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Neo-Leftism and Obama

By Roger D. Harris

Posted on February 21, 2011 by the Marin County Central Committee

This article was originally published in Obama and the Current Capitalist Crisis (Institute for the Critical Study of Society, January 2010), and is reprinted by permission of the author.

The radical leftist assessment of current conditions is that only fundamental transformation of existing societal institutions can bring about meaningful change. Reformist activity – while tactically efficacious in certain circumstances – can ultimately be co-opted by the dominant powers in the absence of countervailing power from the popular classes. But what happens when there is not a strong countervailing power center rooted in the popular classes, when socialist revolution appears to some to be a fading dream, and when the extreme right appears to be looming ever more menacingly on the political horizon, as it does to so many activists today?

Neo-Leftism

One response is what I would call neo-leftism, where leftists in effect merge their aspirations with the Democratic Party. Implicitly in terms of their practical work, they accept Margaret Thatcher’s dictum of TINA (there is no alternative). So for them the parameters of effective political action become largely circumscribed by the two major US political parties, and the primary task is to lead the left to the center and even to the moderate right to unite against the perceived primary threat of the far right. [1]

While those leftists who are now proponents of the Democratic Party prefer to market themselves as "progressives," a more apt label would be neo-leftists. Unlike many liberals who honestly, though mistakenly, confound their own political values for peace and social equality with those represented by Obama, the neo-leftists are neither naïve dreamers nor dupes. On the contrary, the neo-leftists do not have the liberal illusions of what Obama represents. [2] The neo-leftists have similar ultimate political goals as the independent left, but a different strategy to achieve them. Both independent leftists and neo-leftists look to some kind of a socialist future.

For the neo-left – individuals [3] and organizations like the Communist Party USA– there was one overriding issue in the long 2008 election season: defeating the right by electing a Democrat. Victory was everything. As Ralph Nader pointed out, the neo-leftists had no principled “breaking point” that could trigger desertion from the Democratic camp, regardless of what political position Obama took on support of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), increasing military spending, expanding the war in Afghanistan and into Pakistan, etc.

Is Socialist Revolution a Fading Dream?

Certainly the continued hegemony of capitalism on a global scale would suggest an affirmative answer to the question of the future of a socialist alternative. Capitalist social relations penetrate ever more deeply into the daily lives of people, while immiseration of the vast majority of humanity continues largely unabated. Class warfare has become more and more asymmetrical as almost half of the world’s population is driven into poverty. [4]

While some leftist pundits predict that the US has blundered into “imperial overreach” and the myriad internal contradictions of monopoly capitalism will undo the monster, this has yet to come to pass. As events of the last year have demonstrated, at a time of genuine financial crisis of international capitalist financial markets, which originated in the belly of the world’s hegemonic capitalist power, the US dollar experienced a (temporary) resurgence, the US-dominated International Monetary Fund was resurrected from what seemed a well-deserved obsolescence, and the US adventurous wars in east and central Asia and extending into Africa continued to expand without an end in sight.

This picture of reality would suggest that radical leftism is simply nostalgia for a more promising revolutionary past. And perhaps it is. But that is a question for history to resolve. For the radical left, the question is still open, history has not ended, and socialist revolution is still a historical possibility, although far from an inevitability. Even Lenin a mere year before the Russian Revolution despaired of seeing a revolution in his lifetime. In fact, the class struggle rages on with great opportunities for popular advances now that the capitalists are weakened by their financial crisis.

The Danger of the Extreme Right

The neo-leftists point to Obama as the alternative to the menace of the neo-conservatives who would establish a religious right state if ever our vigilance wavered. The fear of the far right and the use of this apprehension has been a major selling point for the neo-leftists. How realistic is the neo-leftist nightmare of Sarah Palin jack-booting into your bedroom to enforce abstinence?

I contend that the neo-conservative threat is exaggerated and has been used by the neo-left to justify their politics of capitulation. In practice, neo-conservatives and liberals seem to happily co-habit such institutions of elite rule as the Council of Foreign Relations. The neo-leftists lament the "eight long years" of George W. Bush’s right-wing rule. But other than a partial moratorium on stem-cell research support by the federal government, the far right got very little of its agenda implemented by their supposed ally in the White House. The Bush folks may have paid lip-service to the religious right, [5] but prayer was not mandated in public schools and women’s reproductive choice was not abrogated during the long night of Bush and Cheney (but may be reduced by the Democratic Party’s health care legislation).

Further, the distance between right-wing and Democratic Party views on wedge social issues that formerly differentiated the two camps has become increasingly reduced. Liberal-identified Democrats such as Barbara Boxer are now enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty. With the new Obama administration, support for school vouchers no longer distinguishes the right wing from the Democrats. During the vice-presidential debates, Democrat Biden twice reminded the national TV audience that there was no difference between his and Obama’s view on gay marriage and Sarah Palin's.

