Who does Obama answer to?

The job of political leaders is to look after, in the words of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

I RECENTLY received an interesting e-mail from a SocialistWorker.org reader.

In my contribution to the SocialistWorker.org roundtable on Obama's first 100 days in office, I wrote: "We have to patiently explain that regardless of what Obama is like as a human being, he is now in the position of being the leader of the U.S. ruling class, and he must answer to them."

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

The reader referred to that passage, and then posed the following question:

How, may I ask you, do you see the above imperative--"...he (Obama) must answer to them"--enforced? If President Obama were to go against "the U.S. ruling class," how would he be punished? Would he be assassinated? Would he simply lose their financial support in the next election (2012)? What does the "ruling class" have on Obama to force him to do their bidding? Your comment would be greatly appreciated, especially because we need to know how the ruling class works.

The short answer, it seems to me, is that no one has to force Obama to do the bidding of the ruling class, because Obama is now a member of the ruling class.

Let me step back for a minute and unpack the term "ruling class." This group is not defined by their attitude, by their clothing or even by their income (in absolute terms). They are defined by their relationship to the world. They are the owners of industry, and those hired and appointed by the owners to manage the system as a whole.

If you put together the owners of the biggest companies, the top politicians, the top military generals, and perhaps even the biggest CEOs, you're not only talking about a group of people you've probably been mad at your whole life, you're talking about a self-conscious class of people.

This class doesn't let just anybody lead them. They go about the process of vetting and selecting their leaders quite carefully. Obama would never have gotten anywhere near the Democratic Party primaries if he hadn't already been groomed and promoted as someone who showed promise as a potential leading member of the ruling class.

Now, the ruling class usually promotes its own children into these positions (silver-spoon types like Dubya), but elevating the occasional Obama has the added benefit of validating the American Dream-inspired idea that "anyone" could be president.

How does the grooming process work? It starts in school. The ruling class sends its children to elite kindergartens, elite elementary schools and elite high schools. There, children are taught from a young age that they are special. They learn to think dynamically and abstractly, how to solve problems, how to speak in public and so on--all the skills they will need to lead, and to manage a company, a state or even a country.

On scholarship, I attended one such high school in Ohio. I remember once going to a soccer match against a public school. When the other team would score a goal, my classmates would chant, "That's alright, that's okay, you're gonna work for us someday!" Class consciousness is learned early.

The ruling class sends its children to Harvard, Yale and Columbia for a reason. These institutions train the next generation of ruling-class leaders. Dubya wasn't a great student at Yale, but he skated by on his money, his name and his connections.

Obama was different. He didn't have money, a name or connections. It's not just that he was a bright and hard-working student, however. It's important to grasp that he was clearly willing and able to adopt an outlook that, while undoubtedly liberal, was well within the framework of acceptable ruling-class thinking.

At Harvard Law School, Obama beat out 18 competitors to become the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. In a recent article looking back at his tenure at the Review, Politico.com, described his duties as including:

leading discussions and debates to determine what to print from the mountain of submissions from judges, scholars and authors from across the country, supervising the thorough editing of each issue's contents, and giving every article what's known as a "P-read" once it was finally considered ready for publication.

So here's Obama, the law student, learning to be a leader not only of his fellow Harvard law students but, by corresponding with judges and scholars, gaining a national audience for his ideas. Is he an advocate for the poor and oppressed? Does he, in any way, "go against" the ruling class? Did he ruffle feathers? On the contrary, Obama's tenure was marked by "peace" at the Review.

A colleague remembered that Obama saw his efforts as a conscious turn away from the social movements of the 1960s and '70s, and that he "clearly agreed with me at the time that a shift in constitutional thinking from a rights-based discourse to one that centered [on] responsibility and duties...would be a good thing."

He may not have come from money, but long before the American public had ever heard of him, Obama proved in practice that he was a "responsible" thinker.

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BACK IN March, a New York Times reporter aboard Air Force One asked President Obama point-blank if he was a socialist. He replied, "No."

Interestingly, Obama was bothered enough by the question to phone the Times later on for the sole purpose of clarifying this point:

Just one thing I was thinking about as I was getting on the copter. It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.

I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement--the prescription drug plan without a source of funding.

And so I think it's important just to note when you start hearing folks throw these words around that we've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles, and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word socialist around can't say the same.

Translation: "I'm just continuing what Bush started. Socializing bank assets is now within the mainstream of ruling class thinking."

Sonia Sotomayor is another example. The right-wing hysteria around her nomination to the Supreme Court (another institution of the ruling class) is really so much hot air. Defending her record, New York Sen. Charles Schumer argued that she "is in the mainstream." He went on to point out that she agreed with her Republican colleagues 95 percent of the time.

Sotomayor, like Obama, has humble roots--she grew up in the Bronx. But according to Schumer, this "wise Latina" ruled for the government in immigration cases, against immigrant plaintiffs 83 percent of the time! Furthermore, she denied racial bias claims 83 percent of the time, and ruled for the government in 92 percent of criminal cases.

