Friday, December 08, 2006

Obama vs. ISG: Yes Blood For Oil!

On Dec 04, Chris Bowers wrote a post, ”The Two Obamas and Me, Part One” which contrasted the principle-driven Obama who first inspired tremendous netroots support with the compromise-driven Obama who now seems intent on demonizing the very people who helped get him his start. One example Chris cited of the second Obama was this:
In town-hall meetings, when those who opposed the war get shrill, Obama makes a point of noting that while he, too, opposed the war, he's "not one of those people who cynically believes Bush went in only for the oil."
Chis followed up:
Did anyone with any power every say that? Did any leading Democrats ever say that? Did any progressive or liberal of any public stature ever say that? If they did, I'd love to see the quote.
Well, now it appears that someone has come quite close to saying that: The Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG). Privatizing Iraq’s oil is one of their fundamental recommendations—regardless of what the Iraqis want. Democracy—well, that was always an afterthought.

The ISG is a center-right outfit, composed entirely of people who were wrong about Iraq. Anyone who opposed the war from the gitgo was simply not considered ISG material. As Glen Greenwald points out today (“The principal sin of the Baker-Hamilton Report”), their overall proposal is clearly to prolong US involvement, a position that the American people now soundly reject. Greenwald points to an AP poll:
Seventy-one percent said they would favor a two-year timeline from now until sometime in 2008, but when people are asked instead about a six-month timeline for withdrawal that number drops to 60 percent.
In defiance of these numbers, the ISG is attempting to once again redefine a “center” that’s an extreme minority position, so that the mainstream of American opinion can in turn be defined as “extremist,” “defeatist” and “off the table.” One part of that center, pointed out by author Antonia Juhasz (The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time) in an LA Times Op-Ed today, is the ISG’s “advocacy for securing foreign companies' long-term access to Iraqi oil fields.” (More on this below.)

Barack Obama, of course, has helped make this happen. Every enabler of bipartisan rhetoric has helped make this happen. But Obama has a special role, since his early backers, those who helped him early when he needed it most, had every reason to suppose that he would be a powerful, eloquent, moral voice of leadership opposing the war. Instead, we’ve gotten a weathervane routine from him, as David Sirota wrote last June for The Nation:
Then there is the Iraq War. Obama says that during his 2004 election campaign he "loudly and vigorously" opposed the war. As The New Yorker noted, "many had been drawn initially by Obama's early opposition to the invasion." But "when his speech at the antiwar rally in 2002 was quietly removed from his campaign Web site," the magazine reported, "activists found that to be an ominous sign"--one that foreshadowed Obama's first months in the Senate. Indeed, through much of 2005, Obama said little about Iraq, displaying a noticeable deference to Washington's bipartisan foreign policy elite, which had pushed the war. One of Obama's first votes as a senator was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her integral role in pushing the now-debunked propaganda about Iraq's WMD.

In November Obama's reticence on the war ended. Five days after hawkish Democratic Representative Jack Murtha famously called for a withdrawal, Obama gave a speech calling for a drawdown of troops in 2006. "Those of us in Washington have fallen behind the debate that is taking place across America on Iraq," he said. But then he retreated. On Meet the Press in January Obama regurgitated catchphrases often employed by neoconservatives to caricature those demanding a timetable for withdrawal. "It would not be responsible for us to unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down," he said. Then, as polls showed support for the war further eroding, Obama tacked again, giving a speech in May attacking the war and mocking the "idea that somehow if you say the words 'plan for victory' and 'stay the course' over and over and over and over again...that somehow people are not going to notice the 2,400 flag-draped coffins that have arrived at the Dover Air Force Base."


This is larger context for Obama’s remark dismissing “those people who cynically believes Bush went in only for the oil.” As Chris said, who are those people? I’ve gone to anti-war demonstrations, I’ve attended weekly peace vigils. I’ve talked with people carrying “No Blood For Oil” signs. Even I haven’t met anyone who “believes Bush went in only for the oil.” The point of those signs is not to claim that this was Bush’s only reason—that would be absurd. The signs are meant to point out a reason that the official discussion routinely ignores, and refuses to discuss, except to ridicule—just the way Obama did.

Of course, at a basic level, everyone knows that Iraq is about oil. There are only two reasons we originally got involved in that part of the world: Oil and to deny the Soviets a warm-water port. Israel only became important as a result of those first two reasons. Our oil obsession caused us to overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953—a promising democracy that we would give our eye teeth to have back today, at least, if we had any sense. Which, of course, we don’t. In Afghanistan, our anti-Soviet obsession caused us to team up with the most extremist elements of the Mujahadeen, and partner with bin Laden. The problems we face today are almost entirely of our own making—the result of narrow, short-sighted, knee-jerk responses to situations that were far less threatening to us than the situations we face today, situations our reactive policies have created.

But if oil is half the reason we’re in the Middle East to begin with, oil also plays a very specific role in this very specific war. We had both the President and Vice-President from the oil industry. We had all manner of other oil company connections, we had a huge imbalance in financial support for the GOP from the oil industry vs. alternative energy, we had the super-secret Cheney energy taskforce with maps of Iraq’s oil fields, we had promises that Iraq’s oil revenue would pay for Iraq’s reconstruction—the connections go on and on and on and on. To not talk about any of them is of necessity to not talk about the real reasons, true context, and political alignments that lead us into this war. And this, in turn, leads us to embrace a series of fairy tales, instead. First WMDs and Iraq’s mythical involvement in 9/11, then the absurd notion that Bush not only cares about democracy, but that that’s the reason we invaded Iraq in the first place—a reason that Bush himself strenuously opposed, until it was forced on him by the Iraqi people.

