by Paul Street
Angela Davis recently told television audiences that Barack Obama won the presidency “despite the power of money.” Any knowledgeable person – much less a learned academic and activist heroine – should know better. The reality, which is not in serious dispute, is that Obama “set new corporate fundraising records, receiving many millions of dollars from powerful Wall Street firms and other profit-based economic giants.” Prof. Davis is spouting discredited 2008 campaign propaganda, as a cover for the collapse of Left opposition to Obama’s pro-war and pro-Wall Street policies.
“Despite the Power of Money”: Reflections on the Vapid Obama Commentary of Professor Angela Davis
by Paul Street
“Obama developed just as plutocratic (with the same disproportionate weighting toward large scale contributions) a campaign finance profile as George W. Bush’s in 2004.”
We were recently given a revealing glimpse of how limited what passes for radical commentary can be in the United States during an interview of Sixties radical turned academician Angela Davis on Amy Goodman’s left leaning television show “Democracy Now!” Asked by Goodman for her thoughts on Barack Obama’s election two years ago and “where were are today,” professor Davis started by saying that “Well, of course, initially, few people believed that a figure like Barack Obama could ever be elected to the presidency of the United States, and because there were those who persisted, and, you know, largely young people, who helped to build this movement to elect Barack Obama, making use of all of the new technologies of communication….on…November 4th, 2008, Obama was elected…”i
Those reflections were fundamentally wrong on numerous levels. I myself and many others on the left thought early on that a slippery, squishy, expertly marketed, telegenic, “eloquent,” charismatic, fake-progressive, “deeply conservative” and corporate-neoliberal politician and media star like Barack Obamaii could definitely be “elected” – well, selected and elevated by the “hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup) that really chooses the nation’s top officeholders beneath the pretense of populace governanceiii – “to the presidency.” Listen to the following interesting reflection from Black Agenda Report’s Michael Perez Hureaux in early 2008:
“I had a hunch this was coming when I watched his speech at the convention four years ago, my wife and I both sat and took it in and looked at each other and said, almost word for word, ‘He’s good, he’s very good.’ The rakish JFK style jabs, the clearly studied rhetorical grace. What better gift to the empire than JFK in sepia? All last year, numerous discussions with people from the old new left who told us, “He’ll never get a shot at it because of racist US, etc.,’ to which we maintained, ‘But what better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face? They managed to live with Powell and Rice, why not Obama?’”iv
“What better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face?”
After noting that Obama is “backed by the biggest Wall Street firms,” the brilliant Left Australian author, journalist, and filmmaker John Pilger made a similar point in his usual eloquent and deeply informed fashion at the end of May 2008:
“What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a “new,” young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent v
Those were my sentiments from early on and such instincts were less uncommonvi than Dr. Davis may know in radical circles beyond the stultifying mindset of the corporate university. We figured the time was right for a certain kind of nonwhite president, just the re-branding medicine that Uncle Sam’s doctor ordered after the damage done to America’s public image and the American system by the long national Bush-Cheney nightmare.
And clearly a large number of Wall Street and K Street insiders thought early on that Obama could possibly prevail. They invested heavily in his campaign after vetting him and finding out that “a figure like Barack Obama” was completely safe and inordinately useful for existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. Professor Davis is free to think that college kids on the Internet pushed Obama into the White House but the real story has far more to do with more mundane, traditional and timeworn factors: Wall Street backing, establishment approval, corporate media love, and a bad economy that worked against the incumbent party.vii
So where are we and the president today?
“Now, here we are two years later [professor Davis said] and many people are treating this as if it were business as usual. As a matter of fact, many people are dissatisfied with the Obama administration, because [it] fail[s] to fulfill all of our dreams. And, you know, one of the points that I frequently make is that we have to beware of our tendency here in this country to look for messiahs and to project our own possible potential power on to others. What really disturbs me is that we have failed. Well, of course, I’m dissatisfied with many of the things that Obama has done. The war in Afghanistan needs to end right now. The healthcare bill could have been much stronger than it turned out to be. There are many issues about which we can be critical of Obama, but at the same time, I think we need to be critical of ourselves for not generating the kind of mass pressure to compel the Obama administration to move in a more progressive direction, remembering that the election was, in large part, primarily the result of just such a mass movement that was created by ordinary people all over the country.”
“Professor Davis is free to think that college kids on the Internet pushed Obama into the White House but the real story has far more to do with Wall Street backing, establishment approval, corporate media love, and a bad economy that worked against the incumbent party.”
There is much that actual leftists can agree with in this passage. Of course serious progressive change is about pressuring major party state capitalist office-holders from the bottom up. Naturally we should not look to politicians and officeholders to fix contemporary messes; we’ve got to do it ourselves as citizens. Yes, the struggle continues. As Howard Zinn used to say, “it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House; it’s about who’s sitting in.” Fine. But it’s sad to see Davis ignore the elementary facts that (i) the corporate-imperial Obama campaign worked expertly and overtime to seduce “progressive” voters (and every other kind of voter they could attract with Brand Obama) to “project [their] own potential power” on to Obamessiah; (ii) the business-friendly and militaristic Obama presidency has worked consistently to undermine, deflect, and intimidate serious progressive protest of its corporate and imperial agenda, using threats, mockery, denial of access, surveillance, and raids to those ends.
