Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stages of Enlightenment

In the beginning, Barack Obama, the Rorschach candidate in whom people saw what they wanted to see, was, for an alarmingly large number of voters, an agent of “change.” This illusion flourished throughout the primary campaign, notwithstanding the absence of any supporting evidence, and it survived his selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. It persisted too as Obama, once elected, loaded his administration with old Clinton hands, including Hillary Clinton herself; and as he re-empowered the Clinton economic team, insuring that Wall Street’s hold over the economy would be maintained. Nevertheless, in due course, as counter-indications accumulated, a bit of light penetrated the Obamamaniacal miasma. Thus, at some point after the first Hundred Days, a new, slightly less untenable illusion insinuated itself into many hearts and minds.

Specifically, the idea was born that Obama is a master-tactician who brought the Clintonites and the Wall Streeters into his administration only to benefit from their “expertise,” but that he was riding them; not vice versa. In the end, many believed, he’d somehow make it all right. Of course, there was no evidence for this belief either; with illusions there seldom is. Accordingly, by August, as the Moronic Minority of tea-partiers, birthers, deathers, tenthers, and other constituents of the Fox News-talk radio demographic mobilized with more than a little help from their corporate friends, this illusion too fell victim to the light.

Thus a more enlightened view has taken hold; it is even on the threshold of becoming the conventional wisdom. We’ll know it has arrived when Cokie Roberts, the doyenne of conventional wisdom, declares it. For the time being, though, Maureen Dowd will have to do. Her column in this morning’s New York Times is exemplary. According to Dowd and many others nowadays, the problem is that Obama’s is too conflict averse, too disposed to get on everyone’s good side, and too inclined to compromise. If he would just get over it, the expectations that were riding on his presidency will get a new lease on life. Insofar as this belief takes hold, our political culture will rid itself of disabling illusions. But we will still not achieve a genuinely enlightened view.

This is because the Obama-is-too-nice theory, though true, is superficial. The flaw in Obama’s governance style is more profound than Dowd claims, and it has very little to do with his or anyone else’s psychology; it is a structural problem. In a word, Obama is a creature of the regime, just as anyone who got into the White House in anything like the usual way would have to be. Of course, his quest for “bipartisan” compromises has made matters worse, and he is, in any case, constrained by the various messes Bush era torturers and free marketeers bequeathed him. But, above all, what shapes his policies is the overriding need American presidents have to serve the interests not of the people who elected them, but of the country’s elites. The problem is not just that these elites are the paymasters of all Republicans and nearly all Democrats; though this also makes matters worse, much worse, than need be. The more basic problem is that, this side of genuine change – radical, structural change – the interests of our elites must be served; because the regime exists for them and does well only when and insofar as they do.

In a more enlightened political culture, Obamania would have been tempered by the realization that a state in a capitalist society like ours has to serve the requirements of the capitalist system and must therefore operate, broadly speaking, in ways that accord with capitalists’ interests. Then Obama would have raised fewer expectations that he would go on to disappoint. But it is also the case that when a state in a capitalist society does its job poorly, as it did spectacularly under Cheney and Bush, opportunities are greater than usual for making things better not just by changing the system (which is a pipedream at this point), but even within the framework of the old regime. They would also know that capitalist crises, such as the one Obama inherited, make the prospects for constructive change within the system greater still. This was the case in the United States in the 1930s. Then the Roosevelt administration rose to the occasion to some extent. It was, again, the case last year – when opportunities that had not existed for decades briefly opened up. It goes without saying that Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress – not just the Blue Dogs, but the “liberals” as well – have not risen to the occasion at all; and that, to the extent opportunities still exist, they still show no signs of doing so.

Thus while there is now a more enlightened view of Obama than there used to be, there is still not nearly enough enlightenment. One need only look at how America’s “quality” media – National Public Radio is the best example – frames its accounts of policy debates in Washington. Leaving aside all the many “things” they do not “consider” but should, if the idea is indeed to enhance democracy, the journalists and commentators at NPR, along with their counterparts at The New York Times, The Washington Post and other supposedly liberal media, take for granted the framework within which our political leaders debate the issues they do address, marginalizing views that are obviously better than the ones in contention. The health care debate and the debate over the Bush-Obama Afghanistan War are cases in point. In a more enlightened political culture, mainstream media would at least acknowledge that the obviously best policies were dispatched into the night and fog even before the current debates began. This they have yet to do.

With health care, for example, it is obvious -- at least for anyone who thinks that health care should be a right, not a commodity – that a government run single-payer system or its functional equivalent (operating through not-for-profit, highly regulated private insurers) is indispensable. There is no other way to lower costs significantly and no other way to guarantee universal coverage. Every other developed capitalist country effectively decommodified health care along these lines years ago; a single-payer system is not a radical departure from capitalist norms. But it is anathema to American capitalists in the insurance, pharmaceutical and for-profit health care industries, especially now that the system they have constructed for their own benefit has grown to involve more than a sixth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. This is why Democrats with Obama in the lead, along with Republicans, have taken the obvious solution “off the table.” Our media have let them get away with it, leaving the progress of enlightenment stalled.

Or take Afghanistan. The debate now raging is between Generals in search of fresh cannon fodder, and “doves” reluctant, as it were, to throw more good money after bad. The leader of the good (less bad) guys, it seems, is Joe Biden, the imperialists’ best friend, whose presence on the Obama ticket should have led even the willfully blind to realize that an Obama presidency would not be all that different from the Clinton or, for that matter, the Bush presidency on matters of concern to the beneficiaries of American world domination. Biden thinks that, for now, no additional troops should be sent into the Afghan “quagmire,” while the Generals look forward to another “surge.” But neither Biden nor anyone else whom Obama takes seriously favors immediate withdrawal, the obviously right way to deal with an ill-conceived war that was lost long ago. Biden just wants to fight the war Colin Powell-Bill Clinton style – from the air (ideally with unmanned drones) and with less self-defeating “nation building.” The indications now are that Biden will lose. But even if his side doesn’t, it’s far from clear that less harm will be done than if the Generals get their way. The murder and mayhem and waste of treasure needed elsewhere will go on indefinitely no matter who wins; and the occupation will continue to generate resistance (and, yes, terrorism), and to destabilize a strategic region awash in armaments, including nuclear weapons. Joe Biden on one side; Stanley McChrystal on the other. How pathetic is that!

Immanuel Kant declared the motto of Enlightenment to be “dare to know.” That is a hard thing for Obamamaniacs, past or present, to do because faith in Obama has always rested on illusions -- on beliefs based, not on evidence, but on wishes and hopes. But, with the stakes now so high, it is urgent that even the true believers confront reality and deal with it accordingly. I am confident that, in time, even the most Obamamaniacal among us will see the light; that they will realize that Obama, though better in countless ways than his predecessor, is hardly the agent of change he was once widely thought to be. The evidence is mounting and it is compelling. For everyone’s sake, it is better that this next stage of enlightenment be reached sooner rather than later. If not now, when?

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