Lots of folks on the left, it is now apparent, no longer seek anything more than to bask in the sunshine of Barack Obama’s smile. No matter how much national treasure their champion transfers to the bankster class, and despite his exceeding George W. Bush in military spending, so-called progressives for Obama continue to celebrate their imagined emergence as players in the national political saga. Having in practice foresworn resistance to Power, they relish in bashing the non-Obamite Left.
In tone and substance, Linda Burnham’s recent, widely circulated piece, “Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency” is several cuts above last summer’s vicious rant by Amiri Baraka, “The Parade of Anti-Obama Rascals.” But both assaults on Left critics of Obama are based on the same false assumptions and willful illogic, and although no one can trump Baraka in argumentative foul play and sheer nastiness, Burnham’s article is nonetheless littered with sneers at those who “are stranded on Dogma Beach . . . flipping out over every appointment and policy move [Obama] makes.”
Burnham launches immediately into a denigration of non-Obamites, claiming Obama’s election “occasioned some disorientation and confusion” among those on the Left who “have become so used to confronting the dismal electoral choice between the lesser of two evils that they couldn’t figure out how to relate to a political figure who held out the possibility of substantive change.”
Burnham’s method is to invent straw men and then place words and thoughts in their fictitious mouths and brains. Certainly, we at Black Agenda Report were anything but “confused” by either Obama’s political conduct or his extraordinary popularity, having placed the young upstart under intense scrutiny beginning in the early Summer of 2003, while he was still a low-ranked candidate for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Illinois. His phenomenal talents, hitched to a transparently corporatist, imperial worldview — and a practiced dishonesty about his rightist alliances — made Obama a person worth watching. The BAR team, then operating out of Black Commentator, had Obama pegged as a potential vector of confusion in Black and progressive ranks long before his worldwide debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And we were right. It is in Burnham’s political neighborhood that confusion reigns, not ours.
Burnham claims that many on the Left “were taken by surprise at how wide and deep ran the current for change.” Either she’s talking about herself, or she hangs around a very cloistered crowd. Or, more likely, Burnham is conflating the word “change” with “Obama” — an effect of drinking too much Kool-Aid. In either case, none of it applies to folks like us at BAR — and there are a number of others on the Left — who more than five years ago understood both Obama’s mass appeal and the mass desire for real change, and feared that one would thwart the other.
Left critics of Obama, according to Burnham, fail to recognize that he is not the “lesser of two evils,” but rather holds out the “possibility of substantive change.” This is a core position, central to the “progressive” Obamite argument. Beyond the fact of having broken the presidential color bar, which in the American context is a positive development on its face, Obama is near-identical to Hillary Clinton on virtually every policy issue, as became evident in the primaries. Their compatibility was revealed as something closer to political intimacy when Obama erected his Cabinet — a house as Clintonian as anything Bill ever built, with plenty of room reserved for friends from the Bush gang. Color aside, whatever kind of “evil” Hillary and Bill are, Obama is.
Burnham outlines what she says is the “active conversation on the left about what can be expected of an Obama administration and what the orientation of the left should be towards it.” We will have to take her word for it, although her mischaracterization of Left Obama critics (certainly those at BAR) makes us less than confident that the “conversation” is as she describes. Below are the “two conflicting views” on Obama, on the Left:
First, that Obama represents a substantial, principally positive political shift and that, while the left should criticize and resist policies that pull away from the interests of working people, its main orientation should be to actively engage with the political motion that’s underway.
Second, that Obama is, in essence, just another steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an agent of fundamental change. He should be regarded with caution and is bound to disappoint. The basic orientation is to criticize every move the administration makes and to remain disengaged from mainstream politics.
The first viewpoint is no doubt held by Burnham. It is essentially mooted by the reality that most Left Obamites only weakly “criticize” and virtually never “resist” Obama’s rightist policies and appointments in the crucial military and economic arenas — which was, first, the fear and, later, the main complaint of the non-Obamite Left. The Obama Effect is to neutralize Blacks and the Left (Blacks being the main electoral base of the American Left) by capturing their enthusiasm for Obama’s own corporate purposes. Obama and his Democratic Leadership Council allies (and their corporate masters) monopolize the “motion,” all the while shutting out even mildly Left voices (as in the recent White House Forum on Health, from which single payer health care advocates were initially barred). Blacks and the Left have not been in any kind of effective forward “motion” since Election Day. As we shall see, Burnham’s definition of “motion” does not involve confronting Power, but rather, attaching oneself to it.
