Imagine it is January 2, 2011.
Imagine that Barack Obama has been President of the U.S. for two full years.
Finally, imagine also that the following interview with Obama takes place on prime time TV, as a way of situating what has occurred over those two years and also to foreshadow what is forthcoming.
And since this is all make believe, let’s make believe the interviewer’s name is Barb Walt.
I believe what follows is not an absolutely impossible scenario for all times, though I don’t believe it will happen in the next two years. I don’t believe Barack Obama will take office with the views that I here place in his mouth or with the courage to act on those views I attribute to him. But I could be wrong, and of course I hope I am, and more importantly, it could happen another time.
I know that a great many people, unlike me, believe that Obama is absolutely sincere about empowering the working people, women, minorities, and young people of America, even at the expense of those with wealth and power.
Against all evidence of Obama’s own words, of the forces he is beholden to, of the inclinations of the “experts” he is welcoming into his administration, of the system preserving pressures he feels every day, and of past U.S. history – many people have an elated feeling that this man will transform the country. I fervently hope they are right, but think they are wrong. I offer this essay to indicate what I think would justify their outlook.
Obama will be transformative, or not.
That’s a given, like it will rain tomorrow or not.
Either: like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Barack Obama will be a man elected into office with major elite backing, who when he became President was only a sincere reformer, but who was then polarized by elite resistance and inspired by popular activism, to become much more.
Or: unlike Chavez but like every past American President, Obama will not evolve into holding more radical views, will not stand up to conforming pressures, and will not learn from activists, but will instead oppose us.
Since many Obama voters anticipate the former outcome, the imagined interview below reveals what it might be like if things turn out as they hope. It describes what having a radicalized president with great courage might be like.
But if the future holds no interview remotely like the one below, and no Obama transformation remotely like the one described, and no President-inspired uprising like that reported, and if instead Obama becomes an eloquent mainstream solidifier of elite stability, then it will mean Obama has fallen way short of his supporters’ hopes, and it will mean it is incumbent on all who wanted a much more transformative outcome to keep pushing Obama’s administration and to keep building the activist means to move forward even as Obama becomes more of an obstacle than an aid to the task.
Which way will it turn out?
Will Obama galvanize efforts to transform society including becoming a movement builder against elite opposition?
Or will Obama settle into office as a system sustainer, defending elite agendas with only modest (albeit important) variations from recent administrations?
We will see.
Below, we see what the transformative scenario might look like. My point is that we should push as hard as we are able to make the transformative path real, but we should also persist in our movement building even if Obama is more obstacle than ally.
Barb: Mr. President…
Barack: Barb, please, don’t call me that – call me Barack. I think that “Mr. President” stuff is a throwback to Royal pomp. We should get beyond that…
Barb: Okay, sorry, Mr., er, Barack. To get started – I would like to understand your plans and hopes now, but also where you and the country have been over these past two years, and where you are now going. Can you start by telling us your broad goals as they were when you took office, two years ago?
Barack: Sure, Barb, I can summarize my aims as they were then…
Barb: Good, let’s consider it a historical record. After the summary we can address recent changes. How about we start with health care?
Barack: It was my feeling when I took office that a society that doesn’t provide health care for all citizens is dysfunctional. I mean, what would you say about a family that took care of some sick members, but told others, too bad, make do?
And if everyone in a family wanted to take care of all members, except an old curmudgeon granddaddy who said screw those who can’t pay, clearly that old fuddy duddy’s perverse opinion would be ignored, right?
So, by analogy, I felt we should treat all citizens like members of a diverse family, with everyone entitled to health care. And I felt if we raised the moral tone of the country, the curmudgeons opposing universal health care would be ignored.
I also knew health costs were climbing so fast the financial crisis we recently endured would be minor compared to the distributional crisis that would ensue if we left the health system in its prior condition. So I intended to ensure full coverage, but at a cost within our social means, by having everyone together take on the responsibility.
I intended to increase the number of caregivers, reduce their incomes to a sensible level, and in particular, put a low lid on pharmaceutical companies, health care facilities, or other involved firms profiting off disease.
I thought we should have vastly more clinics, too, because how else would people, and especially the poor, have easy access to timely and excellent care.
And, I have to say, I also always wondered, what the hell is the purpose of the incredible pressure that is put on interns? What logic justifies the debilitating hours they are forced to work? I thought that was no way to provide health care, much less to train capable, sensitive doctors, and you know, Michelle in her hospital work, had similar impressions, but I didn’t know what we might do about it.
Barb: What about employment?
Barack: My view about jobs was why should someone who wants to work not be able to? Why should one person be working full time, or even very long hours at multiple jobs, and others not working at all? Why not share however much work needs doing more equally, to everyone’s gain?
I also thought if someone doesn’t have the literacy or other training needed to do work, that would be a fair reason for their not having a job except that almost always a training or knowledge deficit isn’t a revelation about the job applicant, but about a society that denied a capable person of the learning he or she should have had. So I felt that we should redress educational denials rather than penalize their victims with unemployment.
