Reflections on Empire, Inequality, & “Brand Obama”

It is wonderful and historic that the American electorate put a black family in the White House. Still, Barack Obama is no magical exception to the rule observed last spring by Howard Zinn: “Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”

Z Magazine
Posted by Bulatlat

Here are 53 words that might help us situate President-elect Barack Obama in the world of power as it really is, not as many of us wish it to be: “As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend…. In addition, we believe, based on discussions with industry sources, that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first 18 months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood.” These two sentences come from a report issued by the leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley one day after the November 2008 elections.

The company probably understates matters. We should not anticipate significant Pentagon expenditure reductions at any point under the new Administration, unless they are forced by popular pressure that the American power elite expects Obama to preempt. “The Democrats,” Morgan Stanley’s researchers note, “are sensitive about appearing weak on defense and we don’t expect strong cuts.”

“Defense” is in an interesting label for a giant military budget that pays for two occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and 770 military bases located in more than 130 countries. The United States accounts for nearly half (48 percent) the military spending on the planet. Coming in at $1 trillion (by the measure of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s National Income and Product Accounts) in 2007, American “defense” spending outweighs domestic U.S federal expenditure on education by more than 8 to 1; income security by more than 4.5 to 1; nutrition by more than 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; and job training by 32 to 1. The military accounts for more than half of all discretionary federal spending.

The peace dividend” refers to the notion of reversing these “perverted national priorities” (Dr. Martin Luther King’s phrase) by taking money spent on war and the preparation for war and using it to address human problems like poverty, ecological crisis, crumbling infrastructure, joblessness, and inadequate education, health, housing, and schooling.

The idea of a “peace dividend” received some attention in the U.S. around the end of the Cold War, when many progressives hoped that the collapse of the Soviet Union would encourage a shift in public resources from militarism to social health. For nearly half a century, the alleged (mythical) threat posed by Russian “communism” provided the core propagandistic justification for the expansion and use of U.S. military power. With the Soviet-specter eliminated, progressives dreamed the U.S. could now be realistically pressured to transfer significant public resources towards meeting social needs and away from the maintenance of the most spectacular and deadly military-imperial system in history.

The dream was ended by George Bush I’s two wars of invasion (Panama, 1989 and Iraq, 1990-91), Bill Clinton’s air war on Serbia (1999), and the dominant U.S. media throughout. The “military-industrial-media triangle” (John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holeman, and Robert W. McChesney’s term) and its many enablers and allies in church, school, academia, and other wings of so-called “civil society” rapidly substituted new rationalizations and pretexts for the persistence of a permanently militarized U.S. economy and culture: purported protection and advance of “free markets” and “democracy” (falsely conflated), the U.S, right of “humanitarian intervention,” and the grave dangers posed by terrorists, drug-traffickers, and “weapons of mass destruction.”

Still, a 2004 poll by the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations found that just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on “defense.” By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security.

“The American Moment…Must Be Seized Anew”

Obama’s National Security cabinet picks as of mid-December 2008 are consistent with Morgan Stanley’s judgment on the president-elect’s likely policy direction. As New York Times political analyst David Sanger noted on his paper’s front page in December, those appointments include “two veteran Cold Warriors [National Security Adviser and former NATO commander James L. Jones and current and future Defense Secretary Robert Gates] and a political rival [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] whose records are all more hawkish than the new president.”

Sanger’s commentary left out other “hawkish” appointments, including Vice President Joe Biden (a major facilitator of George W. Bush’s pre-Iraq invasion propaganda in the U.S. Senate), United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice (an eager promoter of the myth that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and “need[ed] to be dealt with forcefully”), and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel (a fierce opponent of antiwar sentiment inside the Democratic Party and a leading supporter of U.S.-sponsored Israeli militarism, occupation, and apartheid).