By ridiculing and misrepresenting those who refuse to ignore the link between oil and war—and war and death—Obama has paid his dues to join the Washington insider’s club. And from that perch, he now parades—much like John McCain—as a maverick outsider. (You know, like Frank Sinatra in the heyday of the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. Or Peter Frampton at the time of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Slits.) The “maverick outsider” status absolutely depends on absolutely banishing real outsiders from even a moment’s notice, especially if they represent a majority of the American people.

In her Op-Ed, “It's still about oil in Iraq,” Antonia Juhasz, begins:
While the Bush administration, the media and nearly all the Democrats still refuse to explain the war in Iraq in terms of oil, the ever-pragmatic members of the Iraq Study Group share no such reticence.

Page 1, Chapter 1 of the Iraq Study Group report lays out Iraq's importance to its region, the U.S. and the world with this reminder: "It has the world's second-largest known oil reserves." The group then proceeds to give very specific and radical recommendations as to what the United States should do to secure those reserves. If the proposals are followed, Iraq's national oil industry will be commercialized and opened to foreign firms.

The report makes visible to everyone the elephant in the room: that we are fighting, killing and dying in a war for oil. It states in plain language that the U.S. government should use every tool at its disposal to ensure that American oil interests and those of its corporations are met.

It's spelled out in Recommendation No. 63, which calls on the U.S. to "assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise" and to "encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies." This recommendation would turn Iraq's nationalized oil industry into a commercial entity that could be partly or fully privatized by foreign firms.

This is an echo of calls made before and immediately after the invasion of Iraq.
Accomplishing this, Juhasz explains, would require re-writing Iraq’s constitution, something the Iraqi’s have resisted so far. She reviews some of the crucial backstory of this struggle before concluding:
The Iraq Study Group report states that continuing military, political and economic support is contingent upon Iraq's government meeting certain undefined "milestones." It's apparent that these milestones are embedded in the report itself.

Further, the Iraq Study Group would commit U.S. troops to Iraq for several more years to, among other duties, provide security for Iraq's oil infrastructure. Finally, the report unequivocally declares that the 79 total recommendations "are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation."

All told, the Iraq Study Group has simply made the case for extending the war until foreign oil companies — presumably American ones — have guaranteed legal access to all of Iraq's oil fields and until they are assured the best legal and financial terms possible.

We can thank the Iraq Study Group for making its case publicly. It is now our turn to decide if we wish to spill more blood for oil.
There is, quite simply, no way around it. The ISG report is a prescription for oil and empire on the cheap, in the face of growing, majority opposition. It is not a solution for “the Iraq mess” as perceived by the American public, with their naive faith in our “good intentions.” It is a solution for America’s elites faced with a severe recurrence of “Vietnam Syndrome” aka “democracy.”

You know, that thing we’re supposed to be fighting for in Iraq.

Where’s Obama?

So where’s Obama in all this? One thing’s for sure—he’s not front and center, denouncing the ISG for trying to do an end-run around the will of the American people. In fact, quite the opposite: he’s cheering it on...selectively, though without saying so.

While Bush is busy ignoring the ISG by picking and choosing which recommendations he will reject out of hand, Obama’s busy doing the same: ignoring the icky blood-for-oil provisions that he above all does not want to talk about, Obama said:
“In presenting a realistic view of how far the situation has deteriorated, the report avoids the partisan rhetoric that has characterized too much of this debate and offers a unique chance to forge a bipartisan consensus about how to move forward in Iraq.”
In other words, ignoring the blood-for-oil dimension of the war is absolutely crucial for maintaining the facade that what’s “bipartisan” in Versailles bears any resemblance at all to what’s non-partisan majoritarian in America. But Obama can’t actually say he’s ignoring the blood-for-oil aspect. That wouldn’t be ignoring it at all.

In the end, ironically, we discover that George Bush really is more honest and forthright. He rejects certain parts of the ISG, and he comes right out and says it. Obama—at least so far—has not been so honest. He hasn’t looked at the actual recommendations, and said, “Sure, blood for oil, fine with me!” But he hasn’t said he’s against it either.

After all, he’s never been one of those cynics. You know what I’m talking about. The ones who believe their own eyes.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Obama, MLK and Hegemony (A Departure From My Ongoing Series)

Chris Bowers posted a very important frontpage story at MyDD last night, “The Two Obamas and Me, Part One”. In it, he drew a distinction between the Obama who first attracted widespread, enthusiastic netroots and grassroots progressive support, and post-Senate election Obama who has often reiterated rightwing stereotypes of the left, in order to position himself more favorably.

In the course of the comments, some counter-arguments were raise, many knee-jerk and fatuous, but some serious, and deserving of serious replies. Chris himself has said he will have more to say, and so I make no attempt to speak for him, or answer all the serious objections raised. Instead, what I want to do is add a perspective to reinforce where Chris is coming from, as I understand him, which is the same place I'm coming from on this. That perspective is the subject of an ongoing series I'm doing on hegemony, a complex concept that is nontheless deftly summarized as "a dominant ideology in drag as common sense."

