Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Barack Obama?

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. ... Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

So said Karl Marx in beginning his famous pamphlet applying historical materialism to French political history, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon" (1852). If he were around today, he might have written much the same thing about Barack Obama's "100 Days" in comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. In the more recent incarnation, of course, the first time was arguably triumph, not tragedy--though Marx himself probably would have decried FDR's saving of capitalism from the Revolution. If it did not seem not too hard to decipher for the reader, I would have titled this blog entry: "The 'First 100 Days' of Barack Obama."

It is indeed true that much may yet be accomplished by a Democratic Congress and President Obama intent on revitalizing the economy. But the sobering fact is that the Congressional economic stimulus package is far too little, not too much, as some have so absurdly stated. Notwithstanding the regrettable stripping of vital provisions out to placate a petulant GOP minority, the bill was already too modest. Too loaded down with ineffective tax breaks and pointless gestures to the now-discredited conservative dogmas. Too small by far in relation to the taxpayer funds that continue to be lavished on the financial sector. Obama's "100 Days" period is certainly better than what came before under Bush (obviously), but as a recurrence of the New Deal it is falling towards farce.

Now I would recoil at the idea of calling Obama a "grotesque mediocrity," as Marx did for Louis Napoleon in a preface to a later edition. Obama is clearly a talented leader with great potential, and, as I've said above, it is triumph not tragedy that will recur as farce this time. But I fear that Marx's lesson of historical materialism--that social structural forces might construct our political leaders more than their individual actions--is in danger of being forgotten by a Progressive Left which has too much assimilated the individualist rhetoric of its political opponents.

As Marx put it, contrasting his views with Victor Hugo: "He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history." Now, to be fair, it was really Obama's predecessor who was the violent Louis Napoleon figure of the early 21st century, as argued recently by at least one scholar. But substitute "triumph" for "violent act" and it seems clear that Obama runs the risk of becoming the mirror image.

If Marx was right--and he was probably more right than wrong in his critique of capitalist society, if not in his short-term historical predictions--then we are in for a rough ride. The working people of the U.S. are swelling in their populist indignation (which seems heartening), but they are as of yet far from posing any kind of organized threat to the existing political and economic order. I hope with all hope for a nonviolent, democratic political movement to shift power away from the economic oligarchs (now represented by Geithner, Summers, et al.) who rule our country, but I wonder instead if the disenchantment that will result from the failure of Obama's government to act boldly enough to address this crisis will instead drive all of that populist indignation in a rightward direction. And then we will be in for some real trouble.

Maybe a bold transformation is still possible. Perhaps the Progressive Left will allow a working-class populism to drive forward a strong wave of pressure that will pull Obama decisively Leftward on economic issues. But so far it is precisely on those economic issues where Obama has been most disappointing. The social forces are simply too weak right now, and Obama is beginning to fall towards farce. Or, as Immanuel Wallerstein concludes in his recent commentary, "Obama is off to a very shaky start. The belief that he is ready to push for a fundamental remaking of America has weak evidence in its favor, despite his intelligence and his intellectual openness. The United States is getting good grammar. It needs bold remaking."

1 comment:

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

More evidence that Obama is not nearly bold enough comes from this story I was about to blog on (but you've made the same point much better):

Obama Administration Invokes State Secrets Argument" (NY Times)

My hope is that either Obama is playing a longer game, like he did in the primary, and slowly building up to something better. Or that he will realize before it's too late that playing to the center will get him nowhere, and he'll change tack. Either way, he's off to a very disappointing start.