Confessions of an ex-leftist who became a mindless Obot

Years ago I heard Professor Cornel West speak in New York. It was a virtuoso performance,  drawing on Sartre, Marx, Dubois, Douglas, and Dewey and many others I am too ignorant to cite, and in a spectacular style that swung from AME preacher testifying to Malcom X’s cold precision to Ivy League dryness without a false note. I could never have imagined that the same Professor West would  say of President ObamaHe has a certain rootlessness, a deracination”.

He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want.

 According to West, all this explained why the feckless Obama had not picked someone like Paul Krugman as his economic adviser (irony died again). West then went on tour with a Wells-Fargo pitchman named Tavis Smiley to rally the masses and attack Obama. West’s Princeton colleague, the eminent liberal scholar Professor Sean Wilentz had exactly the opposite problem, accusing then Candidate Obama of, well, read it:

Before the South Carolina, “Potomac” and Mississippi primaries, Obama cheerfully lifted the “hoodwinked, bamboozled” rant from the Spike Lee film Malcolm X, in order to convey to black voters that, whatever he might say about a “post-racial” campaign, racial solidarity against white traducers was crucial to his effort.

Hide the white wimmin! This is from the author of “Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement” no less.

Then we were informed by left-progressive Bob Scheer, writing in the hallowed pages of The Nation that Bircher Congressman Ron Paul, despite some regrettable “decades old” racist comments merited being treated

as a profound and principled contributor to a much-needed national debate on the limits of federal power

This is the same Ron Paul who proposed to give George W. Bush authority to charter privateers to roam the world after 9/11, the same one who told his gullible newsletter readers to prepare for race war against “fleet footed black thugs”(regrettably,  I suppose) and so on.  But Scheer is quick to contrast the principled Paul with that no good Obama. 

Professor  Michael Hudson, who I guess would call himself a Trotskyite explained in Trouthout in 2012:

If capitalism worked 30 years ago with higher taxation, with strong labor power, with a good property tax, and with affordable houses, it can work again.

Thirty years before 2012 was the glorious age of Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher. Capitalism was cool then, man, before it sold out.  Hudson goes on with a deep Marxist analysis of class structure as follows:

The banks have no power at all. The problem is the corruption of the politicians, who are just demagogues pretending to oppose the banks while actually being in their pocket.

Poor Trotsky. Here is a supposed disciple writing in the foremost capitalist country after a long period of growth of the financial sector that “the banks have no power”. And we are back to that Barack Obama again, just so busy doing bad things. He could have just shut down banks, even when George Bush was in office (Hudson is generally not too precise about chronology), but he was too corrupt to bring Capitalism back to the Edenic Reagan Era. This is pretty typical but I want to take a moment to note just how far away such an argument is from what was called “left wing” even 20 years ago. There used to be all this stuff about class, gender, power structures,imperialism and so on. A Marxist historian is yelling, “banks have no power”, another Marxist tells us the President is “deracinated”, a Bircher is extolled as great and principled critic by a left-liberal, a dean of liberal history is having a Buckley-esque fainting spell about the ominous voodoo  drumming out in the cane field  -the whole spectrum of the American Left apparently had a breakdown when Barack Obama rose to power. And any dissent from this bizarre riot of peevishness earns bitter accusations of Obomabotism, neoliberalism, or worse (if there is such a thing).

Chris Hedges is ready to carry a sign  and walk about Union Square park -at least after his vacation in Maine.

Our political leaders, Democrat and Republican, are complicit in our demise. Our political system, like that in the declining days of ancient Rome, is one of legalized bribery. Politicians, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, serve the demented ends of corporations that will, until the final flicker of life, attempt to profit from our death spiral. Civil disobedience, including the recent decision by Greenpeace activists to chain themselves to a Gazprom supply vessel and obstruct a Russian oil rig, is the only meaningful form of resistance. Voting is useless. [Hedges]

And there is a message. Right wing billionaires invested a fortune in voter suppression because “voting is useless”. Of course. And then there’s Matt Stoller whose  now defunct site OpenLeft was simply packed with predictions before the 2008 election that Barack Obama was a stealth Reaganite and empty suit taking advantage of the naive hopes of American white progressives and the tribal loyalty of those ignorant blacks, and who now agrees with Scheer that only One Man Has Moral Authority:

This is why Ron Paul can critique the Federal Reserve and American empire, and why liberals have essentially no answer to his ideas, arguing instead over Paul having character defects.

"Character defects"? CHARACTER DEFECTS! Lord help me, this guy had a 30 year career as a Libertarian, race-baiting, gold-bug. That’s not a character defect. And read the comments at Naked Capitalism for more of Obama Era Leftism - something that is very similar in many ways to pre-Obama right wing mumbling.

