Revolution #162, April 19, 2009
In the Era of Obama:
The Collapse of “The Movement”; the Resistance and the Revolutionary Movement We Need
Part I. Introduction
A grievous, shameful and dangerous state of affairs permeates the movements of opposition in the U.S. Their outlook and politics have collapsed into passive acquiescence and even overt criminal complicity with the policies and actions of the ruling class, and are doing so by promoting the deadly illusion that the election of Barack Obama is bringing progressive change.
This is bullshit, it’s knowable, and it must change.
Some basic reality of Obama’s first 80 days:
- Obama has escalated the illegal war in Afghanistan with an additional 21,000 troops.
- Obama has expanded the war into Pakistan areas, using troops and unmanned drones.
- Obama has extended the deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq to 2010—and even that date may be extended by the Pentagon.
- Obama said he plans to leave 35,000-50,000 troops plus 50,000-100,000 mercenaries in Iraq after that, effectively continuing the illegal occupation.
- Obama said he would close Guantanamo within 1 year, yet prisoners there are still being force fed with tubes shoved down their throats.
- Obama approved $60 million to double the size of Bagram prison in Afghanistan.
- Obama’s Justice Department has defended the Bush policy of illegal warrantless wiretapping and asserted far broader claims of executive branch immunity than even the Bush regime.
This is not all, and it is not without lived impact. There are over a million dead in Iraq, 4 million refugees, civilians being slaughtered daily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet, from within the United States mass protest, mass resistance, mass statements of condemnation are at an appallingly low level. An anti-war movement has not only been demobilized, but delivered into the war criminal enterprise of working to make Obama live up to his promise—a promise that Obama has always been clear about, that is nothing less than rescuing the U.S. from its multi-faceted crises.
In an act which concentrates the treachery of this collapse, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the largest anti-war coalition, at their national meeting in December 2008, voted to oppose organizing demonstrations on the 6th Anniversary of the Iraq War on March 19 and 21, 2009. In opposition to mounting a determined struggle to end the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead of calling people into the streets to stand with the people of the world, they decided “to mobilize a new base of people who have been inspired by Obama” in a four month campaign in commemoration of Martin Luther King titled, “Beyond War, A New Economy Is Possible: Yes We Can!”
The practical results: first, the protests that were actually held by others to coincide with the Iraq War’s Anniversary on March 19 and 21 were not as large as they needed to be—which mattered. Then, on Saturday April 4, UFPJ led a dull routine walk through the deserted financial district of NYC with a couple of thousand people revealing their capacity for sapping the life and spirit out of a movement—egregious, but not the heart of the matter.
“No We Can’t” Make Imperialism Work!
Their slogan, “Beyond War, A New Economy Is Possible: Yes We Can!” is packed with false analyses, absurd deadly deception, and a dangerous road of complicity—leading people to attach their hopes and their struggle to the commander-in-chief of the United States, Barack Obama. It is difficult to fathom if the lie or the chauvinism of this slogan is more rotten. Never mind valuing the lives of people of other countries as much as people born here, forget what war crimes are still being done in your name; no, focus the movement on the self interests of the American people. Far from leading to a world “beyond war” and whatever fix to capitalism’s crisis a “new economy” is supposed to conjure up, this slogan, with its repetition of Obama’s “Yes, We Can” mantra, leads directly to enlisting people in service to all that Obama, as the chief executive and commander-in-chief of U.S. imperialism, is actually doing in the world. Indeed, military recruitment is back on the rise, including among Black youth.
For all the talk and denunciation of “empire” in the movement, there is widespread belief and promotion of the erroneous understanding that imperialism is actually a policy and not a system. Bloody domination of the whole planet is integral, not incidental to what America is all about. There is no “promise” of America to the rest of the world other than the promise to carry out coups, invasions, proxy wars, and occupations. And Obama, for all his rhetoric, and all the wishful thinking of the so-called “left,” is continuing precisely on this tack. Indeed, even the New York Times observed that “for all the shifting words, Obama has left the bulk of Mr. Bush’s national security architecture intact so far;” and, regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times noted that Bush’s national security advisor, Gordon Johndroe, “detected a great deal of overlap in actual policy between the two presidents.”1
This is not arbitrary. “Empire” did not begin with Bush. The Bush Doctrine was an extreme concentration of the necessities and functioning of U.S. imperialism, but it was not an aberration. Obama is not merely betraying or reneging on campaign promises. Actually, what he is doing is what he said he would do for those who didn’t project their desires on his, but even if he wanted to do otherwise, he could not. U.S. imperialism is a system. The United States is a capitalist-imperialist empire. Raymond Lotta has written: “it operates according to the imperatives of economic expansion, the pressures of competition, and the drive among contending world powers for strategic position and advantage over regions, markets and resources. And, this empire rests on military might.”
