The Obama economy on May Day: "It could have been worse" isn't nearly enough

Irony abounds: The president defends his economic legacy -- on the international workers' holiday the U.S. ignores

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 1, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Barack Obama   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Mary Altaffer/Photo montage by Salon)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Mary Altaffer/Photo montage by Salon)

It’s the weekend of May Day, a holiday with ancient roots and a modern history that is celebrated around the globe to honor both the international labor movement and the annual rebirth of the natural world. Or rather, a holiday celebrated around the globe in every country but one. You get exactly one guess, and one chance to explain why. Labor Day in the United States, that BBQ-flavored holiday that adds one last day to so many summer vacations, was specifically created (according to some historians) by President Grover Cleveland in order to separate America’s working class from its brothers and sisters around the world.

I don’t want to rain on anybody’s Labor Day picnic, but Cleveland’s plan (if it was a plan) was largely successful. May Day belongs to an entire category of class-based political and economic discourse that Americans generally avoid, or circle around with intense awkwardness. With the unexpected and startling emergence of such issues as economic inequality and political oligarchy, which the Bernie Sanders campaign has catalyzed and channeled but certainly did not create, May Day of 2016 seems charged with a new sense of possibility, even on our benighted shores.

America’s leadership caste hasn’t quite gotten the message, unsurprisingly enough, or at any rate is working as hard as possible to avoid it. It surely is no accident that the editors of the New York Times Magazine chose May 1 to publish a special issue on the state of the nation’s economy. All too revealingly, it is titled “The Money Issue: The Search for the Middle Class.” In any sober discussion of the American economy, held among grownups who know how things really work, capital comes first, and people second. And the only class that is remotely of interest in such a discussion — the only class officially deemed to exist at all — is the so-called middle class, a mythological stratum of contented consumers who serve to anchor social order and stability.

For Barack Obama, who discussed his economic successes and failures in a lengthy interview with Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, May Day may seem like a relic from the divisive and irrelevant past of labor strife and overt class conflict, which the modern global economy has left behind. Obama makes a coherent case, during his conversations with Sorkin, that his economic policies have simultaneously been more effective and more progressive than either his critics on the left or right are likely to admit. But it’s equally true that he never sounds more like a bloodless technocrat than when discussing these things. Obama describes the process of moving American companies and jobs overseas, for instance, as “inversion” — a term of art unfamiliar to most people, but which Obama could be sure Sorkin would understand.

In a passage Sorkin interprets as a dig at the economic populism variously represented by Sanders and Donald Trump, Obama implies that the radical notion that working people should have some job security, or that everyone is entitled to a decent standard of living and basic guarantees of health and welfare, is old-fashioned and unsustainable. “Engaging in those hard changes that we need to make to create a more nimble, dynamic economy doesn’t yield immediate benefits and can seem like a distraction or an effort to undermine a bygone era that doesn’t exist,” the president told Sorkin. “And that then feeds, both on the left and the right, a temptation to say, ‘If we could just go back to an era in which our borders were closed,’ or ‘If we could just go back to a time when everybody had a defined-benefit plan,’ or ‘We could just go back to a time when there wasn’t any immigrant that was taking my job, things would be OK.’”

I don’t know about you, but “nimble, dynamic economy” is one of those political euphemisms that give me the whim-whams. It sounds like something the silk-hatted Victorian factory owner says, right before he feeds the children their dinner inside the machines. (Or like something the protagonist played by Tom Hiddleston in the dystopian fantasy “High-Rise” might think aloud, while barbecuing the dog.) “Hard changes” are needed, and perhaps you and I won’t reap the benefits. But our grandchildren, presuming the species and the planet endure that long, will be grateful for our nimbleness, our leanness, our willingness to do as we’re told and keep getting stepped on, over and over, for our own good.

Notice the suggested equivalence at work in that suspiciously eloquent presidential monologue: The Trump agenda of closed borders and trade barriers is an irrational, nonsensical vision from a “bygone era,” and so is the Sanders agenda of single-payer healthcare and free college education. Oh, those wistfully remembered days when “everybody had a defined-benefit plan”! Granted, Obama did not say those fanciful visions were exactly the same, and quite likely he is more sympathetic to one of them, in abstract terms, than the other. But the inference is that they belong to the same category of weird and silly throwback ideas from the past that won’t work and ought not to be taken seriously. It’s like, first we’re gonna have “defined benefits” for everyone, and then we’re going on a double date to the sock hop and the malt shop. It’ll be swell!

