WASHINGTON — No American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent. Seventeen months before the next election, it is increasingly clear that President Obama must defy that trend to keep his job. Roughly 9 percent of Americans who want to go to work cannot find an employer. Companies are firing fewer people, but hiring remains anemic. And the vast majority of economic forecasters, including the president’s own advisers, predict only modest progress by November 2012.Read the rest here if you must.
Allow me to translate: There is presently very high unemployment in the US. Typically, in a two-party system the incumbent president does not win re-election under such conditions. But in order to win, Obama shouldn't actually try to solve the unemployment problem. In order to win re-election, Obama has only to select a public relations "narrative", some particular rhetorical strategy that pumps up the "enthusiasm" of the electorate.
Let me first say a bit about unemployment and then a bit about the conception of politics at work in this excerpt.
As is usually the case, unemployment is discussed as though it was just like the weather. Just as the shifting of temperatures and the movement of destructive storms are beyond our control... so is the unemployment rate. Human intervention in both meteorological and economic matters boils down to an apolitical process of scientific management from which we can expect no more than small successes. This is the image we're fed most of the time.
But this image assumes that capitalism is the only way to do things. Yet it is capitalism that is clearly the problem in this case. The same system that works people to the bone f0r poverty wages, casts them aside and denies them employment when it is no longer profitable. Human talents and capabilities go underdeveloped and unused when it isn't profitable for the ruling class. It's also the case that unemployment is a structurally necessary feature of the system, even during boom periods. But, as we know, capitalism is an unstable system in which devastating crises (with high unemployment) are frequent. Things don't have to be this way. Our society is one in which there are masses of capital, unused, sitting side by side masses of labor, which are unemployed, simply because it is not profitable for the ruling class to combine them at the present moment. The suffering and misery brought about by that fact is not inevitable. But set that to one side for a moment.
Even within the confines of capitalism there are obvious things that could be done to increase employment. Obama and the Democrats could have invested heavily in domestic infrastructure projects. They could have decided to fix crumbling bridges and roads, at the same time that new projects (e.g. increased rail services, new schools, new hospitals, etc.) were undertaken. This could have created millions of jobs. Another obvious measure would have been to use federal funds to close all of the budget shortfalls at the state and municipal levels. This would have forestalled countless layoffs and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs. Moreover, this would have kept public services running at full steam at a time when they are needed more than ever. All of this would, of course, also have propped up effective demand, thus keeping further jobs from being lost.
Of course, the article makes no mention of these options. It is assumed that the Democrat's program of union-busting and austerity is the only way forward. It is assumed that the only legitimate bone of contention between the allegedly "left" Democrats and the "right" Republicans is how much union-busting and austerity we should have. Moreover, it is dogmatically assumed that monetary policy (not fiscal policy) is the only way to deal with unemployment. If we read the article at face value, we come away thinking that Obama and the Democrats have done all they can to try to address the "elusive" natural disaster of high unemployment.
Let me now say a little bit about what I derisively call "PR politics" (better would be: "PR anti-politics"). The "analysis" offered by the paper of record comes across as though its an internal strategic memo from the Obama campaign. The basic line is this: "well, we don't really care about whether the interests or needs of the majority are taken into consideration... we just want to get re-elected... so how can we best pull that off?" That's fine for the narrow strategic discussion that goes on within a campaign. But it's preposterous when it is passed off as analysis in a public newspaper.
But this PR politics ideology is fed to us constantly by pundits and other experts. It's akin to the inane speculation about what sorts of strategies a particular coach will employ before a big game. We've been encouraged to internalize this conception of politics so often that many Americans would be forgiven for thinking that there was no alternative to PR electioneering.
By its own lights, our (broken) political system is supposed to work in the following way. Citizens are supposed to have preferences (e.g. a preference for being employed rather than being unemployed). They are then supposed to support only those candidates that best satisfy those preferences. Now, this picture of democracy has many flaws. But it's worth noting that the PR ideology pedaled by the media doesn't even live up to it. It completely reverses things. Instead of having extra-electoral preferences (e.g. for increasing employment opportunities) that are used to size-up candidates, citizens merely have brute party-based preferences for one or other of the two main corporate parties. This model of citizens erases any real interests or needs they might have which go unmet by the system. It assumes that citizens have a brute preference for one of the parties and then asks the narrow strategic question: how can we finagle a victory? Which PR tactics are most likely to produce the desired result (re-election)?
As I've argued elsewhere, this reversal takes what should be mere means and transforms them into ends-in-themselves. Rather than a putative means to achieving some reform, the push to elect Democrats gets pitched as an end-in-itself. This is absurd. But it should be noted that this ideology functions to stabilize the existing order in several respects. By occluding from political discussion the basic needs of ordinary people (most of which are not met by the system), this ideology forestalls criticism of the status quo. It robs us of the very language with which to articulate our own oppression in political terms. If politics just is a matter of electing one or other of the two main parties, then there can be no way of launching a politically-charged critique of the system itself. Suppose you say: "this political-economic system is unresponsive to my needs". The reply will then be: "politics doesn't truck in the language of needs. State your party preference and then we can talk politics (e.g. about which narratives or PR tactics are best, etc.)."