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Progress or regress? The future of the Left under Obama

Chris Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, Pat Korte, Charles Post, and Paul Street

Platypus Review 12 | May 2009

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

On December 6, 2008, a panel discussion titled Progress or Regress? Considering the Future of Leftist Politics Under Obama was held in New York City. The Panelists were: Chris Cutrone of Platypus; Stephen Duncombe, a professor at the Gallatin School at New York University and author of Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (2007); Pat Korte of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); Charles Post of the Detroit-based organization Solidarity; and Paul Street, author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008). The following transcript represents only a portion of a more extensive and wide-ranging discussion. The comments edited and published here chiefly address the significance of Obama’s election with respect to black politics. This was not the only theme the panelists discussed and the Platypus Review encourages interested readers to listen to the complete recording of the event at the link above.

Opening remarks:

Paul Street: Obama’s election represents a historic, but largely symbolic, validation of the deepest aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, and others sought much more than the right of African-Americans to sit at a lunch counter or to get white people to vote for blacks for certain higher offices. They sought a deep assault on the structural and socio-economic bases of racial oppression and inequality. They said such an assault needed to tackle the broader problems of poverty and inequality, and it needed to attack them across racial lines.

The Civil Rights Movement’s dreams of radical change were not fulfilled. The Obama phenomenon—like the Oprah, Condoleeza Rice, and, to some extent, Colin Powell phenomena before it—is being used to advance the claim that racism has been transcended simply because there has been a color change in who is eligible to hold the nation’s top jobs.

The real Dr. Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist, though this fact does not fit very well with the official, domesticated high school textbook version of him as a polite, middle-class reformer. You may recall Big Brother’s maxim in George Orwell’s 1984, “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.” We do not like to admit it, but we inhabit something of a corporate, totalitarian political culture, what the Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin calls “democracy incorporated.” One thing that happens in such a culture is the ubiquitous erasure and deletion of that history which does not conform to received doctrines. So, in the phrase from 1984, King and Bayard Rustin’s radicalism goes down the memory hole.

King warned from very early on in the Civil Rights Movement that symbolic and even substantive victories over southern segregation and racial disenfranchisement posed a danger in that they could reinforce a dangerous majority-white sentiment while, at the same time, people could be lulled into believing that the nation’s racial problem had been solved. To some extent this is exactly what happened.

But it is not just the Obama phenomenon. In some ways, that is just the tip of the iceberg. We have had an erasure, a deletion, of the notion that race is a significant problem. Even the speech that Obama gave in Philadelphia in March 2008 in response to the mushrooming Jeremiah Wright affair was extraordinary in the extent to which it strove to minimize racism as a problem in American life. Jeremiah Wright’s anger could be understood and made sense of, Obama seemed to say, because we used to really be like that but it does not fit the current situation. When I was at the Chicago Urban League from 2000 to 2005 I had regular contact with young, angry, criminally marked, ex-incarcerated African-Americans on the south and west sides of Chicago. They all had that Jeremiah Wright anger because of things that are going on now: how the labor market works, how the housing market works, you name it.

I always distinguish between Level 1 racism and Level 2 racism. Level 1 racism is bigotry and whom you’re willing to vote for. Level 2 racism is something much subtler… It does not require whites, or anyone, to be personally bigoted. It is a matter of how institutions are set up and how they run.

Charles Post: I want to start from the same place Paul did, Obama and the Civil Rights Movement. I have a slightly different take, which is that Obama’s election represents both the incredible achievements and the severe limitations of the Civil Rights Movement up until 1965. This was a social movement that, for all its limitations, effectively smashed legal segregation, the system of racist terror in the South, American apartheid. Obama’s victory is the symbolic culmination of that legal, democratic revolution in American history.

