Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You devoted two books to Barack Obama: “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power” and “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics”. How do you judge Obama’s two presidential mandates?
Dr. Paul Street: Obama has been the neoliberal, imperial, and deeply conservative president many of us on the left expected him to be. I have written about this in a recent Truthdig essay titled “Obama’s Neoliberal Legacy: Rightward Drift and Donald Trump.” The first book you mention (The Empire’s New Clothes) is a detailed record of Obama’s service to the elite business class, to the U.S. global military empire, and to the continuing hold of institutional and societal racism in the U.S. One of this volume’s enduring values (I hope) is that it demonstrates the conservative and neoliberal essence of the Obama presidency during its first year, when Obama had Democratic Party majorities in both houses of U.S. Congress and therefore could not blame “Republican Party obstruction” for his right-wing policies. The second and earlier book you mention examined Obama’s pre-presidential career to predict the basic neoliberal and imperial contours of the presidency that emerged. With the Obama administration, as with the Bill Clinton presidency, the U.S. executive branch was held by a very smart elite Ivy League law-school-minted neoliberal who understood that he was there to pacify the population with illusions of progressive hope and change while implementing policy on behalf of the nation’s unelected “deep state” dictatorships of money and empire. Both presidents betrayed the poor and working class majority in whose name the Democrats claim to govern, opening the door for right-wing Republicans to win (with some help from the U.S. Electoral College and racist vote suppression in contested states) the White House back in 2000 (George W. Bush) and 2016 (Trump). Obama gave the American System a fake-progressive re-branding that the U.S. ruling class and empire required in the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq and the financial crisis of 2008. His race and his technically Muslim name helped put a new and misleading democratic gloss on the U.S. government at home and abroad. It was a great deception. The deep state held. Obama has spread the geographic reach of the American military empire, expanding U.S. Special Forces and the drone war (the latter is accurately described by Noam Chomsky as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”) far beyond anything previously imagined. The top tenth of the U.S upper 1 Percent owns nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 Percent. Black U.S. median household net worth is one thirteenth white median household net worth. Beneath all the national self-congratulation about how Obama’s election supposedly showed that the U.S. had transcended racism, Black American’s already poor economic situation actually worsened in the U.S. during the Obama years. An astonishing 94% of the jobs created under Obama have been temporary, contract positions, or part-time “gig” jobs in a variety of fields. Obama’s promise of progressive “hope” and “change” has been a farce. Trump won thanks in no small part to that harsh reality.
Is not a real left in the United States, which was absent in the last elections, necessary to organize the social advocacy movements in the future?
Absolutely. I’m not sure the United States has had a real and durable (through thick-and-thin) left since the crushing of the Communist Party in the 1950s. The CP was a deeply flawed and problematic entity (to say the least), but it was a consistent presence with regular organizing capabilities and it united activists in a “many-sided” way around multiple and interrelated causes. The contemporary U.S. left is far too scatted across overly separated single issues and far too torn by sectarian divisions. It is absurdly decentralized and without consistent organization and strategy. The ruling class is not.
Don’t you think that the victory of Donald Trump is a defeat of mass media and polling organizations that predicted the victory of Hillary Clinton from the beginning? Can they still claim credibility after their monumental debacle?
Yes to your first question. The New York Times, for example, had Mrs. Clinton at an 85 percent certainty of winning the election the night before the vote. This was based on “expert” polling data that was absurdly off the mark. Their credibility is very badly damaged. The polls contributed to Hillary’s defeat by contributing to a false sense of security and certain victory in her camp. The media and pollsters were exposed as buffoons, frankly.
How do you analyze the phenomenon Bernie Sanders who was classified as a representative of the American Left? Does Sanders really represent the Left and why was he represented as such?
Sanders ran in accord with leftish, progressive, and social-democratic sentiments that are quite widespread in the U.S. populace. He might well have defeated Trump if he had been the Democratic presidential nominee. The real and overly scattered America Left is anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Sanders is not. He has enlisted in the Democratic Party, which the actual Left does not support. Many U.S. leftists who could not make themselves vote for the arch-imperial uber-neoliberal Hillary Clinton as the “lesser evil” would have voted for the left-liberal Sanders over Trump with an awareness that Sanders did not represent anything close to the depth and degree of the radical change that is required. His very pronounced attachment to the American global empire was the main thing that cost him support from the radical or “real” Left.
You wrote the book “They Rule: the 1% vs. Democracy.”Is this not a plutocracy that is represented by the 1% against a majority devoid of revolutionary leadership? Don’t you think that this fight is lost in advance? Do we not need a new breath of the progressive movement to counter this 1 %?
Well the notion that the U.S. is a plutocracy is of course a central thesis in my book. The onetime U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put things very well in 1941. Americans “must make our choice,” Brandeis wrote. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That’s elementary: democracy is impossible when you have the kind of grotesque “New Gilded Age” inequalities as exist in the U.S. today. My book They Rule goes into considerable detail on the specific processes whereby the increasingly globalized super-rich run the U.S. today – and why it matters.
It is absurd for American liberals to claim that Trumpism threatens to crush our “great democracy.” What “great democracy”? It is well established that the United States’ political order is a corporate and financial plutocracy – an oligarchy of and for Wealthy Few. You don’t have to be a supposedly wild-eyed radical Leftist radical like me to know this. Just ask the establishment liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern). Over the past three plus decades, these leading academic researchers have determined, the U.S. political system has functioned as “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo two years ago, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S., what Noam Chomsky has called “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”
Do not you think that there is a need for a rebuilding of the American Left and the Left around the world?
