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Obama’s Prostitution of Democracy

by NORMAN POLLACK

I write as a critic of capitalism, something I instinctively felt, compounded by further study, for sixty years, or three-fourths of my life. For those opposed to a global posture of intervention, war, and the broad swath of counterrevolutionary activity, from death squads and assassination to the more deft methods of regime change, such opposition is fully warranted. I place myself among them, and even as a teenager in the late-1940s, it was clear to me that McCarthyism was inextricably linked with foreign-policy aggressiveness and provocation in the Cold War.

For those opposed to capitalism as a more surface phenomenon, the ugly, self-indulgent, showy consumerism, so beautifully caught by Thorstein Veblen decades earlier and, if anything, grown more strident and inane since, I, too, count myself a voice of disgust, at the shallowness and the disposition to exploit others in furtherance of comfort and display, among the critics. And for those who hold such a system responsible for ALIENATION because of its commodity structure which converts use value into exchange value and utterly dehumanizes the individual into a socially blind and indifferent person who negotiates life through all moral and emotional divestiture in relation to others, that profound loss of healthy nonthreatened and nonthreatening ego clinched for me—assisted by my Cambridge friend, and refugee from Naziism, Fritz Pappenheim, and his magnificent book The Alienation of Modern Man, based on Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts—opposition to capitalism as the degradation of humanity.

Yet an editorial in the New York Times (Dec. 4) caught my eye, the plea for corporate transparency as a means of protecting shareholders’ interests, especially concerning secretive campaign donations, and made me want to draw distinctions within capitalism itself—not to exonerate the system as a whole, but to indicate elements of relative social decency to be set against capitalism’s voracious appetite for causing harm. One need not be blind to improvements that at least in theory could be made to capitalism (granted, an uphill battle when integral to systemic conservation is its self-protective mechanisms of overruling authentic reform and social welfare), Keynesianism as one obvious example, but also the literal application of ground rules to keep the market framework honest, against all tendencies to the contrary.

Thus, today’s editorial: Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee, as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, steadfastly refusing to regulate corporate behavior in light of transparency, shareholder interests, and, dare I say, the general good. Even if the SEC worked to perfection, capitalism would still be capitalism, but perhaps, just perhaps, regulation would control for capitalism’s more atavistic traits, among them, showing instead some restraint in the corruption of the body politic, from control of the political process to using the firm for self-enrichment while also fostering further wealth concentration in itself and in calling on government for protection and foreign expansion. Chairwoman White is the perfect appointee for advancing the agenda of sophisticated corporatism, same old, same old, but now, under Obama, waving a liberal banner as presumed testimony the rough edges of criminality have been smoothed out—criminality, in being a party to imperialism, to establishing an antilabor front at home, to adjusting the corporate tax system so as to place the burden well down the line, etc. etc.

We have, then, illustration of the fraudulent character of business-banking regulation, in which the public interest is squashed, spit upon, whichever major party is at the helm. But Obama is a particular example of a bad apple in democracy’s orchard. Clinton, another. All of the handwringing about the Republicans merely gives the Democrats a get-out-of-jail card while the “game” of Monopoly goes on. My New York Times Comment to the editorial, “Keeping Shareholders in the Dark,” also Dec. 4, follows:

The appointment of Chairwoman White is one more confirmation of the Obama administration’s commitment to DEregulation. Obama groupies who still believe in his credentials for pursuing the general welfare will not be fazed by this further indication of his blind trust in America’s corporate and banking elite, and contempt for working people.

The Times’s words here are golden: “Good corporate governance requires that companies are transparent about their use of corporate resources.” How expect this when USG itself is furthest removed from being transparent? when FISA decisions are made in secret? when Obama’s obsession with secrecy trumps–combined with his desire for mass surveillance–bedrock principles of democratic government?

