Monday, February 24, 2014

Is Obama's America a Conservative Paradise?

An article in Esquire, of all places, makes an argument about Obama fairly common on the American left. In "Barack Obama's Conservative Utopia," writer Michael Maiello asserts that far from being the socialist of American conservatives' nightmares, Obama has in fact "created a conservative America." He identifies seven metrics to prove this point--Taxing the Rich (down), Fracking (up), Abortion (down), Deportations (up), Defense Spending (up), and Corporate Profits (up). Plenty of questions could be raised. For example, do conservatives really want fewer abortions? Much more prominent is their drive to criminalize abortion. In societies where abortion is illegal, rates are often quite high. The real issue for conservatives is women's autonomy and sexual freedom, or rather limiting both, and so I think they would react with horror to Maiello's explanation for the drop: "Under Obama, the number of women accessing contraceptives through public means has increased." Taxes raise similar questions. Maiello ignores the taxes implemented through Obamacare. Those he does focus on indicate a modest increase since Bush, but lower than the top tax rates under Clinton. Not exactly a dramatic tax break for the wealthy. Graphs included representing trends in fracking and deportations indicate that these trends were rising before Obama took office, and, in the case of deportations, the rate of increase slows under Obama, while fracking continued to rapidly expand.

All in all, the evidence presented here doesn't make a very convincing case that Obama has created much of anything. I suspect that Maiello is basically a libertarian troll, trying to confuse already demoralized liberals, but, I should add, his views parallel many of those on the left, such as Perry Anderson, who outlined a similar argument using more and larger words. If Anderson (among others) doesn't make foolish claims about Obama "creating" conservative America, the argument is nevertheless also that virtually nothing much has changed (I finished writing this before seeing this piece by Adolph Reed, which is of the same ilk, albeit more insulting about the left, which Maiello and Anderson basically ignore).

Putting aside the dubious case of abortion, what we have here are a series of long term trends--low taxes on the rich, expanded militarism, deportations, etc. that Obama has failed to reverse. Similarly, Obama promptly moved from a modest stimulus to deficit reduction in the context of intense political and media pressure that he do so. People today look back on the world of the eighties and may say that Reagan "created" an America (sic) of low taxes, deregulation, renewed militarism, nativism, abandonment of efforts to rectify racism… This is an oversimplification. All of these trends were already in evidence by 1978, under his Democratic predecessor Carter. Nevertheless, Reagan did embolden the forces pushing the state in this direction, and crushed the spirit of those opposing them, and so he deserves at least some of the credit or blame, depending on how you see these developments. Obama, far from being a "transformative" president (how Obama himself described Reagan) has mostly gone with the drift of history, which has been to both preserve the inequities introduced in the Reagan era and to modify them with reforms circumscribed by neoliberal logic. Obama has pushed for reforms that might alarm conservatives in a number of areas -- health care, banking regulation, stimulus, immigration -- but always in ways that seek to salve business interests first and foremost.

But--and this is really the key point--if I were a conservative, I would be at least concerned, if not horrified at the direction things have been going in the last few years, notwithstanding that everything cannot be laid at the feet of Obama, and it is indeed preposterous to regard him as a "socialist." First off, we might mention a few side issues. Here is how Maiello describes gay marriage and marijuana legalization: "states have acted in lieu of the Feds, serving as the laboratories of democracy that conservatives have long claimed they should be." Translation--victories are being consolidated in both gay marriage and marijuana legalization in blue states. Obama has very belatedly gone with the flow in both cases, giving gentle but unmistakable pushes. For all the talk of states rights, it is hard to see how to seriously pursue drug or marriage policies that vary much from state to state. Indeed, courts in red states appear to be beginning to undo gay marriage bans put into state constitutions in the last decade. So our conservative friend is likely to be alarmed by these defeats, on an issue of great importance for the maintenance of traditional gender roles on the one hand and of great importance to the "war on drugs" mass incarceration craze on the other. Still, I consider these side issues to the extent that victories do not directly challenge the power of what Occupy Wall Street called "the 1%."

