Crisis and Coronation

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

The Editors

“PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:” Weeks later, it’s still hard to say the words without a tingle of wonderment, even after the hard realities have set in. Right away, of course, Obama will be judged above all on the following issues: the economy, the economy and the economy. The immediate political moment is not about Tom Daschle’s luxury-limo tax issues or Iran or even Afghanistan or environmental disaster; it’s about the American people’s terror about their lives here and now.

The moment we are living today is not one of your parent’s recessions, maybe not even your grandparents’, but a fullscale global banking meltdown and financial panic. At home, the auto industry is at risk of bankruptcy if not liquidation, major retail chains are going bust, every month’s disastrous unemployment figures are eclipsed by the next, and something north of $300 billion in “Wall Street rescue” funds have been swallowed up by banks who had no intention of rebooting the frozen credit system. Most of that first installment of “TARP” (Troubled Assets Relief Program) administered by the Bush administration can be written off as a “sunk cost,” basically wasted. Something over a million more homes are going into foreclosure this year as those “adjustable” mortgage rates reset to wipe out the finances, the futures and the dignity of ordinary people who were scammed into them.

It is a moment when economists who have spent their careers celebrating the miracle of capitalism now seriously contemplate the “temporary nationalization” of failing banks to get loans flowing again and dispose of the “toxic assets” that financial institutions can neither swallow nor vomit out. That raises two immediate questions: Why not? And for that matter, why “temporary”? It is difficult to explain why these crumbling halls-of-marble should be rescued from the consequences of their deregulated greed and then set back in private hands to begin the same cycle over again.

The same logic could certainly apply to the auto industry: Instead of workers’ wages being slashed by half, those workers could spearhead the transformation of the industry to produce mass transit and the future generations of new-technology vehicles that will rescue human civilization from environmental oblivion. The private auto industry cannot and will not do most, if any, of those things because there’s no short-term profit incentive to do so.

Because president Obama and his majorities in both houses of Congress are what they are — centrist corporate Democrats — such inroads on the power of the capitalist class are not on the agenda, and it would be fantasy to expect anything of the sort. But the terrifying scale of the crisis spurred the fight over a “stimulus package” that remains firmly within capitalist boundaries, yet is of unprecedented size at just over $800 billion, with something like $550 billion in spending and $275 in tax cuts.

Is that big enough? Almost certainly not, according to most economists’ calculations. Obama came in planning to negotiate a bipartisan deal with Republicans who demand ever-bigger tax cuts, particularly for their affluent support base, even though the evidence is clear that tax-cutting is the least effective form of stimulus. (In a climate of uncertainty and fear the tax-cut money is sensibly saved rather than spent, except of course by people at the lowest income levels who are paying little tax in the first place.)

Obama’s political reward for taking some of this nasty rightwing medicine was zero (0) Republican votes for the House of Representatives version of the stimulus bill, and a filibuster in the Senate that was only ended by gutting desperately needed aid to state governments and other useful programs that conservative types don’t like. Senator John McCain summed up Republican wisdom with the memorable phrase, “It’s not a stimulus bill, it’s a spending bill” — confirming the truth of McCain’s own statement on the campaign trail that he doesn’t know much about economics.

While Congress fiddled, the job market continued to burn — with official (understated) unemployment rates in some cities reaching 15-16%. The next big open question might be what the administration’s Plan B will be if the initial stimulus doesn’t halt the plunge.

Due partly to the Daschle debacle and more to the stimulus gridlock and the Democrats’ own timidity and incoherence, health care reform — let alone real progress toward the universal care that is desperately needed both for public health and for economic recovery — is on hold. To get that moving forward, to say nothing of massive infrastructure repair and converting to an energy-efficient sustainable economy, will take a whole lot more than rhetoric about “overcoming partisan politics.”

An Amazing Moment

It will be well over a month beyond the January 20 inauguration when this magazine reaches our readers, but it remains worth reviewing the amazing moment when Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office from the numb-fumbling “execute faithfully” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a man whose very presence symbolizes George W. Bush’s mission of flushing basic Constitutional rights down that proverbial Guantanamo toilet. (Coming attractions include the Roberts court’s probable ruling in favor of admitting illegally seized evidence.)

