Thursday, December 24, 2009

Money Changes Everything

This comment today on a post lamenting Obama's strategic decisions and choices at A Tiny Revolution. The comment posted by N E at December 24, 2009 09:55 AM. (No permalink.)

FDR was a good one, but Hoover was actually trying some of those New Deal policies too. There was pressure from the left then. That is what is needed now too. Obama never had a real movement behind him, and unfortunately it doesn't look to me like he believes he can start one. Or if he does, he doesn't know how to do it. He is doing a very bad job at motivational leadership, which is very important.

I'm not sure FDR had "a real movement behind him"; rather, he had real movements putting pressure on him. I think that N E, like so many Obama apologists, believes that Obama would like to do things differently, but doggone it, he just can't -- he's a sweet guy, but "doesn't know how to do it." This is doubtful on many grounds, but foremost among them is this one. (By the way, I must say I wish I had people who'd follow me around, loudly absolving me of all responsibility for everything I do.)

Obama didn't want a real movement behind him, because a real movement might develop a mind of its own. He tried to coopt in advance the kind of people who might start one with his own organization, which was very successful in terms of the goal he set for it: to get him into office. That organization was not exactly invisible: the Obama campaign was singled out by Advertising Age for excellence in marketing, beating out Apple Computers. Immediately after the election, the Democratic leadership and the corporate media were nervous that Obama's supporters -- by which term they did not mean his corporate supporters -- would want a say in how he governed. Obama himself has made clear his dislike of any insubordination among the proles, whether in or out of his army. But not to worry, there hasn't been any serious restiveness yet.

I agree that he's doing a bad job at motivational leadership, but I think the way N E phrased this reveals that he accepts the framework of shepherd/sheep as a model for leadership: the idea that the followers will do whatever the leader wants if he just motivates them in the right way. (What motivates his apologists, I wonder -- all those Obama hasbaristas? I don't imagine they're being paid, or even asked personally to mount the defense, yet they are quite dogged in their loyalty and energy and readiness to vilify all of Obama's critics.) I've seen some indication that some of Obama's ground troops are voting with their feet, and drifting out of involvement. I imagine next November will tell us more. But judging by the e-mails I've seen, forwarded to me by a friend who gets them from the Obama organization, I think Obama doesn't realize how upset many of his former supporters are. He assumes that everything he's doing is fine with them, and they only need to be motivated properly, then given their orders. That isn't how it works. The "movement" has to have goals it believes in, and "Obama in 2012" isn't enough for the grass roots unless it means something other than war, torture, and more corporate welfare. Obama's legacy could turn out to be revealing the limits of voting as a medium of change.

Now, I agree, and have often written about it, that many of Obama's fans had inaccurate and unrealistic beliefs about what he stood for and intended to do, let alone what he could do. But I won't blame them for deserting him when they realize that they were wrong about him. What else should they do, change their goals and values? Continue to support him while he stuffs money into the coffers of corporations and devastates the world? No doubt N E thinks so; certainly Obama thinks so. But I'm not the only one who doesn't think so.

In a previous comment thread at A Tiny Revolution, N E and another commenter indicated what they thought the solution might be. N E first:

Our national game is Capitalism, with a fractional-reserve banking system controlled by private banks being the linchpin of the whole system, so big banks are even more important to those players who want to win than Board Walk and Park Place are in Monopoly, whereas people collectively don't even have a crappy little square like Meditteranean Avenue and individually aren't worth a damn thing. It doesn't matter who is playing the game, even the some-call-him Obaminator, 'cuz that's the game fellas.

So change the game.

I love people who adopt this sort of faux-cynical, worldly-wise realist tone. There are certain problems with what I'd laughingly call the substance, however. N E pictures his game of Capitalism as being played by Obama on one side with, well, it's hard to tell who's on the other side. But he does seem to cast Obama as their opponent instead of their collaborator, let alone their instrument; that fits with his general Obama-apologist approach, that Obama is on the people's side but he's just overwhelmed by the Forces of Evil. That doesn't fit well, however, with the metaphor of Obama as a player in the game.

If you play Monopoly (N E's model for this flight of fancy), you're there to acquire Monopoly property and accumulate Monopoly bucks and put the other players out of business. But the President of the United States is not, in theory or in practice, a player in the game. He won't win by putting the other players out of business, and he's not supposed to pile up wealth while he's in office. (Afterwards is another story.) So the metaphor breaks down there.

Further, Capitalism is not a game, and I've written before about the error involved in equating sport with political economy. but even if it were, it is only one game being played in the United States, however big and powerful it is. Most Americans aren't even in the game, for one thing; we're the runts and nerds nobody wanted when sides were chosen. One could move to the model of spectator sports, which many capitalists would like us to do. We can root for our favorite team, wear its colors, and believe that it matters whether it or the other team wins. There's even the tantalizing illusion that we get to choose our favorite team -- Coke or Pepsi, Windows or Mac, Avatar or Alvin -- because Free Choice is what America is all about.