I also wondered why some people suffered very harsh and demanding work conditions, even degrading, dangerous, and damaging conditions – while other people enjoyed much better and sometimes even uplifting conditions. And the former even got less pay. In other words, why did some people work so long and so hard for so little, while other people got off much easier and were paid way more? Was this moral? Was it good economics? I had my doubts.
So, I wanted, even two years ago, full employment plus being sure that people had education and training to enable them to do their jobs well and, down the road, perhaps we could also take a look at how and what people got paid for their efforts.
Barb: Public schooling?
Barack: I wanted the next generation to get an excellent education in a nurturing, supportive, and enjoyable environment. And I wanted the people responsible for conveying that education well provided for, both with equipment and wages. I didn’t want kids bored and intimidated at school, but, instead, inspired and uplifted. No more warehousing; I wanted real teaching.
I knew that richer districts historically had better schools, due to the tax base difference, and I was dead set against that. What sense did it make to have a gap in income between neighborhoods made larger as time passed, rather than being diminished as time passed?
So even on taking office, I rejected saddling youth in poorer neighborhoods with deficits while youth in richer neighborhoods enjoyed advantages. I wanted to universalize the best education.
I also thought we ought to do something for older folks who wanted to make up for prior gaps in their schooling. To have a society with as much functional illiteracy as we had, some say well over 50% of us can’t read a book, was wrong, and should be redressed as a high priority.
While we are on education, I also thought we should make higher education accessible to all who could make good use of it, and simultaneously enrich higher education to graduate the most enlightened and skilled generation we could.
I thought, like many other problems, that our lagging science and our general educational malaise was simply a function of the decades of slash and burn market fundamentalism since Reagan, and certainly those policies did greatly aggravate the situation, but I also had an inkling of a larger insight because I didn’t understand how even Republican market worshipers could not be horrified by the horrendous results of their policies. It was one thing to be wrong, fair enough. But how could they persist despite seeing the horrible schooling that resulted?
Barb: What about your initial take on the legal system?
Barack: Here I knew from lots of personal experience, mine and Michelle’s, that the legal system was a mess. Lawyers and prosecutors, in civil and criminal cases, were engaged in a kind of demented dance, driven more by cronyism, favors, crowded dockets, and prejudice, than by seeking justice, much less rehabilitation, and the price for this dysfunctional chaos was almost always paid by poorer and weaker defendants, not by those with wealth and power.
The criminal justice system was harsh, uncaring, racist, classist, brutal, often without even a semblance of logic. Everyone knows it. In fact, the prison system seemed to me to be almost a school for crime, not a means of redressing and reducing crime. But I didn’t have much notion what to do about it, except, on one front.
Thus, even two years ago, I knew that having the gargantuan levels of arrests that we did, largely for victimless crimes, was horrible for those criminalized and also wasted huge resources in a gargantuan prison system that was eating funds that could go to education, housing, etc. I thought we should look at European procedures and by emulating them we could avoid imprisoning people for victimless crimes, at no loss in justice or prevention.
I knew prison guard unions would oppose reducing incarceration rates, unless we provided new jobs, so we would have to do that too, of course. But I admit I dismissed as paranoid the grass roots formulations I constantly ran into that said, wait, the harsh criminal justice system in poor neighborhoods aren’t just irrational bureaucratic gargoyles. They impose control and repression that prevents the poor from rising and taking a greater share of society’s wealth. Later, I learned from the poor, rather than considering them ignorant.
Barack: I had no really significant notion of how to do law making differently, even after having served in the Senate, but I did know we had to attain much higher popular participation in lawmaking and redress the power imbalance between normal citizens and lobbyists for the rich and powerful.
We needed some way that everyday folks could have more say, more oversight, more comprehension, but I didn’t have good ideas about what the steps toward that might be.
Barb: Distribution of wealth?
Barack: Perhaps you remember this becoming a mantra for McCain near the end of the campaign? I found it a bit absurd, I have to admit, and yet in retrospect McCain did have a point, though it was a point I didn’t yet see clearly.
I mean, even worse than my not knowing precisely where my views were going to wind up, and therefore not initially accepting and embracing the idea of redistribution – you probably also notice that during the campaign I didn’t talk about my views as I am relaying them to you now. Why was that? Was I a typical political liar not revealing myself fully?
Barb: I admit, I was going to ask you about lying, as you put it, a bit later, after surveying the rest of your initial views…
Barack: Well, I think I should answer that now, and the answer is yes, in some sense I was a political liar. But what choice was there? If I had expressed all the above views which I felt at the time as I am expressing them for you here tonight, however moderate and sensible they were, I would have been skewered into little pieces by CNN and FOX and all the rest of the media.
I knew that much, even before the past two years experience taught me more about the lengths to which various elite sectors will go to prevent changes. I thought then, however, that having to remain quiet about a big part of my beliefs was just a residue of the way media and elections work. It was something to fix later – but certainly not something I could overcome during the campaign itself.
So instead of telling the whole truth, as I have with you, tonight, back during the campaign I felt if I was going to get elected, while I shouldn’t overtly lie, still, I did have to be very judicious about how I expressed myself, always guarding against being misrepresented or even pilloried for views most people would support given time to think them through.
