2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Obama, Imperialism and the Paradox of Plenty amid Poverty


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Michael Novick
Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education


In the 1950s and '60s, liberal and conservative social theorists used to speculate about the reasons for "the paradox of poverty amid plenty." How could we account for persistent and unyielding cross-generational poverty in certain sectors of the US population, when the US was the richest and most powerful country in the world? These 'thinkers' shared the assumption that the Empire was capable of endless growth, producing ever-increasing wealth. The idea that this horn of plenty could not seem to eradicate poverty even inside its own borders was a nagging perplexity. Neither school of thought could admit or even contemplate the reality that increasing wealth was extracted from, and in turn produced, increasing poverty. Nor could they begin to acknowledge the on-going process of race-based settler colonialism and "primitive accumulation" that characterizes the US Empire.

 Openly racial explanations were either too discredited or too embarrassing to allow in the era of the civil rights struggle and decolonization in Africa, Latin America and Asia. So the liberals and conservatives alike tended towards slightly different varieties of blaming the victim. Liberals focused on a lack of education; conservatives blamed sociopathic family inadequacy. These were two different sets of code for pinning the problem on Black women. Perhaps the fact that most of these social critics were well-educated and well-paid white men helps explain how this 'analysis' developed. Some lined up with JFK's New Frontier and LBJ's War on Poverty; others cast their lot with Nixon's "benign neglect" and later Reagan's "supply side" economics. Globally, the permutations of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism used imperial 'rule-making' and austerity measures, in combination with imperial saber-rattling and direct military intervention, to impose "solutions" that further enriched US corporate interests at the expense of the rest of the world.

Forty years on, we can begin to recast, in fact reverse, the nature of the paradox they attempted to explain - the paradox in fact is the existence of plenty amid poverty. This is the era of peak oil, limits to growth, and the environmental devastation of global warming, mass extinctions and oceanic acidification. Now it is clear that endless growth is a cancerous, destructive and unsustainable delusion. So the paradox is not why a few people insist on staying poor amid all the wealth. Rather, the paradox is how it's possible for a handful to become increasingly, obscenely wealthy when so many billions of people in the world, and the planet itself, seem doomed to misery and poverty.

Seen from that angle, the explanation is self-evident. All the wealth has been extracted from the masses of exploited and colonized people and from the biosphere of the planet itself. All the power is amassed by transferring it from the masses of oppressed and colonized people and nations into the hands of the oppressors and colonizers. Not really a paradox at all, it is simply the irreconcilable and inescapable contradiction that is at the heart of the system of colonialism/capitalism. The stratagems of liberal or neo-liberal, conservative or neo-conservative theorists and practitioners only serve to delay and increase the enormity of the inevitable explosive resolution of that contradiction through the expropriation of the expropriators and the suppression of the oppressors.

However, socially, culturally and politically, new paradoxes do seem to emerge in this stage of not merely moribund but necrotic capitalism. One that springs to mind is the paradox of how a Black man can emerge as the front runner for the Democratic nomination and the presidency, at the same time that a majority of all Black men in the US serve time at some time in prisons and jails. How is it possible that simultaneously with the nation-wide spread of nooses at high schools, colleges and workplaces - when the noose is a symbol of mass white complicity in racist terror through lynchings - that a Black candidate for president would garner compelling majorities in predominantly white states? Yet really, the two phenomena are flip sides of the same coin, the desperation of the doomed social system of settler colonial empire and white supremacy. It is not uncommon in the history and life span of empires that in their decadence and senescence, they seek rejuvenation and a new lease on life by conferring the imperial throne on someone from the ranks of the colonized. Neither is the last-ditch, die-hard turn to reactionary violence and terror uncommon, particularly among settler-colonial societies that see the handwriting on the wall, such as in the Reconstruction-era South, "French" Algeria or Rhodesia

The notion that Barack Obama is to any degree the candidate of a "movement" is a measure of the degradation of both language and politics in the period since the defeat and disorientation of the revolutionary struggles of the 60s and 70s through COINTELPRO and other counter-insurgency warfare. It is not racist to compare the Obama candidacy to Jesse Jackson's reformist Rainbow Coalition campaigns in the 1980s. Doing so makes it immediately clear that Obama is simply a youthful, charismatic and rhetorically gifted speaker and a conventional politician. He has never challenged or opposed the Empire or even its most retrograde and reactionary sectors through any form of mass action, militance or grassroots organizing and resistance during his entire career or in his current platform. Jackson, for all his personal flaws and political reformism, at least came out of a massive social movement, and attempted to unite various opposition sectors beginning with poor and working people. Jackson staked his campaign on voter registration of the disenfranchised, unity among Black, Mexicano, Asian and white workers. He actually had success in winning some white 'Reagan Democrat' workers in places like Michigan, because he created a pole of attraction by uniting significant movement sectors of people of color and by speaking out forcefully against unfair privilege and advantage.

