The Clare Spark Blog

December 1, 2012

“Populist” radicalism and Obama

Black Jesus poster

Black Jesus poster

A spirited discussion broke out on my Facebook page over a recent article in the New York Times characterizing Thomas Jefferson as a “monster.” (http://tinyurl.com/d6cnc3o.) During the course of the discussion, I decried hatchet jobs in general, pointing out that there was usually a lurking target that was not obvious to the reader. For instance, in the case of Jefferson and slavery, the historian author (Paul Finkelman) might be solely interested in Jefferson’s racism and moral failures regarding slaveholding, or there might be a larger agenda:  namely the post-60s campaign to regard the Founding Fathers and the framing of the “aristocratic” Constitution as morally tainted, with subsequent Americans battening off their ill-gotten gains. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/10/30/collectivism-in-the-history-establishment/. )

As I have written frequently, for leftists and left-leaning corporatist liberals alike, America is seen as essentially racist, sexist, imperialist, and anti-environment. In other words, we not only fail to historicize the individual and intellectually diverse Founders in their 18th century context, we are reiterating the most virulent Soviet and even Nazi propaganda. (In the latter case, it was held that Jews controlled the US, pushing it to such atrocities as the extermination of the Aryan-like indigenous “Indians,” or, during WW2 and more recently, Nazis and their sympathizers argued that Americans were fighting what was in effect a war that solely benefited “the Jews.”)

Since the election that re-elected “the first black president,” I have seen much gloom emanating from Romney supporters. I myself have suggested that there is something proto-fascist about the current direction of our country, while others declare that POTUS is a straight out Communist/Third Worlder, seeking to destroy America, aiming at its very foundations as a free market society.

Both these pessimistic, if plausible, views are speculative, but perhaps we can get more precise if we understand the rationale behind “petit-bourgeois” radicalism (populism), both as it has existed in “middle class” America, and as an explanation for Hitler’s base in the so-called Mittelstand (i.e. the lower middle-class in Germany, dominating the working class and resentful of the haute bourgeoisie). For after WW2, liberal journalists and academics seized upon the petit-bourgeoisie as responsible for Hitler’s rise to power, stressing their mobbish susceptibility to propaganda and the class resentments that Hitler exploited so effectively. Unfortunately, they ignored the conservative nationalists who put him in power, and even worse, structural continuities with Weimar social democracy and Bismarckian strategies against the rising German Left. Instead, they depicted Hitler as crazy and/or as a failed artist/thug, and explained his popularity as the effectiveness of images and propaganda in general. (This was the legacy of German Idealism that held images to constitute “reality,” a view that ignored institutions and other structural and cultural factors.)

Young James H. Cone

Young James H. Cone

During the period of my life starting in 1969 at Pacifica Radio and on through getting my doctorate (1983-1993) and then shopping my expanded dissertation (1993-1999), I watched the direction of the civil rights movement/the women’s movement that had stirred me out of somnolence during the 1960s. What stunned me was the success of upwardly mobile persons of color and women in climbing the ladders of academe, the media, and to some extent, in business and the professions. What I was not prepared for was the failure of the integrationist project in favor of cultural nationalism and even black supremacy as urged by such theologians as James Cone and his allies in the Chicago Democratic machine. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hal_Cone.) I was even more startled to see that black nationalism had pretty much taken over the civil rights movement by the mid-1960s (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/, or https://clarespark.com/2012/11/09/race-and-the-problem-of-inclusion/.)

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now

What does this have to do with Obama’s character and motives, open or hidden? We might do better to see him as an ambitious petit-bourgeois radical, i.e., a populist, rather than as either a fascist-in-waiting or a communist. Like his wealthy liberal supporters, he protects his own reputation by attacking [Republican] elites as the originators of “inequality,” while he satisfies his minority constituencies by increasing public sector employment and supporting teachers unions who promulgate the anti-American history curriculum described above. The aim is to instill liberal guilt and hence unquestioning support of the first black president, even as he moves toward dictatorship and reverses prior economic positions that gained him support as a “moderate.”

But keep in mind that although Marxist-Leninism supposedly focuses on the working class as the agent of revolutionary socialism, there is a strong populist appeal to this ideology, for instance in the demonization of “finance capital.” (See https://clarespark.com/2012/08/05/hating-finance-capital/.)  For more on populism see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/16/perceptions-of-the-enemy-the-left-looks-at-the-right-and-vice-versa/. And right-wing populism was undoubtedly the decisive factor in Hitler’s rise to power and to popular support for his entire regime.  I remain worried about the transition from populism/progressivism to full-throated dictatorship, call it what you will.

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