Revolution#129, May 18, 2008
The Real Question: Is Buying into the Logic of the Obama Candidacy Harmful?
As indicated by the selected letters from readers in this issue, our argument—that supporting and buying into the logic of the Barack Obama candidacy is harmful—is rubbing some raw nerves. But the question is not “who are we” to say this. If we are to be honest, and not self-delusional, the question that must be asked is: is this true?
To answer this, seriously and objectively, we have to look at what Obama is saying and doing. Not what we wish he were saying. Or how we choose to interpret what he is saying. Or this or that campaign promise he made somewhere. We have to look at the basic framework he is coming from, and operating within, what that represents, and where it leads.
The Foundations of Obama’s Agenda
To get to the bottom of what the Obama campaign is about, Revolution newspaper has focused in part on analyzing Obama’s March 18 “Speech on Race.” Mainstream commentators compared this speech to the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and it was clearly a defining statement of what he is about.
In that speech, Obama—from beginning to end—argues that the U.S. Constitution “is where the perfection begins.” And he states his own mission: “to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
But if the U.S. Constitution is, in reality, a perfect vehicle for capitalist exploitation and oppression; if from the day it was signed up to today it has served to institutionalize and enforce the subjugation of African Americans; if the history of Black people in America is not a “long march” for equality and freedom, but a succession of different forms of the oppression; and if Obama’s candidacy is based on and is promoting dangerous lies about all this, then that matters.
To take three examples:
• Obama claimed that when the U.S. was founded, “the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.” In fact, that Constitution enshrined slavery. It was only generations later that a Civil War ended overt chattel slavery. And that Civil War was driven not by constitutional principles, but by a complex mix of economic, political, and military factors arising from the heightening conflict between the class of capitalists in the North, and the slave system in the South (see “Slavery, Capitalism, and the ‘Perfect Union,’” Revolution #125, April 6, 2008, available at revcom.us).
• Obama’s “Speech on Race” skips over or trivializes the whole era of sharecropping, Jim Crow, and never mentions lynching. This whitewashes an era that lasted for several generations after the Civil War. The Supreme Court sanctioned all that, under the U.S. Constitution,in the “separate but (so-called) equal” ruling in 1896—Plessy v. Ferguson.
• Obama’s speech equates the “resentment” of whites who have been brainwashed and bamboozled into seeing Black people as a threat and an enemy—on the one hand—with the justifiable anger of Black people at the legacy and current reality of systemic subjugation as a people. In our coverage, we exposed how the basis for racist prejudice lies in the workings of the capitalist system and conscious government policies—like Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included institutionalizing segregated housing. And how really necessary it is to not pander to, but challenge white supremacy (see “‘Separate But Equal’…and the Myth of ‘We the People,’” Revolution #127, April 20, 2008, available at revcom.us).
Obama argues in his speech that overcoming racism is the “true genius of this nation.” But the real “genius” behind the “we the people” charade has been to promote an identification among many white people with the interests of the system, based on the systematic exclusion of Black people, Native Americans, and others. This exclusion has taken different forms—slavery, sharecropping, super-exploitation in the urban ghettos, and mass incarceration. Throughout the history of this country, the “we the people” mythology has had a poisonous role in justifying the subjugation of whole peoples and promoting toxic illusions among people broadly in this society about its real nature.
We strongly encourage readers to seriously engage with our analysis of Obama’s “Speech on Race,” and discuss and debate that.
A Stealth Candidate?
Some people argue, or hope, that Obama is actually on a “stealth” mission to get into the White House by doing whatever it takes to do that, and then when he gets in, he will bring about fundamental changes in people’s lives. We haven’t seen evidence that this is the case, but let’s say this was the case. It wouldn’t work, and it couldn’t work.
Take one stark example: In the year 2000, a Human Rights Watch report documented that Black people and Latinos accounted for 62.6 percent of all state or federal prisoners even though they represent only 24 percent of total U.S. residents, and that almost 10 percent of Black men aged from twenty-five to twenty-nine were in prison, compared to 1.1 percent of white men in the same age group. What if Obama was elected, and immediately declared (and tried to enforce) an end to the systemic criminalization of Black youth; an immediate end to their imprisonment in massive numbers; and an immediate end to the police-state conditions they live under in their communities and schools.
Changing this situation in any real way isn’t possible under this system because the causes behind the mass criminalization of Black people lie deep in the structural nature and workings of capitalism. Today, this system has no jobs or future for millions of Black people. Up to, and through, the first and second world wars, millions of African Americans were forced from the South by poverty and racist terror into the cities of the North. For generations, they worked in the most dangerous, low-paying, unstable factory jobs. But after World War 2, the de-industrialization of inner cities threw large numbers of Black people out of work.
And, with the emergence of powerful Black liberation struggles in the 1960s, the government came to see African Americans as an increasingly dangerous political threat. In 1969, President Nixon’s top assistant wrote in his diary that: “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
What followed were decades of increasingly repressive laws and draconian racist sentencing policies—including drastically more punitive sentencing for crack cocaine that dominated urban ghettos, as opposed to much lighter sentences for powder cocaine more prevalent among white people. These sentencing laws were implemented in the same period that a combination of widespread unemployment along with government policies flooded the Black community in the U.S. with crack cocaine.