You have to look past the appalling Roberts, and the seamy spectacle of a gay-bashing self-promoting mega-church pastor throwing out the first prayer, to understand what inauguration day meant to tens of millions of people who felt shut out for generations. It wasn’t Rick Warren, but Joseph Lowery in his benediction who reflected the heroism of the Civil Rights revolution. It was Aretha Franklin who stirred the hearts of people, and not only African Americans.

It was the fact of president Barack Obama, more than any of the very few specifics in his understated inauguration speech, that made a couple of million folks feel rewarded for walking miles and waiting hours in the cold. And in the week following, simply not being George W. Bush, and reversing or stating the intention to undo a few of the most obscene Bush abuses of power on human rights, on women’s rights, on science and on the environment, has given the new president huge domestic and global street cred.  The test of substantive “change we need” is to come.

For several decades now, U.S. presidential inaugurations have had the character of imperial coronations — more lavish and higher in kitsch content than you’ll find in your average monarchy. It is Limbaugh-like to suggest that this display and expense, never questioned for the succession of white boys coming into the White House, suddenly becomes unseemly for the first African-American president’s installation at a time of unprecedented crisis. Whatever it cost, at least a giant slice of American and for that matter global humanity at least felt invited to join the party.

But there is an underside to the celebration. We use the term “imperial coronation” (which we don’t claim to have invented) advisedly, because all the pomp of the occasion is designed to send to the world the message of U.S. “leadership,” which actually means “rulership.” The Obama inauguration, as much as any other, was designed to send this message. The rhetoric of the hand of friendship to the Muslim world while pledging to defeat and destroy “terrorism” has no particular content, in and of itself, but it signals that the military option against those who disobey the emperor’s orders remains as strategic to this administration as to its predecessors. It may be used less crudely and foolishly, but that’s another question — and frankly, another open one at that.

Even in the middle of unprecedented economic crisis, the realities and the deep contradictions of imperialism remain. President Obama has pledged to send some 30,000 troops to complete “the unfinished job” in Afghanistan. It is a war he inherited from the brutal, arrogant and incompetent Bush regime, but making it his war doesn’t make it any less disastrous. Even the Karzai government is forced to protest the air and ground raids that kill noncombatant civilians — massacres that the U.S. military covers up by claiming another “fifteen insurgents dead.” Afghan people know better, which is why more of them are viewing the Taliban revival as a movement of national resistance against the foreign occupier.

The Taliban cancer — a malignancy created in the first place by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence with U.S. complicity — has spread throughout most of Afghanistan’s Pashtun countryside, practically to the gates of Kabul. It has fed back into Pakistan, a country where (like Afghanistan) native Islam was not “fundamentalist” or fanatical, where large border areas and the Swat valley in the northwest interior are now controlled by Taliban allies and where the government is increasingly desperate for its own survival. Obama has authorized the continuation of the “drone” raids that kill a certain number of fighters and usually a lot more civilians, further discrediting Pakistan’s own regime.

Unlike George W. Bush, president Barack Obama is not ignorant. He has not surrounded himself with ideological operatives telling him that his mission is to rule the world, for its own good. There is no doubt that he understands the gravity of the economic crisis, the looming environmental catastrophe, and even the limitations of U.S. military power more deeply than any president in modern U.S. history.

Nonetheless, capitalism and imperialism create their own “logic.” The head of a capitalist state and leader of a corporate capitalist political party is necessarily committed to restoring the profitability of the capitalist system, at home and internationally. The leader of the world superpower is necessarily committed to restoring its dominance, even if the potential consequences for humanity are deadly.

There is reason to be inspired by Barack Obama. Equally, there is reason to worry that his towering political standing could become a means to lend credibility to new imperial ventures. Such developments are not predictable at the moment. We do know that a struggle to end the empire, not to “restore” it, requires a movement from the ground up. The same goes for the struggle to break corporate power and create a new economy for human need.

Whether such a movement begins in conscious opposition to the Obama administration is secondary at this point. We are hopeful that the antiwar mobilizations called for March 21 in Washington, DC and West Coast cities and for April 4, the anniversary of the Martin Luther King assassination, will raise public awareness of the U.S.-Israeli massacre in Gaza, bring new attention to the urgency of immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and give voice to the demand to “Bail Out the People, Not Wall Street.”

This can be a first step toward building power from below for the changes we really need.

ATC 139, March-April 2009