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Viewing Obama through a Marxist Lens

Dick Flacks
May 27, 2011

by Dick Flacks

“The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

— The Communist Manifesto

I thought of this statement while listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address and the neighborly talk he gave shortly afterwards to the Chamber of Commerce (COC). Understanding Obama in this light illuminates the political “contradictions” within the United States today, and suggests some space for democratic movement in the struggle to win the future.

In the COC speech, the President was seeking to “repair” relations between his Administration and “the business community.” Centrist pundits suggest that Obama has thus moved to the center, away from the dysfunctional so-called leftism of his first two years. Commentators from the left, on the other hand, see the President as pandering to the corporate and financial elite in another display of his lack of courage.

Let’s take both Marx and Obama seriously and suggest that the President is actually trying to fulfill the highest function of the executive of the capitalist state. That function is not, according to Marx, simply to bow down to corporate interests, but to manage the common affairs of the whole capitalist class.

The individual investor and corporate executive will seek to maximize profit and expand their wealth. A government that is driven by such goals will surely get the enthusiastic backing of those investors and managers. But Marx’s famous formulation doesn’t say that the role of the capitalist state executive is to serve individual greed. On the contrary, the President’s central role is to define and manage the shared interest of the class.

What we’ve been experiencing since the Reagan years is that the greed of particular corporate sectors and super-rich players are undermining capitalism itself. That’s the situation that Obama inherited. The power of pharmaceutical and insurance corporations has blocked an effective universal healthcare program that is needed for other American corporations to restrain costs so as to compete globally. The power of giant energy corporations has blocked an effective program to promote clean energy, needed to avert the costs of environmental disaster and to promote domestic economic growth. The power of huge financial corporations has blocked the effective investment in infrastructure, technology and innovation needed for economic growth.

Obama’s COC speech appealed to the assembled business elite to fulfill its “responsibility” to the U.S. “Today,” he said, “American companies have nearly $2 trillion sitting on their balance sheets.” A primary cause of our massive unemployment is that failure to invest. Yes, he sketched a program that ought to make such investment appealing — but he wasn’t bowing down to corporate interests. Rather, he was warning that business-as-usual will yield growing anxiety, disillusionment and anger in the American population, and threaten the system itself.

Obama is confronting the “whole bourgeoisie” with a choice: Be responsible, or face consequences. And he is betting that a sufficient proportion of them will sign on to his agenda. The result of that will be to isolate the Republicans electorally, if they split over Obama’s managerial agenda or succeed in frustrating it.

That agenda is basically the following:

  • Infrastructure investment (and a government bank to manage it): Obama has already announced a $50+ billion high-speed rail program, a large tax-credit plan favoring electric vehicles, and breaks for the nuclear power industry. The emphasis is on alternatives to fossil fuel, which may have a large impact on economic growth, job creation and climate change. Such a program is hoped to attract private as well as public investment. It’s a program that has the support of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce but not the Republican Party.
  • Corporate tax reform: Obama touted this as a way to reduce corporate tax rates, but the purpose will be to plug major corporate tax loopholes and increase actual revenues from the corporate sector.
  • International trade agreements: These will serve globalization but embody provisions that protect U.S. labor and environmental standards while revitalizing American exports.
  • Education investments: These will upgrade community colleges, make college more affordable and raise support for K-12 education.
  • Implementation of healthcare reform despite the crazed objections of the right.

Obama’s agenda provides a good deal of space for grassroots activity on the left. His promise to reduce deficits will require getting out of the current wars and cutting the military budget. The size and character of his infrastructure investing will be affected strongly by popular pressure. His emphasis on education can be met by a progressive coalition that opposes the disastrous adherence to market-oriented education policies of testing, authoritarian control, and stratification, and understands education to be not merely dependent upon teachers but embedded in social and economic environments.

The Wisconsin uprising is evidence that lots of people are ready for grassroots action. The spark for such action is the rightwing threat to hard-won rights and cherished social programs. Old Karl would be telling us to contemplate the potentials for ongoing class struggle — and his archaic language seems exactly right for the time we are in.

Dick Flacks, a Jewish Currents contributing writer, is emeritus professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara. His many writings on U.S. social movements include Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He hosts a weekly radio show, “Culture of Protest,” aired on Thursdays, 6-7 P.M. EST, at KCSB, and is coauthor with Rob Rosenthal of Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (Routledge, 2010).