Saving the World Obama-Style

When it comes to spying and killing, Barack Obama is Mr. Malevolent.

But every now and then, he gets a notion to go high-minded.  Words come first.  Sometimes he backs up his words with gestures; sometimes he even puts people on the case – feckless people like John Kerry.

It never comes to anything however, and sooner or later (usually sooner), the notion passes.

He and Kerry have been at it for some time now with the Israel-Palestine “peace process,” and Obama is gearing up to take on inequality next.

The pattern reveals a lot about the Obama presidency and about the man.

Hegel thought that Napoleon and other “world historical” figures were of philosophical importance.  No one can say that of Obama.  But philosophy can help illuminate what goes on in those rare instances when he turns his attention away from maintaining the empire abroad and high finance at home, and sets out instead to save the world.

Ought implies can” is a core principle of philosophical ethics.  This inspired the late Sidney Morgenbesser, a force of nature in philosophy, famous for insightful quips, to declare that the basic principle of Jewish ethics is – “can implies don’t.”

There are Tea Partiers (and worse) who think that Obama is lying when he says that he is a Christian.  They think he is a Muslim.  They are out of their minds.

They would be closer to the truth, if they called Obama a “secret Jew”; then they could point to the fact that when he sets out to save the world, his ethics are as Jewish as can be.

But that wouldn’t prove much; can implies don’t in Christianity and Islam too.

Perhaps we should just say that when Obama takes a high-minded turn, it brings out the religion in him, and not put too fine a point on it beyond that.

We might also note how fitting it is that one of Obama’s current high-minded concerns is peace in that sliver of land that the three Abrahamic faiths consider holy – because, according to Sacred Writ, Abraham got the rights to it in the sweetest real estate deal of the Bronze Age.

* * *

What has to happen to reach a “just and lasting peace” between Israel and Palestine is hardly a secret: the United States must impose it – ideally, with help from the EU, Russia, and other interested parties.

It must impose it upon Israel.  The Palestinians are not the problem; they are too weak and divided to resist accepting anything they can get that offers them viable borders and a modicum of dignity.  But Israel won’t budge until it is made an offer it cannot refuse.

Because the broad outlines of a solution (and nearly all the details) have long been clear, because Israeli governments always finds ways to avoid saying “yes,” and because the United States alone, has the power to force Israel to acquiesce, the United States must make it plain to the Israelis that they will no longer tolerate the status quo.  There is no other way.

Israel and Palestine cannot negotiate a solution on their own because Israel holds all the cards.  Obama knows this; he is not ill informed and he is not a stupid man.

Nevertheless, he is again permitting, even encouraging, the Israelis to talk the prospect of peace to death.

Perhaps he doesn’t, or won’t, grasp how the murder and mayhem he perpetrates throughout the Muslim world makes Americans less safe by breeding more “Islamist terrorists” than he can possibly kill – especially when his friends in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states pay their bills.

But how could he not understand that defusing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would do more to keep terrorists at bay than he could possibly achieve with soldiers, bombs, weaponized drones, and special ops assassins?

Nevertheless, he will not do the right and sensible thing because he is afraid of the political consequences if he tries — afraid of the Israel lobby.

This is odd inasmuch as he has already defeated them several times this year.  If he hadn’t, Chuck Hegel would not now be Secretary of Defense, and we would be at war in Syria and maybe Iran as well.

Nevertheless, for reasons difficult to fathom, he is afraid — of a lobby that does not speak for the American Jewish community, but for the “national religious” reactionaries and ethnocratic ideologues within it.

Or maybe his reasons are not mysterious, but only wrong-headed.  Most American Jews, like most Americans, are politically disengaged.  Because they seldom have strong views, or because they have no views at all, evidence of what they think is bound to be equivocal and inconclusive.

It is therefore possible for the Israel lobby to seem more in line with American Jewish opinion than it actually is.

It depends on how the questions are asked, but most American Jews, when polled, do say that they support Israel.  But their support is tepid.  Basically, they don’t care.

This must frustrate the Zionist establishment.  Ever since they hijacked all but the most orthodox strains of Judaism, they have had a substantial institutional apparatus, based in temples and synagogues, at their disposal — dedicated to drumming up enthusiasm for the Jewish state.  They have spent vast sums on the cause.  But very little has come of it, and there is little prospect that this will ever change.

The reason why is not only that it has become impossible to regard Israel as the “light unto the nations” that Zionists proclaim it to be.  A more important reason is that it is no longer true, if it ever was, that a Jewish state is indispensable for Jewish survival.

