‘Desperation, confusion and capitulation’!



by Selvam Canagaratna

"America has the best-dressed poverty the world has ever known."

– Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962)

Who better qualified than Professor Cornel West, that prominent and provocative Black American intellectual to comment on the Obama presidency which is now beginning the end-run of its two-term, eight-year span: "Obama’s Black-face of the American empire has made it more difficult for Black courageous and radical voices to bring critique to bear on the US empire."

"On the empirical or lived level of Black experience, Black people have suffered more in this age than in the recent past. Empirical indices of infant mortality rates, mass incarceration rates, mass unemployment and dramatic declines in household wealth reveal this sad reality," he notes before asking, "How do we account for this irony?"

While conceding it goes far beyond the individual figure of President Obama himself, West nevertheless claims Barack is complicit: "He is a symptom, not a primary cause," he explains. "Although he is a symbol for some of either a post-racial condition or incredible Black progress, his presidency conceals the escalating levels of social misery in poor and Black America."

The leading causes of the decline, in West’s view, are threefold. "First, there is the shift of Black leadership from the voices of social movements to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system. This shift produces voices that are rarely if ever critical of the system. How could we expect the Black caretakers and gatekeepers of the system to be critical of it?"

This shift, said West, was one in which neoliberal elites marginalized social movements and prophetic voices in the name of consolidating a rising oligarchy at the top, leaving a devastated working class in the middle, and desperate poor people whose labour was no longer necessary for the system at the bottom.

"Second, this neoliberal shift produces a culture of raw ambition and instant success that is seductive to most potential leaders and intellectuals, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal regime. This culture of superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrities highlights the legitimacy of an unjust system that prides itself on upward mobility of the downtrodden. Yet, the truth is that we live in a country that has the least upward mobility of any other modern nation!

"Third, the US neoliberal regime contains a vicious repressive apparatus that targets those strong and sacrificial leaders, activists, and prophetic intellectuals who are easily discredited, delegitimated, or even assassinated, including character-assassination which becomes systemic and chronic, and is preferable to literal assassination because dead martyrs tend to command the attention of the sleepwalking masses and thereby elevate the threat to the status quo."

Prof. West goes on to note that the age of Obama was predicated on three pillars: "Wall Street crimes in the financial catastrophe of 2008; imperial crimes in the form of the USA PATRIOT Act and National Defense Authorization Act, which give the President sweeping and arbitrary power that resembles a police or neofascist state; and social crimes principally manifest in a criminal justice system that is in itself criminal (where torturers, wire tappers, and Wall Street violators of the law go free yet poor criminals, such as drug offenders, go to prison). This kind of clear and direct language is rare in political discourse precisely because we are accustomed to be so polite in the face of crimes against humanity."

West’s October 5th, 2014 critique of the Obama regime stirred vague memories of what I had read back in 2008 by John Pilger; a check on the archive threw up an unarguably prescient piece by him on the yet-to-become first Black Prez of the world’s sole – and, as it has turned out, a wholly ineffective – SuperPower.

Written on December 11, 2008, Pilger set the stage thus: "One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama?"

Pilger followed it with a precision verbal ‘drone’ attack that none of Barack’s real-life killers-in-the-sky have yet to achieve: "Having campaigned with ‘Change You Can Believe In’, president-elect Barack Obama has named his A-team. They include Hillary Clinton, who voted to attack Iraq without reading the intelligence assessment and has since threatened to ‘totally obliterate’ Iran on behalf of a foreign power, Israel. During his primary campaign, Obama referred repeatedly to Clinton’s lies about her political record. When he appointed her Secretary of State, he called her ‘my dear friend’."

The crucial point Pilger stressed even before Barack was sworn in was that, having won on the slogan of ‘Change’, the slogan itself had effortlessly morphed into the exact opposite – ‘continuity’: "His Secretary of Defence will be Robert Gates, who serves the lawless, blood-soaked Bush regime as Secretary of Defence, which means secretary of war. (America last had to defend itself when the British invaded in 1812.)

"There is more ‘continuity’ in Obama’s appointment of officials who will deal with the economic piracy that brought down Wall Street and impoverished millions. As in Bill Murray’s nightmare, they are the same officials who caused it. For example, Lawrence Summers will run the National Economic Council. As Treasury Secretary, according to the New York Times, he ‘championed the law that deregulated derivatives, the instruments – aka toxic assets – that have spread financial losses [and] refused to heed critics who warned of dangers to come.

"There is logic here. Contrary to myth, Obama’s campaign was funded largely by rapacious capital, such as Citigroup and others responsible for the sub-prime mortgage scandal, whose victims were mostly African Americans and other poor people.

"Is this a grand betrayal? Obama has never hidden his record as a man of a system described by Martin Luther King as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today’. Obama’s dalliance as a soft critic of the disaster in Iraq was in line with most Establishment opinion that it was ‘dumb’. His fans include the war criminals Tony Blair, who has ‘hailed’ his appointments, and Henry Kissinger, who describes the appointment of Hillary Clinton as ‘outstanding’. One of John McCain’s principal advisers, Max Boot, who is on the Republican Party’s far right, said: "I am "gobsmacked by these appointments. [They] could just as easily have come from a President McCain."

Pilger conceded that Obama’s victory was historic, not only because he would be the first black president, but because he tapped into a great popular movement among America’s minorities and the young outside the Democratic Party. "In 2006 Latinos, the country’s largest minority, took America by surprise when they poured into the cities to protest against George W Bush’s draconian immigration laws. They chanted: ‘Si, se puede!’ (‘Yes we can!’), a slogan Obama later claimed as his own."

Pilger also quotes Noam Chomsky: "Obama is a ‘brand’ like none other, having won the highest advertising campaign accolade and attracted unprecedented sums of money. The brand will sell for a while. He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power. Asked what his supporters would do when reality intruded, Stephen Walt, an Obama adviser, said: ‘They have nowhere else to go’."

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