This reflects an ideological creed that lies at the heart of the contemporary Democratic Party, and that appears in slightly different guises on both sides of the partisan divide. (At least conventionally: No one can explain what the Republican Party is right now or whether it holds any core beliefs, let alone what it will look like tomorrow.) This creed is the elite consensus summarized in the 1990s by Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, and dispensed ever since, in dumbed-down retail fashion, by the maddening Times columnist David Brooks. It amounts to the idea that market capitalism, if managed correctly, will resolve all social problems and class antagonisms, and spread liberal democracy and “human rights” to all corners of the globe. The end.

Even Fukuyama and Brooks would now agree that history did not end in some steady-state universe of permanent prosperity. Brooks’ ritualistic self-abasement and eating of crow during the 2016 cycle have been gruesomely enjoyable, I have to admit. This week Brooks admitted that he hadn’t seen the Trumpocalypse coming because he had “slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.” This is of course the entire basis for everything written in the New York Times; Brooks deserves some credit, for once, for noticing it.

There has been considerable disagreement about exactly how to manage market capitalism for its best outcomes, especially in the wake of the massive systemic crisis and collapse of 2008. Furthermore, the Euro-American elites who have ruled the world economy for 70 years have discovered that the world does not unanimously applaud their efforts, and that many different people in many different places (for many different reasons) don’t want the Western combo platter of market capitalism and liberal democracy imposed by force. If Islamic extremism on the ISIS model represents one form of resistance, the Greek political and economic revolt of 2015 — the one that IMF head Christine Lagarde famously said could only be resolved by getting “adults in the room” — represents another. No one would argue that those things are identical, but from the point of view of the planet’s economic overlords, neither is acceptable.

As I suggested earlier, Obama’s defense of his economic legacy in the Sorkin interview is sophisticated, and worth taking seriously; it can’t be dismissed with left-wing one-liners. He contends that given the political constraints of his administration and the scale of the crisis he inherited in January 2009, he did a remarkable job of restarting and repairing the American economy. Critics on his left fail to appreciate the true scale and scope of the economic stimulus package he engineered — Sorkin dubs it a “stealth stimulus” whose true value approaches $1.4 trillion — while critics on his right see everything, the president argues, through ideological blinkers handed down from the Reagan years.

There is merit to those arguments, and also an ingrained inability to see their limitations. What I perceive in the Sorkin interview is that Obama has sincerely tried to hew a path through what might be called the center-left of mainstream economics. He has pursued a reform agenda that (in his telling) is more ambitious than it appears on the surface, in hopes of renewing capitalism’s promise of universal prosperity and relative social harmony. Obama is eager, he tells Sorkin, to move the American political conversation past “the mythology around austerity politics or tax cuts, or the mythology that’s been built up around the Reagan revolution.” He does not, however, seem to question the mythology built up around capitalism itself, the idea that so-called free markets dominated by large corporations and financial institutions, and driven toward the endless expansion of production and consumption, will benefit everyone and comprise the natural and necessary ground for democracy.

Even within his own conception of reality, Obama seems only partly aware that rising share prices and corporate profits, and impressive growth in private-sector job creation, do not tell the whole story. The fact that real wages have fallen precipitously for most working Americans, or that the yawning gulf between wealth and poverty — and the gulf between the super-rich and everyone else — has continued to worsen, is barely mentioned, and mostly as a perplexing political distraction. Sorkin notices this too, and turns to an unlikely source to make this point: Bill Clinton.

“Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America” painted by Obama, the former president said at a recent campaign appearance for his wife, “and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives.” Working people who can’t pay the bills are “upset,” “anxiety-ridden” and “disoriented,” Clinton continued, when we keep insisting that the economy is improving while they can see no signs of that in their own lives.

