This article was first published at Black Agenda Report.
“Simmons gives a well-deserved shot to the ever-deepening myth of the progressive Barockstar.”
Leave it to a leading cultural capitalist to call Barack Obama out on his reactionary disregard for the material circumstances that create inner-city misery and for hypocritical reliance on big capitalist political cash. Look at the following recent exchange between New York Times writer Deborah Solomon and Russell Simmons, the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings and the so-called “CEO of Hip-Hop:
Solomon: “What do you make of Barack Obama, who recently said that rap musicians should reform their lyrics?”
Simmons: “What we need to reform is the conditions that create these lyrics. Obama needs to reform the conditions of poverty. I wish he really did raise his money on the Internet, like he said. I wish he really did raise his money independently.”
Solomon: “What are you saying?”
Simmons: “I think about one-fourth of his campaign contributions came from small donations made over the Internet, even though he collected more than any other Democratic candidate from Wall Street people. So at the end of the day, he’s controlled, too. That’s my point. He’s a mouse, too, like everybody else.”
Solomon: “Are there any presidential candidates who inspire you?”
Simmons: “I talk to John Edwards more than I talk to anyone. He has said more things about the conditions we need to think about.”
It’s too bad he doesn’t talk to Dennis Kucinich more than anyone, but Simmons here gives a well-deserved shot to the ever-deepening myth of the progressive Barockstar, who recently garnered yet more free national media love by successfully applying for Secret Service protection on the grounds that his racism-accommodating (see below) candidacy is threatened by white racists.
I’ve been saying similar things about Obama from the officially invisible Left where nothing you say – e.g. “Bush’s case for the invasion of Iraq is completely fraudulent” (widely observed on the U.S. Left in 2002 and early 2003) – matters in the political present.
‘A mouse like everybody else’
Simmons is more right than he may care to know about Obama. Let’s start with his second point – “progressive” Obama’s mousy reliance on corporate political cash.
“Obama’s reliance on deep-pockets supporters is certainly part of why he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent.”
The junior Senator from Illinois denounces the corrosive influence of private political cash on U.S. democracy while cozying up to Chicago’s notoriously corrupt Big Money Mayor Richard M. Daley (with whom he shares the same high-priced campaign consultant (David Axlerod) and raking in campaign largesse from wealthy world-capitalist interests. His top career sponsors include Goldman Sachs, Exelon (the world’s leading nuclear plant operator), the Soros Fund Management, J.P Morgan Chase & Co., leading corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, Sidley Austin LLP and others), top Chicago investment interests (including Henry Crown & Co and Aerial Capital Management) and the like.
Obama’s reliance on such deep-pockets supporters helps explain why he voted for a business-driven “tort reform” bill that rolled back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations. It is certainly part of why he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. It is undoubtedly related to his vote against a bill that would have killed an amendment to the 2005 energy bill that Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste called “one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation.” Under the amendment, which passed with Obama’s help, U.S. taxpayers are providing millions of dollars in loan guarantees to power plant operators. They “risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default,” as Ken Silverstein wrote in the November, 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine (“Barack Obama Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine”).
Special interest influence is certainly behind Obama’s constant plugging of federally subsidized ethanol (“E-85”) as an environmentally friendly “alternative fuel.” Reliance on corporate cash and power is also likely related to Obama’s opposition to the introduction of single-payer national health insurance on the curious grounds that such a welcome social-democratic change would lead to employment difficulties for workers in the private insurance industry and that “voluntary” solutions are “more consonant” with “the American character” than “government mandates.” The latter judgment is advanced despite the fact that a large U.S. majority supports government-mandated universal health insurance.
Obama, it is worth noting, received $708,000 from medical and insurance interests between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His wife Michelle, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, is a Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a position that paid her $273, 618 in 2006. For what it’s worth, she also received $51,200 for attending a few board meetings of TreeHouse Foods, a giant firm where she was made a director after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate.
One day after Obama denounced Big Money control of U.S. politics in Iowa City, Iowa, the Los Angeles Times reported that Obama “raised more than $1 million in the first three months of his presidential campaign from law firms and companies that have major lobbying operations in the nation’s capital.” Obama has also received a combined $170,000 so far this year from financial giants Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, who together spent $4.6 million on federal lobbying in 2006.
“Obama received more than two-thirds (68 percent) of his first quarter 2007 fundraising total ‘from donations of $1000 or more.'”
