History is written by the winners
– George Orwell, February 4, 1944
by Paul Street
June 24, 2016
“The Few” v. “The Many”
Alexander Hamilton was no people’s champion. After four years serving as American Revolutionary War General George Washington’s chief of staff, Hamilton took up rhetorical and political arms against the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary times in which he lived. Viewing those tendencies and the new American republic’s popular classes with snooty contempt, he campaigned for a stronger central United States government run by and for men of great propertied wealth “whose principles are not of the levelling kind.” Like other top U.S. Founders and constitutional framers, Hamilton was revolted by the democratic sentiments of the new nation’s artisans, small farmers, and laboring classes. He looked with alarm at “unwise” democratic policies that had arisen in the colonies-turned-states during the American War for Independence.
Hamilton made his arch-classist sentiments clear in The Federalist Papers, which he penned in support of what became the U.S. Constitution along with James Madison and John Jay. In Federalist No. 35, Hamilton argued that the common people were incapable of serving in Congress and found their proper political representatives among the small class of wealthy merchant capitalists. “The idea of an actual representation of all classes of people by persons of each class,” Hamilton wrote, “is altogether visionary.” The “weight and superior requirements of the merchants render them more equal” than the “other classes,” Hamilton proclaimed. The “mechanics” (artisan workers) of his time, Hamilton argued, were “sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments” required for “deliberative assembly.”
“Whether the representation of the people be more or less numerous,” Hamilton elaborated in Federalist No. 36, “it will consist almost entirely of proprietors of land, of merchants, and of members of the learned professions, who will truly represent all those different interests and view.”
Hamilton agreed with Jay that “those who own the country ought to govern it” – govern it in accord with their own specific class interests, sold as the general interest of “all classes of people.”
Hamilton also shared Madison’s belief, expressed in Federalist No. 10, that a geographically vast republic was superior to a small one because vast scale made it more difficult for the non-propertied and property-poor majority of people “to discover their strength and act in unison with each other” against their rightful masters. As Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 9, an “enlargement of the [geographic] orbit within which” the new US government operated would help “repress domestic factions and insurrection” and “guard the internal tranquility of States.” That was the merchant-capitalist aristo-republican language of the time for taking the egalitarian risk out of “representative democracy.”
The “popular government” champion Hamilton was not content to rely on geographic dispersal and other “soft” methods (constitutional checks and balances, the Electoral College, etc.) to keep the dangerous people at bay. Hamilton’s Federalist No 28 contained what the reactionary post-WWII U.S. political scientist Clinton Rossiter (who argued for the legitimacy of temporary “constitutional dictatorships” in the early Cold War era) lovingly called “Candid remarks on the role of force in maintaining civil society.” Here Hamilton advocated a strong national standing army, required, he felt, to suppress domestic rebellion. Since “seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body,”
Hamilton reasoned, “the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government) has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors who sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” Translation: sometimes the ruling class needs to raise troops to discipline – shoot, hang, torture, maim and jail – the lower orders, (as during Shay’s Rebellion of 1786-87 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794).
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton argued that the U.S. presidency and Senate should come with life terms. He explained his underlying philosophy as follows:
“All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.”It doesn’t get much elegantly anti-democratic than that.
For Hamilton and others of his “rich and well born” ilk in the Federalist Party of the 1790s (the Hamiltonian party), “Freedom rested on deference to authority…The Federalists,” distinguished U.S. historian Eric Foner notes, “may have been the only major party in American history forthrightly to proclaim that democracy and freedom dangerous in the hands of ordinary Americans.”
“Captain of the 1 Percent”
After the passage of the nation’s highly un- and even anti-democratic Constitution, Hamilton used his position as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury to advance his program to make the United States a major commercial and military power ruled by and for an opulent mercantile, financial, and, he hoped, industrial elite. His proto-state-capitalist plan to fund the early Republic’s Revolutionary War debt involved the federal government assuming the debts of the thirteen states. The plan provided huge profits to investors who had bought bonds from desperate Revolutionary War veterans for as little as 10 cents on the dollar. This great windfall expanded the wealth and power of financial oligarchs who manipulated currency and credit on the backs of the young nation’s farmers, artisans, and laborers.
