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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Tokenism of Barack Obama? 

It has long been clear that we need to extend the concept of tokenism to take account of the fact that often these 'exceptional' women and minorities are not just included in positions of power but come to represent the worst aspects of it.

--Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman

It is a difficult and painful subject. To what extent has neoliberal society expropriated the aspirations of feminism and the civil rights movement in order to accelerate the the deconstruction of the social welfare state? Mainstream feminism, with its emphasis upon social and economic acknowledgement, promptly sidelined its more radical activists, reducing much of the issue of gender to questions of personal security, pay equity and reproductive rights. Important issues to be sure, but also ones compatible with the emergence of a more conservative economic order with increasing inequality.

Of course, the left, both new and old, bore its share of responsibility as well because of a doctrinal tendency to describe gender as a secondary contradiction, subordinate to the primary one of class conflict, something that a 1970s and 1980s radical like Diana Block unsuccessfully resisted. Or, to put in it plain English, Marxist-Leninist women had to keep quiet for the good of the cause when they encountered abusive, sexist proletarian men. As a consequence, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Benazir Bhutto, among others, stormed the stage and asserted identities as feminist political icons. All, to varying degrees, neoliberal, and all unabashed advocates of militarism.

Similarly, albeit more slowly, we have experienced a succession of African American mayors and governors who, on the whole, have done little to challenge the perogatives of the police in communities of color, and forged coalitions with developers and financial interests to gentrify their communities. Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and Maynard Jackson, the first African American mayor of Atlanta, showed the way for numerous others, including Willie Brown (in San Francisco) and, currently, Kevin Johnson (in Sacramento). A similar trajectory seems to be happening in regard to the emergence of Latino executives, such as Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles.

In one of the most extreme instances of this phenomenon, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode authorized the assault upon the MOVE residence that resulted in a fire that razed almost an entire city block, killing 11 people and rendering 240 others homeless. Perhaps suggesting that elected women and people of color find themselves incapable of opposing even the most dangerous schemes of law enforcement, Attorney General Janet Reno approved the 1993 attack upon a Waco compound of religious fanatics that 76 people. Relying upon claims of alleged child molestation, she literally killed the children in order to save them. To be fair, until recently, women and people of color have fared better in the legislative realm, at least, that is, until they began acquiescing to the program of corporate subsidy and expanded military operations pursued by President Obama.

Ah yes, President Obama. If there is anyone who could be said to personally epitomize Power's statement, it is him. Quite literally, he is representing the worst aspects of American exceptionalism and global capitalism. He has intensified the war in Afghanistan, expanded US military operations into Pakistan, and, if recent media reports are accurate, into other states in the region, both adversaries and allies, as well. Domestically, he has directed trillions of dollars towards the preservation of the financial sector in its existing, predatory form, while failing to take any action that would stop the ongoing wave of foreclosures or address unemployment. As the response to the BP oil spill shows, he is quite comfortable with administering the federal government in a partnership with transnational corporations, granting them the power to veto any action that consider injudicious. His indifference to the experiences of African Americans easily surpasses that displayed by African American mayors of past decades, as manifested by his selection of Elana Kagan for a position on the Supreme Court, a woman known for advising President Clinton to approve dramatically increased sentences for possession and sale of rock cocaine as opposed to crack cocaine, resulting in exponentially increased sentences for people of color.

Here, in Obama's selection of Kagan, we have the intersection of feminism and multiculturalism as a force for the preservation of the established order. But, does Power make too much of it? On Saturday, I addressed the subject of the left and its failure to fully mobilize its potential by adopting sexist forms of social organization and action. Should we therefore be surprised that capitalism has seized upon this deficiency, and symbolically appropriated feminism and multiculturalism to its advantage? While, as described by Block, the 1970s left prevaricated on the subjects of feminism and gay rights, capitalists seized the opportunity to commodify the experiences of women, lesbians and gays through consumption, and even devised marketing practices to exploit this cache with others as well.

Accordingly, the fact that there were people, like the Obamas, willing to advance themselves by reference to these developments should not be especially shocking either. One of my friends, a Japanese American woman, exclaimed, Why do we have to be perfect? during a conversation with an Asian American colleague about the purported workplace deficiencies of another Asian American coworker. She was alluding to the fact there were plenty of other white male employees with similar or worse defects. Likewise, in this instance, there are plenty of white males who have been willing to start wars, bust unions, defund social programs and subsidize corporations. No one calls them tokens.

Clearly, Power is trying to reinvigorate the concept of tokenism, and give it a contemporary radical resonance, but the term itself has a reactionary, bigoted context, and cannot, in my view, be separated from it. There is also, I think, an implicit assumption that women and people of color possess a potential anti-capitalist solidarity because of the sexism and racism that they have historically experienced. While there is some potential here, to the extent that both often express greater skepticism about capitalism than white men, it is easily exaggerated.

First, as a matter of socioeconomics, there is always the liberal solution of creating a multicultural elite, which has happened on a rather haphazard basis over the last forty years. Second, it subjects women and people of color to a higher standard than white males. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are criticized as tokens, while the Bushes are merely playing out the predictable behaviours of privileged white males. It suggests that women and people of color must deny themselves opportunities for advancement in order to bring about a revolutionary transformation of society. While women and people of color have been horrifically abused by global capitalism, the notion that one can devise a compelling revolutionary doctrine by characterizing them as contemporary noble savages, possessive of an inherent goodness lacking in others, is not very plausible, and a discourse centered around tokenism reinforces such a flawed perspective.

Instead, there should be an egalitarian emphasis upon acknowledging the importance of civil rights and economic justice within society as part of broader collective movement. Political figures, athletes and entertainers have an allure throughout society that is exploited to buttress hierarchical structures of violence and exploitation. Celebrity is a far more insidious phenomenon than tokenism, however defined, and an effective left discourse should focus more upon it than searching for sexual and racial traitors who betrayed the cause.

Labels: , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?