Originally published on ZNet, July 29, 2004. I come from the same Chicago neighborhood (Hyde Park) as the nation’s official new political rock star Barack Obama. I work in urban policy and civil rights and I’ve recently been telling leftists to engage in “tactical” presidential voting – for Kerry in undecided states and for leftists like Cobb or Nader in “safe” states. So I must have really liked the charismatic former civil rights attorney Obama’s much-ballyhooed keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, right?
Not really. Sorry, I might be (rather unenthusiastically) advising people to vote Kerry in some jurisdictions next fall but I’m still a leftist – the real thing, not the mythological sort created by the crackpot right, which conflates the disparate likes of (say) Bill Clinton, The New York Times, Tom Daschle, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara as part of the same ideological vision.
Equality Versus Equal Opportunity
And as a person of the real left, I am opposed to social inequality in and of itself, whatever its origins. The massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life would be offensive to me – and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good in my world view – even if all at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equal position at the starting line of a “level playing field.” There is no such field in really existing society, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth (along with a probably higher percentage of America’s politicians and policymakers). As the great democratic Socialist Eugene Debs used to say, the point – for radicals, at least – is not to “rise from the masses, but to “rise with the masses.” Serious left vision is about all-around leveling before, during, and after the policy process.
The world view enunciated in Obama’s address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance” and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. “My story,” one (he says) of rise from humble origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence, “is part,” Obama claimed “of the larger American story.” “In no other country on Earth,” he said, “is my story even possible.”
Obama quoted the famous Thomas Jefferson line about all “men” being “created equal,” but left out Jefferson’s warnings about the terrible impact of unequal outcomes on democracy and popular government. He advocated a more equal rat-race, one where “every child in America has a decent shot at life, and the doors of opportunity [the word “opportunity” recurred at least five times in his speech] remain open to all.”
Sorry, but those doors aren’t even close to being “open to all.” America doesn’t score particularly well in terms of upward mobility measures, compared to other industrialized states (and Brazil’s current chief executive was born into that country’s working-class). Every kid deserves “a decent life,” not just “a shot” at one. And such a life isn’t about living in a world of inequality or (see below) empire.
Democracy Versus Polyarchy
Real leftists are radical “small-d” democrats. They believe passionately in substantive, many-sided, root and branch democracy. By democracy they mean one-person, one-vote and equal policymaking influence for all, regardless of class, wealth, ethnicity, and other socially constructed differences of privilege and power. They are deeply sensitive to the core Jeffersonian contradiction between democracy radically defined and capitalism’s inherent concentrations of wealth and power. They advocate a political and social life where real, regular, and multi-dimensional popular governance is structured into the institutional fabric of daily experience and consciousness.
They are hardly enthralled by what passes for political “democracy” in the United States, where highly ritualized, occasional, and fragmented elections are an exercise in periodic pseudo-popular selection of representatives from a “safe” and small circle of privileged “elites.” One term to describe really existing US “democracy” is “polyarchy,” what left sociologist William I. Robinson calls “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choices carefully managed by competing [business and business-sanctioned] elites.
The polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes Robinson, “is an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively than authoritarian solutions” (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 385).
Obama’s address advanced a truncated, passive, and negative concept of democracy, one where we are supposed to be ecstatic simply because we don’t live under the iron heel of open authoritarianism. It is an American “miracle,” he claimed, “that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door” and that “we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted — or at least, most of the time.”
Never mind that what we say and think is generally drowned out by the giant, concentrated corporate-state media cartel and that our votes – even when actually counted – are mere political half-pennies in comparison to the structurally empowered super-citizenship bestowed upon the great monied interests and corporations that rule our “dollar democracy,” the “best that money can buy.” Jefferson and Madison tried to warn us about that power disparity.
“Pleding Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes”
Real leftists are suspicious of those who downplay internal national divisions, “patriotically” privileging “homeland” unity over class differences and over international solidarity between people inclined towards peace, justice, and democracy. We are deeply critical, of course, of war and empire, which advance inequality and misery at home and abroad. Global humanity – the species – and not “fatherland” or nation-state, is the “reference group” that matters to us.
That’s why many leftists cringed when they heard the newly anointed Great Progressive Hope Obama refer to Americans as “one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” Its part of why I was uncomfortable when Obama praised “a young man” named Shamus who “told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week.” One of Shamus’ endearing qualities, Obama thinks, is “absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service.” “I thought,” Obama said, “this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child.” Not me. I hope for children who regularly and richly question authority and subject the nation and its leaders/mis-leaders to constant critical scrutiny.
Many of us on the left should have been disturbed when Obama discussed the terrible blood costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation purely in terms of the U.S. troops “who will not be returning to their hometowns,” their loved ones, and other American soldiers dealing with terrible war injuries.
What about the considerably larger quantity (into the tens of thousands) of Iraqis who have been killed and maimed as a result of U.S. imperialism and whose numbers are officially irrelevant to U.S. authorities? One of the problems with the American exceptionalism that Obama espouses is that it feeds indifference towards “unworthy victims” among peoples and nations less supposedly favored by “God” and/or History than “beacon” America. This racially tinged coldness goes back to the nation’s founders, who thought their “City on a Hill” had been granted the Creator-ordained right to eliminate North America’s original, Godless and unworthy inhabitants.
In the part of his speech that came closest to a direct criticism of the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated has “shad[ed] the truth” about why “U.S. troops were sent into “harm’s way.” He added that the U.S. must never “go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”
It’s hardly a “war,” however, when the most powerful imperial state in history attacks and occupies a weak nation that it has already devastated over years of deadly bombing and (deadlier) “economic sanctions.” “Securing the peace” is a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant, self-serving description of the real White House objective in Iraq: to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged populace of a nation that understandably resents an imperial takeover it rightly sees as driven by the superpower’s desire to deepen its control of their strategically super-significant oil resources.
And “shade the truth” doesn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated lying – that the Bush administration used and is still using to cover their real agenda, understood with no small accuracy by the people of Iraq.
The low point in Obama’s speech came, I think, when he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of “hope:”
“I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too…In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.”
Sorry, but this leftist takes exception to this horrific lumping of antebellum African-American slaves’ struggles and sprituality with the racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia – “the young naval lieutenant line” is a reference to John Kerry’s “heroic” participation in a previous and much bloodier imperialist invasion, one that cost millions of Vietnamese lives – under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. I suppose “God” (Obama’s keynote made repeated references to “God” and “the Creator”) gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for better days ahead.
What told Kerry and his superiors that the Mekong Delta was theirs to “patrol”? The same arrogant sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own chattel slaves and allowed the Bush administration to seize Iraq as a neocolonial possession.
Popular Struggle, Not “Elite” Saviors
Need I bother to add in conclusion that leftists believe in organizing and fighting alongside ordinary people for justice and democracy at home and abroad, not in holding up as saviors great leaders from (whatever their alleged humble origins ala Obama or John Edwards) within the privileged “elite”? It was probably inherent in the nature of Obama’s keynote assignment that he would finish by saying that the swearing in of Kerry and John Edwards as president and vice president will allow America to “reclaim its promise” and bring the nation “out of this long political darkness.” It’s inherent in my leftist sense of what democracy and justice are about and how they are attained to say that a desirable future will be achieved only through devoted, radically democratic rank and file struggle for justice and freedom and not by hoping – or voting – for benevolent “elite” actors working on behalf of any political party and/or its corporate sponsors.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Vice President for Research and Planning at The Chicago Urban League in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com) will be published in September, 2004.