Bulletin N° 362


23 August 2008
Grenoble, France

Dear Colleagues and Friends of CEIMSA,

Some of you may remember Jean-Paul Sartre recounting in one of his many messages to humanity how European aristocrats used to amuse themselves long ago by deliberately retarding the development of children, and thereby creating playthings for privileged adults. This was done, wrote Sartre, by binding the head of a child so tightly as to inhibit the normal growth of his/her skull. The result was permanent mental retardation. (If this shortened the life expectancy of the subject, it was not a matter of serious concern.) Today, one cannot help but see a parallel between the techniques practiced by some Medieval aristocrats and public education in late capitalist society. As modern technology replaces the creative work of ever growing numbers of people, the use value of people can be found in their service to the exclusive interests of those privileged members of society who seek amusement and who wish to avoid the inconveniences of critical reflection.

Nationalism is one such form of amusement; racism is another, but there are many equally effective techniques to achieve exclusive cultural identity. Today, hyper-positive capitalist culture has moved away from the euthanasia centers of early Nazi Germany (for a description of euthanasia policies in the United States in the 1930s, see chapter 6 of America's Concentration Camps During WW II ), where tens of thousands of Germans in mental hospitals were murdered in an attempt to purify the Aryan genetic pool of German society. Today's capitalist culture is modeled more on a practical use value exhibited in the Aryan Indian cast system, where the illegitimate dependent power hierarchies of India are sustained by violence and the threat of violence for the benefit and amusement of the higher orders.

Creating pets of all kinds is a tribute to "the power of positive thinking." It is no wonder that the off-the-wall, top-down educational "reforms" that have been proposed in France today are unconvincing. They represent a desperate attempt to create a social order based on privilege and inequality. The two notions are, of course, an oxymoron, and at one General Assembly of French students and faculty an analogy was made to describe these backward-aiming "reforms" on French university campuses : turning what had become a zoo into a circus by purging the habitats and obliging the remaining occupants to train for performances that benefit a small and privileged group of owners, rather than recreating natural biospheres where the public could experience the reproduction of mores in natural zoological habitats supporting a rich diversity of the world's species. The objective of this "reform" is to achieve a perverse form of amusement : dogs trained to behave like children, elephants to behave like dogs, bears to behave like clowns, young people to think like middle-age executives, teachers to behave like Persian carpet salesmen, and administrators like Napoleon Bonapartes, etc., etc. . . . . Very few of the participants find it funny, however; for them life has become a struggle for survival, anticipating the wishes of the man who holds the whip (or purse strings, as it were) while training diligently to please him with new tricks.

The 5 items below are reflections on the imperfections of this "New Order." What remains to be done, as we can see, is problematic. . . .

Item A., sent to us by Council for the National Interest Foundation, is a report from the SS Free Gaza, bringing humanitarian relief to the victims of the Israeli politics of ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

Item B., sent to us by Nanterre Professor Pierre Guerlain, is a piece from ZNet in which historian Paul Street demystifies Barack Obama with a documented historical description of his career in U.S. politics.

Item C. is an article by Michael Albert, founder of ZNet, on the Future in Venezuela.

Item D. is an article sent to us by University of Pennsylvania Professor and long-time associate at CEIMSA, Edward S. Herman, on
the double standard that governs United States foreign policy.

Item E. is a communication from former Grenoble student Tanguy Pichetto, who sends us two unusually critical French language reports on the Middle East and two French political cartoons, which produce sparks of optimism in these dark days of cynicism and deceit.

And finally, we offer CEIMSA readers the latest copy of the Anti-Empire Report, August 5, 2008, from William Blum in Washington, D.C. :


and a hard look at "American exceptionalism" by conservative historian Andrew Bacevich on :

Democacy Now!

Francis McCollum Feeley
Professor of American Studies
Director of Research
Université Stendhal Grenoble 3

from Council for the National Interest Foundation :
Date: 22 August 2008
Subject: SS Free Gaza Makes its Approach.

Last week we sent you an appeal from the SS Free Gaza, and they are very grateful for the donations they received. Although they remain under-funded, they are continuing ahead with their journey into Gaza. Their boats departed from Cyprus this morning, and they are approaching Gaza as we speak. For the full press release, CLICK HERE:


from Pierre Guerlain :
Date: 24 July 2008
Subject: The Myth of Barack Obama.
Paul Street's ZSpace Page

I'm sure you've seen this but who knows it might have escaped your notice.

Statehouse Days: The Myth of Barack Obama?s ?
True Progressive? Past
by Paul Street

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary.  Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.

- Ryan Lizza, July 21 2008

 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. 

 - Adolph Reed, Jr., 1996

 The extent to which many "liberal left" Democrats and hard-right Republicans will go to convince themselves and/or others that Barack Obama is really a left progressive is quite remarkable. "Oh sure," they say when you point out that Obama is a corporate-sponsored centrist and cite any of number of facts from his U.S. Senate career and presidential campaign to support that elementary observation. "But that's just a façade he has to put on to get elected. He's really a left-leaning political actor" - what some liberal leftists will call "a true progressive" and what Obama's hard-right critics call "a dangerous leftist" and even a "socialist."

Never mind that Obama' s policy positions during the Democratic primary "were often to the right of his rivals" [1]. Forget that he has refused to embrace the obvious and widely supported (for decades) progressive health care solution - national single-payer insurance - and that he has failed to advance universal mandates even within the corporate- managed system that he prefers [2]. 

Forget his mealy-mouthed and ever-shifting positions on Iraq, clearly (however) indicating that an Obama White House will maintain the criminal imperial occupation of oil-rich Mesopotamia for an indefinite period of time [3].

 Discount the business-friendly nature of neoliberal "Obamanomics," crafted by Wal-Mart-friendly economists like the University of Chicago's Austan Goolsbee and the Hamilton Project's Jason Furman [4].

 Ignore his brazenly imperial positions on Israel/Palestine, Columbia, Cuba,  Afghanistan, Iran, the "defense" (Empire) budget, and the broad role of the United States (which Obama absurdly calls the "last and best hope of the world") in the world, summarized nicely by Obama's statement that "the America moment is not over" but must be "seized anew"[5].

 Take no notice of his repeated praise of American capitalism, imperialism, and the corporate elite [6] or of his support for the Patriot Act and the wiretapping of U.S. citizens or his vote to limit working Americans' ability to recover significant damages from misbehaving corporations or his coolness to gun control or his support for the death penalty or of the disingenuous claims behind his decision to become the first presidential candidate to bypass the public presidential financing system. 

No, forget all that - or put it aside - and more, and realize that that's just what he has to do to get elected." Because, you see, Barack Obama is a stealth progressive - an actually transformative (or Manchurian) left candidate behind the conservative "front" he has to put up to make it into the White House.

That is the curious belief of many of his ostensibly left supporters and many of his right enemies.


 The claim that Obama is a closeted "true progressive" who has been playing the right-leaning game of U.S. politics in order to reach the White House (where he will come out of his left closet) and then spring actually left-leaning values on America and the world seems highly questionable for at least three reasons. First, very few if any people in key positions in the "radically centrist" [7] Obama campaign seem remotely predisposed to following such a path.

 Second, it must have take practically super-human "eyes on the White House prize" restraint for a "truly progressive" U.S. Senator Obama not to have used his already considerable power and notoriety (after 2004) to become a leader (in the Paul Wellstone mode) of left-liberal opposition to the Bush agenda at home and abroad.  Instead he did things like:

* vote with Republicans to cap consumer legal damages ("tort reform").

* confirm the war criminal Condoleezaa Rice as (of all things) Secretary of State.

* lecture "bloggers" (Obama's new code name for the growing number of activists and voters who dare to openly disagree with Him from the left) on their need to show proper respect for U.S. Senators who approved the appointment of arch-reactionary opponents of womens' and civil rights to the rule-for-life Supreme Court.

 * distance himself from Rep. John Murtha's (D-PA)call for early withdrawal from Iraq and from his fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin's courageous criticism of American Gestapo-like practices in Guantanamo.

 * lend his campaign support to pro-war against antiwar candidates in the Democratic congressional primaries of 2006 and otherwise distance himself from the movement against the Iraq War. 

* advance the energy agenda of the nuclear and ethanol industries. 

Third, Obama's career prior to his emergence as a national celebrity and politician does not jibe particularly well with the "stealth progressive" hypothesis. During his seven years in the Illinois Senate between 1997 and 2004, Obama developed strong and interrelated reputations for limitless personal aspiration, for working closely with Republicans, for "pragmatic" compromise, and for staying close to the great  hidden secret to success under the rules of American "market democracy" - corporate money [8]. As Ryan Lizza notes in an important recent New Yorker sketch of Obama's early political career, "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary.  Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them" [9].


 This "eagerness to accommodate" concentrated power is consistent with two core aspects of Obama's character.  The first trait here is his "deeply conservative" (journalist Larissa MacFarquhar's supposedly flattering description) "respect for tradition" and his "skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly" [10].  The second trait is his preternatural personal ambition, which has led him to attaching himself to dominant elites and doctrines within the reigning power structure. 

 According to his longtime close personal friend and top advisor Valerie Jarrett, in early 2007, Obama "always wanted to be president.  He didn't always admit it, but, oh, absolutely. The first time he said it," Jarrett told MacFarquhar, "he said ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn't it be a shame to waste them...you know, I just think I have something'"[11].

 During the mid-1990s, Obama participated in a leadership seminar put together by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam to gather young, "civic-minded" intellectuals, activists, and officeholders.  By Putnam's recollection, Obama "talked so openly about his political future that the group began referring to him, teasingly, as ‘Governor' and once gathered around him to ask, ‘when are you running for president?'"[12]

In the early 1990s, Obama told Craig Robinson, his future brother-in-law, the following (in Robinson's words): "I'd like to teach at some point and maybe run for office..no at some point I'd like to run for the U.S. Semate....possibly even run for president at some point"[13]. According to U.S. Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL), reflecting on Obama's rash effort to unseat the senior politician from the U.S. Congress in 2000: "He was blinded by his ambition. Obama has never suffered from a lack of believing that he can accomplish whatever it is he decides to try.  Obama believes in Obama.  And, frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side." Obama's early state legislative rival and occasional enemy Rickey Hendon once said that Obama would "run for king of the world" if he thought that job was open for election [14].

 Consistent with these reflections, longtime Illinois state senator Steven Rauschenberger recalled in 2007 that state senator Obama was "a very bright but very ambitious person who had his eyes on the prize and it wasn't Springfield" [15]. An extensive Chicago Tribune feature on Obama's statehouse career bore the interesting title, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead."  The feature's authors Rick Pearson and Ray Long learned that "from the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate it was clear to many that he didn't intend to stay."  After just two months in Springfield. Pearson and Long found,  Obama met with the Illinois Senate Democrats' chief of staff Mike Hoffman to discuss "how Obama's name might play with Downstate voters in a statewide race."  According to Hoffman, "Obama wanted me to know that he had other ambitions" [16].

