Dr King Spanks Obama: Part 4
December 5, 2009
Some months ago, at the 23rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Celebration in San Francisco, attendees were asked to answer the question, “What would Dr. King want to say to Barack Obama?”  This article series is an effort to provide Dr. King an opportunity to answer that question for himself from the pages of a book he wrote in 1967 entitled: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”. But more than a mere contrast between two persons, this article series seeks to compare recent American history with contemporary struggles, and to explore visions of a more desirable future. This is the spirit of Dr. King’s book title and of Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change We Can Believe In”. At this point, we’ve reached chapter 5 of Dr. King’s book, which advances the following centerpiece of his philosophy:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income… This proposal is not a “civil rights” program, in the sense that that term is currently used. The program would benefit all the poor, including the two-thirds of them who are white. I hope that both Negro and white will act in coalition to effect this change, because their combined strength will be necessary to overcome the fierce opposition we must realistically anticipate.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1967 
Now termed the “Basic Income Guarantee” (BIG), this measure doesn’t receive quite the discussion or popular acclaim that it did 40-years ago. But it has been advanced by a historic list of prominent supporters, including Thomas Paine, Milton Friedman, John Kenneth Galbraith, and more recently, Richard C. Cook.  This essay will argue that higher levels of economic democracy are a prerequisite, not a byproduct, of such a measure. Meanwhile, with a vast body of contemporary support, Barack Obama has recently advanced a similar proposal:
“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14-percent — 14-percent of its gross national product — on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim’s talking about when he says ‘everybody in, nobody out’, a single-payer health care plan, universal health care plan. That’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately, because first we’ve got to take back the White House, we’ve got to take back the Senate, and we’ve got to take back the House.” — Barack Obama, 2003 
At first glance, Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might seem to be on the same page, or at least somewhere in the same ballpark. But now that Democrats have finally taken back the White House and Congress, Rob Kall asks an essential question: “Who would have thought that Obama’s health care plan would enrich big Pharma and raise profits for health insurers while raising taxes on small businesses and threatening to jail people who were uninsured?”  As Progressives Democrats of America complain, “the one option that would produce enough savings to include every single American, contain rising costs, and ensure no one ever faces a medical bankruptcy again was never seriously considered despite the fact that 86 members of Congress have co-sponsored HR 676, The Medicare for All Act. Congress has failed to debate the one option that nearly 60% of doctors and nurses support, most Americans want, along with a growing number of unions, cities and towns” — single payer health care. 
In my home state of Washington, the Spokesman Review reports: “The 1 in 5 adults lacking insurance stand to sink the financial stability of the state’s health care providers… Many health care providers have softened the losses by charging more for those with insurance… We’re reaching a point where we can’t sustain this system”.  Even from a strictly “free market” perspective, this continuing trend is a market failure  that the Obama administration now seeks to mandate for every US citizen instead of a more sustainable single payer system that was originally proposed. According to Stephen Lendman: “If Obamacare is enacted, it will cost more, deliver less, leave millions uninsured, millions more underinsured and leave a broken system in place. It will enrich the insurance, drug and large hospital chain cartels at the expense of universal coverage. It will solidify a class-based system delivering the best care money can buy. Others will get sub-standard treatment, and for millions none at all.”  Kate Randall adds, “Obama’s health care counterrevolution is of a piece with his entire domestic agenda. It parallels the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the banks, the imposition of mass layoffs and wage and benefits cuts in the auto industry, and a stepped-up attack on public education and on teachers.” 
Nonetheless, public support for Barack Obama and his alleged “centrist” approach appears to remain fairly high, as for some reason he was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Nobel committee, Obama has created “a new climate in international politics.” But Paul Craig Roberts remands:”Tell that to the 2 million displaced Pakistanis and the unknown numbers of dead ones that Obama has racked up in his few months in office. Tell that to the Afghans where civilian deaths continue to mount as Obama’s “war of necessity” drones on indeterminably. No Bush policy has changed. Iraq is still occupied. The Guantanamo torture prison is still functioning. Rendition and assassinations are still occurring. Spying on Americans without warrants is still the order of the day. Civil liberties are continuing to be violated in the name of Oceania’s ‘war on terror’. Apparently, the Nobel committee is suffering from the delusion that, being a minority, Obama is going to put a stop to Western hegemony over darker-skinned peoples. The non-cynical can say that the Nobel committee is seizing on Obama’s rhetoric to lock him into the pursuit of peace instead of war. We can all hope that it works. But the more likely result is that the award has made ‘War is Peace’ the reality.”  So the Nobel committee has essentially discredited themselves and the Peace Prize itself by awarding it to a warmonger like Barack Obama. This should raise serious questions about how they were coerced into doing so, and by whom.
When Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he responded, “I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.” 
Meanwhile, the violence driven by American imperialism continues to spread throughout the world while most black Americans are still chained to the “lowest rung of the economic ladder” as Dr. King lamented more than 40-years ago. While they are joined by a growing population of whites, Hispanics and other races, it is significant to note that an inordinate proportion of African Americans still find themselves living in poverty. In fact, Professor David Harvey suggests the recent mortgage foreclosure crisis is largely a racial phenomenon, “a financial Katrina”, with its devastation focused mainly in the inner-city of places like Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore where the concentration of ethnic minorities is typically highest.   The Chicago Tribune reports that “deep recession is hitting African-Americans more severely than the overall population”. As the nation’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate nudged toward 10 percent, the African-American jobless rate was 15.5 percent with Illinois blacks at 18.6 percent in the third quarter, according to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute.
The Tribune goes on to say: “The United States historically has seen higher unemployment rates for minorities, but the gap has widened in this recession, in part because of job losses in the manufacturing and auto sectors. And the jobless growth, coupled with the predatory lending that flourished in segregated neighborhoods during the real estate boom, have led to dramatic spikes in mortgage foreclosures, sending home values into a downward spiral. The bottom line: A silent depression for African-Americans”.  According to Larry Pinkney, “the underbelly of this nation is the black underclass. Instead of becoming smaller and moving out of poverty and disenfranchisement, the black underclass has grown much, much larger and become even more impoverished and disenfranchised”.
In chapter 5 of his book, Dr. King implores the American black population to educate themselves and to become more actively involved in politics.  While some have successfully heeded this call to action, Pinkney further observes, “The relatively small black elite has shamelessly, in complicity with the elite of its white counterpart, helped spawn an insidious new form of racism and economic apartheid. Moreover, members of the black underclass are themselves chastised and blamed by this insidious black elite and intelligentsia for being the economic and social victims of a callous, avaricious, capitalist system which now finds itself in deep trouble nationally and globally”. 
But is it any surprise that a black rise to power under capitalism would be proportionately similar to a white rise to power under the same system? Is it any surprise that the interests of “black power” would closely match and collaborate with the interests of “white power”? Under capitalism, is it any surprise that the interests of power are directly opposed to the interests of the remaining population regardless of skin color? Is it any surprise that a black President would advance an agenda very similar to most of his lily white predecessors?
In chapter 2 entitled, “Black Power”, Dr. King argues, “The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore a problem of power — a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo.” With this, Dr. King obviously understands that opposing interests are involved. But until this antagonism is dissolved, any personal transition from one pole to the other merely erases one’s sympathetic relationship with the opposing pole. There is no incentive for any President of the United States to “transform the ghetto”, as his position of power is contingent upon the powerlessness of others. So the goal of “equality”, which Dr. King so fervently pursued, is not for any individual or group to rise to power over others, but to dismiss the existing power structure as much as possible in all human activity in order to maximize democracy and to minimize opposing interests. “Are we seeking power for power’s sake? Or are we seeking to make the world and our nation better places to live? If we seek the latter, violence can never provide the answer. The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” In chapter 2, Dr. King goes on to say:
“Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice… There is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed. This has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience. It is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in white. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.” 
Many argue that one year is not nearly long enough for any President to effect “change” in these regards. And granted, President Obama probably didn’t intend “Change We Can Believe In” to suggest he could solve all the world’s problems overnight. But it does seem entirely reasonable for us to expect him to at least initiate a “change” of direction in the most damaging trends. Instead, Barack Obama continues to deliberately fortify those trends in the same direction they have been headed for the past 40-years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by his own government.  “For the first time in humanity, over 1 billion people are chronically hungry”, says a United Nations World Food Programme online video. The US Department of Agriculture reports recently that in 2008, one in six US households were “food insecure”, the highest number since the figures were first gathered in 1995.  Once again, these aren’t static snapshots, they are dynamic and growing economic trends.
