Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 11, 2010

From The Mendacity of Hope

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 11:35 pm

The warning signs that perhaps Barack Obama was not what he claimed to be were there from the beginning, though many thoughtful Americans were blinded by their hopes, carried away by their animus against the hated Bush. When Obama arrived in Washington in 2005, he immediately set about organizing a conventional corporate machine. Even a cursory glance at the profile of Obama’s campaign contributors could not fail to worry those who were enchanted by his clean-government rhetoric. His top collective donor, classified by employment affiliation, in the 2003-2004 cycle was the University of Chicago—which is no surprise given his background and connections with that institution. Nor should this shock anyone familiar with the tawdry history of earmarks and other legislative pork that have flowed to universities over the years. Obama’s second most generous investor was the law firm Kirkland and Ellis, whose lobbying clients include the Chicago Board of Trade and the Futures Industry Association, a Chicago-based association representing the derivatives industry, whose board is populated by executives at firms such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase. Henry Crown and Company, his third-ranking donor during that election cycle, is an investment firm that owns stakes in the Chicago Bulls, JPMorgan Chase, real estate ventures, as well as biotechnology and defense contracting. Fourth was Sidley Austen LLP, a law firm and lobby shop representing pharmaceutical, biotech, finance, and real estate firms such as MasterCard, General Electric, Monsanto, Caterpillar, Bayer AG, and the American Bankers Association. Another important donor was the Exelon Corporation, a large utility company that owns and operates the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the country (and the third-largest such nuclear portfolio in the world). Its ten power plants and seventeen reactors represent 20 percent of U.S. nuclear power capacity. From 2004 to 2009, Exelon spent more than $17 million in lobbying efforts, and several Exelon executives are among Obama’s top fund-raisers. Other major contributors were the law firm Sonnenschein, Nath, and Rosenthal; Goldman Sachs; and JPMorgan Chase. Another investor was the law firm Skadden Arps, whose many lobbying clients include prominent financial firms (Citigroup, Fidelity), military contractors (Lockheed Martin), insurance groups, energy companies, and oil companies. Attorneys at Skadden Arps also raised money for the campaign.

We also know that Obama aligned himself early on with the political economics of Robert Rubin, a former top executive of both Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, whom he first met during his senatorial campaign. This connection was made evident in Obama’s hiring of Karen Kornbluh, who worked for Rubin when he was Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, as his policy director. Obama also gave the keynote speech at the launching of Rubin’s Hamilton Project, a policy group based at the Brookings Institution. The full significance of Obama’s embrace of Rubinomics would be clear soon enough.

In a number of key legislative battles, Obama sent unmistakable signals that he was open for business. In 2006, for instance, he voted for enormous loan guarantees for energy companies, guarantees that exposed the government to billions of dollars in losses if those companies were ever to default on their obligations—and that directly benefited Exelon, one of his most significant patrons. Following a controversy in Illinois over undisclosed leaks from nuclear plants, Obama made a great show of criticizing Exelon and introduced legislation mandating stricter disclosure laws. Later, during his presidential campaign, he bragged that the bill had become law; in fact, Obama had watered down his own bill after meeting with Exelon’s representatives. Eventually the bill died of neglect. As we have seen during the elaborate shadow play surrounding the financial reform bill, this would not be the last time that Obama engaged in limited tactical assaults on his closest political investors. After Obama ascended to the presidency, Exelon joined the FutureGen project, a titanic clean-coal boondoggle that was hatched in the notorious secret energy-sector meetings presided over by Dick Cheney in the early years of the Bush administration. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as Obama’s stimulus package, FutureGen received what might be the largest earmark in history, worth $2 billion.

Obama also helped pass the Class Action Fairness Act, which pushed class-action lawsuits out of state courts and into the federal system, where they are less likely to succeed; and he voted to expand NAFTA into Peru. He voted against capping credit-card interest rates at 30 percent, and he opposed the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007, which would have rolled back subsidies for private mines on public lands. Senator Obama, like many midwestern politicians, was also a consistent and forceful advocate of ethanol, the enormously wasteful and inefficient biofuel that enriches members of the powerful Illinois corn lobby, particularly Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness giant based in Decatur, Illinois. In 2006, Obama even joined Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois in demanding a federal investigation into whether oil companies were illegally discouraging gas stations from offering E-85, a fuel containing 85 percent ethanol.

Nor were all the junior Illinois senator’s unsavory votes and positions confined to positions that his corporate backers might find congenial and profitable. Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama trumpeted his opposition to the war in Iraq, particularly the speech he gave in 2002, when he was still a state senator, denouncing the impending invasion. When he arrived in the U.S. Senate, however, he was suddenly much more nuanced. Given multiple opportunities to take a stand, he repeatedly demurred. Unlike some of his less dashing colleagues or Senator William Fulbright during the Vietnam War, Obama made no bold idealistic assaults on the authorization of war funding—nor did he demand the immediate withdrawal of troops. Indeed, the freshman senator, though very busy with a host of small initiatives, did little to attract legislative attention, mostly voting with the large Democratic pack that offered Bush minimal and token opposition as he aggressively pursued his agenda of expanding executive power. In his first months in office, Obama voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, for Michael Chertoff as the head of homeland security, and for John Negroponte as director of national intelligence—despite Rice’s role in the fraudulent campaign to invade Iraq, despite the civil liberties abuses that Chertoff sanctioned after September 11, and despite Negroponte’s well-documented association with death-squad activities in Latin America during the Reagan years. Notoriously, Obama supported his aggressively pro-war Senate mentor, Joe Lieberman, in Lieberman’s 2006 primary race against Ned Lamont and then refused to campaign for Lamont after Lieberman declined to accept the judgment of Democratic voters. Indeed, Obama’s senatorial record, and later presidential positioning, were best summed up in an interview he gave to the Chicago Tribune in July 2004: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”

