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The Election of Barack Obama seen as first assault on Versailles

Tony Wikrent's picture
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Sreeram Chaulia, associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India., has written a very interesting review of an intriguing new book by senior peace activist and political scientist from Syracuse University, Horace Campbell, Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA. According to Chaulia, the theme of Campbell's new book is that the election of Barack Obama is the first manifestation of an incipient "revolutionary moment" in America, which has not yet reached its "climactic stage"

The author portrays the grassroots mass movement that catapulted Obama to power as a manifestation of the present juncture, where the ethos of "including all" is replacing hierarchical thought. It is revolutionary in nature since the neo-liberal ideas propping up the old order were untenable. The consciousness which legitimated individual accumulation of wealth at expense of society as a whole is in disarray. Linear notions of competitive progress and "unlimited growth" face a dead end in the American psyche. And the consensus that the US could consume the planet's resources through endless wars and military
bases has waned as calls grow for reining in the Pentagon's budget and global sway.

The American educational system, which had been geared to "dumbing down" and supplying manpower for finance, insurance and real estate, is now forced to reckon with democratization of knowledge on a worldwide scale. While a rising belief that the Fordist model of production is disastrous for the environment has crept in.

(I must note here that I strongly disagree with making modern industrial mass production by itself the sole causal factor in environmental problems. As Jon Larson has explained in his 1993 book, Elegant Technology: Economic Prosperity from an Environmental Blueprint, a proper understanding of class conflict along the lines of Thorstein Veblen's predators versus producers is required to correctly affix blame on the predators. As Larson shows, in countries that have not allowed the financial system to dominate the industrial economy to the extent it has in the United States, it has been much, much easier to achieve significant progress in making modern industrial mass production environmentally benign. The best examples are the laws in Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Finland, requiring manufacturers to "design for de-manufacture," that is, design their products from the beginning for eventual safe handling in the waste stream, with as much as possible directed into recycling. The key point Larson makes on the question of the Fordist model of production is that industrial engineers are required to design the processes and facilities the give us the miracle of modern mass production, and it is the very same industrial engineers who we now need to redesign the processes and facilities of modern mass production to make them environmentally safe. This requires that industrial engineers, part of the producer class, be liberated from the pressures and demands imposed on them by the predator class to continually cut costs and maximize profits.)

Campbell believes that Obama's training as a community organizer, among other things, created in Obama

a determination to break with the top-down mentality of conventional American political parties. He saw with his own eyes in the mid-1980s how Ronald Reagan's neo-liberal assault depoliticized community-based organizations in the name of individual self-interest.

There is some very interesting material in the middle of the review:

The author highlights several organizational innovations that Obama's primary campaign employed in 2007-2008 to counter the vast patronage empire of the Clintons. . . .

Obama's campaign plan rested on the African fractal precept of "scaling up", wherein the house-to-house formations in one community would be replicated by county across a state, and then iterated state-by-state to reach the national level. Campbell reminds readers that the much-touted Internet-based wizardry of the Obama team was not mechanistic but rooted in people and relationship building. With over 50% of campaign contributions drawn from small donors ($200 or less), social networking tools enabled a democratization of fundraising. . . .

Yet, once Obama's route to the presidency eased, big corporate elements jumped onto his bandwagon to attempt an eventual demobilization of the radical core. This was deemed temporarily necessary for electoral victory. Campbell documents from firsthand observation how conservative planners and lobbyists blanketed the Denver Democratic National Convention in August 2008. He notes the contentious process by which the convention stifled debate on pressing questions of the financial crisis such as US wars abroad and climate change. (Emphasis mine.)

This is the first reference I have seen to the behind-the-scenes role of "conservative planners and lobbyists" at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention, and the conservatives' perceived need to "demobilize the radical core." Can anyone else point to or link to more material on this issue? Such as, exactly who at the Convention did what to begin dismantling the "politics of participation" that had been the backbone of the Obama campaign's volunteer army?