South Side Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, an early Obama ally, recently had this to say about Obama to Lizza: "I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors.  I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman.  I finally got elected.  This is a job I love.  And I'm perfectly happy with it.  I'm not sure that's the way he approached his public life - that he was going to try for a job and stay there fore one period of time.  In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have"[17].

 Obama's desire for personal advancement and power was already apparent to many simply by the way he attained state senate seat.  He won an easy victory after essentially forcing all other Democratic contenders off the ballot by challenging their signature petitions - a classic street tactic in Chicago politics. Among the people he pushed out of contention on technical grounds was none other than the actually progressive state senator Alice Palmer, who had initially invited to Obama to run for her seat after deciding to try for the U.S. Congress in 1996 [18].

 Consistent with Rush, Rauschenberger, and Preckwinkle's take on him, Obama began scheming about running for Republican Peter Fitzgerald's U.S. Senate seat within at least a year of his drubbing by Bobby Rush. When Democrats won control of the Illinois legislature in 2003, Obama went to his political mentor and key Richard M. Daley ally and new Illinois Senate Leader Emil Jones to obtain his support for a U.S. Senate campaign [19]. 

 One pivotal set of state-legislative votes suggests the correctness of Rauschenberger's perspective.  As a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Obama has claimed to be a staunch champion of abortion rights.  He has strongly criticized a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a controversial ban on a late-term abortion procedure.  In the Illinois Senate, however, Obama voted "present" instead of "no" on seven bills restricting abortion.  He has subsequently claimed that these noncommittal "present" votes were part of a "progressive" political strategy worked out with liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and designed to provide political "cover" for legislators who could not afford to appear to be "pro-abortion."  But state legislators interviewed by the Chicago Tribune last year recalled no such strategy and noted that Obama needed no such "cover" in his mostly liberal and predominantly black legislative district on the South Side of Chicago.

Obama did think he required "cover," however, for his "higher ambitions" for running a statewide or even national campaign someday. As his good friend and former state legislator Terry Link (D-Waukeagan IL) noted, "a ‘present' vote helped if you had had aspirations of doing something else in politics.  I think Obama looked at it in that regard" [20].

 Obama's much-ballyhooed decision to work after college as a community organizer - a three-year effort to mobilize the political power of black churches (it accomplished next to nothing) in the late 1980s - was hardly inconsistent with his long-term political ambitions.  The road to higher office is more effectively paved with a resume emphasizing public service than the pursuit of wealth. At the same time, the prestigious Harvard Law education that came between Obama's community organizing and state-legislative careers was consistent with the goal of making the elite connections that are required to make a serious run for higher elected office. It would prove very useful in the fall of 2003 and early 2004, when Obama received an early "audition" with the national power elite of election investors - a critical prelude to his more well- known and spectacular introduction to the country as a whole on the night of instantly famous Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention.

Intimately related to pre-Rock Star Obama's powerful ambition was a pronounced tendency to temper his supposed strong "progressive" impulses.  According to some left and liberal observers, the future presidential candidate is a onetime "true progressive" who compromised his initial leftward instincts under the pressure of his need to appeal to the conservative forces of money and media consultants.  By In These Times writer Salim Muwakkil's account in the summer of 2007, the earlier Obama was "an indelible progressive" whose "magic" went "missing" as a U.S. Senator.  Muwakkil blamed "the cut-and-parse political calibrations employed by his by Obama's campaign staff" for having "devalued enchantment and put a premium on marketing. His political masterminds have transformed Obama from a political visionary into an electoral product (with demographically designed components) just like every other presidential aspirant." In Muwakkil's view, Obama's presidential campaign handlers were excising and "squandering" the "magic ingredient" in "Obama mania" - the fact that Obama was a longstanding "true progressive who would use his extraordinary time in the limelight to speak unpopular truths about U.S. foreign and domestic policy while unflinchingly reminded the nation of its racial obligations" [21]. 

 There was some basis for this angle on Obama's trajectory. As Ken Silverstein noted in late 2006:

 "During his first year in the state senate­1997­he helped lead a laudable if quixotic crusade that would have amended the state constitution to define health care as a basic right and would have required the Illinois General Assembly to ensure that all the state's citizens could get health insurance within five years. He led initiatives to aid the poor, including campaigns that resulted in an earned-income tax credit and the expansion of early-childhood- education programs. In 2001, reacting to a surge in home foreclosures in Chicago, he helped push for a measure that cracked down on predatory lenders that peddled high-interest, high-fee mortgages to lower-end homebuyers. Obama was also the driving force behind legislation, passed in 2003, that made Illinois the first state to require law-enforcement agencies to tape interrogations and confessions of murder suspects. Throughout his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama called for social justice, promised to "stand up to the powerful drug and insurance lobbies" that block health-care reform, and denounced the war in Iraq and the Bush White House."

Reflecting back on this record and Obama's move "toward the center" while and since running for the U.S. Senate, Obama's biographer David Mendell wondered at how his "growing legion of followers" could ignore the contrast between the formerly "progressive" state legislator and the "new" Obama who announced his quest for the presidency in Springfield in February of 2007:

 "For them, it didn't seem to matter that since the aggressively liberal state lawmaker had gone to Washington he had taken a dramatic turn toward calculation  and caution, or that he had yet to propose anything philosophically new, or that Obama was, in his own words, "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," or that the higher he soared, the more this politician spoke in well-worn platitudes and the more he offered warm, feel-good sentiments lacking a precise framework.  It also didn't seem to matter that in his first two years....he avoided conflict at all costs, spending none of his heavily amassed political capital on even a single controversial issue he believed in" [22].

 But what did Obama really "believe in" beyond, well, Obama, during his years in the Illinois State Assembly? Numerous accounts of Obama's Springfield tenure have indicated a more hidden, at once calculating, conservative and accommodating side that was completely consistent and continuous with the post-Springfield evolution noted by Muwakkil and Mendell. According to Tribune reporters Pearson and Long, state senator Obama "tempered a progressive agenda with a cold dose of realism, often forging consensus with conservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade...A review of his tenure [in Springfield]," Pearson and Long noted, "is a study in complexity, caution, and calculation" [23].

 While catching "Hell" from black Chicago colleagues who accused him of being too conciliatory and careerist, he formed close friendships with three white colleagues - two of whom were Republicans - from the Chicago suburbs and "downstate." Obama was more interested in having his name associated with resume-padding legislative victories than with attaining "progressive" victories.  He sponsored a distinctly modest 1998 campaign finance "reform" bill.  The legislation required electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports, prohibited the personal spending of campaign dollars by candidates and banned most gifts from lobbyists to legislators but set no limits on contributions from corporations or the exaggerated campaign spending of the state legislature's four top party officers.

 When the state "reformed" (slashed) its public family cash assistance system in accord with the right-wing national welfare "reform" introduced in 1996-97, Obama joined Republicans and conservative Democrats and opposed much of the black Illinois legislative delegation by supporting the imposition of work requirements on single mothers receiving family cash assistance.

 He managed to be absent from the voting floor when a key handgun control bill came up in 1999 and he voted (in pursuit of the electoral endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police) with Republicans in 2004 to support a bill granting retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons [24].  

 An avowed advocate of the state's right to execute people in certain cases, he sold his bill requiring that all criminal interrogations be videotaped in the case of capital crimes to law enforcement and Republicans on the grounds that it would help fix the state's "broken" death penalty system.  Obama also supported the extension of the death penalty to certain types of capital offense - the killing of senior citizens and handicapped persons, for example. 

And, again, he voted "present" instead of "no" on seven bills that rolled back abortion rights.

 As for the universal insurance bill that Silverstein applauded the young Obama for championing in a supposed "quixotic crusade," by May of 2004 Obama had played a pivotal role in certifying its demise.  Working with Republicans and insurance corporation lobbyists who extolled him for honoring their interests, he succeeded in watering down the state's "Health Care Justice Act" to mean little more than the setting up of a panel to research the supposedly mysterious question of how to provide universal coverage - a panel that gave the private insurance industry significant influence in how the issue would be approached. Under an amendment that Obama wrote, Boston Globe reporter Scot Helmman noted last September, "universal healthcare became merely a policy goal instead of state policy." As Helman learned, "Lobbyists praised Obama for taking the insurance industry's concerns into consideration" as he crafted the legislation."  By the recollection of health care activist Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois, "in this situation, Obama was being a conduit from the insurance industry to us." 

 According to Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki in the summer of 2007, Obama's experience with the Health Care Justice "showed him that real change comes not by dividing but by bringing people together to get things done"[25].


 And then there's the "antiwar" speech that Obama so famously delivered in downtown Chicago. The work of deconstructing Obama's "fairy tale" (Bill Clinton) "antiwar" mystique begins with taking a closer look at his 2002 speech - an oration I heard live in Chicago's downtown Daley Plaza. It was an impressive performance, given when he could afford to be more reckless and outwardly progressive  - before he had been tapped to join the national power elite. Obama opposed what he called "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."  He denounced "the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great

Depression" [26].

Obama's 2002 speech was accurate and forthright about critical matters.  It rightly predicted that invading Iraq would exacerbate Islamic anger and terrorist threats.  It correctly observed the politically motivated nature and potentially high length and cost of the planned "war." It struck an especially progressive chord when it related the Bush administration's military ambitions to its desire to turn public attention away from pressing domestic problems like poverty and corporate corruption. 

But Obama's Daley Plaza oration, subsequently lodged into the screen doors of Iowa City progressives with peace symbols on their porch, was not an especially anti-war, much less anti-imperial speech. It certainly wasn't a Left speech of the sort that people in the actual antiwar movement (including myself) were already making by the fall of 2002. Calling Bush's imminent war "dumb" but not criminal or immoral, it deleted the highly illegal and richly petro-imperialist ambitions behind the Iraq invasion being planned in Washington.  It said nothing about the racist nature of the administration's determination to conflate Iraq with 9/11 and al Qaeda. It omitted the long and terrible record of imperial U.S. policy that had made 9/11 less than surprising to those (including Obama's own pastor Jeremiah Wright [27) who paid elementary attention to America's provocative global behavior and Middle East politics. Contrary to the Obama presidential campaign's later effort to reinvent its candidate as an ally of the antiwar movement (a mailing I received from the Iowa Obama campaign actually told me that I could "join the movement to end the war" by supporting their candidate), his Chicago speech spoke against the planned invasion's foreign impact  in much the same terms as George Bush Senior's former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and much of the rest of the American foreign policy establishment. It argued that invading Iraq would be a foreign policy mistake - something that would likely not work for United States status and power in the world.  It did not mention that the unprovoked occupation being worked up by the White House and Pentagon would be a brazenly illegal and imperial transgression certain to kill untold masses of innocent Iraqis.   The leading reasons Obama gave not to invade Iraq - economic cost, uncertain outcomes, risks of regional destabilization, etc. (but not immorality, criminality, and the likelihood that many Iraqis would die)  - were widely voiced concerns expressed by many top and conservative foreign policy thinkers [28].


