Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 6, 2009

Norman Solomon: there’s no there there

Filed under: antiwar,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm
Norman Solomon

Not a day goes by without some left-liberal taking Obama to task for either warmongering abroad or cozying up to Wall Street billionaires at home. Their information is often very useful but when it comes to analyzing why Obama does what he does no matter what liberals write, there’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said about her hometown Oakland.

The latest example of this is Norman Solomon’s article in the latest Counterpunch, titled “The Democrats and the Afghan War: Meet the New Escalators“. Taking off his gloves and showing no mercy, Solomon writes about what some people are beginning to regard as Obama’s Vietnam:

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times of London reported that U.S. drone attacks along the Afghan-Pakistani border on Saturday killed “foreign militants” and “women and children” — while Pakistani officials asserted that “American drone attacks on the border . . . are causing a massive humanitarian emergency.” The newspaper says that “as many as 1 million people have fled their homes in the Tribal Areas to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army.”

After neatly dismantling Obama’s excuses for intervening in what he calls Pakeestan, Solomon reveals what the liberal-left has up its sleeves if the president doesn’t straighten up and fly right:

For those already concerned about Obama’s re-election prospects, such war realities may seem faraway and relatively abstract. But escalation will fracture his base inside the Democratic Party. If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace.

Is Norman Solomon out of his mind, or what? Activists have about as much of a chance of transforming the Democratic Party into a “party for peace” as I do in winning the next American Idol contest. My wife, who has heard me singing in the shower, can back me up on this. It is particularly shocking to hear this kind of reformist claptrap at a time when the Democratic Party has demonstrated its true colors in defiance of the people who voted for its candidates.

There is open discussion in the mass media about the clear class divide between the people who run the party and the voters. Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor, described how “the ruling class” views the chumps who vote for their politicians:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are.  Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.

He goes on to include himself as part of this ruling class.

As the financial crisis deepens, there will be more and more discussion about the 800 pound gorilla that people like Norman Solomon are anxious to ignore. As anger grows over finance capital’s domination of the government, ordinary people will be looking for explanations why the Goldman Sachs of the world get bailed out, while auto workers get screwed. Even members of the ruling class propaganda machine that Evan Thomas belongs to will be pressured into not only calling attention to the gorilla, but warning it to back off. The latest example is former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson’s Atlantic Monthly article titled “The Quiet Coup” that describes the government as a virtual financial oligarchy run by Goldman Sachs and company:

The oligarchy and the government policies that aided it did not alone cause the financial crisis that exploded last year. Many other factors contributed, including excessive borrowing by households and lax lending standards out on the fringes of the financial world. But major commercial and investment banks-and the hedge funds that ran alongside them-were the big beneficiaries of the twin housing and equity-market bubbles of this decade, their profits fed by an ever-increasing volume of transactions founded on a relatively small base of actual physical assets. Each time a loan was sold, packaged, securitized, and resold, banks took their transaction fees, and the hedge funds buying those securities reaped ever-larger fees as their holdings grew.

Given the obvious power of big corporations over the Democratic Party, it is rather disingenuous for Norman Solomon to talk about capturing it from such people and turning it into an instrument of peace or social justice. But you have to remember that Solomon dubbed Ralph Nader “a de facto ally of the current emperor (i.e. Bush)” when he ran as an independent in 2004.

There is a certain naiveté at work in his analysis, as if the divide in the Democratic Party could be resolved through any kinds of activism. What exactly does he have in mind? Lobbying Congress? When you read about Senator Charles Schumer’s wallowing in the troughs of investment banks in the New York Times, you can only conclude that a visit to his office by housing activists et al is a complete waste of time.

Lately I have become more sensitized to the power of big foundations over the wing of the liberal-left movement that Norman Solomon resides in. He founded the Institute of Public Accuracy in 1997 with a $200,000 grant from the Stern Family Fund, a foundation that was spawned from the fortune left by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck. The IPA depends on funding from other such foundations today, including the Stewart Mott Charitable Trust (Mott is a GM heir), the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Wallace Global Fund (from Reader’s Digest). I imagine that all these generous benefactors believe in the need for remedying the abuses of the capitalist system, all the while stopping short of measures that would undermine the system that allows them to fund the IPA as well as penthouses on Fifth Avenue.

I have vivid recollections of Tecnica’s executive director Michael Urmann paying a visit to Stewart Mott in his Fifth Avenue penthouse in 1989 when we trying to get funding for a major expansion of our volunteer program in Southern Africa. Apparently Mott was more interested in watering the plants in his rooftop greenhouse than hearing our spiel. Urmann told me that he thought that Mott held his supplicants in contempt even as he felt validated in writing them the occasional check.

Speaking for myself, I think that our movement would be better off trying to find a way to fund itself through small donations on the Internet rather than relying on liberal foundations especially when they are hardly interested in any kind of structural change that would challenge their funding sources: major corporations.

In doing research lately on George Soros, with an eye to writing a history of Bard College, I keep coming back to Joan Roelofs, the professor emerita of Keen College who wrote “Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism”. In the conclusion of that book she observes quite presciently-considering the fact that it was written during a period of relative prosperity-that foundations are the last defense of a decaying economic system:

The liberal foundations undoubtedly will continue their attempts to fix up the economic system, constructing epicycles if that would prolong capitalism. They, and the World Bank, are well aware of the poverty and inequality that remain even in the richest country. We can expect that nonmarket techniques, such as microcredit, individual development accounts, and subsidized employment, will continue to be piloted by foundations and advocated for full-scale government adoption. It would not be surprising if elites joined the basic income guarantee movement, echoing the “negative income tax” proposal proffered by conservatives in the 1970s.

Ultimately, the 1930s’ proposals for economic planning may be revived and the myth of the “free market” gently laid to rest. In that case, whether we would have fascism, socialism, corporatism, or something else would depend on who is framing and creating new institutions. Compassionate liberals often advance solutions to poverty that require more wasteful and polluting production. At one time, it was thought that the military-industrial complex, without actual war, would provide adequate economic stimulus. It may be that permanent war, which burns surplus faster, will be the winner.


  1. When I read N. Solomon, I am always impressed by his passionate advocacy for peace, against imperialism… then I remember he was an Obama delegate.

    Comment by jp — April 7, 2009 @ 12:58 am

  2. “Barack Obama’s success in the Democratic primaries marked the astounding victory of an insurgent over the establishment candidate.”
    –“The Audacity of Insiders,” The Nation editorial, July 7, 2008

    Not Norman Solomon, just another example of liberal blindness to the economic divide.

    Comment by Can count — April 7, 2009 @ 1:41 am

  3. Soloman says: “If the president insists on leading a party of war, then activists will educate, agitate and organize to transform it into a party for peace.”

    Nevermind this view is anathema To Alexander Cockburn’s, there’s a strange irony in this particular anti-war recipe as it’s almost universal amongst pacisfists, which is ultimately Soloman’s ideology.

    He was 25 and living in Portland when Camejo debated Harrington in 1976 and it makes you think must’ve missed those lessons for the anti-imperialist movement smoking the good weed that’s grown around there?

    Not surprisingly, “In 1999”, according to Wiki, “a collection of Solomon’s columns won the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.”


    Honest & Clarity my ass. There’s always’s been a Democratic Party tail-ending streak in the US inherently pacifist anti-nuke movement as evidenced in regular articles by other kindred authors in “The Nation” — which is the milieu Soloman is most comfortable in.

    This is of course the same Democratic party that vigorously prosecuted EVERY “shooting war” in the 20th Century — Grenada, Panama, and the 1st Gulf War don’t count insofar as only one side was shooting.

    If they really want to make a difference it’d behoove the younger student activists that visit this site to beat that dead horse of DP reformism into dog food already lest their nostriles become immune to the stench of rotten meat — like Solomon’s obviously have.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2009 @ 2:38 am

  4. I haven’t read the whole article, so I’m not addressing it now, but Barack Obama’s pronunciation of Pakistan is actually correct, or more correct, in my estimation. I know Hindi, which is basically orally identical to Urdu with the exception of some words that the latter draws from Persian and Arabic instead of Sanskrit.

    I now return to reading your post.

    Comment by Bhaskar Sunkara — April 7, 2009 @ 6:58 am

  5. The real question is not his pronunciation of words but rather his perfidious deeds that fart in the face of the quadrennially duped “Peace” voters that got him elected — deeds like the escalation of imperialist misadventure in Afghanistan with its squandered billions every month on predator drones, smart bombs, CIA dungeons & consequent “collateral damages” to some of the poorest brown people in the world, nevermind the abject servitude that compels him hand out trillions to the Iron Heel of the financial oligarchy who continue to stomp the US working class while they’re down.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  6. “Peace” voters should have paid more attention to pieces like this one, written months before election. If anything, Obama was more forthright with his objectives than, say, Lyndon Johnson was with his ideas about Vietnam.

    Comment by sk — April 7, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  7. Such forthrightness is some consolation. Evidently Solomon doesn’t read “All the news that’s fit to print”? Like Whitney said in the article linked above: “Voting the Democratic ticket is not a sign of “hope”; it’s a sign of being a schmuck” — which is Proyect’s point.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 7, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

  8. I personally know of very few activists who voted for Obama. I myself, in New York decided on Nader, but I do admit that if I was in a state like North Carolina I would have probably voted begrudgingly for Obama.

    I don’t like that use of terminology though.

    I think calling young people getting political engaged for the first time, and people of color who have been subjected to so much for so long in this country, “schmucks” for choosing to place their faith in Obama’s mantras of “Hope” and “Change” is elitist.

    If the Greens and other forces kept up what they got going in 2000, then maybe there would be enough voters getting disillusioned with both parties that we would see a challenge independent of the 2-party system…. since that isn’t the case any chance of independent political action is going to require getting a tangible percentage of those schmucks on our side.

    Though preaching to an imaginary working-class would be a far easier task.

    Comment by Bhaskar Sunkara — April 8, 2009 @ 4:48 am

  9. The points raised above are very valid ones, although I’ve no doubt that 100% of the voters in the DSA milieu voted for Obama.

    It’s been a recurrent theme over the years in US electoral politics & a distinct quandry for the left in general and class conscious activists in particular.

    But class conscious working people invariably come to understand that an imperialist foreign policy is begotten from a regressive domestic policy.

    That truth is universal.

    One cannot be an oppressor abroad and be a progressive at home. This truism is not impossible for the world’s historically oppressed to internalize, and the confluence of current events make that internalization more likely than anytime since the Vietnam era.

    Despite all the past Chicken Littles proclaiming capitalism’s sky is falling, folks like Louis have discerned something structurally different in the current economic crisis, one that appears truly intractable, particularly since the globe’s climate is also at stake.

    Nobody but reactionaries deny this current crisis is objectively leading to a profoundly renewed immiseration of the working class, and this class is far from “imaginary.” On the contrary, this class is an objective reality, just as objectively real as the financial oligarchy that plunders them.

    Your average Humanities Professor, skeptics that they are, view slave revolts as historically rather rare. Thinkers like Louis would argue that on the contrary, they’re actually quite common.

    Just as was the case during Vietnam, defeat of imperialism abroad leads to the ascendancy of progressive forces at home. With Afghanistan being the historic graveyard of empires, the question becomes what progress will be made in the wake of another bankrupting imperialist quagmire?

    The answer depends partly on the heroic resistance of the brown people being attacked, and partly in the continued support of the brown people backing the attackers. This is a tenuous support at best.

    One thing however remains certain. A military victory for Obama’s policy abroad means a defeat of the working class & all historically oppressed people at home.

    Martin Luther King Jr. came to understand this, just as surely will his successors.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 8, 2009 @ 6:09 am

  10. Here’s another truism that Obama chooses to ignore: If it weren’t for the heroic resistance of the Iraqi people then George W. Bush would be revered today as a genius, much to the chagrin of the progressive forces at home.

    If Cheney got it right we’d probably looking at a 3rd term for Bush a la FDR.

    Imagine where the left’d be today if it weren’t for that heroic resistance of the Iraqis? We’d be hounded by the Gestapo — that’s where we’d be.

    It’s not surprising therefore that one of Lou’s favorite films is “The Battle of Algiers” — which the Bush cabinet actually convened to watch before invading Baghdad (but apparently the morons didn’t grasp?)

    In an ironic sense (which happens from time to time, like when Pat Buchanan nominally joined Seattle’s WTO protesters) there is a brief & tenuous confluence of the left & the right insofar as the failure of Obama’s policies (Wall Street bailouts at home & imperialsit escalation in abroad) can only be a good thing for working people at home, unless one imagines that bombing 3rd Worlders into IMF/World Bank submission will somehow translate into uplifting poor people at home?

    Of course that left/right confluence amounts to about as much as communist revolutionaries & NRA flag wavers both being against gun control.

    If his life wasn’t cut short by cowardly racists I’m convinced by his last speeches that MLK would have led not only the white liberal pascifists but the historically oppressed people of color out of the DEAD END of the Democratic Party.

    That’s the point of departure young student activists need to take when assessing their political future, that the DP is bankrupt.

    It’s a tough nut to be sure, but a nut that must and will be cracked so long as our youthful allies are not corralled by the likes of Norman Solomon into the blind alley of the Democratic Party as the potential party of Peace & Justice.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 8, 2009 @ 7:07 am

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