Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 7, 2011

Bull Moose and bullshit

Filed under: liberalism,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In keeping with his cynical bid to restyle himself as some kind of leftist, Barack Obama made a speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas that invoked the legacy of Roosevelt. No, comrades and friends, it was not that Roosevelt—the New Dealer that the soft left hoped he would become—but his fifth cousin Theodore. It didn’t matter that much. That was all people like Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki needed to hear:

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012.

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.

Going slightly against the grain, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy (love that name, like a character from an old Bonanza show) urged a note of caution. Compared to the original, the current occupant of the White House is a cheap imitation—more of a mouse than a moose.

Roosevelt’s speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active “struggle” against unfair inequality: “to take from some … class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth … which has not been earned by service to … their fellows.” He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed — plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama’s speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt’s was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

I want to return to the question of Roosevelt’s deeds as opposed to his words momentarily. After all, anybody who is familiar with Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008 knows that words are cheap. That being said, if you read between the lines you will realize that we are dealing with the same-old, same-old.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

At the outset, it should be noted that anybody who uses the buzzwords “grow the economy” at this point is a shameless tool of the ruling class. This cliché smacks of boardroom pep rallies, WSJ editorial page cant, business school lectures and all the rest. I first began to hear them working for Goldman-Sachs in 1987 and wondered what the hell top managers were talking about when they used those words. You grow a geranium, not an economy or a corporation. It invokes the image of somebody in a navy-blue business suit and a power yellow tie standing over a thing called the economy with a watering can. This mystifies the whole concept of how capitalism works. It is not organic like a garden flower, but something that involves exploitation. The proper tool is not a watering can but a blackjack.

With respect to the titans of industry creating jobs, Obama seems to have forgotten what Balzac observed in the epigraph to “Le Père Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. Oil, steel and rail—three of the biggest capitalized sectors of the American economy during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—were the end-result of a scorched earth attack on workers, the land, and native peoples. For Roosevelt, their excesses consisted of monopoly pricing, not Pinkerton attacks on strikers.

Obama’s speech contained a couple of paragraphs that could have been written by Robert Reich or Paul Krugman:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

When it comes down to concrete proposals, Obama offers up the same tired formulas that Democratic Party “new economy” hacks like Lester Thurow and Michael Dukakis have been offering for decades now:

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.

Actually, the real answer is not training but a guarantee of a job. If you think of jobs as a human right rather than a cog in the competitive machinery to ensure that the USA is Number One, then the dividing line between the ruled and the rulers becomes obvious. Nobody who is attending those white-tie fund-raising dinners for Obama has the slightest interest in guaranteeing that all Americans who want a job can have a job.

Obama probably knows that getting “new skills” does not work, but that did not prevent him from raising false hopes. A July 18, 2010 NY Times article reports exactly how false they are:

In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. He decided to invest in upgrading his skills.

It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Downtown Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.

For six weeks, Mr. Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Mr. Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare benefits.

“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

And now for some concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt—mostly channeling the spirit of the sorely missed Howard Zinn who debunked him in “People’s History of the United States” just as he did with FDR.

In 1906 after Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners were imprisoned on trumped up murder charges, Eugene V. Debs wrote an article in “Appeal to Reason” denouncing the decision. This led to Roosevelt sending a copy of the article to his Attorney General, W. II. Moody, with a note: “is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Overall, Zinn’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt is not much different than the one of FDR. The first Roosevelt presidency pushed through some reforms that were intended to preserve the system. Just as FDR worried about the Bolshevik threat, so did Teddy worry about Debs’s socialist party that was far more radical in some ways than the CPUSA. Zinn writes:

The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded the process of reform. According to Wiebe: “Around 1908 a qualitative shift in outlook occurred among large numbers of these men of authority.. . .” The emphasis was now on “enticements and compromises.” It continued with Wilson, and “a great many reform-minded citizens indulged the illusion of a progressive fulfillment.”

What radical critics now say of those reforms was said at the time (1901) by the Bankers’ Magazine: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes. . , .”

There was much to stabilize, much to protect. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than seven billion dollars, controlled 40% of the U.S. manufacturing.

In 1909, a manifesto of the new Progressivism appeared-a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. He saw the need for discipline and regulation if the American system were to continue. Government should do more, he said, and he hoped to see the “sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints”- by whom he may have meant Theodore Roosevelt.