Obama began "muting" his antiwar voice well before election to the U.S. Senate. In 2003, the year the criminal invasion was undertaken, Obama removed his Daley Plaza speech from his Web site.  Even that speech's relatively tepid (compared to those of antiwar activists) objections to the occupation being planned were seen by him and his handlers as too radical for public consumption as he prepared to make his run for the United States Senate.  And while Obama may have spoken at a relatively small and elite antiwar rally in the fall of 2002, he was nowhere to be found during the great mass marches (in which I participated) of many thousands against the actual ordering and beginning of the invasion that took place in downtown Chicago on the nights of March 19 and March 20, 2008. By this time, Obama was pursuing Fitzgerald's soon-to-be open seat in the U.S. Senate - a national office with a statewide voting base. "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and the false pretexts on which it was sold might have been widely rejected in the black community from the beginning.  But opinion was different and more trusting of the Bush administration in the majority white electorate Obama would have to win support from if he wanted to win a statewide race, an open ambition of his from the beginning of his time in the Illinois legislature [29]. 

 According to Carl Davidson, a former anti-Vietnam War activist who clams to have helped organize the Daley Plaza rally (put together largely by the wealthy heiress and leading Chicago Democratic activist and "lakefront liberal" Bettylu Saltzman)[30], Obama began stepping back from his "antiwar" positions after the actual invasion of Iraq: "he turned.. .now we had to set aside whether it was right or wrong to invade, now we had to find the ‘smart' path to victory, not Bush's ‘dumb' path....He wasn't listening to us much anymore, but to folks much higher up in the DLC orbit. He had bigger plans" [31].

 State senator Obama's heralded Democratic Party Convention Keynote Address of late July 2004 (more than three months prior to his election to the U.S. Senate) steered well clear of any substantive criticism of the invasion and the fraudulent basis on which it was sold and authorized by Democratic legislators. Its main criticism of Bush's criminal invasion was that the White House had gone to "war" without "enough troops to win." It was all very consistent with the John F. Kerry presidential campaign, which advanced a strongly militarist message and ran on the notion that its standard-bearer would be a more competent and effective administrator of the Iraq occupation than George W. Bush.  Kerry was going to conduct the illegal policy in a more efficient way [32].

But Obama's most telling Iraq war comments during the 2004 convention did not occur during his famous keynote address. One day before he gave his historic speech, Obama told the New York Times that he did not know how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time of the vote. Here is the relevant Times passage: "In a recent interview,  [Obama] declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.' But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don't know.' What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made'" [33]. 

Obama said something just as telling during the convention to Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Zeleny and David Mendell. "There's not that much difference between my position [on Iraq] and George Bush's position at this stage," he told the journalists "The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute." Zeleny and Mendell added that Obama "now believes U.S. forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation - a position not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration" [34]. 


 By numerous accounts, Obama brought a taste for compromise, "watering down," and working with conservatives to achieve concrete, resume-building victories with him to the Illinois legislature.  Longtime Springfield lobbyist Paul L. Williams told New York Times reporter Janny Scott that "Obama came [to the Illinois legislature] with a huge dose of practicality," based on the notion that: "OK, that makes sense and sounds great, as I'd like get to the moon but right now I've only got enough gas to go this far"[35]. His "penchant" for personally ambitious "pragmatism" [36] and accommodation was evident at Harvard Law, where he utilized his willingness to give editorial power to arch-conservative members of the Republican Federalist Society to win election to the highly prestigious position of president of that school's law review. Black students at Harvard Law were especially frustrated by Obama's reluctance to join them in criticizing the institution's discriminatory racial practices [37].

 Before Harvard, Obama's experience as a community organizer taught him that concrete victories were only gained only by playing the game of power in the "world as it is" and not by advocating "pie in the sky" ideals reflecting "the world as we would like it to be" [38]. It was a profoundly unsentimental lesson for him, richly continuous with his later decision to say nothing about rampant corruption in the Richard M. Daley machine and the Illinois legislature - a silence that has hardly prevented him from lecturing Kenya and other African nations on the need to clean up their politics. 

If the brilliant Left and black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr.. is to be believed, moreover, Obama's early and longstanding taste for compromise and accommodation  was rooted also in more than practical experience.  It also reflected a process of ideological indoctrination. Alternately praised (by moderates) as "pragmatism" and reviled (by left progressives and radicals) as "cooptation," it was a habit of thought that flowed naturally from his elite socialization in the high corporate-neoliberal post-Civil Rights era at privileged corporate- and Empire-friendly institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and the various metropolitan foundations on whose boards he sat and in whose circles he moved (a rarely noted aspect of his biography) while he worked as a Chicago lawyer. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in 1996 in the Village Voice, published eight years before the world discovered the "Obama phenomenon" and before some 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.  So far the black activist response hasn't been up to the challenge.  We have to do better" [39].  

Insofar as state legislator Obama behaved in accord with Muwakkil and Silverstein's image of him as a "true progressive," it should be acknowledged that he gained his entrée to the world of electoral politics atop a heavily black and extremely liberal legislative district where majority opinion on issues certainly ran well to the progressive left of mainstream U.S. sentiment.  Black-Americans are the leftmost section of the U.S. electorate [40] and there is therefore little risk involved in taking - or (perhaps more accurately in Obama's case) seeming to take - a progressive position on issues in most predominantly black voting districts.  Running and legislating to some extent as a nominal progressive in such a district would hardly be inconsistent with higher political ambitions hitched to a more conservative, "vacuous to repressive neoliberal" world view. After all, one has to show a capacity to win electoral contests in order to be taken seriously by the power brokers who control access to upper-level politic offices. When Obama felt his longer political viability for statewide and even national (presidential) races threatened, he behaved according to the principle of calculation, as with the seven abortion rights bills he failed to support.  That's why Obama was missing in (non-) action when the big Chicago marches took place against the real U.S. assault on Iraq. 


 Intimately related to Obama's ambitiousness, tempered statehouse progressivism, his predilection for accommodation, and even to his remarkable apparent luck was and is his special proclivity for staying close to those with the great hidden secret to political success in the U.S. - money. He developed an early reputation "for drawing sustained support from Chicago's flourishing black-owned financial and investment firms," many of whose leaders "found common ground in Obama's Ivy League education, in social networks that crisscrossed the city and in an ethos that celebrated the accumulation of wealth - if," the story went, "it was used to address the broad inequities faced by black Americans." These pivotal early leading sponsors included Princeton graduate John Rogers (the fabulously wealthy CEO of Chicago's Ariel Capital Management), Melody Hobson (Ariel president), and James Reynolds Jr. (co-founder of Loop Capital Markets).

While Obama's early campaign capacities relied heavily on fundraising efforts with and by Chicago area black professionals and investors like, he moved into ever higher political finance circles as his career extended. He garnered $9,000 from investment advisor Barbara Bowels and $24,000 (for his U.S. Senate campaign) from Chicago Stock Exchange Chairman Andrew Davis and Davis' wife. Lucy Minor, the wife of Robinson Steel Co. chairman Edward Minor, told Chicago Tribune reporters David Jackson and John McCormick that she invited Obama for a "private visit over sodas" and "signed on the dotted line" with the large contribution. He also received significant start-up dollars from his close friend and patron Tony Rezko, a leading real estate developer and political financier whose later travails with corruption and racketeering charges would be a major embarrassment to Obama [41].

 And he worked closely with and took money from lobbyists and political action committees (PACs), key political players he would later join John Edwards in denouncing Hillary Clinton for associating with. As Tribune reporters Pearson and Long noted, state senator Obama was a regular at "The Committee Meeting" - a Wednesday night poker game attended by "about a dozen lawmakers and lobbyists." The game was held inside the Springfield headquarters of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the state's leading business lobby [42]. At the same time, state senator Obama "studiously took up golf," the well-known game of choice for businessmen and lobbyists, reporting to his friend and former foundation executive Jean Rudd that "an awful lot happens on the golf course"[43].

In Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate, Boston Globe reporter Scott Helman found, nearly two-thirds of the money he raised - $296,000 of $461,000 - came from Political Action Committees, corporations, and unions.  Obama also "tapped financial services, real estate developers, health care providers, and many other corporate interests." His 2004 Senate campaign received $128,000 from registered lobbyists and $1.3 million from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics [44].

Did it matter? By Helman's account, the story of the diluted Health Care Justice Act showed "how Obama's own experience in lawmaking involved dealings with the kinds of lobbyists and special interests he now demonizes on the campaign trail. Obama's willingness to hear out insurers and their lobbyists is revealing given the posture he strikes today on the presidential campaign trail - that lobbyists, insurance companies, and other big-industry special interests have an outsized and polluting influence on policy-making in Washington." "At the end of the day," Kim Maisch, Illinois state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, told Helman, "he realized that if he wanted to pass something, you have to work" with lobbyists.

 According to Chicago Tribune reporters Jackson and McCormick, moreover, Obama "advocated" in Springfield for the "network of politically active African-American money managers" he "built" in the late 1990s. He responded to the needs of some his key funders when he sat on the seven-member Illinois Senate Select committee on Public Pension Investments. The committee recommended ways to direct more state pension funds to minority-owned financial firms, including two black-owned firms that together gave Obama $16,000 during the three month time he sat on that panel [45]. 

 A recent Boston Globe report shows that state legislator and early U.S. Senator Obama acted to reward Chicago area real estate (under-) developers like the currently imprisoned Tony Rezko and current Obama for President advisor Valerie Jarret.   These and other leading "development" players combined to provide critical financial patronage for Obama's early career.  In return, Obama consistently supported their deceptive, self-interested efforts to advance "affordable" and "mixed income" dwellings as a solution to the inner city housing crisis [46]. 


 Speaking of big money and its role in the making of the Obama phenomenon, this is a good place to note that the Obama campaign's biographical narrative about the 2004 keynote address (which formally launched the Obama phenomenon four years ago this week) is deceptive in two critical ways.  In his bestselling, partly autobiographical, and deeply conservative [47] campaign book "The Audacity of Hope" (2006), Obama claims to remember it is as a complete surprise when John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called Obama and invited him to deliver the 2004 Keynote Address.  "The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me," he wrote. But "this," Washington Post writer Liza Mundy has noted, "seems disingenuous," since the Obama campaign had been told in advance that he was likely to get it and because Obama's campaign media manager David Axelrod had been lobbying directly for the assignment [48].

