Friday, October 31, 2008

FT and the Economist Endorse Obama

By Ben Trott

Yesterday, following hot on the heels of the
Financial Times’ endorsement earlier this week, the Economist came out in support of Obama.

FT praised Obama’s oratory skills, his plans for health care reform, and his response to the economic crisis. He looked around, they argued, for the best advice, whilst McCain was criticised for ‘hasty half-baked interventions which were unnerving when they were not beside the point.’ The paper state that if elected, Obama is of course destined to disappoint. Expectations are too high. He cannot possibly improve middle-class standards of living, address the income gap, fix racial inequality, transform the US’s international standing, cut almost everybody’s taxes, and end losses in Iraq – all at the same time, and in a situation of economic difficulty.

Most disappointing, for the
FT, in Obama’s election campaign has been his stance on trade. ‘He pandered to protectionists during the primaries, and has not rowed back. He may be sincere, which is troubling. Should he win the election, a Democratic Congress will expect him to keep those trade-thumping promises.’

Nevertheless, they conclude, ‘The challenges facing the next president will be extraordinary. We hesitate to wish it on anyone, but we hope that Mr Obama gets the job.’

Economist begin by ‘wholeheartedly’ endorsing Obama. Only to add – making this wholeheartedness sound somewhat less whole – that they acknowledge ‘this is a gamble’. They set out the series of challenges which will be faced by either of the two candidates, should they be elected, by looking at the issues the world is likely to face between now and 2017 – when the next President would relinquish office, if he serves two terms. In large part, the Economist argue, this will involve attempting to wed emerging powers to the West. This will not only involve attempting to increase collaboration with, for example, India and China on a number of global issues, such as climate change. Moreover, it will involve ‘reselling economic and political freedom to a world that too quickly associates American capitalism with Lehman Brothers and American justice with Guantánamo Bay.’ This, they appear to believe, is a job which can likely much better be accomplished by Obama than McCain. And as election day draws closer, this appears to be the increasingly ‘common sense’.

Echoing the
FT’s concerns about Obama’s (relative) protectionist tendencies, particularly in the context of a likely Democrat-controlled Congress, their endorsement begins drawing to a close with the caveat,

‘Our main doubts about Mr Obama have to do with the damage a muddle-headed Democratic Congress might try to do to the economy. Despite the protectionist rhetoric that still sometimes seeps into his speeches, Mr Obama would not sponsor a China-bashing bill. But what happens if one appears out of Congress? Worryingly, he has a poor record of defying his party’s baronies, especially the unions. His advisers insist that Mr Obama is too clever to usher in a new age of over-regulation, that he will stop such nonsense getting out of Congress, that he is a political chameleon who would move to the centre in Washington. But the risk remains that on economic matters the centre that Mr Obama moves to would be that of his party, not that of the country as a whole.’

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mike Davis on the Grand Canyon, the Financial Crisis and Obama

By Ben Trott

Historian and commentator,
Mike Davis, has written a piece on on why Obama is not the new (F. D.) Roosevelt and a (Keynesian) New-New Deal is neither likely nor possible today. You can read it here., which is connected to The Nation, also carried out an interview with Davis which can be listened to via an online stream here.

Naomi Klein on Obama

By Ben Trott

Naomi Klein, in an interview with the Real News Network, here offers some follow-up comments to her speech at the Media Reform Conference (see earlier post here) earlier this year. She continues to argue the need for progressives and the left to build pressure on Obama, pointing out that this is certainly what others have been doing - with some success. The period of transition, between a potential Obama election in November and inauguration in January, she argues, will be a crucial moment. There appears, however, to be little in the way of strategising (by the left) as to how this could be carried out, with energies directed instead to the defeating of the 'greater evil'.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Establishment Mavericks

By Ben Trott

There’s an interesting article in this week’s
New Yorker. It details the recent history of ‘outsider’ Republican VP Candidate, Sarah Palin, and her connection to (the very-much-inside of) US conservativism. The piece focuses on the favourable impression she is said to have made on a number of leading figures at two of the tradition’s most important publications, the National Review (describing itself as ‘America's most widely read and influential magazine and web site for Republican/conservative news, commentary, and opinion’) and the Weekly Standard. After a series of meetings between Palin and editors and writers from the publications, on cruise visits to Alaska in the summer of 2007, support for her as a potential VP candidate is said to have galvanised. McCain himself was in fact said to favour Independent (and ex-Democratic) Senator Joe Liebermann as a running mate, but this was apparently ruled out due to his pro-choice stance on abortion.

And if you’re going to take a look at the
New Yorker’s website anyway, there’s a long piece which was published back in July by Ryan Lizza, the magazine’s Chief Political Correspondent, on the history of Obama’s own career which is well worth a read. It charts the path from the early days of his political career in Chicago to the day on which he delivered his much lauded speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Towards the end of the piece Lizza argues, ‘Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them’. The article was originally accompanied by the controversial cartoon illustration of Michelle and Barack Obama as terrorists in the White House. The choice of illustration always struck me as somewhat bizarre, not only because it doesn’t really work as a piece of political satire (which is what the New Yorker claimed it to be), but also because it bore no substantive relation to the content of the cover article it was accompanying.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chomsky: In Swing States Vote Obama Without Illusions

By Ben Trott

The following interview with Noam Chomsky was carried out by The Real News Network.