Richard Hofstadter, in his biting chapter on the man the public saw as the great lover of nature and physical fitness, the war hero, the Boy Scout in the White House, says: “The advisers to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital-men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich … and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” Responding to his worried brother-in-law writing from Wall Street, Roosevelt replied: “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country.”

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: “I think they are very shortsighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.” His action against the trusts was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and, although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly-Morgan, Harriman, Hill.

While most of us would be happy to see Obama push through even such half-measures, either on a Bull Moose or a New Deal basis, there is no possibility that they will materialize for the simple reason that the American economy is no longer based on the smokestack industries that marked the period of the first half-century of the 1900s. Obama speaks for a ruling class that is either based on fictitious capital or that is all too happy to see manufacturing continue its sorry decline. After all, their purpose in life is not to create jobs but to create profits.


  1. Nice piece Louis- right-on the mark.

    Comment by Rick page — December 7, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

  2. Proyect does it again.

    Comment by David Altman — December 7, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  3. Well done. Wonderful essay.

    Comment by dave r — December 7, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  4. Of course, TR was there to mark a new memorial to John Brown. Mere coincidence that Bill Ayers’ hero is John Brown?

    Comment by btraven — December 8, 2011 @ 12:42 am

  5. He’s nothing but a Progressive bullshit artist.

    As if growing the economy is the answer to our woes.

    It’s far deeper and way more complicated than just that.

    Bring forth an independent please.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 8, 2011 @ 2:35 am

  6. Ahhh….no one really understands the economy. Alan Greenspan didn’t, the American public doesn’t and current rhetoric sprinkles sound bytes that make people think they understand what is going on. Training and education have become meaningless. The Brookings Institute came out with an article that says the current college graduate makes an average of $27,000.00. Employers can pick from the cream of the crop and require 4 year degrees for jobs that formerly required no education. Pretty soon Walmart will require some kind of higher learning. An education has become meaningless in the job market.

    Comment by Cathy T. — December 8, 2011 @ 7:20 am

  7. Also, remember men of means felt they had a Divine right. Perhaps they still do.

    Comment by Cathy T. — December 8, 2011 @ 7:29 am

  8. Comment no. 6 Cathy T. you said it so well.

    Many college graduates I know are bussing tables.

    I guess a promotion to a waiter or waitress requires a graduate degree now.

    Yes but according to Obama and the propaganda driven media the job market is slowly improving.

    That’s improvement?

    No, it’s an election ploy folks.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 8, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  9. Of course Obama’s taking the credit for unemployment dropping from 9.1 to 8.6 percent.

    Comrades don’t be fooled by these manipulated numbers as they are not indicative of real job growth.

    The drop fails to mention the numbers of unemployed who were dropped from the rolls after exhausting benefits or have just given up looking.

    Where are the jobs Mr. Obama? I certainly don’t see them from my vantage point.

    Don’t believe the hype.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 8, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

  10. It may be useful to see the Anglophile T Roosevelt as following in the footsteps of Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham screw manufacturer and radical liberal turned New Imperialist in the universally pivotal 1880’s, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Chamberlain (interesting resemblance to Woodrow Wilson, no?) .

    Roosevelt cut his spurs in politics as the leader of NYC’s Liberal Republicans. on a anti-corruption “clean government” reformist platform, this in a mayoral election with the single taxer Henry George at the head of the United Labor Party, and the Tammany Democrat candidate, in a no-doubt fraudulent that George barely lost. was a time where we should recall that the Democratic Party was very much the “conservative” party with a revived national presence that rested upon a regime of systematic terror against the African American population in the South, a situation that the Liberal Republicans under Horace Greeley had themselves been key in engineering in the 1876 election that ended Reconstruction. The Democrats’ key power base outside the South was in New York state, and was divided between Tammany Hall in NYC and their upstate opponents led by Grover Cleveland, a “Gold Democrat’ and also a “clean government” reformer. The working class vote that did not line up behind the periodic third party effort – frequent in those times – was “normally” divided in support for the two capitalist parties.

