The Obama presidency has been outstanding at one thing: ridding liberals of illusions about itself. It has also been good at undoing illusions about America’s duopoly party system and other undemocratic facets of our electoral politics. But the deepest reasons for the sorry state of the current political scene have yet to reach widespread awareness. In this respect, we are not much better off than we were back in the day when the Great Capitulator was still perceived as an agent of change ? not for the worse, as he has surely been, but for the better.
In liberal quarters, where it had once been rampant, Obamamania is now a distant memory, having given way to profound disappointment. Recovering Obamaniacs understand that Obama is a spineless leader who talks out of both sides of his mouth, and that wherever his sympathies lie, in practice he is not on the peoples’ side. The fecklessness of the Democratic Party is also, by now, well understood: how could it be otherwise when Democrats and Republicans feed from the same trough and when, unlike Republicans, Democrats, when pushed, always cave and never fight?
However, Obama induced disillusionment has yet to translate into resistance within Democratic ranks, much less rebellion. Liberals are still on board, though the so-called enthusiasm gap of 2010 is likely to grow. In a healthier political climate, there would be a flourishing Dump Obama movement. As of now, there is not even an inkling of one.
Evidently, liberals are moved by the thought that the alternative is worse ? a point pressed relentlessly by scaremongering pundits. Rachel Maddow is among the best of them. She does fault Obama for this and that ? how could she not! But the burden of her nightly performance on MSNBC is to put Republican loonyness on public display. Thus she functions as a cheerleader for the Lesser Evil side, even as she points out its shortcomings. Count on Team Obama to take full advantage.
In recent weeks, as Obama has struggled to implement policies even more reactionary than Republicans proposed just a few months ago, one might conclude, facetiously but plausibly, that the man is a Republican mole. He is not, of course; not literally. But it is becoming ever more clear that Obama, like most Democrats, is effectively an old school Republican; that he is what a Republican would now be had the party of corporate America not been taken over first by Goldwaterites, then by Reaganites, and now by the useful idiots later-day Reaganites recruited into its ranks.
Thanks to the terror these Tea Partiers and theocrats strike in the hearts of the plutocrats who empowered them, the actual GOP has become the useful idiots’ party, a party of absurdity and diehard devotion to ideas that only moral and intellectual cretins could embrace. Because Obama is desperate to situate himself in the dead center of whatever spectrum there is, their obstinacy works well for thwarting his efforts to appease them. But, as the theatrics around the debt ceiling (non) crisis attest, it can lead to consequences that even Republican paymasters — most of whom are just greedy, not stupid — cannot abide.
One must feel for those plutocrats; their field of presidential candidates is a joke. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite, is only one of a host of certifiable whack jobs; and the one barely credible candidate they have, Mitt Romney, is widely, deeply and justifiably despised. This is why, no matter how awful Obama has been and no matter how much worse he has lately become, we are unlikely to see the back of him any time soon. Liberals understand this, even as they fret senselessly over the prospect of a President Bachmann or her functional equivalent.
It is even becoming clear that Obama is as much a (ruling) class warrior as any self-declared Republican. The difference is just that his style is kinder and gentler. This is what one would expect from someone focused on winning over respectable apolitical middle of the roaders, not angry know-nothings who identify with the clowns vying to run against him.
Most liberals therefore now realize that, whether or not Obama wins in 2012, the inequalities that afflict us will get worse and that the prospects for everyone not at the top of the income and wealth distribution will become increasingly bleak. They realize too that our Commander-in-Chief, in thrall to the “defense” industry and the Pentagon brass, will not end or even diminish the self-defeating and manifestly indefensible wars he inherited; his Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Quite the contrary, he’ll rebrand those wars or expand them, while getting new ones ? some secret, some not — going. They know too that our government’s post 9/11 assault on civil liberties will get worse, that environmental policies will continue to fall short of what is urgently needed, and that, in nearly all significant respects, a truly awful status quo will continue for an indefinite future.
* * *
How did we get to this point? The easy answer is that it’s the corporations’ fault, especially Wall Street’s ? that moneyed interests have seized control of the state. It is widely understood too that rotten jurisprudence, handed down by a retrograde Supreme Court, is at least partly to blame.
All this is true: corporations do call the shots in Washington and in the state capitals, and thanks to a series of anti-democratic Supreme Court rulings, based disingenuously on First Amendment guarantees of free expression, we now live in a world where corporations, not human beings (the very rich excepted), enjoy substantive (not just formal) civil and political rights.
Nevertheless, the underlying condition that makes all this possible remains largely unacknowledged. This is because liberals and “progressives” took Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative,” TINA, too much to heart. Thatcher herself had in mind alternatives to whatever neo-liberal machination she was promoting at the time. That kind of TINAism has long been a dead letter. But the implicit claim that there is no alternative to capitalism itself survives; indeed, it has come to be the conventional wisdom in what passes for a Left in the Land of the Free.
