Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2009

Barack Hoover Obama

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

Very early on in Obama’s administration, you heard many of his supporters on the left begin to call for pressure from the mass movement in order for him to promote progressive legislation. Analogies were made with FDR, who was elected on a fairly centrist platform. Without protests from the unemployed et al, the assumption is that FDR would have continued on his centrist course, just as Obama is doing today. For example, in article titled “Obama needs the left”, the social democratic historian Michael Kazin wrote: “For the president to have a chance at becoming another FDR, he needs a big push from the left—or the conservative assumptions that have kept the nation in thrall for the past three decades will continue to hold sway,” while Nation Magazine editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel answered that “I think history shows us that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution because of the great traumas of his day — the Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. And it was the great popular social movement of his time, working outside his administration, the unions at that time, that put pressure on FDR to carry out bolder reforms” when asked about the parallels between Obama and FDR.

This assumes that Obama is as susceptible to mass pressure as FDR. What if Obama was not a latter-day FDR but a repackaged Herbert Hoover, however? Would Hoover have pushed through Social Security legislation if he had been President? Maybe if the pressure was sufficient to do so, but clearly Hoover was more hostile to the poor and to the working class than the aristocratic FDR whose combination of noblesse oblige and long-term strategic thinking on behalf of the class he served made him more amenable to change.

It seems that liberal opinion is beginning to turn against the FDR=Obama construct and toward a son of Herbert Hoover analysis. In the latest Nation Magazine, you can read an article by William Greider titled “In the Shadow of Hoover”, which includes the following:

While he was in China, Barack Obama made a bizarre declaration that the US government must reduce its budget deficits in order to avoid “a double-dip recession.” The remark was alarming because it suggests the president may not fully understand the country’s economic predicament. Deficit spending is a cure for our troubles, not the cause. If Obama follows through and actually reduces the red ink, the Great Recession could be born again with new fury.

In an interview with Fox News, the president said: “It is important to recognize if we keep on adding to the deficit, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point people could lose confidence in the US economy in a double-dip recession.” Maybe he didn’t mean it. Or was merely nodding to Chinese leaders, our leading creditor, who had scolded him for profligate spending.

Still, his backward logic gave me a chill. If Obama acts on it, he will be walking in the footsteps of Herbert Hoover, not Franklin Roosevelt, and I fear his presidency could be doomed as a result. I know that sounds too strong and brutally unfair, given the president’s energetic vision for the country and his early efforts to stimulate economic recovery. But history is often unfair to leaders who do not get their priorities straight and fail to deliver what they promise.

Despite pointing out repeatedly how much Obama is like Hoover in this article, Greider still holds out hope that Obama can rise to the occasion:

This is an opening for Obama to announce a major “course correction.” If he states the gravity of the situation honestly, people will not be angered by his truth-telling. They already see things are worse than officials acknowledge. If Obama opts instead for half-way measures–too little too late–then he will fall squarely under Hoover’s shadow.

Unlike Greider, Kevin Baker holds out no illusions as should be obvious from the title of the article “Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again” that appeared in the July 2009 Harpers Magazine.

Like Herbert Hoover, Obama grew up as an outsider and overcame formidable odds—hence his constant promotion of personal responsibility and education. He came of age in a time when hardworking young men and women like him went to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, and—once properly “incentivized” by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—seemed to save the national economy, creating what appeared to be great general prosperity while doing well themselves. There’s no need to do battle with these strivers and achievers, individuals as accomplished in their fields as Obama is in his. All that’s required is to get them back on their feet, get the money running again, and maybe give them a few new rules to live by, a new set of incentives to get them back on track.

Just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the “business progressivism” of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton’s “business liberalism” as an alternative to useless battles from another time—battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose.

Stepping back a bit from the historical analogies with FDR, Hoover, or even Lincoln with his “team of rivals”, the more interesting question is how shortsighted the U.S. ruling class is today. Since the working class and its allies are in such a weakened state as compared to the early 1930s when the U.S. still retained an industrial base, the only players on the stage are billionaires who run both political parties.

Some are agonizing about the future of the system, most notably financier George Soros who has styled himself as something of a seer/protector for the capitalist system, especially when it comes to challenging its myopic tendencies for short-term gain. Long before the current crisis, Soros wrote about the “capitalist threat” in the February 1997 Atlantic Monthly:

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern — the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

While it would be a mistake to approach this question in schematic base/superstructure terms, I would suggest that the failure of the ruling class to pay heed to Soros, Paul Krugman, and most of the hosts of MSNBC news shows is a function of the sea change in American society which has left the industrial base as a pile of rubble. If you’ve seen that passage in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a love story” with his father showing the director the flattened remains of his old workplace in Flint, Michigan, you’ll understand why a new FDR cannot emerge.