 The biggest problem with the Obama campaign keynote speech narrative is the way it deletes what we might call the ruling-class try-out that he received prior to his nationally broadcast introduction to the country and the world at the Fleet Center in Boston.  As Ken Silverstein noted in an important Harper's article titled "Obama, Inc.," "If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention."

 The corporate-financial-legal vetting of Obama on a national scale, with an emphasis on the critical money-politics nexus of Washington DC, began in October of 2003. That's "when Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton's presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event," Silverstein noted, "marked [Obama's] entry into a well-established Washington ritual­the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists."  Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and, of no small significance at the level of the political elite, his shining Harvard credentials, Obama passed this prior and hidden trial - a preliminary primary of wealth and power - with shining colors. At a series of social meetings and at least conference with assorted "players" from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama  impressed such key national political class members as Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the leading corporate law firm Venable who one of "the leading lobbyists in town" and a leading Democratic Party "power broker"), and Robert Harmala (another Venable partner and "also a big player in Democratic circles").   Reflecting standard conservative white and business class sentiments, Craig liked the fact that Obama was not seen as a "polarizer" on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Williams was impressed by Obama's reassurances that he was not "anti-business" and became "convinced...that the two could work together." "He's a straight shooter," Williams told Silverstein. "As a lobbyist, that's something you value. You don't need a yes every time, but you want to be able to count the votes. That's what we do."

 "There's a reasonableness about him," Harmala told Silverstein.  "I don't see him as being on the liberal fringe."

 By Silverstein's account, the  "word about Obama spread through Washington's blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March primary."  Contributions came into the Obama campaign at an accelerating pace. The "good news" for the political class was that Obama's "star quality" would not be directed against or against the corporate and financial elite in any significant way and that Obama was in fact someone the wealthy Few could work with [49].

 According to David Mendell, who would become Obama's Chicago Tribune shadow, the good feelings and money from the nation's political elite continued into the spring of 2004, reinforced by his victory over his white opponents in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate:

 "Word of Obama's rising star was now spreading beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses.  They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines... David Axelrod, Jim Cauley and Obama's influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats' set of power brokers...Obama spent a couple of days and nights shaking hands making small talk and delivering speeches to liberal groups, national union leaders, lobbyists, fund-raisers and well-heeled money donors.  In setting after setting, Obama's Harvard Law resume and his reasonable tone impressed the elite crowd. ‘Barack was nervous a couple times, but he wowed them,' Cauley said.  Obama gained the attention of liberal billionaire George Soros, who hosted a fund-raiser for him in New York.  Senator Hillary Clinton opened her home in Washington to him."

 "Reasonable tone" was code language with a useful translation for Obama's new elite business class backers: "friendly to capitalism and its opulent masters."  As Mendell notes, Obama cultivated the support of the privileged Few by "advocate[ing] fiscal restraint" and "calling for pay-as-you-go government" and "extol[ing] the merits of free trade and charter schools." He "moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment"[50].


 Obama's observers and chroniclers can theorize all they want about when Obama "lurched to the right" or even supposedly shifted from "the left" to "the center."  I'm agree with the assessment offered by Dr. Reed now [51] and eleven years ago [52]:  Obama was center-neoliberal and elitist from the start. There is no core moral, ideological, or philosophical discontinuity between statehouse Obama and presidential candidate Obama.  Behind the deeper continuity lay the consistent constants, noted by numerous of Obama's chroniclers and cohorts, of remarkable personal ambition and related "eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions."

 The folks who tell us that Obama is a "true progressive" posing as a centrist and waiting to jump out of a left closet in the White House have got it completely backwards. To quote the ruthless drug dealer Marlo Stanfield from Obama's favorite television show "The Wire." they "want it to be one way.  But it's the other way."  Obama is and has long been a dedicated centrist posing to progressive voters and activists as one of them.

 The sham continues at elite levels, even as some of Obama's false rebel's clothes are being stripped for the general election to expose his corporate-imperial nakedness to a growing share of an increasingly disillusioned progressive base. Even after finishing a useful investigation of Obama's early "eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions," Ryan Lizza childishly (or perhaps cynically) refers to Obama as "ideologically a man of the left"[53].

 This is a revealing statement of how dangerously narrow and right-leaning the dominant U.S. political order's spectrum of acceptable debate and discourse is at this stage in the evolution of corporate-managed "democracy" [54] - a topic for another time and place. Still, it's an old con and confusion in "American democracy, the best that money can [and did] buy." For all his claims to represent novel post-ideological  transcendence of the "old politics," Obama is no special exception to - and is in many ways an epitome of - what Christopher Hitchens called (in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton phenomenon) "the essence of American politics.  This essence, when distilled," Hitchens explained, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism"[55]. Relying heavily on candidates' repeated promise to restore "hope" to a populace disillusioned by corporate control, corruption, and inequality - a standard claim of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates - this  dark essence of United States political culture goes back further than the corporate-neoliberal era into which Obama came of political age.  It is arguably as old the Republic itself, always torn by the rift between democratic promise and authoritarian realities of concentrated wealth and power [56].

 Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

 Veteran left historian and activist Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of Empire and Inequality (2004) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007). His next book is "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2008 advance order at




1. Paul Krugman, "The Obama Agenda," New York Times, June 30, 2008. p. A23.

2. Paul Krugman, "Mandates and Mudslinging," New York Times, November 30, 2007. 

3. Barack Obama, "A Way Forward in Iraq," Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), available online at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/061120-a_way_forward _in_iraq/index.html; Barack Obama, "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs. org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html; Barack Obama, "Moving Forward in Iraq," Speech to Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, November 22, 2005, read at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/051122-moving_forward/; Lance Selfa, "The New Face of U.S. Politics," International Socialist Review (March-April 2007); Stephen Zunes, "Barack Obama on the Middle East," Foreign Policy in Focus (January 10 2008), read at http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4886; Juan Gonzales, Amy Goodman, and Jeremy Scahill. "Jeremy Scahill: Despite Antiwar Rhetoric, Clinton-Obama Plans Would Keep US Mercenaries, Troops in Iraq for Years to Come," Democracy Now (February 28, 2008) read text version at www.democracynow.org/2008/2/28/jeremy_scahill_despite_anti_war_rhetoric; Jeremy Scahill, "Obama's Mercenary Position," The Nation (March 16, 2008); Paul Street, "The Audacity of Deception: Barack Obama and the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion," Black Agenda Report (December 12, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=463&Itemid=1.

4. David Moberg, "Obamanomics," In These Times (April 2008); Max Fraser, "Subprime Obama," The Nation (February 11, 2008);  Doug Henwood, "Would You like Change With That?" Left Business Observor, No. 117 (March 2008); Paul Street, "Obama's ‘Shift to the Center' and the Narrow Authoritarian Spectrum in U.S. Politics," ZNet Magazine (July 1, 2008) , read at www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18052; Susan Davis, "Obama Tilts Toward Center," Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2008; Michael Powell, "For Obama, a Pragmatist's Shift Toward the Center," New York Times, June 27, 2008; Janet Hook, "Obama Moving Toward Center: Democrat Edging Away From Left on Some Issues in Effort to Woo Independent Voters," Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2008.

5. Barack Obama, "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs. org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html; Paul Street, "Running Dog Obama," ZNet (July 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/14853.

6. For unpleasant details and sources, see my following articles: "Obama's Audacious Deference to Power," ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm? ItemID=11936; "Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II United States Benevolence," ZNet Magazine (May 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928; ‘Angry John' Edwards v. KumbayObama," SleptOn Magazine (December 28, 2007), read at www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=1234-; "Obama Speaks: ‘Oh Great White Masters, you Just Haven't Been Asked to Help America,'" Black Agenda Report (December 19, 2008); "The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing and Why It Matters," Black Agenda Report (July 9, 2008), read at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?ption=com_content&task=view&id=695&Itemid=1

7. John B. Judis, "American Adam: Obama and the Cult of the New," The New Republic (March 12, 2008).

8. For useful accounts, see Janny Scott, "In 2000, a Streetwise Veteran Schooled a Bold Young Obama," New York Times, 9 September, 2007, pp. A1, A20; Liza Mundy, "A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years," Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007); Janny Scott, "At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical," New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1; Rick Pearson and Ray Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead," Chicago Tribune, 3 May 2007; David Mendell, OBAMA: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007); Scott Helman, "In Illinois, Obama Dealt with Lobbyists," Boston Globe, 23 September 2007; Bob Secter and John McCormick, "Portrait of a Pragmatist," Chicago Tribune, 30 March, 2007; David Jackson and John McCormick, "Building Obama's Money Machine," Chicago Tribune, 13 April 2007.

9. Ryan Lizza, "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker, July 21, 2008.

10. Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007

11.  Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

12. Mundy, "A Series of Fortunate Events."

 13. Mundy, "A Series of fortunate Events."
14. Janny Scott, "A  Streetwise Veteran;"  Pearson and Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead;" Janny Scott, "At State Level;" p. A1.

15. Scott, "At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical." 

16. Pearson and  Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead." 

17. Quoted in Lizza, "Making It."

18. Pearson and Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead;" David Jackson and Ray Long, "Obama Knows His Way Around a Ballot," Chicago Tribune, 3 April, 2007.

19. Scott, "At State Level."

20. Pearson and  Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead."

21. Salim Muwakkil, "The Squandering of Obama," In These Times, August 14, 2007. 

22. Mendell, OBAMA, pp. 249-51, quoted phrase on p. 250.

23. Pearson and  Long, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead."

24. Mendell, OBAMA, p. 250-51.

25. Scott Helman, "In Illinois, Obama Dealt with Lobbyists," Boston Globe, 23 September 2007.

26. Barack Obama,"Against Going to War With Iraq," speech delivered in Chicago, Illinois, October 2, 2002, read online at www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/02/28/7343/.

27. Jodi Kantor, "A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith," New York Times, 30 April 2007, p. A1. On U.S. foreign policy as context for terror attacks on U.S., see Johnson, Blowback. 

28. Carl Kaysen et al., War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives (Cambridge, MA: The Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, December 2002); Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004),  pp. 57-63.

29. Pearson and Long, "Careful Steps."

30. Lizza, "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."

31. Davidson is quoted in Adam Turl, "Is Obama Different?" Socialist Worker Online (February 2, 2007). Davidson's comment should not be taken to mean that Obama ever questioned whether the Iraq invasion was morally and/or legally "wrong." Obama has never publicly questioned the invasion in moral or legal terms. Davidson has nonetheless spent  hours (as part as his role as a leader of "Progressives for Obama") opposing my Left critique of Obamaism in the readers' comments section of ZNet this year.

