'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama (Part 2) 

Last Thursday, I posted my initial remarks about this open letter posted on The Nation website. I criticized the people who initiated this letter for being naive at best and duplicious at worst, as there has never been any reason to believe that the letter will accomplish its expressed purpose, encouraging Obama to move towards the left. Again, please consider going over to The Nation and reading the text of the letter in full.

I had intended to post more on this subject, but the conflict in Georgia erupted, and I felt that it was urgently necessary to post a series of dispatches and analytical posts about it instead. Now, with the outcome no longer in doubt, I can return to this topic.

The most troubling aspect of the letter is not the the powerlessness or the possible mendacity of the published signatories who originated it. Rather, it is the fact that over 20,000 people have added their virtual signatures to it. Perhaps, you have already figured out what is happening here. If not, let me explain it.

Obama has been moving towards what some call the center in US politics, if he wasn't there already. And that is actually a little deceptive. He hasn't been moving towards the political center, because that is a dubious form of analysis based upon the acceptance of an unsubstantiated linear, horizontal spectrum that classifies the political values of the US electorate. Instead, as I said here about a month ago, he has been signalling his acceptability to the corporate media, the media that frames the presentation of political subjects to the general public, by adopting conventional narratives on an array of issues, ranging from the war in Iraq to faith based initiatives to the purported failure of black men to fulfill their responsibilities to their families.

Cultural leftists might find a peculiar reassurance in all this, because, if one perceives his actions in this way, Obama is revealing a sophisticated sociological recognition of the power of the media to manufacture consent. In other words, like many cultural leftists, he understands that the US is not an actual, functioning republic where an informed populace selects representatives to implement their preferred policies, and must navigate his way through this system of social control. Implicit in this analysis is a subjective belief that, once elected, he will put this insight to use to reform US politics at home and abroad.

Personally, leaving aside the question as to whether I share this perspective in its entirety, I find this implausible. Obama may well possess this insight, but it is one that will imprison him, not liberate him (or anyone else). In any event, as you have probably already recognized, the real, unstated purpose of the letter is to provide a safety valve for people dissatisfied with him. Don't publicly criticize him through protest, angry letters to the editor or, horror of horrors, support for candidates, like Nader or McKinney, who have publicly embraced positions to the left of Obama. No, you don't need to do any of these things. Just log on, go to The Nation website, and add your signature to this letter, put forward by all these wonderful people. Feel a lot better now, don't you?

It is this kind of cynical, manipulative gesture that alienates people, and discourages them from believing that there is any way to bring about political change in this country. It is an offensive, hierarchical form of politics, one in which intellectuals and social activists, in a uniquely American form of vanguardism, permit the candidate to cater to the needs of elites while they keep their more free thinking, socially progressive allies from openly confronting the candidate through innocuous acts of vapid defiance.

Furthermore, it is all the more insidious because the people responsible aren't conspiring through e-mail and Instant Messaging to mainpulate us. They are not a Democratic Party Comintern, well, with the exceptions of Eli Pariser and Jane Hamsher, they're not. They either really believe that the letter is a good way to engage the Obama campaign, or, alternatively, sincerely believe that, even if the letter is a little cheesy, it is absolutely essential than we elect Obama in November. So, what's the harm is putting a letter up on The Nation website to calm down those angry liberals, leftists and progressives?

Well, the harm incrementally manifests itself in two ways. First, it inhibits the prospect of any reform of the US electoral system in a direction where the political process would actually begin to address the urgent needs of the populace, such as, say, getting the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping them out of Iran and preventing people from being foreclosed out of their houses. Neither candidate has said anything meaningful about any of these serious issues, and, with intellectuals and activists putting things forward like this open letter as a serious political act, they aren't going to so in the future, either.

Second, and probably even more important, it discourages activism outside the electoral system by implicitly telling people that the primary way to express unhappiness with your issue of concern is to add your signature to a letter addressed to one of the presidential candidates. If anything, such an approach reminds one of petitions to the Emperor in feudal times: Oh, emperor, you know not what terrible things your administrator has done! If you just knew, you'd do something about it, I'm sure. We beseech you to bring us justice as soon as possible. Another disempowering form of hierarchical political expression.

At the root of the problem is the unwillingness of intellectuals and social activists in the US to recognize their marginal influence in the political system. They still want to believe that they are important, that they possess the ability to influence events the way that figures like Satre did in France, or at least that they perceive that he did. They don't. They are just as powerless as you and me, but, because of their inability to accept it, they end up collaborating, some accidentally, some deliberately, with a corrupt social system that uses them to perpetuate itself.

Bourdieu, the French sociologist, understood this, I think. He quite consciously advocated for the community with which he self-identified, intellectuals, to abandon the notion that they were embued with special powers of insight and wisdom in relation to politics, that they could play an essential role in shaping the outcomes of political struggles, and instead urged them to collectively put themselves at the service of social movements. In his view, intellectuals possesses various kinds of specialized knowledge and analytical skills that the populace did not.

Hence, Bourdieu asserted that it was critical for intellectuals to forge bonds with workers, immigrants and the public at large, not to lead them, but to provide them with the knowledge that they needed to confront a rapacious neoliberal order. And, he successfully did so through a number of international projects over the course of his life. Certainly, a strong thread of elitism runs through this, anchored by his attachment to Enlightenment values of rationality and scientific research. He was no anarchist.

But, with the neoliberal project even more rapacious and militarized now than it was during his lifetime, Bourdieu provides an example of how we might escape our current predicament. If our intellectuals and social activists focused less upon electoral politics, resisted the temptation to trim their statements to fulfill the needs of preferred candidates, and focused upon the more minimal goal of evaluating social and economic conflicts towards the end of breaking the media monopoly on information, leaving it to the rest of us to work with them collaboratively on how to dismantle the American Empire, then we just might break out of this repetitive circle of predetermined outcomes and move forward.

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