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Bread and Circuses at the State of the Union


The 2008 hoax has been repeated, successfully it would appear (given the sanctification bestowed on Obama’s performance last night by the New York Times), despite a four-year record, ranging from zero to absolute negation, on every policy approach raised by the speech.  The friend of government?  Yes, in its militaristic dimensions; yes, in its protection of major corporations, banks, hedge funds, etc., from its supposed charge of regulation; yes, in its pursuit of international (but not American) reputation for moral turpitude—how else characterize assassination?

But government as dedicated to the public welfare,  government, embodiment of the principle of equality, government, vehicle for and guardian of societal democratization affecting class structure, distribution of wealth and power, business regulation, not on your life; quite the opposite, government, under Obama, as the public teat for corporate wealth, an image from the Gilded Age brought back to life, more blatant than ever.

Blatant, objectively, disguised beyond recognition, subjectively, so great the persuasiveness of liberal rhetoric in a society based on the destruction of political consciousness and critical awareness.  Obama, publicist for the spoliation of America on behalf of its ruling groups extraordinaire.

What did the speech offer?  A tribute to the “Middle Class” which, by its very designation, obfuscates the political-economic landscape of, first, an actual working, not middle, class, assuming its members are lucky enough to have jobs, second, structural poverty, from long-term unemployment to stagnant wages to first-timers seeking to enter the labor force to no avail, and third, even for those previously in the middle class, a decline of living standards via loss of home, equity therein, and savings, again when un- and under-employment hits—all of the above, as the incomes of the wealthiest skyrocket out of the picture.  The State of the Union is really, the State of the (Bifurcated) Union, not Republican, Democrat, not red states, blue states, but, simply, the union of great wealth and the societal remainder, gradations here a matter of statistical convenience, but concentration at the top—hence the accuracy of the phrase “ruling groups”—at what is surely at or near an all-time high.

Let Obama chant about the middle class and “growing” the economy; the reality is, and will remain, underconsumption and undemocratic wealth sharing.  Universal prekindergarten?  Another phony, if Chicago be our model of “education reform,” in which Arne Duncan has fulfilled the two Obama priorities in that policy area: more charter schools and the weakening of the teachers’ union, a neat package which comes under the heading of privatization.

Research Institutes?  Wonderful, but an actual drop in the bucket measured against the depth of unemployment (I include those who have given up, and are no longer counted in the labor force).  And as for the remainder—why the SILENCE for four years, in fact, speak of Republican obstructionism, here is Obama doing the obstructing—as, for example, climate change, gun control, oil drilling, environmental protection in general, even the suddenly-discovered irregularities of the voting process?

Democrats stood on cue, Republicans similarly, sitting, as though America were torn apart by ideological cleavage, when in reality it is only this tightly-wound Rightist formation, including both sides, in which differences in kind become magnified as qualitative differences.  Fundamental agreement holds on, obviously, capitalism, but also, within capitalism, deference to the big guns, the rejection of progressive taxation, facilitation of monopolization and consolidation generally, a labor policy prejudicial to organization and militance, “friendly,” not adversarial, regulation, and so on.

And in foreign policy, the provision of whatever it takes to keep capitalism as the world system, whatever it takes for unrestricted market penetration, whatever it takes for supremacy in trade rivalries—these in addition to the biggies of foreign policy in which Democrats seem particularly motivated to support: counterrevolution in the Third World, intervention, to secure strongholds region-by-region, and counterterrorism (Democrats, under Obama-Brennan, can claim ownership over targeted assassination, more so than Bush II), to keep alive the spirit of conformity and consent, as the machinery of permanent war ticks on, to both parties’ satisfaction.

As stage-managed events go, the speech went over well.  It represented a blueprint for four more years of creative accounting, more in the spirit of Exxon, A.I.G., and Goldman, than the actual programs of the New Deal, such as CCC, WPA, PWA, all anathema to those last night—from the top down—supposedly favoring a positive role for government.  And don’t forget those who experience genuine tragedy in the death of loved ones as shooting victims, yet are mercilessly trotted out for exhibition to demonstrate Obama the caring president—despite by his personal authorization more children have been murdered through drone attacks (regrettable “collateral damage’) than in all the gun massacres for some time.  Verily, manipulation, thy name is Obama.

My Comments to the New York Times follow, the first, written before the State of the Union, concerns, among other things, the North Korean nuclear test (timing probably not coincidental) Obama would presumably address, and the second, following the speech, which seemed to me consistent with his  effort to bamboozle the public while hewing to a conservative-reactionary course:

[New York Times Comment I, Feb. 12, 2013.  Corporate ascendance and aggressive foreign policy]

North Korea’s nuclear test was a “provocative” act, but no more than, and perhaps in response to, the Obama-Brennan program, currently in the foregound of US foreign and military policy, of armed drones for targeted assassination. Obama has given us bounteous examples of liberal rhetoric before, all to no avail–not because of Republican intransigence, but because he doesn’t favor government-supported job creation, economic stimuli, and a strengthened social safety net.

Sen. Rubio can praise “free enterprise” and carp at Obama’s alleged progovernment stance, but the truth is, Obama, like Clinton before him, and a Democratic party slavishly enthralled to both, is the champion of deregulation, corporate ascendance in American life, and an aggressive foreign policy which centers on drone warfare as part of a global paramilitary posture, complemented by the heavy hand of his Pacific-first strategy to contain and isolate China.

(Some) troops out of Afghanistan, to pursue a Far-East encirclement policy via nuclear diplomacy (the Armitage mission to Japan to encourage nuclear armament as part of confronting China), military alliances in the region, and the “pivot” of military hardware and personnel to the new theater.

After earning his stripes as The Assassination President, who will take him seriously tonight in the State of the Union address? Gullible Americans, but not the rest of the world. Assassination is not a mark of constructive leadership.

[New York Times Comment II, Feb. 13, 2013.  A reality of human suffering]

As a nation we have again been taken in, the political schmaltz of liberal rhetoric wedded to a previous four-year record of; a) the militarization and financialization of American capitalism; b) an all-out campaign of aggression via armed drones for targeted assassination squarely in the realm of war crimes; c) a pattern of deregulation which mocks his plea for a rising middle class (proportionately, a sinking three-quarters in relation to the upper one-quarter); and d) near-absolute silence until now on gun control, climate change, infrastructure, meaningful job creation and foreclosure relief. In sum, a con man up to his old tricks, meanwhile conducting business-as-usual with respect to assassination, placating and expanding the function of the CIA, pivoting US forces to Asia (Pacific-first strategy) to force confrontation with China, and appointments, e.g., John Brennan, which invalidate all liberal rhetoric by the contempt shown civil liberties and the rule of law.

Obama offers crumbs; whether his less-government address affects the secrecy, his personal obsession, of whatever remains, is doubtful. He is running a National Security State–surveillance et. al.–not even noticed by the present chorus of approval. Wall Street has sense enough not to appear gleeful. Defense contractors, health insurers, Big Pharma, ditto. However, the rosy report on putting the hard times behind us flatly contradicts a reality of human suffering in America, if anyone cared to look.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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