    Efforts like that of George or of Eugene Debs showed how dangerously shallow and unstable that working class ties to the capitalist parties actually was. The purpose of Roosevelt’s Chamberlain-style politics was to secure a tie with the more privileged layers of the working class with a politics that combined an aggressive “New Imperialist” stance with domestic reformism. Roosevelt was the pioneer of an effort of a sector of the US capitalist class that took decades to accomplish, in ebbs and flows, beyond Roosevelt’s own lifetime, but by the 1950’s the formation of an “imperialist working class” sector could be declared a success in the USA.

    Comment by Matt — December 8, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

  11. The purpose of Roosevelt’s Chamberlain-style politics was to secure a tie with the more privileged layers of the working class with a politics that combined an aggressive “New Imperialist” stance with domestic reformism.

    Actually, there is more than a passing similarity between Theodore Roosevelt and Otto Von Bismarck, the “progressive” who introduced welfare state measures to bind the working class to German imperialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 8, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

  12. “in a no-doubt fraudulent election that George barely lost. It was a time”, sorry, have to hurry out the door…

    Comment by Matt — December 8, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

  13. Except that Bismarck’s politics, and his political base were quite different that that of the 19th century US capitalist parties, both of whom cultivated a mass base in the emerging US working class. Bismarck OTOH was at the head of a deeply reactionary Prussian Junkerdom, though at this time well on the way to converting their landowning rentier existence to capitalism. For them, reforms that benefited the German working class hemmed in their bourgeois liberal rivals (not to mention to take some of the steam out of the German Socialists, including the efforts of you-know-who).

    In the US the situation was different, and better resembles Britain, where a section of the liberals themselves had to do the same job. Unfortunately unlike the Junkers they had to do so in close and direct relation to the working class, naturally fraught with the social contradictions of capitalism. Thus while war mongering imperialism came naturally to the Junkers, it had to be ideologically synthesized out of whole cloth. Chamberlain was the pioneer here, and I suspect Roosevelt received some inspiration here, rather than from Bismarck.

    Comment by Matt — December 8, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

  14. Spot on post. Thanks.

    Comment by owen white — December 8, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  15. Lou, this post is outstanding comrade.

    It really exposes the Democratic leftists as the vermin that they really are.

    At least with Republicans, you pretty much know what you’re getting and for that I will grant some credit.

    The Democrats are just bold faced liars that promote themselves as representing average working people, pro union, pro seniors and disabled and for the policing wall street and the banking industry.

    None of this is based on fact when you look at their record.

    Another 4 years of Obama and his democratic buddies in congress?

    Oh please. The question voters must ask is What Have You Done For Me Lately?

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 9, 2011 @ 12:23 am

  16. The bottom line is there aren’t enough jobs.

    And with bourgeoisie economists talking about a ‘natural’ unemployment rate of 5-6 %, there never will be.

    Comment by purple — December 9, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

  17. The entire US emphasis on a ‘knowledge’ economy is based on utilizing military power to extract rents in intellectual property. Trade agreements with military allies like South Korea and Colombia highlight this.

    Comment by purple — December 9, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  18. Both of your comments are right on target Purple.

    We definitely need jobs, but voters shouldn’t expect Obama to be our savior on the jobs front or any other front for that matter.

    What irks me is that this administration thinks that we’re stupid enough to take the very minimal gains and less than accurate unemployment reports, as a real sign of an improving job market.

    The same game has been played in Washington for decades. Only the players change.

    When the American public finally wakes up to the fact that this game is being perpetually played, whether it was by Teddy Roosevelt or Barack Obama.

    The game (capitalism) must change if we want a change to happen.

    That is cold, hard reality and there is no simple answer that any one politician on the election circuit can give us.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 9, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  19. T.Roosevelt would have broken up the big banks and insurance companies we see today.
    Still an option for us today.


    Comment by oddsox — December 10, 2011 @ 11:29 pm

  20. Oddsox, yes T. Roosevelt may have done that if around today but though a Progressive, he was still a Republican and part of the problem.

    The two party monopoly I mean.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 11, 2011 @ 12:34 am

  21. […] Yves Smith is angrily unimpressed by the attempt to rebrand. Louis Proyect suggests that it is Bull moose and bullshit. Eric Rauchway suggests Obama is more like Taft than Roosevelt. And Jedediah Purdy has some thoughts […]

    Pingback by Sunday Reading « zunguzungu — December 11, 2011 @ 2:24 am

  22. The main point I got from this post is that it’s a preview of the new Obama election slogans (bullshit) he will be touting on the campaign trail and the loyal liberals who continue to suck up to him despite very unliberal policy making during his term.

