How Should the Left Criticize Obama?

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In these troubled and divided times, resentment of Barack Obama is something that is uniting people from many parts of the political spectrum.  The blogosphere is brimming with critiques of the man, his cabinet appointments, and quickly accumulating disappointments.  Leftist commentators, progressives, Ron Paul nuts, and mainstream media hacks are all pitching in.  And with good reason — my God — but I would like to make an appeal to the people of the Left.  We need to step back and consider how we should generate the criticism we need — criticism we can believe in.

Unfortunately, most of the criticism out there focuses almost exclusively on Obama and his cabinet.  There are repeated allegations of personal hypocrisy and lack of integrity.  The details vary.  The AlterNet progressives slam Team Obama for being an amalgamation of insipid centrists, while the Ron Paulites repeat the same old lines about supporting big bad government.  If we on the Left are going to be a part of the discourse at this important juncture, we need to offer something different.  Our message should be that the problem isn’t really Obama, or any other elected official for that matter, but the system.

It’s time to return to the old Marxist truism that the state is fundamentally an instrument used by a class (or more precisely a bloc of class forces) to dominate another class (or set of classes).  Therefore, our current political system, though it is called “liberal democracy” and has some democratic features, is still a class dictatorship in the sense that the owning class dominates the state, including its repressive and ideological apparatuses, in order to facilitate exploitation of the working class.  Thus we can expect that the progressive changes possible within the framework of the existing electoral system must be of a highly limited sort.

Even among liberal democracies the US system is especially limited.  Because of the dominance of the two ruling capitalist parties (which are really just variations on a theme), we can’t even get the marginal working-class representation that we see in the governments of many Western European countries, which operate on the basis of proportional representation and have media slightly less dominated by corporate interests.  And the kinds of working-class electoral victories that we have seen recently in Nepal and Latin America are totally alien to the United States.  (It bears mentioning here that these victories have been possible in no small part because the US-led imperialist forces have been stuck in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan and have not been able to violently repress the popular movements of the global South as in years past.)

For the purposes of illustrating the point, let’s use the problematic but conventional metaphor for political orientation: the line divided into left and right.  In the morass of mystifications known as mainstream US political discourse, the Republican Party is said to fall on the right side of the spectrum, the Democrats on the left, with some collection of folk (“moderates,” “centrists,” “independents”) falling in the middle.  What this conceptualization obscures is that, in terms of global politics — in terms of a model taking into account the full breadth of existing political positions — the entirety of mainstream US politics is shifted way right of center.  What mainstream commentators call the “center” is not the center at all, but a mid-point between two variations of the Right.  Both the Republican and Democratic parties are right-wing parties.


In other words, Barack Obama does represent change from the era of the Bush administration.  He is the limited change that’s possible within the logic of the current system.

Let’s perform a thought experiment.  Imagine that, in his heart of hearts, Obama really identifies with the Left and has done so for his entire adult life.  Do you really think he could have become president elect on a Leftist or even a Progressive platform?  Does anyone honestly think that he could have won with the platform of Gloria La Riva or Cynthia McKinney?  Neither of them got even one percent of the vote.  We should have no doubt by now that victory in US presidential elections goes to the candidate who can outspend the others.  And no one even marginally of the Left can hope to do that, because the campaign money comes largely from the ruling class, whose object it is to protect their interests.  No one should be shocked that Obama is such a “centrist.”

The analytical job of the Left right now includes criticizing Obama and his cabinet, of course.  But the more important task is to demonstrate that we’re not simply dealing with the alleged character flaws of a man, but with a political system that is at its heart undemocratic and enables exploitation and oppression.  Voting for “the lesser of two evils” should unequivocally illustrate the system’s limitations, but facts never speak for themselves; people speak for facts.  We cannot leave the analysis to liberals and the ultra Right, or merely churn out analysis that they could produce themselves.  The Left must perform a unique function.  We must unapologetically make the case for post-capitalist alternatives, rather than tacitly accept the logic of Fukuyama and criticize politicians solely in the terms offered by the mainstream discourse.  Criticizing Obama should be merely the jumping-off point for bringing the big picture into better focus.  Of course this will be evident to many who read this article, but I happen to believe that the argument literally cannot be made often enough, because some people still seem not to get it.

Finally, I would like to make a point about Obama’s rhetoric of “change.”  During a capitalist crisis of world systemic proportions, this could be precisely the development that the Left needs.  Perhaps it’s true what Mickey Z (a.k.a. Michael Zezima) has recently said: “There’s no greater example of [the co-opting of dissent] than President Barak Obama.”  But this appropriation could have unintended consequences similar to those of glasnost in the former USSR.  It seems that ordinary people are taking the message more seriously than the great politician himself.  We are seeing grassroots organizers stepping up their activities and a general sense of hope in many quarters.  It is obvious that people in this country want change, and Obama’s rhetoric has inspired them to think that it is possible.  The Left should not pass up the opportunity to reassert itself here.  If talk of change is proliferating in the political discourse, let’s really start talking with people about change (as well as take actions which advance change; the recent occupation of the Republic factory in Chicago and the inspiring alliance of youth and workers in Greece should give us some indication of the possibilities at hand).

Gregory W. Esteven is a sociologist working as a research assistant at the Southeastern Social Science Research Center at Southeastern Louisiana University.  He also serves on the advisory board of the Land Trust for Southeast Louisiana and is a frequent contributor to Political Affairs Magazine, a publication of the CPUSA.