It’s amusing to see Hilary Clinton and John McCain blasting Barack Obama for his remarks explaining why despair and bitterness over the way economic elites have marginalised them economically and politically have motivated large portions of the working class to vote for politicians and issues which are utterly contrary to their economic self-interest: “It’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.”
It’s less amusing to see Obama backtracking now with his claim that “I didn’t say it as well as I should have.”
While Obama got it wrong on free trade — Chicago School free trade fanaticism has been a potent weapon for extracting surplus value from working people internationally by breaking unions and depressing wages, and people are justifiably angered about it — he got it right about the basis on which large elements of the American working class embrace right-wing causes and politicians who serve the interests of the economic elite rather than working people. There are two fundamental explanatory principles here.
First, as an insightful nineteenth-century political economist put it, religion is the opiate of the masses. There is a direct correlation internationally and in the U.S. between the degree of economic pain which globalisation and other forms of primitive accumulation against labour have imposed and the rise in the prevalence of fundamentalist religiosity since the late 1970s. The rise of the Religious Right and their issues in American politics, and their attraction to elements of the working class, are directly tied to this. When it looks like nothing can be done because the system is owned lock, stock, and barrel by an economic elite who profit from gutting your union, shipping your job to a Chinese slave-labour factory, plundering your pension fund, and dropping your health care, people get religion. And right-wing politicians play on this to keep working people from effectively opposing the underlying economic causes by focusing on gay marriage, abortion, and other social issues. It’s called creating false consciousness.
Second, it is a well-known phenomenon that in the absence of a class-conscious, well-organised, effective democratic left the exacerbation of economic oppression will produce support for the Right among working people. It happened in Weimar Germany when German social democracy dithered while working-class voters divided themselves between the Nazis and the KPD. It’s not surprising that the Bush administration’s penchant for corporatist-fascist ideology and the nativist Right’s racialist agenda have confused working people into supporting positions which help the economic elite keep power. We haven’t had a serious democratic left in this country since the Great Depression (some people might argue that we’ve never had a serious democratic left in the way European countries have).
I see nothing in Obama’s original remarks — the reference to ”anti-trade sentiment” aside — which isn’t entirely defensible.
In fact, it would have been refreshing as hell to have heard Obama respond to Clinton that eight years of her and her husband selling out the Democratic Party working-class base, trying to abolish the New Deal, blocking a single-payer national health care system on behalf of their buddies in the insurance industry, and triangulating on making the Gingrich agenda on everything but abortion the DLC agenda, while stuffing corporate cash into their pockets as fast as they could raise it (confirmed by their joint tax returns since leaving office), have led a lot of working people to despair about politics and embrace right-wing social and religious issues.
But that isn’t going to happen, largely because the principal difference between Obama and Clinton is that he hasn’t been around long enough to get his snout into the corporate trough as deeply as the Clintons, but he has hopes with his millionaire fundraisers. So he backtracks.