Sunday, February 21, 2010

Barack Obama and the ideology of power

Barack Obama is an eminently reasonable man. Not an ideologue of the left or right -- you know, one of those people with actual core beliefs and convictions -- he's a pragmatist interested only in what works. Or so that's what he's sought to convey in every major speech and policy decision: President Obama, Mr. Centrist -- his only ideology is his commitment to being non-ideological -- carefully crafting official policy with the help of a panel of wise elders. Consider his speech last week announcing more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant in Georgia, a move that on the face of it seems to be continuation of the bipartisan corporatist ideology that has dominated Washington for decades, if not since the founding of the republic, but which the president carefully lectured the class actually reflects the fact he has yet again transcended all political labels and beliefs:
"Now, there will be those that welcome this announcement, those who think it's been long overdue. But there are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this announcement. The same has been true in other areas of our energy debate, from offshore drilling to putting a price on carbon pollution. But what I want to emphasize is this: Even when we have differences, we cannot allow those differences to prevent us from making progress. On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs."
For people that praise this man's intellect: how not only tired is this rhetoric, but superficial and frankly incoherent is it -- much like his Nobel (War Is) Peace Prize speech? Loans for new reactors equals progress, according to Obama, and differences -- such as whether using tax dollars to help build expensive centralized power plants on behalf of private corporations is really the best use of limited resources -- mustn't block progress, children. I can't help but wonder, though, if the reason some of the debates have become "stale" is because they might have never been resolved, so the arguments become familiar. Like, just what does one do about all the radioactive waste nuclear power plants produce?

Well, Obama has an answer, of sorts, for that:
As the CEOs standing behind me will tell you, nuclear power generates waste, and we need to accelerate our efforts to find ways of storing this waste safely and disposing of it. That's why we've asked a bipartisan group of leaders and nuclear experts to examine this challenge. And these plants also have to be held to the highest and strictest safety standards to answer the legitimate concerns of Americans who live near and far from these facilities. That's going to be an imperative. 
The technocratic liberal voice inside my head wonders, why no blue-ribbon commission? And are Lee Hamilton and Brent Snowcroft available?

Also, notice the use of "we" above, referring to Obama and the energy company CEOs standing behind him: these businessmen are crafting policies designed to save their industry billions of dollars by externalizing problem of nuclear waste, which probably seems reasonable enough to most in DC but demonstrates the extent to which state policy is crafted with an eye not toward restraining and regulating corporate America, but aiding and abetting it, usually under the guise of restraint of regulation.

Attending an EPA public hearing on some mundane regulation is an eye-opening, ableit tedious, experience: while there's always a few do-gooding environmentalists here and there, most of those in attendance and providing feedback to the regulators are the ones being regulated. The Energy Department hosts day-long symposiums to discuss ways it can further aid the nuclear industry, with panel discussions led by energy company vice presidents and keynote addresses delivered by the CEOs. Debate in Washington, and the reason Obama believes he is acting on behalf of consensus, not ideology, consists of corporate lobbyists and the folks in Congress they underwrite discussing how best to promote growth in their respective industries. After the general shape of a policy is agreed to, then perhaps a few scraps are thrown to unions and other interest groups, but the bulk of most major legislation is supported, if not drafted, by the affected industries. Obama might insist there's no ideology at play in his decisions as if that's a good thing, but neither is ideology usually at play in looting.

The actual experience of most nations -- not the political science theorizing -- I think undercuts the belief that the state is ultimately geared, as most liberals contend, to those few moments when it does genuine good for the public at large, and that it just often fails in trying. Rather, reality suggest that those other moments, those much more frequent moments, when the government instead acts on the behalf of those already possessing wealth and power, provide a much clearer indication of the state's true nature and interests, and on whose behalf it serves. Notice the relative ease with which the government comes to the aid of ailing banks and home builders, compared to the immense difficulty it appears to have assisting uninsured Americans, when all the sudden concerns about filibusters and conference committees come into play. I think there's a message there.

Let's use our imaginations for a minute. Say someone decided to brush their teeth with an automatic weapon. Wouldn't really work out too well, right? After a while, if the person didn't figure it out themselves, you'd probably go up to them and point out that an automatic weapon is actually much better suited to killing people than dental hygiene. In fact, it's really fucking good at killing people -- like, so good it seems designed to do so. Much the same, the state doesn't seem so good at helping poor people, though it excels at imprisoning them them, and it's not so good at maintaining peace -- one of its chief stated aim -- yet it's really good, like our friend the automatic weapon, at killing people, as well as at directing money from the middle and lower classes to the interests of capital -- so good, in fact, it appears it was designed to do so. At least it's worth considering.


  1. Subtle and seething. Did I forget to mention truthful?

    I wonder how many will miss the analogy. Excuse me while I brush my teeth.

  2. Thanks for the comment, though I fear if I keep up with the analogies I might turn into some sort of anarchist Tom Friedman.

  3. Beware of those who call themselves non-ideological. It's a sure sign they're trying to push an ideology as universal.

    And excellent analogy- I wouldn't worry too much about Tom Friedman, you'd have to get to the point where all you say is tooth brush = machine gun to really be that image-obsessed.

  4. Anonymous8:16 AM


    ...well, that would be far superior to the existing Tom Friedman, in any case.

  5. Tom Friedman would have said:

    Well, suck on this [uninsured], ok. That, readers, is what health care reform was about. We could have gone single payer. We could have worked in a public option. We ended up with an industry giveaway because we could. That's the real truth.