Friday, April 20, 2012

Evita, I need you: Obama our Juan Perón

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
                          Barack Obama
The Party of Justice understands that the function of politics is to raise the grievances of the people and convert them into concrete acts of government.
                                       From the Partido Justicialista  -- founded by Juan Perón

Barack Obama bears a passable resemblance to the Latin demagogue and wrecker of Argentina, Juan Perón, in both style and substance. Perón used the descamisados, the “shirtless ones” to symbolize his affinity with the marginalized elements of Argentina and to justify a war against the rich and advantaged land owners.  Obama has recently identified himself with the shirtless “Occupy Wall Street” protestors against the “One Percent.”  Like Perón, he appears to believe that the economic and social problems his people face are best solved by identifying, isolating and punishing the greedy and well-off – the bankers, oil companies and corporations. 
In his recently published book, Redentores: Ideas y Poder en America Latina, the Mexican historian Enrique Krause writes of  Perónism: “Perónism was certainly the first populist regime in Latin America.  It has at least three defining features:  vertical mobilization of the masses; a tendency to place social resentment above the nation’s productive energies (with disastrous economic consequences) and a cult of the leader, in this case Juan and Eva.” * 
The Perón-Obama resemblance lacks only a contemporary Eva, but Obama’s monumental egotism and his unfailing self-adulation might fill this void.  At the age of 47 he had already published two autobiographies. In fact these two books about his favorite subject were the only pieces he has ever authored notwithstanding the fact that he is routinely touted as a “constitutional law scholar.”  The President’s “scholarship” has yet to be discovered anywhere in writing.
The 2008 campaign was America’s first experience with the launching of a “cult of a personality” for one of its own.  In spite of a blank resume with no legislative accomplishments, no executive experience, no serious intellectual or scholarly endeavors and no reservoirs of wisdom gained from national-level, tested political engagement the freshman Senator from Illinois virtually overnight catapulted to the heights of a rock star with all of the glamor and excitement typically associated with new celebrities.  His campaign appearances became media extravaganzas with his special podium designed to look like the presidential seal, a speech given among fake Greek columns in a football stadium, vast mesmerized crowds and swooning young women. Like Perón, Obama was a man of political theater.
Not only were the young people and the Hollywood-limo set smitten with The One.  He was instantaneously crowned by the media establishment as a colossal genius, a miracle man who would heal the deep wounds inflicted on the world by George W. Bush and Dick Chaney.  Evan Thomas, Assistant Managing Editor of Newsweek declared on television that “Obama is like a God standing above the country and a great teacher.”  “Great teacher” with its intimations of superhuman cognitive superiority was one of the standard panegyrics favored in an earlier era by the liegemen of Joseph Stalin and the CPSU controlled press. The Obama campaign was throughout greeted on the media side with Pravda-like rhapsodies from the Obama-smitten commentators.   
After the 2008 election the adulation from the media continued unabated. The new president was immediately compared with Lincoln, FDR and JFK. Presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, on national television was heard to bluster:  “whatever one’s partisan views this is a guy whose IQ is off the charts…”  When pressed by Don Imus who was interviewing him – What is his IQ? -- the Ivy League, sterling-credentialed professor had to cough, gulp, and finally confess that he did not know.
No one, however, was more smitten with Obama than Obama himself.  In one of his many soaring orations during the Presidential Campaign Obama predicted that his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal…” a signal of this man’s vast and swollen ego and his delusional perception of his capacities to massively restructure the world that were fed by his entourage of sycophants and groupies.
Once elected, the President was everywhere on news shows, talk-shows, sports shows, late-night television, magazine covers, sharing his persona and imparting his wisdom and advice on every conceivable subject from sports to child rearing to science education. The Norwegians immediately awarded him a Nobel Peace prize for not being George W. Bush and the American now had their very own Caudillo, a self-proclaimed authority on every aspect of American life.