So, I was judicious, and some would say, not without justification, duplicitous. I am not proud of that, though I think a good case can be made that in context it was the right choice. After all, if I had presented my full views like I have been doing to you, tonight, then McCain would have won and the country would be in a very different place now.
But as to McCain’s charge about redistributing wealth, that was incredible. After all, the Republicans had spent decades redistributing wealth upward from working people to owners, and that kind of redistribution was fine with McCain.
I thought instead that we had to give people who had only meager possessions more stake and more comfort, rather than taking wealth from them to give people who already had yachts and mansions even more yachts and mansions.
So yes, I felt that taxing the wealthy was part of what was needed, not least to redress what had occurred for a few decades. I didn’t think of it as redistribution – though of course it is.
Barack: To me it was obscene for wealthy businesses to pay paltry wages to hard working folks on grounds that the workers don’t have the power to take more.
If I own some factory and I can get away with paying my workers less, I will. That’s obscene. What I didn’t really understand two years ago was that it wasn’t just a personal failing of the owner, but was instead systemic. Even a nice and caring owner, and there are plenty of those, had to cut salaries or get out competed.
So, yes, I knew two years ago that I wanted working people to get higher wages for their labor.
Barb: Working conditions?
Again, what possible morality could justify a financially solvent company maintaining horrible conditions, or even opting to make conditions worse, just to cut costs so that owners could do even better?
To me, that was vulgar, but even with my heart in the right place, I was missing that market competition makes it necessary to do this kind of thing to ward off competitive failure, so that it was market competition, not the mindset of the employers, that was the root of the problem.
So, two years back I knew I wanted to promote laws, union activism, etc., to improve people’s lives at work, but I had nothing more than that in mind.
Barb: The general direction of the economy? Were you a socialist two years ago?
Not even close. I felt that since its inception the American political tradition had been reformist, not revolutionary. And that meant to me that for a political leader to get things done, he or she should ideally be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead. I was just a sincere advocate for the rights and conditions of the worst off folks in society. I wasn’t about eliminating private ownership of workplaces – that never crossed my mind.
I did think markets needed stringent regulation to avoid doing great harm, so I wanted, to shift away from market fundamentalism and toward stewardship by government, but I wasn’t even anti capitalist. In fact, I thought anti capitalists were unrealistic, childish, utopian. Worst of all they were not relevant to our unemployed citizens, or those who have bad jobs, or lack health care, or who breath toxic emissions. It was only later that I came to see things differently, as I guess we are going to come to…
Barb: Yes, we will, but first, what about War and peace?
Such matters seemed pretty simple to me. I mean, I always thought it was ironic for McCain and Palin to say I was untested or inexperienced regarding international relations. Is the horrendous prior behavior that McCain called “experience,” a positive credential? The real issue was orientation.
Am I sane, or not? If I am, then I care about human likes and potentials, and I want peace – and I want it so much that I will go the extra step, indeed a thousand extra steps, to try to get it.
Well, wait, I guess honestly, I have to admit that that is more me now, then it was me back during the election, or at least my public face back then. Because while running I was hawkish about Afghanistan wasn’t I, and even about Pakistan. I think it was part of getting elected, and at the moment to deliver the scary message well, I made myself believe it.
When I took office, however, I did want to initiate negotiations with countries who at that time I thought represented potential and even real problems for us, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and the Mideast writ large, China, and Venezuela, though in the campaign I did mostly just talk tough about Venezuela and especially Afghanistan. And when I got elected I did believe we could negotiate sensible relations, at least, and maybe more. Why not?
Barb: But you didn’t see the U.S. as a problem state itself, internationally?
No, not at all.
I thought we made mistakes, sure, even big mistakes, but I didn’t think of us as being a problem rather than a solution – even though I would have agreed we were ham-handed at times. In fact, I think I was incapable of thinking that our motives might not be worthy. That came later…
Barb: What about gender issues?
You know, there is a sense in which I was just a person who cared about people. I know that sounds trite, but it was true. I wasn’t focused on changing basic structures. I just wanted to push policies and provide an example that would elevate people who needed relief.
So, regarding women, I wanted absolute and full equality, fairness in all sides of life, and also dignity, including no more minimization and objectification – and I wanted the same for people with diverse sexual preferences, gays, lesbians, and others.
Thus, I intended to push for serious and effective day care, child leave, and other programs that women seek and need. But I also wanted to provoke a widespread discussion in society, not unlike what happened in the early days of the women’s movement, addressing the causes of women suffering psychologically and materially, and then trying to overcome those causes.
Barb: Issues of race?
Of course no one should suffer in any way, personally or institutionally, due to their race, religion, or any other cultural community they may be part of.
So my views regarding race when I got elected were like my views regarding gender – I wanted to eliminate archaic laws and provisions that interfered with people’s options due to cultural biases.
I also wanted to redress residual inequalities between communities so that all communities would have comparable per capita assets and conditions, of course. I thought affirmative action made sense, but not reparations, at least not at the outset.
Honestly, I wasn’t much of a student of ecology. I didn’t know much, and I still have a lot to learn.
I did know, however – indeed, how could any sane person not know – that it made no sense to squander resources frivolously, it made no sense to ruin the environment we lived in, it made no sense to ignore climate change and suffer incalculable consequences later.