It was not always so. Well into the final decades of the twentieth century, a debate raged everywhere, even in the USA, between those who sought alternatives to capitalism and those who sought left alternatives within capitalism. Because capitalism remained entrenched, the latter view, not surprisingly, won the day; and not surprisingly too, left departures undertaken under its aegis became increasingly “moderate” as the specter of revolutionary change waned. But as long as there was a rival economic system in place, even an unappealing one, the idea that capitalism could and should be replaced by a qualitatively better economic structure remained alive. That prospect inspired great undertakings, and made life better for (almost) everyone.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was no longer a pole of attraction for most of the anti-capitalist left; and no other ostensibly socialist country, not even China, quite took its place. Nevertheless, it was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s embarkation down what used to be called “the capitalist road” that the idea of a genuine alternative to capitalism, a socialist alternative, fell into the almost total eclipse that persists to this day.
As TINA thinking took hold, enterprising capitalists, smelling blood, found it timely to take a more aggressive tack. Accordingly, they breathed new life into the reactionary forces that are always among us. Before long, liberals were drawn in too. Now, in Obama’s America, the process has reached its apotheosis. Even more than in the Clinton era, the Democratic Party, formerly a pale cousin of a once vibrant European social democracy, has become a party of outright reaction.
As recently as two years ago, in the face of a far-reaching financial meltdown and a devastating recession, it seemed that the tide was about to turn. It even seemed that Obama would lead the charge. However, that was an illusion, an expression of a wish, into which reality soon intruded. In a word, it didn’t quite work out the way liberals expected. Indeed, the Obama presidency turned into the opposite of what his supporters had imagined.
That process has lately accelerated. For more than eighty years, regardless of the balance of power between capital and labor, a top priority of governments superintending capitalist economies had been to keep unemployment within acceptable bounds. On this point, there was no “American exceptionalism.” Thus, as recently as 2009, when the Obama administration launched its inadequate, but right-headed, stimulus program, saving jobs was still Priority Number One. But, speechifying aside, job creation is no longer of much concern to the shapers of American economic policy; they are as determined as any right-wing economist to let markets deal with this and all other problems. Ronald Reagan, whose name Obama has taken to invoking, found it useful to pretend that ordinary people would become better off as wealth “trickles down.” Feeling little need to drag out that pretense again, Obama, along with the rest of official Washington, now just takes for granted the pre-Depression era nostrum, ever useful to financiers and other non-productive “malefactors, that deficit reduction, not job creation, is the main thing and lately, it seems, the only thing.
Because they still feel somewhat obliged to placate their pathologically loyal base, they do soften their support for deficit reduction with moralizing prattle about “shared sacrifice.” But all that means, as Obama has made clear, is that they would prefer to pare back the affirmative state a tad less, and to make up for the difference by taxing, rich and poor alike, just a little bit more.
No doubt, Obama’s inclination to capitulate first and prevaricate later is partly to blame. But so is a failure on the part of those who rightly fault his governance to recall what used to be well understood: that, to change the world for the better, it is indispensable, in the end, to transform the economic structure within which political actors, and the legal and political institutions they operate, function.
To be sure, it is not necessary to take on capitalism to turn back the regressive policy departures of the past thirty years. But for reconstructing a political culture in which “change we can believe in” or rather change worth believing in is a feasible, non-illusory prospect, we do need to restore faith in the possibility of transcending the horizons of the economic system that has brought us to our present state.
With so many scales removed from the eyes of those who have, for decades, forsaken the idea of ending capitalism, there is reason to hope that the pendulum will soon swing back. For how long, after all, can it remain unnoticed by people free from the illusions Obama’s presidency has shattered that the lives of the vast majority of people become ever more impoverished as productive capacities expand; in other words that capitalist development thwarts the rational deployment of the forces it brings into being?
Compared to the decades when there was real progress in making peoples’ lives better and their conditions more equal, there is now enough productive capacity around to satisfy needs ? for material things, for leisure and for meaningful work ? to a vastly greater extent. But just the opposite is happening. Can even a bought and paid for political class and a servile media forever prevent the people they rule over from realizing this and from drawing the obvious conclusion?
If the answer is No, as I believe it is, how much longer can it be before the great eclipse of socialist theory and practice begins to recede?
By making it impossible for all but the most obtuse to maintain the illusions that brought him into the White House, Barack Obama succeeded in turning the hopes of millions into despair. But, in doing so, he also caused illusions to fall at a breathtaking pace. That process is nearly complete thanks in large part to Obama’s efforts, revealed at last, to put even Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in jeopardy. Obama has finally made it all but impossible not to see what his presidency is about.
Obama inspired disillusionment has been an unhappy and painful, but potentially salutary, process. Now, having all but run its course, the need is urgent and the time is ripe for the mother of all illusions, the one that sustained the rest ? the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism and that attempts to transcend its horizons are bound to come to grief and ultimately to fail — to pass away as well. That is the only way that even the modest changes liberals thought Obama would bring can come anywhere close to realization.
Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.