The Los Angeles Times also reported that Obama received more than two-thirds (68 percent) of his first quarter 2007 fundraising total “from donations of $1000 or more.” Obama has “played up populist themes of [campaign finance] reform,” trumpeting his “large number of small donations” and claiming (in the Senator’s words) to be “launch[ing]a fundraising drive that isn’t about dollars.”. But his astonishing first-quarter campaign finance haul of $25.7 million included $17.5 million from “big donors” ($1000 and up) – a sum higher than the much more genuinely populist and remarkably pro-labor John Edwards’ total take ($14 million) from all donors.
According to Chicago Sun Times columnist Lynn Sweet, “Obama talks about transforming politics and touts the donations of ‘ordinary’ people to his campaign, a network of more than 100 elite Democratic ‘bundlers’ is raising millions of dollars for his White House bid. The Obama campaign prefers the emphasis be on the army of small donors who are giving – and raising – money for Obama. In truth, though, there are two parallel narratives – and the other is that Obama is also heavily reliant on wealthy and well-connected Democrats.”
Two weeks ago, Sweet reported that Obama had received large donations from at least eight executives at Island Def Jam, a hip-hop recording firm that markets rap artists that Obama has accused of “degrading their sisters” with sexist slurs. I assume (incorrectly perhaps) that Simmons was not among the contributors.
It also merits mention that Obama’s ponderous and Janus-faced campaign book The Audacity of Hope commends “the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections” for “prevent[ing] Democrats…from straying too far from the center” and for marginalizing “those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry” and “radical ideas” (Obama 2006, p. 38) – like peace and justice.
‘The conditions we need to think about’
Simmons is also on the mark when he says that Obama lacks adequate focus on the real circumstances of class and race that give rise to urban misery. In Audacity of Hope, Obama claims that the United States’ “greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources” (Obama 2006, pp. 149-150). The junior U.S. Senator from Illinois leaves it to alienated carpers, “cranks” and “moral absolutists” of the “unreasonable” left (Obama’s description of the Left) to observe such “efficient” outcomes of the United States’ distinctively anti-social and (incidentally) heavily state-protected “free market system” as the generation of poverty for tens of millions of Americans. This poverty exists while “defense” executives rake in taxpayer millions for helping Uncle Sam kill and maim hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the top 1 percent of Americans possesses more than a third of the nation’s wealth.
In a chapter titled “Race,” Obama’s Audacity claims that “what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.” He also claims that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” (Obama 2006, p. 247). Part of the reason for this “push back” (also known as denial) is, Obama claims, the bad culture and poor work-ethic of the inner-city black poor (Obama 2006, pp. 245, 254-56).
“Obama claims that ‘what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.'”
Meanwhile, lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continue to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Multidimensional racial discrimination is still rife in post-Civil Rights America. It is deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s social institutions and draws heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of not- so “past” racism. The long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black “racial victimization” is a “thing of the past” was remotely accurate. This is why this white author (yours truly) and numerous other Left Caucasians (e.g. Joe Feagin, Tim Wise, Michael Albert and many more) join a large number of black Americans in supporting “race-based” policies of affirmative action and reparations.
Obama’s lack of adequate attention to harsh social conditions and persistent race-class oppression leads him to claim that black Americans have been “pulled into the economic mainstream” (Obama 2006, pp. 248-49). He says this despite the fact that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh (!) that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty.
Also reflecting his insensitivity to real conditions at the bottom of steep socioeconomic and racial pyramids is Obama’s claim that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare.” The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claims, “sapped” inner-city blacks of their “initiative” and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including “independence,” “income,” “order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples’ lives.” He argues that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is “the single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” (Obama 2006, p. 256).
There’s no social-scientific evidence for the reactionary claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated “intergenerational poverty.” Numerous studies show the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and “welfare dependency.” Research also shows that high black teenage pregnancy rates reflect the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation’s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos. And the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner-city poverty would be to make the elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income – something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Richard Nixon.
“Obama claims that black Americans have been ‘pulled into the economic mainstream.'”
Obama’s Audacity adds insult to injury by lecturing poor people on their “duty” to feel “empathy” for wealthy oppressors (Obama 2006, p.68) – including Bush and Cheney, who are “pretty much like everyone else”(Obama 2006, p. 48) – and on their need to understood how well off and “free” they are compared to their more miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America (Obama 2006, pp. 54, 150). Obama deletes less favorable contrasts with Western Europe and Japan (the most relevant comparisons), where societal policies and practices produce significantly slighter levels of poverty and inequality than is normative in the militantly hierarchical U.S.