32. Paul Street, "Kerry is Coke, Bush is Crack," ZNet Magazine (March 24, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=33& ItemID=5204

33. New York Times, 26 July, 2004.

34. Chicago Tribune, 24 July, 2004.

35. Janny Scott, "At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical," New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1.

36. Bob Secter and John McCormick, "Portrait of a Pragmatist," Chicago Tribune, 30 March, 2007.

37. Joe Klein, "The Fresh Face," Time (October 17, 2006).

38. Ryan Lizza, "The Agitator: The Unlikely Political Education of Barack Obama," The New Republic (March 19, 2007).
39. 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).

40. See Michael C. Dawson, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

41. David Jackson and John McCormick, "Building Obama's Money Machine," Chicago Tribune, 13 April 2007.

42. Pearson andLong, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead."

43. Janny Scott, "At the State Level, Obama Proved to Pragmatic and Practical," New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1.

44. Scott Helman, "PACs and Lobbyists Aided Obama's Rise," Boston Globe, 9 August 2007.

45. Jackson and McCormick, "Building Obama's Money Machine."

46. Binyamin Appelbaum, "Grim Proving Ground for Obama's Housing Policy," Boston Globe, June 27, 2008.

47. For an extensive critical review, see Street, "Audacious Deference to Power."

48. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006); Mundy, "A Series of Fortunate Events."

49. Ken Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's (November 2006).

50. Mendell, OBAMA, pp. 248-249.

51. Adolph Reed, Jr., "Obama No," The Progressive (May 2008). 

52. Reed, "The Curse of Community."

53. Lizza, "Making It."

54.  See the haunting and brilliant reflections of Sheldon Wolin in his latest book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

55. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 17-18. Also less than novel is the Obama campaign's exploitation and occasional pure embodiment of what might be considered a second great dark "essence of American politics": the tendency of candidates, party managers, public relations handlers, and media authorities to treat citizens as mere spectators by focusing elections on often trivial questions of candidate character and qualities over substantive matters and issues of policy, power, and ideology.

56. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition (New York, 1948), pp. 3-56; Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International, 1960); Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Paul Street, "By All Means, Study the Founders: Notes from the Democratic Left," Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies Volume 24, Number 4 (October-December 2003): 281-303.

from Michael Albert :
Date: 23 August 2008
Subject: The Future in Venezuela.

Which Way Venezuela?
by Michael Albert

The diverse factual reports and other data included are culled from documents made available by the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.S.

Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is exciting and exemplary, yet few people know much about where Venezuela is headed.

Misrepresentations abound. Data is limited and people interpret it in quite contrary ways. Information deficit plus skewed interpretations cause many people who ought to support the Bolivarian Revolution to instead doubt or even reject it. Useful lessons from Venezuela go largely unreported and thus have less than their widest possible effect.


Hugo Chavez became President in 1999 and in that year, largely due to the ravages of neoliberal reforms in the 80s and 90s, the Venezuelan poverty rate had reached 50%. The aim and promise of Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution was to not only eliminate rampant, raging, poverty, but to attain a new economic and social system consistent with the highest standards of human fulfillment and development.

In the 1999 constitution, Article 299, for example, emphasizes "human development" as the cornerstone of social judgements and Article 70 states that the "involvement of people in the exercise of their social and economic affairs should be manifest through citizen service organs, self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms, community enterprises, as well as other kinds of associations guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity."

But, as many skeptics would point out, words are not deeds, and you can find nice words everywhere - including, say, in the constitutions of countries suffering dictatorship and economic and social injustice, as but one example, in the constitution and other literary organs of the the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Words matter some, but they become infinitely more important and reliable as evidence if there are deeds in their support and particularly if institutional relations breathe life into the words every day

So what about deeds?

Bolivarian Policies and Their Meaning

According to Venezuelan statistics, "unemployment has decreased from 14.7% in 1999 to 7.9% in 2008. Employment in the informal sector has decreased by 6.4% during that same time. The number of people living in poverty has decreased from 50.4% in 1998 to 33.6% in 2007 and the number of those living in extreme poverty has decreased from 20.3% to 9.6% in that same period. The Human Development Index (HDI) increased from 0.72 in 1998 to 0.8 in 2007, and during that time, the GINI coefficient (a measure of economic inequality) decreased from 0.49 to 0.42.5."

These changes, and many more statistical indices that could be offered - tell us there have been monumentally important improvements in the lives of many Venezuelans. But are those improvements a sign of a revolution going down a path that will lead to worthy ends including classlessness, social justice, etc.? Or are the improvements a sign of a corrupt and rotten version of familiar social structures having some of their most egregious excesses reigned back, but with no likelihood for fundamental change? Or are the improvements a marker of revolutionary change that will wind up in rotten results?

By analogy, are the gains worthy and hopeful for a hugely transformed future? Or are they like, say, gains we find in the U.S. under FDR or in Sweden transformed by social democrats? Good, but not fundamental. Or are the gains a sign of a process, temporarily serving diverse popular interests to win allies, but headed toward untoward final relations, like the Bolshevik process?

Why is it that some people see an unfolding revolution that they feel will wind up creating a new society in Venezuela and a beacon for humanity more widely? Yet other people see an unfolding struggle within existing relations, already causing some very wonderful and worthy gains, but going nowhere much beyond that? And other people see a process that is doing nice things at the moment, but which they believe is going to inexorably devolve into familiar authoritarian outcomes that will, in retrospect, compromise it all?

Is it that some people have more information to go on? Is it that there is enough information for all, but some read it one way - and others read it another way due to priori expectations or greater insight? Or is it that the information is vague, and we all tend to read into it based on whether hope or fear is momentarily most active in our consciousnesses?

I think all these reactions happen - and regardless of which is dominant, I am certain more information of a probing sort, getting at the heart of aims and methods, would help.

According to the Superintendence of Cooperatives (SUNACOOP), in Venezuela, there were 910 cooperatives nationwide in 1999, while by the end of 2007, that number had risen to 228,004. According to SUNACOOP, the cooperative sector in Venezuela now represents about 14% of Venezuela's GDP, and accounts for about 18% of employment in Venezuela. Most of the cooperatives fall under the service sector (61.29%) and the production sector (27%).

But what do these facts tell us? No one could deny that they reveal an incredible dynamism. But about ultimate aims... people will have different reactions.

In one reading, the facts noted indicate that the reform effort to make life better for the poor against the mega rich has utilized coops - a good thing. But in this reading, these facts are not the stuff of revolutionary transformation.

In another reading, the facts noted indicate that Venezuela is on the road to fundamentally transformed economic structures - a true revolution. More, folks with this reading see a revolution not just concerning property relations, but also concerning the division of labor and methods of decision making and remuneration. They see that in a world situation complicated by both a lack of revolutionary aspirations in much of the Venezuelan population and a hostile international context, the Bolivarian process is taking critical steps on the road to profound and worthy revolutionary changes which still are, however, a ways off.

In a third read, these facts show only that in Venezuela there is an appeal to poor constituencies - and while the associated reforms are good in their proximate implications for those constituencies, they are part of fundamental changes which lead in ultimately bad directions along paths we have seen revolutions travel before. Chavez says the Bolivarian goal isn't twentieth century socialism all over again - but doubters say, sure, what did you expect Chavez to say? Where's the evidence?

How does one know which read makes most sense, or even have a truly informed estimate? We must know Venezuela's long term goals and methods as evidenced by structural lasting deeds. We must know how the changes taking place so far are viewed at different levels of society. We must know what steps the changes have involved and, even more so, what steps are in the pipeline to come? But we don't know these things. Do people who confidently say they know where Venezuela is going use tea leaves to read the future? More understandably, to they read into the future based on what they have seen elsewhere in times past - whether that is, for them, hopeful or fearful?

Looking Deeper

A report available from Venezuela points out that: "The rise of cooperatives began in 2001, with the Special Law of Cooperative Associations." It emphasizes the importance of the State in "promoting cooperatives through various mechanisms including education, improved access to financial services, direct tax exemption and the prioritization of cooperatives in public contracting" (Article 89). In fact, Venezuelan sources report, "economic growth accelerated in the year 2003 as a result of the implementation of these mechanisms through various state agencies."

For example, one of the most important programs in this regard was the creation of the Vuelvan Caras Mission in early 2004. In its own self description, "this state-run program offers both technical education, such as classes in agriculture, tourism or construction, and orientation as to what the Bolivarian economic projects are about." Rather incredibly, "between March 2004 and August 2007, over 670,000 people completed the program, resulting in the creation of more than 10,000 cooperatives by its alumni, more than 3,000 of which pertain to the agricultural sector."

Is this worthy reform but no more?

Is this the first moves in an inspiring journey toward a truly classless economic and social structure?

Or is this a sop to the poor while establishing a new class rule and even authoritarianism, using but then failing to fulfill poor peoples' support?

Different people see the events in Venezuela differently - but what is missing to decide with real confidence what we think, is more information about what the goals are, about the extent to which the goals are widely shared and owned by leaders or by everyone, and what the methods are and how they connect up to the goals.

"Vuelvan Caras" is one of 25 "social missions," or state-sponsored social development programs, currently operating in Venezuela "in diverse fields of human development such as education,health, culture and nutrition. They are a fundamental part of Venezuela's policy of redistributing wealth and making basic social services accessible to all citizens. Studies have found that the social missions contributed to a 9.9% decrease in the poverty rate since 2003."

But what the missions mean - writ larger?

When you compare the Venezuelan government's agendas and accomplishments to what, say, the U.S. government does for its less privileged and downright poor citizens, the contrast is incredibly stark. But still, having better government policies than the U.S. is not the same as having wonderful policies. So where is it going?

I am no expert, but my guess is if we were to look back at the New Deal in the U.S. we would be able to find, over a period of years, a great many comparable statistical achievements. Similarly, I am sure that if we were to look at the Bolshevik transition in the Soviet Union from one harsh and horrible system, to what turned out to be another, we would again see a huge pile of innovative and positive, albeit it in some cases temporary, gains. And I think we can also easily comprehend how a sincere effort to really transform a capitalist, patriarchal, culturally divided, bureaucratic society into something fundamentally oriented to human well being and development could involve diverse steps like those we see in Venezuela, giving am extensive list of short term gains, but most important also leading forward in worthy new directions. So, again, for Venezuela - which is it?

