01 November 2010

The Obama Syndrome

Move far enough to Barack Obama's left and the view begins to resemble that from the President's right. Tariq Ali, for instance, agrees with at least one detail of the ad hominem portrait of the current Chief Executive. As the Pakistani Marxist sees it from his base in Britain, Obama is nothing more than the archetypal Chicago machine politician on the make. In his brief hatchet job, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, which he promises to expand in time for the 2012 campaign, Ali compares Obama unfavorably with the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who are more to the radical author's liking. By comparison, the President is an egotistical opportunist and a toady to the powerful, a willing servant of the American Empire. Ali recounts an unflattering episode from Obama's Illinois legislature days, when he was one of four Democrats to vote for Republican spending cuts in order to look Senatorial, only to threaten to kick the ass of another Democrat when cuts that affected Obama's own constituency, and were opposed by him, were approved. There are plenty of bitter reminiscences from more radical black pols, who for Ali are the uncompromised voice of the poor, resenting Obama's rise to power, and there are plenty of quotes from the man himself for Ali to damn him with. The author is particularly disgusted with Obama's boasting of his friendship with corporate bigwigs and his perpetuation of Bush's wars. He claims to have been skeptical from the beginning, not only about Obama as a person but about the transformative potential of his election. In Ali's opinion, no important social change is possible without mass mobilization to pressure the establishment from below, and electing a black man is no substitute for a radical mass movement -- especially when the man is such as Obama.

As a foreigner, Ali has enough distance to see through the bipolarchy illusion to the reality of an establishment that is not much altered by the tilt of elections from one big party to the other. "The Obama Effect," he writes, "was enhanced by the fact that both Obama's person and his ultramoderate views were anathema to the repellent anchors on Fox TV and the crazed bigots of radio talk shows. If they hated him, he must be fine." American liberals might presume that Fox is the voice of the establishment, and that its opposition proved not only how "fine" Obama was but the threat he presented to that illusory power. Ali doesn't deny that disputes between the major parties are often bitter and vicious, but he finds them ultimately irrelevant to the direction taken by the establishment and the empire in the absence of that necessary pressure from below -- the mass movements to whom he assigns the real credit for the New Deal of the 1930s and the Civil Rights successes of the 1960s.

"Until the emergence of a political movement with a viable sociopolitical and economic alternative perceived by a majority as such, there will be no final crisis of capitalism except in the dreams of those who desire something better," Ali writes. He warns that we can't assume that a movement will form when things get bad enough; "Even the most severe economic crisis does not automatically produce a radical shift in mass consciousness that challenges the dominant view." With "neither external nor internal pressures" currently challenging the "American ruling elite," Ali's small tome is likely to inspire a sense of helplessness, especially since he holds back from urging an all-out revival of Marxism. The most he can do is point to the past or the success of "social movements" in South America, though he has no suggestions for starting such movements here or for adapting them to American distrust of strong men like Hugo Chavez. One can guess Ali's own preferences from his unstinting praise for the Cuban health care system, and it's bracing to read an author who holds the profit motive in such low regard. Since Ali has admitted that The Obama Syndrome is essentially incomplete, we should treat it as a work in progress that might be improved over the next two years by some positive recommendations for mobilizing Americans for social justice. For now, the project seems just a bit cynical on the part of Ali's publisher, Verso, if not on his own part. It strikes me as a counterpart of their anti-Clinton books by the since-apostate Christopher Hitchens, an obvious attempt by an avowed left-wing company to make money from progressive discontent with a Democratic regime. They owe us something more substantial between now and 2012.

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