Policy-wise, Obama no more “represents a substantial, principally positive political shift” than his political twin, Hillary — again, color aside.
The second viewpoint is supposedly held by the opposition, and partially reflects the views of the BAR team. Yes, Obama is “just another steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an agent of fundamental change.” This has been easily observed, since Blacks and the Left have allowed Obama to act upon his corporate and imperial instincts, unimpeded by even the mildest counter-pressures. His presidency takes shape to the Right of Democratic congressional leaders, who have made more noise over Obama’s Iraq trickle-out and his clear threats to Social Security and other “entitlements,” than have many Left Obamites.
Obama is not simply “bound to disappoint” — he has already been cause for great disappointment, even among those of us who scoped his essential corporatist nature years ago. Who would have predicted that he would play the most eager Gunga Din for the bizarre Bush/Paulson bank bailout decree, last year? Who would have foreseen that Obama would retain the loathsome international criminal Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense? That he would continue Bush’s policies on Africa — Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia, AFRICOM — without missing a beat? That he would so quickly offer to put Social Security “on the table” for “reform” (in the Republican sense of the term)?
But Burnham would have you believe the Left opposition are nothing but nitpickers, inflating executive pinpricks into major assaults. Thus, she seeks to make the opposition look silly, as if we “criticize every move the administration makes.” In truth, her argument is designed to excuse her and her Left allies failure to “resist” or confront Obama in any meaningful way.
Like many of her cohorts, Burnham is quick to grant that Obama “is a steward of capitalism,” but maintains that “his election has opened up the potential for substantive reform in the interests of working people and that his election to office is a democratic win worthy of being fiercely defended.”
Again, if Obama’s election opened up the “potential” for reform, so would have Hillary’s. They were (and remain) political brother and sister under the skin. The Obamites would be utterly helpless if unable to deploy (and abuse) the term “potential,” given the actuality of Obama’s presidency. Conveniently, “potential” lives in the future, where it can’t be pinned down. That’s why Obama’s “potential” is a central theme of his Left camp followers — it allows them to claim that the opposition’s critiques of their hero might harm the “potential” good he might do in the future.
At any rate, the Obamite Left can claim no credit for Obama’s progressive “potential,” since they did little or nothing that might have caused him to abandon his relentless rightward drift.
Burnham & Co. want us to accept Obama’s corporate orientation as “what he was elected to do.” Burnham urges us to be “clear” about Obama’s “job description”: “Obama’s job is to salvage and stabilize the U.S. capitalist system and to perform whatever triage is necessary to restore the core institutions of finance and industry to profitability.”
That is certainly what Obama and his big campaign funders believe his job is, but a progressive’s task is to cause him to serve the people — an assignment that I am not convinced Burnham and her allies have accepted.
On the international scene (i.e., The Empire), Obama’s job — as Burnham says should be clear to “us” — is “to salvage the reputation of the U.S. in the world; repair the international ties shredded by eight years of cowboy unilateralism; and adjust U.S. positioning on the world stage [so far, so good, but here Burnham slips down the proverbial slope] on the basis of a rational assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the changed and changing centers of global political, economic and military power – rather than on the basis of a simple-minded ideological commitment to unchallenged world dominance.”
Obama’s military budget, bigger than Bush’s, his escalation in Afghanistan/Pakistan, the unraveling of his Iraq “withdrawal” promises, and his provocations in Africa all signal that this president has no intention of relinquishing the goal of global U.S. hegemony. To paraphrase his famous statement on war, “I’m not opposed to imperialism, just dumb imperialism.”
Burnham should bring herself to admit that Obama is, indeed, merely a more charming face pasted on the imperial monster — with the same teeth (weapons), appetite and ambitions. In an indirect way, she does offer a version of the truth, packaged in what sounds like genuine, praiseful admiration:
“Obama has been on the job for only a month but has not wasted a moment in going after his double bottom line with gusto, panache and high intelligence. In point of fact, the capitalists of the world – or at least the U.S. branch — ought to be building altars to the man and lighting candles. They have chosen an uncommonly steady hand to pull their sizzling fat from the fire.”
