Chto Delat Weekly Reader No. 7: The All-Obama Issue

obama_victory_unicorn1This past week the whole world has been buzzing, celebrating, and puzzling over the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency. Will his presidency usher in a new era of peace, friendship, and social justice the world over? Or his advent just new window dressing on a bad game that is getting worse? This week’s reader is devoted to skeptical voices on the left who wonder whether we all haven’t been sold a bill of goods. Featuring: Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, Louis Proyect, Alexander Cockburn, Ralph Nader, Unión del Barrio, Richard Seymour, Howard Zinn, Mike Davis, and Tariq Ali.

Simon Critchley. The  American void. There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good.” Of course, this is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” Obama’s remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the U.S. is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as we restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalized anomie, we need “to affirm our bonds with one another.” Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama’s entire push for the presidency.

Judith Butler. Uncritical Exuberance? Very few of us are immune to the exhilaration of this time. My friends on the left write to me that they feel something akin to “redemption” or that “the country has been returned to us” or that “we finally have one of us in the White House.” Of course, like them, I discover myself feeling overwhelmed with disbelief and excitement throughout the day, since the thought of having the regime of George W. Bush over and gone is an enormous relief. And the thought of Obama, a thoughtful and progressive black candidate, shifts the historical ground, and we feel that cataclysm as it produces a new terrain. But let us try to think carefully about the shifted terrain, although we cannot fully know its contours at this time. The election of Barack Obama is historically significant in ways that are yet to be gauged, but it is not, and cannot be, a redemption, and if we subscribe to the heightened modes of identification that he proposes (“we are all united”) or that we propose (“he is one of us”), we risk believing that this political moment can overcome the antagonisms that are constitutive of political life, especially political life in these times. There have always been good reasons not to embrace “national unity” as an ideal, and to nurse suspicions toward absolute and seamless identification with any political leader. After all, fascism relied in part on that seamless identification with the leader, and Republicans engage this same effort to organize political affect when, for instance, Elizabeth Dole looks out on her audience and says, “I love each and every one of you.”

Louis Proyect. Progressives for Obama: Still Intoxicated. Now that the intoxication of the Obama victory is over (or should be over), one wonders how long it will take the pro-Obama left to wake up to a hangover. For the last few days, news reports should have given them an Excedrin-sized headache. Instead of ushering in a new New Deal, Obama seems to be all about ushering in Bill Clinton’s 3rd term but in this case we are dealing with America’s first real Black president rather than the claim made on Clinton’s behalf by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson in 2001 that he “took so many initiatives he made us think for a while we had elected the first black president.”

Louis Proyect. President Obama, Governor Paterson and Ayn Rand. Last night as I was listening (or trying to listen) to Obama’s vaporous victory speech, I heard a steady procession of young people walking up Third Avenue cheering and yelling “Obama” over and over. For all practical purposes, it was just the kind of display that attends a World Series or Super Bowl victory by a New York team. This is understandable given the way that the presidential campaign is understood by the average person. Their candidate is like the home team and the primaries amount to playoffs leading up to the championship game.

Louis Proyect. Obama wins over the ‘decent left.’ Leaving aside Obama’s “change” mantra, the foreign policy of the new administration will most certainly hew closely to that of the Clinton administration. If you keep in mind that much of the “decent left” emerged out of the pro-war fervor during the Clinton years among Western journalists and intellectuals who convinced themselves that Milosevic was the new Adolph Hitler, it is not that surprising that the same people are coming home like the Prodigal Son. After all, in the final analysis, it has been the blood-drenched Wilsonian idealism of the WWI era that has united hawk and dove alike in its determination to police the world in the interests of multinational corporations under the banner of human rights.

Alexander Cockburn & Ralph Nader. Hail to the Chief of Staff. The first trumpet blast of change ushers in Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff and gatekeeper. This is the man who arranges his schedule, staffs out the agenda, includes, excludes. It’s certainly as sinister an appointment as, say, Carter’s installation of arch cold-warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Advisor at the dawn of his “change is here” administration in 1977. Emanuel, as Ralph Nader points out in my interview with him below, represents the worst of the Clinton years. His profile as regards Israel is explored well on this site by lawyer John Whitbeck. He’s a former Israeli citizen, who volunteered to serve in Israel in 1991 and who made brisk millions in Wall Street. He is a super-Likudnik hawk, whose father was in the fascist Irgun in the late Forties, responsible for cold-blooded massacres of Palestinians. Dad’s unreconstructed ethnic outlook has been memorably embodied in his recent remark to the Ma’ariv newspaper that “Obviously he [Rahm] will influence the president to be pro-Israel… Why wouldn’t he be [influential]? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.”

Obama-Mania at the Universities: Interview with an activist at an American university about the situation before the elections. Obama’s historic campaign has attracted two-thirds of college students who are looking for something different than the failed polices of George Bush. In the last year we have seen a huge growth in the level of politicization on our campus, with the Democrats spending thousands of dollars and working hundreds of hours reaching out to kids who want something—anything!—besides Bush. “Obamania” seems like a personality cult. Obama stickers, t-shirts, posters, and flyers litter the campus and create the illusion of the campaign as a grassroots movement. The hyper-optimistic organizers who work on the campaign have done a great job registering voters, hand-making signs with peace symbols, and also masking the oppressive nature of bourgeois politics.

Unión del Barrio on the U.S. Presidential Election. Real change will only come from those who struggle for dignity, justice and self-determination. With the historic election of Barack Obama as President of the United States we can say with certainty that there has been a paradigm shift in the mythology of capitalist white rule. Without a doubt the backwards concept of race superiority has suffered a blow, but the transfer of political power from one capitalist party to another should not be taken lightly. Race relations has entered a new level of discussion in an empire that has built its existence on the genocide of indigenous people, the theft of African labor and the premise of expansionism under the ridiculous assertion of divine intervention to settle land and conquer people. The significance of the 2008 U.S. presidential election is that for the first time in the history of capitalism, the most powerful country in the annals of human history will be led by a black man. This phenomenon signals a decline in the ability of white power capitalism to rule openly and viciously as it has since its inception; but more importantly it signals the need for those that financed the Obama campaign to promote president elect Obama as the beacon to keep alive this unjust and decadent capitalist system. In short, president-elect Obama was formed by the elite and will rule with the elite, but the historical feat of a black politician winning the presidency of the United States cannot be taken for granted.

Richard Seymour. The Furnace of American Mythology. When Obama ‘reaches out’ to Republicans and starts blustering about bipartisanship, and when he appoints someone like Robert Gates as his secretary of defense, there will be no excuse. If he fails to carry out even his most limited reforms, he has no scope for blaming the Right. If he doesn’t close Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus, he has no one else to blame. All I’m saying is, to those hundreds of thousands of people marching and dancing in the streets, be prepared to be back on the streets soon. The system is designed to lock you out as quickly and quietly as possible.

What next for struggle in the Obama era? Millions of people have been waiting for Election Day 2008, when the Bush regime would finally fall. The book is about to shut—or slam, more like it—on eight terrible years of Republican rule in the White House. As people on the left celebrate the end of a rotten regime, it’s also time to ask: What kind of change will an Obama administration bring? brings together a roundtable of activists and writers on the left to discuss what new openings they see with an Obama administration in power—and what challenges still lie ahead for social justice movements. [Featuring Howard Zinn, Mike Davis, Tariq Ali, Rosi Carrasco, Anthony Arnove, Camilo Mejía, and others.]


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