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Obama and Clinton: "Third Way" politics and the "Left"

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 9 | December 2008

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For the “Left” that is critical of him, the most common comparison made of Obama is to Bill Clinton.

This critique of Obama, as of Clinton, denounces his “Centrism,” the trajectory he appears to continue from the “new” Democratic Party of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) expressed by Clinton and Gore’s election in 1992. Clinton’s election was seen as part of the triumph of “Third Way” politics that contemporaneously found expression in Tony Blair’s “New” Labour Party in Britain.

The idea of such “Third Way” politics is that, compared to the prior political polarizations that developed around the Reagan and Thatcher neoliberal assault on the Keynesian-Fordist state and the resistance against this trend by traditional “social-democratic” politics, the “radical Center” expressed the possibility of a deeper and more effective political transformation. — What if the “Third Way” politicians were correct?

While the “Left” attacks Obama for being too Centrist or Right-wing, a neoliberal in blackface, the Right attacks Obama for being a closet “socialist” (or “Marxist”!). But both attacks neglect the fundamental transformation of politics that has taken place over the course of the past generation, since the “Reagan Revolution”: the Right cynically because they wish to demagogically drive their conservative-reactionary politics ever further; and the “Left” more despairingly because they have never made proper sense of the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state, and so have thought that the neoliberal Right’s efforts can be simply reversed with a “progressive” outcome — that Keynesian Fordism had been progressive and not regressive in terms of social emancipation.

Behind this lies a deeper confusion that informed the problematic politics of the 1960s “New” Left, and behind that, the reformism of the Left of the 1930s. The “Old” Left had jumped on the bandwagon of FDR’s New Deal reforms — and the remaking of Europe and Japan as well as the postcolonial “developing” states in a Keynesian-Fordist “social-democratic” image after WWII. The “New” Left responded to this conservatization ambivalently, however, attacking the authoritarian liberalism of JFK and LBJ in the 1960s, but then attempting to stave off its collapse in the 1970s-80s. In this the post-’60s “Left” has been as mistaken in its defense as it had been previously in its attack.

The “social democratic” politics of the mid-20th Century involved tying the workers’ movement to state policies, depoliticizing labor struggles and eviscerating the remnants of the socialist movement of the early 20th Century. The collapse of such Keynesian-Fordist reformist politics began in the 1970s and has carried through the ’80s and ’90s to the present. The displacement of the reformism associated with the Democratic Party (and Labour in the U.K.) by a “new” Right starting in the 1970s was facilitated by the demobilization of the working class as a social force with its roots in the 1930s, the period of the Stalinization of Marxism — the transformation of Marxism into a reformist ideology.

The alliance of such “Marxism” with liberalism and social democracy in the Popular Front against fascism in Europe and with FDR’s Democratic Party in the 1930s and during WWII, despite the Cold War against the USSR and its allies that followed, collectively remade the world in its image of politics. What was most important about the politics of the mid-20th Century was not the struggles, however epic, it contained and expressed, but rather how such politics repressed possibilities for social emancipation.

The challenge “Third Way” politics has offered to the terms of both the Old and New Left, emerging from the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist state in the latter part of the 20th Century, has not been met. The changes this politics has augured are askew of the mainstream conceptions of “Left” and “Right” as they were established in the mid-20th Century, after the collapse of the Left into a conservative phenomenon in and through the Popular Front of the 1930s, and the subsequent failure to renew emancipatory politics in the 1960s. Indeed, the “Left” since the 1960s has been trapped in an essentially conservative pose, trying to hold back the tide of neoliberal changes. The problems inherent in this can be summarized by the divisions the “Left” accepts between “personal” and “government” responsibility, or between libertarian and authoritarian politics — the opposition of individual to collective freedom.

To take one prominent example, Adolph Reed, in a variety of writings and statements in other media prior to the election, has excoriated Obama for his rhetoric of “personal responsibility” regarding the problems facing black Americans. For Reed (as for Jeremiah Wright, and Jesse Jackson, Sr., who in off-air comments expressed a desire to “cut his nuts off” after Obama made a Fathers’ Day commentary about black “dead-beat dads”), Obama’s rhetoric of personal responsibility falls in with the neoliberal politics of disclaiming public (governmental) responsibility for social ills and “privatizes” them instead.

Of course Reed is right to criticize such rhetoric by Obama. But the question remains whether today we ought to proceed as if the main enemy was the rhetoric of the 1965 Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: the case for national action,” which infamously identified a supposed “culture of poverty” pathology beyond the possibility of state amelioration, and sought to disenchant the 1960s Great Society expansions of the 1930s New Deal. While Reed and others in the 1960s rightly pointed to the essential affinity between the roots of neoconservatism of Moynihan et al. and the paternalism of liberal reformism, they failed to properly clarify the relation between the reformist politics of labor organizations and the state policies and agencies into which these groups were integrated (such as the National Labor Relations Board) in the mid-20th Century.