Right-wing and Democratic Party positions on wedge social issues have become increasingly blurred. More to the point, on fundamental political issues there is agreement between neo-conservatives and the Obama Democrats – support of US empire and of capitalist social and economic relationships – two realities that above all others determine the actual conditions of life, freedom, and political participation for most of humanity.

To the extent that the far right is a substantial threat, the most effective strategy to address that threat is building a strong left opposition rather than collapsing the left opposition into the Democratic Party. Past historical experience has shown that the ruling elites are only too willing to allow the far right to attack the left as a means of curbing the left. This has been done in the US with Mafia elements attacking progressive trade union movements. Internationally, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban have all been used to crush left alternatives by the very imperialists who are now their sworn enemies.

Specter of Fascism

Some neo-leftists (e.g., recovering economic hit-man John Perkins) have even raised the specter of fascism, suggesting two years ago for example that Bush might not even allow the 2008 presidential elections to take place. This neo-leftist illusion is complete fantasy. Why should the ruling class impose a fascist dictatorship (e.g., Nazi Germany) over themselves when they enjoy practically unchallenged “bourgeois democracy” among themselves and the issues of the popular classes (e.g., single-payer health care) are effectively kept off of the table? Elections, where the candidates have all been vetted and approved by the big money interests, are a wonderful institution for those in power because such elections both legitimize and ensure their class rule. [6]

Fascism is a particular form of capitalism, which asserts itself only when the left opposition is so strong that the only way that capitalists can maintain their class rule is by imposing a dictatorship over themselves. As long as the class ruling has other means of maintaining their rule, the fascist recourse will be held in abeyance. Under “bourgeois democracy” a virtual Republican such as Ross Perot could run for president and thereby hand the office over to a nominal Democrat such as Bill Clinton. Under fascism, the super-rich and powerful do not have such an electoral option to resolve intra-class squabbles.

How about the possibility of fascist repression of speech and assembly? Today our rulers carry out their agenda without the need for fascism, and the reason is the absence of an effective opposition. Under today’s party duopoly and neo-left cooptation, citizens are free to starve to death, homeless and sleeping under a bridge, with their first amendment rights intact.

Splits in the Ruling Class

The neo-leftist dictum of uniting against the far right as the primary political task at this historic juncture serves the neo-leftists as a justification for their political opportunism of merging with the Democratic Party. The right wing appears all the more menacing to the neo-leftists because the neo-leftist political universe is largely circumscribed by the two-party system.

Part and parcel of the neo-leftist worldview of the two parties being just about the only game in town is the focus on splits within the ruling class. These splits are viewed as historically unique opportunities that the radical left ignores because of its ideologically driven sectarianism. Granted the radical left has not been immune to sectarianism; however splits within the ruling class are not unique to this post-millennial period.

The ruling class is pluralistic by definition as long as there is a “bourgeois democratic” system in place. Their splits are tactical, not strategic. The ruling class should receive no help from the popular classes to work out their differences in order to better rationalize their class rule. Resolving a more efficient and legitimized capitalism is the ruling class’s problem, not the left's.

The Historical Context

"The election of Barack Obama was an historic event, one that set millions of everyday people into a frenzy of political activity. Still, since his inauguration we continue to see expanding US military intervention, continued massacres in Gaza and the occupied territories, and justifications at the highest level for what amounts to state sanctioned torture." - Noam Chomsky, May 2009

Arguably never has capitalism been so challenged in our lifetimes than it is now with the ideological superstructure of neo-liberalism unraveling and the infra-structure of the market financial system in crisis. Neo-leftism is precisely a response to the current crisis of capitalism.

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please." - Karl Marx, 1852

We make our own history, although not necessarily how we intend it. In order to understand the neo-leftists, it is important to separate their intentions from their performance. The objective role of the neo-leftists has been to legitimize the illegitimate system: to provide a left cover to regressive policies, to lead segments of the popular movement into the Democratic Party, to stifle resistance, and to attack the independent left.

The Allure of Obama

The neo-leftists hoped to ride the wave of Obama’s popularity to build a new “progressive” movement. With Obama in the White House, the neo-leftists felt part of the heady experience of the irresistibility of winning, the allure of celebrity, and ultimately the corruption of power.

Left personalities such as sports writer Dave Zirin and hip hop journalist Davey D have advocated that "Obama can be pressured," thinking that being part of "team Obama" in the election would buy them a seat at the table of the power. Unfortunately, co-optation is a two-way street with Obama orchestrating the greatest transfer of wealth from working people to the large corporations in the history of the world. He is an effective leader of the capitalists, which explains why they contributed more to his election than to the Republican candidate.

