Surprised by criticism from the left

I just concluded a brief phone conversation with a MoveOn activist. It’s an election year, and her natural and obvious goal was to promote Barack Obama’s cause in November. She did not say much, however, and did not have a chance to speak at length, for when I heard Obama’s name after her organization’s name, I told her that I would never vote for Obama.

“Why,” she asked.

“Because he’s a war criminal, a promoter of authoritarian government, a tool of Wall Street and an opponent of authentic health care reform, among many other reasons,” I replied.

There was a brief silent moment which I used to punctuate my claim that “I [was] criticizing Obama from the left.”

I told her this because I did not want her to consult her talking points when she formulated her response.

She didn’t. In fact, she seemed stunned, and indicated that she could not understand why anyone on the left would criticize the President.

And that’s just one problem with those progressives who tie their political fate to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They lack imagination. They have severely small horizons. Their commitment to a pseudo-pragmatic electoral strategy binds them to a corrupt Democratic Party, to its commitment to war-making abroad, the security-surveillance state at home, elite lawlessness, a general austerity, a predatory economic system and mostly to the oligarchs who own them.

Their electoral strategy also blinds them to the false dilemma inherent in the lesser evil principle. Why is the dilemma false?

Firstly, the Democratic and Republican Parties do not exhaust the political options available to America’s nominally free citizens. Movement work and alternative party participation remain options for the critically minded American citizen.

Secondly, whereas the policies of the two parties differ on this or that issue and whereas their respective constituencies differ to a degree, they are not so distinct that they differ in kind. The Democrat and Republican Parties are system affirmative entities, and their commitments and policies reflect this fact. Their system affirmative nature means that voting for a candidate of one party affirms the core principles and political operations of the other party. It cannot be otherwise when both parties serve the same masters and generate whatever legitimacy they through the workings of the democratic mechanism. There is “not a dime’s difference” between the two legacy parties, as George Wallace pointed out decades back.

Thirdly, both parties form a party system which affirms and reproduces the larger political system of which they are members. They accomplish these goals because they and the elections they contest operate as filters which eliminate opponents of the American system as an electoral force while thereby producing legitimacy for the results of the election and for the political system as a whole. The United States is a democracy. Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. His election was valid. He thus legitimately occupies the office of the President. His deeds carry with them the authority of his office. Outsiders — Ralph Nader and his kind — typically are shunned and ridiculed. They are losers, and unworthy of holding power or enjoying widespread prestige. The policies they promote are impossible and therefore ridiculous. Even their mere presence (allegedly) produces catastrophes (the lesser Bush’s presidency). It is because the party system does not generate an opposition that it reproduces itself every election. National elections change little. The upshot: America’s national politicians re-present the state and the higher strata of the economy to civil society. An authentically democratic politics can be found only in the streets, the place where the demos is sometimes found. Sheldon Wolin evaluated these features of the American political system and thus identified it as an inverted totalitarian regime, a political system without an opposition, a system which functions best when it makes opposition all but impossible.

Fourthly, there are situations, electoral contests and political choices that feature lesser evils which are too evil to tolerate. A lesser Hitler remains a Hitler. An Obama acts like a Bush. A Clinton works hard to complete the Reagan Revolution. A Carter anticipates a Reagan. War, war crimes and lawlessness; mass murder, suppression of dissent and incarceration of whistleblowers; social austerity, economic predation and personal hardship — these are some of the evil policies and policy outcomes which MoveOn supports when it thumps the tub for Barack Obama.

The world often and unfortunately presents many with lesser evil options that a rational person would strongly prefer over the greater evil. Additionally, for some Americans, the lesser evil principle acquires its most persuasive force when one considers the New Deal and Great Society reforms which once marked the history of the Democratic Party. These reforms benefitted so many that a critic cannot deny this point without appear mendacious. One may suspect that Americans who voted for Obama and “change you can believe in” affirmed the collective memory of and institutional residues left over from these past victories. Today, however, these memories are mostly just phantasms. They lack an institutional referent, for The New Deal State and the political culture which supported it parted ways decades back. What remains is a security-surveillance state that governs an empire and imposes austerity on the weak.

Stated differently, it is obvious that militarism and empire, finance capital and the capitalist class have pushed labor and the lesser sort to the margins of the Democratic Party. This is the place where one will find MoveOn and the like. Party star Rahm Emanuel once denounced them as “fucking retarded.”

The ideologically committed liberal should ponder well the intent inherent in Emanuel’s words and, to be sure, his public insolence.

CounterPunch published an early version of this article.

The American Autumn

Ralph Nader offered here what I consider an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s significance and its place within the greater political situation in the United States and the world:

In the Arab Spring of Cairo, Egypt earlier this year, it was said that a million people in Tahrir Square lost their fear of the dictatorship. It can be said that in this “American Autumn,” some 150,000 people have discovered their power and rejected apathy. They have come far in so little time because the soil for their pushback is so fertile, nourished by the revulsion of millions of their countrypersons moving toward standing up and showing up themselves.