Arguably Bill Clinton has a lot of nerve talking that way, considering how much his administration did to deregulate the financial sector and grease the skids that led to the crash of 2008. But the Clintons have always possessed an ability to speak old-time Democratic Party lingo, even as they drove the party into the pockets of Wall Street. One of the many reasons why the 2016 campaign has been the weirdest anyone can remember is that conventional notions of “right” and “left” have come unglued. As something of an old-school Cold War liberal, for instance, Hillary Clinton could plausibly be described as somewhat to the left of Obama on economic policy, but somewhat to the right of Donald Trump on foreign policy.

For someone of Obama’s technocratic and overtly non-ideological cast of mind — for Andrew Ross Sorkin, for instance, who is second to none as an apologist for capitalism — Trump and Sanders may not be morally equivalent but are almost equally distressing. They represent the return of the repressed, the resurgence of the material contradictions, class conflict and politics of resentment that capitalism in its ideal form was supposed to sweep away. (Communism, in its ideal form, was supposed to do that too.) May Day demonstrates how deeply that repression remains woven into America’s national identity: Working people around the world will honor the day as an observance of what they can accomplish when they come together. In our country, it will pretty much be ignored.

As Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama are surely aware, despite the association of May Day with European socialism and Soviet-style Communism, the international workers’ holiday has distinctive American roots. This whimsical 1986 essay by historian Peter Linebaugh suggests that May Day is a prominent example of the phenomenon Michael Moore explores in his recent film “Where to Invade Next”: Progressive reforms or innovations found around the world, which look radical to 21st-century American eyes, often originated in the United States, before being scourged out of us by decades of Reaganite brainwashing.

In its modern incarnation, May Day goes back to the “Haymarket riot” of 1886, an event that was overlooked or misrepresented for many decades in official versions of American history. Exactly what happened remains in dispute even after 130 years. We can say for sure that Chicago’s labor movement, dominated by German-born anarchists and socialists (and hence seen as treasonous by many native-born Americans), called for a general strike on May 1 of that year, to support its worldwide campaign for an eight-hour workday. Three days later, on the night of May 4, police moved in to break up a rally of strikers in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and started busting heads. Someone threw a homemade dynamite bomb — maybe a local anarchist, maybe an outside agitator and maybe a police provocateur. No one will ever know that for sure. In the ensuing melee 11 people died, including seven police officers, while dozens more were injured. (Some accounts suggest that many police officers may have shot each other amid the confusion, but that strikes me as a pointless tangent.)

Major American newspapers, including the one that now employs Andrew Ross Sorkin, reported on the event in tones of hysterical outrage, and with little regard for the facts. It was a full-fledged terrorist panic, strikingly similar to the one we just went through after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. The Times claimed that one of the orators at the rally had incited the crowd to violence and that 12 policemen had been killed (both false), adding in an editorial two days later that “the villainous teachings of the Anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago.” Labor activists were rounded up all over the city with no semblance of due process, and whether or not they had been anywhere near Haymarket Square. Eight men were convicted on elaborate conspiracy charges, only one of whom had any plausible connection to the bombing, whose actual perpetrator evidently got away. Four were ultimately hanged.

In 1890, the socialist Second International called for worldwide demonstrations to honor the memory of the “Chicago martyrs” and their fight for an eight-hour day. That event was a huge success, and by the early 20th century May Day had become an official holiday of the international labor movement. Given that the Haymarket affair represented a violent crescendo of the conflict between capital and labor in America, and was widely understood as an act of violent government repression and a gross miscarriage of justice, the general American amnesia around May Day and its origins is not terribly surprising.

As Linebaugh details, Congress and various state legislatures have occasionally tried to short-circuit May Day by designating May 1 as some über-patriotic observance: Americanism Day, Loyalty Day and, in 1958, as Law Day USA. Apparently the U.S. Senate chaplain observed this occasion two years later by preaching a sermon on the theme of “Obedience to Authority” and suggesting the hymn “Make Me a Captive, Lord, and Then I Shall Be Free.” Law Day seems to have faded away, although the American Bar Association has an exceptionally boring website devoted to the topic. But the reasons why America doesn’t celebrate May Day keep coming back, like the fruits of a bad conscience.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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