In my view, the concept of hegemony is most useful in clarifying where Obama stands, and what he stands for. He is, in my view, a hegemonic figure in drag as a counter-hegemonic figure. Jump to the flip if you're interested in why.

Prologue: Why Is He Being So Mean?

I started my series on hegemony because I wanted to talk about the issue of political realignment, which I wanted to talk about as a way of framing the last election and the next. The history of political realignments (Jackson's election in 1824, Lincoln's in 1860, McKinnley's in 1896, FDR's in 1932) is a history of changing political discourse. But it's hardly the be-all and end-all of that phenomena, which is why I took up the series.

How does this relate to Obama, and the issues Chris raised? Simple: realignments, as I showed in “What A Dem Landslide Could Mean”, come about as a result of two consecutive wave elections in the House. But they culminate in a Presidential election. In most cases, the President involved is a charismatic, epoch-defining figure: Jackson, Lincoln, FDR. McKinnley was definitely the odd man out. Obviously, Obama has the potential to be such a figure as well. And his critics, such as Chis and I, are every bit as aware of that (perhaps even moreso) as his enthusiastic supporters.

The criticism I'm offering here is in terms of hegemony, in terms of the common sense face of a dominant ideology, and it finds Obama clearly lacking. But that's hardly the end of the matter, on at least two counts. Before explaining, I need to flesh out the idea of hegemony a little. Here’s how Wikipedia introduces the concept:

Hegemony

Hegemony... is the dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that, for instance, the dominant party can dictate the terms of trade to its advantage; more broadly, cultural perspectives become skewed to favor the dominant group. The cultural control that hegemony asserts affects commonplace patterns of thought: hegemony controls the way new ideas are rejected or become naturalized in a process that subtly alters notions of common sense in a given society.

Hegemony results in the empowerment of certain cultural beliefs, values, and practices to the submersion and partial exclusion of others. Hegemony influences the perspective of mainstream history, as history is written by the victors for a congruent readership. The official history of Communism, re-writing history, erasing people's names and images from official state photos, provides a richly-exampled arena of cultural hegemony.
In America, the passage of different groups from despised outsiders into accepted parts of the whole is not a challenge to the core of hegemonic power. The basic logic of group hierarchy is rearranged, revised, and given new form, but not rejected. We’ve still had just one Catholic President. The first Muslim elected to Congress was openly challenged to prove he is not a terrorist sympathizer or enabler. Blacks still fill our prisons. Innocent unarmed blacks are still murdered by our police. New Orleans is still a wasteland, fifteen months after Katrina. This is what “normal” looks like. Hegemony is alive and well.

As I said, this post criticizes Obama for failing to challenge hegemony. But that's hardly the end of the matter, on at least two counts. The first, more broadly, is that no break in party systems has truly challenged the core of hegemony. Jackson's populism was deeply racist, even Lincoln ran merely on a platform of restraining slavery's expansion while preserving the union, McKinnley was a great leap backward, and FDR saved capitalism from itself. In short, these breaks have somewhat redefined the hegemonic discourse, rather than challenging its very core. It would be unrealistic to expect any Presidential candidate to do more.

The second, narrower point is that Presidents can evolve. Lincoln and FDR are the most dramatic examples. Lincoln in 1860 was not about freeing the slaves. In a few short years, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. FDR came into office pledging to balance budgets, and eager to work closely with big business, but big business walked away from him, labor came to the fore, and balancing budgets proved impossibe--the recession of 1937-38 was the final proof of that.

And so, this criticism of Obama is hardly meant as an attempt to consign him to the dustbin of history. Despite whatever I say here, he may still turn out to be a remarkably progressive President. My darkest fears may not be realized. And yet, no one knowledgeable doubts that Lincoln was a better President and a better man because of Frederick Douglass urging him on. No one doubts that Eleanor Roosevelt had a similar influence on FDR. One need not be a hostile critic of such figures to be ahead of them, and lead them farther in the ultimate direction that history remembers them most favorably for.

Neither Chris nor I have a close or privileged relationship. It falls to us to be blunt and straightforward. But those more favorably inclined toward Obama ought to think long and hard about what we say, because it ill serves him to be comfortable with what he is and what he has done so far. If Lincoln or FDR had been, and had remained comfortable with themselves as they were when elected, history would not remember either of them kindly today.

Of course, I want much more than for history to think kindly of President Obama. I want more than just another realignment—though that is the bare minimum I think we need to survive the challenges of the century ahead. I want more than mere survival. I want renewal, reawakening, rebirth. I want a true challenge to the hegemonic order. And Obama excites many people because he seems to promise that. But it’s a promise he does not fulfill.

The Close Up

Put simply, I see Obama posturing as two things: (1) a uniter who (2) stands outside the conventional discourse and tells it like it is. He is, in short, the black, Democratic John McCain. The examples Chris cites are evidence that Obama is only a uniter within the bounds of hegemonic discourse. He is not interested in uniting everyone, though he uses pseudo-univeralist language. Nor is he interested in criticizing the conventional discourse. He just wants to goose it a little bit, create a little buzz while defining the outer limits of what's acceptable.

