Swans Commentary: Letters to the Editor - letter212



Letters to the Editor

(March 28, 2011)


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Roger Hodge's Review of Louis Proyect's Taking Obama's Measure

To the Editor:

Thanks for alerting me to Louis Proyect's review. It is good to see signs of intelligent life out there. I usually don't respond to reviews, especially not reviews that are generally positive, but since you asked so nicely, here are a few quibbles. For all its merits, Proyect's review slips into in the standard trope of pretending that the author in question fails to argue X, when in fact he does argue X, and then uses X to criticize the author for Y, which in fact he explicitly disavows.

Contrary to Proyect's suggestion, to be more specific, I do not argue for a return to Jeffersonian democracy. I do in fact argue that we may profit from attending to the principles of James Madison's political theory, which I maintain should be seen within the larger context of the republican tradition's critique of corruption. The primordial dispute between the Federalists and the Republicans, of whom Madison was the preeminent theorist, should be seen in this light as well, rather than as a battle between reactionary agrarians and modernizing proponents of the energetic state (though those elements were clearly in play). I make use of the Madison-Hamilton opposition, the debate over Hamilton's financial program, and the circumstances of the Panic of 1792 to call attention to the fact that the same principles continue to drive our current debate over the Bush/Obama bailouts of the FIRE sector. Proyect states that "the wealthy are assimilating the state not because they are philosophically attuned to Alexander Hamilton but because we are living in the age of monopoly capital." When I see inert jargon such as "the age of monopoly capital" I usually close my browser. Fortunately, he continues with the following:
In the early days of the republic, economic power was much more dispersed. The United States was composed of yeoman farmers and small manufacturers, all of whom would be naturally attracted to Jeffersonian democracy. By the late 1800s, America had become transformed. John D. Rockefeller and the rest of the robber barons had figured out that the state must serve their economic needs, which largely involved curtailing democratic rights at home and building an empire abroad. They backed Republican politicians like Teddy Roosevelt or William Howard Taft who understood the needs of monopoly capital. But Democrats were just as eager to cater to the Rockefellers. Grover Cleveland went on the warpath against trade unions and colonized Hawaii. Like Barack Obama, his true successor, Cleveland was a Democrat.
Unfortunately, Proyect gives the impression that he's offering this historical sketch as a critical supplement of my utopian Jeffersonian hopes rather than neatly summarizing one of my own central arguments, which extends over several chapters. This is hardly fair play.

The whole point of my discussion of the 1790s is to demonstrate the existence of a radical tradition in our history that has continued relevance today. Rhetorically, we are much better off drawing on that political tradition, which continues through the Populist movement to the New Deal and beyond. Brandishing Marxian language in an American context simply guarantees one's irrelevance.

Far more useful than calcified Marxism or warmed-over progressivism is Thomas Ferguson's investment theory of party competition, which is the actual theoretical foundation of my book. It's a shame that few reviewers thought it was worth mentioning.

But these are relatively minor complaints. I am grateful for the review, and especially pleased that someone finally reviewed my book in its natural context, alongside the excellent books by Tariq Ali and Paul Street.

Best wishes,

Roger D. Hodge
Brooklyn, New York, USA - March 20, 2011

[ed. Roger D. Hodge is the former Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism.]


Paul Street's Review of Louis Proyect's Taking Obama's Measure

To the Editor:

Thank you for the kind references and comments. For what it's worth, I never really/truly thought much of John Edwards (for the standard left reasons) or, of course, of the Democrats (same reasons...can see my ongoing relentless assaults on them at ZNet going way back and heating up after the 2006 congressional elections). There was a "participant observatory" aspect to me agreeing to help my son out with the Edwards thing in Iowa. I (being from Chicago) wanted a better sense of how the Iowa Caucus thing worked and what campaigning was like... The discussions I had with Kool-Aid-drinking Obama fans (and also no small number of cynical academic Obama apologists...folks who actually had few illusions and liked Obama's re-branding potential and conservatism) at their front doors turned out to be pretty useful for the book. It was interesting also to see how the money and media dictatorship treated Edwards in Iowa. You'd go to these town halls and Edwards (for whatever motives) would get this huge response with this sort of remarkable stump speech about poverty and inequality and corporate rule (again I remained cynical about his motives); then I'd go to other events to get bored to tears by professor Obama and by Hillary (who appeared to be on some sort of psychotropic prescription)...then back to watch the evening news and it was all Hillary and Obama in Iowa. To me it was interesting to see the media-money marginalization not just of Kucinich and Nader but even of a guy who was on the presidential ticket of the other capitalist party in 2004. And I never thought Edwards had a chance at the presidency.