That was the idea that launched the modern Zionist movement in the 1890s in Europe, as the Dreyfus Affair unfolded in the west and as pogroms increased in the east.  And it was that idea that turned Zionism into a powerful political force, as news of the Nazi genocide began to emerge during the Second World War.

By now, though, such fears are too much at odds with lived experience to continue to resonate outside highly ideological circles.  This is especially true for people too young to have had first or second-hand recollections of the Nazi era.

And so today, along with a hard core Zionist remnant, the most ardent supporters of the Israel lobby’s efforts are Christians yearning for the conversion of the Jews – or their eternal perdition when the world ends, as they believe it soon will.

That the emperor has no clothes has not yet found its way into mainstream consciousness, but there can be little doubt that the almighty Israel lobby, though not on the ropes quite yet, is well on its way there.

This fact has not yet registered as widely as it should because much of the evidence for it can be explained away.

The lobby’s success in holding back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is plainly waning – witness the recent decision of the American Studies Association to support the academic boycott.  This would have been inconceivable even a year ago.

However the lobby’s focus was never public opinion per se.  They do their best to keep the media in line and they work on academic institutions and professional organizations as well.  But their principal target is and always has been Congress and the White House.

Therefore, if public opinion takes a turn they don’t like, they can hardly be blamed.  That is not their job – not their day job anyway.

It could be argued too that the lobby’s inability to get the U.S. into the Syrian civil war or to keep the war drums beating over Iran doesn’t prove it weak either.  Successfully lobbying a militarily overextended and fiscally stressed superpower into yet another war of choice in the Middle East would be too much to ask of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its satellite organizations even in their heyday.

But there is no way to explain away AIPAC’s inability to get the United States to include Israel in the State Department’s Visa Waver Program.  The lobby called in all its chits, and even got a Clinton liberal, Barbara Boxer, to sponsor the bill.  Still, they lost.

Had Boxer, the less noxious of California’s Democratic Senators, gotten her way, Israel, unlike the thirty-seven other countries now included, would have been exempted from the requirement that it accord American citizens unimpeded entry into and access through the areas it controls, just as the United States would be obliged to do for Israelis.

This would include, of course, American citizens of Palestinian descent along with other American Muslims.  With Apartheid on the mind after Nelson Mandela’s death, legislating permission for Israeli Apartheid in the Occupied Territories was evidently too much even for the House of Representatives.

The lesson is plain: the lobby is weak and getting weaker.  And yet the author of The Audacity of Hope cowers before it.

And so, with high-minded words and gestures, Obama has, yet again, set off on the road to nowhere.

With Israel-Palestine, it is an old story; the Clintons can attest to that.  It is different with inequality.  For an American President in this neoliberal age, that is something new.

* * *

However it is not surprising.  This is not the first time that Obama has sided with the angels — when public opinion forced it upon him.

It happened with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and with the Defense of Marriage Act, and it explains his (nominal) support for gay marriage.

He would probably not have touched any of that had the Pentagon brass not decided that it needed gay cannon fodder after all, and had there been no need to court gay donors in the run up to the 2012 election.  Nevertheless, public opinion was the decisive factor.

It is with inequality too.  No doubt, Obama is looking at polling data, but you don’t need pollsters to figure out that gaping, and ever increasing, inequality is something the public detests.

Sometimes the indignation boils over, as during the Occupy movement.   But it is not just a militant fringe that wants inequality to diminish; it is everybody – or rather everybody to whom the slogan “we are the ninety-nine percent” applies.

Equality, along with closely related conceptions of justice, has long been Topic A for political philosophers.  What these concepts involve and how they can be defended is therefore well understood.

These understandings are largely confined, however, to academic precincts.

To the extent that they are nevertheless relevant to clarifying what people think, it is because much of what philosophers do is refine widespread theoretical intuitions.

Therefore opinion influences philosophical theorizing more than the other way round.

And so particular theories of equality or justice have less to do with what outraged people feel than does a general sense that inequality has gotten out of hand; and that almost everybody is worse off for it.

Even the mainstream media have picked up on the idea.  It is no longer just Paul Krugman berating economic inequality in The New York Times.  It is being reported across the board, and bemoaned loudly and clearly.

Krugman’s argument, and by now everyone else’s, is that the degree of inequality that currently obtains diminishes overall demand for goods and services, and that the entire economy suffers as a result.

Debt-ridden consumers can still keep consumption levels high by buying shoddy goods made under sweatshop conditions abroad, and military spending can do its part too to keep effective demand up.   But, in the end, there is no evading the fact that these are only palliatives and that the one-percent cannot consume enough to make up for the stagnant or declining incomes of the other ninety-nine.