I will note here that from the reading I have done, most especially of David Plouffe's The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, Obama and his top people completely unconsciously stumbled into creating a mass movement. They never had any pre-conceived notion of building a political tool that would actually revolutionize the United States. The "African fractal precept of scaling up" was nothing more than Obama and his team's game plan for overcoming Clinton's (and by extension, the traditional Democratic Party's) advantage in the Iowa caucuses. Plouffe is explicit on this point, when he describes the decision flow for winning the primary campaign. According to Plouffe, no one on the Obama team, including the candidate, anticipated the massive numbers of individual donations and volunteers that the campaign was able to enlist and mobilize. Plouffe does not state it, but the conclusion is screamingly obvious that no one on the Obama team recognized the revolutionary nature of the tool they had been handed by historical circumstance.

Nor, indeed, did they recognize the revolutionary nature of the systemic collapse of Wall Street and the shadow banking system. One of the most infuriating parts of Plouffe's book, and also of David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, and of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, is that dealing with how Obama reacted to the events of March through August 2008: he placed great and implicit faith in the stock and advice of people such as then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, despite their clear pedigrees as Wall Street "masters of the universe" and hence some of the most dangerous and destructive members of the predator class. Plouffe has a telling paragraph in which he describes the campaign team's shock at learning the severity of the financial crises, when Obama briefs them after one of Obama's several phone conversations with Paulson. Clearly, Plouffe may be a brilliant political campaigner, but he's completely and hopelessly clueless when it comes to the actual policies that are determining the fates of hundreds of millions, even billions, of suffering fellow citizens and human beings on this planet. And this last I assert about Plouffe can be said about the rest of Obama's top campaign people as well. What many Americans are painfully learning now is that a person's ability to campaign for and win electoral office is not necessarily a good indication of how well that person will govern, or even understand the broader issues and forces impacting governance.

Chaulia concludes that

Campbell believes that decentralized and autonomous revolutionary tendencies are not dead in the US, but that fostering a permanently engaged "politics without intermediaries" would depend on social alliances which transcend outmoded ideologies of the "old left". (p 246) The book concludes by asserting that in an age of prolonged economic stress, if networks for peace and the environment keep crystallizing outside the realm of electoral politics, qualitative change is certain to come.

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DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

Obama's early money came from hedge funds. too lazy to link, but it has been documented elsewhere. this author simply has his facts wrong.

Submitted by Hugh on

I agree with the poster Obama and his campaign stumbled into briefly tapping some of the populist dissatisfaction in the country as a campaign strategy. They were only interested in manipulating this anger to win an election. And indeed once elected, Obama and his Administration have been hostile to it in policy and contemptuous of it in all other ways.

That populist anger is still out there and still up for grabs. It could under the right leadership result in a new forward looking consciousness but such anger left to itself can go in any direction and can be immensely destructive. Right now, you have an astro-turfed Tea Party trying to seize control of it and Demo-progressives trying to keep this a Democratic/Republican affair and stifling any moves to make common cause with it.

As for the idea that this is the first assault on Versailles, that's just screwy. It's like saying Louis XVI was the first assault on the original Versailles.

mass's picture
Submitted by mass on

They practiced it with Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. They astroturfed themselves into a "movement". The author is delusional. The community organizing bit is so old. He registered voters for the Daley machine, hardly a revolutionary.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

for the essentially pro-corporate pro-wealth nature of the campaign and candidate. it was an auto-reflex demonstrating the power of television on the american political mind. "look, little people read blogs and give obama money! it's the rebirth of native populism and liberalism!" and that fooled not a few liberal bloggers and writers at the time into thinking obama was liberal.

shorter me: it was planned, and mostly worked. people love pretty speeches.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

because I think it is important to understand exactly the social and political forces that are now in motion, since Americans are soon going to be forced into recognizing this is a Second Great Depression.