FDR was the ultimate “Fordist” president who viewed the auto, steel and rubber plants as mutually reinforcing bedrock components of the capitalist system. In order to get the economy moving again, it was necessary to enact social legislation that put money into the pockets of workers so that they could become customers of automobiles and other manufactured goods. It was also necessary to give grudging support for industrial unions that could provide the muscle to extract a living wage from the boss, including Henry Ford himself whose social doctrines were so much in line with FDR’s New Deal.

About 12.7 million U.S. workers, or 8 percent of the labor force, still held manufacturing jobs at the beginning of 2009. Fifty years ago, 14.6 million people, or 28 percent of all U.S. workers, were employed in factories. Given the trajectory of the auto industry, those figures can only continue to decline.

When workers are not concentrated in huge factories, but are dispersed in the primarily non-union service sector, they cannot exercise the leverage necessary to put the ruling class on the defensive. When Citibank, for example, sheds thousands of jobs—courtesy of Barack Obama’s chief financial adviser Robert Ruben who led to the bank’s collapse—there is barely a whimper as workers seek personal solutions to their plight.

The left has a tendency to lag one step behind history when it is in the midst of a financial crisis or some other cataclysmic event. By analogizing with FDR’s New Deal, we fail to account for the material forces that make such an outcome so unlikely.

While it is very difficult to predict what forms struggle will take in the future, we will be in a poor position to lead them if we do not understand class relationships as they exist rather than as as ghosts of crises past.


  1. The most telling point you make, I think, is that “the only players on the stage are the billionaires who run both political parties.” Add to that the fact that even in serious crisis, the capitalist system has proven itself resilient enough to co-opt virtually all mass movements of the last decades (labor, women’s, third world, gay…), and to marginalize even mild criticism (e.g., antiwar sentiment), as well as to get away with the cynical scam of propping up a failed health system while fooling the masses into apparently rejecting the only workable solution (socialized medicine). One can always hope that future mass challenges to the system will emerge, but with an economy that no longer produces anything and a working class atomized and in thrall to patriotic pabulums, where does this leave the “orthodox” Marxian view that the “proletariat” will, by the very nature of its relation to the means of production, gain class consciousness and lead society into a civilized future? This view is looking increasingly like an article of faith rather than an accurate observation of reality. If only it were true.

    Comment by David Thorstad — November 30, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  2. David, you raise an important question about agency. I don’t really have the answer except to note that Nicaragua, the last thorough-going revolution in this hemisphere, was led by the informal sector, farmers and ranchers. My guess is that when you are being pushed against the wall, you will ways to struggle even if they were not anticipated by Farrell Dobbs in his books on the Teamsters Union.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  3. Good article. I wonder if it doesn’t indicate that the threat from the populist right shouldn’t be taken more seriously. To what extent does this crisis pose problems for the capitalists? I think it poses very real problems for a good section of them. Moreover they are problems that the current bourgeois democratic system of governance doesn’t seem capable of addressing, in fact it has fallen flat on its face. Look at California and Michigan if you want to see where things are headed. Things are falling apart and there is a real leadership vacuum in dealing with this crisis that is emerging. I can’t imagine that this will be tolerated forever and with a left response seemingly closed off that leaves the right, which could be ugly. What where the alternatives to FDR in the 30s? Maybe communism, but certainly fascism was on the horizon.

    Comment by dave x — November 30, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  4. In the 1930s key sections of the American ruling class were for Keynesian deficit spending as a way out of the capitalist crisis even before FDR took office with his “New Deal.” Of course, it took the massive struggles of the working class, mainly led by radicals, to finally force the government to implement them. And only WWII really got the US economy going anyway.

    While it is doubtful that “communism,” i.e., socialist revolution was on the agenda, building an independent mass party of the working class certainly was. Only the “anti-fascism” of the CP-led “Popular Front” made sure that that never materialized. In other words, “fascism on the horizon” hysteria served as a diversion from building an anti-capitalist left just as “lesser-evilism,” “Anbody but Bush” and “the threat from the populist right” do today.

