[Marxism] Adolph Reed: The long, slow surrender of American liberals

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 17 12:46:37 MST 2014


http://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/nothing-left-2/

Harper's       March 2014 issue
Nothing Left
The long, slow surrender of American liberals

By Adolph Reed Jr.

For nearly all the twentieth century there was a dynamic left in the 
United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism 
generated unacceptable social costs. That left crested in influence 
between 1935 and 1945, when it anchored a coalition centered in the 
labor movement, most significantly within the Congress of Industrial 
Organizations (CIO). It was a prominent voice in the Democratic Party of 
the era, and at the federal level its high point may have come in 1944, 
when FDR propounded what he called “a second Bill of Rights.” Among 
these rights, Roosevelt proclaimed, were the right to a “useful and 
remunerative job,” “adequate medical care,” and “adequate protection 
from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”

The labor-left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American 
politics through the 1960s. What have become known as the social 
movements of the Sixties — civil rights activism, protests against the 
Vietnam War, and a renewed women’s movement — were vitally linked to 
that egalitarian left. Those movements drew institutional resources, 
including organizing talents and committed activists, from that older 
left and built on both the legislative and the ideological victories it 
had won. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless 
Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive 
stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or 
slow the rightward tide. At the same time, business interests, in 
concert with the Republican right and supported by an emerging wing of 
neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as many as possible of the 
social protections and regulations the left had won. As this 
defensiveness overtook leftist interest groups, institutions, and 
opinion leaders, it increasingly came to define left-wing journalistic 
commentary and criticism. New editorial voices — for example, The 
American Prospect — emerged to articulate the views of an intellectual 
left that defined itself as liberal rather than radical. To be sure, 
this shift was not absolute. Such publications as New Labor Forum, New 
Politics, Science & Society, Monthly Review, and others maintained an 
oppositional stance, and the Great Recession has encouraged new outlets 
such as Jacobin and Endnotes. But the American left moved increasingly 
toward the middle.

Today, the labor movement has been largely subdued, and social activists 
have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons 
accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from 
practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care 
in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public 
office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling. Dominant figures in 
the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American 
military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted 
its focus from inequality to “disparity,” while neatly evading any 
critique of the structures that produce inequality.

The sources of this narrowing of social vision are complex. But its most 
conspicuous expression is subordination to the agenda of a Democratic 
Party whose center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s 
presidency. Although it is typically defended in a language of political 
practicality and sophistication, this shift requires, as the historian 
Russell Jacoby notes, giving up “a belief that the future could 
fundamentally surpass the present,” which traditionally has been an 
essential foundation of leftist thought and practice. “Instead of 
championing a radical idea of a new society,” Jacoby observes in The End 
of Utopia, “the left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to 
expand the options within the existing society.”

The atrophy of political imagination shows up in approaches to strategy 
as well. In the absence of goals that require long-term organizing — 
e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education 
and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income 
security — the election cycle has come to exhaust the time horizon of 
political action. Objectives that cannot be met within one or two 
election cycles seem fanciful, as do any that do not comport with the 
Democratic agenda. Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ 
left are infected with electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment 
of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. For 
liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to 
elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus 
operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party 
that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of 
redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. 
True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; 
true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but 
this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme 
Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.

Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic 
Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly 
always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; 
they control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive 
initiatives even if they don’t control either the executive or the 
legislative branch. Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in 
the circular self-evidence of their conviction. Each undesirable act by 
a Republican administration is eo ipso evidence that if the Democratic 
candidate had won, things would have been much better. When Democrats 
have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican 
bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for 
suppressing criticism from the left.

Exaggerating the differences between Democratic and Republican 
candidates, moreover, encourages the retrospective sanitizing of 
previous Democratic candidates and administrations. If only Al Gore had 
been inaugurated after the 2000 election, the story goes, we might well 
not have had the September 11 attacks and certainly would not have had 
the Iraq War — as if it were unimaginable that the Republican reaction 
to the attacks could have goaded him into precisely such an act. And 
considering his bellicose stand on Iraq during the 2000 campaign, he 
well might not have needed goading.

The stale proclamations of urgency are piled on top of the standard 
jeremiads about the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade. The “filibuster-proof 
Senate majority” was the gimmick that spruced up the 2008 election 
cycle, conveniently suggesting strategic preparation for large policy 
initiatives while deferring discussion of what precisely those 
initiatives might be. It was an ideal diversion that gave wonks, 
would-be wonks, and people who just watch too much cable-television news 
something to chatter about and a rhetorical basis for feeling 
“informed.” It was, however, built on the bogus premise that Democrat = 
liberal.