Today, the ghettos and barrios of the inner cities are decimated—stripped of jobs that people can live on, social services, or a chance for a decent life. And a result of all these factors—the workings of capitalism and conscious government policies that serve that— is that today millions of Black and Latino youth have no future except jail, being shot by police or each other, or maybe joining the military to kill and die for the same system that created all this.
If somehow, for some reason, Obama got into the White House and tried to uproot all the factors that created and enforce the criminalization of Black youth, he would have to unravel the whole chain of underlying economic and political relations that produced this outrage. And the system would move to stop that long before it even got onto the drawing board.
Auditioning for Liar-in-Chief
Before dismissing (or before substituting silly caricatures for) our argument that the problem is the system, and that white supremacy is foundational to this system, you have a responsibility to make an argument that this is not true. In our responses to Barack Obama’s “Speech on Race” and beyond that, week in and week out in this newspaper we make a compelling argument that in fact the subjugation of Black people is embedded in the roots of this system.
But set that aside for a moment. It’s not just that you can’t tell fundamental truths about the nature of this system and be a candidate for president. You can’t even state, or be associated with anyone who states, basic facts about the history of this country.
For example, speaking of the situation for African Americans, Reverend Jeremiah Wright said, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and wants us to sing God Bless America.” And, speaking about the history of the U.S., he said, “We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.”
Obama denounced such statements in his March 18 “Speech on Race” and has now completely disowned him.
And, remember what happened when Obama himself, speaking about white working class people who have seen their jobs and way of life falling apart, said that they cling, among other things, to “religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The mainstream media quickly ruled this outside the limits of what you can say when you’re running for president. A New York Times columnist reminded Obama that it’s one thing to study Karl Marx’s statement “that ‘religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.’ It’s another thing for an American presidential candidate to claim that we ‘cling to ... religion’ out of economic frustration.”
In other words, on just about any substantial subject or issue, it’s not just that you can’t expose this system from a revolutionary perspective if you’re running for president. You can’t even acknowledge or discuss basic, obvious truths about the most basic things in this society!
What kind of a system has a process for selecting a president, where a basic requirement for being a “credible” candidate is that he or she has to be able to systematically lie with a straight face about basic facts and truths? This is not just a matter of “corruption” or “special interests.” Nor is it a matter, fundamentally, of just pandering to backwardness and prejudice to get elected. You have to be an accomplished and systematic liar to be a credible candidate for president of the United States because you are auditioning to oversee a system based on oppression and exploitation that is not in the interests of the vast majority of people in this country, or the world.
A Best Face for Empire…
The fact that Barack Obama, an African American, has made it this far in the presidential auditioning process is not a reflection of “how far we’ve come” as a nation in overcoming prejudice, or a reflection of the power of a grassroots movement. No candidate gets this far without being vetted by the U.S. ruling class.
Obama’s candidacy is an indication that the rulers of this country are confronting sharp polarization in U.S. society, and sharp challenges to being the planet’s dominating superpower. In the face of that, one ruling class commentator said that Obama’s face would be “the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy.” (“Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” by Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic, December 2007)
Where Obama takes positions that seem to be somewhat at odds with what Bush, McCain, or Clinton are calling for, there are three things to keep in mind: His differences all fall well within the logic of U.S. empire; they are overwhelmingly in the realm of how to get over with U.S. domination of the world; and in any case he has repeatedly made clear he would carry out the consensus decisions of the U.S. ruling class. Examine, for instance, the “debate” between Obama and Hillary Clinton over Clinton’s outrageous threat to “obliterate Iran.” Obama’s response was that this was “not the language we need right now.” But read on: he went on to say, “I think the Iranians can be confident that I will respond forcefully, and it will be completely unacceptable if they attack Israel or any other of our allies in the region, with conventional weapons or nuclear weapons.”
Through this so-called “debate,” terms are being defined here that it is a given that it would be right for the U.S. to launch a military strike on Iran. Obama is making clear he would be just as willing to attack Iran as Clinton is. And a whole upside-down story is being established of who is the aggressor in the Middle East, and the role of Israel as the U.S. attack dog in the region.
Paralysis and Hoping for Crumbs?
Or Bringing Forward Another Way?
In the course of engaging with our analysis, some have raised that building a revolutionary movement is not realistic, and instead the best we can hope for, and what we should focus our energy on, is working to get Obama elected so that at least there is a possibility of some relief for people.
Writing earlier in the campaign, commentator Andrew Sullivan made an argument to the ruling class and those who identify with them that, in the face of potentially destabilizing challenges, Obama could play an unique role channeling discontent into parameters acceptable to the system: “If you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.” (“Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” by Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic, December, 2007)
Left to current trajectories, the polarization Sullivan is pointing to will lead to nothing good. But these great divisions Sullivan is pointing to do present critical challenges and opportunities to those who dream of, and demand, a better world.
This system does not have things all sewn up. Intense contradictions are simmering beneath the surface, and threatening to come to the surface. The rulers of this country are sitting on top of a potentially volatile situation, and a big part of Obama’s role is to rope people into working within the way things are, to bring people under the wing of the rulers—including people who are very dissatisfied with the direction of things.
Instead of chaining ourselves within the terms of this election, what is needed is a powerful movement of opposition to the whole direction this country is headed, standing with and starting from the interests of humanity and the need for revolution. That’s the only way real change can come about. And that requires breaking out of the whole logic and agenda of the Obama candidacy.
“If you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are.”
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