    In addition, the politics of “lesser evilism” drive the middle class and backward sections of the working class into the arms of the pretend “populists” on the right by identifying the left with an anti-working class, pro-Wall Street neo-liberal government of yuppie Democrats. The only way to really “fight the right” is to build a real left that fights for policies that actually address the immediate felt needs of the workers and connects them to the fight for a socialist alternative…especially when, unlike in FDR’s day, no section of the ruling class has any real reforms on offer to begin with.

    Comment by MN Roy — November 30, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  5. FDR was “bold”…?…”abandoned caution”…? Please. FDR was a conservative ruling class politician who adopted or acquiesced in adopting some mild reform measures, like a miserly social security set-up, not only because of the eruption of working class struggle in the mid-1930’s, but because of the looming alternative of the Soviet Union and its allied parties. Roosevelt had been Governor of the state of New York, with its tens of thousands of Socialist and Communist workers in NYC. And he was already maneuvering to get the US into war with Germany and Japan. Bismarck was far bolder. Of course, he actually had a proletarian left to contend with.

    Comment by Dave R — November 30, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  6. From a Trotskyist standpoint, FDR was “conservative”. From the standpoint of bourgeois politics, he was anything but.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  7. The “looming alternative of the Soviet Union and its allied parties” were what strangled whatever possibilities there were at the time of independent working class politics, i.e., a labor party based on the CIO, in the name of the “anti-fascist” “peoples front” behind FDR and the Democrats. Of course, what they pulled off in France and Spain at the time was far worse since there were far greater possibilities for workers revolution there. Thank you Uncle Joe. Or to paraphrase what Hyman Roth/Meyer Lansky said about Moe Green/Bugsy Siegel in Godfather II, they didn’t even build a statue for him for services rendered.

    As for FDR, he was, like LBJ, a more far-sighted representative of the rich, who could use co-option as well as coercion, to advance the interests of his class. And imperialist war as well as Dave R points out. He also had far more resources to draw upon from what was still an expanding imperialism than does Obama today.

    Comment by MN Roy — November 30, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  8. And even the sandinistas fell into corporate power eventually: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj74/gonzalez

    Comment by Jenny — November 30, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  9. It has often crossed my mind that Obama is dissimilar to FDR and JFK, in to contrast to a particular liberal line that deifies the latter two, but relatively more similar to Hoover. It is splendid that you have a similar idea. Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by epoliticus — November 30, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  10. Among the many shrewd observations and persuasive arguments made in this piece, the most provocative and compelling is your point about the American working class’ changed relationship to the means and relations of production. Mike Davis made a similar point in an interview several months ago, adding that “de-industrialization” has also contributed to the physical and cultural fragmentation of working class communities in urban area across the country. What needs to be explored are the implications of these changes for organizing resistance to austerity measures in this period. It’s fair and honest enough of you to confess your own limitations in this regard, but you might also want to encourage contributors to weigh in more specifically on precisely this issue.

    Comment by burghardt — December 1, 2009 @ 12:24 am

  11. “…even the sandinistas fell into corporate power eventually”

    Jenny. The point of the aricle you cite escapes me. Are you aware that the Sandinista’s didn’t even nationalize pivate property?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 1, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  12. The decimation of the manufacturing industry has certainly been a serious blow to the US working class. However, according to unadjusted data from the BLS’s October 2009 Current Population Survey ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/suppl/empsit.cpseea21.txt, there were actually over 14 million employed in Manufacturing, comprising 9.1% of the labour force. But that’s not really relevant, as the labour force includes the unemployed. As a proportion of employed persons, manufacturing workers constituted 10.1%.

    I thought I heard you mention teamsters, ‘dispersed in the primarily non-union service sector’. In terms of the 2008 average http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat42.pdf, there were 4.7 million employed in Transportation and warehousing, with a union density of 20.9%. As for exercising ‘the leverage necessary to put the ruling class on the defensive’, although the Utilities industry employs less than a million workers, they enjoy the highest union density in the private sector, 28.4%, and I think possess the capacity to cripple the ruling class if they set their minds to it. Similarly, 19.7% of the 1.2 million employed in Telecommunications are union members.

    There are doubtless reasons that Citibank workers resigned themselves to seeking individual solutions when they got the sack, but one of them is not that workers in the finance industry can’t be organised and can’t fight back.

    The export of manufacturing jobs has doubtless contributed to the malaise afflicting American workers, including their failure to organise service industries and to build militant unions. But if we want to understand the reasons the working class is on the back foot and overcome them, I think we’re going to have to dig a lot deeper than that.

