Monday, November 8, 2010

Not disillusioned enough

From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is good that so many of Obama’s followers are disillusioned. But they are not half as disillusioned as they need to be.

The once fervent supporters of Barack Obama say that they are more and more “disillusioned” with his politics. And the word should be apt since so many of them were intoxicated by the illusion that one single politician could transform a rotten social system. It seems, though, that many of those who describe themselves as disillusioned are accusing Obama of breaking his promises, rather than blaming themselves for falling prey to a naïve illusion.

This seems a bit unfair to Obama, who made no secret during his campaign of his “moderate” political outlook. A central theme of his campaign, in fact, was the need for bipartisanism to counter the trend towards politics becoming too “ideological”. Those who now criticize Obama for being yet another spineless Democrat were not paying adequate attention to the statements he made during the campaign. Obama made no secret two years ago of his deeply-held principle of never sticking to any principle. He has never claimed to be anything but a “pragmatist”, which is a nicer way of saying “opportunist”.

There was, of course, that promise Obama made about bringing about some sort of change, but isn’t it a bit unfair to hold him to such a sweeping and vague promise? And things have changed – just not for the better. Over the past two years, millions of Americans have experienced the dramatic change of losing their job or home (or both).

Principled spinelessness

Those painful, negative changes might be easier for some to stomach if Obama had cracked down on Wall Street or ended the senseless wars in the Middle East. But instead he has left many Bush Administration policies intact; and even the few important policy changes that Obama has implemented have been tainted with his “principled spinelessness” (most notably, his healthcare reform that leaves the parasitic insurance companies in place and even presents them with opportunities for expansion).Yet here again Obama has more or less been true to the positions he held prior to the presidential election. Even if we go back a bit further, to his book The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, we see that he proudly displayed his essentially “conservative” politics. Far from making promises to leftwing Democrats or posing as a progressive, Obama was careful to define himself as a political pragmatist, ready and willing to work with the Republicans.

Moreover, one of Obama’s traits, as the book reveals, is a concern to not be caught in outright lies. He rarely resorts to statements that directly invert the truth in the style of Bush’s “We don’t torture” or Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” Rather, Obama likes to underscore the complexity of reality and the need for pragmatic solutions.

Wishful thinking

The idea that President Obama has broken his promises can only seem valid to those who – against all the evidence he provided – fashioned an image of him as the country’s progressive saviour. These are the people who helped make The Audacity of Hope a bestseller, but one can’t help wondering if they got past the first few pages. Anyone who managed to at least read the prologue would have encountered the following passage, which might have given them pause for thought:

“I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”

Had his readers reflected a bit on this insight, they might have questioned whether the “Obama as saviour” storyline was not simply a case of wishful thinking. But perhaps that is like asking someone in love to consider the possibility that the object of their love is not quite perfect.

Obama’s warning in the prologue might be easy to overlook, but it is followed by countless examples throughout the book where he lays out quite clearly his conservative credentials and deep-rooted affection for the capitalist system, including a prominent passage in that same prologue where he informs the reader that (contrary to what those at Fox News might have believed) not an ounce of “socialism” will be found in the subsequent pages:

“I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised…I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military…I think much of what ails the inner city involves a breakdown in culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.”

Obama “thinks” a lot of things in the book, and surprisingly few of his thoughts are in harmony with the views of his leftwing supporters, who worked so hard to get him elected.

Boots on the ground

Take his views on foreign policy, for example. This is an area where the views of the “anti-war” candidate Obama were thought to differ sharply from the hawkish approach of Hillary Clinton (now his Secretary of State!), not to mention the belligerent policies of Bush and McCain. In fact, Obama made it perfectly clear in The Audacity of Hope that he would deploy US troops when necessary, because “like it or not, if we want to make American more secure, we are going to have to help make the world more secure”. Rather than rejecting Bush’s absurd and counter-productive “war on terrorism”, Obama wrote that “the challenge will involve putting boots on the ground in ungoverned hostile regions where terrorists thrive”. And lest the reader imagine that such military force would only be used in retaliation, Obama claims that “we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security”. It is something of a mystery how Obama managed to convince so many that he was a foreign policy “dove” while at the same time publishing such views.

But the surprising gap between what Obama himself pledged to do and the sort of president many of his supporters hoped he would become is not limited to the realm of foreign policy. For domestic policies as well, the real Obama has turned out to bear almost no resemblance to the second coming of FDR that more than a few had predicted or expected. At this point, I suspect, many “disillusioned” Democrats would be satisfied with a pale imitation of LBJ.

Yet how can Obama be blamed for those false expectations? In his book, even while recognizing that FDR “saved capitalism from itself” through his New Deal reforms, Obama does not fundamentally criticize Reagan for setting about dismantling aspects of the welfare system. He even says that there is a “good deal of truth” in “Reagan’s central insight – that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic”. And Obama, not surprisingly, praises Clinton, who “put a progressive slant on some of Reagan’s goals,” for achieving “some equilibrium” by creating a “smaller government, but one that retained the social safety net FDR had first put into place”.