While the US has always had a ruling class with a great deal of power over the state, the most recent phase of inequality, and the transformation of the state from having some semblance of redistributive downward/inclusionary policies to redistributive upward/exclusionary basically dates from the Reagan era, and has alarmingly accelerated in the last ten years or so. This concentration of power, and its flip side, the expansion of the surveillance and incarceration state, can justifiably be considered the central issue of our time, although we must also add the empire behavior of the US that has accelerated since 9-11.  How do things look on these fronts? On the one hand, things have just been going on and on in the same direction, and Obama seems to have no real problem with that. The banks were bailed out, and far from launching criminal investigations into top executives, Obama did not so much as encourage the firing of this strata as a precondition for the bailouts. Indeed, he praised some of the shadiest bankers. We seem to be stuck in deficit cutting hell, notwithstanding the vast numbers of long term unemployed and the declining prospects for recent college grads. The US remains the world leader in mass incarceration, while the Snowden leaks have revealed the massive intrusion of another portion of the surveillance state that most people were only very dimly aware of six years ago. The US retains its warlike posture in the Middle East, and drone and special forces operations seem to be dispersing to endless sites worldwide. So the picture is pretty grim. And for the most part, Obama has done little more than try to repackage this material for liberal consumption.

But the picture is also more contradictory than that. The bankers seemed to have gotten away with everything, but then Occupy Wall Street exploded onto the scene. The most viral of social movements since the sixties (at least), Occupy was striking for directing rage at the 1%, and not neatly fitting into the two party framework (as the Iraq anti-war movement ultimately did, notwithstanding the failure of the Democrats to offer robust opposition to the war). Since Occupy, the issue of banks has been reopened, just a little, with, for example, the J.P. Morgan settlement. Elizabeth Warren was elected to the Senate, and has played the role of gadfly surprisingly well. Furthermore, on a number of fronts, Obama has not been able to advance the neoliberal agenda. Larry Summers was clearly his choice to lead the fed, but had to be withdrawn. The Trans-Pacific Partnership seems less and less likely to pass, although we shouldn't rule out yet another effort once we are passed the midterm elections. Obama himself barely mentioned it in the State of the Union, instead, focusing on income inequality. At least that seemed to be the takeaway. Some stories noted that his language has shifted away from inequality towards opportunity, generally considered a Republican theme, but I am not sure how clearly this registered.

On other fronts as well, I see contradictory movement. Recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates' memoirs were published. Clearly an attack from the right by a Washington insider, they were widely hailed in the US media. Obama was portrayed as being uninterested in vigorously pursuing the war in Afghanistan, and this was portrayed, both by Gates and in the media coverage, as a failing of Obama's, notwithstanding that about 70% of the American public seems to agree with him. Obama did in fact agree to a "surge" in Afghanistan and has pursued an agreement to keep US forces in Afghanistan until 2024, but apparently he has not done so with enough enthusiasm for many Washington insiders. The sort of mixed picture presented here is also borne out in a couple of other recent policy decisions. Obama moved towards striking Syria in the context of accusations about the usage of chemical weapons, but quickly backed down in the face of little public support and likely congressional opposition. In the midst of this, Secretary of State John Kerry made his bizarre fumble, attempting to simultaneously advocate the attacks and minimize them. Retrospectively, many Obama fans tried to argue that the entire war drive was a successful bluff, but this does not seem likely. Rather I would suggest that it failed in part because it was carried out with little conviction. At the time, Obama seemed to be caving in to pressure to do something about Syria, rather than initiating a full-press propaganda blitz necessary to sell such an attack to the American public.

And then there is the question of Iran. Notwithstanding promises to move towards engagement, Obama wasted his first term continuing the confrontational policies of his predecessor. But since the election of Rouhani, as well as the introduction of a slightly more liberal team for foreign policy in the Obama administration, there has been some movement. And there is also pushback from the more right wing elements of the Democratic Party and much of the establishment media. The American public seems to sort of understand that the U.S. no longer has the financial means or military capability to rule the world. The US has conducted a number of military strikes over the last decade, and while it is capable of toppling governments, little more seems to be accomplished, and forces not easily controlled by the US or friendly to it come to the fore. Obama appears to be taking some steps to adjust to this reality, but strong pressure persists in Washington to continue pretending the US can maintain its posture. Meanwhile, trying to exert force on the cheap through drone strikes and special forces deployments remains largely uncontroversial, notwithstanding its ineffectiveness as a way to exercise power in the world.

