Obama and Capitalism:
Whither the American Left?
July 8, 2009
Bernard Chazelle writes that subsequent
to the "Welfare Reform Act" of 1996,
"Society became a club in which one is
a member ‘under certain conditions.’
The images of Hurricane Katrina would
reveal the cruel meaning of that
conditionality to the whole world."
The triumph of neo-liberalism on the other side of the Atlantic may be
explained – like almost everything else in American history – by inflation and
The 1970’s were years of historic compromise: Blacks were integrated into
the great American family in a legal sense, but at the price of abandoning all
social demands. The "stagflation" that shook the economy catalyzed a
process that was to extend over the next three decades and dispute all the
social breakthroughs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
That evolution would withstand the power alternations between parties so
well that the United States would finish the century with a Democratic
president, Bill Clinton, anchored firmly to the right of Republican Richard
What happened? The great project of the American right, constructed
in the New York hallways of Bill Buckley’s National Review, saw its hour of
triumph with Reagan’s election in 1980.
A "Righting" of the Left
Twelve years later, Clinton appropriated Reagan’s themes and became the
bard of neo-liberalism. He kept the marginal income tax rate at half of what it
had been under Nixon. He eliminated social assistance for 9 million poor
With help from the financial bubble, he presided over the greatest transfer
of wealth from the middle class to the rich since 1929. The income of the
richest one percent of Americans doubled, while that of the median tranche
rose by 15 percent only (over eight years in constant dollars). The Wal-Mart
founder’s family possesses a personal fortune equal to the collective personal
fortune of 120 million Americans.
Clinton doubled the prison population compared to what it had been under
Reagan. Accused of being "soft on crime" during his campaign, he went
to attend the execution of a mentally handicapped man, famous for having
asked the guard who served him his last meal whether he could keep his
yoghurt for later.
Welfare Was Supposed to Reinforce Poverty and Consequently
Had to Be Subjected to Merit Criteria.
In 1996, along with the great "Welfare Reform Act," Clinton signed the
death certificate for the American left. The attractive idea was: since welfare
reinforces poverty, let’s submit it to merit criteria.
In this politically savvy marriage of solidarity and common sense, the key
word became "responsibility."
Hidden therein, however, as though it were totally insignificant, is what
historian Tony Judt has described as the return of the spirit of "England’s
New Poor Law" of 1834.
As in Dickens’s England, citizenship became conditional. So there was an
outright assault on the primary idea of social justice, that is, the absolute right
to dignity. When one is hungry, well then, one asks for alms.
In its wake, the unconditional right of membership in the community
disappeared also. Society became a club in which one is a member "under
certain conditions." The images of Hurricane Katrina would reveal the cruel
meaning of that conditionality to the whole world.
On top of this "righting" of the left came submission to the capitalist schema
of historical determinism. Echoing Margaret Thatcher‘s famous "Tina"
("There is No Alternative"), New York Times editorialist Tom Friedman
explained enthusiastically that once a country puts on the "Golden
Straitjacket," "its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke."
It’s not the "End of History" Fukuyama proclaimed, but the end of politics.
The Faustian neo-liberal pact is to barter away mastery of our collective
destiny for a promise of prosperity, a promise that moreover often proves
illusory. In close to half the world’s countries, income per person in 2000 was
inferior to what it had been in 1990.
The Cult of Capitalism
Capitalism or neo-liberalism is an essentially self-referential dogma. As
the sole goal of the economy is to satisfy its own needs for growth, the citizen
is no longer anything but a passive consumer.
In the United States, the dogma tolerates social conflicts only insofar as they
remain orthogonal to economic fault lines. Thus, we may debate abortion
at our leisure, but social assistance is a "fiscally imprudent" idea. Of course,
free market capitalism is no more an economic theory than greed is a theory
of property. It is primarily hypnosis.
The Republicans at least propose choices: one may be for or against tax
The Democrats promise "vibrant communities" and "growing prosperity."
What party do you have to belong to, or what planet, to not wish for such
Just as science should be falsifiable, ideologies should be deniable.
One will notice that Democratic platitudes – as though by miracle – perfectly
marry "Tina" dogma to the opportunisms of the moment.
The United States is at a turning point of its history. The uni-polar hour
is coming to an end, but who will be able to snatch the country away from
its much-prized Nineteenth Century values, such as the power of gaps in
wealth to spur emulation and the cult of military force?
Obama: Beneath the Center-Left Rhetoric, Rightwing Policy
Obama? It’s too soon to express a definitive opinion, but the enthusiasm he
arouses is largely unmerited.
His charm, tone and intelligence captivate. The symbolic power of a black
American president is undeniable. Nonetheless, the acrobatic quality of his
approach, masking right-leaning policy under center-left rhetoric, invites
His rejection of torture is categorical, eloquent and in flagrant contradiction
to his support for the "rendition" program that sends terrorist suspects
to be tortured in friendly countries. His populist remarks against Wall Street
excesses translate into measures that, in fact, reward those excesses. His
soothing speech in Cairo is served along with increased bombing of Pashtun
lands. His plan for withdrawal from Iraq goes hand in hand with a defense
budget $20 billion higher than Bush’s.
Barack Obama is the most talented politician of his generation. His mastery
of the straddle is formidable, but the prolonged practice of this dangerous
exercise rarely ends well. For the American left, "Yes we can" runs a strong
risk of proving to be a Siren song.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
Read the original article in French "Obama et le néolibéralisme : où va la gauche
Bernard Chazelle is Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at
Princeton University. As of 2004, he has 191 published articles, 93 of which
are journal articles, and published two books. Chazelle has also written
a few polemical essays, such as "Bush’s Desolate Imperium" and
"Anti-Americanism: A Clinical Study" which draw from his life experience
in both France and the United States (Wikipedia).