Sanger also deleted the critical fact that Obama’s real foreign policy record is much more “hawkish” than the dovish imagery his marketers crafted for liberal and progressive voters during the presidential campaign. Beyond his longstanding stealth support for the occupation of Iraq, Obama has repeatedly announced his fierce devotion to the broader underlying American empire project in numerous statements meant to demonstrate his safety to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Declaring that “we can be [Kennedy’s] America again,” a 2007 Obama article (titled “Renewing American Leadership”) in the Council of Foreign Relations journal Foreign Affairs, Obama essentially accused the Bush administration of dropping the ball of American world supremacy. “The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew,” Obama proclaimed, adding that “we must lead the world by deed and by example” and “must not rule out using military force” in pursuit of “our vital interests.” The last three words a code phrase for other nations’ oil, located primarily in the Middle East.

“A strong military,” Obama wrote, “is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace.” We must “revitalize our military” to foster “peace,” Obama added, partly by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines. “We must also become better prepared to put boots on the ground…on a global scale.” Reassuring top militarists that he would not be hamstrung by international law and civilized norms when “our vital interests” are “at stake,” Obama added that “I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary…. We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability.”

As leading neoconservative foreign policy advisor Robert Kagan crowed after reading a typically imperial Obama speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last year: “Obama talks about…maintaining ‘a strong nuclear deterrent.’ He talks about how we need to ‘seize’ the ‘American moment.’ We must ‘begin the world anew.’ This is realism? This is left-liberal foreign policy? Ask Noam Chomsky next time you see him” (Washington Post, April 29, 2007).

“Spiritual Death” Lives

According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift, is approaching spiritual death.” Thirty-one years later, as the openly imperial Obama ascends to power draped (for many) in the rebel’s clothing of Dr. King, the top 1 percent in the U.S. owns nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth—a natural outcome of the so-called “free market capitalism” Obama repeatedly embraced during the presidential campaign. The privileged American “overclass” enjoys astonishing opulence while more than 37 million Americans live beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, even before the onset of full-blown economic crisis in the fall and winter of 2008-09. A shocking 43 percent (equaling nearly 16 million) of those officially poor Americans live in what researchers call “deep poverty,” at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty.

Deep poverty has been on the rise in the U.S. over recent years and decades, thanks in part to Bill Clinton and New Gingrich’s elimination (“reform”) of poor families’ entitlement to federal family cash assistance. Currently at its highest rate since 1975, the “deep poverty” measure and other terrible socioeconomic indicators will only worsen as the U.S. heads into its worst recession since the 1970s and, perhaps, into a depression.

Even without recessions or depressions, the U.S. is the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far. Wealthy Americans have the benefit of the finest health care in history while 45 million Americans lacked health insurance even before the latest recession. Expect that number to hit 50 million any day if it hasn’t already. African Americans are afflicted with a national median-household-wealth gap of seven black cents on the white dollar. Numerous interrelated forms of institutional racism continue to saddle black America with a heavily disproportionate burden of poverty, injury, sickness, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and criminal marking even as the nation celebrates Obama’s election as a symbol of its transcendence of racial bigotry.

Meanwhile, American corporations and wealthy elites get regular public assistance (corporate welfare) that belies the privileged few’s ritual proclamations of faith in the mythical notion of free market capitalism. They profit from numerous powerful state-capitalist protections and subsidies while U.S. social programs are minimal compared to those of Western Europe and Canada.

The extravagant “defense” (empire) budget that Morgan Stanley reasonably expects Obama to keep funded at fantastic levels, even while deep poverty spreads at home and abroad, is itself a giant public subsidy to leading high-tech and energy corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and the oil majors, who have enjoyed record profits during the recent and continuing “wartime” period.