Never was there a greater distance between the rhapsody and the real.  “Hope and Change”, as vacuous as it was cynical, was an anodyne for the largely apolitical middle-America, a successful ploy to convince them that Barack Obama was a wholesome, earnest “change-agent” far above politics as usual.
Obama’s entire career in fact has been shaped and driven largely by resentment and a feeling of being “the other”. Resentment is what makes Obama, Obama.  One merely needs to peruse a few pages of Dreams from my Father to realize that the President’s view of the world growing up was shaped by a deep sense of anger and grievance out of which sprang a life-long affinity for associations with mentors, in writing and in person, with their own highly polished and richly articulated views of America’s many iniquities. The title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope was taken from a sermon by Obama’s spiritual guide of many years, Jeremiah Wright, a gifted professional purveyor of the harshest sort of racial hostility and bitterness.
Obama managed to dissimulate his own resentment during the campaign. His wife, Michelle, in a momentary lapse of candor let it slip when she commented that America was “just downright mean,” that she had “never been proud of her country” until her husband had become a leading Presidential candidate.
Out of this long festering resentment the President has fashioned a Peronist political style that vilifies “the rich” and exploits racial and social grievances.  We’re gonna  punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” he told his supporters shortly before the Congressional elections of 2010 in a radio interview that aired on Univision. This was the same man who as a candidate had assured prospective voters: I'm not going to demonize you because you disagree with me....  I don't think the Democrats have a monopoly on wisdom.”   Sometimes President Obama just cannot suppress his “inner-Perón.”
Punishing your enemies and rewarding your friends is the standard modus operandi for every gangster-led governing clique. What Perónism adds is the moralizing cover of Robin Hood – take from the rich and give to the poor.   This is very popular with the poor, of course.  One problem with this is that it is the political bosses who decide who is rich and who is poor and how to even things out just right,  how to make it all fair. Fairness is the demagogue's tool for converting resentment into righteousness. The other problem is that in the long run everyone but the bosses and their friends who represent the poor end up poor.
 Using a populist-oriented “fairness” rhetoric as a guise, Obama practices a Caudillo-style politics distributing money, jobs, and political access to his friends, union bosses, and political supporters, spurning legality, tradition and the “transparency” he promised to be the hallmark of his administration.  One of the more spectacular examples of this was the move the President made in 2009 to set aside the normal Chapter Eleven bankruptcy proceedings for GM to restructure its debt using a special set of proceedings crafted by his party men that stiffed the GM bondholders, rewarded the UAW for their political support and put GM under federal control.       
Nearly fifty years after Perón’s death, the Peronistas still rule over the Argentines and carry on with the “loot-and-reward-your-friends” approach to government that Obama has regularized as his own form of statecraft. The current kleptocrat-President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has just announced her plan to nationalize YPF, Argentina’s largest oil company.  YPF belongs to a Spanish parent company, Repsol, and has operated in Argentina for decades.  S&P’s Rating Services has already lowered Repsol’s long-term credit rating.   Repsol wants ten billion dollars in compensation for what Cristina is taking.  She scorns the request and refuses to pay. Why should she?  Repsol is a big, rich corporation, part of the one per cent, one of the enemies that Obama would like to punish. The Argentines want the company. Who cares anyway about bond holders?  Shearing bond holders is a Peronist tradition. Kirchner has already taken over the national airline and confiscated billions in what were private Argentine pension funds.  She is very popular
Pollster Scott Rasmussen notes that Obama’s support is highest among those who earn less than $20,000 and those who earn more than $100,000, a base that splits between the poor for whom he stokes envy and the well-off who feel guilty.  He too is popular. 
Before November of 2012 Americans might want to look more closely at Argentina as it is today and its history over the past sixty years.  They could be seeing their future.