I am convinced, and satisfied, from the information in the three books I mentioned in my OP, as well as in his autobiographies, The Audacity of Hope,, and Dreams From My Father, that Obama was genuinely surprised to discover the enthusiastic support people gave him after he was elected to the Illinois State Senate. This was support and adulation he received both in Illinois as he ventured outside of Chicago and traveled downstate, and later, when he was in the U.S. Senate, when he traveled to Kenya, as well as around the U.S. Now, none of the authors really delve into this, but I think that what that support comes from is exactly what Campbell identifies: a rising populist discontent flowing from the general sense that the country is “headed in the wrong direction.”

Let us be even more precise than “headed in the wrong direction”: the political balance of power is horribly skewed in favor of the rich and of corporations, and the legislative and judicial processes are now entirely devoted to churning out favorable economic outcomes for an elite class of rentiers, financiers, and usurers, at the expense of everyone else. Stirling Newberry has discussed the problem of economic rent a number of times, and explained the deleterious effects of the problem on the general economy, society, and polity.

What people / voters saw when they first looked at Obama was a black guy and they assumed, and hoped (I know I did, though he was never my first, or second for that matter, choice for Dem nominee) that, despite having successfully risen within the white power structure, being black, he would be willing to challenge that white power structure. “The white power structure,” of course, being the political balance of power that is horribly skewed in favor of the rich and of corporations.

The political dynamic, and the plain fact that there is a populist upsurge now in motion, is captured in the electoral statistics included in a recent [London] Guardian article, discussing how the Republicans’ “fake populist appeal based on cultural issues” (anti-abortion, anti-gay; and when those stopped working, anti-immigrant) succeeded, from the late 1960s until 2004 in attracting the votes

of working-class white voters – who have generally been the biggest group of swing voters. The strategy succeeded because Democrats refused to make the obvious economic populist appeal to the real interests of these voters – who were getting hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, weakening of labour and redistribution of income that was engineered by the leadership of both parties. In 2004, non-college-educated whites with household income of $30,000-50,000 voted for Republicans for congress by a 60-38% margin; in 2006, a switch to a 50-50 split (22 percentage points) contributed significantly to the Democrats' victory in congress. (Emphasis mine.)

The Republicans' long-term strategy collapsed in 2008. The Democrats were lucky, in that the peak of the financial crisis hit just before the elections that year. In October 2008, the number of Americans believing that the country was on the wrong track hit an all-time record of 89%.

What is the most recent poll number of people who think the country is on the wrong track? I saw it a few weeks ago, and noticed that it was still in the high 60s. Clearly, the populist upsurge has been tamped down for the time being, but as the President was told to his face by Velma Hart at the town hall meeting last week, Obama has yet “to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class.”

Plouffe writes in his book, and the other authors also report this, that Obama and his team repeatedly and consistently underestimated the response and support they would receive, from the number of people who appeared at an event, to the number and dollar amount of contributions, to the number of volunteers willing to hit the pavement and dial the phones. What that tells me is that Obama, Axelrod, Plouffe, and the others did not actually understand the truly revolutionary nature of, not the Obama campaign, but the grassroots support for the Obama campaign. All those clowns I name would have benefited greatly from reading David Sirota’s The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington.

And I’m very certain about the nature of the grassroots support for Obama’s campaign. I turned over my office / store / storage area in eastern Alamance County, NC, to the Obama campaign. It was extremely interesting, and quite unnerving, to see how the local Democratic Party tried to come to terms with the Obama campaign. They were two entirely separate and distinct organizations. There were a few local Dems who were wildly enthusiastic for Obama, but the vast majority of “wildly enthusiastic” people for Obama had never been to a local Democratic Party event or function in their life, knew none of the local Democratic Party members and leaders, and could care less. They are now not responding to appeals to help in these last five weeks of the mid-term election season. Like you, I never believed Obama was a liberal, but (as Stirling Newberry once wrote) he was one of the two choices that washed up on our doorsteps by the end of September. And there was no way anyone except the most unrepentant knuckle draggers were going to vote for McCain.

