November 4, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Is Obama a Gramscian?

By now it is fairly well established that Barack Obama is a natural-born U.S. citizen, not a Kenyan or an Indonesian. Aside from Donald Trump or Glenn Beck, not many mainstream political figures would question that. But might the President be a closet Gramscian? During the Tea Party Convention in February 2010, I rolled my eyes when World Net Daily's Joseph Farah kept talking about Obama's lack of a birth certificate as he introduced Sarah Palin to the National Tea Party Convention. Birthers, again... But then he brought up Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, and my eyes lit up.

Most Americans probably don't care whether Obama ever came under Gramscian influences, but it's more than an idle intellectual question. Gramsci was an Italian socialist philosopher who was imprisoned by the Mussolini fascist regime in the 1920s. His main contribution to left-wing political activism was the strategy of undermining the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie, gradually weakening the cultural foundations of social order, as opposed to taking direct physical action against police authorities, etc. In graduate school at U.Va., I kept coming across references to Gramsci, and finally did some reading of his Prison Notebooks, which summarizes much of his thought. He positively despised Lockean liberal values, and the whole idea of constitutionally limited powers:

... the entire liberal ideology, with its strengths and weaknesses, can be encapsulated in the principle of the separation of power... (p. 245-246)
Individualism is merely brutish apoliticism, lacking the party spirit that is the fundamental component of State spirit. (p. 147)

On the other hand, his value judgment is solidly aligned with leftist-statist philosophy: A state is ethical, he believed, to the extent it functions to raise the masses to a cultural level. The State as 'nightwatchman' or gendarme is the opposite of "ethical," in his view. Gramsci regarded Prohibition as an attempt by U.S. industries to discipline the work force, "Fordizing" labor to prolong profits even in high-wage industries. That was a theme I came across quite often during my graduate studies.

One can find some echoes of Gramsci in some of Obama's rhetoric, and certainly in his lack of regard for constitutional restraints on power. In March 2009, Herbert London wrote about this connection at "Obama's Ideological Father." Obama himself is playing it very cool, promoting the idea that he is first and foremost a pragmatist, and of course there's a lot of truth in that. But what else could a leader who is committed to "transforming" our nation do in a country with such a strong conservative element? Some of Obama's closest current and former advisers, such as Van Johnson (the erstwhile czar) and Valerie Jarrett, likewise evince an affinity for that sort of cryptic radical politics.

White House analysts know that Valerie Jarrett plays a key role in policy making, but there are signs she exercises a virtual veto power on a wide variety of areas. If so, that is a strange way to run the Executive Branch. Read "Obama's Strange Dependence on Valerie Jarrett," by Karin McQuillan at It was published in August. Jarrett is a fascinating person who, like Obama, spent her formative years in a Muslim country, Iran. Her father was a leading physician and geneticist, and she has strong social connections with the African-American elites in Chicago, which is where she met the Obamas. More recently, Jarrett was quoted issuing a thinly-veiled threat/boast: "After We Win This Election, It's Our Turn. Payback Time." See Hopefully, we'll never find out how determined the Obama White House was to transform America.