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

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Debacle of March 4, 2008 

Like many leftists, I don't look to the two party system, and the presidential candidates that it produces, as the means for socially tranforming the US and its role in the world. Given the massive sums of money required to be elected to Congress, much less the White House, as well as the power possessed by the major lobbies, politicians have little room for manuever.

Eli over at Left I on the News has diligently catalogued the woeful deficiencies of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. It makes for pretty depressing reading. One can pretty much predict, within a narrow range, the policies that will be put forward by these candidates. As one might expect, they have been market tested in an effort to appeal to the most people and alienate the least.

With that said, however, leftists make a mistake if they dismiss the mainstream political process as meaningless, or allow themselves to reflexively evaluate it in a jaded, cynical way. Why? Because the process has a social dimension as well as a political one, and leftists need to be cognizant of this social aspect in regard to being able to recognize the prospects, if any, for left activism.

The conventional left response to the emergence of Barack Obama as a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination has primarily been one of sharp criticism, with the exception of this nuanced analysis by lenin over at Lenin's Tomb. Yes, Obama isn't particularly great on the issues, but the importance of his emergence is social rather than political, and the social dynamism of his campaign presented the prospect of a new American public attitude in which left values would no longer be marginalized.

How so? First, Obama has been challenging the hierarchical structure of the US political system, one that possesses the rigidity of purported competitive democracies like Japan, Colombia, Germany, Taiwan and Mexico. In all of these countries, there are some significant differences between the parties, but none of them object, with the possible exception of the PRD in Mexico and the Linkspartei in Germany, to the fundamental allocation of power in support of neoliberal economic policies, an allocation that rests upon persuading the public that it has no meaningful political role other than validating the illusion of democratic participation.

Baudrillard, in a typically cutting example of creating a new terminology to describe our contemporary world, described the transfer of power from one party to another in such systems as alternation. Obama does not challenge this process directly, but he has structured his campaign around the most unforgivable taboo: he encourages his supporters to organize themselves as active participants within the US political system, as people capable of making demands and bringing about policies that fulfill their needs.

It is easy to ridicule. Obama's supporters are displaying the qualities of cult members, they are responding to the superficial appeal of a charming candidate with the skills of a televangelist. Such criticisms reveal more about the extent to which we have internalized our own passivity than it does about the people who have responded so passionately to Obama. Throughout much of the modern period, people commonly responded to political figures with the excitement associated with Obama's supporters. FDR, Churchill, JFK, RFK, deGaulle and Trudeau are good examples, with Thatcher and Reagan being the ones who presided over the transition from the enthusiasm of the past to the disinterest of today.

The left does not seem to grasp the importance of this development. It does not understand that people cannot organize and insist upon progressive, and even radical, changes in society unless they first perceive themselves as empowered participants in the evolving history of their time. In the absence of such empowerment, a left emphasis upon policy analysis is little more than pouring a pitcher of water into a sand dune.

The political elite in the US does understand, however, and it frightens them. No one is ever supposed to seriously invite the public to participate in the political process. That's why, in the last two weeks, we have witnessed an amazing coordination between the Democratic campaign of Clinton and the Republican campaign of McCain to destroy Obama's appeal. Taking a page out of the Karl Rove playbook, they have described him as a great speechmaker devoid of substance, in other words, all talk and no action.

Second, Obama is equally threatening because of his concerted effort to move the country beyond the fear mongering that has become so entrenched in the aftermath of 9/11. Without fear, the government couldn't have moved forward with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a contemplated attack upon Iran. It would be impossible to sustain the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight. It couldn't launch attacks in other countries like Somalia as part of the war on terror. Nor would it so brazenly seek to destabilize Lebanon and Palestine, with both on the brink of civil war.

Put more simply, it would be impossible to sustain US foreign policy in its current neoconservative, militarily interventionist imperial form without perpetual recourse to fear. Leftists rightly point out that Obama has not repudiated the basic outlines of US policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, except for a vague willingness to remove US troops from Iraq. It's true. But withdrawing troops from Iraq and advocating the use of military force in the context of real threats, such as, for example, al-Qaeda, is actually quite radical in the current neoconservative environment as neoconservatives like Bush, McCain, and, yes, Clinton (look at her record) utilize fear to justify the use of force against targets, such as Iran, that the public would not otherwise accept.

Hence, Clinton and McCain coordinated an effort to persuade the public that Obama cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of being commander in chief. Clinton has openly, and repeatedly, said that she and McCain have the foreign policy experience to be president but that Obama does not. Our children would be unsafe it we left it to him to answer that 3 a.m. phone call. Here, finally, they hit upon the theme would condense all those slanders about Obama (he's Muslim, he may have been a drug dealer, he's unpatriotic, like Martin Luther King, he's a plagiarist, he's blacker than black), many of them spread by Clinton operatives, into a potent means of persuading enough voters to reject him.

Unlike Nixon, and his political daughter, Clinton, he's not one of us, and therefore can't be trusted. He is a political manifestation of what sociologists call the Other, the exoticized people of a different race, religion or culture upon whom we project our negative traits (yes, you guessed it, Clinton fulfills the same role for evangelicals). Turning to country's defense over to him would be as if we gave it over to someone who personified all of our worst qualities of weakness, indecision and incompetence. The inability of Clinton's campaign staff to describe one episode in which she acted decisively during a foreign crisis during a conference call with reporters is irrelevant in this context.

Yesterday, in the primaries in Ohio and Texas, Clinton and McCain harvested the fruit of their efforts. Confronted by their combined assault, conveyed by a receptive media, Obama fell from his high water mark, probably attained in the early part of the previous week, and lost both states. By themselves, the primary losses are not significant, he still leads Clinton in delegates. But that's not what should be important to the left. Winning or losing isn't the subject, but rather the social consequences of it based upon how it happened.

Yesterday was a debacle because Clinton and McCain succeeded in containing his mass movement, rendering it innocuous, and, perhaps, even worse, relegating it to a legitimization of the existing order, something akin to the Pepsi Generation or Just Do It. See, there really is a competitive politics in America and, upon reflection, we decided that the established way of doing things is just fine. Equally disturbing, they convinced the public that fear, and the need to assuage it, must remain the guiding principle of our relationship with the world.

Of course, there was no guarantee that if Obama prevailed his movement (and the left as well) would have fulfilled the promise created by this opportunity. It would have been, as Sam Smith of the Progressive Review has said, upon us and them to seize the moment and press for more compassionate and less interventionist policies. We might have failed. Now, we don't need to worry about it. The glimmer of light that shone through my kitchen window for a few brief weeks is gone, and the fog of irrationality that arrived after 9/11 has returned.

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