Posted by rflacks on:
"The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. " Karl Marx said that in the communist manifesto.
I thought of this statement when listening to President Obama's recent speeches-the state of the union and the neighborly talk he gave to the Chamber of Commerce. Reading Obama through Marx's lens helps us understand the political ‘contradictions' of the USA today and suggests some space for democratic movement in the struggle to ‘win the future'.
I think a lot of the commentary about that COC speech has missed the big point. The main story has been that the president is seeking to ‘repair' relations with ‘business'. If you're a centrist sort of pundit, then you assume that Obama now has moved to the center, away from the dysfunctional leftism of his first two years. From the left, the president seemed to be pandering to the corporate and financial elite in another display of lack of courage: "To kneel before the corporate throne of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce", in the words of David Swanson.
Let's take Marx and Obama seriously and suggest that the President is trying, in both speeches and policy, to actually fulfill the highest function of the executive of the capitalist state. That function is not, according to Marx, to bow down to corporate interests, but to manage the common affairs of the whole capitalist class.
The individual investor and corporate executive seeks to maximize profit and expand his wealth. A government that is driven by such goals will surely get the enthusiastic backing of those investors and managers. Indeed, a lot of such folk are deifying Ronald Reagan this very week because he not only served their interests but did so joyfully and helped make them feel virtuous rather than guilty as they got richer. But Marx's famous formulation doesn't say that the role of the capitalist state executive is to serve individual greed. On the contrary-its central role is to define and manage the shared interest of the class. What we've been experiencing in the age of post-Reagan is a state mainly driven by the particular greeds of corporate sectors and super-rich -and the result has been to undermine the domestic capitalist economy and American society itself.
That's the situation that Obama inherited. Examples:
*The power of Pharma and insurance corporations blocks an effective universal healthcare program that is needed for American corporations to restrain costs so as to compete globally.
*The power of giant energy corporations blocks an effective program to promote clean energy, needed to deal with onrushing environmental costs and to promote domestic economic growth.
*The power of huge financial concentrations blocks effective investment in infrastructure, technology and innovation needed for economic growth.
*The power of the rich blocks effective tax and budget policies to reduce state fiscal crisis.
Obama's COC speech appealed to the assembled business elite to fulfill its ‘responsibility' to the USA: "ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation." He promised to make the country a great place to do business, but he demanded that they change their own priorities (and the inventory I provided above indicates what the key areas of change need to be). The sub-text of the speech was that he, Obama, ‘gets' that such change would contradict the demands and opportunities of the global market.
In essence, Obama was saying, if you continue to operate as you have, the growing anxiety, disillusionment and anger in the American population will grow as the people's living standards drop while the rich grow ever richer. "They see a widening chasm of wealth and opportunity in this country, and they wonder if the American Dream is slipping away", he said.
Obviously, Obama thinks the bully pulpit has value, but I doubt that he's naïve enough to think that his speeches will win the hearts and minds of those assembled. If he's serious about actually managing the system, he has to have a series of policies and programs that will compel behavior change among investors and corporate types. And these are some of what he is aiming to institute:
*A national infrastructure investment program (and a government bank to mange it). Already just announced-a $50+ billion high speed rail program, and a large tax credit plan favoring electric vehicles. The emphasis obviously is on alternatives to fossil fuel, which may have large impact on economic growth, job creation and climate change. Such a program is hoped to attract private as well as public investment. It's a program that has the support of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce but NOT the Republican Party.
*A corporate tax reform. In the speech Obama touted this as a way to reduce corporate tax rates, but the purpose of the plan will be to plug major corporate tax loopholes and thereby increase actual revenues from the corporate sector.
*International trade agreements but with the promise that they will embody provisions that protect US labor and environmental standards while creating opportunities to revitalize American exports.
*Education investments that upgrade community colleges make college more affordable and raise support for k-12 education.
*Implement healthcare reform despite the crazed objections of the rightwing.
Obama was, in short, expressing the need for a new economic direction that serves American domestic interest. He said: "Now is the time to invest in America. Today, American companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets". A primary cause of continuing massive unemployment is that failure to invest. He sketched a program that is intended to make such investment more appealing. But rather than bowing down to corporate interests he was confronting them with a choice: be responsible, or face consequences. He's betting that a sufficient proportion of the elite will sign on to his agenda. The political result of that will be to isolate the Republicans electorally if they succeed in frustrating a program with strong business backing, or driving a wedge in Republican ranks.
Obama's ‘win the future' program is, however, fraught with both practical difficulty and striking moral silences. Its' Progressive dimension is its emphasis on a national industrial policy-a policy that channels public and private investment toward socially beneficial goals rather than relying on the market. That's why the AFL-CIO has signed on to it. But the goals he is setting are woefully inadequate. It's clearer than ever that the country needs strategically savvy independent movements to the left of Obama. Whether he intends it or not, his speeches have left a big space for such movement.
Some of these openings:
The budget crisis requires getting out of the current wars, and cutting the military budget. Some promising signs in the last couple of days: John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee intends to convene Fulbright like hearings on the Afghan war. Some tea partiers in congress advocate military cuts. And Obama's neo-nationalist rhetoric demands that an alternative internationalist perspective be articulated.
The infrastructure investment program's size and character will be affected strongly by popular pressure. It's a chance for labor, environmental and community based organization to come together and push for a program that really meets the needs of the communities and regions that will be affected. Take a look at the Apollo initiative for clues.
The Obama education program embodies disastrous continued adherence to market oriented education policy: testing, authoritarian control, stratification. It's time for a progressive coalition that advances education not simply for its economic or nationalist benefits, but as essential for human fulfillment, and that understands the classroom as embedded in a social and economic environment that is the main factor in students' capacities for learning.
Public worker unions can take Obama's promise of a government that works and argue that effective government requires skilled employees with high morale. Unions could take the lead in promoting members' commitment to competent and caring public service, and articulating progressive paths to dealing with fiscal crisis.
Locally based progressive activism dealing with such pressing issues as foreclosure, health care, immigrant rights and climate change need to be publicized. Below the radar of national media, organizing with effect has been happening. For one example: did you know that the governor of Vermont has just announced a plan to institute a single payer health system in his state? Do you know about the California Global Warming Solutions Act? About the astonishing organizing effort to support the Dream Act?
National movement always begin in local communities and workplaces where models of resistance and grassroots initiative can be invented and tested. The inspiring events in Egypt didn't just happen spontaneously two weeks ago. They're rooted in years of local protest, of autonomous worker action, and grassroots interaction.
The Egyptian revolutionary dynamic was triggered, and continues to be driven by, the energy and independence of young activists who don't take their cues from the established opposition. As I've said here before, I think one of the most important moves progressive groups need to make during the next two years is to help revitalize campus based debate and discussion about values, vision and program that point away from Empire and neo-nationalism, and toward economic and social democracy.