The Last Good Emperor

Americans imagine the terms of our Presidents to be eras, self contained stories of men, who through the force of their personalities, promises, policies, and the capital they can muster are able to ascend to the top of our brutal political system. We modern, Enlightened Westerners tend to like to see our history as a series of events defined by great men, or at least great causes. The grand narrative, the charge of forces of civilization against barbarism. So many of us, more than we who style ourselves intellectuals would ever like to admit, look up at great men and still see a King, an Emperor. Eras are reigns to us, or to many of us, and the intricately cultivated fiction we perpetuate ourselves through our media, our schools, our busy lives in an increasingly inhumane society, keeps this myth of the age maker, the peacekeeper, the war fighter, the exemplar through deed and, increasingly, through blood alive and well in our conception of our national selves.

President Barack Obama was a great man to many people, if not through the force of his deed than by the compelling nature of his story, his stolid demeanor, his charming family, and, perhaps more than anything else, his intellectualism. How we have defined genius overtime has varied so greatly, changed so radically from era to era and from person to person, that while it is true Obama created no great work of literature, no great treatise (though many well wrought essays and articles), no revolutionary theory, he is in fact a genius. Obama succeeded in political organization and political messaging in a way which will become the new, perhaps the final, standard against which all campaigns for the Presidency will be judged. On paper, or on the glowing screen, Obama is the perfect man to rule a country that exists only in the mind: a benevolent empire which through performative democratic symbols had elevated a man who truly matched the grandeur of the office of the US Presidency.

Many pundits, those overpriced soothsayers of republicanism, still believe Obama’s election was the culmination of a progressive left reaction to the carnage and cynicism of the Bush II years. America was ready for a progressive turn, for a New New Deal (the Shangri-La of Liberal establishment figures), for a second run at Camelot, this time without the bawdy undercurrent, and the bloody ending. I believe it is wrong to see the election of Obama as the voters and the establishment wanting to usher in an inchoate progressive Renaissance. In fact, I see Obama’s anointment (and it is so very royal, our Presidency, as though we were only able to take the monarchy out of the office, but not the monarchical aura off of the office holder) as an almost panicked embrace of Conservatism, a Rockwellian fantasy which, as opposed to rejecting the conjured up values of the “Golden Age of America”, embraces them, indeed expands their scope to include the newly “liberated” voices and dreams of the various groups that make up non-white America. This was not the rejection of the American Dream, the embrace of Obama & his Era, this was the desegregation, from the top down of course, of the American Dream.

This Conservatism, Obamaism if you will, is non-exclusionary, at least not in an conscious sense, is largely a petty bourgeois liberal capitalist phenomenon, is globalist and expansionist, and has a diligently maintained aura of reluctant neo-conservatism. It is not the contrived “3rd Way” nonsense of Clintonism and Blairism, the cynical pantomiming of progressive values while instituting the dismantling the shattered remains of the welfare state and replacing it with deregulated capitalist oligarchy backed up by brutal military force. Obamaism is an aspirational, self-consciously naive in the sense of what unregulated (or tokenly regulated) free market capitalism can achieve for the world. If a few more billionaires are created along the way, all the better! An illuminating incident with a self-styled plumber during the 2012 Presidential campaign throws Obama sincere belief in a compassionate free market, a belief in a benevolent empire, into stark relief


Right now, everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.


The atavistic right wingers who controlled the Republican system and associated media jumped on this statement and tried to use it in a propagandic matter as a sort of Marxist statement, a line right out of Das Kapital. The entire conversation was about the tax code and its impact on non corporate and smaller businesses. Obama preached of tax incentives, and investment, and a fruitful public/private alliance. The whole “Obama’s Declaration of Marxist Intent” quote, in context


If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re going to be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, Right now, everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.


