Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2011

Obama predicts his future

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Whatever else you want to say about “Dreams for My Father”, it was skillfully written. I wondered after reading it whether many of the campaign volunteers decided to sign up if for no other reason that the author was more intelligent than the average politician. Thematically, it is related to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” although I doubt that Obama has ever acknowledged the influence of this novel that is a combination of Black consciousness and existential outsider literature.

If “Dreams for My Father” was ghost-written by Bill Ayers, one of the less outrageous claims of the ultraright, then one might conclude that “Audacity of Hope” was ghost-written by a committee consisting of David Broder, Thomas Friedman, and Juan Williams. It is a platitude-sodden mess that has none of the piquancy of the first book—understandable since it was a typical meet-the-candidate type venture. Since I am toying with the idea of writing a comic book on Obama, this research is a necessary evil.

There is one passage that does have the ring of truth, however. In it Obama practically predicts the politician he would become:

Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.

And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways—I had gone to the same schools, after all, had read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways—I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations. On core issues I was candid; I had no problem telling well-heeled supporters that the tax cuts they’d received from George Bush should be reversed. Whenever I could, I would try to share with them some of the perspectives I was hearing from other portions of the electorate: the legitimate role of faith in politics, say, or the deep cultural meaning of guns in rural parts of the state.

Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve. And in one fashion or another, I suspect this is true for every senator: The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it, with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But your schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.

And perhaps as the next race approaches, a voice within tells you that you don’t want to have to go through all the misery of raising all that money in small increments all over again. You realize that you no longer have the cachet you did as the upstart, the fresh face; you haven’t changed Washington, and you’ve made a lot of people unhappy with difficult votes. The path of least resistance—of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops—starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.


  1. I love this post. Sympathetic, but critical. Too much of the leftist critiques I read tend to demonize their opposition.

    Comment by Reynold — March 27, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  2. *too many

    Comment by Reynold — March 27, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  3. “Sympathetic” !! I don’t think so. No sympathy for war criminals around here I’ll wager.

    Comment by meltr — March 27, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  4. If you associate with parasites, you’ll eventually develop a taste for blood yourself. However, I find it difficult to believe that Obama, the early politician, had any more concern for the working class and the downtrodden than he demonstrates today.

    Comment by Rob — March 27, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

  5. Perhaps “sympathetic” in the same way that one can feel sympathy for a pretty young hooker who has to make a dirty old man feel happy and wanted because he’s her best-paying client.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — March 27, 2011 @ 8:37 pm

  6. Sympathetic in the sense of understanding the nature of individual human frailty.

    Comment by Reynold — March 27, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

  7. Are you referring to the “individual human frailty” of a man whose policies have already killed more people with unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan than Bush’s did?

    I fear you’re on the wrong blog if you think abstract notions of “sympathy” and “human frailty” as related to those in power will get a sympathetic hearing.

    Comment by meltr — March 27, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  8. meltr, it’s important to understand the nature of corruption. Like Reynold, I’ve encountered people who seem to believe in Calvinist Marxism, dividing humanity between saved proletarians and the damned bourgeoisie. Understanding Obama is not the same as condoning what he’s done in pursuit of power.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — March 27, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

  9. Oh I “understand” him, I just have no sympathy for him whatsoever. But perhaps this is an issue of semantics.

    Comment by meltr — March 27, 2011 @ 9:33 pm

  10. If you think about it in simple mechanical terms: Obama is the ultimate (state of the art) “transmission” of bourgeois politics (meaning, who gets what) in the epoch of “far flung U.S. Imperialism” after the defeat of the Soviets.

    Historically, far flung militarism has been the greatest predictor of regime failure. Therein lies the grotesque & obscene silver lining of the world today.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 27, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  11. Well Will maybe if this blog was called the Unrepentant Liberal and we had passionate debates about how to make the democratic wing of the capitalist party nicer and more responsive to the “people”, I would think it important to understand Obama and all his motivations; but it’s not and I don’t.

    Comment by meltr — March 27, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

  12. Actually, not everything has to be of immediate relevance to the class struggle. I am interested in Obama as a psychological type. I think that a comic book based on his life and career would be totally compelling if done right. I would include a scene, for example, of him at his first job out of college with Business International Corporation, a firm that had CIA connections.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 27, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  13. meltr, Marx was very interested in the way circumstances affect people. His love of Shakespeare should indicate that. Or look at what he wrote about the transformation of Lincoln–I think that if Marx were alive today, he would agree that it’s extremely unlikely but not impossible that Obama will be driven by circumstances to become a better President than he’s been.