I think it’s a life-or-death matter now given the onset of an environmental crisis that is rooted in capitalism’s rapacious destruction of livable ecology. In his brilliant and important book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (Penguin, 2016), Mike Lofgren sadly proclaims that “The idea of a revolution from below, still conceivable in 1933, is almost preposterously unthinkable now” (p.139). The problem with that declaration is that a decent future for homo sapiens and other living things is likely impossible without some version of such a revolution in the next few decades. Given the ecological catastrophe that deep state capital is bringing to bear, “the uncomfortable truth,” as Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 15 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.” It’s not just about the U.S. The profits system that is destroying the environment, the system that now grants as much wealth to 62 billionaires as to the poorer half the world’s population, is global. The radical mass movement must be international as well.
Will the neocons survive the Trump era? Will they keep the same nuisance capacity they had with Obama?
Sure. They have the financial and organizational resources and media access to stay visible and relevant.
What is your analysis of the Obama administration’s accusation against Russia of having influenced the US election especially via Russian hackers?
The accusation lacks basic smoking gun evidence on (a) Russia’s connection and (b) election impact. Obama and other top Democrats know this. But they run with the “Blame Russia” storyline anyway for three basic reasons: (1) to damage the incoming Trump administration politically; (2) to keep alive their NATO-expansionist New Cold War against Moscow; (3) they find it useful to blame their loss of the 2016 elections on “outside interference” and the FBI rather than on (a) Obama’s right-wing neoliberal presidency and (b) Hillary’s terrible neoliberal record and campaign. This helps them keep reformist and progressive elements (Sanders types) in their own party at bay.
In your opinion, will Donald Trump review the Iranian nuclear agreement?
I don’t pretend to know what goes in the brain of the Twitter-addicted sociopath Donald Trump – or what his “national security” advisers are telling him. Trump is a wild card like none we’ve seen in the White House. Still. I don’t see how he can avoid some sort of (at least) review of the Iran nuclear agreement thing along those lines given his consistent campaign rhetoric calling the agreement a “bad deal.” It is fascinating how Western media can never seem to admit that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons.
How do you consider the resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism today, with the current stakes?
Well, as I said above, it’s now a life or death matter for the species. I talk about this in They Rule. Homo sapiens cannot ecologically survive another half-century of neoliberalism and imperialism. It’s questionable if we can survive even another decade or two of global capitalism, to be perfectly frank. The top two threats to human survival today are runaway climate change and nuclear war. Trump is promising to up the ante on both of these extremist dangers. He is a climate change denier who says that he wants to completely deregulate American energy, which means go full bore with the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Lately he has been Tweeting about wanting a new nuclear arms race, which is completely insane. As a candidate, he suggested that the U.S. should consider using nuclear weapons and said that it might be good for Saudi Arabia and Japan to possess nuclear weapons. This is madness on steroids.
2017 see the coming of Donald Trump to the American presidency. Do you think it will be an era of imperialist wars or relative peace? Are you optimistic about the future?
His foreign policy is still unclear. My guess is that his claims to be “isolationist” will be shown as phony once he is in office. The reality of the neoliberal capitalist system is global and imperial. He is already stoking the fire of future conflicts with China and perhaps Iran. Both of those countries are allies of Russia and that calls into question how long he will stay peaceful with his “good friend” Putin. Trump will face pressure from Democrats and the media to be “tougher on Russia,” the nation that supposedly “interfered with our great democratic elections.” Trump is loading up his administration with generals, ex-generals, and other men of war. That does not bode well for peace. Neither do his insane comments on behalf of a renewed nuclear arms race.
I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I am existentialist, so to speak. It’s not about the crystal ball. We don’t really have any choice but to try to bring about the “almost preposterously unthinkable now” (Lofgren) – and to try to use the Trump moment as a clarifying silver-lining catalyst for the creation of a movement to transform American society in a democratic fashion and direction. Maybe Trump will light a fire of activism in the U.S., helping spark the radical movement we need if humanity is to keep alive prospects for a decent future.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Paul Street?
Dr. Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11(Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power(Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics(Paradigm, 2011); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy(Paradigm, 2014).
Street’s essays, articles, reviews, interviews, and commentaries have appeared in numerous outlets, includingCounterPunch,Truthout, theChicago Tribune, Capital City Times, In These Times, Chicago History, Critical Sociology, Journal of American Ethnic History, Social History, Review of Educational, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Dissent, Black Agenda Report, Economic & Political Weekly (India), Tinanbantu (South Africa), New Left Project (United Kingdom), Press TV (Iran), The Times of India (India), Morning Star (England), Al-Alkhbar (The News inBeirut, Lebanon), Dissident Voice, Black Commentator, Monthly Review, History News Network, Tom’sDispatch, AlterNet., theCapital City Times(Madison, WI),and theIowa CityPress Citizen,and (above all) ZNetand Z Magazine. Street’s essays are picked up and reproduced in numerous languages) across the planet/World Wide Web in venues too numerous to track and mention.
Street’s writings, research findings, and commentary have been featured in a large number and wide variety of media venues, including The New York Times, CNN,Al Jazeera, theChicago Tribune, WGN (Chicago/national), WLS (ABC-Chicago), Fox News, and the Chicago Sun Times.
Street has appeared in more than 100 radio and television interviews/broadcasts and on the popular live Web book-chat at “Firedog.”
Street has taught various aspects of U.S. history at a large number of Chicago-area colleges and universities and was the Director of Research at The Chicago Urban League (from 2000 through 2005), where he published two major grant-funded studies:The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (October 2002) andStill Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago(2005).