    A truthful slogan would read:


    I can bet he won’t be likely to say that lol.

    But that’s a change you CAN believe in unfortunately.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 11, 2011 @ 4:34 am

  23. And the comments about Shumer were the best part.

    OH GOD don’t get me started on Chuck Shumer.

    Talk about talking out of both sides of the mouth.

    He’s one of the biggest phonies in Washington.

    People I know have said he represents the working class.

    No, he represents Chuck Shumer.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 11, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  24. Deborah Jeffries, you write “though a Progressive, (Theo. Roosevelt) was still a Republican and part of the (two party) problem.”

    Yes, he was a Republican President and might have run again as one in 1920 had he not died the year before.
    But TR did take a stab running as a 3rd party candidate, finishing 2nd.
    Best 3rd party showing in over 100 years, how can you fault that?
    Third party is a tough row to hoe except as a spoiler.

    TR got 27% of the vote in 1912, and carried 6 states for 88 electoral votes, finishing
    2nd over William H. Taft, the incumbent.
    Combined, Roosevelt and Taft got 50.6% of the popular vote to Wilson’s 41.8%.
    Had they mended fences and run as Taft-Roosevelt, or vice versa, they surely would have won.

    Honorable mention:
    “Fighting Bob” LaFollette carried Wisconsin and got 17% of the popular vote in 1924.
    And Perot had 19% popular, 0 electoral in 1992.

    Comment by oddsoxx — December 11, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  25. I am a registered Independent.

    My point was that though some Independents have had moderate success in getting votes in previous presidential elections, we still continue to have a two party monopoly in the Senate and House and have yet to have a candidate elected to the presidency.

    As long as the monopoly continues, we can expect the same old, same old.

    I think America is archaic being that we are probably one of, if not the only country, with a two party government.

    Most countries have at least four.

    There needs to be a fresher flow of different ideas and political views if we expect the condition of the proletariat to improve.

    The two party system just keeps the capitalist regime going.

    Not all Independents are created equal either.

    My state of CT had an Independent governor Weiker who instituted the heavy state income tax which is hard on poor to moderate income wage earners, so I would have to listen to an Independent and what they stand for first.

    I am marxist and socialist in my beliefs, but registered as an Independent because my state lacks a socialist party registrar.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 12, 2011 @ 1:54 am

  26. Deborah Jeffries:

    If you like her, you could work to get Dr. Jill Stein on the ballot in CT (if she isn’t already.)
    As you said, 3rd-party candidates vary widely — best successes have been in state assembly and gubernatorial elections, then congressional seats and US Senate, a la Bernie Sanders.

    I don’t share your beliefs, but consider myself a centrist and have been a registered independent in the past (Democrat now).
    No matter.

    We do agree that 3rd (or 4th) parties can be a good idea — more choices make for a healthy democracy.
    If you’re rooting for a 3rd party to gain traction and credibility, you need a dynamic character who can get exposure.

    Comment by oddsox — December 12, 2011 @ 4:29 am

  27. I agree with you Oddsox.

    A dynamic character would have to emerge as an Independent to grab the public’s attention.

    Time is running out though so they’d have to step up now because the Iowa caucuses are coming soon.

    Thanks for the info on Dr. Stein. I will check her out.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 12, 2011 @ 5:43 am

  28. Oddsox, I read up on Dr. Jill Stein and am quite impressed with her.

    She also has support from the Occupy movement which will be beneficial to her campaign.

    So refreshing to see something different than the Obama election circus or the Republicans and their judgmental politics.

    If anyone saw last night’s 60 Minutes interview with Obama, this post was accurate in predicting what his campaign slogan would be.

    He was very predictable as I expected. He failed to mention how he continued the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy and that’s only one example of his distorted perception of his presidency so far.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 12, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

  29. yeah, yeah, this is the same motherfucker who wielded a “big stick” on Central American and Caribbean people in imposing colonial U.S. rule in that region. What a joke!

    Comment by Tom Cod — June 18, 2012 @ 3:36 am

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