Thursday, April 17, 2008

World of My Father

The Politico unearths a long-lost article by Barack Obama's father describing his political and economic views. The actual PDF of Obama's article is here.

The Politico writes:

But Kenya expert Dr. Raymond Omwami, an economist and UCLA visiting professor from the University of Helsinki who has also worked at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, said Obama Sr. could not be considered a socialist himself based solely on the material in his bylined piece.

Omwami points out Obama Sr.'s paper was primarily a harsh critique of the controversial 1965 government document known as the "Sessional Paper No. 10." Sessional Paper No. 10 rejected classic Karl Marx philosophies then embraced by the Soviet Union and some European countries, calling instead for a new type of socialism to be used specifically in Africa.

Stylistically, what's interesting about the elder Obama's article is how typical it is of 1960s left-wing economic thinking. We tend to forget how fractured left-wing debate had become in that period largely because an awareness of the tremendous crimes committed by the Soviet Union were becoming mainstream. People felt vaguely ashamed of their association with the stains of the socialist past and were looking to purify it. In 1955 Milovan Djilas had published the New Class arguing that a nomenklatura had replaced the old ruling class. Albert Camus shocked the left with his Blood of the Hungarians speech denouncing Soviet tyranny. A decade later, these avante garde stirrings had migrated to the Third World in forms less erudite, but nonetheless as passionate.

In the mid-1960s there was several efforts to find a "new road" to socialism the most potent of which was that offered by Mao Tse-tung. For example, Jose Maria Sison, then a young ideologue at the University of the Philippines, began his career by denouncing Soviet Revisionism and promoting a "Third World" type of socialism based on the teachings of Chairman Mao.

This was also approximately the period when leaders as diverse as Marshal Tito, Che Guevara and even organizations like the Tupamaros were inspirations for a "renewal" in socialism. It was then an article of faith among the left that capitalism was in its last throes (was not the "US defeat" in Vietnam proof of that?) and that socialism was marching irresistibly to worldwide victory.

Yet an historian of ideas, looking back at the period would be struck by the near incoherence of not only the old model, but the "new" models. Barack Obama Senior's critique of Kenyan socialism is one absurdity commenting upon another.

The fact that the senior Obama was critical of socialism didn't necessarily mean he was not a man of the left. But it did mean he was sufficiently confident to challenge the obvious absurdities of dogma. Yet despite the all changes in the phraseology of Marxism since then it is amazing to see how many of the ideas which still guided the senior Obama remain to this day in left wing liberal thinking. Ideas like 'preventing classes from forming'. Finding some way to redress a situation where only Europeans and Asians can afford consumer goods. Looking for ways to redistribute benefits to all. Maintaining the idea that government is the key problem-solver of society.

Still the paper provides glimpses of hard-nosed common sense. A questioning of blanket nationalization. An appreciation of the idea that profit and loss must be taken into account before embarking on an enterprise. These may not seem like much, but many left-wing academics in the Third World today would not dare to go so far.

An example of the perverse willfulness of the Third World left wing academia can be found in their response to the current grain crisis gripping many poor countries. The shortages are not the result of price controls which have ruined the rice industry in many nations. No, no, no. They are the fault of Spanish friars who taught the manana habit to the locals and introduced foreign trade. And what is needed is more price controls and government intervention, which of course, will ruin whatever farmers yet remain in the business. Obama's father, at least, had the temerity to stand up against some of that nonsense.

The figure of the quixotic political intellectual on the outs is a familiar one in Third World societies. A lion in cafes, a minor celebrity among intellectuals and a fugitive from his home and the pile of accumulating bills. That is the typical Don Quixote of the Left. One such figure in the Philippines, a labor leader who prided himself in "standing up for his principles" at the cost of perpetual unemployment, was so deeply involved in his nightly drinking sessions with political buddies that he failed even to notice that his son had acquired a middle-level job at IBM, with excellent prospects for promotion. Only after his son notified him about a possible overseas posting did he realize the truth. He flew into a rage. "How dare you work for a multinational company. Get out of my house." This outburst proved too much for the son, who calmly replied, "for years everything mother and sister ate, and everything you drank has been paid for by my earnings. You were happy enough to let the bills get paid for so long as no one told you where the money came from. Well, now, get out of my house." That broke him.

Obama's father is gone. But in many places his world lives on.

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