Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Left and Obama: Love’s Labour’s Lost?

By Tadzio Mueller

The story of the left’s infatuation with Barack Obama follows an established storyline. So many hopes that ‘this time’, things will be different: that Obama won’t be like Lula in Brazil in 2002 – who came to power on a Socialist platform only to bow to the power of global finance once in office; like Tony Blair in 1997, when a generation of progressives who’d grown up to hate Thatcher and the Tories could not but rejoice; the Green Party coming to power in Germany in 1998, where – no use in hiding it – I, too, had high hopes; the African National Congress in South Africa – backed by Communists, but soon a key driver of Neoliberalism in Southern Africa. So many hopes dashed. And yet, the infatuation continues…

Since the beginning of his run for the presidency there has been nothing but backsliding – but not by Obama. To call his to-ing and fro-ing on the campaign trail ‘backsliding’ would assume that what is done and said in election campaigns had any significant relationship with what will be done once in power. Policy in the US is largely shaped by a democratically unaccountable ‘power elite’. The election campaign, on the other hand, is a sophisticated game played according to fairly self-contained rules: during the primaries, Democrats move to the left, Republicans to the right, to mobilise the party faithful, while during the presidential run, both move to the centre to appeal to swing voters. So let’s assume for now that what he says in public, whether it’s the stuff leftists like (his
speech on race), or the stuff leftists don’t like (his embarrassingly Bushist endorsement of ‘faith-based’ welfare initiatives, or his war-mongering Berlin speech: more troops to Afghanistan please!), doesn’t really matter that much.

No, the backsliding has come from the left: first, people hoped that he would really
do something different – until they remembered that the US political system was more or less designed by a bourgeoisie that wanted to make sure it could keep any unwanted ‘popular’ demands for change off the agenda. In spite of this initial disappointment, many on the left continued supporting the Obama campaign with a fervour seen more often at powerful mass demonstrations than in front of the TV, watching a US-election campaign. But the goalposts had shifted: now the hope for change no longer rested with Obama himself, but with the energy his campaign would inject into dormant social movements, and into previously unmobilised constituencies. Particularly the latter would be able to project their political desires onto the figure of Obama, in a way that would spill over beyond his person and candidacy – seeing as he could, once in office, never satisfy all those desires for change he mobilised in his run. This excess of movement energy would then serve to energise a new cycle of struggles in the United States and beyond, of which new progressive hopes could be born.

But two realisations shattered this hope: first, that to mobilise popular desires for change in order to focus them on a leader who presents himself as an ‘outsider’ is a politically pretty indeterminate move. Or more to the point: Fascism also rests on this kind of relationship between popular desires for change and charismatic leadership. Second, that popular hopes for change, once mobilised and then unfulfilled, can just as or probably more easily turn into cynicism and despair rather than actual social transformation: remember the anti-war movement in the UK, which staged the country’s largest ever political demonstration, only to find that it couldn’t change a thing. The response was demobilisation and cynicism, not an excess of movement energy.

But no matter, those on the left who root for Obama have already moved on. Having first abandoned the idea that he would actually
do anything different; and subsequently the idea that he could mobilise energies that would reach beyond his campaign; they have now had to resort to the pretty depressing fallback position that Obama would make a good enemy. Never mind that the same could have been, and was said, about ‘W’. If Ben Trott argues here that an Obama presidency would be more imperial than imperialist, what he is in fact saying is that the most we can hope for is a recreation of the political constellation of the late 1990s, where Clinton’s globalist drive was part of the political context within which the alterglobalisation movement emerged.

But without really noticing or admitting it, the admirers of Obama have thus almost betrayed their sweetheart: to call him ‘the lesser of two evils’, to argue that his policies would simply provide the left with greater room for manoeuvre, is to quietly ditch any notion that this campaign is special; that the ‘energy’ that people have felt at Obama rallies was more than a flash in the pan, was in any way more emancipatory than that felt at a football game or rock concert. Come on friends and comrades, you can do it: dump him!

Because then we can finally get on with the important business of developing political strategies for the post-Bush era. Beyond simply pointing to the return of the old in this new ‘imperial’ era, what will actually have changed? Under Clinton, ‘human rights’ on the one hand, and ‘free trade’ on the other were to two big stories that legitimated the extension of the global web of authority,
Empire. Today, free trade is pretty much a dead letter, and the currently crucial global negotiating process (after the entirely predictable collapse of the Doha-Round) revolves around climate change, which both candidates have portrayed as an ‘important issue’. We’re not heading for a re-run of 1990’s-style free market fundamentalism and humanitarian intervention. Rather, we’re witnessing the emergence of a global authoritarian eco-Keynesianism, where governments (national or global) will subsidise a new green round of capitalist development, and will engage in ecological intervention. Domestically, we’ll hear more and more calls for self-limitation and austerity, legitimated by a politically manipulated sense of an impending climate and ecological crisis that, far from being solved, will be integrated into this new global capitalist architecture as its driving force. How we respond to and shape these developments is the real issue we should be debating. Not some teenage crush on Obama.

Biog: Tadzio Müller lives in Berlin, where he is active in the emerging climate action movement. He is an editor of Turbulence, and in order to survive teaches political science at Kassel University. tadziom (at)

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