The mystery, then, is why it has taken Obama so long to latch onto the idea.  Many Democrats are out in front of him, especially at the state and local levels.  Bill de Blasio rode the issue to become New York City’s mayor.

This is another case where everybody, Obama included, knows what must be done; and where something can be done.  But, again, we can count on Obama to observe the basic principle of Jewish – and Christian and Muslim – ethics.  “Can implies don’t” trumps all.

* * *

In principle, there are two ways to go after inequality: attack it at its source or remedy its effects.  Or do both together; the two are not mutually exclusive.

On the American right, and with disheartening frequency across the political spectrum, the word “socialism” is used disparagingly.  It isn’t clear what those who use the word this way understand by it.  They seem to have in mind almost everything governments do – except for the things they like of course, and the military and the police, which they consider sacrosanct.

This is yet another example of “American exceptionalism.”

In the wider world, it is no reproach to call a policy or individual “socialist.”  To be sure, socialism lost enthusiasts as neoliberalism’s rise advanced, and the turn towards capitalism in Russia and China hasn’t done much for socialism’s standing either.  But the idea still garners respect.

However what socialism is has been contested for as long as the prospect has fired peoples’ imaginations.  Nevertheless, the general idea is clear enough.  “Socialism” denotes economic systems in which the principal means of production are socially, not privately, owned.

Ownership is a bundle of rights – to control productive resources and to gain revenue from their deployment.  In a socialist economy, these rights belong to society — not, as in capitalist economies, to individuals or firms.

Because capitalism has been around for such a long time, and because entire legal systems have grown up around it, the forms and limits of private property are, by now, well understood.

Conceptions of social property are much less clear, especially when the focus is on entire societies rather than small groups or tiny sects.  Inasmuch as state owned or public property is the only kind of social property at the societal level that there has ever been, public property is the only kind most people can imagine.

But even were there other conceptions at hand, the general idea would be that under socialism no one has control or revenue rights in productive resources – except perhaps in their own bodies and powers.  There is no money to be made from owning external things.

Had, say, General Motors been fully nationalized and not just bailed out, as it might have been when it faced bankruptcy during the Great Recession of 2009, its workers and managers would have continued to earn wages and salaries, just as they did when GM was still a private enterprise, but there would be no stockholders to whom profits, if any, would accrue.  That income would belong to the state.

Therefore no one would – or could – get rich from owning shares in the company.  In this way and to this extent, socialism would advance egalitarian goals.

There are other ways to limit inequality at its source that do not involve changing underlying property relations.  For example, some Social Democrats in Sweden in the 1970s floated the idea of making it illegal for employers, especially in large enterprises, to pay some workers more than others.  It was not a matter just of equal pay for equal work, but of equal pay for work full stop.

Another way, relevant to current concerns, would be to cap salaries of top executives or to insist that the ratio of the highest salaries to the lowest wages within firms be held to some prescribed proportion.

Or states could take aim at markets themselves – by providing goods and services directly to individuals or by heavily subsidizing their provision.  This would probably diminish overall inequality; it would certainly make inequality less consequential and therefore less onerous.

If, say, individuals’ needs for food, clothing and shelter, along with other necessities of modern life, were wholly or partly provided by the state, it would matter less how an individual’s income and wealth compare with others; inequality might persist but with fewer ill effects.

But this is uncharted territory, and no sane person ever expected Obama to move, no matter how timidly, in this direction.

He could have, of course, and he should have; with the requisite political will, socializing productive assets and decommodifying the provision of goods and services is doable and sensible.

But if even Obamacare, a godsend to the “private sector,” is tarnished with the “socialist” label, how much more formidable a task would he, or anyone, have trying to hold back inequality at its source.

Correcting for the inegalitarian consequences of capitalist market relations is another matter.   Every country does it.  America does it too; there is no Americn exceptionalism here.

The means are government spending and progressive taxation; capitalist markets generate distributions, the state then takes and redistributes individuals’ holdings with a view to making outcomes less unequal and, thereby, more just.

Back when America was, by all measures, the most prosperous country on earth, our government was no slouch when it came to redistributing market-generated incomes.  There was much less redistribution of wealth, but there was some of that too.

But then, to the detriment of all but themselves, America’s capitalists got greedy, and the American political class, with liberals vying with conservatives to take the lead, let them have their way.  With regional variations, this is now a worldwide phenomenon; it has been going on for at least the past three and a half decades.

