21 – Obama Meets Frankenstein (9 May – 09)

    The prevailing intellectual climate is not friendly to the notion that much of the time we do not know what we are doing, in the sense of producing results that diverge widely from what in all sanity we would have wanted to produce. Intellectually we have come a far way from remote ancestors who thought they could make sense of their reality by invoking “fate” or capricious gods who derived pleasure from playing with humanity. Enlightened thought has us acting as conscious agents.
     All varieties of liberalism – not the “leftism” of American political understanding, but the legacy of Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill – hold high the concepts of “agency” and “choice”. Especially in the United States these are taken for granted. American social science is steeped in them. Political thought on the most popular level treats them as given. The way in which our society is put together and how it works is the outcome of collective choice, our lives are lived as directed by conscious human agency; the one assumption contains, of course, the other.
    The currently influential school in political thought known as “rational choice theory” is an obnoxiously extreme example of this intellectual disposition. It is derived from the “rational decision maker” and “utility optimiser” in the dominant assumptions of so-called economic science. The ideological fashion of neoliberalism with its litany of personal responsibility, individual freedom, and open markets, allows for little that is accidental and not chosen. Understand me well: I am of course not against choice or agency. And I think that much of the legacy of liberalism forms the best among political thought we have. But when we look at liberalism not from a normative perspective, but from what it takes for granted, we soon discover that a lot of the time it is highly unrealistic as an explanation of things. It obscures the tragic dimension to our existence. And especially in the American tradition it leads to what we might call coercive optimism.
     When we run into obviously undesirable sociopolitical phenomena there is an urge to pinpoint those responsible for bringing them about. Villains are easier to deal with than the whimsy of invisible forces. We need conspirators. Marxism, as it was passed down on a popular level, became understandable through the cartoons of bloated capitalists with evil grins squashing helpless and exhausted workers. Noam Chomsky is famous for exposing conspiracies, the manufacturing of consent by the media for instance.
     These circumstances are, to say the least, not conducive to seeing our situation as the result of runaway blind forces, uncontrolled by anyone. Which is probably why the obvious possibility, likelihood even, that what needs to be set straight is beyond the capacity of president Obama is paid no significant attention in the general commentary on what he is not doing.
     In all the critical or apologetic commentary about what President Obama has not yet done, or perhaps will never do, one thought glitters by its absence: the thought that Obama does not actually have the practical control over government entities that theoretically are under his control. He has no choice but to deal with an existing political system containing powerful entities living a life of their own, pursuing purposes rather different from the ones for which they were designed, and entities that are entirely out of touch with reality.
     The notion of a system with a capital S is not welcome among editors and commentators; it tends to imply the for them unacceptable notion that the country’s democracy is merely a front. It reeks of Marxism, for one thing. This antipathy was brought home to me when I published my analyses of the Japanese System. This disposition is unfortunate. It prevents us from placing in perspective a great deal of political reality. In the case of Obama, today, it obscures the fact that some very important things he should be doing according to his most fervent supporters, and perhaps indeed would like to do, are simply not within what his experience has taught him to be the realm of the possible. The emphasis in current analyses has been mostly on a potentially recalcitrant Congress as the barrier that Obama faces, and the importance of spending his “political capital” on legislative fights he can win. So he has thrown himself on such things as health-care reform, repair of infrastructure, and “clean” energy, sufficiently big and ambitious in the eyes of many of his supporters and sufficiently promising of success.
     These are worthy goals, without question. But here Obama’s choices evade deeper problems that connect with the fundamental position of the United States in the world. You guessed it: the United States as an example and important leader of 21st-century capitalism (it still goes by the name of capitalism), and the United States as the bringer of military-backed order (pseudo order, if you wish) in the world.
     In this context it may be useful to linger a bit more over the notion of the System. “The System” is, actually, a fairly innocuous term, expressing simply the existence of components with established relationships to one another and fairly predictable patterns of interaction. It does not, by itself, imply the existence of a purpose or a function, other than self perpetuation. I use it to distinguish it from “the state”, which does have a function and purpose aside from self perpetuation, even though those may be the target of contentious political debate. You can see that this line of thinking brings us to a crucial and disturbing question. What might the function of the United States be if as a state it is , in the end, not directed by notions of the public good (the achievement of which is a function of a democratic state), but by a system that has dominating components over which the elected top representative has no control?