When Obama harkened back in his Inaugural Address to America’s founding “ideals that still light the world” to threaten—as he does in deceptive saccharin sounding words—that “America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace,”2 the criminal history of America springs to mind, including the trail of broken “peace treaties” with Native Americans. A bitter irony, a crucial theme actually of Obama’s election, and in reality his “selling” point to the ruling class, was to invoke the election of a Black man becoming president as evidence of the perfectibility of America—in spite of its history. It was in this that people should find hope, even as, or especially as, their unquestioning belief in capitalism and the goodness of America was beginning to be shaken by the deepening economic crisis and the intractable wars in the Mideast.
Taking Advantage of—and Reinforcing—Ignorance
Certainly there are many young people who have grown up in the enforced ignorance of America, for whom its true history of genocide and bloody wars of conquest is not known. But this is a history certainly known to the leaders of UFPJ and the bevy of progressive journalists who have been so obsequious in their promotion of Obama. From the genocide of the Native Americans, through the unspeakable brutality of a murderous slavery, to the theft of much of Mexico, through wars, invasions, overt and covert coups that stretch over the last 110 years spanning every continent—from the Philippines, to Puerto Rico, to the Congo, to the nuclear bombing of civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on through Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and into most every country of the Mideast and South Asia at one time or another—to plunder resources and people in pursuit of increasing profit. When atrocities are that repeated, that widespread, and that unmatched on a world scale—is there not something at the root, at the foundation, that drives such madness forward?
This is not just America’s past, it’s the reality lived today by civilians in the Swat region of Pakistan where unmanned U.S. drone aircraft create human carnage with their missiles, by the 3/4 of a million widows in Iraq, by the re-establishment of Islamic religious (Sharia) law in U.S. occupied Afghanistan, and, much as it’s hidden, by the hundreds of millions around the world newly being driven to starvation by the spreading crisis of U.S. capitalism. This is also the reality lived here in the U.S., by immigrants hunted like criminals on the U.S./Mexico border (where the Obama administration has outlined both new efforts and continuation of Bush administration plans including adding border patrols, high-tech equipment and canine teams), by Black and Latino youth routinely gunned down by the police and incarcerated in numbers unprecedented in world history; by the tens of millions without health care, homes, or work.
These are not anomalies—“bad things that happen to a good country.” No, what the U.S. does around the world are not some mistakes or excesses of bad policy that run contrary to the promise of America’s ideals. This is American reality. These are not fundamentally the effects of corruption of big money or the hypocrisy of politicians. This is the normal workings of capitalism-imperialism as it seeks, and can only seek to viciously exploit people on an ever more expansive global scale. The government, the president, the military exist to enforce this. They cannot be made to do otherwise.
This is what Democracy looks like. Peddling illusions and steering a movement to support the daily horror that this means for the people of the world, is what a movement in utter collapse looks like.
The Poisonous Myth of America’s “Perfectibility”
Unfortunately, the collapse of the opposition has not been restricted to UFPJ and movement coalitions and organizations. Progressive journalists, intellectuals, and artists, including many who were instrumental in exposing and denouncing the crimes of Bush and Cheney, are today awash in a wave of Obama euphoria. Rather than speaking out as voices of conscience and principle, dealing with the reality of the continuation of the basic direction of the War on Terror, exposing its re-branding, and calling on people to act, they remain instead enthralled by Obama’s demagogy, precisely because they have never given up the myth of the perfectibility of America.
There is a coherence that runs through and guides the breadth of what has passed for a “progressive,” and even the “radical” movement in the U.S. It is a thesis that boils down to:
The election of Obama represents real progressive movement and opens the opportunity to push for more. Obama has his role, and we have ours. The people need to work with and/or pressure Obama from below so that he can bring change.
And, so the argument goes, now is the time to build this pressure movement of the people because—coming from varying shades of analysis and belief in Obama and what his personal views and intentions may or may not be—there is now a favorable alignment in Washington (i.e.: the Democrats control Congress) and this converges with an upsurge of political energy and optimism among Black and young people. There are those who advocate getting in on the action—working with and within the Obama administration, and there are those who argue that the movement should organize to be a pressure block on a sympathetic administration. And all of this supposedly will make it possible for President Obama to usher in progressive change, even a new era of a progressive America—if we do our part.
In service to this premise, the ghost of the 1930s and FDR are incessantly invoked to conjure up a mass movement. For those enamored by the prospects of working with or within the Obama government, they argue this is necessary so he has the support to do the progressive things that he really wants to do. So, there is the phenomenon of groups like the mass internet organizing group MoveOn.org, which many people joined to oppose the Bush regime, focusing on getting conservative Democrats in Congress to vote with Obama.