However, the process is more advanced here than in most other places.  In American politics, it has become almost as difficult to advocate what Republicans call “tax and spend” liberal policies as to propose nationalizing the economy’s “commanding heights.”

Even liberals, the few genuine ones left, came to eschew the liberal label.   They considered it political poison.  In these circumstances, anything that implied redistribution could only be broached with caution.

It is far from clear how much any of this was brought on by changing economic circumstances or by changes in popular attitudes.   What is clear is that there was a concerted “bipartisan” assault, conducted by and for the pillars of American capitalism, directed against everyone who was not filthy rich.

Organized labor’s role in this turn of events was lamentable and decisive.  Along with the liberal establishment, the union movement’s leadership displayed a profound failure of nerve.

The Democratic Party has long had a working class base and it has had generally friendly relations with the labor movement and the broader working class.

Even after the New Deal and Fair Deal eras passed, Democrats offered modest, but not insignificant, support to organized labor.

However nowadays the support goes in one direction only.  The unions provide Democrats with foot soldiers and money; in return, they ask for nothing, and that is exactly what they get.

* * *

Meanwhile, the capitalists Democrats court ask for a lot, and get a lot back.  From “free trade” to relief from government regulations to government support for their financial machinations and immunity for their crimes, if they want it, it is theirs.

Is it any wonder, then, that inequality is on the rise or that the situation has become so outrageous that even President Obama feels he must do something.

But what can he do?  Since storming the bastions of capitalism under a socialist banner is out of the question, there is only one possibility remaining: he can take ownership of the “tax and spend” liberalism that he, along with the rest of the Democratic Party, renounced decades ago.

In all likelihood, were they to do that, they would garner vast popular support;  “we are the ninety-nine percent” was not an otiose slogan, after all, nor was it merely a fantasy or a wish.   Forcing Israel to make peace and supporting gay marriage, even now with attitudes in flux, is riskier by far.

But in Obama-land, “can implies don’t.”  Worse, it implies don’t even try – just talk and gesture instead.

And so we have a President talking and maybe someday gesturing about inequality while lusting after grand or not so grand “bargains” that would undo the few government programs we have that actually do counter inequality and its consequences — to a small, but not negligible, extent.

It speaks volumes that to gain bipartisan support for a budget that would make it less likely that Republicans will shut the government down again, Obama and his fellow Democrats agreed to cut off benefits to the “long term unemployed,” arguably the most downtrodden victims of their neoliberal policies.  How could it have come to that?  Have they no shame?

If this is how Obama proposes to take on inequality, there is only one lesson to draw.  It is the lesson that Palestinians know all too well: that when this American president gets a notion to put the world right — worry.

* * *

To philosophers, “pragmatism” denotes a philosophical tradition that flourished in the United States a century ago, and that continues to exercise an enormous influence.  Among its key positions is a view of truth, according to which a contention is true if it is vindicated by its practical consequences – in other words, if it works.

For pragmatists, as for Marxists and other philosophical heirs of Hegel, there is no firm divide between theory and practice.  The two are integral parts of the process of understanding and changing the world.

On the other hand, in political contexts, “pragmatism” means something like willingness to put consequences ahead of principles — with a view to getting things done.  Pragmatic leaders are flexible, not doctrinaire.

The prevailing view is that pragmatism in this sense is a good thing in a political leader, so long as it doesn’t get so out of hand that he or she has no political compass left.

Obama’s apologists praise his pragmatism.  They blame the failures of his high-minded efforts to save the world on the machinations of refractory Republicans, but credit Obama for trying nevertheless.

Pragmatism comes in many flavors of course, and operates in many contexts.  The idea that it is a virtue in a politician is spot on much of the time, and Obama’s defenders would have a point if some good would come of his.  But it never does.

They might even have a point if Obama’s pragmatism had any prospect of producing desirable results.  But it doesn’t, and not just because Republicans are obstinate.

Obama’s pragmatism is hopeless because he gives away everything that matters before it even kicks in.  An unbiased observer might conclude that letting his supposed opponents win is his intention all along.

The connections between philosophical and political pragmatism are attenuated at best, and Sidney Morgenbesser plainly had philosophical, not political, pragmatism in mind in another of his celebrated quips.

But what he said pertains to political pragmatism too or at least to its extreme forms.   Obama’s efforts to advance peace between Israel and Palestine and to combat inequality and its consequences illustrate its relevance perspicuously.

“Pragmatism,” Morgenbesser said, “is true in theory, but in practice it just doesn’t work.”

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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).



ANDREW LEVINE is 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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).