betrayal of the single-payer [health insurance]cause former state senator Obama once championed, not to mention the abandonment of the more modest  ‘public option’ in favor of back-room deals with the rapacious health insurance cartel and the pharmaceutical industry.”


Canning also cited “the deceptive, and at times Orwellian justifications for not merely continuing but expanding an irrational ‘global war on terror,’ complete with retention of murderous mercenaries, like those supplied by Blackwater/Xe at enormous taxpayer expense” and  Obama’s “failure to faithfully execute the laws against torture.”


Obama has not merely kept the U.S. global military “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn, Democracy Now, January 6, 2010). He has significantly escalated civilian-slaughtering imperial violence (drone warfare especially) in South Asia and expanded mass-murderous imperial operations in Somalia and Yemen. 


We might also mention the Copenhagen talks on climate change last December. They ended with no binding restrictions on carbon emissions on the part of the rich nations – a total fiasco. According to the leading British climate activist and intellectual George Monbiot:


“The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.” (George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian, December 21, 2009)


Truth be told, the list of Hope Killer Obama’s deadly “progressive” betrayals expands daily. As I write, the Obama team is advancing preparations for the possible privatization or at least rollback of Social Security and Medicare. Obama has recently declared himself an “agnostic” when it comes to making spending cuts on these “entitlement programs” (though never on the Pentagon’s $1 trillion annual entitlement, which accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 800 bases spread across more than 130 nations in the name of something called “defense”) in order to reduce the deficit.  His “progressive” administration is currently stonewalling two mildly progressive nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).


Barack Obama has spoken again and again of “our” need to be what he and his team call “practical” and to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But let’s be honest about how this really boils down. Obama has advanced what the liberal novelist and political essayist Kevin Baker calls a “business liberalism” that “espouses a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.”  The results are not simply less than “perfect” – they are no damn good. This is widely felt and understood across much of the populace, which is understandably restless and angry over hopes and promises that have been (as usual) betrayed in standard accord with the dictates of “the unelected dictatorship[s] of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson)  and empire.


As a leading left intellectual said to me in an e-mail to me some time back: “Obama. It just gets worse.”


All as predicted, by myself and others on the “hard left.”



The Dashed Expectations and Democrats Exposed Theses


So how and why might I have been willing (somewhat grudgingly) to help Obama get elected (even as I protest- voted for Nader) in the fall of 2008? Beyond the calculation (I cannot lie), I held out two ironic sorts of hope (if I might employ that deeply abused word) for his election. The first such wish was that mass disappointment with a President Obama’s (certain) betrayal of the popular expectations (for democratic transformation)  he would ride to the presidency might help move progressively inclined citizens off  candidate-focused election spectacles and into Chomsky and Zinn’s “main task” of building grassroots socio-political movements.


The second hope held that the corporate Democrats are better able to deceptively pose as a progressive alternative to business class and imperial rule and the Republicans when they are out of office than when they are in nominal power. They are less able to hide their essential identity as the other business and empire party (what former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips once aptly termed “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party”) when they sit atop the political system.


I thought it was essential and useful for American citizens, especially younger ones to experience life under a Democratic presidential administration.  It seemed to me that most serious middle-aged and senior lefties didn’t require an education from Obama (or alternatively a president Hillary Clinton) on the bipartisan nature of the U.S. profits system and the related American Empire Project. But many in a new and younger generation of real and potential left progressives did need that instruction. They had come of political age in a time mainly of Republican rule, helping make them prone to the illusion that party re-branding atop top government offices might constitutes some sort of dramatic transformation. No amount of lecturing or warning on past Democratic betrayals from older progressives could begin to match the lived experience of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid et al.’s right-center policy and practice when it came to learning that (in Doug Henwood’s words) "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top jobs in the American System. An Obama and Democratic victory in the 2008 elections, would, I hoped, help deliver a vital lesson on the richly bipartisan nature of what I call “American Empire and Inequality, Inc.”