Most telling, though, is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration 
as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record 
demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining 
the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A 
recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to 
break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of 
“ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the 
termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide 
income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal 
provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to 
transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from 
impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate 
developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills 
that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the 
prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing 
disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over 
strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He 
temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would 
tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican 
takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. 
He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing 
Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about 
“reinventing government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, 
among other things, extending privatization of the federal 
meat-inspection program, which shifted responsibility to the meat 
industry — a reinvention that must have pleased his former Arkansas 
patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left its legacy in the sporadic 
outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper, endemic problems of food 
safety in the United States. His approach to health-care reform, like 
Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the insurance and 
pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified the 
blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine.

In foreign policy, he was no less inclined than Reagan or George H. W. 
Bush to engage in military interventionism. Indeed, counting his portion 
of the Somali operation, he conducted nearly as many discrete military 
interventions as his two predecessors combined, and in four fewer years. 
Moreover, the Clinton Administration initiated the “extraordinary 
rendition” policy, under which the United States claims the right to 
apprehend individuals without charges or public accounting so that they 
can be imprisoned anywhere in the world (and which the Obama 
Administration has explicitly refused to repudiate). Clinton also 
increased American use of “privatized military services” — that is, 
mercenaries.

The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations 
of the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, 
however, was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the 
housing bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by 
his signing the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had 
established a firewall between commercial and investment banking in 
response to the speculative excesses that sparked the Great Depression. 
And, as is the wont of bubbles, first one and then the other burst, 
ushering in the worst economic crisis since the depression that had led 
to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the first place. To be sure, the 
Clinton Administration was not solely or even principally responsible 
for those speculative bubbles and their collapse. The Republican 
administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally inclined to 
do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the financial sector. 
Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran his fiscal and 
economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan Greenspan — are 
no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought about the 
economic crisis that has lingered since 2008.

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have 
been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda. Indeed, 
Clinton made his predilections clear from the outset. “We’re Eisenhower 
Republicans here,” he declared, albeit exasperatedly, shortly after his 
1992 victory. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond 
market. Isn’t that great?”

Taking into account the left’s disappearance into Democratic 
neoliberalism helps explain how and why so many self-proclaimed leftists 
or progressives — individuals, institutions, organizations, and 
erstwhile avatars of leftist opinion such as The Nation — came to be 
swept up in the extravagant rhetoric and expectations that have 
surrounded the campaign, election, and presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama and his campaign did not dupe or simply co-opt unsuspecting 
radicals. On the contrary, Obama has been clear all along that he is not 
a leftist. Throughout his career he has studiously distanced himself 
from radical politics. In his books and speeches he has frequently drawn 
on stereotypical images of leftist dogmatism or folly. When not engaging 
in rhetorically pretentious, jingoist oratory about the superiority of 
American political and economic institutions, he has often chided the 
left in gratuitous asides that seem intended mainly to reassure 
conservative sensibilities of his judiciousness — rather as Booker T. 
Washington used black chicken-stealing stereotypes to establish his bona 
fides with segregationist audiences. This inclination to toss off casual 
references to the left’s “excesses” or socialism’s “failure” has been a 
defining element of Brand Obama and suggests that he is a new kind of 
pragmatic progressive who is likely to bridge — or rise above — left and 
right and appeal across ideological divisions. Assertions that Obama 
possesses this singular ability contributed to the view that he was 
electable and, once elected, capable of forging a new, visionary, 
postpartisan consensus.

This feature of Brand Obama even suffused the enthusiasm of those who 
identify as leftists, many of whom at this point would like to roll up 
their past proclamations behind them. Here was a nominal progressive who 
actually could win the presidency, clearing the electoral hurdle that 
Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and other protest candidates could not. Yet 
few acknowledged the extent to which Obama’s broad appeal hinged on his 
disavowals of left “excesses.” What kind of “progressive” pursues a 
political strategy of distancing himself from the left by rehearsing 
hackneyed conservative stereotypes? Even granting the 
never-quite-demonstrated assertion that Obama is, in his heart of 
hearts, committed to a progressive agenda (a trope familiar from the 
Clinton Administration, we might recall), how would a coalition built on 
reassuring conservatives not seriously constrain his administration?