Anyway, the Edwards thing was "tactical" and situational, pretty outside my earlier and subsequent Marxist (and not very electoralist...I've got some syndicalist tendencies) history, and -- it turned out -- useful in a journalistic way. I suppose I could have infiltrated the Obama campaign itself but those people were so awful; I could not have stomached being around them! The Edwards staffers out here were different...many of them were actual labor and environmental activists beneath and beyond the quadrennial corporate crafted big money big media candidate centered electoral extravaganzas. Much more serious, folks. I agree with you on the Democrats and the two-party system of course and so if I had anything to say about the content of the essay it is that I would rather not be identified even implicitly as someone with illusions about the Democrats. At the same time, the connecting of me to Edwards is technically accurate and not all that big a deal. I am prepared to defend and explain it in ways that I think leave my radical credentials intact.

(I also appreciated your essay on the left and Gaddafi.)


Paul Street
Chicago, Illinois, USA - March 23, 2011

[ed. Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, and the author of The Emperor's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power.]


The latest Western Adventure...this time in Libya

To the Editor:

For years the nation has delighted in electronic war games, blasting away at paper-thin figures of evil and amassing a body count. It's good clean fun, like sending Predator drones out over Pakistan from a comfortable office in Nevada. I want to propose a new game to play with the admen who do US foreign policy. "Odyssey Dawn" is what they call sending 160-plus Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya. Certainly some wag could come up with a better alternative. Maybe "Cratering for Oil and Human Rights" or "Pinning the Tail on the Bogeyman"? No doubt Swans readers could do better. What about "Iraqi Freedom," the invasion of 2003 that made that country a thriving democracy? Any suggestions? Then there's "Enduring Freedom" of 2001 that made us safe by putting paid to the Taliban in Afghanistan. And don't forget "Restoring Hope" of 1992-3 that brought peace to Somalia? My favorite is "Desert Storm," that force of nature -- look no human hands! -- that in 1991 only aimed to "liberate" poor little Kuwait. The beauty of my new game is that you can play it forever, back and forth in history. That great American athlete, Richard Nixon, called his massive bombardment of North Vietnam in 1972 "Linebacker." Cute, wasn't it? Make your contribution. Enjoy. But there are rules. Operations literally described are ineligible. The Israelis put the name "Cast Lead" on their 2008-9 war against Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. You can't improve on that.

Peter Byrne
Lecce, Italy - March 23, 2011


Where are the economics? Food prices and the Arab uprising

To the Editor:

I much appreciated the beautiful articles, such as the one on Tunisia and thoughtful ones such as the one about bringing the revolutions to the USA. But why is there no mention of the underlying economics? One need not be a crude, mechanistic materialist to draw some connection between the rise of food prices and the rise of people. Not to toot my own horn, but see "People march (or revolt) on their stomachs, too!" where I outline the kernel of a thesis that I would like to see expanded upon.

Cecilieaux Bois de Mûrier
Washington, D.C., USA - March 14, 2011

Gilles d'Aymery responds: Beginning with my Blips #102 I have consistently underlined the link between the rise of food prices and the upheavals in MENA.


Not satisfied on Libya: Gilles d'Aymery's Blips #106

To the Editor:

Gilles d'Aymery writes: "To side with a violent thug, which is what Gaddafi really is, just because your enemy (the 'imperialists') turned against him, is utter nonsense and demonstrates, once again, the intellectual vacuousness of various so-called revolutionaries. As for those who claim that Gaddafi is a socialist, my medical advice is that they should get an MRI in a hurry..."

Well, firstly the situation in Libya is not that complicated. Gadaffi is NOT the violent thug you invent. The ICG may think so, so may the invasion-supporting anti-imperialist left. Were he so you'd not have Mandela praising him in 1997 and 2002. You need to distinguish between reality and rhetoric. No need to go back 40 years. Gaddafi remains as committed to his ideals as ever... Unlike you he has to take part in running a country. As for the "you're mad if you support Gadaffi" that's a typical knee jerk reaction. I also support Mugabe and Zimbawe. And yes, he is a socialist, hoeing his own row, one under continued attack by the non-socialist world. BUT many "socialists" are determined to see his ouster with the expectation that LIFG, NFSL, and the caliph in waiting will continue what he began! Now that's mad!

Brian Souter
Canberra, Australia - March 17, 2011


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Published March 28, 2011
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