The outrageous corporate health bill “could have been much stronger” and “there are many issues about which we can be critical of Obama”? Wow. This is egregious under-statement from a self-respecting left perspective! Let’s be real about the depth and degree of “business as usual” (yes, many people DO see that, professor Davis) under Obama. Consistent with the predictions of my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (written in late 2007 and early 2008, carrying accolades on the back cover from the nation’s leading Left thinkers but never featured or even mentioned on “Democracy Now”), the administration has been a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewards capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.” As Bill Greider noted in The Washington Post last year, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”viii
“The business-friendly and militaristic Obama presidency has worked consistently to undermine, deflect, and intimidate serious progressive protest of its corporate and imperial agenda.”
The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. The “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America, and…. I could go on and did in my new book on Obama’s first year in office: The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) ix
The last point in Davis’s paragraph quoted above is, I am sorry to say, hopelessly inaccurate. The Obama campaign was not a grassroots social movement created by ordinary people struggling for progressive change from the bottom up any more than a fish is a cat or than war is peace. It was a top-down, candidate-centered operation in which “rank and file” activists got their marching orders from distant campaign elites, themselves equipped with the latest technologies and marketing techniques that record-setting corporate and other big money campaign contributions could provide.
“Again,” Davis told Amy Goodman, “I would return to the election of Barack Obama. Barack Obama was elected despite that kind of a [business and prison] lobby, despite the power of money. And so, we have to continue the campaign for a better world, drawing upon all of our resources.”
Not good! Yes, the struggle continues. But no, no, no – a thousand times no! Barack Obama was NOT elected “despite the power of money!” (Here we perhaps witness the well-known dumbing-down effect of an academic career: surely the pre-tenure Angela Davis of 1969 would never have uttered such a plainly false comment as that). He set new corporate fundraising records, receiving many millions of dollars from powerful Wall Street firms and other profit-based economic giants. He developed just as plutocratic (with the same disproportionate weighting toward large scale contributions) a campaign finance profile as George W. Bush’s in 2004. Here is an interesting and accurate reflection from an anonymous reader commenting on a recent ZNet essay of mine:
Follow the money. Don't know about this year, but look at presidential funding from 2000,2004, and 2008. In 2000 and 2004, we saw Bush and his Pioneers and their massive fundraising machine that raised about $370 million in each election. In 2008, we saw McCain take public financing because he couldn't raise a measly $80 million in the general election. Where did that money go?
“The Obama campaign was not a grassroots social movement created by ordinary people struggling for progressive change from the bottom up any more than a fish is a cat or than war is peace.”
Obama raised $750 million in 2008, nearly doubling the Bush record. OpenSecrets.org says that 1/3 was in small donation (less than $200). But that leaves $500 million in 'big' donations. More than the totals Bush raised in either 2000 or 2004.
We know Wall Street gave about $30 million for their 1)bailouts, 2) protection from prosecution, and 3) protection from real reform. We know that the big health care corps gave about the same $30 million to 1) keep single-payer off the table, 2) get their $500 billion in tax credits, and 3) their mandated customers. And those amounts are just to Obama alone, and don't include their buying of Senators and Repsx.
The real story on candidate Obama’s money was told in my aforementioned 2008 book, written by someone outside the incestuous, academic-addicted celebrity system of “the [U.S.] left,” such as it is.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street is currently completing a book titled “Crashing the Tea Party,” co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at [email protected]
ii A portrait that is given rich empirical detail in my widely “left”-ignored book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008). For “deeply conservative,” see liberal-center journalist Larrisa MacFarquhar’s early portrait in “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). For a fascinating description of Obama at the very beginning of his political career, see Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000). This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in his 1996 book Class Notes, published eight years before the world discovered the “Obama phenomenon” and before Left commentators activists (the present writer included) began noting its distinct apparent corporate-neoliberal centrism: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.” An interesting day one take on what Dr. Davis calls “a figure like Barack Obama.”
iii Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine (February 2008).
iv Common http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/02/barack-obama-and-the-%e2%80%9cend%e2%80%9d-of-racism/
vi See also the fascinating reflections in Juan Santos, “Barack Obama and the End of Racism,” Dissident Voice (February 13, 2008).
Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006);
Pam Martens, “Obama’s Money Cartel,” CounterPunch (February 23, 2008) read online at http://zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16601; Pam Martens, “The Obama Bubble: Why Wall Street Needs a Presidential Brand,” Black Agenda Report (March 5, 2008); John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama),” Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read at www.commondreams.org/archive/ 2008/05/ 31/9327/; Street, Barack Obama, 1-72.
William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post,, March 22, 2009.
ix “Introduction: ‘An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America’”
Chapter 1: Business Rule as Usual
Chapter 2: Empire’s New Clothes: Words and Deeds in Obama’s Foreign Policy
Chapter 3: Corporate-Managed “Health Reform”
Chapter 4: Barack Obama, the Myth of the Postracial Presidency, and the Politics of Identity
Chapter 5. Big Brother Lives
Chapter 6: We Were Warned
Afterword: Beyond the Perverted and Deadly Priorities of Empire and Inequality, Inc.
Postscript: The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left