Burnham then sets up the Left straw men, so as to knock them down. These one-note Charlies, real or imagined, are incapable of sophisticated thought and analysis:
“For the anti-capitalist left that is grounded in Trotskyism, anarcho-horizontalism, or various forms of third-party-as-a-point-of-principleism [sic], the only change worthy of the name is change that hits directly at the kneecaps of capitalism and cripples it decisively. All else is trifling with minor reforms or, even worse, capitulating to the power elite. From this point of view the stance towards Obama is self-evident: criticize relentlessly, disabuse others of their presidential infatuation, and denounce anything that remotely smacks of mainstream politics.”
Such people may exist, but they don’t resemble BAR or any of our allies and correspondents. Burnham is employing the cheapest trick of argumentation: she picks (or invents) the weakest, most unreasonable, narrow opponent, and savages him. I know of no serious activist that believes “the only change worthy of the name is change that hits directly at the kneecaps of capitalism and cripples it decisively.” If that were so, then such activists would have nothing to do for most of their lives, since chances to “cripple” capitalism “decisively” are few and very far between.
But crises of capitalism do occur, and we are living through one of them. Capitulationists are also real, and reveal themselves at the worst possible junctures. One great tragedy of the current episode is that the crisis occurred at a moment when the remnants of the Left and Black movements in the U.S. have been neutralized by the “uncommonly steady hand” of imperialism’s Black champion, to whom Burnham and countless others have, yes, capitulated.
In order to defend the capitulation, the Burnhams of the Left must credit Obama with achievements he has not made, plus the amorphous “potential” achievements to which he has “opened the door” and which will magically occur even in the absence of organized people making a demand. A hilarious Burnham example of an Obama feat: He has “wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy grip of Clintonian centrism. (Although he himself often leads from the center, Obama’s center is a couple of notches to the left of the Clinton administration’s triangulation strategies)….”
Ha! Burnham imagines “notches” that aren’t there. Obama’s government IS Clintonian. And the new president is as skilled and ruthless a triangulator as Bill ever was, consistently finding a position to the Right of whatever passes for Left on Capitol Hill, but nestled near to the corporate bosom.
Burnham spends additional pages working the same themes of Left “anticipatory disillusionment” and other psycho-babble to mask her own cohort’s capitulation. Many Obama critics did anticipate his center-right behavior, and we were correct — but never disillusioned. Political groupies, however, are fated to suffer disillusion and betrayal.
Burnham reveals inklings of her own emotional state when she gratuitously urges “those who missed interacting with the motion of millions against the right, against the white racial monopoly on the executive branch, and for substantive change,” to re-examine their political orientation. In addition to her condescending tone, which seems to assume that her targets have no experience with the “motion of millions” in actual political movements, rather than a corporate-shaped and funded presidential election campaign, Burnham appears to think of the non-Obamite Left as people who didn’t RSVP for the best party of the year, and are now resentful.
In the last hundred words of the piece, we discover that her idea of “building the left” requires folding up the tent in or near the Obama camp. Examine this extraordinary passage:
“The current political alignment provides an opportunity to break out of isolation, marginalization and the habits of self-marginalization accumulated during the neo-conservative ascendancy. It provides the opportunity to initiate and/or strengthen substantive relationships with political actors in government, in the Democratic Party, and in independent sectors, as well as within the left itself – relationships to be built upon long after the Obama presidency has come to an end. It provides the opportunity to accumulate lessons about political actors, alignments and centers of power likewise relevant well beyond this administration. And it provides the opportunity for the immersion of the leaders, members and constituencies of left formations in a highly accelerated, real world poli-sci class.”
This sounds uncannily like Obamite Prof. Leonard Jeffries’ admonition that all Black folks “study Obama-ism.” Burnham’s gushings are remarkable for their abject surrender, not just to Obama’s persona and mystique, but to the institutional trappings and annexes of corporate-tethered rule. She wants us all to take lessons from the corporate-bought structures — to better serve the people? No. Burnham is telling us that now that she’s seen the Big Party, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s tasted that vintage wine, drank the good stuff, and is determined not to go back to movement rations.
I do agree that Burnham can use some political education. “For the anti-capitalist left,” she writes, “this is a period of experimentation. There is no roadmap; there are no recipes.” Maybe, but there are abiding truths that she has willfully forgotten: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Those elements that refuse to make demands of Power ought to stop calling themselves part of the Left. Unless the Left is in power, it is a contradiction in terms.