Monday, December 6, 2010

Is Obama a Progressive at Heart?

It hardly matters. The mistake here is to think that the subjective intentions and dispositions of particular individuals is what makes social change. Although we're taught in high school to divide up American history according to presidential terms, as though historical changes cleanly mapped onto the prerogatives of the President himself, this has little to do with how contemporary capitalist societies reproduce themselves over time.

It would not be an unfair generalization to say that the Federal Government in the US has, throughout its entire existence, played a two-fold role at the domestic level.

On the one hand, the State has always been committed, first and foremost, to securing the conditions of capital accumulation. No matter which of the two major pro-business parties is in power, this has been the basic goal of policy. The contemporary economic crisis is hardly an exception.

On the other hand, the State has also tended to, at some times but not at others, compensate in various ways for the dysfunctional excesses and bad consequences of capitalist economic activity. Hence, we see the State intervene to break up trusts, build up infrastructure, quell social unrest by mitigating some extreme degrees of inequality, and, most recently, by shifting massive amounts of private debt to the public rolls. Again, this has been the other side of the first function no matter which party has been in power.

Now, I concede that these are only broad generalizations. They are systemic tendencies that derive from the basic structure of social institutions in capitalism. They are not inevitable, inexorable laws of nature. Sometimes the State, for various conjunctural reasons, has been compelled to buck these functions. Social struggles of various sorts have forced the State to enact some reforms that it would never have enacted otherwise (e.g. the Wagner Act and the Civil Rights Act come to mind, but there are many more examples).

But we forget at our own peril what the default tendency of the State is in capitalism. We forget at our own peril that the prerogatives of Government aren't set by the individual preferences of particular legislators. What they think or "feel" about politics is usually highly irrelevant, though the media obsesses over such trivial facts. The injunction to focus on what, say, Obama "really thinks" is, coming from liberals or conservatives, always obfuscatory rather than clarificatory. It doesn't matter what he thinks "deep down", as though we could actually know this. What matters is how the institution of which he is a (small) part functions in the massive, complicated capitalist system we live under. This institution, the State, was there before Obama and will be there long after he's left office. It has a certain structure, a set of guiding norms and practices, and a systemic function that have literally nothing to do with what Obama, the person, thinks or does. Worse still, it is often a condition of even being able to vie for the Presidency that you accept the basic coordinates of how the presidency already works (i.e. that it is a small part of the larger function I describe above).

Speaking in terms of the "deep" desires and hopes of Obama, the person, only disorients us and takes our eyes off of the real material conditions of contemporary political life. As I wrote in a recent post, it's not all about the intentions of individual politicians... It's the system, stupid.

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