Does all this mean that I disagree with, as you write, “the essentially pro-corporate pro-wealth nature of the campaign and candidate”? Well, yes and no. What I found extremely interesting in the review by Professor Chaulia was the statement that “Campbell documents from firsthand observation how conservative planners and lobbyists blanketed the Denver Democratic National Convention in August 2008.” While I don’t think that there is a monolithic “pro-corporate pro-wealth” political entity out there, I do believe that there are a number of people, and entities, often with competing agendas, who recognized that Republicans had no chance for the White House in 2008, and were determined to somehow, someway, gain and / or impose some level or means of control over the new Obama administration. That Campbell personally observed some of these people, and their antics, and moreover writes about them, is extremely important and useful. This is, ahem, pretty basic intelligence work – keeping record of the names of such people, and seeing if they pop up again as we watch events unfold.

I must also add that a crucial point to remember, when considering how “pro-corporate pro-wealth” policies came to dominate this administration, is the manner in which the thinking of policy makers and other elites is strictly circumscribed by the prevailing theology of “neo-liberal economics.” I would point you to my comment nearly two months ago, What controls Obama is the reigning economic theory. I think the role of the Federal Reserve in "encouraging" the dominance of neo-liberal economic thought is about as close as we're going to find to an actual criminal conspiracy (besides the control fraud at the money center banks and on Wall Street that William Black has repeatedly pointed to). What we're really dealing with here is what a marxist would recognize as class consciousness; in this particular case, the manner in which a particular way of thinking has been enforced among bankers and other members of the financial predator class. Veblen would call it "the human instinct of emulation."

Finally, let me toot my horn by pointing to this depressingly prescient comment of mine on DailyKos, on Fri Nov 21, 2008. Here’s a snippet, but I urge you to go read the entire comment (it will tell you a little bit of my background), which received a frankly astonishing 300 plus recommends, and no dissent.

What I can do that might do some good is to tell you what I think is coming next.

The Obama administration will spend around 12 to 24 months try to find a solution to the new world depression within the confines of neo-liberal economic thought.

Meanwhile the suffering and misery is going to get worse, and worse, and worse. The Rethugs will be grinning from ear to ear.

I'm hoping the street organizer in Obama will come to the fore at that point, and we can begin to crack down on the financial markets and their addiction to hot money. In other words, saving the real economy is going to require destroying all the offshore tax havens and imposing a tax on financial transactions that chases out short-term speculation.

Basically, we are either going to force the financial system to eat the losses of its deflated bubbles, or the financial system is going to force us to cut wages, pensions, Social Security, national healthcare and the standard of living.

Remember - always remember- that these are not merely interesting political phenomena we are watching for our own amusement. What is literally at stake is the existence of the United States as a functioning democratic republic, a point Marshall Auerback, touches on in his recent post on nakedCapitalism.com:

The primary reason the public accepts what we call “fiat money” is because it has tax liabilities to the government. If the tax system were removed, the government would eventually find that its fiat money would lose its ability to purchase goods and services on the market. In the words of the economist Abba Lerner:

The modern state can make anything it chooses generally acceptable as money…It is true that a simple declaration that such and such is money will not do, even if backed by the most convincing constitutional evidence of the state’s absolute sovereignty. But if the state is willing to accept the proposed money in payment of taxes and other obligations to itself the trick is done.

If that trend persists, then we do end up being like Greece. Not because of growing national insolvency, but more because our citizenry begins to view the government as a piggy bank to be exploited, rather than an instrument which mobilizes national resources for broader public purpose. Absent this political authority, everything begins to break down.

For all of his renewed vigor on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama fundamentally fails to understand this phenomenon, which is why his exhortations of the kind that he uttered last weekend to the Congressional Black Caucus no longer resonate with the broader public. His “change” message is no longer a symbol of hope, but has become a source of bitter irony and cynicism. As a result, this President risks turning off an entire generation of new voters who were once genuinely excited by the man’s promise.

I think Auerback is wrong on one critical point: the "entire generation of new voters." They are now entering early adulthood with the most dismal economic prospects any American generation has faced in three quarters of a century. I do not believe that the elites can prevent the economic pain from becoming so severe that this "entire generation of new voters" can afford to be apathetic and uninvolved.