    Again, this isn’t to excuse anything Obama’s done. I fully expect him to continue on his present course, becoming an even better servant of the people who fund his campaigns.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — March 27, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

  14. Louis, I should’ve said this sooner: I hope you do the comic. The life of Bush II shows the broad strokes of capitalism, but Obama’s life shows its subtleties. Bush, I think, went through life trying to do what he was expected to do. But Obama seems to have been trying to balance becoming rich with doing good and buying into the whole “win-win-win” theory of liberal capitalism.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — March 27, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  15. Will, I don’t know if you (or others) saw my first entry on Obama’s books but it is worth a look:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 27, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

  16. Yup, I liked that one a lot.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — March 28, 2011 @ 12:09 am

  17. The living experience of 90 per cent of the public becomes an abstraction to be managed rather than a battle to be fought. What an interesting way of phrasing it. I can admire his candor and still think he’s a jerk. I don’t know about Lincoln, Obama reminds me more of what I’ve read about Woodrow Wilson, with all that may mean in the very near future.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — March 28, 2011 @ 1:41 am

  18. Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that Marx would think Obama was like Lincoln. Quite the opposite, in fact: Marx admired Lincoln’s ability to see things precisely, while Obama, as you say, seems to live in a world of abstractions. Here’s the passage I was thinking of: “This plebeian, who worked his way tip from stone-breaker to Senator in Illinois, without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance-an average person of good will, was placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake. The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organisation, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!” Obama also is at “the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage.” Something could happen to make him meet the challenge. But I’m really not hopeful. I’m just arguing for seeing him as a human and not as the embodiment of all that’s wrong with the US. I think it’s useful to have some sympathy for the people you hope to overthrow. Then you’re more likely to treat them in a way that’ll ultimately convince many of them it was right for them to be overthrown. Treating them as monsters just makes them fight harder against you.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — March 28, 2011 @ 2:50 am

  19. It’s just too tiring for me to actively hate, to demonize individuals. I have no doubt that Obama’s persuaded himself that he’s doing the right thing. I disagree with him. But from like a spiritual perspective (I’m agnostic, but I can’t really think of a better word to describe what I’m talking about), it just sucks me dry hating people.

    Comment by Reynold — March 28, 2011 @ 3:23 am

  20. I don’t hate the man, but what he does, for whatever reason, sews more hatred and dragon’s teeth than I want to think about, and I’m not particularly concerned with his intent. It’s the holier than thou cast he lends to the violent purge of thousands of human beings- and seemingly, large chunks of nature itself- that has me hoping he falls in a hole. And as much as I’d like to see the humanity behind his intent, I can’t stop thinking about the humanity his kind of politics burns out of thousands of people every day.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — March 28, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

  21. I don’t hate the man either but I think that’s because I never expect much. I’m sure a whole lot of politicians are “well intentioned”. But that doesn’t make for good copy.

    Besides, who cares what their intentions are? What does the make-up of their heart matter? Look at the Marx quote, it’s more about a political system than it is about Lincoln.

    Comment by Rojo — March 29, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  22. Hate the sin, not the sinner.

    Comment by Reynold — March 29, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

  23. What Obama is essentially doing here is positioning himself as the genuine politician he is to become, rallying all the reactionary demons at his disposal so as to justify his next ideological move.

    Even if we cannot fully decipher the inner workings of his psyche, (or his true intentions as an individual for that matter) judging from the last paragraph quoted above we may be able to conclude that he has surely stuck with “the path of least resistance;” he has also been able to “rationalize the changes as a matter of realism,” his; and of greater importance is the fact that the only “echo” or “voices” he would care to listen to are from those at the top for whom he will definitely make things happen at the expense of those naive enough to believe in his usual speech, platitudes and empty rhetoric.

    The obvious should be staring us in the face: Obama is not on the side the poor and the working class; his program can only accomodate venture capitalists, Wall Street bankers and imperialism. “Frailty, thy name is…”

    Comment by Frank — March 31, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

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