Chris cites examples regarding Obama on the war and on the role of religion. More has been written about Obama and religion at Talk2Action, which has an entire category, “Demonizing ‘Secularism,’” which neatly frames the problem with Obama. For example, Frederick Clarkson’s article from last July, “Barack Obama Steps In It” begins:
Senator Barack Obama's big speech at an event sponsored by Call to Renewal, a group headed by Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Religious Right Gets it Wrong, and Why the Left Doesn't Get It -- has received very mixed reviews and is the buzz of the blogosphere. There is much in Obama's speech that hits the right notes regarding the role of religion in a democratic pluralist society, but the speech is indelibly marred by propagating one of the central frames of the religious right.

The Washington Post reported:
    Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people," and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

    "Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation. Context matters," the Illinois Democrat said in remarks prepared for delivery to a conference of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty...

    At the same time, he said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square."

    As a result, "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy."
The problem here should be self-evident. Some of those responding to Chris’s post claimed that Obama was simply responding to a perception that was “out there” and that needed to be addressed. But here he is clearly propagating perceptions created by the theocratic right.

Furthermore, Obama did this at an event sponsored by Jim Wallis’s organization, and, as Wallis’s book title makes clear, his whole schtick is based on a triangulation strategy that assumes the basic truth of the rightwing frame.

Clarkson continued:
The controversy that has erupted in response to Senator Obama's speech has helped to catalyze some things Talk to Action colleague Bruce Wilson and I have discussed for some time. (He will undoubtedly have much to say about all this as well.)

Obama and Jim Wallis before him are wrong to scapegoat "secularists" for the problems mainstream Christians and others have had in finding their voices. They are also wrong to allege that non-religious people are somehow chasing religious expression from public life. It is long past time to call a halt to this nonsense. Let's start today.

But before we abandon, and begin to more formally oppose the frame, here is how it works: The religious right frames much of how they view politics in America as a struggle in America between Christianity and secular humanism; between faith and no faith; between religiosity and secularism. The words differ a bit depending on who is doing the talking, but the the frame is always the same. Indeed, it has been one of the central features of the religious right's rise to power for decades and has been articulated by every major leader from Jerry Falwell to Sun Myung Moon.
Naturally, this frame is false. There is no epochal political struggle between Christianity and secular humanism. The struggle is between rightwing theocrats, yearning for the good old days of the divine right of kings, when power flowed unambiguously from top down, and American secular democracy, based as it is on Locke’s social contract theory, in which legitimate power derives from the consent of the governed, and flows unambiguously from bottom up.

Next, Clarkson presents a long excerpt from one of the premier researchers into the religious right, and rightwing authoritarianism and conspiricism more generally. I quote it in full, together with a following remark by Clarkson. Together, these set up the discussion of hegemony:
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst at Political Research Associates writes that the conspiracy theory  alleging that Christianity is under attack by "secular humanists," goes back several decades.
    The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s. It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.

    A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in a series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values...

    [Evangelical scholar] George Marsden argues that this new focus on secular humanism "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory"... Two leading activists of the Christian right, Gary Bauer and James Dobson, called the battle pitting secular humanists against Christians over the moral foundation of America a "great Civil War of Values".

    The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations, including the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).

    By framing this set of claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan.

What is remarkable is that this basic frame has been internalized and propagated by many people who are unaffiliated with the religious right. Indeed it has been actively promoted by one of the leaders of the the revival of what is calling itself the religious left -- Jim Wallis.
That’s Hegemony In Action, Folks!

What Berlet has described is a longterm process of rightwing infrastructure-building and narrative propagation. What Clarkson has added is a comment about how this narrative has spread. Both can be understood in terms of the concept of hegemony, going beyond the introductory passage presented above. The chief theoretician of hegemony was Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini, whose Prison Notebooks contain the most penetrating elaboration of the idea of hegemony. The Wikipedia entry on Cultural Hegemony elaborates further:
The analysis of hegemony (or "rule") was formulated by Antonio Gramsci to explain why predicted communist revolutions had not occurred where they were most expected, in industrialized Europe...

Gramsci argued that the failure of the workers to make anti-capitalist revolution was due to the successful capture of the workers' ideology, self-understanding, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling) culture. In other words, the perspective of the ruling class had been absorbed by the masses of workers. In "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in "advanced" societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.

Gramsci therefore argued for a strategic distinction between a "war of position" and a "war of movement". The war of position is a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten class consciousness, teach revolutionary analysis and theory, and inspire revolutionary organization. Following the success of the war of position, communist leaders would be empowered to begin the war of movement, the actual insurrection against capitalism, with mass support....

Gramsci did not contend that hegemony was either monolithic or unified. Instead, hegemony was portrayed as a complex layering of social structures. Each of these structures have their own "mission" and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures. Yet, as with an army, each of these structures assumes the existence of other structures and by virtue of their differing missions, is able to coalesce and produce a larger structure that has a larger overall mission....