In September 2007, "Vuelvan Caras" continued under its new name, "Che Guevara," to emphasize the incorporation of new elements into its educational plan. "This new plan aims to educate students about the distinctive socio-economic models that have been evolving over time, including, for example, the Social Production Enterprise (EPS) which is model that has developed in Venezuela within the last few years." These EPSs are defined by the government as "economic entities dedicated to the production of goods or services in which work has its proper and authentic value, with no discrimination associated with any type of work, no privileges related to certain positions or hierarchies and with equality between its members, based on participative planning."

That certainly sounds very good - as words. But what about associated deeds? Are there really units being constructed that involve all actors in planning and decision making and that have real equality of material and social circumstance among members, including equitable remuneration? If there are, what is the make up of these units? What features do they have? What is the plan for those features to become core to the whole economy? Should we be optimistic about these innovations carrying forward? Should we be emulating lessons?

Venezuelans report - though almost no one outside hears the words much less critically engages with them - that "in practical terms, Social Production Enterprises represent an advanced cooperative model, where part of profits are invested into community projects."

Profits? How advanced is it as a real model for a better future, if there are still profits, albeit some enlightenment in their use?  "Today, there are at least 3,060 Social Production Enterprises in Venezuela, representing about 30% of the supplier contract value with state enterprises." If these are all internally on a path to classlessness, this is major news, to say the least. If these units are modestly improving internal and broader social relations with nice social policies, it is very good very good news, but unstable and short of revolutionary. If they are on the path to authoritarianism, then there are nice aspects, but no hope for a truly enlightened future. So which is it? Limited reform, careful but innovative and hopeful revolution, or careful but familiar and not too hopeful revolution?

Oil and Venezuela?

PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company, we are told, "has taken a lead role in bringing about the move towards a new socio-economic model. 10% of the investment volume of every project carried out by PDVSA goes into a social fund that is used for projects in education, health, infrastructure or the social missions."

This is a good policy, of course, but if Mobil in the U.S. did the same, under pressure or due to a very innovative administration, what would that mean? It would be good, but how good? The answer would depend on whether it was just a temporary policy or a step on a revolutionary path - and on where that path was going.

PDVSA, we are told, "is supporting endogenous (or inward-focused) development in Venezuela. By working hand in hand with the private sector, they plan to invest $56 million in 6 large development projects until the year 2013."

Private sector? And will that persist? And if so, will it eventually bring back all the old crap?

In Venezuela, gas for autos and other vehicles is subsidized so that the price of a tank of gas for your car in Caracas, for example, is a tiny fraction of what people pay in Boston, New York, London, or Rome. What is the logic of this policy - which is ecologically and socially backward in so many respects, but persists due to popular desire? What does not tackling the retrograde approach tell us, if anything?

In 2004, we are told, "PDVSA's national contracts were valued at $6 billion. Of this amount, 80% was concentrated in the hands of 148 firms. In accordance with the concept of participatory democracy in Venezuela, PDVSA made it a priority to democratize its supplier base, meaning that it opened up to the many small cooperatives prevalent throughout the country. This way, the state oil company fostered an endogenous model of development that is in line with Venezuela's social principals. By December 2007, PDVSA's supplier network included more than 3,000 Social Production Enterprises."

But, really, is this about fundamentally transforming the basic underlying structures of the economy - its property relations, division of labor, its modes of decision making, norms of remuneration, methods of allocation - or is it only about ameliorating the most egregious injustices while retaining old structures?

The fact that in their words, PDVSA "developed an extensive program around the inclusion of EPS, having hundreds of people work on the identification of supplier opportunities, a standardized EPS registration system, and an educational program aiming at strengthening social production enterprises and preparing them to do business with PDVSA and other government entities" is undeniably a massive social experiment that is at least, unto itself, extremely progressive. But is it more?

In its "EPS School," the potential suppliers "pass through three phases of socio-economic and technical education, receiving up to 760 hours of preparation, depending on the sophistication of the service to be provided."

But is this education about the techniques of oil provision mostly, or does it have a social and structural component building consciousness headed toward new social relations? And if the latter is true, what are the features and what success and problems are encountered?

We are told that "once an EPS has a contract with PDVSA, it commits itself to contributing about 3% of profits to PDVSA's Social Fund, which currently holds millions of dollars being invested in community projects."

Okay, is that a small step, but a step nonetheless, on the road to eliminating profit as a social category - or is it just a minor tax on firms, with profits still overwhelmingly in command?

Venezuelans quote from graduates of the EPS programs to demonstrate their impact:

"Today a dream is coming true for us. In the past, doing business with PDVSA was the privilege of a view large enterprises. Small companies found closed doors at PDVSA. This changed with President Ch?z...now it's the first time that small businesses are given the chance to participate as suppliers and partners of PDVSA, contributing in this way to the socio-economic development of our country....and we are feeling proud of this."

Is it just a program redressing gross imbalances? Or is it, beyond what the above person perceived - a program on the road to fundamentally transforming how production, consumption, and allocation are accomplished?

Programs Beyond Our View

Here is another bit of news from Venezuela I was sent. "Beyond the Social Production Enterprises, many other new socio-economic concepts have evolved in recent years, such as the "Nuclei of Endogenous Development" (NUDES)." How many people outside Venezuela had heard of that? I hadn't.

"In Venezuela NUDES are formed when communities discover potential projects, linked to a physical space in their surroundings (installations, factories, land) and organize in and around this space to carry these projects out. For example, various cooperatives might join to reactivate the area of an abandoned factory, reviving in this way a whole neighborhood and linking the inhabitants of this area to the activities of the NUDE, such as in the case of the Nucleus Fabricio Ojeda."

Again, you can imagine these efforts existing as a broad social democratic effort to improve the distribution of income, engender participation, etc., while maintaining the basic structure of society. Or you can imagine them to be part of a movement and process that will wind up in the old style socialist swamp. Or you can imagine them as a part of a rich and diverse process seeking something entirely new, true classlessness, real participation, even self management.

To judge which picture is real depends on knowing what is said, day to day, back and forth, by the people involved. Are the changes seen as tributaries of a growing tide - or are they seen as the whole point, themselves? Is the process coming ever more under the control of the populace, or is it centralizing outside the purview and influence of the populace?

We hear that, "a huge inventory plant in the neighborhood Catia in Caracas had been inactive for 12 years until the community decided to turn it into a NUDE. In February 2004, 330 persons formed 24 cooperatives for carrying out diverse construction projects in the nucleus and bringing the area back to life. Today, the Nucleus is a flourishing and active community center hosting more than 60 cooperatives in various areas and counting on important facilities and services such as health care clinics,  Misi?he Guevara, sports camps and pharmacies, just to name a few. Today one can find more than 100 NUDES in Venezuela including more than 950 cooperatives active in various fields and especially in agriculture."

Again, it is very clearly a vast and exciting social and economic project with extremely progressive implications. That much is certain. But beyond that, we still don't know.

"Social Production Networks are formed when a Nucleus connects with other Nuclei, or with cooperatives, EPS's, Socialist Production Units or any form of alternative organization to carry out activities for the benefit of the community."

One person sees in this New Deal innovation and dynamism. Another person sees in it positive programs which, however, will sooner or later be compromised by elite rule. A third person - okay, I am this person - sees an incredibly rich pattern of innovation which seems to auger truly revolutionary aims. What I see seems to be building up, slowly, on a base that was not highly politicized, and in a hostile international context, the infrastructure of new relationships in a kind of parallel economy and polity, that will be ready, in time, to challenge for the future of Venezuela.

Another innovative feature of the Bolivarian project - or revolution - depending on your opinion - are the Socialist Production Units. These "are companies run by the government and marked by extensive community involvement. UPS's are found predominantly in the agricultural sector, and they promote national agricultural sovereignty. Part of the profits of these companies is invested into community projects, which are identified jointly with local community leaders. In the long term, UPS's will ideally be handed over directly to the community and run as community enterprises."

Profit? Maybe it is just a word, referring to something other than surpluses accruing to private owners. And what of the internal organization of the "socialist" structures. Are they internally like the 20th century firms of Russia, say, or do they offer something new, or headed toward something new, at least? And if there is originality, what shape does it take? Does it address the division of labor? The norms of remuneration? The modes of decision making? The allocation relations to other firms and consumers?

For example, we are told that the UPS Agrimiro Gabaldon which was  "formerly a privately-run coffee plantation" was "forced to close down due to a drop in coffee prices," but "was recently inaugurated as a Socialist Production Unit." The report says that "under the new model, it extended its coffee cultivation area from 35 hectares to 96 hectares in the year 2005, and began selling its output mainly to public entities."

Okay, but did the plantation also alter its internal division of labor? Is it becoming democratic or even self managing? Is it becoming equitable in its approach to wages? Does it compete with other firms - or cooperate?

We hear that "thanks to the creation of these NUDES, Socialist Production Units, and Social Production Networks, an important number of neglected sites and companies have been revived, providing new jobs and linking local economies to local communities to carry out infrastructure and social projects."

In other words, the changes are occurring in firms and neighborhoods where things are virtually falling apart. Is this a wise strategic/tactical way to begin innovations, to make them seen, to develop support for them, and then to spread them? Or is it a kind of emergency method for dealing with horrendous problems, to be transcended later, by settling for more familiar and less innovative and participatory options when the worst problems are left behind?

We hear that "in order to strengthen regional economies and make them less vulnerable to financial crisis, the government of Venezuela has actively supported the rise of barter system and the creation of communal currencies throughout Venezuela. Currently, about 4,000 people practice bartering in 6 different regions in Venezuela (Yaracuy, Falc?Sucre, Nueva Esparta, Margarita, Barinas, Trujillo). Each has its own local currency. Agricultural products are mainly available for barter trade, and the practice fosters local agriculture."

This reveals that indeed some changes are stopgap and instituted only to deal with problems that wouldn't be present in a transformed future. Other changes, however, may be part of that future. Which are which?

We hear that "Communal Banks were developed hand in hand with Communal Councils, or elected neighborhood-based councils. Communal Councils oversee local politics and execute development projects geared toward improving the socio-economic status of their communities. The concept of Communal Councils is grounded in the Law of Communal Councils, which was passed in April 2006."

Is this a method for getting out of poverty with support from the population - or even beyond that is it the beginning of structures of local grass roots self management that will eventually override the apparatus of mayors, governors, president, etc.?

Communal Banks "are the financial arm of the Communal Councils. They are constituted as cooperatives and administered democratically by five persons elected to the Citizens' Assembly, which is the highest decision-making body of the Communal Councils. Communal Banks facilitate the flow of resources toward community development projects."

Is this an example of doing some good things with old structures? Or is it a step away from old structures and toward overcoming market logic and behavior, having investments and production and consumption determined by cooperative negotiations among producers and consumers? We need more information to have a solid opinion.

