The recent debacle of the Gulf spill, coupled with the impotent response to the financial crisis and the underwhelming healthcare and financial reform bills that President Obama signed into law seems to prove Marx’s claim that pivotal historical characters repeat and that they come “the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.” Why is this so? The objective conditions were all there for Obama to become the second-FDR: the speed that the stock market declined, the furious pace at which unemployment rose, the precipitous decline in industrial production and the truly scary decline in international trade were as bad, or worse, than they were in the beginning phases of the depression (http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3421). With much of the traditional forces of ‘laissez-faire’ capital being in state hands, or bailed out by the state, Obama had greater leverage than FDR ever did to structurally change the makeup of American capitalism. Thus, not unreasonably, many people had hopes that Obama would become the second FDR, in that he would challenge not only the ideological, but the material base of dominant capital’s stranglehold over the economy and the state.
Like FDR, Obama won a land-slide election on a wave of proto-populist resentment and ‘hope’--it helped that the opponent, McCain, like Hoover, was seen as incompotent--; however, that wave, although intense, lacked a true leader and quickly fizzled out. Obama certainly inspired a nation, if not a planet, that not only could a African-American of mixed lineage could make it to the presidency--fulfilling part of MLK’s American dream--, but it was seen as a time for America’s renewal from the dark recesses of the Bush administration that had put the United States on a veritable ‘Road to Serfdom’ in an Orwellian journey proclaiming that ‘slavery is freedom’.
Obama, however, as I stated earlier, is not a ‘true leader’, in a populist sense. The mass movement that Obama nurtured throughout his campaign seemed to have disappeared, being replaced by the ‘Tea Party’--astroturf-- movement. Obama certainly played lip-service to the hopes of the American people. For instance, in his inauguration speech, for example, Obama reiterated one of the key tenants of American progressivism,
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.
In a technocratic, de-politicized way, this makes sense; but it fundamentally lacks the necessary component of a clear antagonist, viz. an agent who stands in the way of the total ‘suturation’ of the ‘people’ from the calamity of crisis that undermined the entire symbolic and economic order, which the antagonist caused. Obama’s use of the term ‘prosperous’ is an ambiguous one; certainly considering that a) ‘prosperous’ has a positive connotation, suggesting some chance of future reconciliation and, b) Obama was lauding the ability of American’s to become ‘prosperous’, via the ‘American Dream’, that it effectively means nothing. Obama ceded the ground to the banks and other corporations by not calling them out, by name, for their wrong-doings.
The same could not be said of FDR during his inauguration speech in 1933:
Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
Here FDR clearly states two things, first, the taint in the body politic is not external, but internal: American finance capital. Second, FDR makes it clear that there are exploiters and ‘underdogs’ in a structurally unfair system, or as he calls it, in the heart of the “evils of the old order.” Therefore, FDR, unlike Obama, was then able to articulate a clear demarcation between good/evil, between the people and the tyrants and by doing so, FDR was able to radically re-found American society by creating a genuine popular movement.
And this leads us to the abject failure of ‘consensus’ politics in the post-Cold War era, where antagonism and ideology has supposedly died and the search for ‘technocratic’ solutions dominate. This hegemonic form of politics, otherwise known as ‘triangulation’, has undermined the ability of citizens to change their society through politics proper and has accepted the logic and arguments of capital; indeed, if technocratic, ‘pragmatic’ solutions are sought, the answer, by definition, resides with existing powers and their ideological biases. FDR realized that politics is not meant to be pragmatic, but transformative and interventionist; Obama clearly has not, and does not intend to.
The limits of Obama’s progressivism is that of a corporate progressivist, which is to say that Obama funnels public money, via ersatz Keynesianism, into the hands of corporations in an attempt to ‘stimulate’ the macro-economy, without fundamentally changing the structure of power relations in the economy that created the mess in the first place. Thus, in order to bring about growth, Obama cannot ‘rock the boat’ too much, because ultimately he is at the mercy of capital’s volunteerism in terms of investment--a strategy that, so far, is not working very well. FDR did not wait for capital to invest, but rather, went ahead and directly hired millions of Americans in the WPA and sought to, through the NRA, to stimulate industrial production through direct state intervention in the price and labour markets. Thus, Obama has accumulated a huge deficit, growing debt and unemployment is still lingering at 10%, that is excluding the millions of long-run unemployed and discouraged workers that could push the real unemployment rate upwards of 18%. Therefore, has neoliberalism really died? No, Obama still depends on the market to do all the work, he just engages in some ‘lemon socialism’ bailing out the rich in hopes they will invest and bring growth; isn’t that what trickle-down economics is all about?
Thus, in my opinion, the greatest damage Obama has done is two-fold, first, he has used a genuine populist movement and its tactics to do exactly what they did not want, i.e., support for corporations via bailouts, off-shore drilling concessions, supporting ‘clean coal’, allowing insurance and big pharma to help write the healthcare reform bill and taking off the table, from the very beginning, the ‘public option’. And secondly, he used the passions of the people to effectively strengthen the hold of corporations over the economy and the state, and now supported by explicit and implicit government largesse--bailouts, subsidies, etc.--to secure their profits at the cost of future public investments in 'use value', i.e. education, healthcare, etc. To sum up, quoting Robert Reich:
The interesting question is why the president, who says he wants to get “tough” on banks, has also turned his back on changing the structure of American banks — opting for a regulatory approach instead...It’s almost exactly like health care reform. Ideas for changing the structure of the health-care industry — a single payer, Medicare for all, even a so-called “public option” — were all jettisoned by the White House in favor of a complex set of regulations that left the old system of private for-profit health insurers in place. The final health care act doesn’t even remove the exemption of private insurers from the nation’s antitrust laws...Regulations don’t work if the underlying structure of an industry — be it banking or health care — got us into trouble in the first place. Wall Street’s big banks are just too big, and their ability to draw on commercial deposits for investment banking activities, including derivatives, will make them even bigger. It will also subject the economy to greater and greater risks in the future. No amount of regulation can cure that...A regulatory rather than structural approach to deep-seated problems in complex industries like banking and health care is also vulnerable to the inevitable erosion that occurs when industry lobbyists insert themselves into the regulatory process. Tiny loopholes get larger. Delays get longer. Legislative words are warped and distorted to mean what industry wants them to mean.
Let the farce continue...
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