Farewell Address: Nazification of Hope

Obama’s Farewell Address in Chicago, to an enraptured audience of distilled false consciousness, prettified eight years of administrative neo-fascism, seeking popular appeal and approval while simultaneously building America’s war-potential, confrontational stance toward Russia and China, and, complementing this aggressiveness to complete the picture of neo-fascism, instituting measures of massive surveillance while fostering wealth concentration and laying the foundations for still deeper structural-economic corporatism than he had already inherited from his predecessors. Prettification, at the same time engaging in the opposite, a stylish mode of repression, is in fact his hallmark trait of leadership: treachery, with a golden glow. Not surprisingly, Obama’s devotion to the strategy and tactic of armed drones for targeted assassination (strategy, to strike terror from above; tactic, knowingly to commit collateral damage, to break the will of the presumed adversary) follows clearly from his geopolitical framework and design, also inherited from his predecessors, and now, passed along to his successor, of unilateral globalized political-ideological dominance. So much for folksiness. One deals here with a conniving mind, utterly closed to criticism, self- or other, vindictive when crossed or the layers of arrogance revealed.

If clues to his identity were still needed, Obama’s George Washington self-image making, the proverbial Man-on-Horseback of European authoritarianism, crystallized in a presumptuous Farewell Address (to the troops? The adoring public? Claims of world statesmanship, translatable into future eminence?), completes the Great Con Artist, POTUS as grifter, charlatan, guardian of the American business system (the three interchangeable). But this is not about one person, however important the office (capable of the annihilation of humankind). America thrust Obama into a position of leadership, consistent with the entire edifice of command and decision-making since World War Two, a sequential process, not deterministic, but anchored within historical boundaries within which the Cold War was perfectly predictable. Post-1945, America had no patience or respect for alternative modes of development and modernization, and instead, a puristic capitalism that would be literally a world-beater, intolerant of social transformation carrying the promise of democratization, particularly in the Third World.

Capitalism and democracy don’t mix, unless, historically, capitalism in its early stages, breaking out of feudalism, still possessed features of equalitarian wealth and power, and subjected property and the property right to the rule of law (as interpreted by a still ascendant group of social forces, non-dominative in character). Nothing could be further from the American experience. Here, lacking feudal institutions, capitalism was born mature (the clarity of its practices, with even plantation slavery run as a business), and inceptively counterrevolutionary, including that of the American Revolution, which confirmed the place of indigenous elites in the class structure. But why go back that far, when our concern is the present-day fascistic-prone makeover of the American polity? Ammunition enough in what is seen before our eyes. Obama stands on the shoulders of Bush II, and Trump will do likewise on Obama’s shoulders, sequential-historical totalitarianism inscribed in the workings of advanced capitalism, its monopolistic/concentrated features the natural confirmation—as is the whole parade of presidencies and politics—of an hierarchical social order wherein property, wealth, class, and status form the socioeconomic base of society. Obama is not Eugene V. Debs, nor would he particularly want to be.

In a long line of established practice, he, like his predecessors going back to Truman (Carter a partial exception), and no doubt more to come, beginning with Trump, has hewed to a line in which anticommunism was code for a societal configuration of reaction having little to do with communism, and a lot to do with whatever furthered the consolidation of capitalism, from political economy branching outward to an inclusive way of life. Obama personifies that trend and perfectly brought it forward, so that Trump could emerge as the blossoming American primrose, not a proto-fascist but simply one to restore American Greatness. As for Obama, he, with great agility, followed the totalitarian playbook, divert the gaze of the masses. That’s all it takes, when the populace has already, for decades, been habituated to a hatred of others, and of those who do not fit nicely into the paradigm of patriotism at home. Demagoguery? Hardly, when there is a consonance of values centered on ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Whether the we-they dichotomy or the fear of the stranger, Americans are jumping through hoops of their own creation, an architecture of contemptuous treatment of all who do not measure up, as though societal cohesion depends on the Americanization even of the unconscious, much less, outward appearance.

Think about the speech, stripped down from setting and rhetorical devices, to the actual words, free from crowd manipulation. In reciting his record of achievement, there is not a word about armed drones for targeted assassination; not a word about modernizing the nuclear arsenal to create and ensure greater lethality (of, related to, or causing death); none about intervention, regime change, carrier battle groups adjacent to China; nada, deregulation, scrapping of important banking legislation, anti-monopolism a dead letter—and so the litany of abuse and betrayal goes on and on. I call the whole pattern, nazification because it integrates capitalism and the State into a structural monolith, the difference with Germany, in addition to the current degree of integration, is that in America the concentration camp and extermination chamber prove unnecessary when the people themselves provide for their self-pacification. Obama in his speech explicitly refers to a political formula that (perhaps without his knowing, given its wide currency) Theodore Roosevelt used in his first annual message (1901), to the same effect: We will go up or down together.