Obama, at least, unlike his two immediate predecessors, did not have the opportunity to execute mentally retarded murderers to prove his down-home manliness, but he did vote to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, and in July 2008, in the midst of an embarrassing sequence of reversals and flip-flops, he voted in favor of the Republicans’ FISA bill—a bill that he had earlier promised to filibuster—that retroactively blessed the Bush administration’s warrantless and manifestly felonious surveillance of the telephone conversations and e-mail traffic of millions of American citizens. The measure also extended legal immunity to phone companies that participated. This vote produced a flurry of hand-wringing from supporters, but the tempest soon passed.

Of course, Obama’s vote would not have been decisive in any of these matters—the point is that his behavior was precisely what one would expect from a member of a supine party of pseudo opposition that reveled in giving George W. Bush everything he asked for. Given Obama’s obvious presidential ambitions, it was also no doubt important for him to signal his party, and the potential Democratic donors who would be so important in legitimizing his presidential campaign, that he was no firebrand. Again, nothing here is particularly unusual for a member of the Democratic Party; indeed, Barack Obama’s senatorial career was undistinguished and conventional. He was considered a Democratic loyalist, a mostly dependable rank-and-file party hack who also happened to be uncommonly eloquent. He was more than willing to engage in the standard horse-trading that goes on in any legislative process and was happy to take positions, such as his stance on ethanol, that were transparent payoffs for major local industries. Yes, he supported a number of modest, anodyne, and harmless reforms, particularly of campaign finance and lobbying, but nothing so austere that it might seriously impair his ability to raise cash or keep his backers satisfied. As a legislator Obama was at best a mediocrity, though in fairness his career in the Senate had only begun. As a campaigner, however, he was exceptional, and not only with regard to voters.


  1. I disagree with you on one count: I do not find Obama particularly eloquent. He sounds like somebody trying to be pompous. His best talk so far was his defensive his relationship with Jeremiah Wright.

    Comment by mperelman — November 11, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  2. mperelman is right. When not reading a teleprompter or reciting a memorized speech it’s difficult for Obama to be memorably eloquent because his flow of delivery is constantly interrupted by a stacatto of pauses. There’s way too many “ahh” and “ugh” and “ummm” in his unscripted replies to questions because he has to stop and formulate the bullshit while keeping his story straight.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 12, 2010 @ 12:30 am

  3. How did you manage to get this excerpt from Roger Hodge’s “Mendacity of Hope” without once having to type the words “Madison” and “Founding Fathers”? Hodge’s turgid disquisitions on 1777 leftover from his note-taking during Poli Sci 101 dominate the earnest, goo-goo tome, and should only be read with a wig and snifter handy.
    Sorry, but once again, white critics let the cause down – it’s Ishmael Reed, Adolph Reed, and Glenn Ford by knockout over Hedges, Hodge, and whoever else we got.
    Obama’s “eloquence” – what a line of horseshit.

    Comment by mj — November 12, 2010 @ 1:44 am

  4. I am working on a review of Hodge’s book, as well as Paul Street’s and Tariq Ali’s. Hodge is absolutely wrong to analyze our problems in terms of Madison versus Hamilton but most of the book is quite useful. It is of course necessary to mention that while Adolph Reed is very good on Obama, he backed Hillary Clinton.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 12, 2010 @ 1:56 am

  5. There is an interesting question as to what’s the subject and the object of this inquiry.

    Is Obama the subject and liberals and progressives the objects?

    Or, is it the other way round? If the latter, then the question becomes, what happened with purported liberals and progressives so that they swallowed Obama’s nonsense despite his documented record?

    There are a variety of possible explanations, none of them very flattering to liberals and progressives.

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 12, 2010 @ 3:17 am

  6. Liberals don’t surprise me, Im just not sure how people who consider themselves socialists ie the ISO, could get all wrapped up in him.

    Comment by SGuy — November 12, 2010 @ 10:31 am

  7. If Obama was white it wouldn’t have happened. Everyone knows it but few will say it. The ruling class very smartly absorbed the rather vapid liberal critiques of Bush (and a ‘racist America’ , in general) and pushed Obama out front and center. It’s pathetic how easy it has been for the right to ideologically defeat the left.

    Comment by purple — November 12, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  8. [It’s pathetic how easy it has been for the right to ideologically defeat the left.]