Speaking of running empire on the cheap, we must also touch on the NSA. Recently, Alfred McCoy argued that the principle reason for the NSA's relentless data collecting is to find information on private scandals worldwide, and then use that information for blackmailing purposes to keep policy makers in line. The US has done this in low-tech ways in the past. And this is at least as plausible as claims that the NSA fights terrorism, as are claims that the NSA is being used for industrial espionage. The important point to make about the NSA is that the American public seems not particularly convinced by  the argument that it is fighting terrorism and therefore needs to be left alone. This makes for a pronounced change from ten years ago, when Snowden's leaks would have likely been overwhelmed by "fighting terrorism" rhetoric. Obama has been terrible on this issue. Apart from efforts to maintain the NSA, we could point to the related issue of the persecution of Chelsea Manning and other whistleblowers. Still, our conservative friend should hardly be sanguine about the growing unease with the surveillance state.

Nor should he be pleased with developments around mass incarceration, where Obama has played a slightly more mixed role. Here, as elsewhere, Obama has matched a certain rhetorical adjustment to the new mood, registering concern about the massive numbers incarcerated, with rather feeble measures. But our conservative friend would have to be blind not to notice that the "tough on crime" mass incarceration rhetoric has grown stale and no longer seems to strike fear into  most of the population.

Rather than take solace in Obama's many sellouts and compromises, our conservative friend, and for that matter leftists, would be better off examining the evolution of US society and politics as a whole. In 2008, a majority voted for reforms (in its own way, this was the culmination of a drift leftward among much of the middle class that began ten years earlier, notwithstanding George Bush's electoral victories, such as they were). The reforms that have passed since have been so larded up with corporate giveaways that trying to figure out whether there is a kernel worth supporting turns into a depressing question, to say the least. But this hasn't really dimmed the quest for a US that moves away from empire, plutocracy, and mass incarceration. There is quite a bit more agitation on most of these questions than there was six years ago. Sometimes it is Occupy where that agitation is focused, at others times low wage workers, or victims of police brutality, or efforts to push back against the corporate destruction of public education. The corporate center epitomized by Obama is no longer able to sell snake oil like the Trans Pacific Partnership. The right is locked into minority politics for the time being by the obduracy of the tea party crowd. However, a great deal of inertia remains with current policies. Thirty years of these policies has driven unions close to the point of extinction and left the population of the US atomized and disoriented. The question for the next ten or even twenty years is whether the left can shape  the thousand--or at least a hundred--points of light and resistance now twinkling in the US into a coherent project.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja is as provocative as it sounds. Tracing a tradition of armed self defense of the African American community before, during and after the visible heyday of the Civil Rights Movement in the early sixties, the text suggests  a new way of understanding the relationship of that movement to the use of force. And it is not only a matter of self defense--at times violence was used to further the goals of the movement. The book unsettles a narrative, widespread in the media and influential on the left, that the movement achieved its goal of desegregating the South by taking the moral high road and through the use of non-violent civil disobedience discredited its opponents, whose cruelty was exposed. In turn, the federal government was impelled to act, passing crucial legislation, i.e. the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. These in turn promptly led to the dismantling of Jim Crow structures. In the context of the failure of the Democratic Party to embrace the movement by seating the Mississippi Freedom Party rather than the Jim Crow delegates at the 1964 and the turn towards more intractable economic issues and Black Power, the question of violence was opened, and growing numbers in the movement embraced it. Depending on ones outlook, this was either a tragic error that invited government repression or a step towards revolution, aborted by forces outside the movement's control.

Umoja's narrative is quite different. Armed self defense was a long standing tradition in the South, due to constant threat of white supremacist violence. Some Blacks would keep firearms in their homes and return fire from night riders and other white supremacist vigilantes. When Civil Rights activism started to accelerate, it was a necessity, due to the intensity of the violent response, the collusion of local law enforcement with white supremacists, and the failure of the federal government to consistently protect movement activists. Early on, there was interest in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, and their parallels to the struggles of African Americans. These anti-colonial struggles were all typically violent. In this context, strict codes of non-violence appear as an importation that always had limited support. And when non-violent groups were most active in the state, they often adopted to grim realities of Mississippi life by accepting offers for self-defense. The Deacons of Defense, an armed group in Louisiana, inspired imitators in Mississippi.

