Let them eat symbols: Obama’s plan for the long-term unemployed

It is a point of historical controversy whether or not when told that French peasants did not have bread to eat, Marie Antoinette uttered the phrase “Let them eat cake,” an even more inaccessible and scarce food for poor people. But what is certain and should be beyond controversy is that in response to the capitalist implosion that shattered so many lives, Obama and the corporate democrats have demonstrated a policy attitude as cavalier as the French queen. Over the last five years, they have offered neither bread nor cake or anything other than false hope and empty symbols.  

On the Friday after Obama’s tepid State of the Union Speech – a speech in which he pledged his concern for the long-term unemployed and low-wage workers – the Administration brought members of the corporate and financial elite to the white house to discuss strategies for addressing the plight of the long-term unemployed.  Not surprisingly since this meeting was nothing more than one of many events planned as part of the democrats’ media strategy to better position the party for the mid-term elections, the only thing that emerged from this gathering was photo ops and diversionary rhetoric. 

Notwithstanding the predictable outcome of this meeting, it did graphically demonstrate  once again the incredible cynicism of the Obama administration.

Obama and the corporate democrats have only one primary objective – holding on to power so that they can continue to enjoy the state banquets, media attention and campaign dollars that derive from the benefits of being the “party in charge.”  The fact that they are playing with the lives and hopes of millions of people who are desperately looking for some relief from the material and psychological insecurities of life on the edge are of little real concern for these party operatives.  

The Obama – Clinton centrists who make-up the dominant core of the democratic party, along with a subordinate sliver of liberal reformers, have no substantive policy prescriptions to offer the long-term unemployed or the general U.S. public beyond inchoate policy recommendations  framed as representing the elements of an “opportunity agenda.”  

The references to creating opportunities is an ideological mystification meant to suggest that reversing the decades of economic restructuring, stagnant and declining wages, unemployment and expanding poverty can be easily corrected by simple will and the right mixture of incentives for private sector capital. It is as though these realities are just the result of incorrect policies and not the inherent logic of capitalist processes.  

This was the underlining implication of Obama’s business summit on Friday – that the specific issue of the long-term unemployed can be solved by a more focused determination on the part of the private sector to hire those workers.  

The shameless appeal to opportunity agendas by Obama and the democrats in the midst of a global capitalist meltdown is even more dishonest than their counterparts on the more extreme right. Because for traditional conservatism, there has never been any pretense toward believing in relatively equal outcomes in the capitalist market. Inequality, and by extension income inequality, unemployment, and  “winners and losers” in the market, are all expressions of a natural social order when people are “free” to pursue their self-interests. 

Democrats and reform liberalism, in contrast, claim to be committed to the rights of labor, social justice, legal equality and a progressive role for the state.  Yet, in the era of neoliberalism, which has an ideological component as well as representing conscious policy decisions in the economic sphere, the philosophical and policy differences of those two approaches have almost been obliterated,  reduced now to policy differences that are more tactical than substantial, notwithstanding the tea-party critique of the democrat party and Obama.  

Obama and the democrats understand and accept that the contemporary logic of global neoliberalism means that the U.S. economy is being restructured and that millions of workers are being shifted into low-wage service sector jobs, for those lucky enough to be employed.  Low wages, unequal regional economic development, extreme income inequality, disproportionately high unemployment rates for African Americans and other racialized national groups with astronomical unemployment rates among the youth sector of these groups, are all a structurally determined consequence of neoliberal social policies, and liberals understand this.  

Obama knows and understands, like his more conservative counterparts, that capitalist production processes and the market will produce “winners and losers” and that for the most part the financial and corporate elite will always be on the winning side. But as a neoliberal market fundamentalist, he accepts those outcomes as an inevitable outcome of the market that, in the end, benefits enough people to be morally justifiable. That is why at the meeting at the white house on Friday he could praise CEOs for creating 8 million jobs over the last five years while knowing that most of those jobs were low-wage, service sector jobs.