The Times would like to see a capitalist system based on openness and fairness. Obama beginning with his marginalizing of Paul Volcker made it clear its brand of capitalism is founded on favoritism, wealth concentration, and, yes, militarism, which throws the mantle of national security around the process of wealth concentration and corrupt practices–as USG sits on its hands.

This interpenetration of business and government is not good for either, and premonishes the organization of the business system (corporatism) under European fascism. Honesty in business is a nonstarter in present-day Washington.

Granted, my indictment of capitalism above—imperialism, conspicuous consumption, alienation—is not adequate to the task of a full-scale systemic indictment, not only because other perhaps equally harmful features of capitalism are left out (e.g., the havoc on working people both of the proletarianization of class structure and the social misery created therein and as a whole by extreme business-cycle fluctuations), but also the way these indictable features are interrelated, feed upon and strengthen each other, so that we see a totality of privation and degradation, Capitalist Man/Woman inherently destructive and self-destructive unless fiercely resisted and, seeking to break free from the (even rock-bottom) epistemological constraints of commodity-structure, work largely unassisted for nonalienated forms of alternative societal formations in which property and profit no longer are determinative in defining political and moral consciousness.

A big mouthful, yet also a big order: When all is said and done, is capitalism (particularly in America, where, in comparison with Europe, it already taskes on heightened form, and steadily extirpates mixed features, such as a single-payer health program and high, near-confiscatory corporate taxation combined with plowing back the resulting resources into education and the continual upgrading of the social safety net) incompatible with, simply put, human freedom? For now, in America, capitalism is human freedom, and to be projected onto the world stage as the litmus test of “friends and allies,” otherwise condemned to varying gradations of hostility, leading to intervention, boycotts, regime change, or merely intimidating displays of US military power. American capitalism has historically become inseparable from unilateral global dominance—in fact (from the aftermath of World War Two to perhaps the late 1990s) and, since, now no longer the actuality with the rise of China, EU consolidation, Brazil, Japan, emergent Third World industrialization, all making for a profoundly decentralized global power structure in which US hegemony is a matter of wish-fulfillment accompanied by steadily increasing military implementation.

Therefore when I say, “Capitalism at a Cross-Roads,” I mean more than cosmetic changes to conserve the System, because public policy, done with conviction, can make life appreciably better for the society and its people, what I believe it was Marcuse who said, in Reason and Revolution, though not conceding even cosmetic change, “absorption of the negativity,” itself a brilliant concept, but more as postponement than as life-sustaining permanence because precisely the will to democratization is lacking and inherently in opposition or contradiction to its workings. Here Obama is the Band-Aid Man, worse, using the band-aid to cover over the very trends and practices which have earned capitalism bragging rights for exploitation and the inner desiccation of the human psyche—both necessary for its continued operation.

As usual, the New York Times is easily fooled; it wants to be. It cannot break from Obama on its editorial page, for that would mean rethinking the nature of the American political system for starters, leading then to questioning the inner democratization of the American polity, and from there, the Pandora’s Box of capitalist involvement: Wall Street, megabanks, Fed policies directly giving blood transfusions to them and increasing their profitability, hedge funds, corporate behavior, failed, inert, unimpressive regulatory bodies doing the work of protecting and enriching their supposed targets of regulation, and this scratches the surface only, as capitalism and government in utmost symbiosis, no longer dissimilar organisms but identical in purpose and pride of combined achievement in building and operating a class-state, today made easier because the class-state has been subsumed within the National-Security State, calling on all for patriotic devotion and observance. Not surprisingly, then, The Times, in its editorial the following day (Dec. 5), “The President on Inequality,” finds hope in Obama’s extended speech (Dec. 4), “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility,” delivered before the Center for American Progress, which at every point offers promises and plans with his left hand, and which his actions hitherto and, from every evidence thus far, will continue through to the end of his term (and likely well beyond by the Democratic Party) cancel, dead on arrival, by his right hand. Figuratively, Obama, two right hands, the left unceremoniously cut off when the writing was on the wall: rhetorical flights to appease the electorate, no-show and worse for his prime constituency, which quickly came to include the military and intelligence communities as part of an integrated ruling stratum.

