Paul Street Speaks on Empire and Political Imagination in America
A small but enthusiastic group gathered on the fifth floor of the Chinatown community center, encuentro 5, last night to hear historian and author Paul Street talk about his new book, The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power. This stop on Street's book tour was hosted by Charngchi Way of the online anarchist radio show, The Authority Smashing Hour.
Street identified himself as an eclectic leftist, with influences that criss-cross the marxist-anarchist divide. He began his talk with an apology for focusing on Barack Obama. "I don't believe in the Great Man theory of history," he said, but decided to take Paradigm Publishers advice that it would help him get his ideas out and sell the book.
Street dispels the popular mystification of Obama by putting his administration in the context of the man's own history, as well as that of the Democratic Party and US History. In many ways Street's latest book is a follow up to his last title, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. "Obama's policies are completely predictable for anyone who read the fine print." Street told his audience. Rather than holding Obama to utopian ideals, Street choose to measure Obama with the standards proposed by the mainstream liberal left. Even from that metric, there is a book's worth of disappointment to write about. While the liberal establishment and their base were falling in love with Barack Obama the community organizer (itself an embellished story that Street dissects), the wealthy power brokers had already vetted Obama for his 2004 US Senate campaign. "They had serious material interests at stake and they decided to invest in him."
Street is careful to credit Obama for the things he has done for progressives, such as lifting the ban on stem cell research, ending White House denial on the human causation of climate change, and scrapping the global gag rule on abortion counseling abroad. But taken as a whole, the uniformity of his betrayal to the progressive agenda is overwhelming: immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, bringing the troops home, ending police state tactics, meaningful health care reform, gay rights, Supreme Court appointments, shuttering Guantánamo and so on. Street left his audience with the impression that the liberal establishment, which has based their power on having the ear of the Democratic Party, could have a crisis of legitimacy if Obama and Congress fail to so much as throw them a bone. But who would take their place? And what are the consequences when the two party electoral system ensures that alternatives will be excluded?
Street puts a silver lining on the election of Barack Obama by suggesting that "no amount of lecturing" the younger generation that grew up under the Bush administration can match the experience of betrayal to corporate power and imperial rule under Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. "[The Democrats] are more effectively exposed as inadequate tribunes of the working people they claim to represent when they hold power," Street says. But to take advantage of this disillusionment, Street estimates the left will have to demonstrate a greater organizational capacity and willingness to struggle from the bottom up than it has in the last twenty years.
The incrementalism of Obama's stalwarts is no longer the pragmatic alternative to revolution Street explained in closing. With particular reference to "the profit driven system of global warming" Street concluded his lecture with a quote from Ricardo Levins Morales who observes "we have transitioned from a system of political letter grades to one of pass or fail. We either make the leap or not."
Paul Street is an adept speaker with an impressive range of knowledge on both current policy issues and American history. His book will undoubtedly be a valuable resource for helping progressives still high on hope from 2008, to come down to Earth and join the social movements that continue "beneath and beyond the quadrennial elections."
The 1 hour 1 minute audio recording of the talk can be played directly on this page or downloaded from the Internet Archive audio service in the free software Ogg Vorbis format. Download the free softwareVLC Player to play Ogg Vorbis files on your own computer.
Audio by Charngchi Way.
Matthew Andrews is on the cooperative business staff of Open Media Boston.
To follow Paul Street or order his new book The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power, visit: