Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 22, 2010

Obama’s betrayal of the working class

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

Once again I am compelled to crosspost a remarkable piece:

Published on The New York Observer (http://www.observer.com)

Obama’s Betrayal of the Working Class

Obama’s Betrayal of the Working Class

As voters ponder the curious failure of the ruling Democratic Party even to pursue meaningful economic relief for millions of desperate and jobless Americans, it might be useful to recall certain passages from President Obama’s best-selling campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope. Of particular interest is a chapter titled “Opportunity,” wherein the ambitious senator discusses his thoughts about the challenges facing the American economy. The chapter is classic Obama and reveals a great deal about his transcendental mojo. It is still the most complete statement of our dear leader’s economic philosophy, such as it is.

The scene is early 2005. Shortly after an exciting visit to the headquarters of Google, where Mr. Obama benefited from the insights of Larry and Sergey, “two of the richest people on earth,” the freshman senator drove down to Galesburg, Illinois–as it happens the very same working-class town that he had featured in his celebrated 2004 convention speech–where a Maytag plant was due to be shut down, leaving 1,600 employees out of work, so that operations could be “shifted” to Mexico. The set piece thus introduced was a political cliché; the only question was what moral would be drawn from this parable of senatorial glad-handing.

“You’ll get little argument these days,” Mr. Obama writes, “from either the left or the right, with the notion that we’re going through a fundamental economic transformation.” Ah, yes, it’s true: Like pilgrims, we are passing through a dark valley, menaced by economic forces that we can only dimly comprehend. What are these forces? “Advances.” Advances, he tells us, are causing disruptions, “advances in digital technology, fiber optics, the Internet, satellites, and transportation.” These “advances” have “leveled the economic barriers between countries and continents.”

Notice how impersonal these advances are. Where did they come from? How did they get here? No one knows! And these advances are not alone; they are joined by “pools of capital.” Where did the pools come from? Did they cause the advances or did the advances cause the pools? These pools, he said, were scouring the earth, aided and abetted by “a few keystrokes,” searching for the best returns. How dreadful, how sad, that those Maytag workers down in Galesburg were suffering from the effects of those pools and advances. But take comfort, for these pools and advances, aided by keystrokes and a “flatter” world, scouring the planet for returns, are bringing “significant benefits to American consumers.” Ah, benefits. Everyone loves benefits. What kind of benefits have the pools and advances brought us?

“Peaches in winter,” Mr. Obama tells us, and big-screen televisions.

Yet Mr. Obama reminds us that all is not well. In addition to the tasteless winter peaches and those big flat-screen televisions, the advances and the pools have caused problems. Don’t forget those unhappy soon-to-be-downsized workers in Galesburg. They are proof that the advances and pools have “greatly increased economic instability for millions of ordinary Americans.” So, on the one hand, we have Larry and Sergey at Google, who know how to handle the advances and the pools, and on the other we have millions of ordinary Americans like those workers down in Galesburg, who face a “future of low-wage service work, with few benefits,” but lots of winter peaches, “and the risk of financial ruin in the event of an illness, and the inability to save for either retirement or a child’s college education.”

What is to be done? In what follows, Mr. Obama presents a dizzying series of hands–on the one and then the other, repeatedly, like some hyper-discursive, blue-skinned Hindu deity–and contrasts the dominant faction of the Democratic Party, which embraces the new economy of advancing pools, with “a sizable chunk” of the Democratic base that resists their agenda. So it’s the pools versus the chunk. The pools and their friends, the advances, point to “high-value, high-wage jobs.” Meanwhile, the sizable chunk (yes, she could afford to lose a few pounds) waits an hour for the bus after she clocks out of work at the big Wal-Mart superstore on the edge of town and finally gets home around 10 p.m. to find her son eating Doritos and watching porn videos on the bedroom computer–while her daughter in the living room taps out text messages on her cell phone as she watches American Idol on the flat-screen TV. Contemplating this scene, our sizable chunk of a low-wage worker just looks at the bowl of peaches on her kitchen table and wonders if maybe she’d rather have a better job.

Senator Obama did not consider this. Instead, after presenting a potted history of America’s rise as a great economic power, our fresh-faced political pilgrim ends up sitting at the feet of Robert Rubin, the sage of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, who tells his young grasshopper that if the American people will just continue to trust in the supreme wisdom of the advances and the pools, he was “cautiously optimistic” that all will be well. And so it came to pass that Mr. Obama shifted his own job to the White House and populated his administration with Mr. Rubin’s disciples, who ministered to the pools in their hour of need. As for the sizable chunk, she’ll just have to be patient. If all goes well, perhaps her children can look forward to a better life.

Mr. Hodge, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, out next month, from which this essay is adapted.

Source URL: http://www.observer.com/2010/opinion/obamas-betrayal-working-class


  1. “transcendental mojo” – that made me chuckle – a number of times I’ve seen stuff on the internet portraying Obama as hindu deity (benevolent not destroyer)- what a magickal fellow he is! even his name sounds like a new-age mantra
    When I lived in New Orleans, I remember there was a self-described “Marxist-Leninist” who frequently commented on local politics in the local papers like the “Gambit” on the subject of the need to keep the low-wage local yokels low-wage and ignint to furnish the city with low wage workers under administrations that were run by black democrats. Large pools of $ were supposedly cycled into various “programs” to benefit the low wagers. Obama reminds me of Mike Morial that way – you’ll never convince the true believers that his mojo has nothing (for them) up his sleeve. I don’t think it’s a conscious conspiracy to keep the lumpenproles and Walmart masses satiated with doritos and large screens, but it does help keep them unthinking and dull. By the way, I used to be one of those Walmart wage-slaves – they’ll hire anybody (it’s only the liberal middle-classes who can afford not to shop there on the basis of ethics.

    Comment by marc — September 22, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  2. [“it’s only the liberal middle-classes who can afford not to shop there on the basis of ethics.”]

    Marc’s got a point there.

    Here’s another point. Obama cannot be guilty of “betrayal of the working class” since that would imply that at some point he pledged loyalty to them.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 22, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

  3. I agree with Karl in principle, but I think it is good thing nevertheless that the intelligentsia is making some concessions to a class analysis.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 22, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

  4. a “betrayal” assumes that a promise or commitment was originally made

    in the case of Obama, he was pretty clear, if you paid attention, that he was a neoliberal

    while displaying a remarkable lack of urgency when it came to unemployment, he spent campaign time promoting the bailout of Wall Street in October 2008

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 22, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  5. Good point Richard. Too bad the ISO, as the largest sane far-left group, didn’t see it that way from the get go. Or now for that matter. In today’s Socialist Worker they still have the audacity to claim that “In the early stages of this (the economic) crisis, Barack Obama and the Democrats seemed to represent an alternative.” Alternative to who and for what? Certainly not to socialists (or even populists like Ralph Nader) who knew better…simply from listening to what Obama wrote, said or did in the Senate. For Wall Street and the Pentagon more likely. What better “alternative” to bail them out without arousing the ire of the working class and the poor and at the same time give their empire a badly needed face lift. Of course, the ISO knows this as well as we do, but they’re not going to admit that they made a big mistake in tailing after his internet fan club “mass movement.”

    Comment by Roy Rollin — September 22, 2010 @ 10:42 pm


    Comment by Marcel — September 23, 2010 @ 12:13 am

  7. You don’t get promoted within the US meritocracy unless you subscribe to certain principles. Obama has been groomed from the moment he landed his first ‘gig’ as a scholarship student at Punahou School. He has been and always will be a symbol of how ‘open and tolerant’ the U.S. is, and also – therefore – how ‘lazy and shiftless’ the unappreciative working class is, most especially the Black and Mexican working class. Note that one of Obama’s favorite activities seems to be going to a black college, or organization, and berating black people for low educational achievement etc..You can’t irradiate a system rotten to the core as you would supermarket hamburger, to make it edible, no matter how many Obama’s are trotted out on stage.

    By the way, Walmart employs at least 1% of the U.S. population so I wouldn’t just throw all their workers into the ‘lumpen’ category. In many towns it’s literally the only place to work.

    Comment by purple — September 23, 2010 @ 2:52 am

  8. Lou’s right re: “the intelligentsia is making some concessions to a class analysis” but it’s not like they’ve got much choice considering the objective reality of this profound and deeply intractable world historic crisis which, without a viable trade union movement, let alone a viable left, portends an odious future of stampeding petite bourgeoisie and superstitious nuttiness like Palin et al. I mean this guy Hodge is doing little more than echoing the talking points of Arianna Huffington’s new book about the destruction of the middle class and the 3rd Worlding of America, which are hardly novel insights.

    On the other hand, and this is the only silver lining to be gleened today, if there were a really viable trade union & left movement amidst this profound a capitalist crisis then certainly (per Trotsky, Proyect & myself) the ruling class in this country, so-called democratic traditions be damned, would be actively organizing, fomenting and funding a Nazi like fascism so reactionary & militaristic that blogs like this would be shut down & posters rounded up and arrested as treasonous subversives.


    Roy: Unfortunately although they may be relatively large, the ISO is clearly disqualified from being “sane” when they seriously imagined that some Harvard Educated Black guy from the South side of Chicago, historically one of the most segregated cities on the planet, whose first major vote in the Senate was to side decisively with the most criminally usurious credit card banks in the history of the universe, against the most onerously indebted populous in human history, arguably outstripping all previous forms of debt peonage, including ShareCropping and Company Stores, had anything more than neoliberal austerity measure of yore in store for the ever increasingly immiserated wage slaves at home and abroad.

    In fact Roy’s whole post makes crystal clear, point by point, that the ISO is politically completely bankrupt, yet they’re somehow deemed “sane” despite such abject political blunders. They’re failure to grasp and ADMIT this disasterous mistake clearly spells their ultimate demise and historical irrelevancy, akin to those “progressives” who campaigned for McGovern during Vietnam.

    Foreign policy can only be an extension of domestic policy. The same class that makes foreign policy makes domestic policy. Only deluded fools cannot see this. If Obama’s campaign promise was to increase the forces of death, destruction and misery for the peasants in Afghanistan, isn’t it abjectly insane the notion that he could somehow improve the lot of the workers at home?

    Rail all you want about that allegedly “insane” small group like WWP, which often takes it over the top in their missionary zeal but yet manage to consistently get 10,000 or more bodies on barricades in the streets every quarter for one or more righteous causes, from Haiti, and El Salvador, to Cuba, Palestine and Afghanistan, and to their credit they never in their press ever gave an iota of confidence in the ability of some hand-picked DNC cretin like Obama to do anything more than what they’ve done the last 100 years, namely, prosecute every major imperialist shooting war, and then side with the ruling class & forces of reaction at every critical juncture.

    Cowards the Democrats are viewed as by 8 out of 10 workers. That’s why they so often vote Rebublican because the Republicans at least are far more adept at hiding their cowardice, albeit not so much their hypocrisy.

    Turns out Nader was infinitely wiser than the ISO about who to trust in the last 3 Presidential elections, as was the WWP. I’d rather see a small group of professional revolutionaries, genuinely dedicated & self-sacrificing Iskra Agents with superior organizing skills, stick it out against all odds on Leninist principles that might appear alienating at first (Lenin’s self-determintaion for minorities was after all extremely alienating to prejudiced Russian workers steeped in Great Russian Chauvinism) than a large unprincipled ecclectic hodge-podge of a group like the ISO that let themselves be given shit & then get shoved into it like inglorious bastards.

    True enough this dichotomy is what Lou argues cats like Camejo wanted to overcome, but lets face it, the ISO has led their Org into a blind alley that even a libertarian like Nader has principles enough to reject.

    That’s why I voted for Nader in every election that he ran in where the WWP wasn’t on the ballot. At least Nader, unlike every mainstream politician in US history except for Eugene V. Debs, is in my opinion one of those rare human beings organically incapable of lying.

    Bottom line is while I admire the ISO’s attempt to recruit youth, something they’ve been relatively successful at, their politics vis-a-vis electoral politics is full of shit, being objectively just to the left of outfits like MOVE-ON.ORG, and as such has ultimately been a boon to principled Leninist groups like the WWP who reiterate the stubborn fact that Democracy has never prevented a single war.

    While some disillusined ISOers might get pushed to the right by disillusionment, some get pushed to the left, and that’s where the only hope of a future for the working class lies.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 23, 2010 @ 3:49 am

  9. Why the sudden shock? No less a capitalist mouthpiece than The Wall Street Journal admitted Obama’s presidency would simply be Bush’s third term before the 2008 election even occurred.

    Comment by The Idiot — September 23, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  10. Karl: Nader is small time capitalist politician and a well known union buster. What kind of “alternative” is that?

    And as for the WWP never putting faith in people like Obama, perhaps you’ll remember the frontpage headline of their paper after the election: “Millions in street seal Obama victory!”

    And a few years earlier they were throwing all their support behind Evo Morales, the middle class politician who rode to power by stepping over a genuine workers rebellion: “The indigenous peoples of Bolivia, dispossessed and poor, proudly attained the nation’s presidency for the first time ever on Dec. 18. After more than a century of their social and economic exclusion by U.S. transnational corporations, in cahoots with the country’s oligarchy, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) was elected president.”

    And don’t forget their (ongoing) open support of Charles Barron and Cynthia McKinney.

    Comment by The Idiot — September 23, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  11. Idiot:

    First of all we were comparing the ISO’s alleged “sanity” compared to the WWP’s alleged “insanity” — so my point still stands.

    The fact is millions were in the streets sealing Obama’s victory and their headlines simply reported that fact. When millions are in the streets that’s something for the left to pay attention to. Nowehere did that Party or their organ advocate voting for the schmuck, let alone fantasize about him being the next FDR. There’s no perfect Party and if that’s all you can muster as a critique then you’ve only buttressed my point.

    There’s far worse lunacy on the left than having a soft spot for Evo Morales or Cynthia McKinney.

    Sounds like you’re looking for a group that can consistently get mass demos organized on a shoestring budget that’s actually to the LEFT of the WWP. Good luck with that. Reminds me of The Last Spart, you know, the nit picking abstentionist who never met an anti-war protest he liked, let alone marched in.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 23, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  12. Karl: When did I ever say that WWP was “insane?” Or did you just somehow deduce it, “dialectically,” no doubt.

    Just for the record, I’ve marched with WWP on countless ocassions and supported them (and PSL/ANSWER as well) vs. Cagan and Co. in every war since 1991…especially in 1999 over Yugoslavia,. when the ISO had to get instructions from the British SWP on US imperialism being the main enemy, not Slobo and “Serb Stalinism”. Indeed, the college paper I ran at the time, the Staten Island College Voice, was probably one of their only left allies over that issue, Chetniks and Michael Parenti aside. I would still take them anyday of the week over the ISO since WWP doesn’t have to wait for Cagan (or some other rad-libs) to move before they opppose imperialism. And let’s not forget their stupid “state capitalist” that has them attacking Fidel Castro more than they do Obama.

    Nonetheless, I agree with “Idiot”…millions were in the streets in Germany in 1914 (many, of not most of them, Socialists and trade unionists) supporting the Kaiser’s war. Should Rosa and Karl have been there too? Sometimes you have to be willing to take an unpopular stand.

    Comment by Roy Rollin — September 23, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

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