Thursday, April 14, 2011

Obama's Speech

I saw on Twitter that Michael Moore thought Obama's speech was "awesome". Among left-liberals, he can't be alone in thinking that. I read the speech. My primary attitude was one of frustration. Even internal to the left-liberal position (i.e. setting aside his flowery rhetoric about the importance of "free enterprise" and so on), his speech should have been infuriating. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of what he and the Democrats have done is enormous. Much of the speech's "awesome" parts, I take it, were those moments that (for once!) took aim at the reactionary policies of the Republican leadership. But that struck me as facile externalization. To be sure, the GOP are indeed more reactionary than Obama. But Obama cannot legitimately blame them for the tax breaks for the rich. He cannot legitimately blame them for the sorry state of the Federal budget. He cannot blame the Republicans for two as yet unpaid for wars (and new ones on the way). These are all policies that he and the Democrats in Congress voted to support. These are policies that form the bread and butter of their politics. While it is obviously true that the majority of Americans, and especially progressives, want to hear rhetoric about ending the expensive wars, taxing the rich, and protecting the meager social safety net that we have... it is not the case that Obama's giving rhetorical support to these causes makes them materialize in reality. It is not the case that his mere rhetorical support for them (as election season grows near) is good enough, particularly when he proves unwilling and impatient with fighting for such causes when it comes to policy. But he's smart. He and the Dems know full well that they won't turn out people to vote for them on a platform such as "Capitulation and Austerity you can Believe In".

The key is to focus our attention on the enormous distance between the ideals used to legitimate our society, and the actual way that our society is configured on the other. You notice very quickly that the ideals stand at some distance from their supposed embodiment in basic structure of our society.


drip said...

the ideals [used to legitimate our society] stand at some distance from their supposed embodiment in basic structure of our society. This is true and often described as hypocrisy, when it is not. As long as some people have security, education, freedom, whatever these ideals consist of, Obama sees them as met. "Some people have these things," he crows, "look at me! They were available to me, and I want to make sure they remain available." And the left cheers but they fail to see that being available and being available to all are very different things. So I see the distance as not being a variance from the ideals so much as a structure that allows the ideals as only for a few.

t said...

I think I agree with what you're saying. I would add, though, that the point about ideals and legitimation is that all elites, who exercise power over those whom they rule, are obliged to convince the ruled that this exercise of power is legitimate. That means that ruling classes have to make it seem as though their power is justifiable by crafting some narrative or set of ideas meant to show how that is so. In the Marxist tradition these are called ideologies. So, when I say the ideals are at some distance from their supposed embodiment... I mean that the ideals invoked by the stories we're told about how our society is just are, in fact, not realized in our society. That is to say, the stories we're told (about freedom, equality, and so forth) are, even by their own lights, false. We need not invoke radically new ideals and values in order to radically criticize the society we live in. All we have to do is pick up the values used by elites to legitimate their power, and make clear just how the large the gap is between those ideals and the status quo. For example, if you take the idea of freedom very seriously and apply it consistently... it becomes apparent very quickly that you can't be a defender of capitalism. Of course, the ruling class is promiscuous in it's use of the language of freedom. But that's not stain on freedom itself as an ideal; its a stain on the entirely false claim that freedom is presently actualized in contemporary capitalist societies.

But your point is well taken. The view from the top is distorted. Ruling classes almost always make it seem as though their own particular interests are, in fact, the universal interests of everyone in society (even those whom they oppress). Even if they don't mean to do so, as you point out, they often make the mistake because of their privileged (and therefore skewed) view of reality.