Here, however, is where the historical task of radical intellectuals and activists come in. It should not be surprising that the administration would engage in the kind of vacuous antics we witnessed at the White House’s business summit last week.  The ruling elite seems to understand even more clearly than radicals that the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism are creating potentially explosive social conditions and are intentionally attempting to divert attention away from capitalism’s contradictions.

Obama’s feel good rhetoric and his Administration’s  minimalist program of “promise zones,” corporate funded jobs programs that don’t actually employ anyone and rhetorical concern for income inequality, are preemptive moves geared to mitigate any demands that might emerge for fundamental reforms or radical change. 

Today the principle strategic challenge for U.S. radicalism is grounded in the question of  whether or not the left can overcome its’ ideological and organizational fragmentation in order to develop a counter-narrative and a minimum program of opposition to neoliberalism.     

It is clear that without uncompromisingly radical organizations and a language of opposition that pierces the ideological fog that obscures the class bias of the state and state policies, working people and the poor will continue to be marginalized, ignored and eventually disappeared as they fall through the gaping holes in the social safety net. This is already happening to African Americans in places like Detroit, the South Side of Chicago and other parts of the country as a result of their new status as an economically “redundant” population.

Therefore, giving voice and organized institutional expression to what the system would prefer to be experienced as private, individualized suffering,  has to be seen as one of the main tasks of an oppositional movement in the U.S. Until a new movement is developed that gives national expression to the plight of workers and the poor, the millions of people who are struggling to survive without jobs or income support from the government will continue to be silenced. And the Obama Administration and the administrations that follow will content themselves with governing with crude propaganda and symbolism for as long as they can get away with it.

The budget deal and Neoliberalism: The U.S. and South African connection

It was a fitting historical coincidence that during the same week President Obama was in South Africa to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, whose Presidency ushered in the South African turn to neoliberalism, a budget deal was brokered by the republicans and democrats that reflected the continued bipartisan commitment to neoliberal policies in the U.S.

Hammered out behind closed doors and presented as a done deal to the House of Representatives, the agreement reflected the agenda and demands of the corporate and financial oligarchy that Congressional representatives do what they were sent to Washington to do – ensure that economic and social policies conform to their interests and priorities.

Voted on and passed by the House without debate, questions from the public or opportunity for adjustments, the Senate dutifully followed, quickly passing the agreement that was then signed into law by President Obama from his holiday vacation retreat.

When the details of the deal began to emerged, it became obvious that the agreement was yet another frontal assault on the working class and the poor that has characterized state policies over the last three decades. For the millions of people knocked to their knees by the economic crisis created by the robber barons of finance capital, the neoliberal fiscal priorities of the budget obliterated any hope that they would get relief from the insecurities and fears of living in an economy that seems aligned against them.

Not only was there no plan to use the power of the state to create or stimulate jobs, but the Christmas gift to the 1.3 million long-term unemployed left out of the deal was the elimination of their unemployment benefits on December 28.

The deal does not raise real revenue by closing tax loopholes for wealthy. It does not restore food stamps cuts for the 47 million receiving this assistance or cuts to Medicare and other vital public services like special education programs, Head Start and nearly $2 billion slashed from housing aid.

And because the deal lacks mechanisms for raising revenues, it places the burden for funding the deal squarely on the backs of working people by requiring federal workers to take another hit on their wages and benefits. This hit to federal workers is in addition to the increase in taxes that all workers experienced in January 2013 when the payroll tax cut was rescinded while the $4 trillion in Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were allowed to continue for another decade.

Furthermore, while poll after poll demonstrated that the public was no longer in favor of costly military adventures around the world and wanted to see a reduction in military expenditures, Congressional representatives still increased military spending by $20 billion.

This is neoliberal democracy at its best – no discussion, no debate, vote and leave town after setting policies that continue the deliberate and massive transfer of wealth from America’s working people to the financial and corporate oligarchy.

Obama, the quintessential neoliberal technocrat, calls these kinds of agreements “compromises.” But Obama’s calls for compromise have always really been a call for class surrender and abrogating the right to resist. His demagoguery masterfully obscures the class interests of the bipartisan elite agenda that underpin legislative agreements and the fact that the interests of working people and the poor are the interests usually compromised in those agreements.