Symbolically, having a black man as the head of the U.S. state, a state founded on white supremacy, is quite amazing. But it also points to the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was unable to successfully confront and defeat racism… It was unable to confront the dominant form of racism today, what Paul called Level 2 racism, institutional racism, racism that is reproduced through, as Marx put it, the dull compulsions of the marketplace. Today most people do not have openly racist attitudes. Still, people can be color-blind and racial domination, racial oppression, can nevertheless be reproduced through competition for jobs, housing, education, etc. In many ways, Obama, as Paul pointed out in his book, is perfectly comfortable with promoting the ideology and politics necessary for the maintenance of institutional racism: the politics of color blindness, the idea that we are beyond race and beyond racism (Obama’s main argument for throwing Reverend Wright under the bus).

Pat Korte: I’d like to begin by saying that I sincerely hope that the critical and perhaps cynical view of Barack Obama is wrong. I would like to believe that Barack Obama truly is a progressive who bends to the right only to appease the powers that be, and that once he is in office his administration will begin the long process of constructing a political and economic order characterized by equality, justice, solidarity and democracy. However, as both Paul and Charlie have mentioned, a cursory overview of American history would lead one to conclude that this outcome is extremely unlikely.

I am of the opinion that progressive reforms and social revolutions are not by-products of any top-down process. Rather, they result from the popular initiative and creative energy of masses of people. As Barack Obama himself said on numerous occasions, change does not come from Washington, it goes to Washington.

Whether Obama’s administration will be progress or regress for America and the world is not at all clear. Nor is it clear what opportunities are currently open for Leftists. But a few things are undoubtedly clear. Most obviously, Obama is the first African-American president and this is a significant step forward for a country founded on white supremacy.

Stephen Duncombe: What does Obama’s election actually mean to the Left? I think it changes everything and changes nothing.

Liberals, not necessarily radicals, but liberals have decidedly won the culture wars, or symbolic wars, not just in Hollywood but in D.C. as well. The person who got elected to be our president is a mixed-race, latté sipping, cosmopolitan intellectual from Chicago who grew up in Hawaii and overseas. And he won big. He did this without buying a ranch or posing with a shotgun, à la Kerry. I think this actually means something. It shifts the cultural parameters in the United States…

Also, Obama speaks the cultural lingua franca. For instance, there was a moment in the campaign—Obama had just taken a particular beating in a primary debate, particularly from Hillary Clinton, and he showed up to give a speech and did his Jay-Z move [brushes dust off shoulders] —and, of course, the crowd went wild. Now, in one way it is banal, but in other ways it shows that Obama understands… that you have to learn to speak the lingua franca of the culture in which you live. And he was able to do that. With this single gesture he signaled to a whole bunch of young people, “I understand. I understand your culture. I understand your music. And I am one of you.” I thought it was quite brilliant…

Of course, Obama is a centrist who leads a centrist party. His sole objective is to stabilize and preserve capitalism, rationalize the irrationalities, and ameliorate some of the most egregious miseries. Any reforms that may come from an Obama administration will not be intended as stepping stones to any fundamental transformation of capitalism such as Martin Luther King was asking for. Instead, Obama’s reforms will be in the service of capitalism’s long-term maintenance. They will in this sense be similar to what FDR believed that he was doing during the Great Depression, only much less radical.

Chris Cutrone: Obama’s election provides a welcome occasion for the clarification of several issues that block the reconstitution of a Left adequate to the present and the future… The confusion encountered on the pseudo-Left regarding Obama has multiple aspects and many tangled historical roots.

On the issue of “race” in America, Obama has been neither a traditional “black” politician nor has his victory been “post-racial.” Rather, Obama’s campaign expressed a transformation in the way “race” and racism function. His election marks a definite end to the post-Jim Crow period, the period of forms of social consciousness and politics that derived from the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power.

The “Left” has responded to the shift Obama represents with as much fear as desire. Indeed, there has been a great deal of anxiety and regret on the Left about the end of “black politics” as it has functioned since the 1960s.