So I wanted to elevate ecological attention and program to a priority, but I felt we needed to first figure what our ecological program ought to be.
Barb: Okay, when you were elected, two years ago, what was your expectation about fulfilling your aims? What obstacles did you expect to encounter? Did you think you would overcome them?
During the campaign we built an immense apparatus for reaching out to people all over the country and I thought we would use that, and use my access to media and to the public through speeches, etc., to clarify what we sought to do, and to amass huge support for it, and to then implement it.
I knew that many programs would encounter serious opposition. Many wealthy people would oppose paying more taxes, or would oppose having programs that took from the social product on behalf of working people for social services like education and health – though, honestly, I didn’t entirely understand why.
I also knew that many people with strong ideological commitments would oppose my plans around health, science, regulating markets, etc.
But with the tremendous outreach team we had developed in the campaign reconceived to be an activist apparatus for discovering, arousing, and fighting for people’s desires, and with me and other administration members appearing actively on the media and having my own show as well to talk directly to the public, I thought that despite inevitable opposition, the massive ground swell of clarity, excitement, energy, and desire we would unearth and inspire, would be enough to carry the day. Indeed, I thought we would make quick progress.
After all, we had already done the impossible, in the election. This seemed like an easier task, with the White House in hand, not a harder one.
Barb: In hindsight, now, what do you think people expected you to actually do when you took office?
It depends who you are talking about. I think the public, the broad public was a mixed bag on this.
Many working people and especially young people believed and certainly hoped I would do much of what I have mentioned here, and were happy when they began to realize I wanted to do even more.
Many other people, however, doubted anything much would be done, but at least I wouldn’t be McCain or Bush.
For people who voted against me, on the other hand, I think there was confusion, doubt, and sometimes fear and hatred, but I thought we could mostly defuse it and turn it around.
Elites I guess I thought similarly about, but I quickly discovered, instead, that they thought, and this was whether they voted for me or against me, that I would do nothing much different than had been done before. And not only did they think that would be true, they were intent to make it true.
Barb: What did you in fact seek to do, and what did you encounter as a result? How were you surprised? What did it do to your views?
Well, if you remember, the first thing I did was to announce some new cabinet positions – ecology and science. And then I announced a massive campaign around education and health care – with a massive literacy campaign and many new community clinics – and then I started announcing many economic regulations, and urging a campaign for few work hours, and I began undertaking international negotiations. It was just what you would expect, I guess, in light of the things I said above about my views at the outset.
What I encountered, however, came as a big surprise. On the one hand, as you know, there was an incredible outpouring of popular energy and excitement which latched onto what was offered and pushed for much more, as well. These millions of people – the women and men energetically fighting to end the war, to enlarge democracy, to improve people’s lives – not only impressed me, they pushed me, they made me study their sentiments, and made me react to their choices.
But on the other side, the negative response was even more incredible, and at least to me, more surprising, especially the speed and vigor with which I was publicly pilloried, both to my face, at first, in my offices, and then once that failed, all over the media. I was attacked, and attacked, and attacked, as were the emerging movements, too.
At first it was pretty slow and private as people came to see me and talked with me – senators, big industrialists, and so on – but what happened at these sessions was, well, I said back to them, hey, wait a minute. I told you broadly all during the campaign what my priorities were. And yes, my views go somewhat further than what I said in the campaign, but not much. So what’s the problem for you? And I also told them, one after another, that I didn’t get into office to do nothing. I intended to bring changes, just like I said I would. I am no revolutionary, not even a radical, I told them, but we need to act on many fronts, for many constituencies.
Well, once this was conveyed, then the newspapers and talk shows and networks that these folks govern ratcheted up the attacks. And it really went over the top, it went ballistic, you remember, when I met with Chavez and reported that instead of feeling he was some horrible enemy, like I had convinced myself during the campaign, I found that I liked a whole lot of what the Venezuelans were doing, and even wanted to learn from their efforts. At that point, all hell broke lose. The media got really aggressive from then on.
It was incredibly fortunate that we did have a powerful campaign apparatus that we could shift into combating all the lies and calumny these elites were pouring out and, even more important, that the public, all over the country, showed so much support for our new programs.
Indeed, I have to admit, I doubt I would have had the courage or the insight to keep on, except for the huge numbers of folks who took to the streets and went house to house, and otherwise worked tirelessly to keep pushing the debate forward against the elite assault on us. How could I possibly let them down?
Well, okay this went on as everyone knows for months and months, and it still continues, and instead of abating, or becoming civil, it has escalated, and it still is. The more I do in accord with serving the population, the more the elite owned media and talk show hosts and pundits and other politicians attack me in all kinds of ways.
And for your question, from all that, plus the lessons I was finally listening to that movement organizers were teaching, I learned that our society is fundamentally flawed in that it produces people who act as these hostile talk show hosts, newspaper publishers, senators and corporation owners and executives did, and it not only produces them, it elevates them to great power and wealth – indeed, it connects their power and wealth and their attitudes – making each the condition of the other. And so I began to change my views, and from then on the change in my thinking went very quick, I admit, once it got going.