Influence of Gramsci

Although leftists may have been the primary users of this conceptual tool, the activities of organized conservative movements also draw upon the concept. This was seen, for instance, in evangelical Christian efforts to capture local school boards in the U.S. during the 1990s, and thus be able to dictate curriculum. Patrick Buchanan, in a widely discussed speech to the 1992 Republican Convention, used the term "culture war" to describe political and social struggle in the United States.
From the above, it should be clear that rightwing theocrats have been waging their own “war of position” against what they see as a secular hegemony.

However, if we go back further in time, we discover that these movements have roots in specific theological traditions, laced with strands of racism and heresy, at war with other more mainstream theological traditions. “Secular humanism” as their enemy was a rather late arrival on the scene. And, of course, Sun Myung Moon is about as anti-Christ a kind of guy you could ever wish for.

Whatever their self-understanding is, the GOP has long known better: these are forces to be used and controlled. They “have their own ‘mission’ and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures,” but in the end they’re all part of the larger army, which is decidedly oriented toward serving Mammon, “big time” which is the “larger overall mission” they serve knowingly or not.

The GOP could turn out wrong in the end. The servant could replace the master. Hegemonic orders can fragment, due to their own internal contradictions. But so far, that has not happened, and theocratic right is best understood as part of the existing hegemonic order, notwithstanding its fantasies to the contrary.

OTOH, “secular humanists” are true outsiders, challengers to the hegemonic order simply by virtue of their relative immunity to all manner of religiously-framed narratives. It makes no difference how respectful of others’ religious beliefs we may be, the mere fact that we stand apart, outside the spell of true belief, makes us a potential source of trouble, difficult to anticipate and counter. More importantly, because of our outsider status, we make extremely convenient scapegoats, onto which all manner of sins may safely be projected.

When Obama buys into the theocratic frame, he effectively buries all the contradictions within it. He endorses the notion that the real dividing line is not within the Christian community, between diverse, but honest religiously-motivated believers, and an extremist political fringe, and instead propagates the extremists’ line that the dividing line is between all people of faith, and an intolerant secular minority, whose identity and very existence he never even bothers to specify. (Note the parallels to McCarthy, with his blank “list of names.”)

This is one of the most powerful manifestations of hegemonic discourse—the shifting of lines, the projecting of conflict points, the burying of true disputes, and the elevation of red herrings and scapegoats. The fact that no specific offenders are named only makes matters worse, not better. For if someone specific could be named, then they could—in theory at least—fight back, and dispute what is being said. But, in fact, there are no such figures, or, more properly, no one who takes such a position has anything remotely close to the power to enforce it, beyond deleting comments on their blog.

We’re talking about bogeymen, folks.

Obama’s Words, Again—And A False Equivalence With History

With this background behind us, let’s turn again to Obama’s words and their significance. A number of commentators on Chris’s MyDD story tried some version of psychologizing the whole thing away. Chris was just being “thin-skinned.” Or he was misinterpreting Obama, who was simply stating these positions in order to refute them. Chris and others pointed out this is hardly the way to frame political rhetoric.
Don’t Think of An Elephant, and all that. Another tack critics took was to praise the fact that no one specific was being named as an offender—no harm, no foul, the reasoning goes. The comeback was simple: he’s undermining the brand, not just of “progressives” or “secular humanists,” but more broadly, of Democrats:

blogswarm hit it perfectly:
Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One
    It's not like he's naming any names.
Yes, he is naming and the name is Democrats. It isn't any one person, it is everyone else.

by blogswarm on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 01:47:41 AM EST
    Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One

    because we're all alike -- one formula. come one, get thicker skin.

    by Laurin from SC on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 01:55:10 AM EST
      ....
      Re: The Two Obamas and Me, Part One

      Obama is the one saying that we are all alike -- except for him. That is the problem with triangulation, that is why the DLC lost every single major primary in 2006.

      by blogswarm on Tue Dec 05, 2006 at 02:05:48 AM EST
This is precisely how hegemony works. Instead of developing your own institutions, your own analysis, your language, you accept those that are imposed on you. And perpetuate fighting with enemies pre-selected for you—enemies who ought to be your allies.

Some claimed that this was really no different from Bush using the phrase “compassionate conservative.” Laurin from SC wrote:
Bush's theme of "compassionate conservatism" clearly implied that standard conservatism wasn't, in fact, compassionate. Why else would there be a reason to distinguish his particular brand of conservatism?

It's the same strawman technique is a slightly different form of delivery: obliquely communicate the stereotype and how the given candidate rises above that stereotype. I'll grant you that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" rhetoric better nested the conservative strawman than Obama's outright stenciling of the liberal strawman.

But the idea is the same.
However, it’s not the same—although it did rankle Dobson and some others at first. First, an implied criticism is not the same as an overt one. Corporations sell “New, Improved!” products all the time, untroubled by the concern that it implies their previous products were inferior and old-fashioned. They sell “Low-Fat,” “Low-Cal” and “Low-Carb” products, unconcerned that people will shun their standard product line.

But that’s only part of what’s wrong with this false equivalence. You can’t understand a phrase in isolation from purposes it was created for, especially when it’s part of a larger, carefully-crafted narrative. To get the full picture, we need to look beyond mere words themselves to the part they play in a larger hegemonic project—that of rewriting both secular history and the core of Christian religion.

