Around the world hundreds of millions of people witnessed the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States (US), or rather the coronation of the new “emperor.” Even at the bottom tip of Africa, it was difficult to escape the scenes of imperial grandeur that beamed across television sets. As was the case with the empires of old, we were greeted with militaristic displays, cannons firing, rows of flags fluttering. The new emperor played his role to perfection — a post-modern Augustus — who told the crowds exactly what they wanted to hear. He promised to bring back the days of prosperity and to ensure that even the poor would share in the empire’s wealth once order had been restored. He told the citizens of the empire that the imperial forces would secure their safety by beating back the modern-day barbarians, the “Network of Evil.” He also assured the compliant leaders of the far off provinces, such as the South African government, that they too would come to share in the new prosperity that the empire promised. Indeed, he pledged that his empire would be benign to those who were willing to cooperate in the imperial endeavor. He even said that a hand of friendship would be extended to those provinces that were rebelling, such as Venezuela, as long as they accepted the “free” market ideals of the empire. Of course, when the emperor finished his remarks, the crowd roared its approval. No doubt most of them believed in earnest that a new age had dawned — that finally peace and wealth would be genuinely shared by everyone.
The Emperor’s Appointments Signal Continuity, Not Change
Unfortunately, much that was articulated by the new emperor in his speech was a lie. Like almost every politician who had come before him, including Augustus, Barack Obama was buttering up the people, while simultaneously following policies that simply benefited the entrenched elite. His pro-corporate policies, which he had already put in place before his inauguration, proved this and made a complete mockery of his more lofty utterances. In fact, by the time of his inauguration he had already appointed some of the worst “free” market henchmen and warlords of the Clinton, Reagan, and Bush regimes to his team.
Take, for example, Paul Volcker, whom Barack Obama recently appointed as his main economic advisor. Back in the late 1970s, Volcker was the head of the Federal Reserve. Under his watch, the dollar had gone into free fall and threatened to unravel the hegemony that the US had literally and figuratively fought for. To restore the dollar’s dominance, he hiked up interests rates to astronomical levels in order to draw capital back into the US. The result for Third World countries, especially those in Africa, was disastrous. Suddenly, these countries had to pay massive amounts of interest on the loans that they had taken from the IMF, World Bank, and Northern private banks years before. As a result of Volcker’s actions, the debt burden of countries like Brazil almost doubled in a short space of time. The whole Third World was plunged into a debt crisis from which it has not yet recovered. This spiraling debt was then used as a weapon against the Third World by the US and IMF to force it into adopting pro-corporate “free” market policies. It was these policies that have caused billions of people to be driven into abject poverty and led to the deaths of 30 million people every year for the last three decades because they can no longer sustain themselves. As such, Volcker and his policies have caused the death of more people than any “Network of Evil” ever could.
Next in Obama’s line-up of economic assassins was Timothy Geithner. Geithner has been appointed Treasury Secretary. Between 1998 and 2000, Geithner was part of the Clinton regime and was directly involved in imposing neo-liberalism on countries such as Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia. That led to the complete meltdown of these economies as it intensified the crisis that these countries were already experiencing.
Another “free” market fundamentalist, whom Obama has dragged into his team, is Robert Rubin. During Rubin’s time in office at the US Treasury (between 1995 and 1999), he repealed the 1933 Banking Act, thereby opening the way for banks to increase their speculation on anything and everything, including credit derivatives. Repealing the Banking Act also allowed Citicorp to merge with the Travelers Group. Rubin was rewarded for his generous actions with a position at Citigroup once he left government. Now, however, he is back in government, no doubt reassuring to Citigroup, which was already given massive bailouts by the Treasury, along with the guarantee of $300 billion of its assets, but is still in deep trouble.
Obama, with the usual “wisdom” of those who govern the empire, also appointed Lawrence Summers to head up his Economic Council. Lawrence Summers is a former World Bank bureaucrat, who callously stated in 1991 that the Third World was under-polluted, encouraging multinational corporations to begin dumping their waste in poorer countries. His justification for it was that most people in such countries did not live long enough to develop cancer, which such toxic waste causes.
Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is no friend of the poor either. He was a key player in George Bush’s drive to provide the $700 billion bailout to corporations that had gone bankrupt because of their own greed. It should come as no surprise that he was so keen on the bailout: prior to 2001, he was the director of Freddie Mac. He was forced to resign as director because of a scandal involving campaign contributions and “irregular” accounting practices that were implemented at Freddie Mac during his tenure.
As if these imperial economic hitmen were not bad enough, the people whom Obama appointed on the foreign policy front are truly frightening. One of Obama’s main military advisors is James Jones, who was a former NATO commander and has been involved in one way or another in all of the US’s major wars since the 1960s, including Vietnam and the Gulf War. Obama has also decided to keep the current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. Gates is a true imperial henchman: during his long service in the CIA he was involved in plotting the overthrow of numerous governments and was alleged to have links to the Iran-Contra Scandal. Then of course we have the Vice President, Joe Biden, who provided major assistance to Bush in driving through the invasion of Iraq.
The Emperor’s Actions Are Aimed at Killing Hope
It shouldn’t be forgotten that just about all of the major players in the Obama camp backed the invasion of Iraq. As Senator, Obama himself voted for Iraq war funding. Moreover, the new emperor has vowed to intensify the war in Afghanistan — targeting the very same group to whose rise previous US administrations and their allies contributed. To do so, the new emperor has already made it clear that he intends to expand the imperial army by recruiting 92,000 additional soldiers. He has also vowed that for the foreseeable future there will be no cut in military spending — the US will continue to throw over $1 trillion a year into the military budget. As Paul Street has pointed out, it will be giant corporations, such as General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing who will reap the rewards.
Obama has also repeatedly stated that he is a firm believer in the “free” market. That, of course, is code for pushing policies that benefit the super rich and corporations. Already, he has set aside a $825 billion stimulus package, which will be spent on benefiting the rich, although there probably will be some token public works program. As part of this, he is in the process of setting up an institution that will buy the toxic debt that banks and other corporations have. Through this, the losses that these banks and corporations have incurred will be socialized. On top of this, he aims to revive the flow of credit as a solution to the crisis. In other words, he is pushing one of the very causes of the crisis, debt, as the solution.
Despite claiming to have sympathy for the poor and workers, it is notable that Obama did not take any action whatsoever to assist the workers at the American automakers, when they saw their working conditions savaged as part of the Treasury’s bailout. Nor did he make as much as a squeak when the IMF imposed harsh conditions on its recent loans to Turkey, Hungary, and Iceland. Part of these conditions, which these countries had to meet, was to freeze public-sector wages and reduce social spending — direct attacks on the poor and workers in these countries. So much for a new era!
Prior to taking office, Obama had also already hit the road to promote the “free” market. Earlier this month he met with his Mexican Prefect, Calderon, to shore up NAFTA and breathe new life into Plan Mexico. This will be undoubtedly followed up with a bid to revive the WTO during the upcoming World Economic Forum. He will try to draw compliant and strategic governments in the South, such as those of India, Brazil, and South Africa, further into the empire’s institutions. This effort could see Obama expanding the G8 and giving the G20 greater powers. Indeed, he may even allow for some token reform in the IMF and World Bank to get these lackeys to intensify their promotion of the interests of the global elite, corporations, and the empire. Probably these countries will take the bait, as the elite in each one of them has been extolling the new emperor and his supposed virtues.
Unfortunately for the people who desperately hope for change, the new emperor and his henchmen are no different from those of old — indeed, some individuals were even part of the past toxic administrations. The danger now is that people may still accept the new emperor himself as constituting change. The reason for this is that his carefully crafted public image portrays him as a man of the people, salt of the earth, one of us — when in reality he is just another emperor. If people, especially the poor, want a better world — defined by true equality and democracy — then they are going to have to fight for it; Obama won’t give it to them, or rather he will try and stop them from making it. People organizing themselves through new non-hierarchal movements that are founded upon direct participatory democracy and that aim to socialize all wealth — that is the only way that a better world can be created, a world where the new emperor does not spend trillions on bailing out the aristocracy while the poor suffer.
Shawn Hattingh works for the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in Cape Town.