I began to realize that we had bad schools because 80% of each new generation learning mostly to endure boredom and to take orders kept people at the top insulated and advantaged.
I realized that we had bad health care and harsh legality because it weakened most working people, and allowed those above to dominate and claim more for themselves.
I won’t go through everything I learned – but suffice it to say that the irony was that while the owners and the rich labeled me a revolutionary danger when it wasn’t true – back at election time – in a very real sense their behavior helped cause me to become what they feared.
They taught me, by their horrible antics, along with the even more important positive example of the activists who stood up to them, the need to replace failed institutions and not just failed policies.
So, yes, they turned me from a reformer into a revolutionary. I abhor violence and chaos, of course. But I am committed to involving the population in taking control of its own destiny.
And with that shift, I and all the people in our administration began to think, okay, what do we need to construct in place of the old offending and offensive institutions – in place of private ownership of workplaces, market competition, distant and alienated government – to make a really humane society?
And that’s where we are. Our views are changing and growing. We are still learning, especially from grass roots movements, that we are in a vast project or experiment or campaign or struggle – it doesn’t matter what label you use for it – to arrive at a shared vision for our society and to implement it.
Barb: Okay, more specifically, how have your aims changed, as a result of the hostility you faced and lessons from the mass movements, regarding the economy?
Well, right now I am seeking a law forbidding capital export and relocation without community and worker permission to do so, and also a law delineating punishments for employers who impede nationally mandated economic reforms. The idea is to increase worker power, while also making worthy reforms.
For each law, additionally, I want the maximum penalty for owners who violate it to be nationalization of their businesses under the management of currently employed workers.
I am also working explicitly toward reducing inequality, reorienting productive potentials to meet social needs, and enlarging economic democracy in all parts of the economy – workplaces and allocation – all as immediate aims.
For example, to foster equality of wealth and income, I am advocating a sharply progressive property, profit, inheritance, and income tax, with no loopholes, as well as a dramatically-increased minimum wage coupled with a new profit tax that would be specifically coupled to inequities in each firm’s pay scale.
Due to the new minimum wage law, minimum pay would rise dramatically. Due to a new pay equity tax, industries with a more equitable pay scale would have more after-tax profits even as income inequities among employees would decline. Heavier property and other wealth-oriented taxes would provide means to pay for other socially valuable programs as well as dramatically diminish differences in wealth. Not only could more equitably structured and democratically run firms use their extra funds to further improve work conditions and increase their social contribution, they could generally out-compete less socially responsible firms.
I now call all these innovations redistributive and I repeatedly explain why redistribution from the rich to the poor is both morally justified and socially essential. Indeed, as you know, I call it “reclamation of stolen or at least misplaced riches.”
I have also embarked on a comprehensive full employment policy, including a 25% shorter work week but with no reduction in pay for those earning less than $70,000 a year, a 25% pay reduction for those earning up to $150,000 a year, but a 50% pay reduction for all those earning higher still, and a comprehensive adult education and job training program, and a comprehensive social support system for those unable to work, whatever the reason.
More, beyond seeking these immediate improvements in material equity, I now advocate that workers should have work conditions and responsibilities suitable to their personal development and to their responsibility to contribute to society’s well being.
I continually emphasize that attaining equity of life circumstances has to mean not only attaining equity of wealth and pay, but also equity of conditions while at work. Of course this takes time, but there is no reason to put off improving the balance, no reason not to start increasing education, not to start redefining our division of labor.
Indeed, with this principle as a touchstone, I now urge the creation of workers’ councils in private and public workplaces throughout the country, as workers choose, but empowered by federal mandate to develop job redefinition programs and to win increasing say over the pace and goal of work.
All these values, I repeatedly say, require new underlying logic and structure – I am very clearly anti capitalist now, and anti market, and urge the definition of new, self managing, cooperative, and equitable approaches to economic life.
Regarding investment priorities, I am now proposing tax incentives for socially useful production and tax disincentives for wasteful and luxury and socially harmful production. This would limit excessive and also ecologically damaging advertising or packaging and other antisocial behavior. It would help foster production to meet real needs and potentials.
Indeed, my administration intends to regulate, punish, and even legislate out of operation any business or industry deemed by an independent citizens bureau followed by a supporting public plebiscite to be destructive of the public good.
Even more, we are building means for federal and state budgets to be overseen by the public that the expenditures affect, not by political or economic elites that mishandle them.
Of course, the biggest single material change in economic priorities that I am undertaking is a 90 percent cut in the defense budget. To make this worthwhile and not a shock for society, I am proposing that existing military bases be converted to centers for ecological clean-up, to centers to build and house new schools and social centers for local communities, to workplaces to produce low income housing or new means of clean transportation or energy production. Federal funding for these bases would persist, while resident GIs, or others seeking new employment, are, if they so desire, retrained to work in as well as to democratically administer the converted bases. These new projects will move a huge percentage of our social capacity from wasteful military violence to socially valuable production and will also be exemplary in every other respect.
Regarding economic democracy and participation, I am overtly and aggressively assisting the formation of consumer and worker organizations to watchdog product quality, to guard against excessive pricing, to advise about product redefinition for durability, ecological sustainability, and value to the user, and to participate in plant and industry decisions with open books and full investigative rights.