The idea of “compassionate conservatism” came from Marvin Olasky, who peddled the idea that the impoverished rat-infested slum-dwelling masses of the late 1800s weren’t really poor, because their lives were filled with God, but then the welfare state came along, gave them food stamps, housing assistance and the like, and turned them into lost souls. It’s nonsense, of course. Private charity, much of it church-based, simply couldn’t cope with the magnitude of need in the late 1800s. That’s why state-level welfare services appeared in the early 1900s, followed by federal services during the Great Depression. What’s more, no level of government welfare service—federal, state or local, has ever prevented private charity from continuing.

More insidiously, however, Olasky’s claim amounts to this: the poor are poor because they lack Godliness. The wealthy and middle-classes are more Godly than the poor, and they can help the poor by sharing a bit of their Godliness with them. It’s hard to imagine a more insulting, anti-Christian belief system. This is precisely what the Scribes and Pharisees believed. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. His mission was to the poor and the outcaste. They were the children of God. The wealthy and middle-class were the ones bereft of true Godliness—precisely the opposite of what Olasky claims.

The perversion of Christianity into its exact opposite (“Who would Jesus bomb?”) is a sure sign of hegemony at work. So, too, is the recasting of wretched 1890s slum-dwellers into happy Holy campers, and the New Deal into a wholesale attack on the poor. It’s not enough to just look at single phrases in isolation, one has to examine the whole narrative project of which they are a part.

Of course, most folks have never heard of Olasky’s work. Why should they? Once his work had laid the foundations, Bush’s money-fueled political machine soon left Olasky in the dust. The media never even questions where the idea of “compassionate conservatism” came from, much less what it means. But there was no way to tell in advance that this sort of super-marketing campaign would take over. Hegemonic narrative rewriting goes on all the time, never knowing when one effort will get a tremendous boost, a boost that may even make most of the original work involved utterly superflous. Still, a very large core of activist true believes have heard of Olasky, have accepted his grotesque fairy tales as gospel, and have mobilized to take advantage of all the faith-based pork that Bush could manage to send their way.

Indeed, the fact that commentators at MyDD are ignorant of all this history only goes to show how effective the machinery of hegemony is. If the folks at MyDD don’t know this, then who in the world does? Not very many people, you can bet on it. Even fewer know the cultural logic that connects “compassionate conservatism” to authoritarianism, as outlined by Ira Chenus in the article “‘Faith-based initiatives’ Signal Authoritarian Trend”, which draws parallels back to 1820’s America, when the old established lines of social authority came to be increasingly difficult to discern.

In contrast to the obscure backstory of “compassionate conservatism,” how many people have heard the secular-bashing memes that Barack Obama repeats? And how much backstory do they need? This is one of the essential functions of hegemony: to bury its own contradictions, and advance manufactured ones it can pin on rouge elements, external enemies and internal corrupters. Call it “the blame game.” Hegemonic discourse plays it all the time. Except, of course, for those rare occasions where blame-shifting just won’t work. That’s when you get the post-Katrina vapors over “playing the blame game.” Any other time, it’s job one.

King vs. Obama

Amongst other things, Obama said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." But who ever did such a thing? Quite the opposite. What we’d like is for believers to bring their religion into their politics, rather than bring their politics into their religion. And no one illustrates this point better than Martin Luther King, a true counter-hegemonic exemplar who could teach Barack Obama lessons till the cows come home. Consider, for example, what King had to say about the Vietnam War, and about God’s judgement:
Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be. A sort of the policeman of the world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems like I can hear God saying to America, “you [America] are too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power and…place it in the hands of a nation that does not even know my name, be still and know, that I’m God.

And it isn’t easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, some times, it means you walk the streets, with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means loosing a job, it means being abused, and scarred. It may mean having a 7-8 year old child ask,” Daddy why do yo have to go to jail so much?” I’ have… learned that being a follower of Jesus Christ, means taking up the cross. My Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. For the crown we wear there is a cross that we must bear. Let us bear it, Bear it for truth. Bear it for Justice. Bear it for Peace.
That’s what real God-talk and real progressive talk, and real counter-hegemonic discourse sounds like.

And I haven’t heard anything remotely resembling that from Barack Obama. Have you?

What Would Real Transformation Look Like?

It may seem terribly unfair to hold Barack Obama up to the example of Martin Luther King. But he asked for it. He’s the one who doesn’t want to be judged by the standards of mere mortal politicians, who muck around getting bills passed, and pursuing other time-wasting tasks. King did not adapt himself to the hegemonic discourse of his day. And it wasn’t just about Civil Rights. His commitment to non-violence was even more out-of-step. After all, even the Eisenhower State Department knew that segregation was a loser in the Cold War struggle for Third World credibility. Civil Rights was the way to go. But non-violence? Sure, it was a great relief, tactically. But King actually took it seriously. And eventually that meant coming out against the Vietnam War. The longer you look at the examples of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, the less and less you see in common between the two—at least since Obama joined the US Senate.

I don’t expect Obama to be Martin Luther King, but a few lessons could surely be learned. Such as:

(1) Don’t accept your adversaries’ terms of debate. (See, for example, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”)
(2) Don’t hesitate to explain your thinking in detail. (Again, see, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”) If people take you seriously as a leader, they should want to walk a mile in your shoes. They should be eager for it. Giving them pablum instead is a grave disservice to yourself as well as them.
(3) Don’t be afraid to reach unpopular conclusions. You gain far more enduring, substantial support by going where reason, conscience, and spiritual guidance take you than by worrying about what others will say. Be in it for the long haul, and you will haul others along.