This is a textbook defense of free market liberalism, of the neoliberal code of ethics. All the wheeling and dealing and regretful, benevolent imperialism is in pursuit of this idea: capitalism, if nudged just a little bit along, can be great for everyone. So what if there are still billionaires and a corporate oligarchy steering an imperialist ship of state, most people can potentially live a lower middle class two income lifestyle!  Obama is the ideal American Conservative: the kind capitalist, the reforming authoritarian, the sincere paterfamilias, the sober Enlightened Liberal. Obama’s flirtation with radicalism in his earlier years was formative, though he was never as actively radical as the far right paint him as and desperately need him to be. He was, nonetheless, plugged into the fading undercurrent of Left Radicalism/Terrorism/Praxis of 1960s-70’s nonetheless, being feted by the aging who’s who of Weather Underground and other radical and student activist groups. What Obama took from these encounters was less a mission than a mindset, a way of organizing and understanding politics, as well as a cache with a certain easily impressed segment of  bourgeois left liberals.

Obama would become a community organizer, a functionary of a liberal system of welfare and reform which could co-exist with, even thrive under, free market capitalism. A focus on “education”, on a Booker T. Washington-esque moralistic view of black culture and progress, an obsession with reform through harmonizing & desegregating existing systems, along with an aspirational, measured optimism. Obamaism is the culmination of the gentrification of the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy and theology by the liberal establishment, a process which includes the mythologization of his life, the appropriation of his words and image, and his deification (and annexation) by the state through a holiday. Gone is the Christian Socialism, the Gandhian fusion of Ahimsa and Swarj, the focus on the poor, the critique of industrial age materialism. All that remains is a man carved in stone, who said beautiful things, with a dream that has now come true. And when your dream has come true, that means it’s time to stop dreaming, and “get real”.

There was hope Obama would be less prone to military adventurism, and this was true to a degree, with no new mass invasions of sovereign states. State violence, however, merely went more covert, more institutionalized. The transparent self interest behind the premature awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, that signifier of the European form of what we know of as Obamaism, personified by affectedly benevolent conservatives like France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel, was helpful in facilitating cover for Obama’s increasingly effective neoconservative imperialism. The drone program inaugurated by the Bush II regime was fully absorbed into mammoth machinery of the defense establishment and system. The drone would be the tool the Obama Administration would use to enforce conditions suitable for capital and to maintain the frontiers of the Empire.

Targeted assassinations, mass electronic espionage, use of proxies and covert operatives against foreign nations, information warfare, digital warfare, dirty tricks, corporatized NGOs, the continuation of the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the support of violent right wing regimes, sabotaging or rigging elections, the Obama Administration used them all in great service to the capitalist system and the empire needed to maintain it all. And, it must be said, he was popular while doing these things. Much of the American proletariat is not yet fully class conscious, much less radicalized or allowed the time or resources to educate themselves in dissecting political propaganda, and the nationalism of the US state is deeply ingrained in our cultural and family rituals and in our civic morality.

It is enough, for most Americans, that Obama was a kind man, by all accounts a good father, attentive and loving husband, and a truly engaging and charismatic person. All the better, too, that he could write well, speak beautifully, and was clearly a true intellectual. That he turned out to be relatively scandal free in an institutional sense was the cherry on top. Post Nixonian corruption, Post Clintonian sleaziness, Post Bush II recklessness, what more could be desired from a leader, an era, from Obamaism? As long as the world is made safe for the American Dream, and especially if the man making that safe world made them feel good about themselves, most Americans will excuse, or ignore, any crime, any violation of (non-American) dignity, any perpetuation of privileged systems, any deal struck with the capitalist classes. I am not a nihilist when it comes to the potential of the American proletariat, not in the least, but I am a pessimist. It will take a truly revolutionary change in the way the proletariat is educated and understands itself, before anything better than Obamaism can be expected from the US system as it has currently constituted itself. It may well take the complete collapse or destruction of the US state before a space can be found where revolutionary action can be fruitfully directed to achieve real change.

Most Americans love their Presidents, many even deify them. America has been compared and contrasted to Rome far too many times in far too many fatuous & unhelpful ways. I am not going to extend the comparison here. We are not Rome, we will not End how Rome Ended. We are, however, an empire, a powerful one, though increasingly less so. Obama was a competent and ethical leader of that empire, a smart leader, a dignified leader. He was a good emperor, an American Aurelius one who believed like this ancient personage that a leader of the empire must “waste no more time arguing what a good man should be”; he should simply “Be one.” Like the Roman Philosopher Emperor, he was a thoughtful, brilliant despot. And he would also most likely be the last of his kind.