A New Type of Economy and Polity?

We are told that "according to the Ministry of Popular Power for Participation and Social Development, there were 19,500 Communal Councils in Venezuela by March 2007,  and the majority of them received funding from various ministries and state institutions."

Some would say local councils - venues for neighborhood folks to be politically involved - are little more than means for the government to poll a passive populace.

Others would say it is even worse, they are the infrastructure of state intervention and oversight of daily life, via snitches and the like.

Others would suggest, and I am in this last more optimistic camp, that these local structures are the beginning of an effort to build a completely new type of political system - for legislation, adjudication, and also, as per above, for implementation of shared programs.

In Venezuela you have the new, the incredibly new, the old, and the incredibly old - and you could replace the word new with progressive and the word old with reactionary and the sentiment would remain valid. It is not easy to navigate such complex phenomena, with limited consciousness present in the population, with media and finances arrayed against your endeavor, and trying to avoid open warfare and win change peacefully, and to simultaneously be forthright and clear at every stage about where things are headed. It is easy to empathize with the complexity and constraints and to understand why information is limited. Still, if possible, clarity would help win informed allies, supporters, advocates, and perhaps most important, would spur emulation elsewhere as well.

We are told that "by March 2008, the Ministry of Popular Power for the Communal Economy alone has approved more than $400 million to be handed over to 2,540 Communal Banks for productive projects. 1,533 of these banks have already received the whole amount assigned to them, and another 833 received part of the amount. With this money, 21.277 micro-credits were allotted to cooperatives and individual entrepreneurs.  Most is used for projects in the service industry, or in commerce or agriculture."

Okay, this is obviously very good by many standards, but is it revolutionary?

"By the end of this year, FONDEMI (the Microfinance Development Fund) plans to finance 3,000 more Communal Banks, distributing yet another $420 million for productive projects."

This is clearly also very pogressive, but will it lead to a temporarily enlightened and certainly better developed Venezuela which is still, however, fundamentally capitalist, patriarchal, etc.? Or will it yield a Venezuela that is socialist in the old manner - the 20th century style? Or will it yield, as Chavez urges, something new, a classless and socially just society?

We are told that "thanks to the thousands of community projects carried out by Communal Councils, many important initiatives such as street pavings, sports fields, medical centers, and sewage and water systems have been financed and implemented."

Is this the New Deal Venezuelan style - and like the New Deal likely only to revert to familiar shapes once crises are averted and development proceeding? Or is it a process using reforms as means of arousing support, but headed toward old socialism? Or is it a process using diverse reforms as means to enlist participation, comprehension, and creativity, not passive support but active participation, toward a truly new type society?

21st Century Socialism?

Hugo Chavez tells us he wants to build twenty first century socialism. He often decries market relations. He regularly excoriates capitalism. His innovative approaches to popular political and economic decision making via councils and his prioritization of radicalized health, education, and other human services via innovative public missions, inspire great hope. But beyond Bolivarian claims and short term policies, where is the Bolivarian Revolution structurally going? What are its main institutional goals and timetables? What are the methods it is employing and will employ to attain its ends? These are questions I think a lot of people need answers to if they are to have solid attitudes about Venezuela.

By self description Hugo Chavez is aggressively anti-capitalist, but what does that mean?

Regarding economics, for example, does the Bolivarian revolution reject private ownership of the means of production? Verbally it says it does, and likewise in many innovative structures - but what about the bulk of the economy?

Does the Bolivarian revolution reject markets? Again, verbally, yes, I think it does. More, internationally, it seems to already often conduct trade and international aid by cooperative negotiation that ignores competitive market dictates. This is wildly hopeful, not just for solidarity in Latin America, but as a challenge to the entire system of market exchange. But is there a path for transcending market relations writ large?

Does the Bolivarian revolution, as an aim, to be attained when able in light of growing consciousness and means, reject capitalistic remuneration such as people getting profit on property, or getting wages for bargaining power or even for output?

Similarly, does the Bolivarian revolution reject capitalism's typical division of labor in which about 20 percent of the workforce monopolizes all the empowering tasks while the other 80 percent does only rote, repetitive, and obedient labor?

Is the gigantic spurt of Bolivarian attention to innovative education - including not just literacy campaigns but also the Bolivarian University, etc. - meant to catch up to typical educational achievements of developed countries? Or is it meant to create a population able to control its own destiny rather than being ruled from above?

Given that Chavez is against particular capitalist institutions, does he have a feeling for what would replace them in a better economy? Do the other ministers of the government have visionary aims? Do the grassroots activists in the missions and coops? What about the broad public? How are aims to be generated? How are they to become widely advocated? How are they do won? Is there a path of innovation that can bring these features into play?

Put differently, if the Bolivarian Revolution is for twenty first century socialism, I wonder what that means? What is it about the old twentieth century socialism, for example, that Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution rejects? Is it central planning such as we saw in the Soviet Union? Is it markets such as we saw in Yugoslavia? Is it the typical 20th century socialist division of labor as we have seen it in Russia, Yugoslavia, and China, which is essentially the same as the division of labor we see in capitalism? Is it the norms of remuneration these socialisms have employed, which while they have jettisoned profit for property have retained payment for power and output? I hope and suspect it is all those things that are being dumped, but I don't know. And if it is, saying so would not only help people get excited about supporting the project, but would also inspire people to engage in similar movements elsewhere.

Similarly, in whatever ways Chavez disagrees with "twentieth century socialism," what does he propose to construct in Venezuela instead?  And more, beyond the President, to what extent do other Venezuelans have similar aspirations? To what extent will other Venezuelans, especially at the grassroots, help define outcomes and attain them?

A New Participatory Society?

Regarding the economy, does the Bolivarian revolution believe workers and consumers should have a say in economic decisions in proportion as they are affected by them - which would be self management? Does it believe self managing workers and consumers councils, not boards of directors or managers, should be the seat of economic decision making power in each workplace? Does it believe there should be decentralized and participatory planning by these workers and consumers councils, including a cooperative negotiation of allocation rather than top down command allocation or competitive market allocation?

Does it believe workers should be remunerated for how long and for how hard they work, and for enduring onerous conditions, but not for property, power, or even the value of output? If these features aren't part of the Bolivarian economic agenda, then what is preferred for Venezuela's future economy and why? When can such features appear in the state sector, in the coop sector, in the private sector? What are the hopes and plans?

And beyond the economy, Chavez has been very vocal not only about democracy in the polity, but about Venezuelans literally being able to have a say over their own social and political lives. Does the Bolivarian revolution reject, not only capitalist economics, but also the typical top down alienated approaches to government we see in the world today? Is the Bolivarian Revolution seeking something fundamentally different for politics with its grass roots assemblies, and if so, what are the values and features it prefers? Will these local assemblies be transmission lines for the will of rulers at the top? Or will these assemblies in time usurp mayors, governors, and the president himself, being the ultimate seat of political participation and influence?

Many international observers are worried there is a personality cult around Chavez. They site the lack of leaders who enjoy anywhere near as much popularity as he does and also slogans such as "Chavez is the people," "With Chavez anything, without Chavez nothing," or "Who is against Chavez is against the people." If these sentiments and the key role of Chavez is a necessary part of the early stages of transforming toward greater participation and self management, shouldn't their centrality and logic be better explained, and shouldn't it be very explicitly labelled an interim method, not a permanent goal?

Likewise, is there any exploration, as yet, of new approaches to law enforcement and adjudication? I would bet there are, but I have no idea. And wouldn't it be good for people to know, if we are to relate as more than voyeurs - and if we are to be able to dig in and try our own hand at related work? On the other side of the coin, human rights groups have criticized Venezuela's penal code saying that the 2004 reform of the penal code makes certain bad aspects of the penal code worse, such as its provision outlawing disrespect of government officials. Is such a clause really necessary? Why is it there? Why not get rid of it?

And does the Bolivarian revolution have a revolutionary agenda around gender issues and around race issues? Is it ultimately seeking only vastly better gender and race policies but within old structures, a major and profound gain, to be sure - but not the ultimate revolution in culture and gender we all desire. Or are there fundamental changes it seeks in underlying familial and cultural institutions? Policies protecting minorities and advancing the rights women women are exemplary. But does the Bolivarian revolution have ideas about what additional needed structural changes might be, and if not, does it have a method for arriving at potential ideas and then evaluating them? Is there to be that kind of participation?

I would also like to know about Bolivarian media, not least because there is so much confusion, so much ruckus about it. Venezuelan mainstream media are currently narrowly owned and controlled and in no way reflect the desires of the Venezuelan population. Indeed, to whatever extent they are able to do so, Venezuelan mainstream media are hell bent on hindering positive change. I wonder about the Bolivarian view of how media ought to be organized in a better future? And I wonder what the plans are for media in Venezuela.

It has seemed, from far away, that the Bolivarian approach to education, health, coops , and the media as well, and other areas too, has been to construct a parallel set of structures to what now exists - for example, the Bolivarian University, health clinics, thousands of coops, and a Bolivarian state run TV station and I bet a newspaper soon, too - with the idea that these new approaches will in time replace the old ones. Is that the plan? And is there concern that the arena in which this competition between old and new occurs is the arena of the market, which of course does not favor solidarity, sociality, etc.? And does this plan, this approach to discovering, refining, and then spreading new models, given all the difficult constraints it tries to navigate, do a sufficient job of enlisting the leadership of the Venezuelan people in the definition of their new society? Regarding media, for example, rather than a face off between private and state run, what place is there for grassroots community based and otherwise self managed media beholden to the public and its workers, but not owners or the state?

International Relations and Where is Venezuela Going?

As we all know, the United States routinely uses its wealth to bludgeon foreign countries in ways overwhelmingly aimed at preserving and enlarging the power and wealth of U.S. elites not caring a whit about the suffering this imposes on others. Venezuela also seems to be utilizing its assets in the international arena via initiating diverse trading patterns, grants, etc. I wonder what guides these acts? Why isn't it explicit - thereby providing a norm against which we can all judge international exchanges?

When Venezuela exchanges oil and other products with other countries, is the Bolivarian revolution intent upon exchanging at market rates, or does it have a different attitude about what ought to determine exchange rates, and if so, as certainly seems to be the case, what is it?

And finally, by way of understanding the timing of the Bolivarian Revolution, I wonder what Chavez and other Venezuelan activists expect to be the most important and exemplary accomplishments in Venezuela in the next five or ten years? And I wonder the extent to which Chavez's views and the views of other Bolivarian government officials, labor leaders, and grass roots activists compare with the views of the broad population? Is the broad public in synch with activist agendas or is it just watching - more or less as by-standing save in moments of crisis? Is the population ready to take initiative in advances or is it being pulled along without taking its own initiatives? And if the public is largely passive, what steps are in place to enliven public involvement and will they be pursued and pursued and pursued, rather than falling back on old models?