Although the Black Panthers didn't have much of a presence in Mississippi (but see below), Black nationalism does register in We Will Shoot Back. It's particular form is the Republic of New Africa (RNA), an effort to assert a nation composed of Black Belt regions in the South. Participants adopted armed self defense, which the author claims may have saved lives when the police confronted them over a dispute over land. In contrast to the other struggles described in We Will Shoot Back, the Republic of New Africa seems arbitrary and imposed from above. Although it never came close to its goal of a new country and pulling the United Nations in as arbitrar of the status of African Americans, it nevertheless raises similar questions as other efforts to create homelands for people, namely, how many African Americans would actually want to move to such a place, and what would happen to the indigeneous population already present?

During and after the RNA, civil rights struggles, backed by self defense, continued in Mississippi. Although there is a tendency to declare Jim Crow dead following passage of the Civil Rights Act, struggles continued into the late seventies around fairly basic demands such as having African Americans on the police force. These struggles were often powered by the emergence of the United League, a more militant alternative to the NAACP, which developed effective strategies involving boycotts in small cities backed by enforcement squads which would intimidate those within the African American community unwilling to support the boycotts (it might be noted here that many labor struggles in the US have used similar amounts of violent intimidation to enforce compliance).

Of the many stories of self defense recounted in We Will Shoot Back, three in particular stood out for me. In 1961, in Tylertown Mississippi, SNCC workers were told that several months before their arrival, the town had been terrorized by nightriders. Warnings that the terrorism must cease were ignored. African Americans apparently connected to a fraternal order captured one of the nightriders. His head was severed from his body and placed on a bridge as a warning to whites. The terrorism stopped.

The second incident occurred during a boycott in Aberdeen Mississippi in 1970. The context for the boycott was the suspension of two African American police officers for refusing to wear confederate symbols. Organizer Rudy Shields had a friend bring a contingent of Black males from another town to Aberdeen. Amidst rumors that the Black Panthers had arrived, the young men marched through town, striking fear among both white business owners who hoped to break the boycott and Black consumers who were not yet on board. The fear of militant, armed members of a revolutionary organization was more potent than the reality, and helped to strengthen the boycott.

The third incident happened amidst the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 70s. In Tupelo in 1978, the aforementioned United League led a boycott of White owned businesses around demands relating both to racism of the police and failures to expand economic opportunities for Blacks. Tensions rose as the Klan joined the battle to break the boycott. The city council tried to appear above the fray, equating the struggle for social justice with Klan terrorism and trying to stop the protests of both. In this fraught environment, the United League brought arms to demonstrations, and had scouts on rooftops searching for snipers and other dangers. Things came to a head on June 10, when the United League held a demonstration in downtown Tupelo, and the Klan held a counterdemonstration.  The UL's demonstration was more than twice as large. No violence occurred, but "local Blacks were emboldened by the greater numbers of UL protesters and took the opportunity of the Klan counterprotest to unleash verbal assaults at White supremacists for years of racial intimidation and terror." Sixty four year old Jack Clark told reporters "We used to have get off the sidewalks for White folks.. and them Klansmen, wooie boy, you didn't go messin' with them. But now I tell them, "go to hell.""  Umoja attributes the new attitude not only to the size of the United League demonstration, but to the presence of armed Blacks. The release from fear of the Klan provides a stark contrast with the more famous incident in Greensboro North Carolina, where Klansmen assassinated five members of the Communist Workers Party in 1979 at a "death to the Klan" rally.

Above I've summarized just a small amount of the content of We Will Shoot Back. I strongly recommend reading the entire book. I suspect most readers will find their understanding of the civil rights movement transformed. The image painted of Black activists willing to use force if necessary to protect themselves and advance their movement is quite different from the way the civil rights movement is usually portrayed. It is not that images of disciplined non-violent activists not being provoked by beatings, or communities singing in churches are wrong. Rather, these practices should be seen as part of the same movement that at times provided armed guards to movement activists and shot back at nightriders. Attempts to disentangle an early,  good, noble, non-violent movement from a later bad, nationalist, violent movement are a lot harder to do after reading this book. Apart from the chapter on the RNA, one of the most striking things is how consistently the protests described, protests which involved armed self-defense, were advancing demands that involved rudimentary reforms necessary to abolish segregation--firing the most racist police, attaining a minimal level of respect from city governments, ending the refusal of white businesses to hire African Americans. The RNA is something of an outlier, but for the most part, armed resistance was advancing basic goals of the civil rights movement. It is also important to note that movement activity of this sort persisted long after the civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-nineteen sixties. Jim Crow was not simply abolished by legislative fiat in Washington, but through a multitude of hard fought struggles in small cities all over the South.