And beyond all these first steps, I am also continually clarifying that my ultimate economic goal, and I think what ought to become society’s ultimate economic goal too, is the full democratization of economic decision making and the initiation of a national public project to develop new institutions for determining work, consumption, and allocation in a non competitive, cooperative, and self managing way.
In short, I am now intent on explaining that the basic problem with our economy is that capitalist institutions make capitalists prefer war production, persistent unemployment, stunted education and health care, repressive legality, homelessness and impoverishment to having a working class that is secure and informed and therefore able to demand a bigger piece of the pie as well as more control over what kind of pie is baked. I am working to propose and win uncompromising changes that redress existing grievances, create conditions more just and humane, and also establish a new balance of power conducive to winning more fundamental changes in the future.
Barb: What about education, as another example?
I have come to realize due to the incredible hostility of my elite critics and the lessons of education and community activists, that while it is often claimed that schools are failing, it really depends on how you look at them.
Existing schools actually succeed at developing, on the one hand, future executives, professionals, intellectuals, and managers by providing them with an empowering environment, diverse skills development, wide-ranging knowledge, an expectation of fulfillment in life, and, it has to be said, a degree of callousness and paternalism and authoritarianism toward those below.
On the other hand, schools also serve to create future workers by providing them the dregs of literacy and maximum training in enduring boredom and obeying orders. From the point of view of elites, these outcomes aren’t sign of failure but of success. Elites like the picture. I find it vile. That’s why they went ballistic when I began to even moderately change the situation and that’s how I learned the need for much more change.
To my new thinking, we have to understand that to make educational change we need to change the context that schools prepare people to enter so that good education for all makes good sense. We need to realize that this requires an economy promising full employment at jobs that require and utilize people’s full capabilities, including their highly developed facility at decision-making, their ample knowledge about society, and their expectations of success and participation.
With those changes underway, we also need to develop a popular movement to seek specific pedagogic changes. To enumerate these pedagogic changes, I am advocating that we have a national debate conducted in schools, with teachers, parents, and students, about curriculum reform, improved teaching methods and teacher-student relations, improved resources for schools, and increased community involvement.
I am already seeking to reduce class size to a maximum of 20 students per teacher in all schools. I am seeking to equalize resources per student across all schools, including architecture, computers, books, and food—and to guarantee education (through college) to anyone who wants it.
I am seeking to provide funds to staff all schools at night for community meetings and remedial and adult education, not just for literacy campaigns, but now also for larger and richer and more diverse adult education as well. And finally, I am advocating and working for education funding to come from new corporate profit taxes to guarantee that regions attain educational parity.
Barb: How about foreign policy?
Well, of course, as everyone knows, I got us out of war in Iraq and have been negotiating a reduction of tensions and an increase in mutual aid in many other places, as well. But on a more broad scale, it is sad but true, as I have come to understand while being bludgeoned by rich people’s media and taught by poor people’s movements, that U.S. foreign aid has heretofore correlated directly with human rights abuses. The more abuses a country practiced, the higher our aid was. More, this was not due to diplomatic stupidity. The practitioners of our policies were not dumb.
So why did we have such horrible policies? Well, the sad truth is that our policy makers viewed aid as a way to maintain a flow of riches and wealth out of other countries and into ours. Call it empire, if you like. It has been around a long time. Indeed, the U.S., had to overcome the British version at our birth, but then, regrettably, we became purveyors too.
Since this rip-off by our country, or more accurately, by our country’s richest and most powerful members, of the assets of other countries requires that the local populations in those other countries submit, of course wherever we give aid, indigenous populations are repressed. That’s the quid pro quo. That’s largely what the aid buys.
The idea is that in return for our “largesse” in providing the tools of repression and authoritarian rule, and propping up vile leaders beholden to us, those elites get to take home an ample bounty of wealth, and our elites get to take home even more. And if something goes wrong, meaning if the populations of other countries try to get out from under our thumb, well, okay, we call in the Marines. And that isn’t a slam at the Marines, it is a slam on our system, and on the people who give the orders.
So I think instead of emphasizing empire our foreign policy needs to respect the integrity of other nations and to reflect, as well, a human-serving domestic economy rather than an incredibly hierarchical one. My overall program internationally, and I certainly admit that my aims change as I learn more, now emphasizes:
· Cessation of all arms shipments abroad. And of course cessation of all our overseas military interventions and actions.
· Cessation of any aid abroad that is likely, by any means, find its way into the hands of police or other potentially repressive agencies in other countries.
· Elimination of all overseas military bases, with half the funds saved from closings returned to the U.S. for solving domestic problems; and half applied to aid to underdeveloped countries in the form of no-strings attached infrastructure improvements, job and skills training, equipment grants, food aid, and privileged buyer status for many goods on the international market.
· Implementation of trade agreements which instead of taking advantage or our greater power and size, apportion the benefits of exchange among ourselves and those we trade with so that the weaker party gets more of the benefits – and the wealth gaps narrow – rather than the stronger party taking more, and the wealth gaps widening. Call it internationalism, if you want, or just plain old morality, either way, it is morally sound despite that it is the antithesis of market exchange.
