Monday, November 17, 2008

Getting Real Now

Paul Street, The Empire's New Clothes:

‘Holding Domestic Constituencies in Check'

At the same time, many in the establishment sensed (accurately) that Obama is particularly well-suited to the goal of wrapping corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in insurgent garb. Their profit- and empire-based system and "leadership" has been behaving so badly that a major image makeover is required to keep the rabble (the citizenry) in line. Once he was properly "vetted" and found to be "reasonable" - to be someone who would not fundamentally question dominant power structures and doctrines - Obama's multicultural background, race, youth, charisma, and even his early opposition to the Iraq War became useful to corporate and imperial elites. His outwardly progressive "change" persona is perfectly calibrated to divert, capture, control, and contain coming popular rebellions. He is uniquely qualified to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and "manage" the U.S. and world citizenry's hopes for radical and democratic transformation in the wake of the Bush-Cheney nightmare. As John Pilger warned last May:

"What is Obama's attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy's [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,' young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party - with the bonus of being a member of the black elite - he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell's role as Bush's secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent" [8].

Obama's race is no small part of what makes him "uniquely qualified" to perform the key tasks of mass pacification for which he has been hired. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in a Z Magazine essay written for left progressives last April:

"We're far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters. Our ability to create a world we can thrive on does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised and... [about] mak[ing] them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that ...decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics...Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them" [9].

Imperial ‘Re-branding'

The logic works at the global as well as the domestic level. A considerable segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks that Obama's race, name (technically Islamic), experience living (Muslim Indonesia, as a child) in and visiting (chiefly his father's homeland Kenya) poor nations and his nominally anti-Iraq War history will help them repackage the U.S. imperial project (replete with more than 730 military bases located in nearly every nation on Earth) in softer and more politically correct cover [10]. John Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective manager of empire (and the Iraq War) than George W. Bush [11], was certainly thinking of these critical imperial "soft power" assets when he praised Obama as someone who could "reinvent America's image abroad" [11A]. So was Obama himself when he said the following to reporters aboard his campaign plane in the fall of 2007:

"If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power, as long as we are making prudent strategic decisions, handling emergencies, crises, and opportunities in the world in an intelligent and sober way....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 country. And they'd be right" [12].

What Obama didn't tell reporters was that his idea of "prudent" and "intelligent" foreign policy is strongly committed to U.S. global hyper-militarism and world supremacy, including unilateral action whenever "we" deem it necessary to "protect the American people and their vital interests" [13].

Obama's distinctive biography is one of his great attractions to the mostly white U.S. foreign policy elite in a majority non-white world that has been deeply provoked and disgusted by U.S. behavior in the post-9/11 era (and truthfully before). He is a perfect symbol of deceptive imperial "re-branding." According to the power-worshipping and unconsciously imperialist New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof three weeks ago, the election of a black president "could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American ‘brand' to be less about Guantanamo and more about equality" [14]. Never mind that the U.S. remains the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy country in the industrialized world by far, strongly dedicated to maintaining steep socioeconomic and disparity within and between nations and scarred by a domestic racial wealth gap of seven black cents on the white dollar.

Call it "the identity politics of foreign policy." The Empire wants new clothes and Obama is just the man to wear them.

"If there's anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy..."

The first public words out of Obama's mouth on the evening of his election were richly consistent with his assignment of restoring legitimacy to the American System. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible.....who still questions the power of our democracy," Obama intoned, "tonight is your answer" [15].

Our supposed "left" President-Elect's first statement was NOT a call for peace, justice, and equality. It wasn't a call for America to confront the inseparably linked problems (what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the "triple evils that are interrelated") of economic exploitation, racism (deeply understood), and militarism-imperialism.

No, it was a Reagan-like declaration bolstering the American plutocracy's ridiculous claim that the U.S. - the industrialized world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far - is home to a great democracy and limitless opportunity for all.

And what's with the word "still" (used twice) in Obama's assertion? It's not exactly like the case for the U.S. being a great popular democracy has been made with special, self-evident strength in recent times! The last three-and-a-half decades have brought the deepening top-down infliction of a sharply regressive corporate-neoliberal policies that are widely (but irrelevantly) repudiated by the majority of U.S. citizens [16].

In this century we've witnessed the execution of a monumentally criminal petro-imperialist Iraq Invasion sold to the U.S. populace by a spectacular state-media propaganda campaign (including preposterous claims of noble democratic intent Obama has embraced) that mocked and subverted the nation's democratic ideals. Dominant U.S. media's role in the invasion of Iraq marks perhaps the all-time low point of the "free press" in the U.S. [17]. The "democracy disconnect" - the gap (chasm really) between majority public opinion (which supports things like national universal health care, significant reductions in military expenditure and imperial commitment, massive public works, reduced corporate power, etc.) and "public" policy - is a widely acknowledged problem in American political life [18]. The specter of homeland totalitarianism - please see Sheldon Wolin's recent book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ, 2008) - has never loomed larger than in the opening decade of the 21st century.

"If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy"? Hello? How about: "Is there anybody who seriously thinks we really have a functioning democracy in the U.S.?"

8. John Pilger, "After Bobby Kennedy There Was Barack Obama," Common Dreams, May 31, 2008, read at
9. Aurora Levins Morales, "Thinking Outside the Ballot Box," Z Magazine (April 2008).
10. James Traub, "Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?" New York Times Magazine (November 4, 2007). See also Liza Mundy, "A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years," Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007).
11. See Paul Street, "Bush, Kerry, and ‘Body Language' v. ‘Message': Notes on Race, Gender, Empire and Mass Infantilization," ZNet Magazine (October 12, 2004).
11A. John F. Kerry, "Truly Transformative," Newsweek (April 28, 2008): 34.
12. Quoted in Traub, "Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?"
13. For truly ugly details, please see the fourth chapter - titled "How ‘Antiwar?' Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire" - in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
14. Nicholas Kristof, "Rebranding the U.S. With Obama," The New York Times, October 23, 2008, p. A27.
15. Barack Obama, "Remarks on Election Night," Chicago, IL (November 4, 2008), read at
16. For one among many sources, see see Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (New York: Wiley, 2006).
17. For some important recent reflections, see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, "The Military/Industrial/Media Triangle," Monthly Review (October 2008), pp. 15-16.
18. For sources and details, see Paul Street, "Americans' Progressive Opinions vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,'" ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at

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