Another part of Hamilton’s grand fiscal plan was the creation of the first national Bank of the United States – a federally charted private corporation that Jefferson criticized with no small reason as a tool to make elite mercantile and financial few richer and more powerful at the expense of “the many.”
Hamilton was the early Republic’s “captain of the 1 Percent. A leader of finance capital…He represented,” the distinguished U.S. historian Gerald Horne notes, “the interests of big finance at the beginning of the United States. He personified the grievances that continue, and that the Sanders campaign, and, to a degree, the Trump campaign, have objected to.”
“What am I Going to Do With My Life”? Be Like Hamilton and Get Things Done
What are 21st century U.S. citizens who believe in democracy and social justice supposed to make of the spectacular success enjoyed by the Broadway musical Hamilton – Puerto Rican- American director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerful hip-hope dramatization of the arch-elitist Founder’s life? Miranda’s production (in which he plays Hamilton) is a stunning sensation and cultural phenomenon. It swept the recent Broadway Awards ceremony, leading some to called the Tony Awards the “Hamiltonys.” It helped keep Hamilton on the $10 bill, sparing him Andrew Jackson’s fate of currency exile.
Miranda has entertained his fan Barack Obama in the White House. Obama even cut a rap video in which the president held up cards with the following words for Miranda to freestyle off: Constitution, POTUS, Obamacare, the Federalist Papers, Innovation, Supreme Court, Immigration, Oval Office, and Opportunity.
Concerned that the musical’s magic not be limited to the privileged folks who can afford its pricey tickets, elite foundations have teamed up with the show’s producers to bring tens of thousands of mostly Black and Latino New York City schoolchildren to take it in. The educational collaboration was financed by more than $1 million in grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and with backing of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. A “P”BS Newshour report last month gushed over how “the biggest show on Broadway” gives students “a lesson in life and art” and “a better understanding of Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments and place in history.” The musical was credited with making the stereotypically dry and boring subject of history newly exciting for public school students – with bringing historical subject matter to life. As a Latino student told the Newshour, “Anything with a hip hop, flavor to it, it’s definitely more interesting than opening a dusty history book and trying to, like, fish out old information.”
Miranda told the Newshour that “Not every student who comes to see the show is gonna have a life in the theater. But they are gonna have to reckon with how much Hamilton got done in his life. And that is going to spark a little bit of, ‘Well, what am I gonna do with my life?’”
Well, damn, how about striving to rise into power to push through a bunch of clever policies for the rich and powerful?
A Bootstraps Epitome and an Abolitionist to Boot
In its gushing account of the collaboration between the musical production and New York City schools, “P”BS showed the Facing History School’s Advanced Placement history teacher Paul Zuppello talking to students about a study and rap performance project they were working up after viewing Hamilton. “What do you have to do to keep historical integrity?” Zuppello asked his “frenzied” students. “It’s okay to create a new situation,” Zuppello said, adding that “It’s not okay to change who that character is.”
Miranda’s Hamilton is a super-cool and highly talented immigrant from a broken family who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies and came to North America determined to achieve wealth and fame. He’s a “scrappy and hungry” newcomer and “self-made man” who wants to work hard and rise up in accord with the labor theory of value and the belief that (in the words of the musical’s top applause line) “Immigrants get the job done!” He’s a bootstraps epitome. Played by the effervescent Miranda, Hamilton is determined that he’s “Not Gonna Waste my Shot.” The show opens with the following rap narrative:
The ten-dollar founding fatherThe message is clear: work real hard and you too can “rise up” out of your lowly station to achieve wealth and greatness.
Without a father
Got a lot farther
By working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him
in charge of a trading charter.
Deleting the Hero’s Deferential Underclass and Nativism
Along with the show’s highly skilled and distinctly multicultural cast and clever hip hop score, it’s easy to see how this storyline could be compelling for a large number of New York City students of color, many from foreign countries and broken, fatherless families. It helps that Hamilton was by the 1790s publicly opposed to slavery. Miranda lovingly compares Hamilton with his arch-rival Jefferson, who Miranda has Hamilton denounce as a “slaver” whose “debts are paid cuz you [Jefferson] don’t pay for labor.” The cool immigrant striver disdained the exploitation of slaves cuz real, true blue founders rise up on the basis of their own skills and labor and pay wages to workers.