Prior to his victory, virtually everyone on the “Left” seemed to harbor deep skepticism regarding Obama’s chances. This incredulity, I would argue, was rooted in the Left’s mistaken understanding and imagination of how anti-black racism actually functions in America today and how it has functioned in the last 40 years.

Unlike some of the other panelists, I would argue that the U.S. today is not racist in the way it was in the 1960s. In other words, when Obama made the claim that Jeremiah Wright was stuck in the 60s, this was not inaccurate. Of course, the change that has taken place has not particularly benefited the majority of black people. Still, there is a need for a new social imagination and a new politics for addressing racism. As Stephen said, Obama’s election did not change anything, nor will it, but it did reveal a change that has long been underway.

The ways social conditions in the United States work against black people have changed. Poverty and other forms of disempowerment of the working class function differently today than they did in the 1950s and 60s or even in the 70s and 80s. These changes have been to the detriment of Leftist politics. The fact that such changes as Obama represents are not unambiguously, or perhaps even at all, progressive (in the sense of social emancipation or empowerment), does not mean that important changes have not taken place. It also does not mean that the Left does not need to fundamentally alter its perspective in order to keep pace with these social changes.

I would say that the “Left’s” incredulity about the possibility of an Obama victory, the nail biting up until the last minute, can only mean one thing, that the Left is more racist than the population at large. And this is because the Left is more ideological, and more trapped in historical blinders than the population at large.

The fear on the Left with which Obama’s victory has been met is rooted in an attempt to avoid or ward off recognition of the obvious: that earlier forms of politics, specifically “black politics,” post-Civil Rights and, especially, Black Power politics, are now defunct. Indeed, Obama’s victory raises the question of whether such politics were ever truly viable.

After opening remarks each panelist was given an opportunity to respond to one another:

Paul Street: A lot of people on the Left thought the race barrier was too high for Obama to win. I actually did not, because I agree with Chris that we are in a new and different period of neo-liberal racism and structural racism, where racism can continue even as people are ready to vote for a black candidate. I think we are both saying that this is a new type of racism. We are not still in the same era. It is dramatic and it is exciting, and it is one of the great living symbols of cultural victories of 1960s movements. We have transcended a lot of that old kind of racism, but the deeper, structural, institutional stuff that Bayard Rustin and King were talking about still remains…

Charles Post: I want to echo what I said earlier and what Paul just said, which is that old-school racism—i.e. racism which relied heavily on people having nasty attitudes, openly racist attitudes and behaviors towards people of color—is no longer, and has not been since at least 1965, the dominant form of racism in the United States. Racism is now reproduced, as Paul pointed out, through the marketplace. Now, I think there is a danger on certain parts of the far Left to say, “Well this means that, in fact, class trumps race.” While I firmly believe, with Dr. King and other radical thinkers from the 60s, that addressing institutional racism must take on class issues, it also requires the Left to take up race-specific issues. I believe that color blindness, whether in the way we organize or the demands we make, is in fact going to help reproduce institutional racism. I also believe that the question of what the Brits call “positive discrimination,” affirmative action, remains a key question. In fact one of my great worries about the Obama administration is that. Just as it took a right-wing Republican anti-communist to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and a so-called liberal democrat to abolish Aid to Families with Dependent Children, it will take the first black president to abolish the remnants of affirmative action in the United States. The question of maintaining race-specific politics is very important for the Left.

Chris Cutrone: One of the things that I want to point out about the discussion of race and racism is that, if you say, “well, ok, people are oppressed, not by virtue of people’s racist attitudes,” what is the point of calling it racism? In other words, it begs the question, if a certain set of racist attitudes have been undermined or been partially overcome, but people are still as bad, if not worse off, than 40 years ago, what sense does it make to talk about the social problem you are discussing as racism? And, of course, as usual, it is affirmative action that comes up. Affirmative action was never an anti-poverty program. It was never a measure meant to alleviate the social conditions of a vast majority of black people. And you would have to say affirmative action worked. That is what the Obama candidacy and election represents. The Left has, over the past forty years, essentially positioned itself as the last line of defense for liberal reforms that are not particularly emancipatory or progressive or working-class oriented. Affirmative action is an example of this. In other words, to say, “The Left needs to be the final defenders, the last man on the barricade of affirmative action,” poses the question of what affirmative action can actually achieve in addressing actual social issues. It expresses a fundamental confusion over the nature of social reality and what it would take to change it.