Obama, on the heels of massive electoral fraud and ongoing disenfranchisement directed against Black people, of the institutionalization of thuggishness in the Republicans and spinelessness in the Democrats, presents himself as a post-racial, post-partisan "unifier." Democrats who spent eight years praying for someone who would stand up to and stick it to the Republicans are now falling head-over-heels for someone who presents himself as a paragon of bipartisanship. This only serves to underline the deeply delusional nature of a belief in the efficacy of the US electoral system to produce any meaningful or significant change. Supporting Obama allows people who are not prepared to acknowledge or break with the system of white supremacy and settler colonial empire the ability to feel that they are color-blind and have transcended racism. Thus their extreme discomfort with Hillary Clinton and her "injection" of race into the race. Aren't we beyond that?

Obama, conveniently for Euro-American society, answers the paradox of poverty amid plenty - he 'proves' that poverty, particularly Black poverty, is the fault of the poor - while allowing the privileged to ignore the paradox of plenty amid poverty. Perhaps more pertinent than the comparison to Jackson would be one to Cynthia McKinney. McKinney fought back ferociously against Black disenfranchisement, opposed US support for Zionist aggression, questioned the official story of '9-11' and opposed gentrification, mass incarceration and the locking up of political dissidents and Muslims. As a result, she was twice ousted from her Congressional seat, and her campaign for the presidency via the Green Party receives scant media attention, all of it negative. By contrast, Obama politely opposed the war in Iraq when he could do little officially, and has done little officially against it since he could. As the war enters is 6th (or really, 16th) year, he now proposes to withdraw 'combat' troops - not all US forces. So he is the Democratic front runner. To get there and stay there, Obama has had to discipline and/or distance himself not only from Farrakhan but even from his own wife and his spiritual advisor. John Edwards has had more to say about New Orleans than Obama. George Bush, for that matter, spoke out more forcefully about the spate of nooses in the aftermath of the Jena Six case than Obama did. Is it possible to even imagine Obama drawing attention to the selective prosecution and set-up case of the Black Rider 3 in Los Angeles, or calling for a moratorium on the incarceration of Black and Mexicano/indigenous youth, or speaking out against the unparalleled increase in police killings in Los Angeles and around the US? Would Obama use his candidacy to draw attention to the Winter Soldier hearings organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, let alone support active duty resisters inside the military? Obama asks us only to put rage and resentment behind us, and trust him.

It's noteworthy that Obama's candidacy has in fact failed to stimulate an outpouring of Black voters from the ranks of the poor and dispossessed. He is winning high percentages of the Black people who cast ballots, but the new voters he is drawing to the polls have come not from the poor Black masses but from young college graduates, predominantly white. His candidacy is a manifestation of the class divide that has opened inside the Black community between the downtrodden, dispossessed poor and the stratum that has been given a degree of entry into positions of status and wealth within the corporate economic and political system. Where once relatively well-to-do Black people functioned in relationship to, and drew their support and their wealth from, the Black masses, perhaps serving as interlocutors between them and white society, today's so-called Black bourgeoisie owes its status to separation from the Black masses and incorporation into the white power structure. We have moved beyond the 'house negro/field negro' distinction drawn by Malcolm X, to a distinction between Black overseers, managers and consiglieres of white property interests on the one hand, and Black lumpen, super-exploited and current, former and future prisoners on the other.

The smart money in the Empire is betting on Obama in hopes that he will prove clever enough, charismatic enough and capable enough to pull their chestnuts from the fire, to buy a little more time for them to maneuver. This is a pipe dream. The decay and disarray of imperialism, particularly that of the US Empire, is too far along to be easily surmounted (in which case Obama may then serve as a convenient fall guy if he does win). The paradox of plenty amid poverty is reaching its over-extended conclusion. No amount of "confidence-restoring" infusions of credit or monetary tinkering with interest rates will solve the ballooning crises of the US economic system, because the crisis is not one of confidence - it is a crisis of the disappearance of wealth and productive capacity. The bursting of the housing bubble and the inevitable toppling of the rest of the house of cards derived from it is because the median-priced house is now far beyond the capacity of the median-income family. No amount of gentrification and no amount of sub-prime lending can create a market that will sustain the unsustainable. If there is no market for housing, because oppressed and exploited people cannot afford to buy, the price will collapse. Speculative flipping, interest-only loans, and packaging of mortgages into financial instruments have only made the collapse more colossal and damaging to the entire financial and banking system. In an economic system whose growth sectors are prisons and health care, in which most productive capacity has been exported abroad to take advantage of super-exploited labor in China and India, and where even high-tech, high-value service jobs have followed the flight of capital, Obama has no solutions to offer. He will not deter US aggression against Iran or China

The oppressed, colonized and exploited inside the US must take responsibility for our own survival and future, in the first place by making common cause with the oppressed, exploited and colonized around the world, and by learning from them. We need to apply the methods of horizontal organizing, of environmentally-sound food production, of factory and land takeovers that are developing in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We need to recognize that those who rule this society - those who benefit from the paradox of plenty amid poverty - are our enemies. White supremacy, neo-colonialism and other forms of privilege within the empire will only bind us to a sinking ship and take us down with it. It is time to make a break with illusion, and end our identification with the Empire and the oppressor. We need to begin to strategize now, not how to ensure Obama's election, but how to deal with the Empire if Obama indeed becomes Emperor.


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