Cynicism Masquerading as Sophistication

"Obama is the best president since Herbert Hoover." - Bill Hatch, Counter Punch, May 16-30, 2009
"At least the war on the environmental is going well." - Bumper sticker seen in West Marin, 06-20-09

At a time when a strong majority of the American people was opposed to US military adventurism abroad, the neo-leftists understood it would embarrass the Obama Democrats to protest the war, and their neo-leftist organizations (e.g., United for Peace and Justice) put a lid on their mass peace demonstrations. When the Israelis were continuing to visit a holocaust on the Palestinians, the neo-leftists understood that overt solidarity with these oppressed people would compromise the Obama Democrats, and their neo-leftist organizations labeled public opposition to the occupation in Palestine an extremist position. Yet all the while, the neo-leftists quietly rested on their past credentials as leftists assuring us that they opposed to the war and felt strongly about the oppressed.

Neo-leftists are not simply liberals with some familiarity with Marx. Liberals genuinely, though perhaps mistakenly, believe in the basic goodness of the American system albeit with all its “blemishes.” If only people would be nice to each other and the corporations would curb their greed, all could be well in the world of liberalism.

Neo-leftists don’t harbor such illusions. Take Academy award winning filmmaker Michael Moore, who urged a yes vote on Obama while proclaiming that Obama should break all his campaign promises. Unlike liberals who really believed Obama would do the right thing, neo-leftists understood that was not to be.

When independent leftists demand that Obama be held accountable, the neo-leftists remind us that such expectations are unreasonable given the limitations of a capitalist system. They use Marxist analysis to defend the limitations of Obama!

What happened to the change you can believe in? The trajectory of ruling class policy remains seamlessly unbroken from Bush to Obama (e.g., signing statements, secrecy, the unitary executive, military tribunals, extraordinary rendition, the Afghan war, immunity of the phone companies to suits, don’t ask/don’t tell, Free Trade Agreement for Columbia, etc). The major practical difference between Bush and Obama has not been over core policy, but Obama’s superior salesmanship in selling that policy…so far. Daily the liberals find their expectations broken and their hopes turned into disillusionment. But there is no similar remorse from the neo-leftists. When the Afghanistan ‘surge’ is complete, Obama will have actually sent more troops into combat than Bush. [7] Rather the neo-leftists blame the popular movements for not forcing Obama to change. How can you expect a “centrist” to do the work of the popular movement, is the neo-leftist retort.

Measure of Effectiveness

"About McNamara…It tells us that once you enter the machinery of government, once you enter the House of Empire, you are lost. You are going to be silenced. You may feel anguish and you may be torn and you may weep and so on, but you are not going to speak out… The people who made a difference are not the people inside ..." - Howard Zinn, Democracy Now!, July 7, 2009

Some neo-leftists point to positions they have gotten in the Obama administration (e.g., Van Jones as special advisor to Obama – only to be booted out) and the Democratic Party (e.g., Norman Solomon as a delegate to the national convention) as indicators of the success of neo-leftists, or as they prefer to call themselves, of progressives.

Yet in terms of advancing a "progressive agenda," the neo-leftists have been markedly less successful. As Ralph Nader correctly predicted, none of the progressive items in Representative Dennis Kucinich’s agenda made their way into the Democratic Party’s platform in the 2008 and even presidential hopeful Kucinich himself was prevented from entering the primary debates. Kucinich was the poster child of the neo-leftist strategy of changing the Democratic Party from within by electing progressives. As such Kucinich was the “gateway drug” for many a progressive, who went on to support mainline Democrats after Kucinich dropped out of the race.

The neo-leftists criticize the Green Party and Peace and Freedom Party for failing to spark a popular movement for their agendas during the 2008 presidential race. In this sense the neo-leftist critique of the independent left as being irrelevant is not without merit. Yet the neo-leftists were among the ones who sought to marginalize the independent left. Even in "safe states" where Obama was projected to win by wide margins, the neo-leftists urged voters to build Obama’s "mandate" rather than cast a vote for third party candidate espousing political positions they believed in. Nor did these neo-leftists effectively raise progressive issues during the campaign such as single-payer health care, immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, a moratorium of house mortgage foreclosures, etc.

The neo-leftist justification for their silence on “divisive issues” and marginalization of the independent left was that the overriding task during the presidential election was to defeat the Republicans and elect a Democrat. Once that task becomes primary, any opposition to a Democratic victory – even if it meant failing to support progressive issues and organizations – follows. Indeed, the primary purpose of election campaigns is to win, and the Obama forces were not unique in their universal suppression of dissention in their ranks. All this flows from the political understanding of the neo-leftists that the only game is the two-party one and that the lesser of two evils is the best that can be achieved.