How is it that citizens of the wealthiest nation in human history increasingly find themselves living in tents and under bridges and without adequate nourishment? At the same time, how is it that 75-percent of all American youth aged 17-24 are too fat and stupid to pass a military entrance exam?   Is all this due to irresponsibility amongst the lower classes, or is it because of upper class greed? The best answer is probably that our class-based socioeconomic system is inherently is designed to channel economic wealth and political power away from producers and into the hands of non-producers. Whether we are aware of the fact or not, each of us consent to this antagonistic relationship and actively contribute to its predominance through daily participation.
One argument against this conclusion is that increasing numbers of workers, involuntarily displaced by technological advancement and other economic developments, qualify as “non-producers” who have no share in the wealth and power generated by production. But the result of their displacement is increased competition for jobs at the individual level, which tends to drive aggregate wages down. So the active role of rising unemployment and a growing “underclass” is to reduce and discipline the remaining workforce, to increase its productive output and to drive wages down, thereby delivering more wealth and power into the hands of a shrinking upper class. While some analysts might refer to this as “economic efficiency”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presents another view:
“Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will… We have come to the point where we must make the non-producer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods. We have so energetically mastered production that we now must give attention to distribution… The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other… The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking. The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” 
While Dr. King’s vision is both admirable and perhaps attainable, he also anticipates “fierce opposition”. Moreover, he seems to realize his suggested measures are impossible without “deep structural change” implemented through “some form of constructive coercive power”.  For example, in chapter 5 of his book, King states: “It was not the marching alone that brought about integration of public facilities in 1963. The downtown business establishments suffered for weeks under our almost unbelievably effective boycott. The significant percentage of their sales that vanished, the 98 percent of their Negro customers who stayed home, educated them forcefully to the dignity of the Negro as a consumer.” 
It might be surmised from this that Dr. King merely advocates consumer activism whereby people “vote with their dollars.” But consumers can’t vote with dollars they don’t possess. Moreover, unemployment and poverty are structural features of the predominant economic system, not a mistake or an aberration that can be corrected through some kind of reform. So effective withdrawal of mass consent for the existing wage-based system involves more than a mere “boycott” or failure to participate. Structural transformation of the decision-making process involves the construction of an entirely new socioeconomic system where human beings are no longer enslaved by either masters or wages. Further study indicates that Dr. King not only understood the severe limitations of his prior campaigns but that he also had much higher goals in mind:
“We must frankly acknowledge that in past years our creativity and imagination were not employed in learning how to develop power. We found a method in nonviolent protest that worked, and we employed it enthusiastically. We did not have leisure to probe for a deeper understanding of its laws and lines of development. Although our actions were bold and crowned successes, they were substantially improvised and spontaneous. They attained the goals set for them but carried the blemishes of our inexperience… The future of the deep structural changes we seek will not be found in the decaying political machines. It lies in new alliances of Negroes, Puerto Ricans, labor, liberals, certain church and middle-class elements.” 
Here, Dr. King describes what David Harvey has more recently termed The Right To The City: “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” 
Both Dr. King and Professor Harvey go on to suggest that transforming our social relations to effect deep structural change involves far more than mere labor movements or consumer uprisings or civil rights activism or ecological arguments or mournful cries from the unemployed, homeless and starving. Instead, a unified cooperative alliance amongst all these common interests is essential to effect the needed transition from capitalism toward a more equitable and sustainable socioeconomic system. David Harvey insists that democratic control of productive surplus is imperative, and Dr. King is very explicit in defining his view of cooperative alliance:
“A true alliance is based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. For an alliance to have permanence and loyal commitment from its various elements, each of them must have a goal from which it benefits and none must have an outlook in basic conflict with the others.” 
