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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Punditry differs from blogging in this one fundamental respect: Pundits attempt to pass off their ephemeral subjective reactions to the passing scene as deep eternal objective truths. Bloggers couch their insights into deep, eternal, objective truths as ephemeral subjective reactions to the passing scene. As a philosopher, I am of course inclined to pontificating, which is the pedagogical version of punditry. But as a blogger, I must strive for the ephemeral, the evanescent, the personal. So it is that I shall offer my analysis of the current American political situation in the form of an explanation for the fact that I have been suffering the blahs. Since I will be teaching this evening [Marx's theory of surplus value], I shall miss Obama's first State of the Union address to Congress, so this blog post can be taken as my response, in advance of having heard the speech. Somehow, that seems appropriate in our hyper-reactive electronic age.

As readers of this blog know, I have been deeply bummed out for the past week or more over the Massachusetts by-election, the perilous prospects of the health care reform process, Obama's announced intention to call for a spending freeze, and other things. Since I am by nature cheerful and optimistic [which, as I am a radical Marxist, says a good deal about my casual relationship to reality], I am unaccustomed to being down, and it has taken me a while to figure out just what lies at the root of my low spirits.

Here it is, in a nutshell: The 2008 election was a triumph -- one to which I committed both a good bit of my money and a fair amount of my time. Obama is pretty much the very best we can hope for in the way of a political leader in this country at this time. AND YET, here we are, one year later, hopes dashed in every direction.

We [which is to say, the Democratic Party] seized a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, and yet, even with a strong and effective Speaker, the most we could get in the way of a health care reform bill from that body was a watered down compromise, burdened with the hideous Stupak amendment, and all of that by a two vote margin. After winning several Senate seats that we had no real reason to expect we could take, we squeaked into a sort of sixty vote victory for an equally compromised bill whose fate has been called into question by the unexpected loss of one seat.

There is absolutely no reason to think that the stars will be as well aligned any time in the foreseeable future as they were in 2008, or that even in a 2012 presidential election we can do any better than we did in '08. So what we have now is just about as good as we could have hoped for. AND IT IS AWFUL.

I do not blame Obama for this. He is not Dennis Kucinich, to be sure, but we all know how much chance even an attractive Dennis Kucinich would have of being elected president. I think Hillary Clinton might well have lost the election, had she been nominated, and she was far and away the strongest of the pack after Obama.

Nor do I fault Obama for putting forward an inadequate plan to save the American economy. Paul Krugman is a good economist, and I think his calls for a stimulus package twice the size were probably right. But does he recall how hard it was to pass the bill that actually was brought to the floor? Is there anyone who seriously thinks that Snowe would have bought a 1.5 trillion dollar bill, or that Nelson, Landrieu, et al. would have stayed on board for it? It is a testament to the terror that afflicted the Senate at the prospect of the collapse of the American economy that we got the bill that passed.

Obama's decision about Afghanistan was, as I said at the time, a mistake, and he will have to deal with its consequences in the next eighteen months. But foreign and military policy, contrary to popular pundit opinion, is not at this point the focus of the popular unrest now roiling the country.

No, we won the election, taking more seats in both houses than we had any reason to expect, and yet it was not enough to translate campaign rhetoric into genuine reform and change.

What has me so bummed out is simply that I cannot imagine any plausible scenario that turns out better. A second Obama term? I rather suspect it will happen, especially if the Republicans continue their love affair with the crazies. But it is in the first term of a two term president, not the second, that one looks for major, dramatic change.

Will Obama's rationality, sobriety, competence,, and aversion to polarizing politics eventually work a sea change in Washington? It sure doesn't look like it!

To work against the odds, to hope against hope for implausible victory, to keep one's spirits up in the face of loss after loss -- that is the portion of any self-respecting radical. But to win the big one, at long last, only to discover that it just is not enough -- that is cause indeed for a serious case of the blahs.


Ann said...

So is it possible that your intellectual critique of the capitalist system is coming into conflict with your naturally optimistic personality? Is there room for a higher synthesis???? This is from a "dismal economist," who can't quite manage that herself.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Here is the thing. You only live once, and I am now seventy-six. For decades, I despaired of ever seeing America take a turn to the left. I allowed myself a modicum of rational hope a year ago, and I am loathe to give that up, since all that remains then is to perform what the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin era called an "inner emigration." I cannot bring myself to do that, because my own personal material comfort, which would make it possible, stands in striking contrast to the great need of so many Americans, whose condition might perhaps be marginally improved by the efforts, however compromised, of people like me.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Robert, the Senate leadership failed because they refuse to end the filibuster rule for everything but judicial appointments. Obama was not interested in doing what we wanted because he is marinated in University of Chicago economics department thinking. Our nation's leadership vacillates between smart and dumb bankers. Bush, McCain, Palin, et al are dumb bankers, and Obama and Clinton are smart bankers.

That's all there is to it. My depression is simply rendering me numb to all this nonsense. Obama spoke words last night, but his deeds continue to speak louder. He fights for Bernanke, not a robust public option. He fights for giving money to bankers, and not for regular folks. He expands wars, but won't even fight for the federal government to be able to negotiate pricing for medications.

d said...

"Over the centuries, man has slaved to believe, passing from dogma to dogma, illusion to illusion, and has given very little time to doubts, short intervals between his epochs of blindness. Indeed they were not doubts but pauses, moments of respite following the fatigue of faith, of any faith."

--Emil Cioran