But how would audiences respond if Miranda’s musical had honestly portrayed what the Cornell political scientists Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick rightly call “Hamilton’s insistent and emphatic inegalitarianism…Just as Jefferson’s republican championing of the people’s liberties depended on a permanent underclass of slave laborers,” Frank and Kramnick add, “so [did] Hamilton’s commitment to the success of the entrepreneurial self-made man depend on the assumption that there would be a deferential underclass to do all the heavy work.”
Immigrant rights symbol? As Frank and Kramnick note, Miranda’s “lionization of Hamilton as the examplar of America’s immigrant ideal neglects his ultimate endorsement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it harder to immigrants to become citizens while allowing their deportation if they were suspected for disloyalty…”
Valorizing Rich White Founders, Obfuscating Racism, and Blaming Victims
And just how anti-slavery was Hamilton? “Hamilton’s opposition to slavery,” Frank and Kramnick note, “was not central to his political vision. The musical’s suggestion that had he not been killed in the duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton would have gone on to play an important role in the abolitionist struggle is fantasy.”
Miranda’s distortion of “who that character [Hamilton] is [was]” is worse than that, actually. Part of a wave of white flight from the slave rebellion-torn British Empire in the Caribbean, Hamilton married into a slaveholding New York family. As historian Michelle Duross notes, Hamilton sold and bought slaves “on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army. Miranda insults the historical record – available to those willing to (imagine) “open…a dusty history book and try…to, like, fish out old information” – by following the right-wing historian Forrest McDonald in falsely portraying Hamilton as a noble and unwavering abolitionist.
But that’s not the most egregious racial-historical offence in Miranda’s Broadway extravaganza, “In the musical,” notes Ishmael Reed, “black actors play Washington and other [slave-owning] founding fathers [including Jefferson]. Are [the show’s producers] aware that Washington is known for creating strategies for returning runaways? That he was into search and destroy when campaigning against Native American resistance fighters…Among the Iroquois, he was known as Conotocarious, or ‘Town Destroyer’…Historians, who serve as lackeys for famous, wealthy white mean term him a ‘merciful slave master.’ An oxymoron.,,Now I have seen everything,” Reed adds: “can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?”
In an insightful critique titled “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think It Is” James McMaster notes how the musical’s “multiracial ensemble” ironically and darkly functions to obscure and cloak “the essential anti-blackness of the United States” past and present:
“As I write, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to ‘rise up’ against the essential anti-blackness of the United States. Progressive audiences seem to want to read Hamilton, complete with its multiracial ensemble, as a production that is politically copacetic with this contemporary racial revolution. However, in Hamilton, the fact that the white men that founded the United States – colonizers all, slaveholders some – are played by men of color actually obfuscates histories of racialized violence in the United States…Rather than aligning with the critiques leveled against the United States by contemporary leftist social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Hamilton’s valorization of the revolution of 1776 merely indulges in the fiction of a small, innocent, and oppressed group of young (implicitly white) men fighting for freedom against tyranny. Such a narrative resonates much too loudly with contemporary…the show’s narrative – made palatable and profitable both by these referential concessions and by the neoliberal imperative of racial diversity in casting – ultimately amounts to a valorization of the US nation-state and it’s juridical and financial systems, systems Alexander Hamilton helped to establish, and systems that have always functioned to the detriment of black and brown bodies despite what the musical might have us feel.”Adding to the “valorization” of the American System, Hamilton’s “Bootstraps Immigrant Narrative” (McMaster) feeds Caucasian capitalism’s timeworn victim-blaming story line on why some few folks succeed in climbing up the nation’s steep racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic pyramids while most fail. As McMaster notes:
“The assertion…that Hamilton worked harder and was smarter, true or not, imply that other immigrants who have not experienced success in their new nation are somehow at fault. They either do not work hard enough or, simply, are not smart enough. Such logic neglects and obscures the material obstacles and violence (structural racism, predatory capitalism, long-burned bridges to citizenship) imposed on racialized immigrants within the United States in order to celebrate the (false) promise of the American dream and the nation-state. This is the familiar and fallacious narrative that founds the logic of mainstream, immigration-unfriendly politicians on the right (Trump’s wall) and on the left (Obama’s exceptional DREAMers) in the contemporary moment.”“Our Revolution…the Father of Our Nation”
Reading McMaster’s critique, I was sadly reminded of Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address. The first technically Black president in the land of slavery asked Americans to remember how “In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
It was disturbing to hear the nation’s first nonwhite president citing the white War for Independence as an example of how “we” Americans united against “one common danger.” The new republic’s snows and soils and forests and tobacco, rice, and cotton fields had long been stained with the blood and tears of Native Americans and black slaves. Many North American slaves, free blacks, and indigenous people found and acted on good reasons to favor the British over the colonists in the war between England and the rising new racist and settler-imperialist slave state. England, after all, had put some limits on the pace at which the North Americans could steal the land the ruin the lives of the nation’s original inhabitants and turn western frontiers into sites for the ruthless exploitation of enslaved blacks. The British promised freedom to slaves who turned against their masters during the imperial settlers’ war of national slavery liberation. As Gerald Horne has shown, indeed, the “American revolution” was in fact a “counterrevolution” – a breaking off from England driven largely by ther4ich white Founders’ sense that North American Black chattel slavery would not survive the colonies’ continued subjection to London.
