Saturday, December 4, 2010

Categorically speaking

I have an observation on Corrente's ongoing argument re "Category Error" -- and its repeated use as a club with which to beat Paul Krugman.

Lambert and Vastleft are arguing that it's a major mistake for progressive commenters to attribute either good intentions or weak leadership to The Precious -- because, in Vastleft's words, "Obama operates like a conservative because he is a conservative." They argue that he's not a weak leader but a strong, effective one -- because he's accomplishing very thoroughly what (they say) he always intended to accomplish.

There is some merit and utility in this argument -- insofar as it underlines how deluded the Obots, the Netroots and the misogynist fanboy punditocracy on MSNBC and what Anglachel calls the Stevensonian wing of the Democratic Party were about him. They gave this tablua rasa a free pass to the nomination because he served as their mirror, without regard to most of what he was actually proposing. For that act of protracted irresponsibility and fecklessness, the judgment of history is already in on them, and it is not kind. To paraphrase Somerby's trope on Iraq, the working class and the middle class of America look up from their places in the soon-to-be-closed-down unemployment lines at the likes of Dowd, Marcos, Booman, Avarosis, Olbermann, Rich, Donna and their ilk in devastating accusation.

However, it's another thing entirely to propose that the whole thing was some vast and extraordinarily effective kabuki in which The Precious was actually Sauron and was skillfully orchestrating all of these conspirators -- from Wall St. to Ms. magazine to MoveOn to the insurance companies, etc., etc. One really has to believe in the power of theater to think that entire sectors of the economy are expressing batshit-crazy outrage at him in public while chortling together with him in private -- because he is, after all, so skillfully carrying their water.

And even if you believe that, how does this account for the patent lack of political success of this strategy? Are we really supposed to believe that Obama, Axelrod et al. wanted collapsing poll numbers? That they wanted to be seen universally as wearing 'kick me' signs? If this guy is supposed to be such a clever, successful, right-wing political leader, how come he's already a lame duck? Are we supposed to believe that this, too, is part of the clever, "successful" plan?

This, to me, reveals the vulnerability of strictly ideological arguments. They ignore the kinds of institutional, cultural and political dimensions that, say, Anglachel describes so well (and that I find in Krugman, for all his self-proclaimed wonkiness). Pure ideology isn't psychologically acute, and that lack of acuity creates errors that are, well, a bit categorical.

To me, the facts certainly demonstrate that Barack Obama was never a liberal. To the degree he has anything that could remotely be called an ideology or world view, it is, as Anglachel has been arguing of late, the ideology of a "Herbert Hoover progressive" (nice). But the overwhelming preponderance of the facts also show that he is a total non-leader, a cipher, a man whose entire life has been a journey not of self-knowledge but of self-obliteration, an odyssey of opacity. He is Chauncey Gardner, Jimmy Carter II, Zelig. He has always wanted to be President, but he's never actually wanted to do anything specific -- which is tantamount to saying that he never wanted to do anything. All be, no do.

And one more observation: As disappointed as all of us white, feminist, Hillary-admiring types are in this turn of events, I expect it's not a patch on the kind of disappointment that's infecting black America right now. It's not just that the United States needed an FDR and wound up with Calvin Coolidge (or, fine, Herbert Hoover)... but after our country's tragic racial history, for all that agony to have achieved its putative culmination in this, dare I say, black hole... well, that's beyond cruel.


G. said...

Sorry, but O was selected to destroy the Democratic Party, destroy the New Deal, and neutralize opposition from what we call the Left. He's a puppet. Yeah, this looks like a plan—just think back to the state of the Republicans at the end of 2008.

Or, to be charitable, they can't be as dumb as they seem.

What's in it for O personally? He gets to put the U.S. in its place.

G. said...

Just back from reading comments on Krugman's "Class and Social Security. Mark C, comment 7 (

"The professor, as professors are wont to do, is thinking to much. While he may be correct about the VSP's, the villagers who are blessedly unaware of how policy affects the lowly proles, he is almost certainly wrong about the Democratic Party itself.

"The simple truth is the party was infiltrated by forward thinking conservatives decades ago through the DLC and other organizations and is now controlled by covert Republicans. And they are very close to achieving their goal of destroying a once great party.

"It really, really, really is that simple. And the sooner liberals accept that fact the sooner we can start working on real solutions in earnest."

You know, it doesn't matter who O is or what he really believes. He has played his part.

(And as for black voters, they supported a man who gave a hundred million dollars to a real estate crook who let black people freeze in the Chicago winter, in return for contributions and a nice house. Sorry, but the attitude "He may be a crook but he's our crook" doesn't put food on the table.)

Falstaff said...

We'll have to agree, as they say, to disagree. At the very least, even if one were to adopt this conspiratorial frame (which attributes far too much prescience or control to humans than history would suggest any actual humans have ever possessed), one would have to acknowledge -- wouldn't one? -- that they're not doing such a great job of propping up their puppet. Do these moneyed folks want Tea Parties ascendant? Should not the choice of a puppet like Obama also have involved some thought about how to build a new and sustainable center-right frame (a la Reagan)?

More generally, I don't think Mark C is right -- or, at least, not importantly right. I don't think the Clintons and those in Bill's administration are accurately described as "forward-thinking conservatives," and I also do not lament his and Al Gore's recognition of the enormous boon to the humans represented by globalization and digital technology, including the radical democratization they make possible. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have been able to move into the middle class because of that. Entire economies have been improved. Although we haven't yet evolved our political institutions to stabilize that and make it more equitable and sustainable, the simple fact of it is wonderful at a world-historic scale, and Bill Clinton's administration helped it by freeing the Democratic Party from worn-out Marxist tropes. They took the first steps toward a 21st century liberalism, based not on Industrial Age analysis of economic relations, but on the economic, societal and environmental dynamics of a post-industrial age.

To me, Obama is nothing like Bill or Hillary -- either ideologically or as a leader. And lumping them together seems to me one more demonstration of the limits of purely ideological analysis.

So... I don't believe it is "really really simple," if by "simple" one means "the universe is divided into two things: left and right." I am a critter of the left (in my own eyes, anyway -- your mileage may differ), but when I look out, I see a more complex system of systems. In that, I guess, I'm professorial, too.

Finally, my point is obviously not that one should give Obama a pass because of his motives or identity or beliefs. I think that should be abundantly clear from everything I've written. The point of this post was that it's not accurate to ascribe "political success" to him -- much less to whack Paul Krugman for supposedly being dumb at a category level for his failure to understand this.

Falstaff said...

One more thing: All of this is a discussion at the family dinner table. I very much admire Lambert's and Vastleft's acuity, wit and passion. On 95% of things, I'm with them -- and you, I suspect.