Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bill is Back

You see it from the other side, and are confused: have I been wrong all these years?  

One of the advantages of not relying on the newspapers for information and analysis is that you don’t imbibe their world view; allowing perhaps for a more independent perspective; it also means you are not led by the priorities of politicians and editors.  Think of how much time is wasted following the various crises that the Times or the Guardian deem important.  Remember SARS?  Have you forgotten the Millennium Bug? [1]  But there is a downside; you fall behind events, and you develop biases of your own; for however distorted the mainstream media it nevertheless has a point of view, based to a degree on facts and valid opinion.  You forget about this, and are surprised when you find it.

His achievements so far have been accomplished in spite of obstacles that would fell most mortals – the almost unaccountable messes he inherited from Bush-Cheney, a cratered economy, a sclerotic Congress in thrall to lobbyists and special-interest money, and a rabid opposition underwritten by a media empire that owns both America’s most-watched cable news channel and its most highly circulated newspaper.  Indeed it could be argued that the matrix of crises facing Obama would have outmatched any Bush successor, no matter how talented.  (Frank Rich)

The last sentence is indubitably true, but is based on a false premise: that individuals run things.  Our newspapers and TV screens are overrun by the wealthy and important, by our political leaders and their followers, and we see their pictures all the time; perhaps more even than we see our own family’s.  It is natural, therefore, to think that they run the country.  This is only partly true.  Yes, they have influence, but it is limited; for these people work in and for institutions, and it is these institutions that run our affairs; with leaders little more than their representatives.  Of course, these organisations will be coloured by their CEO’s personalities and private obsessions, but their fundamental character will remain the same, whoever is in charge.  Think of General Motors over the decades, and then think of the US government over the same period – the continuities are striking.[ii]  For to manage an organisation is to accept the assumptions on which it is run; this is part of the conditioning in one’s assent to the top.

Earlier in the review Rich asks why things have gone so badly for Obama; and with his popularity plummeting he asks, balancing out his successes with his failures, what can he do about it.  He suggests some practical alternatives (less bi-partisanship, different personnel...).  This is the wrong approach.  Obama has failed in the eyes of the public because their expectations about him were raised too high.  How much he is responsible for this is debateable.  Chomsky early on described Obama as a “blank slate”, where all hopes and illusions could be inscribed.[iii]  However, right from the start of the presidential campaign Chomsky was clear that Obama was a centrist Democrat, who would continue the policies and approach of the second Bush term, that was less extreme that the first.  The voters misled themselves.

A lot of people are disillusioned with politics, over which they appear to have no control; correctly if we count high politics as it exists in the West today.  Since the introduction of universal suffrage immense efforts have been made to isolate the population from the central decisions of government, to take the democracy out of democracy, and this has been highly successful; but at a price: anger and apathy.  This is particularly striking in the United States where this process has probably gone the furthest.  There is a way to change this.  Exactly the same way that the vote was first won: mass, collective action.   To build alternative institutions and movements, strengthen the radical bias of the Trades Unions, to take on power with power.[iv]  But this requires work and understanding…  Far easier to let someone else do it; sitting back in your armchair, inside a fantasy that a single man can save the country.  Thus we had the Obama phenomenon.  It testifies both to the weakness and the laziest of the public.

Politics is hardly a rational pursuit, though we have to careful...  Its bureaucratic operations, the strategic planning and policy options, the political trade-offs and the management of special interests, are all highly thought out and reasoned; and to a large degree impervious to the ideologies and characters of the leading politicians.  However, in the management of parties, and the mobilisation of public opinion, politicians have to appeal to the feelings and prejudices of its members and target audience; it has to create myths and enact rituals.  Few people stay with a Labour or Conservative party for purely instrumental reasons, [v] they will have a profound connection to it, as a believer to their church, which sustains them, often through a lifetime. Thus a populist politician, or a messianic campaign, which is what Obama’s became, is not going to be judged on simple cost/benefit terms; on whether he has filled this or that promise.  No!  He will be judged on the big picture: to what degree he has transformed Washington inside the Beltway.  In Rich’s review there is a moment of unintended comedy.

Politi.Fact.com, a database on the St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact-checking of the 2008 campaign, had catalogued 502 promises that Obama made during the campaign.  At the one-year mark the totals showed that he had already kept 91 of them and made progress on another 285.  The database’s “Obameter” rated 14 promises as “broken” and 87 as “stalled.”  With promises ranging from “Remove more brush and vegetation that fuel wildfires” to “Establish a playoff system for college football,” Politi.Fact selected 25 as Obama’s most significant.  Of those, an impressive 20 were “kept” or “in the works.”