Others, not so enamored of working with the government, but enthralled by the masses who have been brought into political life by the ruling class through the campaign of Obama, yet who share the same deadly assumption as those who do want to work with the government, argue that through mass pressure the government can be made to bring progress. A stock in trade watchword for this approach is the inane illusion of “holding his feet to the fire.”
Fuck the New Deal
Drawing on the 1930s they all look fondly on the New Deal. What the fuck was so good about a “deal” to rescue capitalism? The real fruits of the New Deal were what Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine called in 1950 “the American Century,” which meant nothing other than one counter insurgency war and coup after another as the U.S. sought to brutally impose its neo-colonial domination over the lives of people stretched round the planet.
The 1930s was a period of deep systemic crisis, of looming war and economic collapse, a time when many in the U.S. and throughout the world looked to the then socialist Soviet Union as a revolutionary alternative. In a complex history, which we will discuss more in a future article of this series, the possibility to wrench a different, revolutionary future was thrown away by a mass movement, in exchange for purchasing social peace by granting some reforms in the form of a new social contract, for a section of the people.
Fused at the hip with the chorus of progressive voices clamoring for a variant of a New Deal is the view that this, after all, is all that’s realistic. Tom Hayden: “My sense is we are moving too rapidly towards economic hell for a socialist ideology to catch up,” before he goes on to argue for mass struggle to demand more financial regulation.
In the name of political maturity, the “leftists” of today’s movement play on the immaturity of most people who believe that the imperialist state can be a vehicle for the interests of those oppressed by this state. To the extent that the U.S. has ever given any reforms—including the New Deal, these have been (1) predicated on the domination of other countries and the extraction of super profits from those countries; (2) used to divide people into competing interest groups within a capitalist framework, who then, generally fight each other over crumbs; and (3) for the purpose of drawing people even deeper into a sense of being stakeholders in this system, creating what Malcolm X so aptly ridiculed in 1963 as the mentality of House Slaves who “would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would.” 3
This has been starkly revealed as Obama ratchets up the war in Afghanistan, and to maintain some credibility, if not principle, some have raised some criticism, which has been cravenly couched in a framework of trying to dissuade Obama by arguing that his policy could be disastrous to U.S. interests and undermine his presidency. Bill Fletcher, editor of the Black Commentator and a founder of UFPJ, in a recent piece: “Wrong On Afghanistan” advises Obama that this is a policy that could (a) create greater problems in the region; (b) take “badly needed funds away from domestic projects in the USA,” and “brings no assurance of victory.” “Victory?” For whom? God damn, now we have the movement advising the commander in chief on how to win a victory for imperialism. Malcolm X said you could tell a house slave because “whenever the master said ‘we,’ he said ‘we.’”4
Those at the core of this collapse opposed the efforts to actually drive out the Bush regime and repudiate its whole program through mass independent political action, working instead to turn the movements of opposition during the early part of this decade into pressure groups on—and into the arms of—the Democratic Party. What is painful now is that some who knew better and did better among radical and progressive journalists, intellectuals, and activists now find themselves singing the same essential tune as these hard-core opportunists. The fact is there will be no anti-war movement worth the name, or a movement against anything else of consequence,5 if it is not struggling fundamentally outside of and in opposition to the framework of the system that is at the root of and carrying out the wars and other forms of oppression that the people want and need to fight.
No one should accept the world as it is. All the more so here in the U.S., the leading source and prosecutor of war, exploitation, and oppression.
Complicity in this current situation is intolerable. There is no other way to live a life that is not stained by what U.S. imperialism is and does. It must be resisted. With this introduction to a series of articles we have just begun the process of clearing away the rot that has caused the resistance movements to collapse. We can and must reforge a movement that acts with courage and conscience, a movement that dares to struggle.
And while the U.S. state that enforces capitalism-imperialism cannot be made to serve the interests of the people, a far better future, could be achieved through making revolution to uproot all the relations imperialism and all systems of exploitation and oppression thrive upon—and massive implacable resistance is one key part of forging a revolutionary movement and people.
1. New York Times, April 3, 2009; Page A20. [back]
2. President Barack Obama; Inaugural Address. [back]
3. Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” from Malcolm X Speaks, Page 10. [back]
4. Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” from Malcolm X Speaks, Page 10. [back]
5. In this four-part series on the collapse of the movement we are primarily focusing on the capitulation of the anti-war movement, but the same essential dynamics of collapse saturate the women’s and Black national movements. For a discussion of the collapse of the Women’s Movement see Revolution issue #156. For discussion of the movements of opposition to the oppression of Black people see Revolution issue #144. [back]
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