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Let Them Eat Symbols


It is a point of historical controversy whether or not when told that French peasants did not have bread to eat, Marie Antoinette uttered the phrase “Let them eat cake,” an even more inaccessible and scarce food for poor people. But what is certain and should be beyond controversy is that in response to the capitalist implosion that shattered so many lives, Obama and the corporate democrats have demonstrated a policy attitude as cavalier as the French queen. Over the last five years, they have offered neither bread nor cake or anything other than false hope and empty symbols.

On the Friday after Obama’s tepid State of the Union Speech – a speech in which he pledged his concern for the long-term unemployed and low-wage workers – the Administration brought members of the corporate and financial elite to the white house to discuss strategies for addressing the plight of the long-term unemployed.  Not surprisingly since this meeting was nothing more than one of many events planned as part of the democrats’ media strategy to better position the party for the mid-term elections, the only thing that emerged from this gathering was photo ops and diversionary rhetoric.

Notwithstanding the predictable outcome of this meeting, it did graphically demonstrate  once again the incredible cynicism of the Obama administration.

Obama and the corporate democrats have only one primary objective – holding on to power so that they can continue to enjoy the state banquets, media attention and campaign dollars that derive from the benefits of being the “party in charge.”  The fact that they are playing with the lives and hopes of millions of people who are desperately looking for some relief from the material and psychological insecurities of life on the edge are of little real concern for these party operatives.

The Obama – Clinton centrists who make-up the dominant core of the democratic party, along with a subordinate sliver of liberal reformers, have no substantive policy prescriptions to offer the long-term unemployed or the general U.S. public beyond inchoate policy recommendations  framed as representing the elements of an “opportunity agenda.”

The references to creating opportunities is an ideological mystification meant to suggest that reversing the decades of economic restructuring, stagnant and declining wages, unemployment and expanding poverty can be easily corrected by simple will and the right mixture of incentives for private sector capital. It is as though these realities are just the result of incorrect policies and not the inherent logic of capitalist processes.

This was the underlining implication of Obama’s business summit on Friday – that the specific issue of the long-term unemployed can be solved by a more focused determination on the part of the private sector to hire those workers.

The shameless appeal to opportunity agendas by Obama and the democrats in the midst of a global capitalist meltdown is even more dishonest than their counterparts on the more extreme right. Because for traditional conservatism, there has never been any pretense toward believing in relatively equal outcomes in the capitalist market. Inequality, and by extension income inequality, unemployment, and  “winners and losers” in the market, are all expressions of a natural social order when people are “free” to pursue their self-interests.

Democrats and reform liberalism, in contrast, claim to be committed to the rights of labor, social justice, legal equality and a progressive role for the state.  Yet, in the era of neoliberalism, which has an ideological component as well as representing conscious policy decisions in the economic sphere, the philosophical and policy differences of those two approaches have almost been obliterated,  reduced now to policy differences that are more tactical than substantial, notwithstanding the tea-party critique of the democrat party and Obama.

Obama and the democrats understand and accept that the contemporary logic of global neoliberalism means that the U.S. economy is being restructured and that millions of workers are being shifted into low-wage service sector jobs, for those lucky enough to be employed.  Low wages, unequal regional economic development, extreme income inequality, disproportionately high unemployment rates for African Americans and other racialized national groups with astronomical unemployment rates among the youth sector of these groups, are all a structurally determined consequence of neoliberal social policies, and liberals understand this.

Obama knows and understands, like his more conservative counterparts, that capitalist production processes and the market will produce “winners and losers” and that for the most part the financial and corporate elite will always be on the winning side. But as a neoliberal market fundamentalist, he accepts those outcomes as an inevitable outcome of the market that, in the end, benefits enough people to be morally justifiable. That is why at the meeting at the white house on Friday he could praise CEOs for creating 8 million jobs over the last five years while knowing that most of those jobs were low-wage, service sector jobs.

Here, however, is where the historical task of radical intellectuals and activists come in. It should not be surprising that the administration would engage in the kind of vacuous antics we witnessed at the White House’s business summit last week.  The ruling elite seems to understand even more clearly than radicals that the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism are creating potentially explosive social conditions and are intentionally attempting to divert attention away from capitalism’s contradictions.

Obama’s feel good rhetoric and his Administration’s  minimalist program of “promise zones,” corporate funded jobs programs that don’t actually employ anyone and rhetorical concern for income inequality, are preemptive moves geared to mitigate any demands that might emerge for fundamental reforms or radical change.

Today the principle strategic challenge for U.S. radicalism is grounded in the question of  whether or not the left can overcome its’ ideological and organizational fragmentation in order to develop a counter-narrative and a minimum program of opposition to neoliberalism.

It is clear that without uncompromisingly radical organizations and a language of opposition that pierces the ideological fog that obscures the class bias of the state and state policies, working people and the poor will continue to be marginalized, ignored and eventually disappeared as they fall through the gaping holes in the social safety net. This is already happening to African Americans in places like Detroit, the South Side of Chicago and other parts of the country as a result of their new status as an economically “redundant” population.

Therefore, giving voice and organized institutional expression to what the system would prefer to be experienced as private, individualized suffering,  has to be seen as one of the main tasks of an oppositional movement in the U.S. Until a new movement is developed that gives national expression to the plight of workers and the poor, the millions of people who are struggling to survive without jobs or income support from the government will continue to be silenced. And the Obama Administration and the administrations that follow will content themselves with governing with crude propaganda and symbolism for as long as they can get away with it.

Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist and organizer.  Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. His latest publications include contributions to two recently published books “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” and “Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral.” He can be reached at










Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. He is a contributor to “Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (CounterPunch Books, 2014). He can be reached at

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