The generalities with which Obama laid out his vision made it easy to 
avoid such questions. His books are not substantive articulations of a 
social program but performances in which his biographical narrative and 
identity stands in for a vaguely transformational politics. Sometimes 
this projection has been not so subtle. In an interview with the 
journalist James Traub a year before the election, Obama averred: “I 
think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White 
House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake 
Victoria and has a sister who’s half Indonesian, married to a 
Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better 
sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country. And they’d be 
right.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is little with which to disagree in 
those books. They meant to produce precisely that effect. Matt Taibbi 
characterized Obama’s political persona in early 2007 as

     an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, 
geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t 
run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the 
ideological spectrum. Obama’s “Man for all seasons” act is so perfect in 
its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself 
somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his 
upbringing. . . . [H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of 
ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical 
energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, 
and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on 
issues, he often does so reluctantly.

Taibbi described Obama’s political vision as “an amalgam of Kennedy, 
Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the 
middle of the middle.” Taibbi is by no means alone in this view; others 
have been more sharply critical in drawing out its implications, even 
during the heady moment of the 2008 campaign.

Nearer the liberal mainstream, Paul Krugman repeatedly demonstrated that 
many of candidate Obama’s positions and political inclinations were not 
only inconsistent with the hyperbolic rhetoric that surrounded the 
campaign but were moreover not even especially liberal. When in a June 
2008 issue of The Nation Naomi Klein expressed concern about Obama’s 
profession of love for the free market and his selection of very 
conventionally neoliberal economic advisers, Krugman responded rather 
waspishly, “Look, Obama didn’t pose as a Nation-type progressive, then 
turn on his allies after the race was won. Throughout the campaign he 
was slightly less progressive than Hillary Clinton on domestic issues — 
and more than slightly on health care. If people like Ms. Klein are 
shocked, shocked that he isn’t the candidate of their fantasies, they 
have nobody but themselves to blame.” As early as 2006, Ken Silverstein 
noted in these pages that the rising star’s extensive corporate and 
financial-sector connections suggested that his progressive supporters 
should rein in their hopes. Larissa MacFarquhar, in a 2007 New Yorker 
profile, also gave reason for restraint to those projecting 
“transformative” expectations onto Obama. “In his view of history,” she 
reports, “in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world 
can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply 
conservative. . . . Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything 
in the past twenty years, he says ‘I’m probably more humble now about 
the speed with which government programs can solve every problem.’ ”

These and other critics, skeptics, and voices of caution were largely 
drowned out in the din of the faithful’s righteous fervor. Some in the 
flock who purported to represent the campaign’s left flank, such as the 
former SDS stalwart Carl Davidson and the professional white antiracist 
Tim Wise, denounced Obama’s critics as out-of-touch, pie-in-the-sky 
radicals who were missing the train of history because they preferred 
instead to wallow in marginalization. This response is a generic mantra 
of political opportunists. Some who called for climbing on the bandwagon 
insisted that Obama was a secret progressive who would reveal his true 
politics once elected. Others relied on the familiar claim that actively 
supporting the campaign — as distinct from choosing to vote for him as 
yet another lesser evil — would put progressives in a position to exert 
leftward pressure on his administration.

Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments 
made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. We were urged to 
marvel at and take our cues from the already indulged upper-middle-class 
Children of the Corn and their faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance. 
And it was easy to understand why so many of them found Obama to be 
absolutely new under the sun. To them he was. A twenty-five-year-old on 
November 4, 2008, was a nine-year-old when Bill Clinton was first 
elected, ten when he pushed NAFTA through Congress, thirteen when he 
signed welfare “reform,” and sixteen when he signed the Financial 
Services Modernization Act of 1999, which repealed Glass–Steagall.

Obama’s miraculous ability to inspire and engage the young replaced 
specific content in his patter of Hope and Change. In the same way that 
he and his supporters presented his life story as the embodiment of a 
politics otherwise not clearly defined, the projection of inspired youth 
substituted a narrative of identity — and a vague and ephemeral one at 
that — for argument. Those in Obama’s thrall viewed his politics as 
qualitatively different from Bill Clinton’s, even though the political 
niche Obama had crafted for himself only deepened Clintonism. Of course, 
perception of Obama’s difference from the Clintons and other Democratic 
contenders past and present was bound up in his becoming the first black 
president, the symbolic significance of which far outweighed the 
candidate’s actual politics. Thus, for instance, the philosopher Slavoj 
Žižek, usually not a faddish enthusiast, proclaimed just after the 2008 
presidential election that

     Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal 
parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic 
calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something 
more. . . . Whatever our doubts, for that moment [of his election] each 
of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity. . 
. . Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of 
signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the 
memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition 
reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for 
future achievements.