The same odd right  wing leftism is expressed by our human rights activists - who pine for the good old pre-drone days of helicopter gunships and free fire zones, when white phosphorus, napalm and fragmentation bombs rained down from the sky, apparently, in accord with the laws of war and stuff. And this is not to even get to the oracular status of people like Bill Black, Matt Taibbi, and the Cato Institute’s Glenn Greenwald in “progressive” America.

 What happened to the American left? I think there are four parts to the answer.

One. Look  at how leftists earn a living. Today’s left is primarily made up of academics, Non-Profit “thinkers”,  and media figures  all of whom earn their living by producing entertainment of a particular kind - generally outrage based entertainment. That is, “leftism” has been turned into a commercial process in which money and status are obtained by producing leftist material that is marketable product for the corporate media and institutional networks of foundations and universities. Outrage is a commodity that can be sold, patient organizing and explication is not. Corporate television’s message is perfectly compatible with adding a couple of “leftists” to angrily proclaim the impotence of the left and the Democrats, not with people who want to educate and keep eyes on the prize. Furthermore,  Barack Obama’s Presidency calls into question the roles of some of these outrage producers as representatives of the working class or the oppressed community. For example, while Barack Obama is President, West and Smiley’s brand identities as spokesmen for Black America are a lot weaker.

Two.  Racial anxiety: white men find themselves suddenly “robbed of the spotlight”[1]. For example, it is sadly clear that a large part of the white left has race based delusions about how much smarter they are than Barack Obama. There have been thousands of “critiques” in which some childishly over-simplified take on Keynes or pathetically uninformed theory about negotiation or political tactics is proudly trotted out as if the President needed to be tutored on elementary matters by a patient, if exasperated, benefactor.  Not that Obama was wrong, but as if this eloquent and deft politician had somehow stumbled his way to the summit of power without being able to understand something as simple as the motivations of his opponents. It’s not surprising that the most coherent “criticism from the left” of the Obama administration has come from Barbara Lee and from Angela Davis. But the right wing theory that Obama is a dim empty suit beneficiary of affirmative action seems irresistible to many white male leftists. Through the early part of the first term it was easy to find “left” explanations that Rahm Emmanuel was the real brains behind the administration (and how’s that for a right wing archetypical story?). Here’s a great example of absurd condescension from Bob Kuttner,

Now, if you are inclined to cut Obama a lot of slack, you might blame the speechwriters and the likelihood that different handlers prepped him for the Friday press conference. But that alibi doesn’t persuade. If the president had a clear inner compass, he’d notice the disjuncture and would not contradict himself so blatantly within the space of 24 hours

Three. The simultaneous defeat and victory of the socialist project. For much of the 20th century the left’s idea of social justice was tied to advocacy of state ownership of much of the economy. By now, every advanced nation has extensive government management of the so-called private sector and even so-called “free market” fundamentalists advocate far reaching powers for central banks or “privatization”that involves greater public payment for services from private companies and so on. Nobody really advocates a minimal state, they simply fight over who gets to control it and what objectives it should have. Try this one on your typical conservative: the government should not be evaluating the utility of different means of earning money, so it should stop taxing capital gains at a special low rate or giving special tax breaks to oil companies. Ha ha! And try to find someone “on the left” who seriously advocates the elimination of markets. The great collision between socialism and capitalism has sunk both boats and left a number of nostalgics grimly hanging on to ideological wreckage from which they try to rebuild certainties that are lost forever. However, acknowledging this is a problem - see “one” above.

Fourth and finally (phew). The political record of the US left over the last 3 or 4 decades has been a series of defeats. This record produced three responses:giving up, closing the wagons, and stepping away. The Marxist philosopher Žižek asked the key question:

So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it?

The remnant US left closed the wagons and answered “But of course. It would be immoral as well as inconvenient to leave our comfortable indignation behind and try to actually change the world”. And once this answer was given, hostility to those who actually do change the world was inevitable. Those of us who found symbolic victories, “making a statement”, venting, and so on unsatisfying stepped away and searched for a method that could actually produce wins. Some of us have found at least the first parts of such a method  in what  Barack Obama has advocated and accomplished.


[1] “Is the fantasy of the Democrats’ renaissance just a matter of naivete, or is something deeper going on? I suspect it’s of a piece with the denial that culture is important—a defense against the terror of radicalism that must be warded off at all costs. For some, there is also. nostalgia for a time when white liberal men like Tom Frank were heroes, before they were robbed of the spotlight by blacks, women and gays, forced to confront private conflicts as public issues, and ultimately pushed aside by the right.”  Ellen Willis I’d argue that she was right in that the old-progressives were never going to revive the Democratic Party

[2] This is the n+1th version, combining multiple partial efforts in an attempt to clarify my own understanding.


  1. krebscycle posted this