Jan 26, 2009
For most workers, January 20 didn’t come a moment too soon. George Bush, who had presided over two murderous wars and several waves of wild speculation that finally ended in last September’s financial collapse, was leaving.
Equally, a large part of the population was glad to see another symbol of this country’s horribly racist history fall, when Barack Obama walked into the White House.
But symbols are still symbols. And reality is still harsh.
Obama’s election to the presidency shows that the doors have been thrown open to a part of the black population. Those who come from privileged backgrounds have now reached the seats of power – in the White House and in some of the biggest Wall Street banks. But for the big majority of black working people, the oppression of class still remains – as it does for Hispanic and white workers – and class oppression is reinforced with the remnants of segregation, Jim Crow and violent racism.
Nonetheless, Obama’s inauguration engendered hopes in the population.
Obama, himself, in his speech on January 20, played on those hopes, talking about plans for the future, promising radical changes, promising to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again.”
But the disclaimer in Obama’s speech came in his warning, repeated several times, that change would not come easily, nor soon.
And the practical kernel of his speech came in his repeated calls for “sacrifice” for the common good.
Sacrifice by whom? Nowhere in Obama’s whole speech did he call on corporations to forego their profits, rather than lay off a worker, or for banks to forego their profits, rather than foreclose on another mortgage.
But he did call for “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours – that is, cut their pay – than see a friend lose his job.”
Was it an oversight that only workers were called on for sacrifice? Not hardly. It simply reflected the lines of the economic program that Obama had announced the week before and of the bank bailout he had helped push through starting months before.
Nor was it an oversight when Obama didn’t announce that he would remove all troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office – his one-time campaign pledge. He had junked that promise over a year ago, replacing it with a call to shift troops from Iraq to a wider war in Afghanistan, and even into Pakistan. And his actions immediately after taking office made that point clear, when he ordered two missile strikes into Pakistan, killing at least 18 civilians.
Nor was it an unhappy coincidence that Obama dredged up the specter of terrorism, trying in his speech to rally the population against unnamed and unknown enemies. When he declared, “we will defeat you,” he was taking a page right out of Bush’s book.
Campaign promises forgotten, Obama has assumed the presidency. Just like all those white presidents before him, he is carrying out the policies the ruling class wants – a continuation of the same economic policies and the same wars that have created this catastrophic situation. And he’s doing it at the very moment when the whole situation cries out for a radical break.
Of course, it’s obvious one man can’t change everything at once. BUT, if Obama’s aim were to serve the interests of the whole working population, he would start. He would use the support he had in the election, and the even bigger support that he has today in the population, to start pushing through a program that forced those who caused the crisis to pay for it.
Government would push to make the banks and the wealthy pay for this speculation that has thrown this economy into a tailspin. Government would forbid companies to lay off another worker or to cut any more wages. Government would move to stop the wars immediately.
A president who intended to make government work in the interests of working people would have the support of the population for such a fight.
That isn’t what Obama is proposing. Just the opposite. Even before his inauguration, he was calling on people to put their hopes on hold, to wait, to make sacrifices for the common good.
But if the working class continues to make sacrifices, it will not be for the “common good.” It will be for the wealthy class that has already imposed too many sacrifices on the population.
In this situation, the worst thing for the working class to do would be to sit back and wait for “change” to arrive some time in the future. To get change that serves the interest of working people, the population will have to mobilize, to demand that its own needs be met – and immediately. It’s such a mobilization that can transform “hopes” into reality.