Class Nature of the Democratic Party

"Ultimately, the Populists were undone, not by their boldness, but by leaders who urged them to compromise and to merge their aspirations into the Democratic Party." - Jim Hightower, The Hightower Lowdown, May 2009

In defense of their merging the progressive cause with the Democratic Party, the neo-leftists suggest that the Democratic Party is not simply a political instrument for the rule by the dominant elites, but that the Democratic Party has “cross-class” elements. The neo-leftists point to the large number of African Americans and labor union members who vote Democratic. The neo-leftists also note that the leadership of organized labor has almost universally supported the Democrats.

Interestingly, when Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully ran for governor of California, he – like Obama -- had the majority of people of color and union members voting for him. However, the neo-leftists did not argue that Schwarzenegger running on the Republican ticket had the mandate of popular support.

The independent left view is that the Democratic Party may co-opt members of the popular classes, but that the fundamental function the Democratic Party plays is to serve the dominant elites. Good public relations in attracting the vote of the popular classes do not necessarily translate into progressive political outcomes. And the leadership of organized labor in particular can be and often is co-opted by the ruling class.

The understanding of the class nature of the Democratic Party is a critical dividing line between the neo-leftists and the independent left. The neo-leftists see the road to the social change that all leftists desire is within the Democratic Party by electing so-called progressives to office and in so doing taking over the Democratic Party from within. The independent left, while understanding the tactical importance of electoral politics, sees the primary objective as building a movement based in the popular classes outside of the Democratic Party.

The neo-leftists criticize the independent left for rejecting the popular movement, because the independent left did not jump on the Obama bandwagon when the majority of workers and people of color who vote supported Obama. In effect, the neo-leftists accuse the independent left of being unrealistic for not pandering to the false consciousness of the popular classes. To be sure the independent left needs to sink deeper roots in the popular movements, but this should be accomplished without sacrificing its principled opposition to the ruling class.

TINA, Yes, There Is an Alternative

Obama has remained true to his campaign promises to "make America strong." He has bailed out the bankers, busted the unions, looted Social Security, bloated the military, and expanded imperialist ventures abroad. That he has done so should come as no surprise to leftists. Obama is no class traitor.

The crisis of capitalism that Obama is presiding over begets two alternative outcomes. On one hand, the financial meltdown has necessitated an even greater offensive against the popular classes with accelerating home foreclosures, increasing unemployment, and renewed attacks on organized labor. Meanwhile the bankers are bailed out and the war economy is built up, as the domestic sector atrophies.

The neo-leftists hold to the nostalgia of the New Deal “social contract,” where supposedly both workers and bosses would mutually benefit from economic growth. Today that economic pie is shrinking, not growing. To the extent that there ever was a cross-class social contract within the Democratic Party, that fantasy has now evaporated (e.g., the demise of the Employee Free Choice Act).

The other alternative rising from the crisis of capitalism is that socialism is more and more becoming a realistic historic possibility. It is precisely the current crisis of capitalism and its failure to meet social needs that have fueled the movement toward 21st century socialism in Latin America and beyond. This is truly change, not co-optation, that we can believe in.

Roger D. Harris formerly taught political science at Tougaloo College and is now a recovering political scientist, employed as a wildlife biologist, and is active around environmental and social justice issues, the latter with the Task Force on the Americas, focusing on Latin America. He is a member of the Marin County Central Committee of the Peace and Freedom Party.

Further Readings:

Google Paul Street (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics) and the Black Agenda Report (www.blackagendareport.com) for sources that never got "disillusioned" with Obama, because they didn’t start out "illusioned."


Notes

[1] For example in a Progressives for Obama blog on Barack Obama, Right Wing Frenzy and the Left, Norman Solomon comments (emphasis added):

However, some influential left voices are engaging in an [sic] one-dimensional attacks on Obama that sow confusion, demoralization and demobilization that however unintentional, detract from the primary need to combat the right wing. (The pseudo-left fringe that defines Obama as a stalking horse for a ruling class conspiracy is not considered in this article.)
October 13, 2009, http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com/2009/10/our-challenge-defeat-rights-militant.html

[2]For example, Norman Solomon, Progressives for Obama, ZSpace, August 23, 2008.

[3] For example, Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Danny Glover. May 29, 2008. Progressives for Obama, ZNet. "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama. We descend from the proud tradition of independent social movements...Obama's very biography reflects the positive potential of the globalization process…The future has arrived. The alternative would mean a return to the dismal status quo party politics that has failed so far to deliver peace, healthcare, full employment and effective answers to crises ..."

[4] Anup Shah, March 22, 2009, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

[5] Much as Obama has paid lip service to progressive aspirations (e.g., Paul Street. 2008. Barak Obama and the Future of American Politics. Paradigm Publishers).

[6] See L. Shoup, Election 2008: Ruling Class Conducts Its Hidden Primary, Z Magazine, February 2008.

[7] Mazda Majidi, Liberation, 07/03/09

 
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