As a Supreme Court judge, no one will have to force Sotomayor to wield her gavel in one direction or another. The fact is that she would never have risen in the ranks at all if she had not already proven herself willing to more or less adopt the ideological framework of the ruling class.

The wealthy and the powerful would have to be absolutely bonkers to just let anyone rise to the front of their leading bodies. And so, in addition to the grooming and education of leaders, there are also barriers that prevent anyone outside of the "mainstream" from getting in.

In 2006, the average winner of a seat in the Senate spent $8.8 million to get there. The average winner of a lowly House seat spent "only" $1.3 million. Consequently, serious candidates have to either already belong to the ruling class, or be able to win the financial backing of some section of the ruling class.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin nailed the real nature of this kind of "democracy" in his short book State and Revolution: "To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and oppress the people through parliament--this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism."

Now, within the general framework of "mainstream" ruling-class thinking, there is a diversity of views. The ruling class is not of the same mind on every issue. Some favor the right to an abortion, others oppose it. Some favor gay marriage, others oppose it. But fundamental questions of capitalism and imperialism, for example, are not up for debate.

They might have a fierce battle over how to manage the empire (whether to put more troops in Iraq versus Afghanistan, for example), but they will never debate whether or not to have an empire. Obama cheered on the Republic Windows & Doors factory occupation, but he would never cheer on a general strike, or a general movement of workers to occupy workplaces--Obama believes in capitalism, and in the free market.

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SO THE ruling class needs a way to hash out debates and disagreements--but within the framework of the system. That is, in part, the job of the state. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels mention this role of the modern "bourgeois" (read "capitalist") state: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

Those who always argued that the war in Iraq was purely a matter of making money for Bush's friends in the oil industry missed the fact that the Democrats also supported that war. The ruling class needs a "committee" that is specifically not dominated by any one industry or enterprise, so that it can manage the affairs of the ruling class as a whole.

The war in Iraq was seen as an essential step toward preserving the preeminent position of the American ruling class as a whole. So even though the entire pretext for war--that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction--was a lie, virtually the entire ruling class, including leading members of the press, the military, etc., repeated that lie as fact over and over again.

By the time Bush wanted to go to Iran, however, the occupation of Iraq was a domestic and international fiasco, and the American ruling class feared he would lead them into yet another disaster and turned against that project (for the time being). There was no need to assassinate Bush or to wage a civil war. A series of reports and public statements clearly signaled that plenty of elites were not on board.

Crucially, in December of 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate--a report compiled by the entire intelligence community, one means by which the military wing of the ruling class communicates its perspectives to the rest of the ruling class--flatly contradicted Bush's claim that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The invasion of Iran was shelved.

That the state is connected to the wealthy by a thousand strands--personal relationships, private clubs, alma maters, shared board memberships, lobbying, bribery--does not negate the fact that the state retains a certain independence. In fact, this independence is a part of an essential function--mediating conflicts between the working class and the ruling class. The state must appear not to be "owned" by anyone, it must appear to be neutral.

As I'm writing these words, a news item has come to my attention--three New Jersey mayors and several state legislators are in FBI custody on bribery and money laundering charges. Here, one wing of the state (the FBI) has put members of another wing (relatively low-level elected officials) in handcuffs.

So we should note that the "committee" charged with managing the interests of the ruling class as a whole is invested with enough authority to challenge individual members of the ruling class (although of course it's one thing to arrest a New Jersey mayor, quite another to arrest a senator or a president).

Think of the government's anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft or the prison sentence just handed down to swindler Bernard Madoff. Of course, politics will continue to run on bribery, and the stock market is, essentially, a giant Ponzi scheme. But no single entity is considered more important than the system as a whole. Any individual who goes too far, or whose exploits threaten the legitimacy or smooth functioning of American capitalism can and will be taken down.

All things being equal, the ruling class prefers not to arrest each other, or to meet each other with the organized violence of the state, but instead to settle their disagreements "within proper channels." The jails aren't filled with rich folks, after all.

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OBAMA WENT to Africa recently, and spoke of his own ancestry there in a way that many found quite moving. But then, he went on to lecture the continent about how it needs "strong institutions, not strong men." He was referring to the fact that several African nations seem to be ruled by one dictator after another. Who gets to be dictator is too often decided in bloody civil wars.

Leaving aside for the moment what Obama left out (namely the ongoing role of the U.S. in backing various "strong men"), there is a certain logic to Obama's argument--from a ruling-class perspective.

The logic is this: the American ruling class has devised a remarkably resilient political system. These institutions have, for at least the last 140 years, been able to weather all storms. As commentator Kevin Phillips pointed out, "The genius of American politics--failing only the Civil War--has been to manage through ballot boxes the problems that less fluid societies resolve with barricades and with party structures geared to class warfare."

The answer to the reader's question is really just that--the "genius" of the American political system. It's a system that, since 1865, has been able to manage conflicts more or less peacefully within ruling class institutions.

Economic crisis and or a rise in class struggle may drive Obama, like FDR, toward challenging some particular section of capital to protect the interests of capitalism as a whole. But is he likely to challenge capitalism itself, or "go against the ruling class"?

Let's take his word for it: "No."