The need for a peace dividend is more urgent than ever in what John Bellamy Foster rightly calls “a period of imperialist development that is potentially the most dangerous in all of history”—one where “life on the planet as we know it can be destroyed either instantaneously through global nuclear holocaust, or in a matter of a few generations by climate change and other manifestations of environmental destruction.” As Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney recently argued in Monthly Review: “A society that supports its global position and social order though $1 trillion a year in military spending, most likely far exceeding that of all the other countries in the world put together—unleashing untold destruction on the world, while faced with intractable problems of inequality, economic stagnation, financial crisis, poverty, waste, and environmental decline at home—is a society that is ripe for change.”

Put less delicately, it is a society overdue for what the democratic socialist Dr. King called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” problems: “radical reconstruction of society itself.”

“Eagerness to Accommodate Existing Institutions”

Obama would never have been permitted to make a serious presidential run if the U.S. ruling class believed he shared King’s hopes for “radical reconstruction.” The corporate and imperial gatekeepers of U.S. power are not in the business of handing over the world’s most potent office to progressive opponents of empire and inequality. They began determining five years ago (as Obama was picked to run for the U.S. Senate) that Obama the politician was a privilege-friendly person of the state-capitalist, neoliberal center. As Larissa MacFarquhar noted last year in a carefully researched New Yorker essay: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative…. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely,” MacFarquhar added. It’s also, she wrote, that, “He values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (“The Conciliator,” May 7, 2007).

According to liberal journalist Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker last summer: “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them” (“Making It,” July 21, 2008).
Left, black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., who once lived in Obama’s Illinois state-legislative district, described Obama in the Village Voice in 1996, at the literal beginning of Obama’s political career, as follows: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.”

Consistent with these reflections, Obama’s guaranteed choice health care plan amounts to a probably unworkable “half-way solution” that falls well short of the public’s longstanding desire for universal national health insurance. It preserves the power and profits of the institutions most responsible for the health care crisis—private insurance and pharmaceutical corporations. “Despite Barack Obama’s avowed hopes for change,” Roger Bybee notes, the new president’s health reform, “manacled to private insurers, may ultimately deepen public cynicism of the possibility of meaningful reform” (Z Magazine, December 2008).

In a similar vein, “Obamanomics” falls short of the bold progressive initiatives and challenges to financial and corporate power required to spark equitable domestic development. As adjusted in response to the banking crisis and deepening recession, moreover, Obama’s economic program may well amount to “something akin to a national austerity program….” Instead of forward movement on jobs, education, retirement, and health care, Jack Rasmus finds, “what me may well get is ‘Let’s all tighten our belts to get through this crisis'” (Z Magazine, December 2008).

But like most of the nation’s elected office-holders, Obama supports a massive taxpayer-funded bailout of leading Wall Street financial and insurance firms deemed “too big [and powerful] to fail”—a curious government payout for parasitic enterprises that have driven the national and global economy into the ground. Morgan Stanley alone is slated to receive tens of billions of federal dollars, a giant state capital dividend approved by Obama even as the firm’s analysts observe Obama’s conventional establishment wisdom holding that “there is no peace dividend.”

Obama’s “economic team,” including Lawrence Summers (top economic advisor) and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, is full of reigning neoliberals calling for the socialization of the market economy’s losses and the upward privatization of its gains.

Holding Domestic Constituencies in Check

Obama’s business-friendly centrism helped him garner record-setting corporate campaign contributions during the last election cycle. He received more than $33 million from “FIRE” (the finance-real-estate and insurance sector), including $824,202 from Goldman Sachs. He has been consistently backed by the biggest and most powerful Wall Street firms. At the same time, and by more than mere coincidence, candidate Obama enjoyed a remarkable windfall of favorable corporate media coverage—the key to his success in winning votes and small donations from middle-class and non-affluent people.

As many of his elite sponsors certainly understand, Obama’s outwardly progressive persona is perfectly calibrated to divert, capture, control, and contain popular rebellions. He is uniquely qualified to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the U.S. and world citizenry’s rising hopes for democratic transformation in the wake of the long national Bush-Cheney nightmare. As John Pilger noted last May, “By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party—with the bonus of being a member of the black elite—he can blunt and divert real opposition,” bringing “intense pressure on the U.S. antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults.”

