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The Ebola of American Radicalism

Despite a vital history of social struggle as manifested in labor upheaval (think: Great Railway Strike of 1877, Homestead, Pullman, Sit-down Strikes of the 30s, CIO organization drives, to name but a few highlights) and the Civil Rights Movement from say 1910-70, it has been difficult to establish a permanent beachhead for radicalism in America. I once thought the fault lay with an overwhelming American repression whenever the status quo even appeared to be threatened, much less when the consensus-surface was actually broken by the fundamental dissent that did occur. “Consensus” is an ideological tool of America’s ruling groups, dutifully recorded and embellished by historians. Yet, as practical description of the relative weakness of radicalism in America, it is sadly correct. One cannot keep pointing to repression for explanation, when it is the groups themselves which internally may have accepted the ideological boundaries keeping them if not enslaved (psychologically) then at least willing accomplices in their own castration as radical social forces.

My few readers know I have the perhaps bad habit to trying to combine the grand and the miniscule, social theory and seemingly minor events, happenings, statements, etc. Where did I pick up this analytic (if you will) framework? A theoretical bent, from Barrington Moore, Marxist study groups in Cambridge, writings of contemporary radicals, from Marcuse to Wright Mills, but the interactive process dates from still earlier, as in reading Adorno, Myrdal, the now-forgotten sociologist Danilo Dolci in his Report from Palermo (Did God cause poverty?). We tend to work in the middle range, losing specificity as a motive force for driving us deeper into social phenomena and questioning prevailing assumptions. Yes, nothing, most of all, radicalism, should be set off-limits, exempt from critical awareness, allowed the status of the poseur coasting on its own real or imagined reputation.

From the standpoint of false consciousness, American radicalism has always had to wage an uphill battle (two strikes against it, as it were), for reasons more observable than explainable. I like the formulation of Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America more than 60 years ago (shortly before I studied with him): roughly this—American radicalism was more American than it was radical. Hartz was obsessed (I say that with respect and admiration) with Lockean liberalism as the formative ideological base of America. We were born mature, that is, ideologically precast, but unlike what today’s observer might conclude from that, liberalism was already CAPITALISTIC, an impregnation of the property right in the American value system, rendering capitalism a monolithic reality in the American cosmos.

I challenged Hartz at the time, seeing his work as one more variant of consensus theorization, and in my dissertation (then later, book) on Populism he was kind enough to admit that this movement broke the consensus mold he had constructed. It is a brittle mold, too many glorious exceptions to a simplistic Lockean America—and yet, and yet, the capitalistic hold on the American Mind (if one can speak in such generalities) is undeniable. And by and large, I suggest, one can: a uniqueness and clarity of capitalistic institutions and values, a puristic capitalism if you will, not found elsewhere; and for me, a poison seeping into the American soul, not least because acting to co-opt, smother, transvalue radicalism itself into something else, the shrinking of ideological boundaries so that radicals themselves become oblivious to their own potential power and settle for half-measures as though themselves the mounting of the barricades and glorious victories.

***

For many American blacks, the election of Barack Obama as POTUS is just such a victory, sheathing him in knightly armor, a nobleman always on the ramparts fighting the good fight. Not all members of the black community subscribe to this myth (for it is certainly that!), particularly those who have personally experienced a more generalized radicalism or have kept their wits about them in the face of growing economic disparities, often along racial lines. But racial solidarity, which gives Obama a free pass, as though a defensive shield rises up, taking the form almost if not quite of blind adoration, characterizes a rampaging false consciousness to which I allude. This is harmful, beyond the needs of blacks, which is considerable in its own right as comprising the disproportionately poor and unemployed, for it affects what little solidarity that remains (if any, still) of a unified radicalism which was its strength in former times.

American radicalism once fused in common struggle a number of constituent groups; for purposes of illustration, let’s start from the New Deal through the assassination of Martin Luther King, where there was a viable coalition mutually reinforcing in nature. I leave many out of this paradigm of social protest, but industrial labor, Jews and blacks—not everyone in each community, but enough to afford the point—stuck together on issues even when peculiar to one alone. Social justice was in the air. Unite and fight, was the recognizable watchword. Yet, gradually through the 1960s (and possibly earlier) we see an erosion process at work, a diminution of radicalism, for labor, a growing away from industrial unionism and slow disengagement from progressive politics and protest (as in the stand on Vietnam), for Jews, an Israel-first set of priorities which spilled over into conservatism per se, militarism, and the disengagement from civil rights at home and countenancing or actively supporting the oppression of Palestinians abroad, and for blacks, the important move away from CLASS as an organizing principle of life to RACE as a seemingly sole mode of social and psychological identity.

