The Despicable Values in Obama's State of the Union Speech
Underlying every word in President Obama's State of the Union Speech, implicitly if not always explicitly, were the core values of competition (not just friendly competition as in sports, but dog-eat-dog competition that pits people against each other for their very survival) and economic inequality.
Obama began by spelling out the framework of competition and inequality by talking about "the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love" and the need to ensure that the government "encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation."
Economic inequality is the premise from which flowed the entire logic of Obama's speech, a speech that perfectly reflects the logic of our American society as presently structured--the logic of capitalism. We've all heard the logic told to us countless times before hearing it once again in Obama's speech: we have a level playing field (or at least we're working hard to make it level); we compete against each other on this level playing field and have an "Equal Opportunity" to enrich ourselves as best we can without breaking the law; to the winners go, quite properly, great wealth and the wonderful things money can buy (including political power, notwithstanding the formal "one person one vote" principle, but we don't talk about this too much), and to the losers--tough luck; without great riches awaiting the winners and only a meager "social safety net" or a minimum wage awaiting the losers there would be no motive for people to work hard and smart, no entrepreneurs making "better mouse traps" and "creating jobs," no motivation for people to work at those jobs, and no "better mouse traps" for consumers to enjoy; not only is a society based on making some people winners and other people losers good economically, it is right morally as well because this is a genuine meritocracy in which people rise or fall according only to their personal merits and not who their ancestors were (or "who you love").
One seldom hears these values of competition and inequality publicly described as despicable because they are the routinely-praised, in fact glorified, values of the small, privileged, wealthy (billions, not millions, of dollars wealthy) ruling elite that controls all the major institutions in our society, from the political parties, the big labor unions, the major religious organizations, the mass media, the corporations, the non-profit organizations and foundations, the universities and of course the government. But the fact remains that these values are diametrically the opposite of the values held by most ordinary people, who value mutual aid (concern for one another, solidarity) and not competition that pits people against one another, and who value economic (as well as political) equality and not the idea that some should be rich and others poor. Those of us who value mutual aid and equality cannot do otherwise than to declare the opposite values of competition and inequality to be despicable.
An economy based on equality and mutual aid is one based on sharing according to need among those who contribute reasonably according to ability. It is an economy in which people share the way a family shares; people don't say "I'll give you this if you give me that." One virtually never hears about the merits or even the practical possibility of a sharing economy, but that isn't because it lacks feasibility or great merit; it is because it would mean the abolition of economic inequality and a privileged, wealthy elite. But a sharing economy, in which everybody has equal status, in which work is done by equals for shared goals with democratic decision-making, in which everybody has an equal right to enjoy the fruits of the economy, and everbody who says, "Can I help?" somewhere and agrees to pitch in (or who is not reasonably expected to help, such as children or retired people) has a "job" and full membership in the sharing economy, is the kind of economy that flows from the logic of values held by most people, and it is what must be kept in mind as we examine critically what Obama is saying in his State of the Union speech.
Obama says that "our brave men and women in uniform are coming home" and "Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us" as if they were sent into harm's way so that Americans and/or foreign people could enjoy better lives. He knows that this is not why they were sent abroad, but he also knows that if the real purpose were announced--to protect the wealth and privilege and power of America's plutocracy--then Americans would be aghast.
Obama says, "we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger" as if all Americans, rich and poor alike, are one big happy family in one single union. He knows that this is the Big Lie that the billionaire rulers of America use to claim that the policies that enrich the bankers and corporations at the expense of ordinary Americans are really policies that benefit us all--that "make our union stronger."
Obama praises both parties for having "worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion" and adds, "Now we need to finish the job. And the question is, how?" Does he explain that the debt consists of money owed to the richest people in society from whom the government borrowed money (at interest)? Does he explain that the government could have taken the money from the American rich by taxing them instead, thus producing no debt in the first place? Does he explain that the reason the government didn't do this is because it is the very rich who control the government in the first place? Does he explain that the way the rich get their billions is by legalized theft from working class people who, collectively, produce all of the wealth of society from the raw materials of the earth that are rightfully the property of society and not of the rich who claim to own them? Does he explain that, far from ordinary Americans owing the rich money and needing to pay them back with taxes and things like increased bus and subway fees and all of the budget cutting and belt-tightening "austerity" schemes that state and federal governments are subjecting us to, the rich owe us money--trillions of dollars they have stolen from us over many years? Of course not, because his speech is in defense of the idea that the rich deserve their immense fortunes, and the losers of society are just out of luck.
Obama's speech aims at persuading the American public that they should be happy if the loans are repaid to the rich by means of policies that don't make ordinary Americans bear the entire burden but only some of it. As Obama put it so delicately, "But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful." Obama knows Americans want equality, so he has to figure out how to sell inequality as equality. Here he does it by stressing that rich people too, not just poor people, will shoulder some of the burden. Nevermind that some people will do their "shouldering" in mansions and private jets and yachts and others will shoulder in very different circumstances.