A Blunt Hamiltonian Lesson
McMaster’s and Horne’s critiques of Hamilton also remind me of Obama’s arch-neoliberal presidency of and for the 1 Percent. Staffed by Wall Street allies and insiders, the Dollar Obomber administration has played an actively regressive role in helping push the concentration of wealth and income to New Gilded Age levels that threaten to make the original Robber Baron era look vaguely egalitarian by comparison. Meanwhile Black Americans have suffered their biggest loss of net worth in U.S. history.
The liberal commentator William Greider captured the Hamiltonian essence of the Obama White House early on, in March 2009 editorial titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Greider wrote at a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. people (Hamilton’s hapless but dangerous “many”) what Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” He might have added that his “health care reform” was dreamed up by Republicans, consistent with some of his elite supporters’ likening of the Obama White House to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.
It was “a touching ruling class moment. At a time of bitter partisan warfare in Congress and frequent mudslinging by business executives,” Danny Katch noted in Socialist Worker, “a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president and realize that they really aren’t so different after all. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties – that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”
A Hamiltonian Project with a Racial Twist
It was all very consistent with Obama’s earlier, not-so- “outsider” history. At the outset of his career in elected office in January of 1996, an unnamed Obama was properly identified by the Left and Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics….His fundamentally bootstrap line [is] softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”
Ten years later, the U.S. Senator and soon to be announced presidential candidate gave the Keynote Address at an event announcing the formation of the Democratic Party-linked Bookings Institution’s openly neoliberal, finance-capitalist think tank. The new body bore an interesting name: The Hamilton Project. In a column titled “Hamiltonian Democrats,” the Washington Post’s Harold Myerson nicely captured the Wall Street-friendly essence of the body to which Obama gladly lent his name and star power:
“The chief project to restate Democratic economics for our time was unveiled a couple of weeks ago, and it’s named after the father of American conservatism, Alexander Hamilton. … Hamilton feared the common people, dismissed their capacity for self-government and supported rule by elites instead…That might…deter most Democrats from naming their firstborn economic revitalization scheme after him, but the authors of the Hamilton Project are made of sterner stuff. They include Peter Orszag, an estimable Brookings Institution economist; investment banker Roger Altman, formerly of the Clinton Treasury department; and, chiefly, former Treasury secretary and current Citigroup executive committee Chairman Robert Rubin, whose iconic status within the Democratic mainstream has waxed as the median incomes of Americans under …have waned. Rubin has also become a seal of good housekeeping for Democratic candidates seeking money from Wall Street…Unfortunately, some of Hamilton’s disdain for democracy seeps into their statement as well. The problem of ‘entitlement imbalances is so large,’ they fret, ‘that the regular political process seems unlikely to produce a solution,’ so they recommend a bipartisan ‘special process’ insulated from popular pressures. They also place such traditional Republican boogeymen as teachers unions on the list of problems that need to be solved. On the other hand, their list of national problems includes nothing about a corporate and financial culture that richly and reflexively rewards executives who offshore work to cheaper climes and deny their American employees the right to join unions…much of their statement amounts to whistling by the globalization graveyard. The authors place great stress on improving American education – a commendable and unexceptionable goal, but one that may do little to retard the export of our jobs since, as they acknowledge, it’s increasingly the knowledge jobs that are going to India and even China. But then, Rubin was the guy who promoted both NAFTA and unfettered trade with China…There’s nothing in the statement about raising the minimum wage or mandating a living wage; the word ‘unions’ is nowhere to be found, though unionizing our non-offshorable service sector jobs is the surest way to restore the broader prosperity for which Rubin and his co-authors pine.”The Hamilton Project’s spirit and personnel were written all over presidential candidate Obama’s economics team and his administration, which became a prolonged seminar “on power, who has it and who doesn’t” and on how “the government has plenty of money when the right people want on it.” It was a lesson that Hamilton would certainly have appreciated and indeed a lesson he sought to teach to unruly artisans and farmers and “unwise” champions of “imprudent” democracy in the early Republic.