The question is whether the terms of such political battles of the 1960s era are still pertinent — whether we ought to place our hopes in reversing policy changes that have occurred from Reagan through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush — or do we need instead to interrogate the terms of this (apparently) perennial struggle so as to be able to adopt an entirely different and potentially more effective framework for emancipatory politics. For the most significant change from the 1960s to the present has been the decimation of the — reformist, non-class struggle — workers movement.

An authentic Marxian Left would not oppose the politics of the governmental responsibility — of the capitalist state — to that of individual persons. A Marxian approach would neither devolve social responsibility onto individual persons nor would it invest collective responsibility in the form of the capitalist nation-state. Nor would it disclaim personal responsibility but would pose it very differently than liberals do — whether they be liberals of the moralizing “conservative” kind or of the supposedly more radical lifestyle-choice variety.

A Marxian approach would argue that the working class has, at the levels of both individual-personal and collective responsibility, to struggle for socialism — and that Leftist intellectuals have a responsibility to help facilitate this struggle.

Rather than the illusions in Obama — either positive or negative — that associate him simply with the vicissitudes of movement along a spectrum of “Left” and “Right” informed fundamentally by Keynesian-Fordist state policies or their undermining by neoliberalism, a response to the “Third Way” politics Obama represents needs to be formulated that recognizes a historical trajectory that is not reassimilable back into the social politics of the mid-20th Century. For such politics had been settled by the time of Clinton’s election in 1992, after the Reagan-Thatcher “revolution” and the destruction of the Soviet Union. There is a line of continuity between Clinton and Obama, but not one of betrayal of the Left but of historical changes for which the “Left” has been ill-prepared.

The triumph of neoliberalism, as well as of “Third Way” politics of the “radical Center” at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries cannot be understood properly as a move to the Right that can be reversed by undoing it or by repolarizing politics according to an earlier mode of government policies. They must be seen as part of a deep-rooted historical trajectory that can only be defeated through a new politicization of the working class for socialism, a politics that has been neglected since the early 20th Century.

We must learn the lessons of the 20th Century not learned by those who came before us, and not accept the terms by which they rationalized their failures. Obama, as the latest sign of “change” in this on-going trajectory, underscores this necessity.

Like the “Third Way” we should not accept the opposition of individual and collective social responsibility in conceiving our politics. Unlike the “Third Way,” we should not affirm the forms of state and civil society in which these different dimensions of social responsibility are mediated in today’s late, “post-revolutionary” capitalism. We should rise to the challenge of the necessary double-sided critique that can meet the conservative politics of the “Third Way” in terms of its — and our — own historical moment, and not in the obsolete and, even in their time, mistaken and ineffective terms of a moribund “Left.”

Since his election, Obama has made it clear that he wishes to steer clear of outdated polarizations — as well he should, if he wants to be an effective politician. We should not treat this merely as “political” equivocation or obfuscation, but rather as clearing the way to a potential better recognition of social reality. For a long time now, the “Left” has been adept at skirting the issues and accepting, however tacitly, the terms of social politics set by others. For it is as true that “government [of the capitalist nation-state] is not the answer” as it is that neoliberal “free market” reforms have been a farcical debacle — with tremendous costs to humanity. But the historical failure of the Left is what brought us to this impasse of the 20th Century, the 21st Century opportunity of the “Third Way” and its politics of the “radical Center.” The vacuum of historical politics has been filled, and we need to address this present effective space for politics and not remain self-marginalized, in disdain of it.

We cannot continue the preceding “Left’s” follies in accepting the terms and attempting to re-fight the battles of the 1960s and the 1930s (and their aftermath), in an endless “rear-guard action,” without denying our social reality in its most fundamental respects. Obama has not been a transformative figure in the sense of bringing about a change. Rather, Obama’s victory expresses a change that has been already long under way — and about which the “Left” has remained confused and in denial for far too long, as a result of its abandonment of Marxism.

For a Marxian approach should seek to occupy the vital, radical center of political life, if social emancipation beyond capital is ever to be achieved. Not the intellectual cynicism of “postmodernism” or the despairing utopian politics of an “anarchist” withdrawal from mainstream political life, but an open assault on the on-going conservatizing strategies of depoliticization and the consolidation of power that takes form in ever more socially opaque and inaccessible ways.

Reversing this can only happen in the context of a reinvigorated workers’ movement that would seek to centrally reorganize social life, at a global scale. Today, this must begin with the integrated North American working class, who, occupying the beating heart of the world of capital, has a unique historic responsibility and potentially emancipatory role to play, for whose abdication all of humanity will continue to pay a terrible and escalating price. Addressing the ideological clarification necessary for overcoming this deficit of working class politics will be possible only through Marxian critical theory, carried on by intellectuals trained and dedicated to do this.

As Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), the great revolutionary Marxist politician of the early 20th Century stated it, during the disintegration of the international Marxist workers’ movement in the First World War,

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of humankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history. (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, AKA the Junius pamphlet, 1915)

We need to resume this fight. |P

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