Of all the irritations that come with making a living as a university professor, and there are quite a few, the inability to do much in the way of "reading for pleasure" during the school year is at the top of my list. I'm talking minor irritants, mind you. Don't get me started on the major league indignities that come with working in academia. In any event, at this time of year I like to kick back and catch up on some reading: fiction, nonfiction, it's all good.
One item I've been meaning to read for some time now is Canadian journalist Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. I've read any number of Ms. Klein's essays for The Nation, Mother Jones and other progressive publications. What's more, I've heard her speak on many occasions -- most recently during Democracy Now!'s exceptional coverage of the climate change meeting in Copenhagen earlier this month. However, this is the first time that I've sat down to read one of her books.
For those unfamiliar with The Shock Doctrine, it is a sprawling investigative piece that analyzes free market fundamentalism's modus operandi when the shit hits the fan. In a nutshell, Klein argues that in times of crisis -- natural catastrophes, war, terrorist attacks --"disaster capitalism" descends on devastated communities, like New Orleans, and even whole societies, such as Iraq, with two distinct but related motives.
"Klein argues that in times of crisis -- natural catastrophes, war, terrorist attacks -- 'disaster capitalism' descends on devastated communities, like New Orleans, and even whole societies, such as Iraq, with two distinct but related motives."
The first is to maximize profits for private corporations -- engineering firms like Halliburton and Bechtel, or private security companies such as Blackwater -- charged with "reconstruction" efforts. The second is to take advantage of crisis situations to dramatically transform public policy. Specifically, disaster capitalism seeks to remove anything resembling government regulation and oversight, let alone public accountability, from the marketplace. In this way, business interests are free to let the market work its "magic."
In her introduction, Klein quotes Chicago School Economist Milton Friedman -- a leading advocate of free market economics and, according to Klein, one of the founding fathers of the "shock doctrine" -- on the subject of radical reform projects. Of course, Friedman's idea of radical reform is to privatize public goods and services such as housing, hospitals and schools, whenever the opportunity presents itself. For instance, Klein notes Friedman's last op-ed piece called for the privatization of New Orleans's public schools in the aftermath of the floods that crippled the Crescent City in August 2005.
Notwithstanding the antidemocratic and morally repugnant character of his economic philosophy, one of Friedman's observations about the importance of seizing the moment got me thinking about Barack Obama and the historic challenges, and opportunities, he has had during his first year in office. According to Friedman, "a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major policy changes: if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity." These words should be a wakeup call for progressives and others who placed such high hopes on candidate Obama.
Indeed, on any number of issues -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, climate change, civil liberties, Wall Street bailouts, warrantless wiretaps, illegal detentions and the use of private contractors in military operations -- Obama has squandered his considerable political capital to change American politics and society.
For a great many his supporters, Obama's presidency is the story of opportunities lost.
Though disheartening, this is by no means the only assessment of the Obama administration. As pundits and partisans line up to evaluate Obama's first year in office, several media narratives emerge. The first, let's call it "Wing Nuts Gone Wild," is at once ludicrous and deadly serious. Here, I'm thinking of the race-baiting rhetoric associated with the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin: two of the foremost practitioners of 21st century demagoguery. Beck and Palin have tapped into popular discontent and, through their dangerous alchemy, transformed it into populist rage.
"Klein notes Friedman's last op-ed piece called for the privatization of New Orleans's public schools in the aftermath of the floods that crippled the Crescent City in August 2005."
A second line of thinking, espoused by those we might refer to as "Obama Apologists," contends that the dynamic, young president simply had too much to handle in this first year. Apologists further contend that Obama's principled approach to bipartisanship was met with scorn from rank-and-file Republicans. Given the circumstances, Obama has done a fine job: after all the economy is coming back, or at least Wall Street seems to be doing better. And the Democrats will take all of the credit (and none of the blame) for a watered-down health care bill. On the bright side, at least his decision to double down in Afghanistan enjoys support on both sides of the aisle.
Then there are those who feel "betrayed" by Obama. Let's call them the "The League of Wishful Thinkers." A great many liberals and progressives are included in their ranks. And they have raised a great hew and cry across the land that their candidate of "hope" and "change" has turned his back on them. This is, perhaps, the most irksome of recent assessments of Obama's first year in office.
During the campaign, Obama made his positions quite clear. For instance, he supported "clean coal" -- a myth that only a coal company executive could love. Likewise, Obama made it clear he was going to "fight the right war" in Afghanistan. True to his word, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan. It is less clear how many private military contractors will also take part in the Afghan surge.
And then there's Obama's decision to allow Wall Street insiders, like Lawrence Summers, director of the White House's National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Gietner to " reform" the financial services industry. Under Obama, the foxes are, once again, guarding the hen house.
Finally, his much-touted "health care overhaul" was always tempered by a reluctance to even consider a single-payer option. Is it any wonder, given how thoroughly the health industry has captured both houses of Congress, that at the end of the day Obama's "reform" amounts to nothing more than a taxpayer subsidy for the insurance industry?
In this light, any suggestion that Obama has "betrayed" his supporters misses the mark. In many respects, Obama has been true to his word. The problem is, his rhetoric of change lacked any real specifics. What's more, his campaign was clearly indebted to the "New Democrat" philosophy associated with the Clintons: a politics predicated on polling, perception management and political expediency.
"On any number of issues ... Obama has squandered his considerable political capital to change American politics and society."
Like so many in his party, Obama is indebted to the financial services industry. And, as Senate Democrats demonstrated so dramatically this past week, few of our elected representatives have the political will to take on the health care industries. It's much easier to take their money and cut some deals. In short, Obama was certainly a welcome relief from the bald-faced criminality of the Bush administration; however, he was never one to mount a serious challenge to the status quo.
This is not to say that he didn't have his chance. When Obama took office last January, there was a palpable sense of possibility in the air. No more. If we want change we can believe in, we're going to have to do it for ourselves.
To borrow a phrase from candidate Obama: our time is now.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of the recently released Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia. He can be reached at email@example.com.