Theory 101: The State as Personified by the Embrace of Michelle Obama and George W. Bush
The collapse of imperialism has been restrained by the military state.
“This analysis focuses on what Michelle Obama’s comradery with George W. Bush tells us about the US state.”
Disclaimer: This series cannot fully account for the breadth of work that exists on revolutionary political theory and its applications. The purpose of the series is to provide a brief definition and analysis of concepts that have been utilized by revolutionary organizations and movements in the past and present to guide their struggle. It is meant to engage readers in a discussion of theory. Readers are encouraged to use the series as a tool in their own political efforts. Debate is encouraged. Black Agenda Report has been a catalyst for raising the questions and analyzing the issues that few others will.
What is the state? This is a critical question for revolutionaries to understand and grapple with as the US imperialist system flounders in a state of perpetual decline. Some readers on social media have called the theory of imperial decline “fascist entryism.” However, the theory of imperial decline is not fascist at all. In fact, it stems from Vladimir Lenin’s theory of the general crisis of capitalism. Lenin posited that the general crisis of capitalism would occur in stages, of which the final stage is the total collapse of imperialism and the transition to socialism. While Lenin is no longer alive to update the theory, victorious revolutions in Korea, Cuba, and China and the current struggles of the people to defend their self-determination in Syria and Venezuela have updated it for us. Each has demonstrated through resistance that US imperialism has only one development path: collapse. The collapse of imperialism has been restrained by the military state, which wages endless war on progressive and radical forces at home and abroad.
“Lenin posited that the general crisis of capitalism would occur in stages, of which the final stage is the total collapse of imperialism and the transition to socialism.”
Revolutionaries such as Assata Shakur and Michael Parenti have analyzed the function of the state. In her analysis of the prison industrial complex, Shakur placed the mass imprisonment of Black and other peoples of color in the United States in the context of the social containment of the most rebellioussegments of the population. She acknowledges that prisons also serve to super exploit Black and other oppressed communities to the benefit of neoliberal capital. Parenti describes the state as an apparatus that makes the world safe for corporate power and plunder. The state under imperialism is wielded by the rich to protect the interests of the rich.
Both Shakur and Parenti were inspired by Vladimir Lenin to varying degrees. Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, two socialist organizations that drew heavily from the foundations of Marxism outlined by Lenin and others, before being driven into exile in Cuba in the early 1980s. Lenin synthesized the works of Marx and Engels in a period of revolutionary upheaval. He wrote The State and Revolutionin 1917 just prior to the great October revolution that brought the first socialist state into existence. Lenin defines the state as follows:
The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The State arises where, when, and insofar as class antagonism cannot be reconciled . . . According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of “order,” which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.
“The state under imperialism is wielded by the rich to protect the interests of the rich.”
The state is not a static or monolithic entity. Its character is dependent upon the historical moment and development of a given social order. There are many who understandably view the state as “government.” Governments are often seen as the arbiters of the “rules” of society and thus stand above it. Historical materialism challenges the notion that “government” is synonymous with the state. The study of “government” through the lens of historical materialism unmasks the function of all levers of state power.
The history of the United States is riddled with examples of how the state functions to protect the wealth and property of the capitalist class. US capitalism is unique in that its emergence was rooted in the system of white supremacy. As Gerald Horne notes, the US capitalist state legalized white supremacy on a national basis to protect the interests of the slave owning capitalist class. This class saw the British Empire’s flirtation with abolition of the slave trade as a threat to its existence. George Jackson stated it simply in Blood in My Eyewhen he remarked that, “the work of framing the new nation’s constitution [in 1787] proceeded with fifty-five persons and only two were not employers!!!!”
“US capitalism is unique in that its emergence was rooted in the system of white supremacy.”
The development of the US capitalist state into a global imperialist power has been met with much resistance, both globally and domestically. Such resistance among the oppressed classes has forced the state to institute reforms without losing its essential character. Slave rebellions, labor strikes, and peoples’ movements of all kinds have forced certain concessions from the elites. However, none of these concessions included political power. In fact, because the US capitalist state emerged from slavery and colonial exclusion, it codified special laws against the “tyranny of the majority” to ensure that political organizations like labor unions and so-called “third parties” were barred from participation in “government.”