Along the way Obama has provided an intimately related lesson on the uses of racialized ethnic identity politics in cloaking plutocracy and providing brilliant service to the nation’s unelected dictatorships of money, empire, class, and race. Functioning as a useful Orwellian history-distorting shill for Obama’s successful experiment in identity politicized, fake-progressive neoliberalism in its last year (with the arch-globalist Trans Pacific Partnership looming to achieve final, lame-duck approval to secure Obama’s Hamiltonian legacy), Miranda was certainly inspired to place Black actors in the roles of Thomas Jefferson and other elite and white, slave-owning Founding Fathers by the real-life 21st century example of the nation’s first merely half-white president serving as a rich, ruling class white man’s president and imperial commander.
“Deliberation and Circumspection” in Our Glorious “Free Market System”
Is it any wonder that “cool” Obama loves the musical, going so far as to cut a rap video with Miranda in the White House Rose Garden? Of course he does! Obama embraced Hamilton in his nauseating 2006 campaign book with the title stolen from the Black Chicago preacher (Jeremiah Wright) the candidate threw under the bus on the path to presidency. In The Audacity of Hope. Obama praised Hamilton for understanding that “republican self-government could actually work better in a large and diverse society, where, in Hamilton’s words, the ‘jarring of parties’ and differences of opinion could ‘promote deliberation and circumspection.’…we are confident,” Obama added, “in the fundamental soundness of the Founders’ blueprints and the democratic house that resulted.” Hamilton “understood” something else, Obama elaborated: “only through the liberation of capital from local landed interests could America tap into its most powerful resources – namely the energy and enterprise of the American people.” His hero Hamilton brilliantly “nationalized the Revolutionary War debt, which not only stitched together the economies of the individual states but helped spur a national system of credit and fluid capital markets.”
True, Obama admitted, capitalist development could bring some disturbing instabilities so that “the sense of common kinship becomes harder to maintain. Jefferson was not entirely wrong to fear Hamilton’s [commercial and capitalist] vision for the country.” But “not entirely wrong” is the same as “mostly wrong” and, as Obama explained, the capitalism that Hamilton helped created produced a “business culture” that created “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history…Our greatest asset,” Obama proclaimed, “has been our system of social organization…our free market system.”
Never mind that Hamilton felt that policy deliberation belonged entirely in the hands of the privileged few or that the republicanism embraced by Hamilton and the other Great White Founders was fundamentally opposed to popular sovereignty, that is to democracy – their ultimate nightmare. Never mind that the Founders’ blueprint was consciously meant and successfully designed to promote the rule of the propertied elite. Never mind that Hamilton’s Funding and Assumption plan was a device for the upward concentration of wealth in the hands of opulent investors. Or that that early Republic’s racial “diversity” (if that’s one what we want to call it) derived largely from the highly profitable capitalist perversity of Black chattel slavery. And never mind the long and terrible list of capitalism’s many terrible consequences at home and abroad, including an abject corporate-financial plutocracy that sits quite properly atop a political economy in which the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent while 22 percent of U.S. children, including 38 percent of Black children and 36 percent of Native American children, live below the federal government’s scandalously inadequate poverty level. Meanwhile the investor class’s growth-addicted profits system pushes livable ecology to dangerous new tipping points, raising the real threat of human extinction in the not so distant future.