To be honest, I don’t expect Obama to come anywhere near these lessons. But those who are supporters of his ought to think long and hard if it isn’t very much in his interests, their interests, and the interests of America’s future for him to be confronted with these lessons in a way that he is willing to hear. Real transformation would be a politician willing to take a long, hard look at how he’s fallen short—after all, we’ve all fallen short—and what he can do to redress it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hegemony Is The Enemy—Pt2: Definition

Although somewhat complicated, and somewhat debated, I like to put the concept of hegemony in a nutshell as “a dominant ideology in drag as a common sense.” It’s a very stripped-down way of putting it, but I think it suits our times. The concept is important precisely because it covers so much, and points to a common functionality across a wide range of topics and issues—the whole range of dominant ideology, and the opposing views it seeks to render as more or less “unthinkable,” as readily dismissable at the very least.

In this installment of my “Hegemony is the Enemy” series, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the concept to justify that description, while providing enough information to draw other conclusions as well. The most important figure in describing, defining and promoting the importance of hegemony is Antonio Gramsci, and it’s his concept that I, too, find most compelling. However, his thought is extremely complex, and wedded to a developmental perspective steeped in European history. I make no pretense to capturing that complexity in my definition. Indeed, the very act of stripping it down suits it for adopting an entirely new framework, as we’ll see in future instalments.

Wikipedia starts with a fairly broad definition:
Hegemony

Hegemony... is the dominance of one group over other groups, with or without the threat of force, to the extent that, for instance, the dominant party can dictate the terms of trade to its advantage; more broadly, cultural perspectives become skewed to favor the dominant group. The cultural control that hegemony asserts affects commonplace patterns of thought: hegemony controls the way new ideas are rejected or become naturalized in a process that subtly alters notions of common sense in a given society.

Hegemony results in the empowerment of certain cultural beliefs, values, and practices to the submersion and partial exclusion of others. Hegemony influences the perspective of mainstream history, as history is written by the victors for a congruent readership. The official history of Communism, re-writing history, erasing people's names and images from official state photos, provides a richly-exampled arena of cultural hegemony.
Note, this definition speaks of group dominance “with or without the threat of force.” Hegemony is most effective when no one even needs to think of force. Where there is no battle, nothing can be lost. Yet, when force is used, Gramsci makes the point that the greater the use of force, the greater the appeal to consent.

Wikipedia continues:
Theories of hegemony

Theories of hegemony attempt to explain how dominant groups or individuals (known as hegemons) can maintain their power -- the capacity of dominant classes to persuade subordinate ones to accept, adopt and internalize their values and norms. Antonio Gramsci devised one of the best-known accounts of hegemony. His theory defined the State by a mixture of coercion and hegemony, between which he drew distinctions; according to Gramsci, hegemony consists of political power that flows from intellectual and moral leadership, authority or consensus, as distinguished from mere armed force.

Recently, critical theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have re-defined the term "hegemony" as a discursive strategy of combining principles from different systems of thought into one coherent ideology.
I’ve already addressed the “combining principles from different systems” in the prelude post for this series. I will therefore concentrate on Gramsci.

This section can lead to a somewhat mistaken understanding of Gramsci’s concept, developed in his Prison Notebooks, written during his imprisonment by Mussolini (1926 till his death in 1937). (A great deal of his writings are available online here.) Coercion and hegemony are not entirely separate categories for Gramsci, nor is he exclusively concerned with defining the Sate. He speaks of state-forming processes, for example, as well as relations within and between classes.

A brief taste of the complexity of Gramsci’s thought can be found here [“14 Major Issues or Dimensions or Meanings of Hegemony”]. Without going into too much detail, I want to extract a few significant points. One is a passage from Gramsci that reads:
"The 'normal' exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority....
The next major issue after that passage is titled “VI. Domination Without Intellectual and Moral Leadership is Not Hegemony” It reads in full:
Gramsci discusses the Piedmont situation in which social groups emerged that wanted to dominate, but not to lead; he says that this is not a situation of hegeomy (pp. 104=106): ie, "It is one of the cases in which these groups have the function of 'domination' without that of 'leadership': dictatorship without hegemony." (106).
Thus, the relationship to force is complex, and mere domination doesn’t equate with hegemony.

While there are certainly considerable subtleties not fully explored, the Wikipedia entry on Cultural Hegemony is largely correct in stating:
The analysis of hegemony (or "rule") was formulated by Antonio Gramsci to explain why predicted communist revolutions had not occurred where they were most expected, in industrialized Europe. Marx and his followers had advanced the theory that the rise of industrial capitalism would create a huge working class and cyclical economic recessions. These recessions and other contradictions of capitalism would lead the overwhelming masses of people, the workers, to develop organizations for self-defense, including labor unions and political parties. Further recessions and contradictions would then spark the working class to overthrow capitalism in a revolution, restructure the economic, political, and social institutions on rational socialist models, and begin the transition towards an eventual communist society. In Marxian terms, the dialectically changing economic base of society would determine the cultural and political superstructure. Although Marx and Engels had famously predicted this eschatological scenario in 1848, many decades later the workers of the industrialized core still had not carried out the mission.