Perhaps nobody expressed my sense of the relevant if ironic sort of optimism that a leftist could attach to the prospect of an Obama presidency than the incisive Brooklyn-based Marxist commentator Doug Henwood.  As Henwood argued at the end of a March 2008 essay that criticized, among other things, Obama’s subservience to big capital, Obama’s militarism, Obama’s disingenuous claims to be against the Iraq War, Obama’s “empty” slogans, Obama’s “fan club,” and Obama’s denial of the extent of racial inequality in the U.S:


“Enough critique; the dialectic demands something constructive to induce some forward motion. There’s no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world -more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He’ll deliver little of that – but there’s evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed.”


“There’s great political potential in popular disillusionment with Democrats. The phenomenon was first diagnosed by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. As Wills explained it, throughout the 1950s, left-liberals intellectuals thought that the national malaise was the fault of Eisenhower, and a Democrat would cure it. Well, they got JFK and everything still pretty much sucked, which is what gave rise to the rebellions of the 1960s (and all that excess that Obama wants to junk any remnant of). You could argue that the movements of the 1990s that culminated in Seattle were a minor rerun of this. The sense of malaise and alienation is probably stronger now than it was 50 years ago, and includes a lot more of the working class, [who are] …really pissed off about the cost of living and the way the rich .are lording it over the rest of us.”


“Never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That’s not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist.” (Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117, March 2008).


“Having Obama in the White House Has, If Anything Made Things Worse”


So how’s it going with the ironic and “dialectical” forms of inverted hope that Henwood and I (following Henwood) advanced (somewhat naively seeking to transplant the rising expectation of the early 1960s into the dream-smashing neoliberal era) in 2008?


Not so hot. According to the left historian Nelson Lichtenstein in a recent reflection, “the Obama era has…been characterized by a surprising demobilization of the left and the liberals” (Dissent, January 27, 2010).  I have zero idea why Lichtenstein would find that “surprising” (it’s what many of us serious left political commentators fully expected and easily predicted under an Obama presidency), but the observation of left-liberal stand-down and paralysis is accurate enough. My own observations in a “progressive” town (Iowa City, Iowa) are all-too consistent with Lichtenstein’s and with Henwood’s recent less-than- cheery response to an interviewer’s question on whether or not the dashing of Obamanistic hopes and the exposure of the Democrats was yielding the sort of radical potential he had hoped for:


“I can’t say there’s a lot of inspiring stuff going on. The left, such as it is, is divided and weak. Having Obama in the White House has, if anything, made things worse, as otherwise decent people twist themselves into apologetic postures. Maybe this kind of weakness and confusion are symptoms of a society that’s falling apart and there’s not much we can do about it. I hope not.”


“…I’d hoped that the shattering of illusions would be productive, but it’s happening rather slowly, and maybe causing people just to give up. All the energy, at least for now, is coming from the right. It’s like all the crazy paranoid shit that [Richard] Hofstadter wrote about is coming back to life with more numbers and force than in a few decades. It’s amazing that a neoliberal president who subsidizes nuclear power, bails out Wall Street, and escalates imperial war is somehow seen as a treasonous socialist. But those loons make the liberals more inclined to defend Obama, to preserve us from the fascist threat they love to invoke.”


This is a bit too negative and depressing for me. I will give some counter-examples below.  Still, well into Year II of the Obama atrocity, one group of so-called left-liberals clings preposterously to a false image of Obama as a deep-down people’s president who still wants to “do the right thing” for the common good. For many of these “progressive” so-called left liberals, unjust wars and occupations, mega-bankers’ bailouts, U.S. torture practices, secret paramilitaries and executions, illegal domestic wiretaps, drone attacks on defenseless women and children and other terrible policies that were seen as intolerable under the rule of a boorish white Republican moron from West Texas have seemed all too acceptable when carried out by an eloquent and dashing black Democrat from Chicago. (That of  is course is no small part of what those who rule America hoped to see happen under Obama. The e rich and powerful wanted a dramatic brand change for the American System after the popular anger and alienation spread by Bush and Cheney at home and abroad.  The fresh new nonwhite face and silver tongue of the dashing young neoliberal patriot Barack Obama was all-too perfect for the job). It’s been sad and a little disgraceful to watch “otherwise decent people” make perverse, ill-advised excuses for Obama and the Democrats instead of taking up the (yes, difficult) work of “educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools” (Zinn) beneath and beyond the “quadrennial extravaganzas” (Chomsky).