Hardly the stuff of “socialism”

Obama is not so forthright in explaining his own welfare policies, but he implies that welfare should be a bare minimum. We should be “guided throughout,” he writes, “by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and private,” leading to “a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility.” This is hardly the stuff of “socialism” – or even of West European social democracy.

But there were many, even self-described socialists, who thought that Obama, whatever his statements during the campaign, would be compelled by the economic crisis itself or a growing working class movement, to enact policies similar to the New Deal of the 1930s. This expectation allowed such leftists to adopt the stance of backing Obama in the election without explicitly supporting his politics – adopting the posture of “critical support” of which they are so fond. (I can’t help wondering, though, why such “socialists” can’t set a goal higher than once again “saving capitalism from itself”.)

Yet in the midst of the continuing Great Recession, Obama has not budged from his belief that the solutions to the problems plaguing the United States can be found lying in the middle of the political road, so to speak, just waiting to be picked up. This is the belief he wrote about back in 2006, and his policies in office have been based on it.

An anti-Bush without Bush

Still, it was understandable that so many were drawn to Obama, despite his relative honesty regarding his own conservatism. Millions were sick to their guts of Bush and the Republicans and it was indeed “time for a change”. The cautious, compromising attitude of Obama could even appear principled compared to the reckless pigheadedness of Bush. The charisma of Obama was based on his self-presentation as the anti-Bush. Clearly, Obama appeared at the opportune time, when much of the population was desperate to believe that the country could change for the better, after eight long years when everything Bush touched turned to shit. This was the basis for the foolish – or “audacious” – hope that Obama could, almost single-handedly, set things right.

Obama’s once overpowering charisma has faded away, however. Now that few can remember exactly what it felt like to loathe the neocons, he no longer glows in the reflected light of the burning rage against Bush. Obama without Bush is a far less compelling act – like a “straightman” in a comedy duo who decides to go solo.

So people went from the naïve view that Bush is the root of all evil to the equally simplistic idea that Obama could uproot that evil. And now we have a sense of disillusionment due to the persistence of deep-rooted problems despite the election of Obama. Yet the idea that Obama has betrayed us is based on the initial illusion that he could rescue us from problems that are deeply rooted in capitalism itself. This notion, in turn, is no different from the superficial idea that those problems arose from Bush’s stupidity or mendacity. It is pointless to transform Obama from a saviour into a new scapegoat.

It is good that so many of Obama’s followers are disillusioned. But they are not half as disillusioned as they need to be! Only when millions of people finally give up the illusion that capitalism can be fundamentally reformed to somehow create a more humane world will we be on the road to real social change.

Michael Schauerte

Cable and capitalism (2010)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Capitalism”, the Business Secretary Vince Cable told the Libdem Conference in September, “takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can.” (London Times, 22 September). He was of course playing to the gallery, but no minister in the Blair and Brown governments ever dared to utter such harsh words about capitalism. They were too scared even to mention the word “capitalism” for fear of upsetting the business world whose interests they knew they were there to serve.

Not that Cable is against capitalism. He’s merely in favour of government intervention to curb its excesses. As one of the Tory Prime Minister’s aides was reported as saying ,“Vince is simply spelling out what happens when you have uncontrolled capitalism”. And, as he himself said, “the Government’s agenda is not one of laissez faire”, adding “markets are often irrational or rigged.”

He – and the rest of the Con-Dem government – are in favour of government intervention to try to get capitalism to work as in theory it is supposed to, with competitive markets keeping prices down and allowing only normal profits to be made in the long run.

If, because of monopolistic practices or rigged markets, some capitalist firms are permanently able to make abnormally high profits this will be at the expense of the profits of the rest of the capitalist class. Not that this will restrain the firms in question – they go for maximum profits, taking no prisoners. So, it’s up to the government to restrain them in the overall interest of the capitalist class as a whole. It’s part of its remit as the executive committee of the ruling class.

Even so, Cable upset the business world. Richard Lambert, the current director general of the CBI, denounced Cable’s “emotional language”, saying “Mr Cable has harsh things to say about the capitalist system; it will be interesting to hear his ideas for an alternative.” A former CBI director-general, Digby (now Lord) Jones condemned his remarks as “rabble-rousing” and unworthy of a member of the government. (The London Times, 23 September) reminded him that “the Business Secretary’s principal task is to help companies to earn profits.” Even the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, still loyal to business, joined in, criticising Cable for “denouncing business and the City in general” which he said was “extremely damaging to our reputation abroad” (Evening Standard, 24 September).

In response, Cable rather cleverly added to the pre-released text of his speech the words “as Adam Smith explained over 200 years ago.”

He was referring to the following passage from part II of chapter X of Book I of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
While Smith provided the theoretical basis for the policy of laissez faire implemented in Britain (by state intervention) in the 1830s and 1840s – and which resulted in children being sent down the mines – he was under no uncritical defender of the behaviour of capitalists, as director-generals of the CBI might like to think.

In any event, Cable was not offering an alternative to the capitalist system and is well aware of his duty as Business Secretary “to help companies earn [or, more accurately, reap] profits”. That, in fact, is the duty of all governments.