Gramsci argued that the failure of the workers to make anti-capitalist revolution was due to the successful capture of the workers' ideology, self-understanding, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling) culture. In other words, the perspective of the ruling class had been absorbed by the masses of workers. In "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture had indoctrinated workers to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in "advanced" societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.

Gramsci therefore argued for a strategic distinction between a "war of position" and a "war of movement". The war of position is a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten class consciousness, teach revolutionary analysis and theory, and inspire revolutionary organization. Following the success of the war of position, communist leaders would be empowered to begin the war of movement, the actual insurrection against capitalism, with mass support....

Gramsci did not contend that hegemony was either monolithic or unified. Instead, hegemony was portrayed as a complex layering of social structures. Each of these structures have their own “mission” and internal logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is different from those in different structures. Yet, as with an army, each of these structures assumes the existence of other structures and by virtue of their differing missions, is able to coalesce and produce a larger structure that has a larger overall mission....

Influence of Gramsci

Although leftists may have been the primary users of this conceptual tool, the activities of organized conservative movements also draw upon the concept. This was seen, for instance, in evangelical Christian efforts to capture local school boards in the U.S. during the 1990s, and thus be able to dictate curriculum. Patrick Buchanan, in a widely discussed speech to the 1992 Republican Convention, used the term "culture war" to describe political and social struggle in the United States.
Clearly (as Pat Buchanan illustrates), one does not have to agree with Marx or Gramsci’s aims to see the broader sense in this analysis, and generalize it to other situations. One reason Marx or Gramsci’s thinking can seem alien is the distance we have come, partly because of the struggles they described and influenced. The impoverishment of 19th century workers is so remote from our experience, it is difficult to grasp. The very threat of revolution was one of the most powerful factors in changing that—a dialectical development in its own right. Yet, an echo of Gramsci’s analysis clearly seems to fit the way in which the largely Democratic, production-oriented, urban working class of the 1930s and before became the increasingly Republican, consumption-oriented suburban middle class of the 1950s and later.

Or, for a more striking example, during the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of poor whites rushed off to fight and die for the right of wealthy plantation-owners to own slaves—slaves whose material conditions and interests were much closer to their own than the plantation owners’ were. This is a clear example of hegemony, directly analogous to what motivated Gramsci’s original analysis. The same dynamic persists to this day, with the White South a bastion of working and middle-class support for elites they have little in common with materially, arrayed against blacks (and other, more recent additions) with whom they have a great deal in common.

Martin Luther King, Jr. touched on this phenomena in his speech, The Drum Major Instinct:
The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)
Of course, things have changed since then. Those racist white jailers are all Republicans nowadays. And they aren’t all in the South. And isn’t always racism. But it’s always something. And that’s what What’s The Matter With Kansas is all about: hegemony, as opposed to people’s real material interests. The cause of it, and the countering of it both involve what Gramsci talked about, a “war of position,” a “culture war” in which each side “seek[s] to gain a dominant voice in mass media, mass organizations, and educational institutions to heighten” their particular type of consciousness, analysis and theory, and inspire (literally or figuratively, revolutionary) political organization.

Described in these terms, the past 30-40 years has seen a largely one-sided culture war, as conservative elites have created a vast network of their own institutions to gain a dominant voice: Think tanks to dominate political discourse; their own political media (as well as infiltrating and undermining the existing news media); their own anti-modernist mass organizations, continuously organized because their goals are never achieved, and—both by taking over school boards and by setting up their own schools, their own educational institutions. In place of the metropolitan capitalist class of the 1950s and 60s, which had accepted the welfare state, big labor and big government as facts of life, and adopted norms in which CEOs made no more than 20-30 times that of low-end workers, we have a far more rapacious capitalist class that never accepted the New Deal, the Progressive Era, or even, arguably, the Civil War, the Constitution or the Magna Charta. And while that new old capitalist class has been gaining power, the old one—and the political institutions fostered under it, even in opposition—has largely slept through the changes. Indeed, the more unmistakable the changes have become—since Clinton’s impeachment for a blowjob, Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, and our descent toward authoritarianism since 9/11—the more fiercely the old institutions and their inhabitants have clung to their last shreds of sleep. We hear it again in the attempts to deny the message of the last election, in calls for the Democrats to “move to the center” and above all, to be civil, and not rock the boat, as Senator-elect Webb seems to have done, simply by refusing to kiss Bush’s ring. Indeed, it is almost impossible to tell where the denial of the old order leaves off, and the denial of the new order begins.

The end of denial is waking to the fact of an ongoing culture war as a war of position. We need to build up our institutions, our counter-hegemonic institutions—both online and off. And so what if they attack them? Indeed, we should be quite worried if they do not. If sociopathic monsters think we are reasonable, we are in big, big trouble.

A Final Word

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci wrote
"Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed - in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic- corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential..."
Such a notion seems downright quaint today. Hegemony as we’ve experienced under Bush makes no such compromises whatever. Did Enron give its stolen money back? Did Haliburton? I cite this quote to underscore, in another way, how much has changed since Gramsci wrote, how much there is a need to draw on his insight, but not be chained to its formulations. Which sets the stage for our next installment.