It was a touching image, especially for someone like me who grew up in a racially charged city in northern New Jersey, for whom Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons constituted a singular image of a post-racist future even as local cops could still harass and brutalise young black men with relative impunity.
And now thirty years later, America’s quintessential working-class rock icon was on stage in Madison, Wisconsin, embracing its first black president, Barack Obama, after delivering a rousing speech in support of the President’s record.
“The civil rights struggle, the peace movement, the women’s movement,” Bruce began, listing some of the historic moments he’s lived through. “We played in Berlin the year before the wall fell, we were with Amnesty International the year before the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid. These were days when you could feel the winds of change moving and the world shifting beneath your feet. And we [all] remember another galvanising moment: The night that President Obama was elected.
“It was an unbelievable evening… when the hopes of your heart felt fulfilled, when you could feel the locked doors of the past blown open to new and unimaginable possibilities, to hope and to change.”
Myths versus reality
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Whether or not you voted for Obama in 2008, it was hard not to be teary-eyed on election night watching an African American man win the presidency of a country that during his lifetime was still routinely lynching black men. The possibilities for changing the system did seem, if not quite unimaginable, than uniquely possible: If the United States could elect a black man whose middle name was Hussein, perhaps it could tackle the underlying systemic political and economic issues that had produced the series of crises that rocked the last years of the Bush presidency.
That things haven’t turned out quite as most people who voted for Obama had hoped they would is an understatement. For those who support the President, the reasons given for the failure to bring about significant change outside of healthcare vary from a hostile Congress to an over-willingness to compromise on core issues, to a system that’s just too big and entrenched to change in a generation, never mind four years.
Such arguments do not give Obama enough credit for having a vision and in fact implementing it during his first term – of both crafting a vision for and reshaping American society to a specifically conservative, technocratic vision that will disempower the working class, minorities and ultimately all non-elite Americans as much and quite possibly more than would the policies of his Republican opponent.
In two recent articles (here and here), long-time Democratic operative Matt Stoller lays out a damning indictment against Obama for betraying the progressive vision that helped elect him even before he assumed Office, beginning with his veto during the transition of a plan to write down mortgages and forestall foreclosures (which would have saved the homes of many hundreds of thousands of Americans) and continuing with his failure to act on promises to increase minimum wage, prevent the hiring of replacement workers and support labour protections in the FAA bill.
Moreover, Obama’s utter inaction on the single most dangerous threat to the planet – climate change – early in his term while he still had significant political capital to expend will go down as one of the worst presidential decisions of the post-War era. On the other hand, the President’s all-out assault on civil liberties, whistle blowers, and habeas corpus, the ongoing war on drugs and large-scale incarceration of young (and especially young minority) men, his increased deportations of undocumented immigrants, promotion of extra-judicial murder and indefinite detention of anyone, anywhere – including American citizens – his continued support of brutal authoritarian governments across the world (note to Bruce: Apartheid didn’t end with the release of Nelson Mandela as you declared; it is alive and well in American allies like Israel and Bahrain), ramping up of oil and gas production while abandoning far-sighted plans to make renewable energy production a centrepiece of the US economy, are all threatening some of the most fundamental constitutional protections Americans have enjoyed for two centuries. At the same time, they are laying the groundwork for a US economy even more dominated by the petroleum and related industries than it already is, with all the ecological and political dangers a “petro-state” would create.
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If these issues weren’t enough to make Springsteen more suspect of the President’s intentions and his policies, if not outright hostile, there is the reality that wages have continued to stagnate for working class men and women even as corporate profits have once against soared. Income inequality has greatly intensified – not despite, but in good measure because of Obama’s policies. In fact, the economic and other material conditions of African Americans in particular have demonstrably worsened during Obama’s tenure.
Simply put, the tragedy of the Obama Presidency is, to quote the lyrics from one of Springsteen’s songs, “The Ghost of Tom Joad“, that the “new world order” he railed against in the song has been hammered even harder into place by a president who more than anyone before him had the moral and historical mandate to challenge the system that produced it.
“The highway is alive tonight, But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes,” Springsteen sings, echoing the sentiments of the song’s main character, named after the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Even as he tried to recapture the essential optimism of the otherwise bleak novel by quoting Tom Joad’s famous soliloquy to his mother (“Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand, Or decent job or a helpin’ hand. Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free. Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me”) Springsteen clearly understood that in the new world order such sentiments belonged to ghosts more than to the living.
Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama – it’s hard to decide who of the last four presidents has done more to expand neoliberal capitalism’s grip on the American and world economies and politics. What seems clear is that the alternation of Republican and Democratic administrations has served the system incredibly well, variously distracting, coopting, deflecting and redirecting opposition to specific policies while the larger US and global political economies and cultures move unalterably to the right and strengthen the power of transnational corporate capitalism over and against governments and non-elite citizens.
Yet, it’s true that we live in a very imperfect world and that Barack Obama at least has the virtue of being the lesser of two evils compared with his Republican challenger. As one friend pointed out to me, the lesser of two evils actually means there’s less evil: Fewer people will die because they have no health care, and hopefully the US will not be as likely to bomb Iran in the near future. And how can one oppose that?
But the reality is that Obama is as much a creature of the system as is Romney. And this system is moving inexorably towards plutocracy, with all the political, social and economic violence such a systems have always produced. Indeed, when Springsteen sang in perhaps his most political (and certainly misunderstood) song, “Born in the USA”, he was “born down in a dead man town. The first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much. Till you spend half your life just covering up”; when he complains of being “sent off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man”, he’s describing Obama’s America today as much as Reagan’s America thirty years ago.
The genius of the system is that while Bruce would have at least wanted to hit Reagan over the head with his guitar had he been standing in close proximity to him in the 1980s, yesterday he was hugging Obama and thanking him for his policies, even as so many of the things for which he expressed thanks – regulating Wall Street, keeping Americans safe, fighting the increasing disparities in wealth – are things Obama simply has not done.
How to keep hope alive?
This brings us to the crux of the problem. If it turns out that Mitt Romney wins the presidency, progressives will be devastated but at least they will know who their enemy is, while Americans more broadly will be faced with the stark reality of the system they democratically chose. The costs of a country and a world dominated by naked neoliberalism and its pernicious brand of governmentality, at home and abroad, will at least be impossible to deny or ignore.
But if Obama wins today, will progressives really come out tomorrow and push back against his policies as relentlessly as they would against Romney? Will Bruce write songs about all the losses of the Obama years? Will he direct a level of anger at Obama in six months that’s commensurate with the adulation and thanks he offered yesterday? Will he, Jay-Z and Beyonce spearhead a revived Occupy movement that will demand Obama live up to his promises and historic mission? Will they join his friend and touring partner Tom Morello to sing a version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (which Morello’s group, Rage Against the Machine powerfully covered) that directs the song’s unadulterated anger towards the Obama White House?
Regardless of who is elected today, Americans desperately need artistic voices who can both paint an unsparing picture of the powers arrayed against them while giving them the hope that, despite the lies and disillusionment, real change is still possible. I sure hope the Boss is up to this task, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling his shoes.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.