Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Double-reverse political jiujitsu

An email correspondent directs my attention to Charles Hugh Smith's hypothesis that Obama has a secret plan to discredit the big bankers. As much as I'd like to credit Obama with even populist motives, I don't find the hypothesis plausible.

It's pretty clear that Obama is a tool of the bourgeois capitalists. Why shouldn't he be? The ruling class does in fact actually rule. That's what they do. I also don't see why Volcker should be much of a bellwether; it's not like he's sitting in the treasury basement studying Marx, Lenin and Mao. He's just as much a capitalist as Obama.

I'm more confident that Obama represents one faction within the bourgeoisie and that there are serious internal contradictions within the bourgeoisie driving the social dialectic right now. And it's almost certainly true that Obama is not talking about everything he knows or everything he plans.

But there's no evidence at all to falsify the simplest hypothesis that Obama is being mostly sincere and direct, that he is in fact sincerely trying to save the capitalist system he's grown up with, believes is best, and that he has clearly been beholden to for his entire political career.

I think its more plausible that Obama is trying to buy time to enact a liberal reformist agenda, and that he does not believe he has enough political power to risk an open confrontation. As a communist, I have little confidence in liberal reformism, but even within that paradigm, I think Obama fails to realize that you gain political power by fighting and winning open confrontations; avoiding them just makes you look weak.

Even if Obama were to (probably correctly) believe he didn't have enough power to overhaul the capitalist institutions to make them "FDR liberal", his best strategy would have been to find or create some confrontation he was sure to win. The most obvious battle would have been prosecutions over torture. A win there was almost guaranteed and would pose minimal political risk: just let the Justice Department do its job. Maneuver a few good Republican judges — such as Judge Jones of Dover v. Kitzmiller — into heading most of the trials and Bob's your uncle.

That Obama hasn't done that, that he's released the torture memos without initiating prosecutions, is equivocal and weak. Obama is a smart guy, and one cannot plausibly believe a Chicago politician lacks the will or ability to fight; the only conclusion is that Obama rationally believes that prosecuting torture would not serve his interests.

The problem with the "Secret Plan" hypothesis is the same with any conspiracy theory: secret plans are usually too dangerous to seriously contemplate when it's your own ass on the line. If Obama were to give the bankers enough rope to hang themselves, it's far too easy to get a loop caught around his own ankle and go down with them.

It's also entirely unclear that the bankers would actually hang themselves no matter how much rope you gave them. Never in human history — even before the advent of scientific propaganda — has any ruling class lost its grip just because of some short-term non-catastrophic crisis; class rules changes only when society has verged near catastrophic anarchy, and never even then without a bloody revolution. I don't think Obama intentionally wishes to steer society to the brink of catastrophe.

At one level, I more or less wish him the best.A revolution is sure to be a bloody mess; I don't advocate revolution because I want one, and I'd rather be mistaken about the inevitability of capitalism's failure. But I don't think I'm mistaken, and I don't think Obama, despite being a smart, sincere, moderately nice guy, will be able to fix capitalism.


  1. Your model of open confrontation is well supported by British royal history. I happen to be reading a book about the wars of the roses, and the battles almost always serve more of a purpose of display of domination than actual domination.

    I'm not sure I understand why you are so convinced that torture prosecutions are not going to happen.

  2. I'm not convinced they're not going to happen. I'm convinced that Obama has said explicitly he's not going to prosecute. Maybe he'll change his mind.

  3. ...that he's released the torture memos without initiating prosecutions...To be (only a little) fair, the memos were released because the Bush DoJ lost a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the ACLU that the Obama DoJ was not able to successfully appeal. So they merely complied with a judicial order. So, the heartening part there is that, faced with a judicial "check," they complied rather than take a page out of the Bush II administration and ignore the order.

  4. James: So he didn't even claim righteousness in releasing the memos, only mechanical compliance with an order. Way to take charge.

    It's not like torture was a giant surprise for Obama; we've known about it for years.

  5. As much as I would like to see the architects of torture behind bars, it will never happen. Obama will NEVER support or encourage prosecution of those involved in the US practice of torture.

    Too many democrats were involved.

  6. Too many democrats were involved. -

    That does seem to be the long and short of it.


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