"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Anger is not Enough

Is the president really trapped? Is popular anger even worth noticing?

Populist outrage can only be a force in American politics if it is possessed of a critique that cannot be easily undermined by the corporate media. In order words, popular outrage can only act as a force for change if it is informed outrage – anger that includes an alternative vision of how financial power could be organized and administered.

What we are currently experiencing is quite different. The media campaign over AIG bonuses is a classic diversionary maneuver. It focuses public anger on a tiny 165 million in bonuses while the 200 billion dollar transfer takes place without objection. After some ritual legislation, the outrage over bonuses will be vindicated and the massive transfer can take place unnoticed.

As Greider accurately portrays it, “many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens.” Yet his very characterization betrays the progressive removal of that role from the citizenry over a period of many decades. Most have long since succumbed to a purely private vision of their role in society and have no model for the role of a public citizen. As David Michael Green put it recently, “Just as in Orwell's ‘1984’, the most powerful effect you can have on people is not by physically limiting their behavior, per se, but instead by getting them to limit themselves in terms of the concepts they are even capable of entertaining.” - David Michael Green, “Barack Obama and the Altar of Greed”, March 20, 2009.

Anger is not enough because anger can be quickly redirected toward new targets when it is convenient. Greider perpetuates the fantasy of citizen action in declarations such as “Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street.” But how, exactly, can the people intervene? Writing forceful letters to their congressional representatives? Do they even notice such campaigns anymore?

The Obama campaign is a perfect illustration of the realities of American democracy today. He was elected in one of most successful political advertising campaigns in recent memory, largely paid for with Wall Street money. To invoke Obama’s “independent base of support” as a possible counterweight to his Wall Street sponsorship is to confuse cause and effect. The advertising campaign had a deep understanding of the dissatisfaction of the public and used that to garner mass public support. The size of his “independent base of support” demonstrates outstanding marketing effectiveness. This doesn’t mean that those targeted by the campaign are not sincere in their admiration for Obama.

But unfortunately it does mean that they cannot act as a coherent political force. Obama understands this and his efforts are focused, as he says, on redirecting that anger: "I don't want to quell anger. People are right to be angry. I'm angry," he told reporters on Wednesday. Then he pivoted: "What I want us to do is channel our anger in a constructive way." This is precisely the role of the Democratic Party – to act as a lightning rod for those social forces that could push for fundamental social change and redirect them into safe channels where they can help prop up the current order.

Greider accurately characterizes the objective sought by the Obama administration: “Whatever the intentions, this ‘reform’ would effectively legitimize the existence of a corporate state. This concentrated power would be neither socialism nor capitalism, but a grotesque hybrid that combines the worst qualities of both systems. Government and politics would become even more responsive to big money, but also able to tamper intimately with private enterprise, picking winners and losers based on political loyalties, not on performance. Capitalism with its inherent tendency toward monopoly would have the means to monopolize democracy.” Obama’s actions indicate his true loyalties.

Mobilized citizens are indeed the answer, but who will do the mobilizing?

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