    That’s what I thought about Germany in the 30’s. Here, today, it’s a real pushover.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 12, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

  9. What is the story, anyway, with Reed’s The Perils of Obamamania? Verso was supposed to put it out several seasons ago, but so far it’s vaporware.

    Comment by sam w — November 12, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

  10. paul street has written very well on obama – Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics and another in the works.

    Comment by jp — November 12, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

  11. I’ll certainly be interested in your take on Paul Street’s book, but I should warn you, Louis, that you will be reviewing “Obama’s Fiercest Critic!” That self-advertisement suggest you are taking your life in your hands by even opening the book from MLK disciple Street – we are talking “fierce” here, Numero Uno, the capo di tutti capi of Obama critics hisself!

    Comment by mj — November 12, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

  12. Whatever the merits of the author it seems easy to agree that even poor old brother MLK, whose unbridled love for humanity possessed such genuinely eternal eloquence, spirit & soul that his immortal significance, getting better as fine wine with each passing year, if he were alive, would agree that the TITLE of this book is apropo, that is, it strikes anybody whose alive as one book you can read just by the cover.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 13, 2010 @ 1:30 am

  13. Obviously, I disagree about MLK and hero worship in general.
    MLK was a conservative anti-rock Jesus evangelist-preacher – not exactly my cup of tea. The times made him, just as they made Richard Nixon the most unlikely sponsor of our most New Deal-worthy legislation.
    All the biblical bombast and rhetorical self-importance that MLK displayed are countered with his brave and righteous shepherding of the civil rights revolution, of course, but that does not make us obligated to see him as a Che for the ages. His SCLC, his “movement,” became a religious marketing scheme, completely faded.
    Others can dust off their collected MLK works for invocation at designated moments, sing along with all the old-timey religion, raise the 60s dead for our continued obeisance – all failures of intellectual integrity to me, but boy does that piss off the graybeards.

    Comment by mj — November 13, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  14. Now that we have stripped away all the hype, it is really remarkable how mechanically dull, predictable, unimaginative and unoriginal Obama is, down to the carefully choreographed phraseology ripped off from MLK, with whom Obama’s own life has little actual connection. Compare Obama to Bill Clinton; at least Clinton wrote the awful political playbook Obama so carefully attempts to read from. Clinton was also capable of putting up a fight if his own self-aggrandizement was at stake. Obama eagerly signals in advance that he’s folding the tent. Even by the current low standards of U.S. bourgeois politics, Obama is pathetic.

    I view Obama with a mix of contemptuous pity these days. I bet he won’t even have the wherewithal to start a grand little war with Iran to tilt the election in his favor in the lead-up to 2012, if his “seniors” in the Pentagon say no.

    Comment by Matt Russo — November 14, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  15. The outcome over foreign policy toward Iran will depend on the resistance of the American working class towards Imperialism’s auterity measures at home, that is, if the ruling class senses a proletarian fightback looming they might just take a pass on Obama and let some reactionary mormon whose daddy was a Cracker take over the assault on Iran abroad after Obama’s certain defeat in 1012, while letting Glenn Beck-type reactionaries whip up some brown shirt pogroms at home. The true ugliness of America will emerge as a result of working and oppressed people organizing effectively, as fascism has no other raison de etat.

    Now some might say: why organize the workers and downtrodden now when the result will likely be violent reaction? But that’s like saying why build a seawall when you know a storm surge is coming, or why batten down the hatches of a sailboat when seas get rough, or why tie down a loose cannon on a ship when a typhoon’s looming?

    The biggest danger for the left today is that if in the highly likely event of a working class resurgance in the near future (can hundreds of millions be kicked while they’re down indefinitely?) the proletarian leadership that inevitably emerges will resemble Weimarism (highly likely) rather than Leninism (which at least has a fighting chance.)

    Despite a century of politics gone by nobody can successfully argue that V.I. Lenin hasn’t influenced the political trajectory of human kind more than any other individual over the last 100 years, and if that’s true, why wouldn’t he still be incredibly important today?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 15, 2010 @ 1:56 am

  16. mj, i hope you have listened to mlk’s vietnam speech

    Comment by jp — November 18, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

  17. Okay, JP, let’s you and I time-travel back to the MLK Vietnam speech.
    Fine, he probably has a few Jesuses in there, along with some trenchant criticism – a sign of those times, as I said. Is he to be the symbol of “left resistance” for all time – or would his old-timey Christian speechifying have had him where the SCLC is now -completely defunct – or where Jesse Jackson is now, as old dude with a good bank account, some nice speeches, and a legacy that pales like an ant before the Hoover Dam of the corporate military state.
    The MLK legacy lies in the shabbiness and socially-enforced decrepitude of all those MLK schools and MLK boulevards that populate our urban war zones of hell.

    Comment by mj — November 19, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  18. […] of Hope. I urge you to read the excerpts from this book on my friend Louis Proyect’s blog (Louis Proyect: the Unrepentant Marxist).  Or check out Adolph Reed and Glen Ford. Maybe my erstwhile radical friends, who went […]

    Pingback by Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate » Change We (Were Foolish to) Believe In — April 2, 2011 @ 8:23 pm

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