His success as the “commander-in-chief” of demobilization has meant that a broad-based movement to oppose the neoliberal agenda never developed beyond the attempt by the Occupy Wall Street movement. And even though the Occupy movement was repressed by the coordinated efforts of Obama’ Department of Homeland Security, Obama escaped direct criticism. Tragically however, Obama’s success at defusing political opposition has come at a particularly high price for African Americans whose plight as a result of the capitalist implosion of 2008 normally would have generated intense political opposition.

African Americans have experienced Depression-level deprivations with astronomical youth unemployment ranging from 40-60 percent in some urban areas and a real adult unemployment rate of more 25 percent. Single African American women with children who have lost eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) make up the fastest growing population of the homeless. The older, largely African American urban centers like Newark, New Jersey, the South Side of Chicago and Cleveland are in crisis as a result of the disappearance of jobs, state and local level austerity plans and gentrification policies that are displacing the poor from urban cores across the country.

In Detroit, the majority African American government and public sector workforce was taken over by a white Republican governor who imposed state control over the city and forced it into bankruptcy with the likely loss of pensions and health care for the population of largely African American retirees. But despite these economic and social realities, the Obama effect – the reluctance to demand anything from the Obama administration – has meant that African Americans have not mobilized to secure through progressive social legislation any relief from the unending assaults on their ability to live a dignified life free from fear and social insecurity.  

The deteriorating situation for poor and working-class people in the U.S. parallels that in South Africa, which in turn demonstrates the unfortunate similarities between Obama and Nelson Mandela. It is widely understood that no individual except Mandela could have provided the political cover for the ANC to shift from a movement espousing the radical redistribution of economic resources and power from the white minority to the black majority, to a movement that essentially embraced neoliberal policies that would maintain white domination in every aspect of South African life.

And no one but the person of Nelson Mandela could have defused broad-based opposition to the ANC’s turn to neoliberalism during his presidency that saw black unemployment go from 16 percent to over 30 percent; average household income of the black population falling 19 percent and 50 percent of black South Africans earning just 9.7 percent of national income while the richest 20% of the white minority earned 65 percent.

In the U.S., Barack Obama did not usher in neoliberalism. The foundation for the U.S. turn to neoliberalism began in the 1970s under President Carter and was accelerated by the policies of Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. Therefore, the role that Barack Obama would assume was not to institute neoliberalism but to give it a palatable face. He would be the front man in the effort to stabilize the capitalist crisis in 2008 brought on by unfettered neoliberalism. Similar to the script handed to Mandela and the ANC, Obama’s role, however, was global. He was perfectly cast to adroitly dress up retrograde neoliberal economic, political and military policies on a global scale.  

For the masters of international capital, the pigmentation of the skin is of little concern when it comes to their interests and is why they finally forced the recalcitrant Afrikaners to the negotiating table. What mattered in South Africa in the 90s as it does in the U.S. today is a relatively stable environment in which state power is used to realize the interests of national and international capital.

Toward that end, outside of the racial paranoia of the neo-fascist tea-party fringe in the U.S., the black face of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s or Barack Obama today, is not seen as a threat but an advantage, especially when those black faces in high places are committed to policies that will ensure the hegemony of the global capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal, white supremacist minority.

Spending, Debt and the Shutdown: The Bi-Partisan “Disappearance” of Race and Class

Whatever the result of the current governmental stalemate, one thing is certain: The ongoing crisis of workers in general and the African American working class and poor in particular will continue unabated.  

This is understandable given that, when the U.S. and the capitalist world faced the unraveling of the global economic order in 2008, the health of banks and the financial sector proved the main concern of Congress and the President. In fact, the recession presented managers of the global order with an opportunity to impose much-needed “discipline” on workers in the U.S. and Europe through the imposition of austerity programs as well as regressive fiscal and monetary policies, which had the dual objectives of weakening the relative bargaining power of labor while enhancing the dominance of the financial sector globally.

The result has been that the contradictions of the global capitalist/colonialist order finally caught up with the labor aristocracy in the West. Nor were the Western working class or its organizations prepared for the systematic assault on their relative privilege.

