Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What Change Can We Believe In?

By Graeme Chesters

What is at stake here as Barack Obama argues is change, ‘change we can believe in’. My question then is simply, why does Obama think we stopped believing in change in the first place and what grounds if any are there to believe that change at the top is change to believe in?

Let’s start with an echo of the present that occurred in the near past, before going back a little further in political history. As all well-read
West Wing aficionados know, Barack Obama is the new Matt Santos, who was the new Barack Obama in the first place. Both of whom, of course, could be the new JFK.

As you may remember, in the final series of the West Wing ‘President-elect’ Santos is the young inexperienced Hispanic candidate who narrowly triumphs over his rival Arnie Vinnick (an ageing socially liberal Republican - déjà vu times two) through soaring rhetoric and a post-racial political appeal built upon a message of youth, integrity and change. As a number of people commented at the time, the parallels between Santos and Obama are extraordinary. That is until you realise that Eli Attie - producer and sometime writer on the West Wing
based Santos on the youthful Illinois politician who he’d seen speak in 2004. The same politician who is now the Democratic Party candidate and is following the script for a narrow win in November. A case of life imitating art imitating life, an interesting distraction, or a reminder of the continued power of cultural narratives associated with the ‘American Dream’?

My inkling is that this simulacrum, this aspect of something existing as a simulation of something that never was in the first place, might be informative for those imagining Obama offers the hope for change that has otherwise escaped us, or that was somehow lost along the way. For the Obama campaign is also consciously constructing itself as part of a political narrative of hope associated with another ‘fictional’ Presidency, that of John F. Kennedy. I say fictional because the cultural appropriation of JFK as fallen saviour by
Oliver Stone and others is now a resource for the collective political imagination. Affecting a feeling of lost potential with a sense of possibility – a belief that the Promised Land was once in sight and all we need is the leader who can show us the way again. This is a story far more powerful than the counter-narrative of JFK as a ‘cold warrior’ who flirted with McCarthyism. It is amidst this loss and this potential, the fictional future represented by Santos and the fictional past represented by Kennedy, that the Obama campaign unfolds. This is the basis of any hope for change and it is instructive because of that.

But of what interest is this simulacrum when the political battle lines are being drawn? Surely the challenge of the left is to critique Obama for moving away from the grassroots by supporting
Federal immunity for private companies involved in government wiretapping? Or perhaps to push for confirmation of his challenge to land grabs by oil companies as we begin to contemplate the implications of Peak Oil?

The problem is that such political skirmishes obscure the big question, our desire to be led, to have the weight of social change transferred elsewhere. For the ‘never was’, in this instance the Santos campaign, gives rise to the question of why the left stills believe in the ‘seldom has’ - social change from the top. For if the West Wing is illustrative of anything, beyond the mawkishness that even the best US drama manages to produce, it is that electoral politics is the pastime of elites. Shiny, happy people in the service of an office of state, wherein the weight of history, the ‘checks and balances’ of government and the future calculations of sustaining power map the possibilities of the political sphere. In this vision US electoral politics is a huge playground for the brilliant, bright and connected to explore, from lobbyists to strategists to pollsters to politicians. And one which is ceaselessly reproduced as an effect of power, that elusive, transitory and complex potential that polishes the desire of those who would wield it, and which appears illusorily to reside at the end of the electoral rainbow, if we could only navigate its arc.

In this world, politics inhabits the media; electoral office is premised upon consent derived from the production of affects amongst the electorate. These include the promotion of identification and affinity with politicians who are chosen, or schooled, to reflect the normative values of their target constituency as evidenced by sophisticated polling techniques. This is achieved through the performance of ‘politics’ by politicians inhabiting strategically chosen media environments designed to signify accordance with the norms and values of key constituencies, rather than to challenge or promote change.

All of which is designed to deliver the prize of the fabled 100 day window for real change (read incremental reforms) before the Realpolitik of structural restraints, from daily eventualities to the management (media and bureaucratic) of the legislative programme become consuming of an administration’s time and energy. This takes place within a system of undemocratic checks and balances from corporate donations to the disciplinary role of party organisations and the influence of lobbyists in the production of a highly prescribed set of policy options.

So the question remains, is the idea of change we can believe in, prescient precisely because it identifies the need for a concept of politics beyond the competition between powerful elites, and if so what would this look like? What evidence is there that Obama’s candidacy can contribute to the emergence of a more critical and autonomous public sphere, where the self-organising dynamics of grassroots campaigns and movements can be protected, sustained and strengthened? On issues of social justice, climate change and peace it is these movements that have been at the forefront of resisting neocon and neo-liberal assaults and it here that the left can best use its energies. Changing leaders is not change we can believe in; but a change in our understanding of the political might be a start.

Biog: Dr Graeme Chesters teaches in the Dept of Peace Studies at Bradford University. He is the author (with Ian Welsh) of Complexity and Social Movements (Routledge: London) and was part of the editorial collective who produced We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism (Verso: London) www.weareeverywhere.org.

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