Sadly enough, Obama’s race is part of what makes him so well matched to the tasks of mass pacification and popular “expectation management” (former Obama advisor Samantha Power’s revealing phrase). As Aurora Levins Morales noted in Z Magazine last April, “This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised and…[about] mak[ing] them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that…decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right…. Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”

Imperial “Re-branding”

The logic works at the global level. A considerable segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks that Obama’s race, name (technically Islamic), experience living in (Muslim Indonesia, as a child) and visiting (chiefly his father’s homeland, Kenya) poor nations, and his nominally “anti-war” history will help them repackage U.S. world power in more politically correct wrapping. John F. Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective imperial manager than George W. Bush, was thinking of these critical “soft power” assets when he praised Obama as someone who could “reinvent America’s image abroad.” So was Obama when he said to reporters aboard his campaign plane in the fall of 2007: “If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power…you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that ‘he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and country.'”

Obama’s global biography, ethno-cultural nomenclature, and charisma are great attractions to a predominantly caucasian U.S. foreign policy elite hoping to restore American legitimacy in a majority non-white world that has been provoked and disgusted by U.S. behavior in the post-9/11 era (and truthfully before). He is in many ways an ideal symbol of imperial “re-branding.” According to centrist New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof just before the election, the ascendancy of a black president “could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American ‘brand’ to be less about Guantanamo and more about equality.”

The leading advertising trade journal Advertising Age agreed. Last October it hailed Obama as “Marketer of the Year” and praised him for producing “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America.” The journal quoted David Brain, CEO of the global public relations firm Edelman Europe, Middle East and Africa, on how “the election and nomination process is the brand relaunch of the year. Brand USA. It’s just fantastic.”

According to Nick Ragone, the senior VP of client development at the global advertising firm Omnicom Group’s Ketchum, “We’ve put a new face on [America] and that face happens to be African American.” Ragone told Advertising Age that “it takes a lot of the hubris and arrogance of the last eight years and starts to put it in the rearview mirror for us.”

Harvard Business School professor and former WWP Group (a global advertising firm) board member John Quelch (co-author of Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy) told Advertising Age that, “The election result zero-bases the image of the United States worldwide. We have a clean slate with which to work.”

Carolyn Carter, the London-based president and CEO of Grey Group Europe, Middle East and Africa (creator of the teeth-rotting “Coke Zero” ad campaign in Northern Europe) agreed, adding, “The last eight years broke faith in Brand America, and people want that faith restored.”

Enter Obama, who is “almost like Che Guevera, in a good way,” according to Foreign Policy magazine’s web editor Blake Hounshell. “He has icon status,” Hounshell explains, “with all the art around the world of his face.” The difference is that Che roused independent left and Third World challenges to the American Empire while Obama inspires captivation with the corporate-imperial U.S. According to Scott Kronick, global marketing firm Ogilvy PR’s Beijing-based president, Obama’s triumph “sends a strong message to the world that despite what many people believe and feel…America can be very open, democratic, and progressive.”

Call it the identity politics of foreign policy. The old empire wants new, faux-progressive clothes and Obama is just the person to wear them. According to the former Clinton administration official and Kissinger Associates director David J. Rothkopf, Obama’s cabinet picks epitomize “the violin model: hold power with the left hand and play the music with your right” (New York Times, November 21, 2008).

Meanwhile the poverty population’s ranks are rising and the poor are getting poorer at home and abroad. Vast swaths of suffering humanity are increasingly desperate for true progressive change and a peace dividend beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered U.S. “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s phrase). Obama will deliver only as much change as he can be compelled to channel by popular resistance and rebellion.

It is wonderful and historic that the American electorate put a black family in the White House. Still, Barack Obama is no magical exception to the rule observed last spring by Howard Zinn: “Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”

Radical historian Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, and his latest, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.

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