This was not Dr. King’s way, for he died on the Cross not of the antiwar movement but of that of the Poor People’s Campaign, or actually, their interrelatedness. And with his death, I sincerely believe, racial politics took over, to the abandonment of radicalism. In the time period I mentioned, we see A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson, we see Bob Moses at COFO headquarters in Jackson during Mississippi Freedom Summer, we see a young black veteran fresh from organizing Mississippi voters that summer (that summer, the real and symbolic unity of Jews and blacks with the murder of Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman), now, 1967, organizing in East Detroit, and speaking, or trying to, at an antiwar rally, surrounded by CIA-supported Nazi-like hecklers from Breakthrough surrounding us, not letting him be heard, he—who had seen so much—trembling, I, arms locked around his waist holding him together (he twice my size), suddenly pointing to the flagpole on the Wayne State campus and saying, “That’s your flag, baby, not mine,” a supreme moment in consciousness going beyond race, going to the essence of an American structure of class dominance, militarism, an anguished cry for the resurgence of radicalism in America.

***

This as background for everything Barack Obama is not, and instead, the fragmentation of that splendid unity, the splitting apart into its constituents, separated from each other, of the radicalism of the past, so that turning inward, no longer drawing strength from each other, each reveals its inner propensity for identity on solipsistic lines, going-it-alone divorced from the struggle for a common humanity. Blacks, again not all, but enough, including political leaders, like John Lewis, who once distinguished themselves in the Good Fight, have transformed Obama into an Icon of racial arrival in the corridors of power and thus new-found self- and social-respect. A Messiah of sorts, deserving unquestioned loyalty.

Here then the minor detail occasioning this article: the intruder, ten days ago, climbing the White House fence and penetrating the president’s inner sanctum. Yes, worthy of attention, although crowding out significant international news and exaggerating the threat to his life (he was away in any case). But the media would not let go. Nor apparently would the black community as a whole, black members of Congress directing their rage at the Secret Service, and, from public opinion surveys in the community itself, a refrain of conspiracy theory alleging the Secret Service had set Obama up through its deliberate laxness (if not something worse). Granted, it is natural to express solicitude for the safety and welfare of any president, and the racial bond between a black president and the black community, even more so. Yet, the element of conspiracy theory, false consciousness in extremis, deserves a word, Obama’s get-out-of-jail card (to me, literally so, for his war crimes should have made him a prime candidate for trial and prosecution before the International Criminal Court, drone assassination being a compelling bill of particular).

Interesting here is not Obama, but the political affect (racial solidarity) surrounding and protecting him at the hands of blacks. To say he doesn’t deserve this admiration convinces no-one, although his high office has been the center of war, intervention, economic deregulation, favoritism to Wall Street, the closeness to the military and intelligence communities, evisceration of civil liberties (as in Espionage Act prosecution of whistle-blowers), massive surveillance of the American people, all issues which seemingly do not touch on blacks, but in a different time-period would have been recognized by blacks as decisive to the state of democracy in America, and therefore, social justice and their own enjoyment of freedom and well-being. Racial solidarity wipes the slate clean! Nothing to protest except finally police brutality, while the larger picture of class-stratified militaristic global hegemony—correlating to an authoritarian political-social framework having nothing to offer blacks, whose fate rests on thoroughgoing equality– vanishes in the smile of the Anointed One.

Obama cannot be credited with alone arresting the civil rights movement, which, as noted, was part of a unifying progressive social force at least potentially in conflict with the dominant structure and trends of American monopoly capital. Singling out blacks for the diminution of radicalism is inaccurate and unfair, given how other coalition members also capitulated to the pressures of war, intervention, patriotism, political blandishment, crass manipulation and diversions. Equally unfair perhaps is what I am about to say: Precisely because blacks historically (through the present) have been the most oppressed group in American society, therefore having most to lose and suffering most, could be expected to act and serve as the core of societal transformation, the vanguard of American institutional democratization. That is a heavy burden to shoulder, as though placing the onus on the victim; however, it also is incentive for not drifting out of focus through false consciousness. More, it should be incentive for further radicalization.