Obama's speech emphasizes job creation, of course. Jobs are the means by which most Americans obtain the money to purchase the small fraction of economic wealth that is entirely created by the working class, the small part that remains after the employers walk away with the rest as "profit." In our present capitalist society one needs a job to have any dignified claim to any economic wealth at all. But a job, in our capitalist society, is also an exploitative relationship whereby an employer takes from an employee wealth produced by the employee, and justifies this theft on the specious grounds that the employer "owns" the land or factory or mine or office building or equipment or whatever means of production are required by the employee to produce wealth. A job is a social relation devoid of any pretense of democracy: the boss orders the worker to do this or that and the worker does it or is fired. So every "job creation" plan that Obama cited was actually a plan to exploit workers for the benefit of employers, to maintain the smooth operation of an economy based on economic inequality and the thoroughly undemocratic boss/worker relationship, and to persuade working class Americans that they should aspire merely to "have a job," i.e., to agree that in order to have a dignified claim to even a small fraction of the economic wealth they produce they must submit to this legalized theft and exploitation by the employer class.
Obama expects to be seen as some kind of hero of the working class because he calls for raising the minimum wage. He says, "Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour." Think about it! A person who works his you-know-what off in not the most desirable working conditions, i.e., a minimum wage worker, is supposed to be happy with $9.00 per hour, which is a whopping $18,720 per year (at 40 hr/week and 52 week/yr) while another person who "works" in a luxurious office with nobody telling him or her what to do (or a person who does not work at all!) has (can one really say "earns") an income of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Is this really any different from telling a slave to be happy to have shelter and food provided by the master, instead of being left to starve out in the open? Of course for Obama it all makes perfect sense: a person earning only $9/hour will be motivated to work harder and smarter and one day become what?--a hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs defrauding and emiserating other people for a living? In the value system that Obama represents, working "smarter" means screwing other people for personal gain, and working "harder" means doing it more successfully.
Obama says he wants to improve the education of our children in public schools. He says, "Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job." Given what a "job" is in our society we can decode this statement. It means that education should prepare American children to fit into our capitalist society based on inequality and competition. A "good job" means a good job for the employer class. It means a job that enables them to exploit the worker to make a profit. For Burger King and McDonalds it means a job as a low paid hamburger flipper; for a manufacturing company it means a not-too-high paid job as an assembly line worker; for Google it means a job as a college educated person who will solve difficult problems that are given to him or her, no questions asked (Ph.D. programs aim to turn out precisely such workers.) "Successful" schools will ensure that the hamburger flipper failed the standardized test (the tests are norm-referenced, i.e. adjusted to make sure that the failure rates are what the education reformers want them to be no matter how well the students learn their lessons) and thinks he or she is not worthy of any better job. The factory worker will have received a mediocre score on the test and believe he or she's fit for a factory job but nothing higher paying. The Google worker will have passed the test with flying colors and gone on to get a college degree where, among other things, he or she will be taught that he or she is smarter and therefore more deserving than others who didn't go to college. The education reforms, all bipartisan (No Child Left Behind with its high stakes standardized testing that is turning public schools into test-prep centers with lessons designed to make students "good workers" and no lessons designed to help children become critical thinking and empowered citizens in a genuine democracy) are a form of legalized child abuse. Obama praises these reforms on the grounds that, "To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require."
Obama talks about "immigration reform," saying, "Real reform means strong border security" and it means "establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship–a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally." One would think from Obama's words that the reason all of those small farmers in Mexico left their farms and families to risk their lives crossing the border illegally into the United States to do stoop labor picking strawberries and other crops in terrible conditions or working in factories and restaurants as cheap labor, fearful of imminent deportation, especially if they complain about bad working conditions or about not being paid the meager wages they are owed--you would think these people came to the United States just because they felt like it, and in spite of the American ruling class wishing that they would stay south of our border. One would think this if one is informed about such things by our mass media. But it is all a lie.
Our rulers positively want people from south of our border to come into the United States illegally, to serve as cheap labor easily intimated by the threat of deportation, and to serve as a scapegoat for American workers to blame for "taking away jobs" and "living unfairly off our wellfare." When our rulers negotiated NAFTA with Mexico they insisted on Mexico dropping the part of its revolutionary-era Constitution that gave peasants special rights to their land. Then our government subsidized U.S. agribusiness to dump artificially cheap corn into Mexico, making it impossible for Mexican small farmers to survive economically. Except for the low paid sweat labor jobs that NAFTA created on the south side of the border, there were no jobs for these farmers; they were forced against their will to make the illegal trek to the United States. It is despicable for Obama to speak of these people in his condescending tone about how they must suffer a "meaningful penalty" and do this and do that to obtain legal status. How DARE Obama presume that he has any right to judge these people! Rather, they have a right to judge him, and insist that he suffers a "meaningful penalty" for the crimes against these immigrants that he covers up and endorses with his duplicitous speech and his vicious Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office that deports people and breaks up their families and shoots to kill people crossing our border in search of work to provide for their families.
Lastly, Obama says he wants stiffer gun control laws. He says, "Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned." One would think from this that police chiefs are protecting Americans from violence. The truth is the opposite. If one had read the comments to articles in the Los Angeles Times recently about the rogue cop, Dorner, one would have seen that they were overwhelmingly expressing hatred of the L.A. Police Dept., describing how it was racist and brutal. Big city police departments are occupation forces that terrorize working class, especially black and Hispanic, people. They use drug laws to criminalize people and control them. They certainly do not enjoy a reputation for "Serving and Protecting" the public. The fact that Obama frames gun control as something he supports because it is what Police Chiefs want, tells us that his concern is to make sure that ordinary people remain controlled by, and not in control of, the police, because the police are a key instrument that the richest people in our society use to make sure they remain the richest; they call it "law and order."
Obama, like all of our other presidents, is a "law and order" enforcer. That's what the position of President is all about, and it is a despicable job description serving an elite ruling class with despicable values. It is time we began Thinking about Revolution.