Barb: We don’t have enough time to run through everything, I guess, but what about health and ecology?
Well, in brief, a civilized health program for our society must involve three main components: prevention, universal care for the ill, and cost cutting. So, in light of lessons I have learned from health movements and workers, I am currently working hard on…
· Improved preventive medicine, including increased public education about health-care risks, a massive campaign around diet, increased cleanliness in hospitals, and large-scale provision of community centers for exercise and public health education.
· Universal health care for the ill, including the government providing comprehensive coverage for all citizens.
· Reassessment of training programs for doctors and nurses to expand the number of qualified health workers and to better utilize the talents of those already trained.
· Civilian review over drug company policies with a stringent cap on profits and remuneration for officials, with violations punished by nationalization – and review of the medical impact of all institutions in society—for example, the health effects of work conditions and product choices, with an eye toward improvements.
I am also seeking sharp limits on the incomes of health professionals and on the profits that pharmaceutical and other medical companies could earn, and of course this is in accord with our new ideas about incomes generally.
To get rich, I have come to realize, is vile. It means one is taking way more than what one’s effort and sacrifice in contributing to the economy warrant – but to get rich off illness, that is especially pernicious. And insofar as we need large scale funding for our health programs, it will come from punitive taxes on unhealthful products such as cigarettes, alcohol, and unsafe automobiles, etc.
As to the ecology, as you know I am establishing a department of ecological stewardship to develop a list of necessary clean-up steps, as well as a policy to preserve the ecology and prevent further global warming.
Beyond this, I argue that funds for clean energy development and deployment, for all kinds of conservation, etc., should come from a tax on current polluters and on prior beneficiaries of unclean industrial operations.
It used to be that for a company if it could produce more cheaply by polluting and not cleaning up the mess and it was not just wise but even essential to do so. Others would pay the costs imposed by the pollution, and you would save. If you didn’t do it, and your competitors in the market place did do it, they would outcompete you with their savings. This is the connection, or one of the connections, between market exchange, profit seeking, and ecological degradation. And so one of our big tasks is to make all these connections clear and to develop insight and activism focused not just on single issues, but on the whole overarching logic of society.
The critical innovation in our approach to ecological sanity is therefore to open a national public debate about the relation between our basic economic and social institutions and the environment. We want to involve the population in clarifying that we need institutions attuned to ecological costs and benefits and that we must experiment with non-market approaches to allocation, rather than trying to police the inevitable ecological disasters that markets routinely produce.
Bard: Okay, what about Race and Gender?
Well, part of it is obvious and basically what I felt on being elected and what I began doing then. But even beyond ensuring that there aren’t vile characterizations and media manipulations, and beyond ensuring that there is proportional representation at all levels of society for the various groups, and beyond redressing, as well, the material and situational residues of past injustices, I have come to realize there is more we have to do.
So to accomplish the above, we have education programs, caucuses giving minorities and women oversight and a room of their own, affirmative action and taxes and reparations and even the new Women’s Bank and Minority Bank to undo past accumulated imbalances, and facilitate new projects, etc.
But I am also eager to initiate, which is why we have the new cabinet positions for gender and sexuality and for race and culture, widespread and deep going discussions aimed at finding the structural relationships inside families and in schooling and in sexual interactivity, and in cultural communities and especially in their interrelations, which tend to produce the distorting and unjust views and practices that we call sexism and racism. I want not only to have programs to redress the symptoms, but also to get at the deepest causes.
In that, my aim for racism and sexism is a bit like it is for the economy. We don’t just say let’s get wealth gaps narrowed, we also say, let’s remove the institutional relations that produce the gaps in the first place, and I think we need to do the same for race and gender, and for politics, too, for that matter – which is why we are embarking on building neighborhood, county, and region based assemblies for direct democratic control over society – and why we intend that in time these will be the seat of political power, not mayor’s offices, governor’s offices, or even my office, for that matter.
Barb: Okay, I know we should go on with this a lot longer, but even our extended time slot is almost up, so to summarize how would you say your overall current program contrasts, broadly, to two years ago?
When I took office, I thought I was going to easily implement modest programs to better the situation of society’s less well off sectors and to improve our health, education, etc.
As you know and as we discussed, I ran into a minefield – really a shit storm – if you will pardon my language – of quite vicious elite opposition.
This was a real eye opener for me, but instead of succumbing, I decided to fulfill my promises.
Of course the situation got more embattled, but it taught me that making society better is not a matter of tweaking this or that lever. It is about completely changing the levers.
So, again, when I took office my program was about alleviating pain, improving institutional efficiency, and generally making the system work better. But now though my program still seeks innovations to better the lot of those worst off and to improve education, health, etc., it is also about enfranchising workers and consumers and empowering all citizens regarding all the decisions that affect them.
So now it is not about making the existing system work better but is instead about discovering what new structures and relations we need to put in place to remove the obstacles that impede the fullest liberation of our talents and the most complete fulfillment of our needs.
We can’t have a social system that produces the behavior I encountered for trying to meet my rather moderate election promises. We can’t have a system that makes people so anti social and so greedy, so ignorant and so violent, and that then gives precisely those people most control. We can’t have a system that robs so many people of their human possibilities.