Two questions from the audience address the issue of race. One asks, “Is ‘Level 1’ racism really gone?” The other wondered, “Might not calling U.S. imperialism ‘racist’ actually obscure its true character?”

Pat Korte: I do not think discussing racism or white supremacy together with imperialism obscures the issue of imperialism and the polarization of wealth and power on a global scale. I think that they are actually intimately connected, especially with the United States as the leading power of the imperialist bloc.

Chris Cutrone: Obama is right-wing leadership. He is leadership of the capitalist class. That’s what he is. He is bourgeois leadership and he is effective. He will be more effective than McCain could have been in terms of now giving leadership to U.S. capitalism and thus to U.S. imperialism. So, racist U.S. imperialism? Well, if a black man is the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, what sense does it make to call U.S. imperialism racist?

To get back to the question about old-style racism, in certain ways old-style racism is certainly alive and well. The issue is, how does it feature in society and politics? How does it feature as a social force? The Sean Bell case was raised. This is something that people use to skewer Obama. But all he said is, you have to respect the judge’s verdict. Well guess what? Of course you do. Because, on the one hand, that is the system. On the other hand, there was a black cop who was involved in that shooting. In a case of black cops shooting down black people, is it racism? Or is it police brutality? How best to characterize it? What is the point in characterizing it as racism? There is only a point to characterizing it as racism if you are Al Sharpton trying to put pressure on the Democratic Party. In other words, to call it racist is to make a bid for capitalist leadership. It is to call for more black cops, to have a black police commissioner, that kind of thing. It is to assert black capitalist leadership. It is not to call for structural transformation.

Charles Post: I want to draw a line in the sand, theoretically and politically. I think the reason that we describe imperialism as racist is because capitalism as a mode of production creates not only the possibility, but also the necessity of racism. Race as a category is born when, for the first time in human history, most people are legally free and equal except for people with dark skins in Virginia and Barbados. Race is reproduced, even after the abolition of slavery, because it becomes a way of explaining and justifying how inequality is reproduced in a society where legal status is no longer co-existent with class position. Where we are all legally free and equal, we are all supposedly free to compete for jobs and housing. But yet, capital continues to use race as a way to order the employment queue. This is why we have to continue to talk about race. If we do not talk about race, as far as I am concerned, we are not going to be able to talk effectively about capitalism. I strongly disagree with Chris that the only reason to talk about race is to promote a black, middle-class agenda. On the contrary, the reason to talk of race is to look at the basis of the real divisions among working class people. Racial divisions and racial oppression will not go away simply by pretending that they do not exist.

Paul Street: I will tell you, if you have knocked on doors in some rural towns in Iowa with names like “Lonetree,” as I have, you will find that Level 1 racism is still going on. I keep waiting for Level 1 racism to have a comeback too. Because when you wipe out the notion that racism is a barrier to black advancement, and yet you still have all these barriers…You have taken away the notion of racism, but you still see these incredible gaps. How can you explain it except with reference to racism? If you want to know why people call imperialism racist, talk to a veteran. Ask him about the basic training process. Or watch the movie The Ground Truth (2006) about all the anti-Arab racism drummed into the minds of GIs getting ready to go to war.