So a truly cooperative “alliance” involves a set of “common interests” with no “basic conflict”. There is nothing complicated about this, as most human interests are generally held in common and are best managed democratically. The most obvious exceptions are any sort of personal drive for financial independence or political power, derived through private accumulation and exclusive individual control of capital surplus. These pursuits tend to promote hostile relations with others and establish opposing sets of interests. Everyone wants control of capital surplus — and everyone should have it — democratically. For the very essence of capital is social improvement, and there is no justification for that power to be concentrated in the hands of an exclusively entitled minority. Economic democracy and political service are collaborative, not individual, pursuits, and the wreckage of our dying system is potentially fuel for more universal and sustainable levels of human cooperation. Unemployed capital and unemployed labor living side-by-side is always an opportunity to transform the system. So there is no reason Dr. King’s dream of racial equality through the abolition of poverty can’t materialize. But there is also no reason to expect such blessings to be delivered from the President of the United States or his floundering Congress. As Dr. King further suggests:
“When a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance when they have accumulated the power to enforce change. When they have amassed such strength, the writing of a program becomes almost an administrative detail. It is immaterial who presents the program; what is material is the presence of an ability to make things happen. The powerful never lose opportunities — they remain available to them. The powerless, on the other hand, never experience opportunity — it is always arriving at a later time. The deeper truth is that the call to prepare programs distracts us excessively from our basic and primary tasks… Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which the government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us. It would be the height of naiveté to wait passively until the administration had somehow been infused with such blessings of goodwill that it implored us for our programs. The first course is grounded in mature realism; the other is childish fantasy.” 
The abolition of poverty will begin here and now — in the United States of America — with a deliberate and aggressive expansion of the cooperative business sector supported by a network of publicly owned banks.  For higher levels of economic democracy are a prerequisite, not a byproduct, of programs like Basic Income Guarantee and Single Payer Health Care. To demand progressive programs from a conservative government is “the height of naiveté”. To expect a conservative government to magically become progressive with the election of a black man to the Presidency is “childish fantasy”. The challenge and the responsibility for the pursuit of progressive measures belongs to individuals and firms at the community level who already understand the root of the problem and the potential solutions. Lots of people simply “don’t get it”, and that’s okay. The responsibility of those who do understand is not to persuade or convince those who stubbornly object, but to transform social relations at the community level by providing a superior living example of economic democracy  to others who are more receptive.
Michael Moore recently distributed a list of “15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now” in these regards.  But as stated above, the most urgent measures on that list involve democratizing the workplace and capital investment: 1) Fire your boss and reorganize the workplace cooperatively. 2) Close your bank account and deposit your money in a credit union or some other form of publicly owned bank. That is, any kind of system that does not feed back into the currently predominant debt-based monetary system. The combination of both measures is a large-scale dismissal of the current socioeconomic system. Instead of money being loaned into circulation at interest from a fractional reserve and exclusively controlled by a handful of private bankers, cooperative firms will pool some portion of their productive surplus into an investment fund which is democratically ploughed back into the economy in the form of grants, specifically for the purpose of expanding the cooperative business sector.
Thus, money is earned, not loaned, into circulation, and economic growth for the sake of political power is no longer an imperative. The newborn economy will deliberately operate parallel to — and in direct competition with — the existing system, and it will steadily grow from within it. The main criteria for success is a transfer of popular consent from the old system to the new. So transition will most likely be slow and painful, and the new system must constantly innovate to develop and maintain competitive advantage without compromising the basic principles of the democratic local cooperative. Laws and customs will eventually change. But until they do, the challenging cooperative economy must be led voluntarily by a growing body of individuals and organizations who already understand the urgent need for deep systemic transformation. Without this fundamental understanding in mind, any movement against capitalism will certainly fail.
In summary, British philosopher James Allen (1864 – 1912) wrote a short volume called “As A Man Thinketh” during the turbulent Industrial Revolution of late nineteenth-century England. In that small book he presents the following overview of human cooperation: “It has been usual for men to think and to say, ‘Many men are slaves because one is an oppressor; let us hate the oppressor.’ Now, however, there is among an increasing few a tendency to reverse this judgment to say, ‘One man is an oppressor because many are slaves; let us despise the slaves.’ The truth is that oppressor and slave are cooperators in ignorance, and, while seeming to afflict each other, are in reality afflicting themselves. A perfect Knowledge perceives the action of law in the weakness of the oppressed and the misapplied power of the oppressor; a perfect Love, seeing the suffering which both states entail, condemns neither, a perfect Compassion embraces both oppressor and oppressed.” 
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