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03/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Corporatist Explanation for Obama's "Failed" Presidency

Obama, more than Al Gore, George W. Bush, John McCain, or Hillary Clinton, has been the most fully realized CONSENSUS CORPORATIST CANDIDATE of the last decade. His policies reflect a revival of the overt corporatist model prevalent in Bill Clinton's first two years, with a vengeance. Obama's economic rescue package was written by Wall Street, through Timothy Geithner and company; the same will be true of any "financial regulation reform" that ensues from Washington. Big business, with some input from big labor, has already written the immigration bill, quietly resting with Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham, ready to be sprung when the time is ready; it will narrow citizenship rights and redefine immigration from a strictly economic point of view. Energy companies are fully incorporated into the writing of the climate and energy bills. The military writes war policy (General Stanley McChrystal's little "rebellion," as Obama was supposedly "thinking out" Afghanistan war policy, was all the more ironic for its pure redundancy). Any legislation that comes out of Washington can only be corporatist in tendency (this will be further enhanced by the Supreme Court striking down campaign finance restrictions), and will only make things in each of the realms--energy, finance, immigration, health care--worse, by definition, since genuine redistributive/egalitarian thinking is completely off the table.

The corporatist state generally refers to a tripartite political arrangement where government, business, and labor collaborate in policymaking, to avoid the overt impression of conflict and disorder. Labor is the weakest part of this equation in America today, but to the extent that it does have political power it is fully incorporated in the conceptualization and inception of policymaking. Corporatism perverts party structure, so that the parties become only vehicles for corporatist groups (known in American political vocabulary as Big Government, or Special Interests). Secret deals are pervasive in this environment (true of both Bush and Obama), and legislation is sought to be comprehensive (the opaqueness allows for a lot of unpalatable corporate privileges to be written in) instead of piecemeal and incremental, which would permit more transparency.

Corporatism is a dirty word in the American lexicon because of its close historical association with fascism, but we can recognize marked neofascist or authoritarian or extreme right-wing tendencies, of which someone like Sarah Palin is the leading edge. The new corporatist state as it has arisen under Bush and Obama thrives on reserve constitutional powers (unlimited executive authority) allied with a permanent state of emergency (the war on terror), both indispensable starting principles of authoritarian regimes. On the whole, the judiciary, with respect to the protection of civil liberties, came off reasonably well in the last decade; but this may have been the aftereffect of the more libertarian eighties and nineties, and the courts may begin to reflect the strong public preference for indefinite detention and torture (viz. the hue and cry over the planned Khalid Sheikh Muhammad trial in New York, and majority support for torture following the failed underwear bombing). The Department of Homeland Security can be viewed as the crystallization of all the police services under effective national command. Almost a decade after the annihilation of the Bill of Rights after 9/11, it is clear that the Bill of Rights is not going to be revived in anything resembling its previous state; this does not portend well for the future.

So what is the Democratic party really, and what is the Republican party? Electing Obama was an experiment in molding the nontraditional (each of his names, Barack Hussein Obama, explicitly signaling the "departure") meritocratic elite to complete conformity with the traditional elite--to bring it in line, in other words. Democratic liberalism collapsed in the last twenty years, between 1989-2009, because after the end of the communist pole, liberalism (whatever remained of it) no longer served the useful function of balancing in the middle. Its raison d'etre was extinguished, and the effects are now clearly felt. Liberalism works best when it mediates between the right and the left, but what if there is no left to mediate against? The result of the collapse of the liberal middle is ungovernability; the liberal elites therefore must provoke a sense of permanent crisis (terrorism, global warming, economic depression, what have you) to enact the corporatist consensus into legislation. It does not bode well for a second term for Obama that charismatic leadership is essential to the functioning of permanent revolution (Obama is too cool, detached, scholarly to fit the bill, as was true of Gore); hence the "failure" of Carter, George H. W. Bush, and possibly Obama, as one-term presidents.

The contradictions of liberalism, with respect to governing elites, are fully exposed. Liberals are forced to govern a mass society with no respect for the liberal creed. In the mass society, people are looking for rulers in their own image, hence the choice of Bush and Obama. Mass standards are fluid and flat. In the democratic critique of mass society, atomization leads to mass mobilization; it is noteworthy that the Reagan/Bush mobilization seems to have permanently succeeded, while Obama's halting attempted mobilization seems to have totally collapsed (as evidenced in the Massachusetts rebuke). The population has been fully ready (beginning since 1989) for new communities. Since totalitarianism means total domination by pseudo-communities, so that there is no space left for individualism, clearly this is not the case in the U.S. We have, however, been moving consistently toward aspects of totalitarianism (nationalist militarism, buttressed by fear of the other and organized according to charismatic authority) under corporatist/institutional auspices. The elections in 2000 and 2004 took place without the specter of depression; with prolonged unemployment, the stage is set for a different kind of mass mobilization (unless the problem can be papered over in time). The Internet is the perfect means for mass mobilization, always resorting to remote objects of fear and apprehension (9/11, al-Qaeda, global warming) rather than the loss of jobs and liberties (a Scott Brown can instantly awaken latent fears by mentioning the underwear bomber).