Chris Cutrone: Paul said that, in a sense, one would welcome back Level 1 racism in order to make social problems more recognizable. But then that just begs another question: Why is it that we have such a hard time recognizing the social problem, and why do we characterize that social problem in one way rather than another? The reason that I raised is that characterizing social problems in terms of racism tends to benefit a certain kind of Democrat party politics in which black people participate as an ethnic constituency. It is something that the Democrats have always been good at. And, as a result, we end up bracketing the question: Is racism an obstacle to organizing the working class? Is it an obstacle to the politicization and empowerment of the working class? And if it is, then it needs to be addressed that way. I raised the issue of affirmative action, which has nothing to do with working class empowerment, but which rather has to do with set-asides for contractors, for municipal contracts, and with admission to higher education, etc. I pushed on that only because I want to say if the election of Obama seems to mean anything, it is that the supposed intractability of the racism of the white working class simply is not the obstacle that people, ever since the 60s, thought it to be. What does that do in terms of how we think about addressing social inequalities as they exist today?

Charles Post: I would argue that it is not just a matter of, “American capitalism needs racism.” I would argue that capitalism, as an economic system, the way Marx analyzed it, is both the necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of racism—not just racist ideas, but racist practices. How do capitalists distinguish who to hire and who not to hire? Race, along with gender, along with national origin, etc., are powerful determining factors. So, if you want to talk about building unity within the working class without addressing the fact that workers of color not only suffer the same exploitation as other workers but also and in addition suffer forms of racial domination, racial oppression…if you want to achieve working class unity without addressing this, I do not think you can succeed. Working class unity is not going to be built on the basis of color blindness. That is the conclusion I have reached over the course of my 35-odd years of political experience. In the 1930s, it was only when unions practiced forms of affirmative action, when they took up the demands of immigrant workers, and then black and Latino workers [that working class unity began to take shape]. When the unions dropped these demands, that is when those racial divisions sharpened.

Paul Street: We still find, as always with presidential elections, the majority of the white populace vote for the Republican candidate. But more than that, even on the so-called progressive side, a lot of the eagerness of Caucasians to embrace Obama is very qualified and it depends on his being a particular kind of African-American, what we writers at Black Agenda Report call the “black-but-not-like-Jesse” or the “black-but-not-like-Al-Sharpton” phenomena. And Obama played that role to a tee. He played it brilliantly. And I guarantee you—knowing Obama a little bit from the south side of Chicago, where I worked for years—he is completely conscious of the tightrope he is walking when it comes to race.

Closing remarks

Paul Street: I will leave you with a couple of quotes. One is from Adolph Reed: “Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to. It is a mistake to expect any more of them than to be vectors of the political pressures they feel working on them.” And another quote from Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove: “We cannot look for saviors on high to get us out of this mess. We have to do it ourselves.” And one from Obama: “Change does not come from the top-down, it comes from the bottom-up.”

Stephen Duncombe: Obama-mania was a fantasy of politics without politics, a magic bullet. And that is not how change happens, at least not any change I can believe in.

Chris Cutrone: In closing I would like to say that I do not think that what we are going to be faced with or, at least, not the most significant thing we are going to be faced with in the next couple of years is going to be disenchantment with Obama, but disenchantment with the Left. I do not think that the anti-war movement is going to come back. I do not think there is going to be an uptick of social struggles. Even if the financial crisis deepens I do not expect it to translate directly into struggle, because the workers movement as it presently exists is not about struggle. It is not about organizing the unorganized. It is not about the things that need to happen. And so I do not think that, again, we are going to be disenchanted with Obama. I think that we are going to find ourselves in a situation that could be salutary in a certain respect, which is that Obama is going to be a consolidation of a right-wing trajectory that has been ongoing for a while now. That consolidation will take a variety of forms. But the important thing is the sort of rethinking this could prompt on the Left, whether in terms of the anti-war movement, or in terms of the way people have struggled against the oppression of black people in the United States. It is going to deal a death blow to the Left as it has existed up until now, something long overdue. What we are seeing is not the overcoming of social problems, but rather the dissolution of inadequate, mistaken, faulty, pathological ways that people have tried in the past to get beyond these social problems. The social problems will remain. What is going away is 40 years of either trying the wrong way, or not trying at all. |P