What if Barack Obama weren’t a leftist?

Published online 30 March 2012.

I had to get your attention somehow.

At any rate, what I had in mind was to expose the fact that thirty years of neoliberal “Washington Consensus” policy has made a laughingstock of the idea of “the Left” in this country, at least if you take seriously the Wikipedia definition that “in politics, the Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for social change to create a more egalitarian society.”  The result of this historical development is that we now allow ourselves to imagine that Barack Obama is a leftist.

In truth, Obama’s image as a “left-leaning social-justice progressive” was cultivated at first through what Paul Street identifies as “his racial identity, his occasionally populist- and progressive-sounding rhetoric, and his short stint (after graduating from Columbia University and before attending Harvard Law during the 1980s) – heavily advertised in his campaign imagery – as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.”  Now perhaps such actions truly merit Barack Obama the name “leftist,” but not for Paul Street, for whom he’s a “corporate-centrist.”

Street doesn’t, however, seem to say much about the achievements touted by the Obama Achievements Center, which would seem to indicate that Obama has done a number of things to grant himself a leftist image.  Whether this image transfers to Obama’s other accomplishments is, well..

(OK, so this is really old ground.  I’m guessing that it’s now so deeply embedded in the American political unconsciousness that it has somehow stuck.  After all, the Tea Partiers have really reinforced this meme.   If you type “Obama socialism” in your Google search engine, you can uncover a broad range of rhetorical sallies from across the Fox News-oriented media machine in this country.)

Here I would ask you to light some incense and some candles or something like that, and close your eyes and imagine some sort of fantastic alternate reality in which extortionist student loan policies or legalized fraud as a job-making policy or inadequate foreclosure fraud settlements or spying on everyone or an individual mandate to buy health insurance or ten years of austerity planning with the help of the Super Congress and automatic budget cuts or a useless war in Afghanistan or no global warming policy or manipulating 19.9% unemployment to give the appearance of a job recovery NO LONGER counted as “leftist” policies, as they do today by virtue of their association with their ostensibly “leftist” promoter.  You know, the one that Angela Davis (a leftist of iconic credentials) suggests is a man who identifies with the Black radical tradition.

Of course, there is a vested interest in giving Obama at least the appearance of being a leftist, otherwise you wouldn’t have this video in which Obama compares himself to Gandhi and to Nelson Mandela.  But this is campaign talk, and as Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols said in their recent piece “Political Advertising: A Bull Market (Monthly Review (April 2012), p. 11):

…one should start with the premise that the content of political advertising will have all the value of a commercial for beer or soft drinks.

Now, mind you, I’m not merely getting after Obama (or for that matter Congress, also culpable) for these policies.  What I wish to suggest, below the fold, is that the world would look broadly different than it does today if we (as Americans) were to stop imagining that these were “left-wing” policies and that Obama (or for that matter anyone in Congress) counted as a “leftist.”

The first thing we’d probably do if we were to stop counting the above list of policies as “leftist” policies is to consider THIS GRAPH as a closer approximation of the truth than anything we’ve been thinking so far.

Barack Obama, then, would be conceived by the public (in this fantasyland universe of mine) as a different sort of conservative, rather than being anything close to “liberal.”  Americans would then think of government power as being contested by two different types of conservatives:

1) Antipublic conservatives — conservatives who are interested in destroying the public sphere and the commons for the sake of some idea of radical, disconnected individualism that imagines everyone as individuals defending property with guns, or as beholden ideologically to the church of their choice (see e.g. Rick Santorum).  In this version of conservatism, losers without property or religion don’t matter.  A typical example of the ideology of this group would be the recently-passed Arizona law forbidding schools to teach ethnic studies content:

In 2010, after several attempts, the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor passed a law prohibiting classes that advocate overthrowing the government, are designed for students of one ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.

The Arizona law thusly intends to forbid public-school discussion of the notion that students constitute an ethnically-coded public, rather than being a mere collection of individuals.  One looks at this text and recalls former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement to Women’s Own back in 1987:

who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families

This statement captures the essence of antipublic conservatism in a nutshell.  There is no such thing as society, and so antipublic conservatives want a society which doesn’t regard itself as such.  In the US version, it attempts to return America to an era before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and to an era when the Left did not matter much (say, for instance, the Gilded Age of the 1870s and 1880s).

The other type of conservatism dominant in American politics are the:

.2) Corporate conservatives — conservatives who are mainly interested in “saving capitalism” (Obama’s primary mandate) and who do so by maintaining corporate hegemony but who are also interested in buying off the mass public to the extent necessary to preserve the social order.  This version of conservatism might be called Rubinism (as David Mizner called it in this diary):

Rubinites are committed to helping preserve the profits and power of Big Business; at the same time, they seek to lessen the pain inflicted by corporation-dominated capitalism. Rubinites may still believe, in the face of overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary, that they can both preserve the power of Big Business and keep economic inequality at an acceptable level. But they’re fully aware that rising inequality is a threat to the power of Big Business, and they want to impose minor restrictions on Big Business for the purpose of protecting it. President Obama made this explicit during a meeting with banks executives.

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” the president told them.

Such a breed of conservatism, then, attempts to preserve the status quo (or perhaps to return it to its pre-recession form, say perhaps America in the Clinton era) through acceptance, rather than denial, of the existence of society.

If we were to look at conservatism thusly, we might tend to look at it more favorably, as more of us would be redefining ourselves as conservatives.  More importantly, if we defined ourselves as conservatives, we might look differently at the critical race theory (which Obama himself does not avow, despite all the garbage put out by Andrew Breitbart to the contrary) with which we defend Barack Obama as the first Black President.  A number of commentators throughout Obama’s Presidency so far have argued that at least the Obama Presidency stood for the promise of a post-racial America.  We might begin to take that promise seriously, and examine what might really have to happen before a post-racial America were to become possible.  Is it better to be good conservatives and reject such a solution?

If we were to put an end to the notion that Obama is a leftist, the political battlefield might appear to be over a different set of concepts than those which promote the idea of “Right versus Left.”  Rather, we might see, as did the UK social thinker Anthony Giddens in his book Beyond Right and Left, that in this era the “Left” has turned defensive, and thus we might have a notion that political life, here in the US especially, has become about different versions of preservation of the status quo, through appeals to differing historical notions of what America is about.

Neither version of conservatism is looking forward to the unhappy future predicted by Gopal Balakrishnan in his visionary piece, “Speculations upon the Stationary State”:

We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins.

This points to another possible outcome of my fantasy notion, here, of what if we stopped regarding Barack Obama as a leftist.  A new sort of leftism would emerge from the political conversation, one more interested in building a future in which the public interest mattered.  It would challenge our acquiescence in the hegemonic influence of two political visions and two imagined futures, both of which dominate American politics today with conservative notions of restoring the past.What do you think?

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