Permanent war is a large part of this; this hasn't changed under Obama at all. Pakistan had to be pressed more closely into service, as the war in Afghanistan was escalated. Most revealing about the deep hold of corporatism is that the continuing move toward totalitarianism didn't have to be anti-institutional: the academy, press, military, and business have, on the whole, been all for it. To the extent that independent social formations are dying, we are moving toward a semblance of totalitarianism. There are only amorphous causes for the amorphous mass to follow: health care (forget getting healthier from an individual point of view), climate change (minus any fundamental shift away from consumerism), economic recovery (what do the macro numbers mean for the individual worker?), terrorism, security, safety, energy independence, immigration. Both Bush and Obama's actions fit into the perspective of the rise of the American version of corporatism, where elitism wins over equality, activism and irrationalism win over reason and contract, and the organic community wins over constitutional society. Thus, Obama cannot close Guantanamo, cannot speak once in favor of open immigration, cannot, without equivocation, abandon torture and rendition and secret prisons, cannot get out of Afghanistan and Iraq; the corporatist state, whose actual power distribution is accurately reflected in present political arrangements, wouldn't abide any such moves.

If 1989-2009 represents the completion of a cycle, how do we explain the 1990s? Whither Clintonian neoliberalism, globalization? It seems that after the economic collapse, and the concomitant rise of China, a return to Clintonian neoliberalism won't be possible. From today's vantage point, 1990s-style globalization doesn't appear that bad; but it was premised on the kind of openness to risk, change, strangeness, newness, and the outsider that has no real room in American political discourse anymore. Even though Clinton was dedicated from the first moment to the neoliberal agenda (NAFTA in 1993 being his most important accomplishment), his first two years paid some overt obeisance to corporatism as well (an abortive drive toward some sort of industrial policy, for instance, and more notably his own failed health care reform attempt). But as with the Tea Party movement in 2009, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America represented white lower-middle-class resentment toward open corporatist machinations; Clinton's last six years were dedicated to appeasing this constituency (as Obama is likely to do from this point on, though without any real return to open-minded globalization), while hoping that incomes would rise enough, across the board, for this resentment to kept under the boil. Clinton tried hard to have us define ourselves as particularistic economic interest groups (to this extent, he was weakening the hold of mass hysterias, diffuse, amorphous, and liable to latch on to the nearest available enemy); Obama, following Bush, shows no such talent or inclination.

One proposition to think about is that in the cultural aspect of the rising totalitarianism, the classes have converged in the last decade. The classes have become the masses, as a consequence of the loss of middle-class security in the last twenty years--which is itself a consequence of no longer having to compete with communism. This is another way of saying that the liberal consensus, based on some adherence to individual rights, ceased to exist after the collapse of the theoretical communist alternative for the economy. The moral crisis followed from American-style capitalism's "victory" over Soviet communism, exposing, for the first time, the hollowness of consumerism, shorn of ideological moorings. Mass psychological disability is manifest in the infantilization of the population, cutting across classes--viz., the Oprahization of social problems, the domination of memoir over fiction, etc. "Independent" voters are the majority in Massachusetts, and they are the ones who elected Scott Brown; but all political operatives, certainly Obama's advisers, are inclined to appeal to "independents." Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders are independents. Independents do not have the moral fortitude or intelligence to commit to any ideological program, since all parties, of the left or the right, would require followers to make sacrifices for the greater good at some point, whereas the independent can choose only those programs that make him feel good, and disregard everything else.

Personalities are quite beside the point in understanding Obama's first year. Obama was brought in to do a certain job by the conglomeration of corporatist forces, and he will continue to faithfully execute it until the very end (even if it means a single term for him). Unfortunately, unlike classic corporatist regimes (like Italy in the Mussolini period, or Britain before Thatcher), labor interests are vastly underrepresented, so that any "reform" legislation is brutally weighted toward business power. In the Clinton neoliberal years, populist rhetoric was noticeably absent; marginally rising prosperity made it possible to keep deferring the dream to the future. Liberal populism (Gore, Hillary Clinton, and now Obama becoming "fighters" against the very corporate interests without whose complete endorsement their existence is inconceivable), rather than real redistribution of wealth, is the only competing paradigm for public consumption, to counter the conservative populism of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.

Obama could only be tolerated to the extent that he prescribed Messianism; his followers are disappointed by his pragmatic (corporatist) tone. Obama's resort to parliamentary, non-charismatic mannerisms, during the health care debate, represented a nonviable return to technocracy. Corporatism's cover cannot come off; under the guise of external threats, its propositions can be more easily realized (as Bush often did in domestic legislation). To legitimize what the working person clearly sees as the unfairness of the corporatist consensus, Obama tried to give an extended public forum to the liberal-pluralist model in the health care debate--as if to impart a benign gloss over the undercover nature of the permanent deal. Health care dissolved into corporatist maneuvering in its classical manifestation, with the constituent groups, the insurance and drug companies above all, writing the actual bill. The spectacle was meant to convince; instead it backfired.

Fine distinctions need to be made with regard to corporatism versus fascism, neofascism, totalitarianism, democratic authoritarianism, and varieties of populism; there are overlaps, and sometimes, in the best cases, not corporatism but its more benign version, beloved of American political scientists, interest-group pluralism, seems to hold sway. Whatever version of corporatism dominates Washington, it leads to exactly the opposite consequences of what's required in legislation: health care reform, instead of simply ending private insurance companies, strengthens and enriches them; immigration reform, instead of welcoming immigrants, tightens the screws and turns away the best and the brightest, as well as the most hardworking and determined; energy reform enshrines the rights of corporations to pollute and waste; financial reform strengthens the idea of financialization as the dominant American initiative, rather than productive work; and so on for all the proposed "reforms." Meanwhile, the resentful Tea Partiers (small business, lower white-collar) represent a classic case of mobilization toward hard totalitarianism.

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