Nevertheless, Obama could not have sold his signature “bipartisan” 
transcendence so successfully to those who identify as leftists if 
Clinton had not already moved the boundaries of liberalism far enough 
rightward. Obama’s posture of judiciousness depends partly on the ritual 
validation of bromides about “big government,” which he typically evokes 
through resonant phrases rather than through affirmative argument that 
might ring too dissonantly with his leftist constituents. He can finesse 
the tension with allusions because Clinton, in his supposed “New 
Covenant” from a “New Democrat,” had already severed the link between 
Democratic liberalism and vigorous, principled commitment to the public 
sector.

Obama also relies on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor 
people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty. Clinton’s 
division of the poor into those who “play by the rules” and those who 
presumably do not, his recasting of the destruction of publicly provided 
low-income housing and the forced displacement of poor people as “Moving 
to Opportunity” and “HOPE,” and most of all his debacle of “welfare 
reform” already had helped liberal Democrats to view behavior 
modification of a defective population as the fundamental objective of 
antipoverty policy. Indeed, even ersatz leftists such as Glenn 
Greenwald, then of Salon.com, and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel 
defended and rationalized Obama’s willingness to disparage black poor 
people. Greenwald applauded the candidate for making what he somehow 
imagined to be the “unorthodox” and “not politically safe” move of 
showing himself courageous enough to beat up on this politically 
powerless group. For her part, vanden Heuvel rationalized such moves as 
his odious “Popeyes chicken” speech as reflective of a “generational 
division” among black Americans, with Obama representing a younger 
generation that values “personal responsibility.”* Perhaps, but it’s 
noteworthy that Obama didn’t give the Popeyes speech to groups of 
investment bankers.

* In a 2008 speech to a mostly African-American audience in the city of 
Beaumont, Texas, Obama scolded


his listeners about feeding junk food to children: “Y’all have Popeyes 
out in Beaumont? I know some of
y’all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That’s why 
y’all laughing. . . . You can’t

do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how 
they study, how they learn in

school.”

Obama’s reflexive disposition to cater first to his right generally has 
been taken in stride as political necessity or even applauded as 
sagacious pragmatism. Defenses of Obama’s endorsements of the likes of 
John Barrow, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, and the Republican 
turncoat senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania over more liberal 
Democrats rest on the assumption that Democrats can win only by 
operating within a framework of political debate set by the right and 
attempting to produce electoral majorities by triangulating 
constituencies. At least since Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “serious” 
Democratic candidates have insisted that, because appealing to the 
right’s agenda is necessary to win, the responsible left must forgo 
demands for specific policies or programs as quid pro quo for their 
support. As its reaction to left criticism of his approach to 
health-care reform illustrated, the Obama Administration defines as 
“responsible” those who support it without criticism; those who do not 
are by definition the “far left” and therefore dismissible. To complete 
the dizzying ideological orbit, this limitation has been sold as 
evidence of the importance of subordinating all other concrete political 
objectives to the project of electing more Democrats, on the premise 
that the more of them we elect, the greater the likelihood that a 
majority will be amenable to embracing a leftist program.

Anticipation of jobs and “access” — the crack cocaine (or, more 
realistically, powder cocaine) of the interest-group world — helps to 
make this scam more alluring, especially among those who have nurtured 
their aspirations in elite universities or the policy-wonk left or both. 
Such aspirants can be among the most adamant in denouncing leftist 
criticism of the Democrat of the moment as irresponsible and politically 
immature.

But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since 
the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of 
the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a 
political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that 
is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the 
Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then 
what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and 
“progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast 
version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a 
reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right 
proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean 
little more than “not right.”

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old 
quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any 
other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to 
that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of 
political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi 
labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; 
the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the 
blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” 
software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It 
lacks focus and stability; its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating 
solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send 
messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or 
for the oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of 
defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of 
challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no 
learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to the new enthusiasm. 
It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam. Far 
from being avant-garde, the self-styled left in the United States seems 
content to draw its inspiration, hopefulness, and confidence from 
outside its own ranks, and lives only on the outer fringes of American 
politics, as congeries of individuals in the interstices of more 
mainstream institutions.