I agree. Americans surely are now surpassing the collective denial which characterized the Reagan Revolution. They are learning that the United States is not what they recently believed it to be. An insistent and changing world has exposed the Reagan Revolution for what it is and what it was when first announced: A kind of class war occluded by myth. Therefore, I would not say that the Occupy Wall Street movement is more able than other recent social movements in the United States, and has succeeded where others have failed because of its abilities. Rather, Occupy Wall Street is, in part, a mirror reflecting the emerging — dare I say it?!? — class consciousness in the United States, a conscious experience of the essence of wage labor under capitalism by members of the popular classes.

The ‘left opposition’ to Obama has a lot of work to do

Salon‘s Justin Elliot reports that:

Many loyal Democrats experienced a bit of anxiety (or, perhaps, anger) earlier this week when it was reported that some progressives are planning a primary challenge against Barack Obama, and that perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader was involved. A letter was sent by this group to other progressive leaders sounding them out about the potential of running against Obama from the left.

But it turns out that’s all this is so far: a letter.

There is no money. There is no staff. There is no formal organization that could help get a potential candidate on primary ballots or run a real campaign.

Ralph Nader and others intend to challenge Obama in 2012

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

He hopes to get reelected

The Washington Times reports that:

President Obama‘s smooth path to the Democratic nomination may have gotten rockier Monday, after a group of liberal leaders, including former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, announced plans to challenge the incumbent in primaries next year.

The group said the goal is to offer up a handful of candidates from various fields and areas where the president either has failed to stake out a “progressive” position or where he has “drifted toward the corporatist right.”

The Times continues:

In search of candidates, Mr. Nader and the others sent out a letter, endorsed by 45 “distinguished leaders,” to elected officials, civic leaders, academics and members of the progressive community who specialize among other things in labor, poverty, military and foreign policy. The list, they said, also includes progressive Democrats who have held national and state office and have fought for progressive reforms.

Quote of the day

Ralph Nader channels a new kind of bacteria:

Escherichia coli: Scanning electron micrograph...

Escherichia coli

My name is E.coli 0104:H4. I am being detained in a German Laboratory in Baveria, charged with being “a highly virulent strain of bacteria.” Together with many others like me, the police have accused us of causing about 20 deaths and nearly five hundred cases of kidney failure — so far. Massive publicity and panic all around.

You can’t see me, but your scientists can. They are examining me and I know my days are numbered. I hear them calling me a “biological terrorist,” an unusual combination of two different E.coli bacteria cells. One even referred to me as a “conspiracy of mutants”.

It is not my fault, I want you to know. I cannot help but harm innocent humans, and I am very sad about this.

I want to redeem myself, so I am sending this life-saving message straight from my Petri dish to you.

This outbreak in Germany has been traced to food — location unknown. What is known to yo

u is that invisible terrorism from bacterium and viruses take massively greater lives than the terrorism you are spending billions of dollars and armaments to stop in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Malaria, caused by infection with one of four species of

Plasmodium, a parasite transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes destroys a million lives a year. Many of the victims are children and pregnant women. Mycobacterium tuberculosis takes nearly three million lives. The human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) causes over a million deaths. Many other microorganisms in the water, soil, air, and food are daily weapons of mass destruction. Very little in your defense budget goes for operational armed forces against this kind of violence. Your agencies, such as the Center for Disease Control, conduct some research but again nothing compared to the research for your missiles, drones, aircraft and satellites.

Your associates are obsessed with possible bacteriological warfare by your human enemies. Yet you are hardly doing anything on the ongoing silent violence of my indiscriminate brethren.

Question of the Day

Alexander Cockburn asks:

In terms of evil deeds, is Qaddafi a Mobutu, a Bokassa, a Saddam, or any U.S. president?

His answer: “Surely not.”

I find it difficult to disagree with his answer given Qaddafi’s opponents, who were all unrepentant killers.

I ought to mention that neither Cockburn’s question nor his answer would hold any significance whatsoever if it were not for the American need to justify its imperial sorties by claiming these military actions were meant to check the actions of or depose outright an archfiend. It is believed, wrongly, I would guess, that Americans will not long tolerate war-making unless the war-makers target radical evil. Thus, for this American President, the name Qaddafi along with the aura that surrounds that name does provide the President with the fortitude needed to produce another costly political-military spectacle. That Obama’s actions in Libya are legally dubious and morally suspect are matters which remain unresolved. Neither the quality of Qaddafi’s character nor America’s pretensions to being exceptional can resolve them. Nor also an act of Congress and a Supreme Court judgment.

Fortunately, Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich have already identified one path that would resolve the issues raised by Obama’s Libyan actions: Impeachment. I believe this outcome, one that would be politically and legally relevant, would provide a more effective and durable remedy to Executive branch lawlessness than would Congressional disapproval or a Supreme Court ruling that could not be enforced except by the use of violence. After all, the impeachment option would require the proponents of the action to make their case in public to the American people and thus by extension to the whole world.