Friday, 7 November 2008

Obama: "Yes we can" - will he, can we?

So, Barack Hussein Obama finally reaches the White House, a landmark event for this new-generational African-American.

Black people in particular will rightly see it as a momentous achievement against the long, dark history of American slavery and racial oppression.

The ousting of Bush/Cheney and rejection of their alarming stand-ins, McCain/Palin, should also bring considerable relief to many sane people around the world.

Cheers have echoed. Tears have flowed. The commendations have rolled in.

Regardless of the circus politics driving it all, it's a zeitgeist moment for people like Jesse Jackson and the millions of rejoicing, hopeful black Americans.

Yet, on what more studied grounds can this be described as an "historic" day?

Beyond Obama's dazzling oratory, what are the serious possibilities for historical, progressive change? It's not a promising vista. Obama's victory may be a notable event, but it suggests very little or nothing as a challenge to America's ruling corporate order.

Ralph Nader has offered a truer assessment of Obama's campaign:

“This is show business.”

For those beguiled by Obama's stage presence, Nader looks back at celebrated black radicals and finds the new President lacking in something rather more elementary: "fire in the belly". “Rosa Parks had fire in the belly.” “Barack Obama does not have fire in the belly.”

For Nader, “the only point of this election is that the Democrats have no more excuses.” Having complained for years about lacking a comprehensive mandate for 'change', there should be no prevarication this time.

Recounting Obama's conservative Senate record, Nader concludes that the President-Elect has no interest in taking-on corporate power. As the consistent political and media exclusion of Nader himself illustrates, what prevails in America is “a two-party dictatorship... in thralldom to these giant corporations...”

“Why are they investing in Barack Obama?" For Nader and other voices for real democracy, it's a no-brainer.

Naomi Klein reminds us that the fixation with "big 'P' politics" during campaigns only obscures the true poverty of policy underneath:
"When societies are changing quickly, the media and the people are naturally focused on big "P" politics - who gets the top appointments, what was said in the most recent speech. Meanwhile, safe from public scrutiny, far reaching pro-corporate policies are locked into place, dramatically restricting future possibilities for real change."
What we get instead is a mass-focus on the event rather than how the policy minutiae serves corporate America. What the media help convey is a simulacrum of something “historic” - a self-congratulating nod to 'liberal fairness' rather than any consideration of how definitive, system-reforming change might result from such a 'watershed'.

Nelson Mandela's release from jail was, similarly, presented as “historic”. And, yes, it was such an event. Indeed, much more so than the Obama election in that it inaugurated a whole new body politic 'intent' on sweeping away an entire wicked system.

Yet, while Apartheid gave black people access to the voting booth – the definition of liberal participant democracy – and some marginal improvements, it has yet to transform the society in any “historical” way. As John Pilger reminds us, big international capitalism still calls the shots and the vast majority of blacks still live in abject poverty.

The definition of “historic”, one might say, lies in the event's outcomes rather than the event itself. Antonio Gramsci's “historical bloc” - denoting a long-term system/grouping of power relations, rather than just a change of party/leaders - offers a useful template for considering just how little the main architecture of US corporate politics will be undermined with Obama at the helm.

In speaking of saving Wall Street to help Main Street, all the evidence suggests Obama heading-up a damage limitation project of further appeasement and bailouts; all serving to manage the ravages of neoliberalism.
Obama's economic team inclusion of Clinton's former Treasury head Larry Summers is but one indication that there will be no break with past economic orthodoxies.

On close examination, says US author and academic Anthony DiMaggio, Barack Obama promises almost nothing that one could reasonably term historical change:
"Obama may have electrified crowds with his rhetoric and charisma, but no amount of smooth talk is enough to make up for a lack of economic and political vision. At the risk of offending the Obama-cult, I'm willing to admit that Obama's victory appears to be a non-historic event. Obama has provided little substantive evidence that he would seriously fight for progressive-left causes as president."
Obama's victory speech had his optimistic audience repeating the leader-elect's new mantra: "Yes, we can." It returned me to Blair's "Things can only get better" chorus in '97. And, of course, things did get better - for those at the top of the social tree, while things got terrifyingly worse for the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Like Blair's entry to Downing Street, coverage of Obama is another "historic" example of how the liberal mainstream insulate the prevailing order by peddling a safe understanding of 'serious change'; a seamless reportage of party political emotionalism, playing on public hopes and expectations.

Which is why BBC mainstays like David Dimbleby, Justin Webb and Matt Frei were waxing emotional during the election on America's 'historic rebirth'. Like Obama, they are where they are because they help keep the system intact, quite safe from any prospect of serious historical change.

Speaking at Democracy Now, John Pilger also brings us back from election euphoria to the more sober truth that Obama is "a man of the system".

As Pilger suggests, this is not to dismiss the sincerity of such hopeful outpouring - Bush/Cheney are, after all, being removed. Moreover, the desire for hopeful change, however incremental, is a human trait to be greatly admired.

But this kind of event allows the liberal elite and its media proxies to cultivate a tepid 'real hope' narrative, all serving to play-down expectations of meaningful change.

For Pilger:
"The lesson learned is that no presidential candidate, least of all a Democrat awash with money from America's "banksters", as Franklin Roosevelt called them, can or will challenge a militarised system that controls and rewards him. Obama's job is to present a benign, even progressive face that will revive America's democratic pretensions, internationally and domestically, while ensuring nothing of substance changes. Among ordinary Americans desperate for a secure life, his skin colour may help him regain this unjustified "trust", even though it is of a similar hue to that of Colin Powell, who lied to the United Nations for Bush and now endorses Obama."
With a million-plus dead Iraqis, what value can we place in Obama's "yes, we can" foreign policy promises?

Despite opposing the war, Obama's Iraq withdrawal proposals look vague and non-committal. Even the removal of most combat troops will still mean a substantial military and administrative retention. It would still be occupation.

Will Obama be the spur to any serious engagement over Palestine?

Ask the suffering people of Gaza, whom, far from Obama's victorious Chicago stage, reserve a much more prosaic view of his 'enlightened America'.

Obama's first appointment as Chief of Staff is the pro-Israeli hardliner Rahm Emanuel. Hardly a fillip to any serious proto-peace deal. As Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah comments, Obama decisively distanced himself from all progressive US-Arab voices on the issue during the campaign. This might be construed as political risk-aversion. Yet, the appointment of Emanuel, notes Abunimah, reveals a more concrete confirmation of favourable intent towards Israel.

Likewise, as Obama contemplates a surge-based addition to US forces in Afghanistan, one is reasonably permitted to ask: what's really changed in the miltary policy arena?

Tariq Ali notes that, "talking in cliches and synthetic slogans" during the campaign, Obama's position on Afghanistan - and Pakistan - was even more belligerent than McCain - though, the available intelligence he receives, once in office, Ali thinks, may persuade him otherwise as to the folly of intensifying a military presence where the US is clearly being beaten.

As many of these key commentators say, only a re-concentration of the ground-based movements that got Obama elected can now help effect serious change. Ralph Nader has, to that end, helped initiate the post-election to begin the real task of pressure/lobby-driven targeting of Obama and Congress.

Can they and we, further afield, mobilise and argue for a radical alternative? Yes we can.


Some additional articles:

Hail to the Chief of Staff

Obama reassures big business on economic policy

Organizer in Chief

The Obama Illusion

A look under the hood of the (potential) Obama adminstration

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