This masterful put-down of class consciousness in favor, instead, of class harmony, is key to trickle-down economics and the invitation to give one’s allegiance to those in the higher classes, a surrender of class identity which goes a long way to explaining how upper social-economic groups encounter such little resistance and enjoy such privileges in a nominally democratic society. There is little wiggle-room for the expression of freedom and personal autonomy when the individual is crowded in between the walls of capitalism and the State, themselves doubly effective in defining the nature and areas of consent by their symbiotic relation as well as close integration. What could be more fertile ground for the militarization, and now, growing financialization, of American capitalism? From day one, Obama brought in his team of economy-wreckers, led by Summers and Geithner, a humongous military budget to ensure a truncated social safety net, and a health-care system cowardly set forth as the best America could do, when the single-payer system was not even fought for, let alone proposed.

America’s ruling groups perhaps never had a more useful and trusted ally in the White House.

Let’s consider the farewell address more carefully. Patriotic exhortation, to which the speech is directed, has one purpose, to preserve existing inequalities of wealth and power, inequalities already intensified through past practices largely, since after the New Deal, carried out on a bipartisan basis. Insinuate oneself, tugging at the heartstrings, into the confidence of the people is a favorite Caesarean manipulative device from time immemorial: “…my conversations with you, the American people—in living rooms and in schools; at farms and on factory floors; at diners and on distant military outposts—those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.” Yes, emphatically, as in using the Espionage Act to silence whistleblowers, and follow closely the advice of Brennan on national security (e.g., waterboarding) or Clapper (e.g., massive surveillance). Modesty becomes Obama, a better man than all of us, even he, realized.

Note: he is talking to the choir (my point on false consciousness), the transcript stating (CROWD CHANTING “FOUR MORE YEARS”). You can’t lose with that reception. As he continues, one wouldn’t know that there was a class structure in America, one in which Obama was unduly sensitive to the needs and wishes of upper groups: “Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it. After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea—our bold experiment in self-government.” With rhetorical flights like that, Exceptionalism becomes written in Scripture—nothing more is needed. Here the fusion of capitalism and democracy, again, without reference to class structure, systemic inequality, an ideology of acquisition: “What a radical idea [we the people, the instrument of our democracy] the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, our toil, and imagination—and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.” What greater good than capitalism, the sweat and toil of ‘Ol Man River, or other maudlin image of ingratiation rushing into view!

We mustn’t be boastful and overdo: “Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard…. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.” Whether a nod to cultural politics, the all-inclusion theme, or just currying favor, Obama is hitting his stride. No mention of unequal wealth distribution to tarnish the image, or hate-crimes, or ominous resentments directed to the world at large; instead, we read in the transcript, (APPLAUSE). Nor does it hurt to say, as he did: “We have everything we need to meet those challenges [unspecified]. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth [for which he is taking credit].” Ah, the appeal: “But they [the Founders] knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.” Solidarity, uber alles.

You better believe it, for what could be rosier: “The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a ten-year low.” Modesty becometh the man: “Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.” Then, his one acknowledgement of reality: “While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.” This might have been the introduction to a message and program of social reconstruction; instead, it is forgotten. “Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend.” Indeed, the culprit here, responsible for the problem (if that is admitted), “come[s] from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.” Discrimination based on race, good that he mentions this, is destructive to all concerned, yet the romanticization of America continues: “And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.” The caution about expecting too much, too soon: “But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change.”

Perhaps if Obama left the Situation Room on Terror Tuesdays, abandoned his hit list for authorizing the evaporation of a suspected terrorist 8,000 miles away, just perhaps one would grant his integrity about wanting to bring about greater democratization at home and peace in the world. Notwithstanding the glowing rhetoric as he brings the speech to a close, we have the same old, same old, a class society of vast cleavages in wealth, power, and status, a militarization of the total culture, and a creeping authoritarianism moving America increasingly in a rightward direction. As I noted, Trump stands on Obama’s shoulders, hard for many to imagine, yet if Obama had posed a clearer alternative, an authentic quest for democracy, Trump would have been marginalized from the outset as a kook. Instead, he is the present political Savior. As for Obama, the spirit of innovation will win out: “It is that spirit—it is that spirit born of the enlightenment that made us an economic powerhouse. The spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral” –and the political charade continues. But with a final praise for the troops: “And all who serve or have served—it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief.” Farewell, Sweet Prince.

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.