Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama and torture

Barack Obama will, of course, "fail" by socialist and communist criteria. He promises jobscapitalist jobs — not democratic, public control of production. He promises a stronger, more competent imperial presence — he wants to win the wars Bush has started — not to dismantle the imperialist system. Obama is overtly, explicitly and enthusiastically a supporter of the capitalist-imperialist system. Quelle suprise.

Barack Obama will, however, fail by liberal and progressive Democratic standards. Or, more precisely, Obama will succeed by liberal and progressive Democratic standards only because those standards have sunk so low.

It's been a clear tactic of the Republican party for the last 40 years that they're not afraid to lose elections. They know an electoral loss is just a setback, not a defeat. They are defeated only when they have to give ideological ground, and they're willing to sacrifice elections to maintain their ideological ground. The Democratic party, in contrast, constantly cedes ideological ground to win elections.

One critical ideological goal of the Bush administration was to establish absolute executive authority. The Bush administration tortured people not just because they're sadistic bastards — and they tap into the sadistic tendencies in the population — but also to establish that they could torture people and get away with it.

I'm of course pleased that the Obama administration will not torture people. But it's not enough to forswear torture just because Obama himself happens to be a (relatively) nice guy. We must forswear torture because it is illegal and has real consequences and punishments. As we have seen in the last eight years, we cannot always count on having a nice person as president. To borrow a metaphor from Christianity, we should not just uphold the law, we should fear it. (At least today; we'd like to get to where people uphold the law out of rational apprehension of its benefit, but that will take quite a long time. In the meantime, we're stuck with the system of enforcement.) We must not only condemn rape and murder, we must punish rapists and murderers or our condemnation is just empty rhetoric.

Susan Brownmiller makes this point sharply in Men, Women and Rape. When the book was written, rape was prosecuted and punished only primarily when the rape infringed on the property rights of the husband and/or father. This pattern of prosecution undermined the moral condemnation of rape as a crime of violence against a woman as a person and made the moral condemnation empty rhetoric.

It is not enough that Obama's administration will not torture people. If Obama allows those who did in fact torture people to escape without punishment he is just as guilty of suborning torture as the men of the early 20th century (and to some extent many of today's men) were guilty of suborning rape by not prosecuting and punishing rapists as criminals against a woman's person.

It's important to understand that all factions of the bourgeoisie want absolute executive power; the controversy is only over how that power should be exercised and — to some extent — how openly or covertly to establish and maintain that power. Obama would not have received the financial and ideological support of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois press had he not clearly promised to maintain the executive power appropriated by the Bush administration and also promised to exercise that power more effectively and more palatably.

Update: Matt Bors expresses the same idea more succinctly.


  1. That's a great point, and one that is scarce in the atmosphere of hero-worship that seems to have taken hold.

    Of course, a more sinster interpretation of Obama's refusal to call torture "wrong" (or illegal) per se, is that he wants to maintain the flexibility to implement it in some way. This viewpoint is suggested by a story in today's Wall Street Journal.

  2. I attempted to create a link here to wordpress but failed. Here it is...

    Great article.

  3. Your fifth paragraph is highly reminiscent of Machiavelli. That in no way is a bad thing, as I think Machiavelli was highly cogent and clear, I just thought I would point that out.

  4. Mozglubov said... hmmmm, well Machiavelli was smart, however he was smart from the point of view of Kings and Oligarchic leaders. But Machiavelli was anti-human, anti-christian, anti-socialist, and too fascist. Remember that socialism and communism should be humanist, compassionate, christian, forgiving, instead of the fascist ideology of capitalism, feudalism and pass oligarchic systems.


  5. Barefoot: That's it !! we need a socialist-revolution as soon as possible. I am tired of this damned capitalist neoliberal inflationary system of food rising every day.

    The fucking items at Wal Mart are rising at a skyrocket speed. I swear, i lift weights and i depend on sports supplements and every week they have a different price (i swear)

    I think USA is almost reaching a point of *super-inflation* (hyperinflation).

    And i swear, every week or 2 Wal Mart and stores have to resort to change the sticker prices of most items.

    I don't really understand how the hell can americans not riot on streets. I mean where do people in this fucking country get their money from? I mean do people smuggle with drugs or something?

    Or could it be that most americans are too conformists, and conform to an under-consuming lifestyle.

    Because to tell you the truth, consumerism, overconsuming is not evil perse like some greeners state. Under-consuming is the real problem of most americans, not overconsuming. People in this country are not overconsuming, but underconsuming.

  6. Marxist-socialist, what I meant by my Machiavelli post was not from the Prince, in which I agree with you about your assessment of him, but rather it was referring to his works in the Discourses, in which he is much more Republican and, though still somewhat of a sociopath, clearly champions the cause of the people more than any other political thinker I am aware of before him. The particular part of his thinking, though, that I was referring to was the statement that you cannot set up your government to run assuming a particular type of person running it (in this case, assuming the President is going to be a somewhat nice guy), but must set up your government so that it can function at least reasonably closely to the way one would want it to run regardless of who is actually in power.

  7. It's important to understand that all factions of the bourgeoisie want absolute executive power

    Well, there are those who consider themselves part of the bourgoisie who have stated that they are not in favor of absolute executive power. This includes huge swaths of the Founding generation and has continued over time. There are factions of the bourgeoisie who, probably rightfully, believe that they can best maintain their position in society by ensuring that executive power is not absolute and that there is a decent "middle class" life possible for a substantial majority of Americans, both of which lessen the social, political, and economic pressure for revolution.

    You are portraying a cartoonish version of the bourgeoisie, who are not that stupid. Many of them are well aware of how to lessen the likelihood of revolution, having learned from history that unbridled executive power--i.e., fascism--destabilizes bourgeouis comfort.

  8. The Founders were in the middle of the bourgeois revolution; in their time executive power was a tool of the feudal aristocracy. Now that the bourgeois revolution is complete, it's much preferable to control the executive behind the scenes, rather than expose it to mob rule... er... democratic processes.

    There are factions of the bourgeoisie who, probably rightfully, believe that they can best maintain their position in society by ensuring that executive power is not absolute...

    Such people are in a tiny minority. It's simply not credible to believe that the mainstream Democratic party operatives pay anything more than lip service to formal democratic controls on the executive.

    Obama's schtick is not to reduce executive power, but to exercise the vast executive power he's received "responsibly". He's promised not to punish the Bush administration for its excesses; he's promised only not to personally repeat them.

    I think too you're confusing the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) with the modern middle classes. The modern professional-managerial middle class thinks they're running everything, but only because their ideology is subtly and covertly dominated by the capitalist class. Both the professional-managerial and laboring middle classes are shrinking quickly and the Democratic party is not doing anything substantive to reverse this trend, at best they are only fractionally slowing it.


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