Niebuhr and Obama’s growth scepticism

In: Uncategorized

15 Mar 2009

A tantalising glimpse into Barack Obama’s growth scepticism in the form of a review of books by and about Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), a Protestant theologian and Christian socialist, in the New York Review of Books.

* Obama has described Niebuhr as “one of my favourite philosophers. The rest of the quote from an interview in the New York Times with David Brooks on “Obama, Gospel and Verse” (26 April 2007) is telling: “I take away … the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” To me this seems to be saying there are severe limits to what humanity can achieve but these should not be expressed in a downbeat way.

* The review describes the views of Andrew Bacevich, a “devoted disciple of Niebuhr” on the “crisis of profligacy” allegedly afflicting modern day America:

“Bacevich traces the “crisis of profligacy” in which the American way of life has outstripped the means available to satisfy it. In 1947 America’s economic position was unrivaled. That moment soon passed. By 1950 the US had begun to import foreign oil, which Bacevich calls “the canary in the economic mineshaft.” The first negative US trade balance occurred in 1971; in 1972 US oil production peaked; and the 1973 “oil shock” caused a 40 percent rise in gas prices. Later in the decade Jimmy Carter’s warnings of “a fundamental threat to American democracy,” which he described as the “worship of self- indulgence and consumption” and a “constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility,” fell on deaf ears. By the 1980s the “Empire of Production” had become the “Empire of Consumption.” Carter does not escape, however. Of his statement that control of the Persian Gulf was a vital US interest, Bacevich writes, “not since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution has a major statement of policy been the source of greater mischief.”

“Ronald Reagan has a special place in Bacevich’s rogue’s gallery. He is a “faux-conservative” and “the modern prophet of profligacy” who encouraged the fantasy that credit had no limits and bills would never come due. He had a “canny knack for telling Americans what most of them wanted to hear” and presided over eight years of “gaudy prosperity and excess” based on cheap credit and cheap oil. Bacevich remarks that Reagan’s beliefs “did as much to recast America’s moral constitution as did sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” By 1990 the United States imported 41 percent of its oil and was embroiled in the Islamic world as a result. Deficits and the national debt had soared, and the United States was no longer a creditor country. “Americans have yet to realize,” Bacevich writes, “that they have forfeited command of their own destiny.””

* In an unpublished document James Heartfield has pointed out that:

“In 1955 theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity and the Crisis bemoaned America ‘s ‘ever-expanding economy’ in which the pressure was on Americans to ‘consume, consume and consume whether we need or even desire the products forced upon us’. The Church’s prescient economic analysis suggests that the system requires that we ‘be persuaded to consume to meet the needs of the production process’ (in Packard, 1962: 23). Journalist Vance Packard took up the Church’s cause in his books The Hidden Persuaders, The Waste Makers and The Status Seekers, which were source material for Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capitalism. Protestant austerity informs the argument that ‘the model changes that are incessantly imposed upon us, the slums that surround us, the rock-and-roll that blares at us exemplify a pattern of utilization of human an material resources which is inimical to human welfare’”.