From the Golden Dawn in Greece to the Tea Party “movement” in the U.S., the economic crisis has once again brought forth the ugly specter of race-based fascism, that seemingly cellular characteristic of the more extreme expressions of white supremacist ideology that has poisoned Euro-American consciousness and culture and undermined national and transnational working-class solidarity and anti-imperialist politics. 

The Euro-American corporate and financial elites have always been able to take advantage of the material and ideological contradictions of workers in the West by manipulating those contradictions while simultaneously developing unified strategic positions and global institutions to protect and advance their interests.

In the current battle over the issues of governmental spending and the debt ceiling in the U.S., there is general bipartisan agreement on the fundamentals, which adhere closely to the elite agenda. The only element gumming up the process toward passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling, thereby ensuring the integrity of the U.S. monetary system, is the reactionary Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.

This obstruction to the smooth flow of capital is based on an almost pathological hatred for all things Obama, some of which is overt and some of which (the socially unacceptable components, including white supremacy) is largely subtextual. Yet the Tea Party was born in 2009 in part as a reaction to the excesses of Wall Street and governmental policy, specifically the bank bailout plan that appeared to reward the very same financiers who precipitated the crisis. Tea Party sympathizers, however, allowed this focus to be lost in a sea of their own race-based vitriol of personal attacks and name-calling.

The undeniable influence of racial politics in the actions of the Tea Party and its Congressional proxies is more than ironic. Before he was elevated to the position of Presidential candidate, Obama was thoroughly vetted by powerful elements of the ruling elite. They concluded that he could indeed be trusted to carry out the traditional role as the mediator and chief executive officer for capital, required of any individual who holds the office of U.S. President. Had he not met that litmus test, the cash needed to mount a competitive campaign would never have materialized, and some other water-carrier would now occupy the White House.

In other words, Obama was cleared to uphold the interests of the white minority ruling class – interests that historically have been counter to those of the Tea Party base – and has been dutifully protecting those interests even as the Tea Party obsesses about his race. The fact that the only questions about spending priorities contained in the budget and demands that the debt ceiling be raised are coming from this dubious source is a bizarre indicator of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of what passes for normal in U.S. politics.

The failure to challenge the priorities of the Obama administration from a radical, left, human-rights position that addresses the needs of poor and working-class people reflects the utter collapse of reform liberalism, the ideological confusion and self-marginalization of U.S. radicalism along with its capitulation to white supremacist ideology, and the centralization of corporate news media with its narrow, mind-numbing propaganda.

As a result, the discussion on U.S. fiscal and monetary policy has been entirely controlled by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. During the last few years and in the weeks leading up to the current governmental impasse, Euro-American banking and corporate interests have accepted an orthodoxy that privileged the issue of debt reduction, primarily in order to avoid defaults and keep debt payments flowing. The resulting governmental policies, including the back-door austerity program known as sequestration, meant that the plight of the working class and poor was effectively “disappeared.”  

Nevertheless, massive unemployment, whole communities without access to affordable food, crumbling infrastructure, entire dying cities like Detroit, crime and violence as the oppressed turn on themselves, and a hopelessness born out of the realization that in this economy some human beings are disposable, are realities that just cannot be wished away. Millions of people in the U.S., rural and urban, wake up every day faced with the challenge of trying to fend for themselves in the dismal new reality of a U.S. economy that can no longer even pretend to offer the false promise of social mobility and material prosperity.

The economic and social contradictions exist for an effective challenge to the rule of capital in Europe, the U.S. and in many parts of the world. In the U.S. we are not going to be able to reverse the four-decade-long assault on the working class if we don’t confront and overcome the influences of white supremacist ideology. As the hard right continues to congeal with direct and indirect appeals to white racial solidarity, we can no longer afford to avoid this historic confrontation.

Because the interests of workers and the poor are not part of the conversation around spending and the debt, it is certain that the day after the U.S. government resolves this latest phony drama, the reality of systematic human rights abuses in the form of racial oppression, capitalist exploitation and colonial national repression will not have been altered in any form.