Ah, the rhetoric: “…we’re greater together than we are on our own.” Together, not as in class solidarity, but as in “Economic Mobility,” all striving to get ahead, the American Way; and not “on our own,” while surveillance strips the individual of privacy and dignity, and actual economic policies have the effect of socially fragmenting working people, both as a class through the hostile climate for labor organization, and as individuals, many unemployed, underemployed, facing foreclosure, and facing uncertainty, as such straightforward remedies as federal and state job creation (he has the nerve of claiming the heritage of FDR and the New Deal) go by the board. Paying lip service to the hard-pressed needs of fellow citizens, Obama continues: “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American. It’s why I ran for President. It was at the center of last year’s campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.” (Italics, mine) If delusional states were grounds for impeachment (or an extended stay at Walter Reed), he would be out of there forthwith. The selfless champion of the working man/woman. Move over Horatio Alger (and Axelrod first term, Rhodes today, teleprompters then and now, as tests of his sincerity): “Now, the premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line of the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity—the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. And with every chapter we’ve added to that story, we’ve worked hard to put those words into practice.”

Genug, as we say in Yiddish. Enough is enough. The speech rambles on for at least another forty minutes, platitude on platitude, as meanwhile wealth concentration progresses by the minute, revolving doors turn faster and faster, armed drones kill more civilians, the School of the Americas trains more death squads, aircraft carrier battle groups descend on the Pacific, and VP Biden, plastered smile and all, reaffirms Abe’s militarism, both as ideology and fact, in Japan. China becomes the staging area for America’s new Cold War, partly to keep capitalism humming at home, partly to justify counterterrorism (applicable to any and all who disagree with us) as the surrogate for counterrevolution, partly—and the list might be continued indefinitely—to ensure the cries of working people will be stifled or sidetracked in the bread-and-circuses of patriotism and the domestic atmosphere of indirect social control through highly direct surveillance. My New York Times Comment (Dec. 5) to the editorial of the same date follows:

NYT, please stop shielding a POTUS who has accelerated the very economic inequality and closed the door to improving upward mobility–both of which you shower unjustified praise on him– that, notwithstanding ’08 campaign promises, he has failed miserably in achieving, or even attempting. Obama has done everything WRONG from the standpoint of societal democratization. He worships at the shrine of deregulation and market fundamentalism. His key economic advisers are drawn largely from Wall Street and the financial community. His executive agencies have made a mockery of regulation–SEC, FDA, Interior–, a record Ayn Rand would be proud of. And his obsession with Big Military has drained the public coffers, to the detriment of a meaningful social safety net.

Yet NYT takes his speeches seriously, esp. when he says, “I am convinced that the decisions we make on these issues….” Decisions to convert America into a National Security State through massive domestic and international surveillance, destroying the right of privacy and rule of law in one swipe.

Continue the adulation, as America slides further into widespread deprivation, on both economic and moral fronts (the latter, when a US president personally authorizes targeted assassination). You cannot have it both ways: presumed interest in fostering equality while bending every effort to intensify the financialization and militarization of American capitalism–w/o manufacturing, fewer jobs. Nuts.

At the cross-roads, the sign directing traffic appears to be to the Right, the Left, under the misleading sign “Under Construction,” is in process of being permanently closed off, obstructions everywhere, barriers at every quarter-mile, a monstrous sign, “PRIVATIZATION,” instructing the foolhardy to turn back and take the right fork.

Norman Pollack is the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard) and The Just Polity (Illinois), The Humane EconomyThe Just Polity, ed. The Populist Mind, and co-ed. with Frank Freidel, Builders of American Institutions. Guggenheim Fellow. Prof. Emeritus, History, Michigan State.  He is currently writing The Fascistization of America: Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism.  E-mail: pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. 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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