Is this what people expected!  Of course, the insane expectations that were generated in the pro-Obama camp have affected his opponents.  Made into the new FDR (maybe even the new Martin Luther King) by his friends; his enemies believe them.[vi]  And Fox News, Limbaugh, and the rest of the fanatic Right, respond to this, creating the absurdity that he is some radical socialist.[vii]  He is condemned on both fronts for something he isn’t, and never intended to be.  The world of high politics is very much like Falles in Valencia.  Outsize and outlandish characters existing only until the festivities are over.  And the media encourages this, for it wants excitement and intrigue, and big personalities fighting it out, to keep its itself and its audiences entertained; thus the popularity of Blair.  The nitty-gritty of policy implementation is not going to have much influence here.  Like introducing a peace pamphlet into a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

The article is particularly interesting because of the unstated assumptions on which is based; and which in part are a good corrective for one that doesn’t share them. For in the minutiae of daily political life it shows the influence of personality and character:

Obama’s praise of Ronald Reagan for having “changed the trajectory of American politics” in a Nevada newspaper interview was not some idle riff but a calculated stunt…. He knew his reference to Reagan would be “like waving a red cape in front of the Clintons” and provoke an embarrassing overreaction – as indeed it did, in the form of over-the-top ads that were widely ridiculed.

References to Obama’s intellect and those of his followers shows what’s involved in the idolisation of today’s leaders: smartness is seen as the virtue; as lineage or battlefield prowess in previous centuries.  Rich correctly qualifies this, pointing to the limitations of believing cleverness alone can validate one’s actions.  Just saying I’m smart, isn’t enough.  So Obama saying that he had the BP oil spill under control because a Nobel laureate is the energy secretary is not going to have much effect (it is laughable really), unless the situation is seen to be actually under control.[viii]  The fact that Obama gave this as a reason is highly illuminating – he really does worship intellect.  Though of course in politics intelligence is not that important, indeed it may even be a handicap.[ix]  This belief may also account for some of his unpopularity: not many people like the clever and sophisticated, especially when it is flaunted pubicly. Moreover, these attributes are often linked to one’s social class, as Rich notes in passing:

In his books, he down-played the more elite parts of his own resume – the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia and Harvard – but he is nevertheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process.”

Privileges come in more than one form of course.  Think of the bright Jewish kids from first generation American families who benefited from a literate culture, going back centuries. But where do these “top-drawer professionals” come from?  Mostly from wealthy and elite families, who can afford the rich schools, and who provide the cultural and educational background that stimulates intellectual achievement.  And who are these professionals?   Are they really the “best and the brightest”, the most talented of their generation, or are they simply intelligent people who, because of their demeanour and class background, conform to the culture and demands of the multi-national corporation and Federal government?  The United States is a class-based society, which has a limited meritocracy that while allowing a small minority to rise from the bottom right to the top condemns the majority to gross inequality.  In such a system the educationally poor will find it even harder to compete.  And people know this, instinctively.  It’s what feeds the culture wars, and the antipathy to the “eastern establishment.”

The key element of this repackaging [of a class war, that would be against both the Republican and Democrat elites, to a culture war which is only against the Democrats] is the notion of a “liberal elite.”  The idea has taken may forms over the years… but in its basic outlines the grievance has remained the same.  Our culture and our schools and our government, backlashers insist, are controlled by an overeducated ruling class that is contemptuous of the beliefs and practices of the masses of ordinary people.  Those who run America, the theory holds, are despicable, self-important show-offs.  They are effete, to use a favourite backlash term.  They are arrogant.  They are snobs.  They are liberals.  (Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with America?)[x]

The very attributes that Obama cultivates are the very things that “ordinary” Americans hate…  Is it any wonder his popularity ratings are low?  Of course, a significant part of this culture war is manufactured to enshrine wealth and privilege, with different sectors of the economy competing for power and  influence (elections are not so much about people’s votes, but about distribution of rewards to different corporate actors; thus Obama’s tendency towards Wall Street, reflecting his campaign funding).[xi]  But once myths and images and created, and are pushed by powerful institutions, they can become captivating….  So once, after the initial flurry, and the wild hopes, the curtain lifts and…  Barack Obama is another Bill Clinton!   No wonder people are furious.



