Friday, July 09, 2010

A Marxist review of the Obama administration

Wall Street Journal:

For a summary of the Administration's antibusiness agenda, consult the Business Roundtable's recent 54-page compendium. But don't read it before you go to bed because you'll wake up with nightmares if you're an employer.

Our guess is that the timing of this White House campaign has a lot to do with the Roundtable's broadside, which has shaken even some of the President's media friends. When even Newsweek columnists and The Atlantic start to turn on this Administration, you know things are bad.

Another motivator must be this week's Washington Post story detailing that Wall Street and the financial industry have stopped writing as many checks to Democratic House and Senate candidates after two years of White House banker bashing. Big Labor can't pay for every TV ad, and nothing concentrates the political mind so much as the lack of campaign cash.

I don't write a lot about "politics" in the conventional sense, meaning "affairs of state," because I think the government is mostly a reflection of the balance of power within society. That means you have to get outside the conceptions which government sets for itself -- as a "constitutional republic," or whatever -- if you want to understand its behavior, in the same way that you wouldn't take somebody's opinion of themselves at face value, and expect it to yield an accurate picture of who they are. It doesn't particularly matter what a person, or a government, says about themselves, it matters what they do -- and this always occurs in a larger context which we must pay attention to if we want to make any sense of it.

One of the attractions of Marxism -- and not only Marxism of course, but that is the framework I've had the longest association with -- is that it doesn't attempt to explain things on their own terms, but in relation to other things that those terms often don't even acknowledge.

This is what is consistently hopeless about trying to understand the United States through the binary lens of liberal/conservatism, and what turns so many Americans off from "politics" altogether, because without any formal political education, people know it's bullshit. They know it's bullshit in the same way they know that someone bragging about themselves is bullshit: it's self-evident.

In fact, it takes many years of conditioning together with a considerable stake in the system (as through professionalization) to convince people that US politics is anything but bullshit. It isn't easy to beat out of people's heads the idea that just because somebody in a position of authority claims something to be true, that is more credible than if some random person on the street says it. Yet, if that person is elected or appointed to that position, their word is better than your own lived experience which contradicts it. And that makes the rest of us crazy when we think success means modeling ourselves after these types of people in power.

It's sad to see the number of people who are discouraged by the fact Obama hasn't lived up to their expectations of whatever it was they thought he was going to do as president -- all this on the basis of some flowery prose. On the other hand, the US business community, which is very well organized around its concerns, knows well enough that just because Obama says something which is "pro-business" doesn't mean he is going to deliver on it. So they spend all of their time lobbying to make sure he does! And that is the difference between the ordinary people who elected Obama on a platform of "change," and the corporate sector which manages to shape his every "reform" to their liking: one group participates in the act of governance, while the other doesn't. That remains true regardless of what some philosopher kings scribbled onto a constitution, and regardless of whether some poli-sci nerd wants remind us that "the United States is a republic, not a democracy." Technical trivia doesn't change power relations as they in fact exist, and the "rules" that are relevant are rarely the ones written down. This is why we have to get outside of the formal rules before we can understand the actual rules which operate within a society. This is something that Marx did well.

When people ask me what I think about Obama, I can only say that his administration reflects the pressures that are being exerted on it, and that those pressures aren't coming from the needs of people like you or me. Under that kind of scenario, what sort of outcome can we possibly expect?


DPirate said...

+ ∞

Ben There said...

Very well said. I'd be interested in your thoughts on "Big Labor" sometime. I'm pro-labor, of course - well I'm pro-human beings so by nature of that I'm pro-labor - but supposedly the unions do wield some sizeable power politically speaking. They top the charts along with many of the multinational corporations in terms of political contributions. Regardless, I'd trust "Big Labor" over "Big Oil" (or finance, pharma, whatever) anyday. As another large powerful institution, a union has it's hazards but we've been conditioned since Ronald Reagan to fear/hate unions almost as much as we are supposed to fear/hate communists or terrorists. It's obvious why this conditioning is so important, but Im curious, do you think unions live up to their ideal? Do they serve the purpose they are designed to serve?

DPirate said...

I know you are not speaking to me, but I want to respond by saying, no, they do not, and yes, they do.

What purpose they were designed for will vary somewhat, but inasfar as they are designed to protect their members interests, they do a good job in the immediate and near-future. Longterm they fail rather miserably, in my opinion, and this has as much to do with your first question.

As you say, they wield political power, yet they exercise it upon a party which cannot support the common working man. Not that they see no results, but if they were to be in the least idealistic, they might support candidates of their own on the national level. I would venture to say that the larger unions have both the manpower and the money to get congressmen and senators elected from outside the two-party system.

JRB said...

Well, unions also reflect the balance of power in society, which in the US case has just always been heavily titled toward business. So the unions we have developed out of those circumstances, which were really difficult -- basically you had to be a committed communist if you wanted to advance any kind of class-based unionism, because that's what you were going to be charged with, and jailed for, regardless. I think the government sort of made its point with the Palmer raids, which wrecked what was most promising about the American labor movement by force.

State repression was followed up by the legalization of unions, which of course meant that unions would have to meet certain requirements if they want to remain "law abiding" -- which meant losing most of the tactics that make unions effective in the first place, like secondary boycotts and general strikes. Throw in professionalization and the "business union" model of dues-for-representation in your workplace, and you see how the problems evolve.

So it's not surprising that we've ended up with political action committees lobbying Congress on workplace concerns, as opposed to self-directed worker's organizations. And, as DPirate notes, that's a recipe for failure.

In many ways, however, I'm also sympathetic to the fact that most US unions operate without any viable alternative for now. Consumerism seems to induce apathy amongst people at work, probably because they're used to playing king in the market: Buying stuff preoccupies their attention even if it doesn't meet their needs. On the other hand, getting people interested in non-market concerns, and getting them to do something other than complain, can seem like an intractable problem. That's why I think these issues have to be thought through in relation to consumerism overall.

Ben There said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this (both of you). I would comment further but I'm zooming through the internets at a frantic pace this evening.