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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Getting Beyond Euphoria

Of all the many post-election, euphoric self-congratulations over the Obama victory few can match in fulsomeness the long-winded, pompous posting of Carl Davidson on Portside. In "The Bumpy Road Ahead: New Tasks of the Left Following Obama's Victory (long)", Davidson indulges 19 Word-document pages of hyperbole and pontification to affirm much of the left's unqualified support for Obama and the elevated expectations from the electoral victory. In many ways this is a welcome document because it serves as an unabashed example of the strange, deluded route that so many chose to follow. A taste of Davidson's exaggeration should be quite enough to illustrate. Davidson writes:

"...hundreds of millions-Black, Latino, Asian, Native-American and white, men and women, young and old, literally danced in the streets and wept with joy,celebrating an achievement of a dramatic milestone in a 400-year struggle, and anticipating a new period of hope and possibility."

Hundreds of millions? Literally? A dramatic milestone? Of course there were not hundreds of millions even voting, nearly half of which voted against Obama! And "dramatic milestones" should be reserved for truly world shaking events like the Civil War, The Great Depression, and possibly the economic catastrophe now looming. This dramatic overstatement is precisely the kind of puffery that contributes to isolating the left from working people.

Davidson's foray into the politics of class alignment would be amusing if it weren't meant so seriously. Davidson lists the following as one Obama's strategic accomplishments :"...he realigned a powerful sector of the ruling class into an anti-NeoCon, anti -ultra right bloc.” This is sheer nonsense. The ruling class, with a few exceptions, turned against Bush before the 2006 elections, not out of hostility to the ultra-right ideology, but because his policies were failing and proved to be a hindrance to the advancement of capitalism. There is no fundamental change in ruling class thinking, only a shift to more reliable partners. To think otherwise is a flight of unfettered imagination.

He goes on:
"The Obama team at the top is comprised of global capital's representatives in the U.S. as well as U.S. multinational capitalists, and these two overlap but are not the same. It is a faction of imperialism, and there is no need for us to prettify it, deny it or cover it up in any way. The important thing to see is that it is neither neoliberalism nor the old corporate liberalism. Obama is carving out a new niche for himself, a work in progress still within the bounds of capitalism, but a 'high road' industrial policy capitalism that is less state-centric and more market- based in its approach, more Green, more high tech, more third wave and participatory, less politics-as- consumerism and more 'public citizen' and education focused. In short, it's capitalism for a multipolar world and the twenty-first century".

Davidson draws distinctions that don't exist and makes projections that are unfounded. The folks around Obama (the cabinet has yet to take shape) are Clinton retreads or worse. Vague notions like "'high road' industrial policy" and "third wave" are unhelpful in understanding a candidate like Obama who campaigned on broad, equally vague pronouncements and the virtues of bi-partisanship. Apparently, Davidson listened little to what Obama said.

The retail politics of the campaign are hard to reconcile with Davidson's claim that Obama has departed from "politics-as-consumerism". The clear fund-raising winner in the billion dollar presidential derby raised more money from most sectors of the ruling class than any candidate in the primaries or the general election. Through the ruse of so-called "joint fund-raising committees", Obama received contributions of over $25,000 from 2,205 individuals. Does Davidson really believe that they will have no more impact on the administration than an individual giving $200?

Perhaps Obama will carve a new niche, perhaps he won't. But history does show that bourgeois politicians never stray too far from the capitalist ranch unless there is intense popular pressure. There would be no revolutionary break with England without an uprising in the colonies; there would be no emancipation of slaves without an abolitionist movement; there would be no Social Security, unemployment insurance, or industrial unionism without mass action; there would not be integration without a civil rights movement; and so on. In no case was an electoral victory sufficient to guarantee these outcomes. And in no case were the movements that drove these victories dependent upon or limited by electoral outcomes.

So "...the important thing to see is that it [the Obama team's ideology] is neither neo-liberalism nor the old corporate liberalism." Given that the Obama's team is shaping up as old-guard Clintonites, this is a wildly misleading statement indeed. What are Obama's associates? Socialists? Closet New Dealers? Born-again progressives? One sees the transformation of hope into faith in such blatant, naive wishfulness.

To help us understand the new world opened with the Obama victory Davidson garnishes the victory with a flourish of pop-Gramsci:
"The Obama alliance is an emerging, historic counter-hegemonic bloc, still contending both with its pre-election adversaries and within itself. It has taken the White House and strengthened its majority in Congress, but the fight is not over. To define the victorious coalition simply by the class forces at the
at the top is the error of reductionism that fails to shine a light on the path ahead".

O ne is surely struck dumb by a bloc that contends with its former adversaries by putting Hilary Clinton in charge of foreign affairs - a most unusual way of "contending". But Davidson is right; the fight is not over; in fact, it hasn't really began. To evade the glaring affirmative action for the ruling class among Obama's close collaborators, Davidson evokes the tired, cheap, and, by now, vacuous charge of "reductionism". Like a cross waved before a follower of the devil, the mere appearance of the word is supposed to drive the Marxist left back into the shadows.

Davidson distinguishes the layers of the Obama victory: At the top - as he likes to say - is a superstructure of solidly established, old guard politico's who have yet to propose one idea that departs too far from the limited toolbox of neo-classical economics and imperial foreign policy. Yes, there is talk of green initiatives, a friendlier relationship with labor, support for social liberalism, and a vague, dangerously tame reform of health care. But this group has shown no new thinking on the catastrophic economic crisis. Moreover, their timidly progressive pronouncements differ little from the false hope promised by the Clinton and Carter Democratic administrations that precede this one. This is hardly the promise of a "historic milestone" as foreseen by Davidson.
Below this elite center of power is an electorate overcoming racism, demonstrating a decisive rejection of the Bush administration, and starved for real change. Yet Davidson never - even remotely - bridges the chasm between their aspirations and the actual promises of the new administration. Change will come from the efforts of those organized oppositionally to force new initiatives and not from those relying on the good will of ruling elites. To ignore this historical truth is to risk the disillusionment and alienation of all of those who have advocated change with their vote.

Davidson huffs and puffs in a scolding and self-congratulatory diatribe against those he characterizes as the "ultra-left" because they failed to share his total submission to the Obama road show. He singles out three organizations who "mostly got it", though he concedes that they are "rather small and not growing in any major way". Of course they're small and not growing! They have surrendered their independence and they have been completely absorbed by the Democratic Party campaign to take a turn at bourgeois democratic rule. The dogmatic proposition that the left cannot welcome the rejection of the Republican agenda without subjugating itself to the agenda of the Democratic Party is unacceptable to anyone committed to moving beyond the tyranny of the two-party system. It may come as a surprise to Davidson that many members of the three organizations mentioned were able to work for the Obama victory without vassalage to the Presidential candidate (full disclosure: I voted for Ralph Nader).

Now that the election is over there is no excuse for not working to build a socialist left - an oppositional force - that will go beyond a three decade long defensive struggle against a persistent and relentless rightward shift in bourgeois politics. Maybe the Obama victory signals a halt to that drift; maybe it doesn't. But the urgency of the moment - a profound economic crisis - affords a rare opportunity to advance an anti-monopoly agenda beyond anything that Democrats would or could support. For many of us this may well be the opportunity of a lifetime to make an anti-monopoly, if not a socialist, option a real factor in US politics. There is time to celebrate the repudiation of Bush and the setback to racism, but not too much time. We must not yield to those who urge the unearned confidence in a political party with a history of betraying that confidence.

Davidson's article is available at:

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