The above are just part of the kinds of concerns I have repeatedly heard from sensible and serious leftists about Venezuela. Clarifying may well involve strategic difficulties for the Bolivarian Revolution internally and on the world stage as well. But clarifying also promises a gigantic leap in interest from outside Venezuela and of active support at home, I suspect, as well.

The Brazilian path has been to moderate and accommodate and restrain not just communications, but also policies, in order to prevent massive external opposition. The price of that choice has been to dramatically reduce the worth of the whole undertaking. Hopefully Venezuelans will find a different way to ward off external assault. How about strength domestically and internationally, predicated on people knowing what is occurring and even being part of exploring option, choosing paths, and creating related and supportive commitments.

from Edward S. Herman :
Date: 17 August 2008
Subject: The cynical use of political power.

Aggression Rights and Wrongs
Vietnam in Cambodia; the United States in Iraq

by Edward S. Herman

A recent book by Michael Vickery, Cambodia: A Political Survey, dramatizes once again the fantastic double standard that operates in cases of cross-border attacks by the weak, and U.S. targets, and the strong, especially the United States. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, quickly defeating the Khmer Rouge and pushing its remnant forces into Thailand. Vietnam did this under considerable provocation, as the Pol Pot regime was extremely hostile to Vietnam, carried out a major ethnic cleansing of Vietnamese within Cambodia, and mounted a series of cross-border attacks that cost many Vietnamese lives. Vietnam's invasion was therefore based on, and a response to, serious Cambodian provocations. By contrast, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not based on actions by Saddam Hussein injurious to the United States. The Bush administration was obliged to construct a series of lies to justify the attack and occupation of a distant country, lies that had been crudely (and obviously) fabricated before the attack, which were decisively confirmed as lies in its aftermath.

Of course, both before and after the invasion of Iraq it had been alleged that as Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator ousting him was desirable and therefore in itself justified the invasion. But the same argument would justify the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, as Pol Pot had been furiously assailed as a mass killer and "another Hitler." In a politically neutral world his ouster by the Vietnamese would have been treated at least equally as a liberation and part of that "responsibility to protect" that has become a favorite of contemporary interventionists­in fact more so, as in the late 1970s Pol Pot ranked higher than Saddam as a killer.

But following the failed U.S. attempt to dominate Vietnam by military attack, that country was hated by U.S. officials who had actually cozied up to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in the last years of Pol Pot's rule, even while the U.S. and Western establishments continued to denounce that rule as beyond the pale. A useful indication of the shift was former U.S. official and Vietnam expert Douglas Pike's November 1979 reference to Pol Pot as a "charismatic leader" of a "bloody but successful peasant revolution." Thus, although there had been Western calls for forcible action against the Pol Pot regime when Vietnam proceeded to oust that regime, the United States­hence its allies, clients, and the "international community"­treated this as intolerable aggression. The view was that the government soon installed in Phnom Penh was a Vietnamese and illegitimate "puppet"­although it was composed of Cambodians who had been a political faction in Cambodia under attack by Pol Pot­and that it was urgent that Vietnam remove itself from Cambodia and allow an "independent" Cambodian government to be formed and rule.

What followed then was international condemnation of Vietnam, sanctions, a Chinese punitive invasion of Vietnam in February 1979, and a widespread refusal to recognize the new government of Cambodia. Cambodia's seat at the UN was kept for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the grounds of "continuity" with the old Cambodia (as the State Department informed Congress in 1982). Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, along with several other exiled Cambodian factions, fled to Thailand, were welcomed there, and their cadres were protected and funded by China, the United States, and other countries. The Khmer Rouge was free to make sporadic attacks on (and steal timber from) their former homeland. (Imagine the U.S. and UN response if Iran provided a homeland for an ousted Saddam Hussein faction that made periodic incursions into Iraq.) The design in supporting Pol Pot was to "bleed" Vietnam, as explicitly stated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The United States cooperated fully in this bleeding enterprise, even though it involved the huge hypocrisy of supporting "another Hitler" and imposed further injury on the long-suffering Cambodian people, about whom many crocodile tears had been shed while Pol Pot had ruled Cambodia.

[cid:part1.08050208.03080807@dccnet.com]Another part of the U.S. and allied design was to force Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia and to replace the government it had brought into power with one either closely aligned with the West or impotent. The United States succeeded in getting the UN and its allies to put enough pressure on the Cambodian government and Vietnam to force them to accept an election process that would replace the existing government. One problem with this solution was that the Cambodian government that was to be replaced was doing a credible job, despite the horrendous conditions that it inherited and the refusal of the "international community" to give any substantial aid to the badly damaged and slowly recovering country. According to a UN report of 1990: "Considering the devastation inherited from war and internal strife, the centrally directed system of economic management...has attained unquestionable successes, especially marked in restoring productive capacity to a level of normalcy and accelerating the pace of economic growth to a respectable per capita magnitude from the ruinously low level of the late 1970s."

Vickery claims that this new government also "made creditable progress in developing social services, health care, education, agriculture, and vaccination programs for children and animals." It also performed relatively well on women's rights and civil liberties, given the immediate background and in comparison with its Cambodian predecessors and nearby neighbors (like Thailand).

A second problem for Western interventionism was that Vietnam gradually withdrew its military forces from Cambodia and had them all out by 1989, in keeping with Vietnam's promises and contrary to Western assurances that Vietnam intended a permanent stay. This suggested that the Cambodian government no longer needed the Vietnamese military presence to govern and in another political context it might have raised questions about the need for foreign intervention to assure "independence." But all of this was irrelevant to the United States, which refused to accept a government friendly toward and influenced by the Vietnamese. That government had to be ousted, no matter what the consequences, and the experiences of post-ouster Guatemala (1954 onward) and post-ouster Nicaragua (1990 onward) indicated that the consequences could be painful and even disastrous to the indigenous population.

A third problem for the West was that Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (KR) was the most powerful faction across the border in Thailand and anxious to return to power. Not only did this not interfere with the effort at regime change, the United States and its allies actually insisted that the KR be one of the constituent parties that would take part in an election for the new government. The U.S. and its allies organized a Paris conference in 1991 to firm up a massive international intervention in Cambodia, with the supposedly regime-changing election to be held in 1993. This regime change process ended the progress made by the post-KR government by introducing neoliberal rules that cut back needed social programs, and via the deliberately splintering political arrangements that made the government more corrupt.

Amusingly, the electoral rules imposed to help weaken the power of the Vietnam-sponsored government, including proportional voting, succeeded in allowing that earlier government to retain preeminent power, although its effectiveness was reduced as it struggled in a more hostile environment. But the power of the KR, which had rested heavily on Western subsidy and diplomatic support, dwindled quickly, although its indigenous partners, now uneasily linked to the new government, maintained the KR's venomous hostility toward Vietnam and Vietnamese.

What has been called the "Nicaragua strategy"­with an international boycott and sanctions, a subsidized contra force attacking the target state and forcing it to spend resources on defense, and an election designed to finalize regime change­was used in the case of Cambodia and was partially successful: it succeeded in imposing a great deal of pain on the target population and terminated economic and social progress under a government opposed by the United States; but it did not succeed, as in Guatemala and Nicaragua, in fully effecting a regime change. The heavy costs to the Cambodian people resulting from Western (U.S.) hostility to the Cambodian government continues to today.

Vietnam did not have aggression rights so its occupation and the government that it installed had to be removed in the interests of international law and justice with the help of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

In the case of the U.S. invasion-occupation of Iraq, all the principles that affected Vietnam and Cambodia are stood on their head.

(1) Although in contrast with the Vietnam-Cambodia case the U.S. invasion was based on no provocation by the distant victim state, no sanctions were imposed on the U.S. by the UN or international community, and although "humanitarian interventionists" proclaim a newly accepted "responsibility to protect," no protection was offered the Iraqis from March 2003 to the present. David Rieff, George Packer, Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Thomas G. Weiss, Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-Moon and company have never called upon the world to intervene to protect the Iraqis­despite a million or more Iraqi deaths, over four million refugees, and a steady stream of Fallujah type assaults and massacres­although, according to Thomas Weiss of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the responsibility to use force to protect "kicks in...if a state is manifestly unable or unwilling to protect its citizens," as is manifestly the case with Iraq under U.S. attack and occupation.

(2) No demand has been made that the invader get out and the Security Council even voted shortly after the invasion to give the invader occupation rights (under Security Council Resolution 1546, June 8, 2003, which might be called the U.S. "pacification rights" resolution). This has not been altered even though the invader has made it plain that it intends to stay indefinitely with a gigantic embassy, a number of very large "enduring bases," and steady efforts to negotiate a long-term presence with the Iraqi government.

(3) No protest has been made that the government of Iraq, militarily and financially dependent on the occupation, is not truly "independent," and that independence would require the withdrawal of the occupation army and other conditions that might make an election free and meaningful (points forcibly made as regards the Vietnam occupation of Cambodia or as regards Syria in Lebanon).

(4) In the decisions on "surges" and debates about how long the United States will stay in Iraq, neither the conditions of true independence, nor the demands of international law, nor the desires of the Iraqi people, enter the discussion. (Polls there have regularly shown that the Iraqis, as well the U.S. public want us out.) These are decisions for the U.S. ruling elite, grounded in U.S. aggression rights and the cowardice and lack of moral force of the international community.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media critic.

from Tanguy Pichetto :
Date:" 16 August 2008
Subject: Fresh from the Middle East.

Dear Mr Feeley,
Here's a link to the website of some Irish activists who took action to disrupt an arm manufacturer's (namely Raytheon) "kill chain" (in their own words) during the 2006 war on Lebanon, with the aim of preventing the commission of war crimes and who unsurprisingly faced legal action by that company. The catchy thing here is that they came out of court not guilty.

This may set an interesting precedent for all those who may wish to act effectively to save fellow human beings from more artificial "birth pangs" from the neocon vampire nurses.


Also here's a documentary by Alain Gresh and Jean-François Boyer that was aired on "la cinq" tv channel entitled "le mystère hezbollah" that is an absolute must-see for anyone who's interested in the current dynamics of the near and middle-east. Personally I found that the information as well as the tone of this documentary were particularly interesting, and professional (well I guess that in these times of ours, the slightest bit of intellectual honesty that can be found in information-related works will make it appear as uncannily professional, but as for that very piece of work, I believe it really is.)

Any feedback on your personal and academic opinion on this documentary will be much appreciated.


Also included are two satyric al cartoons that you may appreciate.

Take care and I hope to see you pretty soon so we can discuss international events and trends if you have a little time to share.

Let me know when you are back on campus, & take care.