An analysis of the historical development of the US state could fill the pages of several books. This analysis focuses on what Michelle Obama’s comradery with George W. Bush tells us about the US state. First, it must be said that the era of Trump has brought about profound political confusion in relation to the state. Many see Trump as the state rather than one of its critical aspects. The truth is that the US state possesses two layers. There is the “government,” such as the Presidency, legislative, and judicial branches, that publicly deals with the contradictions of imperialism through the enforcement of public policy. Then there is what some call the “Deep State” or the “covert state” which handles the contradictions of imperialism in secret. These layers of the state often work together, although it isn’t guaranteed.
“Slave rebellions, labor strikes, and peoples’ movements of all kinds have forced certain concessions from the elites.”
Michelle Obama and George W. Bush provide a quintessential example of what ruling class unity in the governance of the imperialist state looks like. In response to the wall-to-wall media coverage that her hugs with George W. Bush received, the former First Lady told the corporate media that “I love him to death.”Michelle Obama’s love for Bush is proof that the state manages not only the class antagonisms of the system but also the contradictions within the ruling class. The state enforces the unity of ruling class interests; namely, profit, plunder, and the power necessary to obtain them. George W. Bush and Michelle Obama’s sweet exchanges are thus much more than just a public relations stunt. They represent the dangerous forces that are unleashed when consensus between competing elements within the ruling class is achieved.
The Bush and Obama families are loyal servants to Wall Street and the military industrial complex. Bush’s Administration helped facilitate the murder of over a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama added to the murder toll and expanded the scope of US imperial warfare to Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. Bush founded the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) only to see a Black Democrat expand the U.S. military apparatus into nearly every African country. Bush ruled when the capitalist crisis of 2007-2008 emerged but it was Obama who bailed out the banks by siphoning trillions of dollars in wealth to the top 1 percent. Bush collaborated with the CIA to run torture programs throughout the Middle East region as part of the War on Terror. Obama opposed torture rhetorically while allowing the CIA and the Pentagon to relay billions in support to Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda to commit acts of torture on the people of Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
“George W. Bush and Michelle Obama’s sweet exchanges represent the dangerous forces that are unleashed when consensus between competing elements within the ruling class is achieved.”
The history of the US state is riddled with similar examples. It is important to recognize that contradictions are always present within state apparatus. Often, these contradictions are the product of class struggle and the objective development of the system. The system of imperialism is predicated upon competition among profiteers who eventually turn to monopoly to superexploit the oppressed classes. However, class struggle often forces the state to provide concessions to oppressed people. The U.S. state formally “abolished” slavery in the 19thcentury after over a century of resistance on the part of Black Africans, but the rulers then denied liberty to Blacks through Jim Crow and mass Black incarceration. Strikes and other labor actions on the part of the working class forced the state to provide a modicum of state assistance and labor rights only to reverse the gains in the aftermath of the global capitalist crisis of the mid to late seventies. In this period of reaction, what we are witnessing is the crumbling of the US state. The era of Trump has further pushed competing forces within the ruling class to unite not only against elements of the Trump Presidency but also against oppressed people everywhere. This explains why mass murders like Colin Powell are treated like “resistance” figures when they defend NATO or why George W. Bush is now adored by those who once chanted, “anyone but Bush.”
“Bush ruled when the capitalist crisis of 2007-2008 emerged but it was Obama who bailed out the banks.”
The following analysis is by no means exhaustive. The dirty dealings of the US state are reflective of the dirty dealings of an imperialist system in its final stages. Ruling class conflict between Trump and his opponents in both corporate parties has exposed the disaffection that much of the planet feels toward the US state and all that it represents. US imperialism hopes to correct itself by swiftly getting rid of the symptom, Trump, and escalating dangerous wars that target the rise of Russia and China. What the US state can do nothing about is the impending economic crisis of capitalism. Unmentioned by the actors within the U.S. state is that most working-class Americans, especially Black Americans, have yet to recover from the 2007-2008 crisis. We thus need to analyze the state under imperialism as an organ for the oppression of one class, one people, and one nation by another to fully grasp the challenges that stand in the way of putting the slogan “power to the people” into practice.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He and Roberto Sirvent are co-authors of the forthcoming book entitled American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the US War Machine (Skyhorse Publishing). He can be reached at [email protected]
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