“A Decent Shot”
Obama has long embraced the bourgeois bootstraps narrative that celebrates the United States as the land that supposedly rewards hard and smart work and qualifies its belief in equality by tying it to supposedly decent opportunities (Miranda’s “my shot”) for all – not to a dreaded levelling of outcomes and rewards. In the reactionary American Exceptionalist 2004 Democratic Convention speech that turned him into an overnight national and global sensation, Obama launched into one of his favorite nationally and personally narcissistic and bourgeois themes. He hailed America as the ultimate “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance” and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. “My story” – one of a rise from (supposedly) humble origins to Harvard Law School and national political prominence – “is part,” Obama claimed “of the larger American story…In no other country on Earth,” he said, “is my story even possible.”
Obama quoted the famous Thomas Jefferson line about all “men” being “created equal,” but left out Jefferson’s warnings about the terrible impact of unequal outcomes on democracy and popular government. He advocated a more equal rat-race, one where “every child in America has a decent shot at life, and the doors of opportunity [the word “opportunity” recurred at least five times in his speech] remain open to all.”
In reality those doors aren’t weren’t remotely close to being “open to all” in the summer of 2004. America didn’t score particularly well in terms of upward mobility measures, compared to other industrialized states (and Brazil’s current chief executive was born into that country’s working-class). Things haven’t gotten considerably worse since, reflecting the continuing and remarkable upward concentration of wealth, income and opportunity under Bush43’second term and across Obama’s two terms.
Every kid deserves “a decent life,” not just “a shot” at one. Serious and principled opponents of class, race, ethnic, gender, and national oppression oppose social inequality in and of itself. The massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life would be offensive to them – and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good in their view – even if all at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equal position at the starting line of a “level playing field.” There is no such field in really existing society, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own more than wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
A Perfect Wrap
Obama no doubt identifies strongly with Miranda’s Hamilton. The product of a broken family and a foreign father he hardly knew, the President fancies himself a shining example of what a highly talented, hard-working “outsider” can accomplish if they apply themselves and their skills so as not to blow their “shot” at success in the supposed great American land of opportunity that the holy Founders purportedly bequeathed to us with their glorious “free market” system. Obama has given Black high school and college graduates and other minority audiences stern Booker T. Washingtonian bootstrap lectures on hard work and the promise of upward mobility on numerous occasions, citing himself as an example that anything is possible for dutiful toilers. He has also aligned himself in the public mind with immigrants, posing as the friend of Dreamers who want to “play by the rules” of American striving.
Never mind the special backing he’s helped the federal government give to the already opulent financial elites who crashed the U.S. and global economy only to emerge yet more obscenely and parasitically wealthy than before the Great Recession thanks to the Hamiltonian support absurdly granted them by the likes of George W. Bush, Hank Paulsen, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner et al. Never mind that Booker T. Obama’s success always depended on his service to the wealthy white and parasitic Few – his leading backers – or the record number of immigrants the Deporter-in-Chief has expelled from the country.
Miranda’s Hamilton is in this sense a perfect cultural wrap up to the ugly neoliberal Obama years. It is a brilliant ahistorical monument to Orwellian, fake-progressive bourgeois identity politics in service to the very predominantly Caucasian financial elite and ruling class hegemony. Before getting too excited about this power-serving accomplishment, however, Miranda might want to reflect on a critical difference between the One Percent of Alexander Hamilton’s time and the One Percent of Barack. Prior to the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, Noam Chomsky told Occupy Boston in the fall of 2011, the United States “had been, with ups and downs…a developing society, not always in pretty ways, but with general progress toward industrialization, prosperity and expansion of rights.” Since the triumph of finance capital, however, it’s been primarily about “de-development…a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise – producing things people need or could use – to financial manipulation.” Is it any wonder that millions upon millions of the onetime working people rendered obsolete and useless – “surplus Americans” – and trying desperately to scrape by in the vacuum created by the neoliberal age of globalization are less than rapturous about the influx of immigrants that is purportedly celebrated in Hamilton, a liberal-celebrated musical that some rich Manhattan residents and tourists are paying more than $3000 per seat to attend?
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)