For another thing, there are no rules in the game that can't be changed -- the corporate "players" expect to be able to do it at will, of course, but they needn't be the only ones. In theory, though, and sometimes in practice, there is also a game called Government, which Capitalism has always tried to control and undermine. That's the game Obama is supposed to be playing, but he seems to be a bit vague about his role in it, partly as a result of spending too much time hanging out with the players from Capitalism. The point of the blog post by Jon Schwarz that started me off today was basically that: who is Obama playing for, and is he a loser or just confused?

So, change the game? Another commenter chimed in with this: "In other words, a revolution. Glad to see we agree NE!" Ah, revolution. Leonard Cohen once said, back in the 60s, that every time you use the word "revolution" it gets delayed ten seconds. (Which means we're probably safe for the next several centuries.) After all, we had a revolution in this country, and it left basically the same people in power. I'd have to have some reason to believe that another one would do any different, and I'm not very trusting. Whose revolution? The people's? Hah.

Right now I'm reading a new book, The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle by David Solnit and Rebecca Solnit, published by AK Press. The title sums it up: who gets to tell the story of the shutdown of the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999? The corporate media have established the template of a horrific outbreak of anarchist violence, a blow struck at civilization itself, by a bunch of ignorant tree-huggers who pretend to care about the world's poor but are only spoiled brats; it is the WTO and the bold Captains of Free Enterprise who truly care, and who alone hold out hope to the huddled masses.

The reality was somewhat different -- most of the violence was police violence, the police were not out of control but following orders, and the protesters were not only people of all ages and backgrounds but from all over the world; the shutdown also decisively weakened US dominance in the WTO, a blow from which the organization still has not recovered. And the protesters did this without either large amounts of money or the kind of hierarchical, top-town organization that most people take for granted is necessary to achieve such change. (David Solnit remarks that when he was told the budget of Stuart Townsend's 2007 film Battle in Seattle -- $10 million, small for a Hollywood film -- all he could think was that you could fund a hundred shutdowns with that much money.)

How did they do it? David Solnit provides a list of strategic principles compiled by a group of Seattle organizers, which boil down to engaging the media, decentralization, open organizing, clear what-and-why logic, and prior agreements about the types of direct action to use. This sort of thing is unfashionable, because it goes against the grain of professionalization and hierarchy that define a lot of movement work nowadays. A year before Seattle, the Human Rights Campaign and the Metropolitan Community Church decided to organize a Millennium March on Washington, with closed, top-down organization, big names, vagueness about what-and-why (notice the closety name), and corporate sponsorship. It finally took place in 2000 and drew a fair-sized crowd, but not as many as its organizers had hoped, and lost a lot of money. In those respects it failed to achieve its goals insofar as it had any goals beyond partying. Partying is all very well, and certainly accompanied previous gay marches, but it was never clear what political aims the Millennium March had.

Joshua Gamson wrote in The Nation, "The LGBT movement has shifted from one of loosely affiliated activists to one of organizations. Understandably, this freaks some people out. An organizational movement is a different sort of creature, and some of the opposition to the Millennium March is just a recognition that if you're not a member of an organization in the LGBT movement in the twenty-first century, the creature may well bustle along without you." This is false on just about every point. The LGBT movement in the US has always been one of organizations, not "loosely affiliated activists", from Mattachine in 1948 to the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 to the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force after 1969. Much of the opposition to the March came from organizations; the individuals Gamson names were often not activists, but citizens expressing their opinions.

The question that the Millennium March stirred up was What kind of organization? Like Gamson, defenders of the March that I engaged relied on a Marxist, dustbin-of-history attitude: HRC was the wave of the future and other kinds of organization were so Seventies, so get with the program or be left behind. HRC's style of money-driven lobbying, built on achieving access to Washington, has its place no doubt, but as the Millennium March showed, it is also a dead end. Richard Goldstein wrote in the Village Voice that when veteran organizer Mandy Carter "tried to persuade [HRC Executive Director Elizabeth] Birch to embrace a more open organizing process last year, "her feeling was 'Why do we need to take time for those meetings?' For her, it just didn't make sense." It seems that Birch, who once invited a reporter to imagine that "you woke up and found that someone had handed you the movement ... I'll bet you that would have made most of the same decisions I've made", never learned why it was her style of organizing that didn't make sense.

So, revolution? I don't think so, unless the word is used to mean any kind of serious change, which takes out so much of the romance out of it, such as following a bare-breasted babe over a street paved with corpses. Ah, the Struggle! the Glory! But think of what you can do without romance: you can join a movement that brings a powerful international organization sponsored by the United States to its knees. A movement like that could make Barack Obama and his partners in the game of Capitalism take notice. Nothing else will do it.