*From Enrique Krause, Redentores: Ideas y Poder en America Latina, Random House, Mexico, 2011, 313.
“El peronismo fue seguramente el prémire regimen populista de América Latina. Lo caracterizaron al menos tres rasgos: movilización vertical de las mases, tendencia privilegiar la demanda social por encima de las energía productiva de la nación (con desastrosas consecuencias económicas) y, sobre todo, el culto al líder, al caudillo, en este caso a Juan y Eva.”       

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ideologues versus philosophers – Lenin versus Russell

“The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.
         V. I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism

How does one distinguish an ideologue from a philosopher?  The question is complicated somewhat by the fact that our most “accomplished” ideologues have employed the work of philosophers and passed themselves off as philosophers.  Lenin, of course, immediately jumps to mind.  His entire mental universe was built on the centerpiece of late nineteenth-century German metaphysics, the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx.  Lenin ‘s venture into technical philosophy, his book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, was conceived, in his own words, “to seek for the stumbling block to people who under the guise of Marxism are offering something incredibly baffling, confused and reactionary.”* 
 Written in 1908 nearly a decade before Lenin’s Bolshevik party had overthrown the Provisional Government, his sectarian impulses for this philosophical production are clearly evident in this concise delineation of his authorial motives.  Here we have the priestly, pastoral Lenin guiding his vulnerable flock, steering them away from the precipices of alluring, but false doctrine, and ultimately, the chasm of … reactionary thinking.  He alone could navigate the narrow path of true Marxism and steer away from the baffling and confused detours into its perversion.   Lenin from his earliest moments could always sniff the odors of Marxist heresy that marked the reactionaries and their enablers.
From this also it is not difficult to parse evidence of the two connected core elements that compose the soul of the ideologue; Lenin’s likely being the purest of them all. First, the ideologue is “the knower”**, but a knower of rare and remarkable powers.  He has penetrated a reality hidden from others, resisted even.   Moreover, that knowledge confers an entitlement of a very special kind, an entitlement to exert an unrestricted power over others.  Thus, the second core element of the ideologue’s soul – a relentless quest for power over the lives of other people.  
The entitlement claim to power is derived from the “hidden” nature of what the ideologue knows.  Which in its simplest form is:  the wrong people are in charge. They exploit. They oppress, and they pretend to be entitled to their privileges.  However, this ugly reality is largely hidden from view. The power possessed by the exploiters has long been legitimized by a false knowing, a “false consciousness”, as it is commonly expressed, which embraces the entirety of the society’s cultural heritage.   The laws, religion, art, science altogether compose a vast superstructure that represents both the natural and social world in ways that makes the undeserved power and privilege of ruling class appear natural, reasonable and acceptable.  This hidden knowledge as well is a repudiation and rejection of the wisdom and experience of the social order that is in place.         
         The ideologue-knower is thus entitled to power because (a) unlike most others, he sees through the false rationale of legitimacy that supports the wrong people who are in charge, and (b) by virtue of this knowledge he represents the people who should be in charge.  Resistance to the ideologue-knower is immoral because he alone is determined to transform the status quo of corruption and misery into a new era of virtue and happiness.
Compare, however, the ideologue, Lenin, to a philosopher, Bertrand Russell.  Russell, like Lenin, was also a man of the Left and a critic of capitalism.   Bertrand Russell traveled to the Soviet Union in 1920 during the early days of the Bolshevik consolidation of power with a group of British socialists to observe the progress of socialism which they hoped would be a more humane and equitable system than capitalism.  Russell was, so to speak, “a friendly critic.” Upon his return he wrote a short but amazingly insightful book about his experience and encounters with the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin. This short book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism wonderfully illustrates the difference between an ideologue and a philosopher.
  While sympathetic to the goals of the revolution in Russia, Russell, unlike Lenin, never claimed to be a “knower.”   Russell captured in his own inimitable style, Lenin, The Knower:  “He is dictatorial, calm, incapable of fear, devoid of self-seeking, an embodied theory…. He resembles a professor in his desire to have the theory understood and in his fury with those who misunderstand or disagree….  I got the impression that he despises a great many people and is an intellectual aristocrat.“***
Two items stand out in Russell’s picture of this “embodied theory” of a man:  his fury with those who might disagree or dissent from his opinions, and his general loathing for the bulk of humanity. Lenin could not begin to conceive that what he believed about the unfolding of history, the emerging modern world, and how a society should be ordered might be mistaken or confused -- thus, the fury with dissent and the disdain for the “great many people” unable to comprehend the gnosis that he had long ago intuited and that defined his entitlement to rule over demos and reorder their lives. Lenin lived in a rigidly dichotomous world populated by the self-appointed clique of illuminati (historically destined to rule, they asserted) and all the rest of humanity who would do what they were told.        
In his preface Russell states the profound difference he sees between himself and with Lenin and Bolshevism.  “Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures.  When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Lenin. He [Lenin] is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs … which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty.  This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook. I believe the scientific outlook to be immeasurably important to the human race.”***         
Russell here captures the atavistic and primitive features of Lenin’s intellectual universe.  “Militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters” was the essence of Leninism.  Lenin was above all else a ferociously driven fanatic, convinced of his omniscience, obsessed to rule over others --   Unlimited“ power above all law,” as he himself put it.
         The obsession with power is what distinguishes an ideologue from a philosopher.   Russell’s embrace of the “scientific outlook” with its premise of skepticism suggests a suspicion of power. Ideologues crave power: power makes philosophers nervous. Russell recognized in 1920, a mere three years into the failed seventy-four year Soviet experiment, that the Bolsheviks were deluded about what they were and what they thought they could do.  “They think themselves utterly free from sentiment, but, in fact, they are sentimental about Communism and about the regime they are creating; they cannot face the fact that what they are creating is not complete Communism…”*** Russell mentions one of Lenin’s first “initiatives” – the CHEKA and its unlimited power. “It has spies everywhere, and ordinary mortals live in terror of it.”***               
       Lenin, as noted above, was a fanatic. Leninism was fanaticism institutionalized and operationalized across the planet throughout much of the twentieth century by men – Stalin, Mao, Castro, and others – who like Lenin were ideologues, men who claimed unlimited power over others because they “believed that they knew.”   

*V. I. Lenin,  Selected Works,  v. 11, 90.
**Lenin does not know that he believes. He believes that he knows.” From: Alain Besancon, The Rise of the Gulag: Intellectual Origins of Leninism, New York, Continuum, 1981, 9.
*** Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 1920, 19, 5, 37.