Instead, following the death of Dr. King, who combined antiwar protest with economic radicalism (the Poor People’s Campaign), we have witnessed a flight to color per se, the demagoguery of race, which has tied blacks themselves, handcuffed, blinded, into a neatly-tied bundle delivered to the Democratic party, and into the undeserving arms of Obama. Obama has done nothing for blacks as members of the community of the poor, except pour snake oil on injured sensibilities to create vicarious bonds of pride, and worse, has robbed blacks of their class identity, twisting them into self-castrating supplicants at the feet of the US power structure, willing subjects of a world counterrevolutionary posture and widening class differences at home.

Obama deserves contempt on the part of blacks, not adulation. And the blacks he has brought into high places in government, Holder, Jarrett, Rice, are exactly the Servants of Power simultaneously betraying the promise of blacks as a transcendent societal force for political-economic-structural EQUALITY and as the articulator of an authentic humanness beyond race and class to the integral dignity of all individuals. You doubt this last? Then listen to the songs of Paul Robeson, who would have found, as surely Dr. King would also, Obama’s militarism, market fundamentalism, abrogation of civil liberties, obsession with the need for government secrecy and massive surveillance of Americans, despicable. Ballad for Americans was written for a different age, a different America, not for the black figurehead of a white—in ethos if not always in color—military-security-financial power system. The black president nullifies the beauty and significance of blackness, which, instead of racial solidarity, can be taken as code, in the American experience, for freedom’s struggle and universal human rights.

The coalition is disintegrating: not only blacks losing their specific gravity as the source of democratic energy in America, but Jews as well, a mainstay of radicalism since 1900, partly the cross-fertilization of Europe and America, furnishing ground troops for industrial unionism, war protest, and, as perhaps the final curtain call, the civil rights movement. So my harsh comments also apply to Jews, who represent a parallel collapse of progressive social forces. Jews mired in adulation: Netanyahu, the white Obama, and Obama, the black Netanyahu; for both groups, self-castration via leadership identification.

***

Sometimes, as I believe now, the trivial can be most revealing. Here the world appears to be coming apart, from disease-ravaged Africa to war-ravaged Iraq/Syria to Hong Kong demonstrations, and much else besides. Yet in the US, the brouhaha over an individual’s penetration of the White House before being stopped by the Secret Service became a large-scale media event, and the occasion for blacks to demonstrate their affection for and loyalty to Obama—an opportunity to voice conspiratorial thoughts and suspicions about a Secret Service plot to assassinate him. Peter Baker picks up on this in a New York Times article, “Some Blacks See Secret Service as Flawed Shield for the President,” (Oct. 2), which for me confirms the dulling effect of blacks’ false consciousness. Conspiracy theory is generally a sign of reason abandoned for fear that it might uncover unpleasant truths.

Baker writes that Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democratic congressman, “was at the grocery store the other day when he ran into an elderly black woman who expressed growing concern about President Obama’s safety. Why, she asked, wasn’t he being better protected by his Secret Service agents?” He continues, “The furor that led to this week’s resignation of the director of the Secret Service resonated deeply among blacks, outraged that those supposed to be guarding the first black president were somehow falling down on the job—and suspicious even without evidence that it may be deliberate.”

Another black congressman, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, reported the same: “’It is something that is widespread in black circles. I’ve been hearing this [that the Secret Service was trying to expose POTUS] for some time.” The doubts Cummings and Cleaver encountered “reflect an abiding fear [among blacks] for Mr. Obama’s security…still mindful of the assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” There are solid grounds for fear; yet the difference in Obama’s case from that of other black leaders is the resulting obfuscation of public policy. We knew what Malcolm and Dr. King stood for, but Obama has been granted both a more exaggerated fear for his safety and, for that reason, endowment of qualities and positions he does not deserve. Fear translates as uncritical hero worship and into racial solidarity. We see this in former White House aide Joshua DuBois’s observation that Obama’s “security feels personal for many blacks.” He explains: “’There’s a broad extended family around the country of moms and aunts and uncles who feel a real sense of kinship with this first family, and they want to make sure they’re protected and whole.”

This is only natural, but it is also counted on by Obama as a political calculation, blacks a critical electoral mass to be corralled into the party, at the same time, not coincidentally, marking their removal from the political scene as a source of potential radicalism. This last, if it were to issue as the reinvigoration of a black political consciousness that helped to activate by its example other formerly progressive groups, would be, literally, ideological-political dynamite, at the very least, cleaning out the Democratic Augean stable, but further, a fracturing of bipartisan unity on War and Wall Street, and even progression toward a third party movement avowedly radical at its foundations. Blacks must remove themselves from the octopus-tentacles of a black president, and leap over race altogether in building an equalitarian human community.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. 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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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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