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Liberalism Equals Centrist Antiradicalism

Obama’s State of the Union Address

by NORMAN POLLACK

Coming off of a speech on surveillance at DOJ less than two weeks ago, Obama, in his State of the Union Address, its perfect complement, gives evidence of shifting further to the Right than previously, not so much by what he said (what on reading the latter, I termed manicured propaganda), than he didn’t say (the continuation, as though nothing had happened, of surveillance at home, assassination abroad—and much else, all in fact, from intervention to deregulation to systemic wealth concentration to spoliation of the environment). The second speech rests on the shoulders of the first, surveillance engendering an anxiety defining the mental landscape, more effective because just at the threshold of awareness, and so, only barely recognizable as the repression and instilling of fear that it assuredly is.

Obama has the society jumping through hoops, internalizing a low-level state of fear which ensures against the creation of an astute, critical political consciousness. POTUS plays with us, conjuring up the forces of an universal Terrorism at the shoreline, to justify continued militarism, war-preparation, deference expressed toward ruling elites, acquiescence in a social policy of austerity for the many (striking at the societal safety net), government solicitation for the welfare of the few. A neat set-up, promoted in the name of liberalism.

Present-day American conservatives are rank-amateurs in the construction of a militarized class-state, conveying favors to a thoroughly worshiped business community, yet lacking the systemization which is necessary to full-blown monopolization sector-by-sector of the industrial-financial-service structures and their ultimate integration. Main Street is a Wall Street wannabe, under the present reality, giving vent to masturbatory fantasies and aspirations of greatness, while in fact remaining foot-soldiers in the supreme march of Corporatism now wrapped in the National Security State. Obama would not have it otherwise, recognizing the serviceability of government institutions (e.g., the Federal Reserve) for the stability and protection of capitalism itself, which Republicans-Tea Partiers-Libertarians, in their mistrust of government, blind to its essential role in capitalist-expansion and –accumulation, stupidly (for the class-interests they want to represent) fail to see.

Liberalism is the vanguard of ideological-political hegemony in America’s pursuit of a militarily saturated world presence—nothing short of which, would satisfy. Its own evolution, from a seventeenth-century philosophical framework in which PROPERTY is accorded primal significance (C.B. Macpherson, Political Theory of Possessive Individualism) through nineteenth-century associations with free trade and progressive—for the time—measures, even to the New Deal, where it still enjoyed a favorable reception (largely because the enemies it made had been tied to differing manifestations of feudalism and the Old Order) lent it prestige as somehow on, or at least not antagonistic to, the Left. This was a glaring error, however, once it became clear that liberalism and radicalism were not on the same continuum, and that radicalism had sought to question the mother’s milk of liberalism, property–and its historical context: capitalism. From that point, in America, post-World War II, we see liberalism as centrist anti-radicalism, while still treading on the reputation of the past, gained through conflict with and partial ascendancy over premodern social formations. Liberalism looks good, in seeking to break down encrusted feudal institutions, but when faced by a viable and unafraid Left, its centrism—always the primordial nature of property—strikes out viper-like against radicalism in defense of capitalism.

Thus, Obama’s State of the Union Address: Hunt as one will, not an inch of concession on administration policy, and instead the word “business,” repeated ad nauseam, points up the harmonization of property and the state, capitalism and government, a synthesis which provides the rationale for accumulation at home, trade partnerships, regional alliances, and military expansion abroad.

If I were a political scientist I would elevate Obama’s historical stature for revealing the guts of liberalism in the last six decades, its propensity—even thirst—for war, its admiration of, and assistance to, banking leaders and their banks (Clinton’s scrapping of Glass-Steagall, Obama’s love affair with The Street), its absolute regard for the Military (heartfelt, yet also, to fend off attacks of being soft on communism from those still further to the Right), its belief in hierarchical distinctions (notably in showing moral contempt for the poor, evidenced by rejecting, since the New Deal, welfare foundations, as in public institutions affecting health, employment and conservation of skills, and a meaningful incomes policy. Obama has fleshed out liberalism’s ersatz character, the public-relations, doubletalk unctuousness which promises transformative social betterment and delivers same-old exploitative class-relations and a foreign policy which projects egocentrism via military superiority onto the world.

The press by and large gave him a free pass on the speech. It is not worth textual exegesis, an hour-plus of spellbinding (?) vacuity, gussied up military corporatism, praise for the work ethic, and Voltairean assurances that we, in America, live in the best of all possible worlds. Hear this, toward the end: “My fellow Americans, no other country in the world does what we do. On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.” (Italics, mine) Hegemonic selflessness in the cause of humanity!

Referring to a war veteran badly wounded and making a courageous comeback, Obama continues: “Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsberg never gives up, and he does not quit. (Cheers, applause.) Cory. (Extended cheers and applause.)” The Address is sprinkled with names of individuals, some in attendance, serving as a microcosm of 100% per cent Americanism—a shamelessly transparent debating trick, tantamount (as I learned from the Big Hearing following the Spring ’70 antiwar strike at my university) to the full-court press of Authority, super-patriotism on display, to drown out all social protest. It’s standard operating procedure, even now—Obama’s speechwriters schooled in the practice.

This clears the way for Obama’s seemingly unassailable peroration: “My fellow Americans—my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.” Ta da: “But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.” Surveillance and assassination, notwithstanding.

My New York Times Comment on the editorial, “The Diminished State of the Union,” Jan. 29, follows:

The blizzard of hype and sugary commentary (such as this editorial) reveals the low state of American political consciousness. Obama has done more to widen differentials of wealth, income, and power (an intensification of wealth concentration) than we’ve seen in the last half-century. Yet we slobber over his false tributes to the Middle Class. Also, he has done more for the cause of militarism (which received warm bipartisan support in the speech references) than predecessors.

How take seriously the litany about peace and humanitarianism when a) he personally authorizes assassination, b) develops a “pivot” of military assets to the Pacific in order to isolate, contain, and confront China, and c) presides over a huge military budget while also strengthening paramilitary CIA-JSOC operations?

How take seriously anything about domestic well-being when he must be given credit for the widest destruction of civil liberties in American history (McCarthyism being small potatoes) with his program of massive surveillance and his use of DOJ to erode habeas corpus rights–as meanwhile he uses the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers–the true patriots who expose war crimes and the usurpation of power?

Applaud the speech as you will, proclaim Republican intransigence is responsible for the Plight of American Democracy, but deep-down surely we all must know the speech was manipulation, spread-eagle oratory, wholly unworthy of small d democratic leadership: manicured propaganda.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism.  His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism.