Why Obama is Wrong Even When He's Right

It’s amusing to see Hilary Clinton and John McCain blasting Barack Obama for his remarks explaining why despair and bitterness over the way economic elites have marginalised them economically and politically have motivated large portions of the working class to vote for politicians and issues which are utterly contrary to their economic self-interest: “It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.”

It’s less amusing to see Obama backtracking now with his claim that “I didn’t say it as well as I should have.”

While Obama got it wrong on free trade — Chicago School free trade fanaticism has been a potent weapon for extracting surplus value from working people internationally by breaking unions and depressing wages, and people are justifiably angered about it — he got it right about the basis on which large elements of the American working class embrace right-wing causes and politicians who serve the interests of the economic elite rather than working people. There are two fundamental explanatory principles here.

First, as an insightful nineteenth-century political economist put it, religion is the opiate of the masses. There is a direct correlation internationally and in the U.S. between the degree of economic pain which globalisation and other forms of primitive accumulation against labour have imposed and the rise in the prevalence of fundamentalist religiosity since the late 1970s. The rise of the Religious Right and their issues in American politics, and their attraction to elements of the working class, are directly tied to this. When it looks like nothing can be done because the system is owned lock, stock, and barrel by an economic elite who profit from gutting your union, shipping your job to a Chinese slave-labour factory, plundering your pension fund, and dropping your health care, people get religion. And right-wing politicians play on this to keep working people from effectively opposing the underlying economic causes by focusing on gay marriage, abortion, and other social issues. It’s called creating false consciousness.

Second, it is a well-known phenomenon that in the absence of a class-conscious, well-organised, effective democratic left the exacerbation of economic oppression will produce support for the Right among working people. It happened in Weimar Germany when German social democracy dithered while working-class voters divided themselves between the Nazis and the KPD. It’s not surprising that the Bush administration’s penchant for corporatist-fascist ideology and the nativist Right’s racialist agenda have confused working people into supporting positions which help the economic elite keep power. We haven’t had a serious democratic left in this country since the Great Depression (some people might argue that we’ve never had a serious democratic left in the way European countries have).

I see nothing in Obama’s original remarks — the reference to ”anti-trade sentiment” aside — which isn’t entirely defensible.

In fact, it would have been refreshing as hell to have heard Obama respond to Clinton that eight years of her and her husband selling out the Democratic Party working-class base, trying to abolish the New Deal, blocking a single-payer national health care system on behalf of their buddies in the insurance industry, and triangulating on making the Gingrich agenda on everything but abortion the DLC agenda, while stuffing corporate cash into their pockets as fast as they could raise it (confirmed by their joint tax returns since leaving office), have led a lot of working people to despair about politics and embrace right-wing social and religious issues.

But that isn’t going to happen, largely because the principal difference between Obama and Clinton is that he hasn’t been around long enough to get his snout into the corporate trough as deeply as the Clintons, but he has hopes with his millionaire fundraisers. So he backtracks.

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4 Comments

  1. JohnMc says:

    “I see nothing in Obama’s original remarks — the reference to ”anti-trade sentiment” aside — which isn’t entirely defensible.“

    How blind can you be? Your assessment is as condescending as what Obama made originally. Obama is a Seagull — He flies into a State, eats their guests food, feigns interest in their concerns then s*#%s all over them. Or put another way. Obama is auditioning for a job and his employer is the American people. Do you seriously think anyone has a solid chance of getting the job if they are telling the interviewer that their fly is open and they have bad breath?

    I find it interesting that you reference Karl Marx as such an astute understanding of the masses. Considering that his economic policies have been shown to be reasonably discredited; why make the assumption that his views on religion are any more valid?

    ”Second, it is a well-known phenomenon that in the absence of a class-conscious, well-organised, effective democratic left the exacerbation of economic oppression will produce support for the Right among working people.”