    Comment by Ernie — December 1, 2009 @ 3:23 am

  13. Since the Sandisistas were mentioned in a rather positive manner above, I thought I ought to mention their eventual kowtowing to U.S. Neoliberalism. Did you read the whole thing?

    Comment by Jenny — December 1, 2009 @ 6:42 am

  14. There are doubtless reasons that Citibank workers resigned themselves to seeking individual solutions when they got the sack, but one of them is not that workers in the finance industry can’t be organised and can’t fight back.

    This is an excellent point that is rarely made. People only seem to think of traditional factory workers as being members of the working class. The working class is larger now than ever before. Left organizing and unions are not.

    Comment by Wobbly — December 1, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  15. Regardless of the levels of atomization known by the working class at this point, organizers inside of what remains of organized labor have to struggle to strengthen what remains, struggle for an independent labor leadership for all of the arguments cited here. Obviously such a socialist leadership is not an “organic” development which just finds itself happening through some inherent capacity to build a fighting organization the working class possesses. Obviously the possibility of a new form of fascism is shaping up in the United States. We still have to attempt to organize and lead an independent working class fightback, rooted in the working class organizations and communities which still exist. Maybe it’s only an existential choice, I don’t know. But it beats the hell out of trying to suck an entirely new form of labor leadership out of the scattered pieces of the so-called left, or blogging endlessly.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — December 1, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  16. Not to mention the issue of the bigger unions restricting their members from forming independent ones like what the SEIU is doing: http://amleft.blogspot.com/search/label/Unions

    Comment by Jenny — December 1, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

  17. Check http://leninology.blogspot.com/2009/12/where-is-american-working-class.html for a relevant analysis.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 1, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  18. Yeah, leninology has it going on. It’s still a matter of building upon or strengthening what remains. What else do we have?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — December 1, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

  19. One would think with handle like Wobbly would mention One Big Union midwife to Eugene Debs (^_^) Recall IWW represents workers at Starbucks. Also recall still make claim to be anti-capitalist. Is the Union making progress im membership?
    Regards ZN

    Comment by ZN — December 2, 2009 @ 12:52 am

  20. I am not a member of the IWW, zn, but certainly agree with the idea of one big union and with their perspective and worldview in general. And as much as I admire Debs, I am not a fan of political parties or party building to bring about socialism. That is something that will happen outside of mainstream politics and in spite of state in my opinion.

    Comment by Wobbly — December 2, 2009 @ 1:21 am

  21. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Obama administration hasn’t pushed for more banking regulation since that would be in the long-term interests of capitalism (trillion dollar bailouts for every recession is not a good long-term strategy). The only thing I can come up with is that by bailing out the big banks and engineering the banking industry’s consolidation preserved the institutions that turned around and used taxpayer money to lobby hard against reform. Does that make sense, or am I off my rocker?

    By the time FDR took office, the Great Depression was under way for several years and perhaps the banks were less powerful politically than they had been previously?

    Comment by Binh — December 2, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  22. Well I wrote on August 27,2007 that Obama would be no different than John Mc Cain, way before the primary elections especially when it came to the policy towards Cuba, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America.

    Then people like Walter Lippmann, Alice Walker(Nelson Mandela,how that work out),Tom Hayden and many others tried to sell and tell us different.

    Rojo Rojito

    Comment by Cort Greene — December 3, 2009 @ 12:12 am

  23. Good article. I’ve been thinking about how the ruling class has failed to look at even its medium term interests like it has in the past thanks to a lack of pressure from the working class.

    The other thing I’ve been thinking about is how contradictory these liberals really are. They “hold hope” that Obama can still be pressured, and they do this by “supporting him” by which they mean they won’t exert pressure? What kind of pressure is it to support the president? Even if a person were to believe that Obama can be pressured (and I don’t) wouldn’t it make more sense to oppose his presidency?

    Comment by Lee Stone — December 3, 2009 @ 5:39 am

  24. […] Barack Hoover Obama « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist "What if Obama was not a latter-day FDR but a repackaged Herbert Hoover, however? Would Hoover have pushed through Social Security legislation if he had been President? Maybe if the pressure was sufficient to do so, but clearly Hoover was more hostile to the poor and to the working class than the aristocratic FDR whose combination of noblesse oblige and long-term strategic thinking on behalf of the class he served made him more amenable to change." (tags: blog northamerica marxism politics) […]

    Pingback by links for 2009-12-05 « The Mustard Seed — December 5, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

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