Published online 2 December 2014.
This piece from six years ago was brought to my attention by Louis Proyect:
Over on alternet.org, a website occupying a place on the political spectrum a bit to the left of Huffington Post, there’s an article that has been generating a bit of controversy. Titled rather provocatively “Enough of ‘Barbituate’ Left Cynicism, Obama Is a Victory over White Supremacy,” it is a reproach to those reprobates like me, Alexander Cockburn, Paul Street and others who tend to regard the Obama presidency as Bill Clinton’s 3rd term.
Now of course you can read Wise’s piece and make up your own mind, but I thought if was fun to read Proyect when he said:
Contrary to Wise, the point I and others have made is that the Democrats and Republicans are not the same. The liberal supporters of Obama are quite right when they point out that the Republicans appoint rightwing fanatics like Anthony Scalia to the Supreme Court. It is up to the Democrats to appoint judges like Stephen Breyer who have the same kind of centrist, pro-corporate orientation as the politician who nominated him. If the 2-party system was not able to offer voters this kind of choice, it would break down immediately. The purpose of a Stephen Breyer or any of a number of liberal congressmen like Dennis Kucinich is to maintain the illusion that it is worth voting for Democrats. Like the shills in a 3-card Monte game who are allowed to win every so often, they serve to keep the suckers in play.
There is, however, a kernel of truth in Wise’s old critique. Lacking a distinct movement to change the American political system by doing anything more than electing Democrats, there arose a real-life sectarian left in America, which, lacking the sort of focus it had hoped for, began to focus upon things which didn’t look meaningfully subversive anymore. And I’m sure Wise is audience-conscious in criticizing the lack of audience-consciousness among this group, although being audience-conscious in this era is not always a virtue.
The problem with Wise’s argument, however, is that, then as now, there is also a general left in America which hasn’t succumbed to pessimism, while at the same time this same non-pessimistic left is generally granted a lot of sneering and derision from the “realists” in the crowd (Wise may or may not be one) who think the best thing to do is to shut up and continue to play what Proyect calls 3-card Monte — and who like to do nothing more than hurl insults at left dissenters from this line. That particular left finds its cause in ideas such as food sovereignty, proposed by people from the South Central Farmers to the Zapatistas to the MST in Brazil. It finds its cause in the Occupy movement (or what’s left of it), and the movement for community gardens. It works for the fossil fuel divestment movement. It works for efforts to boycott “school reform,” such as it is. It works for a genuine peace movement. It works for single-payer heath care. Sometimes its members even work for third parties, or for the Democratic Party. It works for more meaningful penalties for those convicted of crimes, decent living for the poorest among us, and the legalization of marijuana. It doesn’t work for these things out of “Obama optimism,” moreover, but because forming a movement is itself an invigorating task and because these causes are about things that need to be done. Participants in these movements might or might not be Democrats; given the futility of the “vote for Dukakis/ Clinton/ Gore/ Kerry/ Obama movement” at this point, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.
Moreover, the title overreached a bit. Given the decline in nonwhite fortunes vis-a-vis whites and the disappearance of social mobility from the American landscape since Obama’s victory, “victories over white supremacy” are harder to come by than we’ve been led to believe in the era of the budget sequester. In that regard, Wise didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about Obama himself. (Of course that was the era of Obama optimism — since 2008 things may have changed.) Rather, he said on page 2:
The simple fact is, people are inspired by Obama not because they view him as especially progressive per se (except in relation to some of the more retrograde policies of the current president, and in relation to where they feel, rightly, McCain/Palin would have led us), but because most folks respond to optimism, however ill-defined it may be.
That’s nice. I’m sure W. was optimistic about a lot of stuff too. Since it’s so efficacious, I’m sure we can all be optimistic — and now that we’ve got that point settled, let’s focus upon the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of particular reasons to be optimistic. It’s better than wasting our time with caricatures such as this one:
Look at pictures of the freedom riders in 1961, or the volunteers during Freedom Summer of 1964 and notice the dramatic difference between them and some of the seething radicals of today — whose radicalism is almost entirely about style and image more than actual analysis and movement building.
Wise’s end-reflection also deserves a comment:
Hell, maybe I’m just missing the strategic value of calling people “useful idiots,” or likening them to members of a cult, the way some leftists have done recently with regard to Obama supporters. Or maybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope.
Tim, if you’re now able to see that not all of us on the “far left” are pessimists you can temper your contempt for this system with an authentic crap detector that would recognize what sort of “optimistic” message it was getting from said system’s defenders. Such a detector would recognize the attempt to blame the sequester on the Republicans for what it was, would be able to compare the ACA’s merits with its defects, would be able to assess with some degree of objectivity Barack Obama’s own statement that “Republicans and Democrats actually are “fighting inside the 40-yard lines” on key issues,” and would offer a meaningful assessment of the ruling class agendas as we’ve seen them so far.