So now my program is about real change, just like I said in the campaign, but thanks to the opposition I encountered and what it taught me, and thanks even more to the huge numbers of people who allied with my efforts and fought and keep fighting against all obstacles, it is about change that goes way beyond what I was talking about in the election – change in basic relations, in property, in decision making, in the norms governing who gets how much product, how we legislate, how we adjudicate, how we raise the next generation, and so on.
Barb: What about your approach to winning these changes, how is it different now, than before?
Before I thought winning change was about convincing politicians and prominent citizens of the wisdom of my programs. Now I know that it is about amassing popular power, not just votes but sustained activism, sufficient to force our outcomes on the rich and powerful, who are fighting viciously against them.
Before I thought I was the key to it all, honestly with everyone calling me Mr. President, and all. Now I know that while I am important to the process, the real key is public awareness, public insight, public energy, public militancy, public organization, and public action. It isn’t me who is taking over and running organizations throughout society in new ways – it is the public.
You know how politicians used to talk about a war on drugs, a war on terrorism. Well, I don’t like addictions and I sure as hell don’t like terrorism – including inflicted by the US on others – but I also don’t like rich, comfortable, powerful people who want to keep a tight grip on most of society’s wealth and power. Those people need to lose if real freedom and real justice are to blossom. If it is a war that those people want, a war that they thought they could intimidate me with – fine, we will proceed, and it will be a war of justice against greed, of equity against inequality, of solidarity against antisociality, of self management against autocracy. If they know no other language than battle, then even though we want communication and reason, we can battle too, and we will.
Barb: To finish, do you still believe we can have a just, equitable, really participatory society? What is your long run goal?
Yes, I believe it more than ever. In fact, for the first time, I am really coming to understand what such words mean.
I have learned we can’t have a really participatory society, though, if we maintain a few people owning all workplaces and other economic assets. We can’t have it if we maintain elitist decision-making and cultural exclusion or sexism. We can’t have capitalism, I now realize, or patriarchy, or racism, and equity or solidarity. We can’t have capitalism and have democracy much less real participation and self-management. The rich and powerful, trying to intimidate me, instead taught me the need for fundamental change by the way that they rejected even small incursions on their wealth and power.
And I also know that we can’t have participation, real democracy, with government structures that have no roots in the population, but that exist over and above the population. These things I now know, but they don’t cause me to think that a better life, a better world, is impossible. On the contrary, they illuminate the path to that better life and better world.
Are the obstacles to real change larger than I thought they were, larger than I understood them to be? Yes, they are.
But I have also seen poor people, working people, women and men of all races, come to political life, come to activist life, all over our country, these past two years, and as large and intense as the forces of reaction and hostility have been, I have seen that the popular forces that can become aroused and involved for peace and justice are far larger – and we are arousing them and they are getting active. And so we will win.
We have seen such an incredible outpouring of humanity and caring, of sharing and organizing, of innovation and creativity, of learning and doing, and especially of mutual aid in just these two years – just think what we can all together accomplish with more time and with the accelerated momentum that comes with a steady accrual of gains that both improve people’s lives and, with each step, give us more means to go still further.
So yes, I think we can have an economy in which workers and consumers cooperatively self manage economic life without familiar hierarchies of wealth, power, and circumstance, and indeed without class divisions of any kind.
And yes, I think we can continue the long journey of overcoming racial and gender beliefs, structures, and even residual imbalances and hierarchies – both ideological and material – in a society that has ways of living in families, and of birthing and nurturing the next generation, and of celebrating identity, and that has mutual beliefs, and shared language, cuisine, and all the other components of culture – thereby arriving finally at a society that does not mistreat anyone, explicitly or implicitly, for race or gender, or sexuality.
And yes, I think we can have a political system that accomplishes adjudication of disputes, legislation of shared norms, and implementation of collective projects with every citizen having a self managing participatory say in the outcomes, without elitism, without alienation, without injustice.
Yes, I do believe all that.
I am not the same man who ran for office against John McCain two years ago and won. I said then I was not a perfect person and would not be a perfect President. That was true, truer than I knew, even. But I am someone who can learn, and I will not bow to greed and viciousness.
Many deep interpersonal values are the same for me now, as two years ago, yes, but the view of the world that I have, the view of what we need to do, both short term and long term, and the view of the steps required and the tasks we have to undertake that I now have, those have all altered greatly.
I have learned much. What before seemed to me largely irrelevant, now seems to me the core of our future – explicit desires to transform society’s central institutions, explicit desires for revolution in ideas but also in social relations. And what before seemed to me essential, which was convincing elites by reasoned appeal, done largely behind closed doors over the heads of the public, now seems to me both a fruitless pursuit and a horribly repulsive one. The task I see and feel is to address, learn from, and accompany the broad public and its popular movements into a new society that we will all enjoy together.
Barb: Thank you, Mr. President.
Barack: You are very welcome Barb, but mostly the thanks go from me to the public, for waking me up and for making possible the incredible social project we now undertake. And please, it is Barack…
Source / Z-Net
Thanks to Erich Seifert / The Rag Blog