Obama’s indifference to the depth and degree of racial inequality in the U.S. was reflected in his recent Selma, Alabama speech in which he claimed that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists – who he referred to as “the Moses Generation” – had brought black America “90 percent of the way” to racial equality. It’s up to Obama and his fellow “Joshua Generation” members, the Senator said, to get past “that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.”
Ten percent? Maybe that’s how it looks to Obama and his big money friends in the black super-bourgeoisie like leading Obama financier John Rogers, the chairman of Aerial Capital Management. By the latest count of the leading wealth gap-expert Tom Shapiro, however, it appears that black America still has 93 percent of the way to go. “In 2002,” Shapiro noted for the mainstream Center for American Progress, “a typical Hispanic family owned 11 cents of wealth for every dollar owned by a typical white family, and African-American families owned only 7 cents.”
Part of the problem may be who Obama hangs out with. The Audacity of Hope is peppered with favorable references to Obama’s many good friends in the black super-bourgeoisie, including one wealthy “black friend” (probably Aerial Capital Management chairman John Rogers) who lent him an airplane “one of the first times I needed a corporate jet.”
Material indifference ‘beyond our borders’
Obama’s blindness to poverty-generating conditions is not restricted to the U.S. In its audaciously imperialist and power-worshipping chapter on “The World Beyond Our Borders,” The Audacity of Hope criticizes “left-leaning populists” like “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez” for daring to think that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for trying to “follow their own path to development.” Such dysfunctional “reject[ion] [of] the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy” will only worsen the situation of the global poor, Obama claims (Obama 2006, p. 315).
“Obama lamely instructs ‘developing nations’ that ‘the system of free markets and liberal democracy’ is ‘constantly subject to change and improvement.'”
Obama ignores a preponderance of evidence of showing that the imposition of the “free market” corporate-neoliberal “Washington Consensus” has deepened poverty, exacerbated inequality, and slowed growth across the desperately impoverished “developing world.” Millions are left to live in ever-more extreme poverty as Obama lamely instructs “developing nations” that “the system of free markets and liberal democracy” is “constantly subject to change and improvement.”
Obama likes to lecture the American people on the danger that their rejection of the war on Iraq will turn into support for an “isolationist” retreat from America’s responsibility to counter terrorist threats with military force. One problem with this counsel is that Americans tend to support non-militarist internationalism, not isolationism. Another problem is that U.S. and world policymakers need (to paraphrase Russell Simmons) to reform the conditions that create terrorism. U.S.-led neoliberalism contributes richly and powerfully to Islamic and other forms of terrorism within and beyond the Middle East.
Even Edwards is Better
It is interesting that the race-conscious Simmons would be willing to say that John Edwards, a southern white politician, is better on the real conditions that give rise to black urban misery than the technically black former urban community organizer Obama. Simmons is right. Recently endorsed by the well known Left black actor and activist Danny Glover, Edwards announced his candidacy in New Orleans. He cited the federal government’s betrayal of that city’s largely black poor before and after Hurricane Katrina as an example of the extreme social disparity and perverted elitist policy priorities he claims to oppose. He has made deepening wealth and social inequality the rallying cry of his campaign and speaks at length in populist terms about the difficult circumstances faced by millions at the bottom of the American System. He draws more sincerely and substantively than Obama on the anti-poverty legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Along with his repeated favorable references to the accomplishments and history of the labor movement and his description of himself as “real Democrat, not a ‘new’ [centrist and pro-business] Democrat,” this makes big U.S. and global capitalist money considerably less comfortable with Edwards than with Obama. Edwards’ universal health insurance proposal is more specific and progressive than Obama’s and unlike Obama he does not flinch at the mention of single-payer coverage.
“Big U.S. and global capitalist money considerably less comfortable with Edwards than with Obama.”
It’s not for nothing that Goldman Sachs et al. prefer to invest their surplus political capital in the more explicitly centrist candidates Hillary Clinton and Obama. Edwards isn’t Eugene Debs. He isn’t the genuinely progressive Dennis Kucinich, an open single-payer advocate who calls for the impeachment of Cheney-Bush and calls for the immediate de-funding of the imperialist, bipartisan oil occupation of Iraq. But he’s better than the Barockstar on domestic poverty and other issues.
Take it from the “CEO of hip-hop” or take it from an officially marginal radical like yours truly: Obama is not the great progressive hope so many desperate and/or confused left-liberals and others seem to think he is. If they must proceed with electoral politics – and its not clear that the narrow spectrum U.S. version merits much Left investment – real progressives would do better to support the 2008 Green Party candidate, Kucinich or even (closer to the “mainstream”) Russell Simmons’ friend John Edwards.