With the two parties converging in policy, the areas of fundamental 
disagreement that separate them become too arcane and too remote from 
most people’s experience to inspire any commitment, much less popular 
action. Strategies and allegiances become mercurial and opportunistic, 
and politics becomes ever more candidate-centered and driven by 
worshipful exuberance about individuals or, more accurately, the 
idealized and evanescent personae — the political holograms — their 
packagers project.

As the “human cipher” Taibbi described, Obama is the pure product of 
this hollowed-out politics. He is a triumph of image and identity over 
content; indeed, he is the triumph of identity as content. Taibbi 
misreads how race figures into Brand Obama. Obama is not “without” race; 
he embodies it as an abstraction, a feel-good evocation severed from 
history and social relations. Race is what Obama projects in place of an 
ideology. His racial classification combines with a narrative of 
self-presentation, including his past as a “community organizer,” to 
convey a sensation of a politics, much as advertising presents a product 
as the material expression of inchoate desire. This became the basis for 
a faith in his virtue that largely insulated him from sharp criticism 
from the left through the first five years of his presidency. 
Proclamation that Obama’s election was, in Žižek’s terms, a “sign in 
which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its 
abolition reverberates” was also a call to suspend critical judgment, to 
ascribe to the event a significance above whatever Obama stood for or 
would do.

In fact, Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes 
his election supposedly signified had already taken place. His election, 
after all, did not depend on disqualifying large chunks of the white 
electorate. As things stand, his commitments to an imperialist foreign 
policy and Wall Street have only more tightly sealed the American left’s 
coffin by nailing it shut from the inside. Katrina vanden Heuvel pleads 
for the president to accept criticism from a “principled left” that has 
demonstrated its loyalty through unprincipled acquiescence to his 
administration’s initiatives; in a 2010 letter, the president of the 
AFL-CIO railed against the Deficit Commission as a front for attacking 
Social Security while tactfully not mentioning that Obama appointed the 
commission or ever linking him to any of the economic policies that 
labor continues to protest; and there is even less of an antiwar 
movement than there was under Bush, as Obama has expanded American 
aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows 
where else.

Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal 
Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to 
those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable 
good will from the corporate and financial sectors. From his successful 
wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning 
of his political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he 
projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about 
their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling 
good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he 
has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues 
to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in 
American politics.

Particularly among those who stress the primary force of racism in 
American life, Obama’s election called forth in the same breath 
competing impulses — exultation in the triumphal moment and a caveat 
that the triumph is not as definitive as it seems. Proponents of an 
antiracist politics almost ritualistically express anxiety that Obama’s 
presidency threatens to issue in premature proclamation of the 
transcendence of racial inequality, injustice, or conflict. It is and 
will be possible to find as many expressions of that view as one might 
wish, just as lunatic and more or less openly racist “birther” and Tea 
Party tendencies have become part of the political landscape. An equal 
longer-term danger, however, is the likelihood that we will find 
ourselves with no critical politics other than a desiccated leftism 
capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and 
making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast 
in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and 
diversity. This is neoliberalism’s version of a left. Radicalism now 
means only a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination, a point from 
which Democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it’s the path 
Democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.

Confusion and critical paralysis prompted by the racial imagery of 
Obama’s election prevented even sophisticated intellectuals like Žižek 
from concluding that Obama was only another Clintonite Democrat — no 
more, no less. It is how Obama could be sold, even within the left, as a 
hybrid of Martin Luther King Jr. and Neo from The Matrix. The triumph of 
identity politics, condensed around the banal image of the civil rights 
insurgency and its legacy as a unitary “black liberation movement,” is 
what has enabled Obama successfully to present himself as the literal 
embodiment of an otherwise vaporous progressive politics. In this sense 
his election is most fundamentally an expression of the limits of the 
left in the United States — its decline, demoralization, and collapse.

The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to 
admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to 
create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding 
in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that 
means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American 
left. Pretending some other option exists is worse than useless. There 
are no magical interventions, shortcuts, or technical fixes. We need to 
reject the fantasy that some spark will ignite the People to move as a 
mass. We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot 
occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires 
painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside 
the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. Finally, admitting our 
absolute impotence can be politically liberating; acknowledging that as 
a left we have no influence on who gets nominated or elected, or what 
they do in office, should reduce the frenzied self-delusion that rivets 
attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent 
horse races. It is long past time for us to begin again to approach 
leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and 
governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building 
the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision. Obama and 
his top aides punctuated that fact by making brutally apparent during 
the 2008 campaign that no criticism from the left would have a place in 
this regime of Hope and Change. The message could not be clearer.






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