    Possibly you have the cart before the horse. The desire to go to the Right since the last century has been the result of the oppressive polices of those extracted by the Left. Stalin, Mao, Mugabe are all shining examples of collectivist classism being a utter disaster both economically and personally.

    Finally, as most of the world enters a post industrial society the 19th and 20th century hierarchal capitalist structures are crumbling. Ideas are trumping Cash in many sectors. The ability to produce product of any description is reaching the level of the individual again. The ills that Marx protrayed are dissolving. Obama is preparing to apply Keynesian solutions to an economic situation that will not even be applicable in another 20 years.

  2. Greg says:

    Not, I fear, as blind as you.

    I dispute absolutely that Marx’s analysis of the fundamental nature of capitalism has been discredited whatsoever. Your references to Stalin, Mao and Mugabe suggest that you are confusing Leninist political organisation with Marx’s analysis of capitalist economics. The Leninist insistence on the highly-centralised vanguard party has been discredited, but not Marx’s central economic analysis.

    And there’s the troubling fact that life does involve trade-offs. I despise Stalinism, but if it weren’t for primitive accumulation for industrial development from forced collectivisation of agriculture under Stalin, Europe would be lying with Hitler’s successor’s boot across its throat. It was the Red Army and the T-34s those factories built in the 1930s which battled its way through 90% of Nazi Germany’s armed forces from Moscow to Berlin. This is an example of why the historical analysis underlying your remarks is simplistic.

    The desire to go to the Right has been the result of the oppressive policies of the Left? So, Fascism and Nazism were just reactions to Bolshevism? This isn’t the place to recite all of it, but there is a huge literature on the origins of the various strains of right-wing thought in the U.S. and Europe which calls this kind of simply-mindedness into very serious question.

    You last paragraph suggests to me that your background is in the sort of small artisan model that many computer programmers who freelance around start-ups seem to embrace. It’s charming in a kind of late-medieval-guildcraft way, but it so completely misunderstands how the real international economy works that it’s difficult to know where to begin to respond.

  3. JohnMc says:

    Since there is no historical or existing example of the Marxist economic state and those that were attempted did so in the belief that the collectivism was the true path your assessment lacks credibility.

    “…It was the Red Army and the T-34s those factories built in the 1930s which battled its way through 90% of Nazi Germany’s…”

    Simplistic maybe, but your facts are in error. Yes the Russians faced the brunt of the Nazi army. But the first T-34 rolled off the line in 1940 in a industrial city outside of Yoshkar-Ola. Been there. Nor were most any of the factories of the ’30s of much use. New ones had to be built further West as those east of Moscow had fallen into German hands. During the period of the 30’s Stalin was decimating the officer corps in a series of purges. Which was the reason that the first German assault was so successful.

    The discernable difference between Nazism and Bolshevism were minor and were both of the Left.

    Actually no. Yes I have a software engineering degree. But I have spent the last 20 years in the Telcom industry in a Fortune 10, up and down the corporate ladder. I am also fully cognizant of international economics. Guildcraft? No, considering their claim to viable economics was based on information suppression. The fact is the massive corporate structure is insufficiently nimble enough to identify, assess and fulfill the needs of a pluggable service economy.

  4. John says:

    Am I the only one who thinks terms like “left” and “right” have become pretty meaningless when National Socialism is called “of the left”?

    Going back to Greg’s original thesis about how, in the absence of another organizing rubric, people turn to traditionalism and fundamentalism when their cultures are under assault from too-rapid change–well, that’s nearly a testable hypothesis. And I think it’s pretty well established. I certainly remember learning about the Ghost Dance and Cargo Cult phenomena in my undergraduate anthropology classes.

    Hierarchal capitalist structures may or may not be crumbling, but they sure did one heck of a wealth-transfer over the last thirty years from the “working man” to the “financial elite”.

    I would think that after the Bear Stearns rescue we would all be able to acknowledge what the “free market” fig leaf had pretended to hide.

    I also think that what Obama said is refreshing.

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