Barack Obama and Organizer Consciousness

By now it is a familiar trope that Lenin is to have stated that the workers do not on their own achieve a Communist class consciousness, but cannot without intellectual input from the outside achieve anything but ‘trade union consciousness’. As he put it in What Is To Be Done?:

The history of all countries testifies that workers left exclusively to their own strength can cultivate only a trade union consciousness– that is the belief in the need to unite into a union, struggle against the bosses, press the government to pass needed labor legislation, etc. The doctrine of Socialism grew out of philosophic, historical, and economic theories which were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia.1

If we accept the merits of this thesis, perhaps the same can be said of politicians. After all, in those countries that have the name of being democratic, politicians are generally accepted to represent their constituents, whoever those may be. Often those constituents are a great medley of different classes, sub-classes and interest groups, but that does not diminish the truth of this principle. This means in turn that the level at which their politicians operate depends also on the level of consciousness arrived at by their constituents; for example, in settler nations, white workers at a low level of consciousness vote for right-wing and racist politics, whereas at a high level of consciousness they vote for exclusivist social-democracy and reformism, the so-called ‘social fascism’. However, we may readily assume by analogy of the above thesis, which seems well-enough confirmed by historical experience, that the politicians operate at a higher level of consciousness in theoretical terms than their average constituency does (which is likely true even in tyrannies). After all, they are not only on the whole better educated and so forth, but also tend to be professionals with significant experience molding the stuff of politics – and politics itself is a great tester of theories and whittles many a blunt notion into a sharp understanding.

In countries like the United States, where politics is dominated by two great, if sometimes barely distinguishable, alliances of interest groups, lobbies and clientele, this principle is all the more relevant. With so many different groups being represented by the Mahayana of the Democratic Party, it is inevitable that those politicians which are not directly in the pockets of one or another interest or for parochial reasons (for example due to the district system) have one clear constituency, will have to juggle the different groups’ interests, play them against each other, and strive to obtain a certain ‘average’. In the cowardly American media, always ready to garner valuable attention by making great headlines out of minor political affairs but equally frightened of any challenge to the establishment upon which it is parasitic, the inherent ‘moderation’, ‘centrism’ and ‘stability’ of this function of the American system has been much praised. What has been less noticed however, besides the enormous resulting corruption and stock-jobbing, is the need for high-ranking American politicians and in particular the President to learn a strategy for managing politics beyond the actual interests of his constituents. This is in particular true for the Democratic Party politicians, since their party represents a much greater number of constituent groups and less defined ones at that, since more often than not the party functions as the party of non-reaction, much like the similarly named Democrats did on the continent in the days of 1848. The Republican Party is easily summed up by the interests of the military, industrial capital, the religious bigots, and certain threatened sections of the white petty bourgeoisie and white workers, but the Democratic Party represents ‘everyone else’, which makes great demands on the consciousness of the President and Congress in times when the pendulum swings in favor of the latter party.

Such a time is now, with the newly elected President Barack Obama having just finished his first 100 days in office, which in American political lore is considered an important milestone. Already he has earned the well-deserved ire of the progressive forces in the United States for his wavering, his reluctance to push through any of the greatly necessary social and economic reforms (from abolishing religious bigotry in the armed forces to uprooting the extortionist healthcare system), and his seeming lack of recognition of his strong historical position vis-à-vis the right. Yet it is too early to support declaring him the black incarnation of Andrew Johnson, since many of his critics do not yet seem to understand what his consciousness is and where it comes from, unlike in the case of the latter.

In Barack Obama’s case, much can be learned about his political consciousness from his background as a professional agitator in Chicago, which in the usual sugary euphemisms of American parlance is called a ‘community organizer’. In this work, Obama has been much influenced by the great paradigmatic figure of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s approach to political activism has been laid down in his standardwork Rules for Radicals, which he published in 1971, one year before his death.2 In this book, we find the prescriptions that Obama is still taking to heart and which infuriate the American left wing, especially its more impatient and skeptical segments. Obama, for example, always prefers using the rhetoric of ‘trusted American values’ rather than the rhetoric of challenge to establishment (other than the political core in Washington, which is a poorly disguised way of rejecting the other party only), as he describes in his political statement and autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.3 In this book, Obama describes how he tired of being on the left-wing, arguing against imperialism, and desired to reconnect to ‘the values of my grandparents’, and so on and so forth. Whereas this does no wonders for anyone’s impression of his political courage and constancy, his ardent desire to drape any real desire for political reform he may have in the colors of the American flag is quite like Alinsky’s commentary on a similar note:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates with the experience of his audience – and gives full respect to the other’s values – would rule out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations.4

It is not immediately clear whether we are to believe that Alinsky truly subscribed to this patriotic showmanship or merely had a cynical impression of his fellow citizens, but in any case this well describes the patriotic timidity of the Obama administration. Even when they have all the cards in their hand, as they do now, the Democratic Party is always deadly afraid of the patriotism trump being played against them, because they know that even the workers of an empire such as the American one are bound to see their own strength as being bound up with the strength of its patriotic institutions. Alinsky’s emphasis on “working within the system”, on the sequence of organization-reformation-revolution (which he understands in a very broad sense indeed) fits precisely the mold of the professional organizer of communities, one who is striving to build up power out of weakness and who has little political material to work with.5

That is not to say that this organizer’s consciousness is of itself problematic; on the contrary, it is of the greatest use for any political party or movement, especially the Communists, to have people capable of grasping a political situation, to work within that situation to organize power, and to not let themselves be baited either by authorities or by impatience into adventurism and posturing. Obama, however, shows that within the Democratic Party, especially the supposed ‘left wing’ to which he was said to belong (much was made of this during the campaign by his opponents, who thereby revealed their incompetence at measuring from which side the wind was blowing), is not capable of transcending this organizer consciousness. Even when in an exceedingly strong position, they are unable to make any decisive moves or reforms. They are essentially a political equivalent of the trade union consciousness: forever trying to make inroads against a system which by their very attempts at doing so they strengthen, because they play within their bounds and are not capable of challenging the rules of the game itself. Only when those rules themselves are fundamentally challenged does change, Obama’s campaign theme, truly become possible, but the Democratic Party cannot do this without destroying the system of spoil-sharing with the Republican Party. Therefore, if Obama is to become a transformer of American politics, he must first transform his party’s consciousness, and this he cannot do.

1. See: V.I. Ulyanov (Lenin), “What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement”, in: Collected Works (Moscow 1961), Vol. V, p. 347-530.->
2. Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York, NY 1971).->
3. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, NY 2006).->
4. Alinsky, p. xviii.->
5. Alinsky, p. xxi.->

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