[i] Life-saving hospital equipment and 999 services in London face total breakdown on January 1 2000.’ (Evening Standard)… 
Nick Davis in Flat Earth News has some very pertinent things to say about this.
‘As it turned out, we know very little of what really happened on that long-awaited night.  That is, in part, of course, because very little did…  Across the world it was the same non-story…  [and one] reason why we know so little about what really happened that night: most of those journalists who worked late in search of the promised catastrophe wrote nothing at all about the great non-story…’
[ii] The invasion of Haiti in 1915; the removal of Mossadegh in Iran in 1954, Allende in Chile 1972, and Saddam Hussein in 2003…  a tiny sample.  And here is J.K. Galbraith writing in 1967 on the large corporation:
‘The most requirement of effective planning is large size.  This… allows the firm to accept market uncertainty where it cannot be eliminated; to eliminate markets on which otherwise it would be excessively dependent; to control other markets in which it buys and sells; and it is very nearly indispensable for participation in that part of the economy, characterised by exacting technology and comprehensive planning, where the only buyer is the federal government.’
Compare with today, with a few firms each in each sector controlling the global market, and where there is uncertainty, based on massive risk, they are deemed “too big to fail,” and are underwritten by the government.  For the corporation this eliminates risk entirely.
[iii] The Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the most extreme example – even Obama himself seems to have been bemused by the offer.
[iv] Murray Kempton’s narrative on the Pullman Porters shows what can be achieved; even by some of the weakest segments of a society.
[v] Those that do are probably corrupt.
[vi] See Democracy Now! for Newt Gingrich’s comments on Obama as a type of Kenyan anti-colonial revolutionary.  Typically they give their own spin, interviewing a real anti-colonial Kenyan: Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  His comments on the settler societies of Africa are thought provoking in their implications for the Palestinians; which he doesn’t mention. In each case independence was won with armed struggle.  Sylvain Cypel in his book Walled makes a number of comparisons with Algeria (not surprising given his French background), but this may be a more useful analogy than the South African one.  It also highlights the problem – unlike these earlier liberation movements they can’t win militarily.
[vii] An interesting historical parallel, of a false image created which people attack ferociously, is Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Peace Process.  Oslo was designed to ensure that Israel kept the Occupied Territories – Arafat set up as a Palestinian Quisling.  However, in order sell Oslo to the Israeli majority and the Palestinians, Rabin and the government had to pretend they were creating an independent Palestinian state; even though pronouncements by Rabin himself showed that this was not his intention. The PR campaign became mistaken for the real thing (and was cynically used by politicians like Netanyahu and Sharon), leading eventually to Rabin’s assassination.
[viii] The comment is also interesting because of how it mixes up two opposite tendencies: the religious and the rational.  Here intelligence is treated as a faith.  Yet the belief in intelligence, and particularly in problem solving and analysis, modes of thought that themselves are not religious, undercuts this very belief; because of its instrumental nature.  The public want a prophet, but you give them a technician, who improves artificial knee joints, and safety in cars… The public want the big picture; you give them tiny fragments.
[ix] The Labour government in the 1960s was one of the smartest in history, yet was racked by crisis and indecision; and did the occasional “smart move”  (like Wilson’s broadcast saying the devaluation the pound wouldn’t affect the pound in people’s pocket), which backfired.  In politics stupidity may even be a benefit. Sometimes to act is sufficient, but take a long time thinking about it and you create the impression of weakness and incompetence.  Gordon Brown?   Compare his performance when he first became Prime Minister, and the decision over whether to go for an election, and Thatcher’s Falklands campaign, by all reckoning an incredible folly.  Yet hardly a hesitation, even though her career was on the line, and the outcome was not certain.
[x] Later he has an interesting analysis of abortion and its political repercussions:  “Roe v. Wadecemented forever a stereotype of liberalism as a doctrine of a tiny clique of experts, an unholy combination of doctors and lawyers, of bureaucrats and professionals, securing their “reforms by judicial command rather than by democratic consensus.’
[xi] Downplaying the influence of the financial institutions on Obama’s policies Rich’s comment on this is telling: Obama doesn’t necessary like the banksters from Wall Street, and he has got annoyed over their bonuses, and their downplaying of the role of the Federal bailout.  This is his proof! As if feelings come into it!  You work for a large company, and the bosses give you a hard time, with no pay increases and longer hours, yet you continue to work there.  Are you supposed to like them too?

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