What Interests Us About Obama?

By Raffaele Sciortino

As yet, nobody can know whether Obama’s journey will lead to Washington. The important question, first of all, is which political knots does his election campaign unravel, and which social impulses and consequences does it bring with it?

With respect to the Democratic Party, Obama
appears to have established himself as able to unite the Party behind him and win back the ‘white’ basis. In reality and behind the scenes, however, the Democrats appear to be anything other than united – with the long arm of the Party apparatus behind the Clintons and the ‘blue collar’ of the Party not yet fully persuaded to vote for a ‘black’ candidate. The Democrats have only managed to establish a precarious balance between the Clinton clique on the one side, and a still very muddled drive for ‘change’ by part of the basis on the other. Nevertheless, the latter have managed to take the deep crisis in the US seriously and set a new organisational thrust in motion. Rifts between the factions are certainly still there, and in case of defeat will most likely be very evident. In this sense, one cannot talk of a ‘normalising effect’ through Obama – despite his ‘drift to the centre’ – even if one only looks at the reoccurring questions of race and minorities. The context allows little room for an Obama as ‘reconciliator’.

In relation to Obama’s policy program, he has so far been unable to provide voters with any clear indications, in particular on the issue of the economy where the election battle is now being played out. (The situation in relation to the field of foreign policy remains unpredictable – see the Caucasus – and does not look at all favourable for Obama). America, it appears, is caught in a deep crisis, and after 30 years of neoliberalism, has little access to any safety-net in the form of a ‘social market economy’. Obama can talk about a reanimated American Dream, although the reality looks more like a nightmare.

Obama’s problems here are of a dual character. First of all, can he offer a new vision, a new basic project, which genuinely passes as an exit strategy not only from 8 years of Bush-ism, but also the 30 year long political trajectory of Washington? One can as yet only answer: Obama’s project is not only vague, but also very weak in view of the current crisis. A redistribution of income to below is not being considered. A thoroughgoing reform of healthcare, or a
genuine turn in economic policy, are not being spoken about. In relation to state intervention, little criticism has been articulated of the colossal socialisation of the loss made by corporations through the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department.

Secondly, there is the problem of the ‘white middle class’. The Reagan-Democrats, with their racism and patriotism. They continue to focus on the importance of US global hegemony, and are deeply ‘anti-statist’ in the sense of a deep animosity towards any measures to the benefit of ‘minorities’, migrants, and the poors. Even if – or perhaps especially if – Obama were to come around to a radical political orientation, these social sectors are at present hardly winnable for a more ‘progressive’ direction.

Out of all this I do not want to draw any easy conclusions. But behind it all rests some series consequences. The question goes well beyond Obama and points towards whether a new ‘reformist’ track can be identified amidst the crisis of imperial neoliberal globalisation. Are there any indications of this? And if so, with which characteristics, under which conditions, and what class composition? (Of course, we are not talking here about a reanimated ‘Third Way’ – which was able to accompany neoliberal globalisation –, nor of a renewed New Deal, based upon the old class composition of the mass worker). The question remains open, yet it must be what interests us on the left the most about Obama.

What would it mean? It would be an attempt by Obama, to reactivate the middle class (read: the new proletariat) against the ‘risk’ which has a hold of it and to attach it to an overhauled American leadership. This is something the Republicans are incapable of doing. Obama is only beginning to hint at such a social and political process. Yet discontinuities within the Party are beginning to show themselves, with some initial, embryonic, moves towards organisation from below with a multi-ethnic composition. Yet this mobilisation remains unstable and, in general, oriented purely towards the election. Is Obama (also) an expression of such processes? I believe so. He is no neutral expression of this, of course. His aim is geared in the direction of US global leadership and the canalisation of a new global ‘regulation’. This is undoubtedly something which, in view of the catastrophic results of Bush Jr.’s presidency, part of ‘the establishment’ also currently wants.

Room for manoeuvre towards such a new direction are getting ever smaller, domestically (see the growing social polarisation) as well as abroad (see the shift the global balance of powers). Contradictions and conflicts will certainly not be reconciled in the process. On the contrary, in the near future they will most likely come to a head. This is the question. Not the lesser evil, or a ‘critical support for Obama.

*Note: The above article was written a short time before the most recent ‘meltdown’ within the financial system.

Biog: Raffaele Sciortino is currently a PhD fellow in International Relations at the State University of Milan. His research interests are globalisation and new world order theories influenced by Marxist approaches, as well as social movements. He is co-editor of the autonomous website and collaborates with several movement journals in Italy.

Translation from German: Ben Trott.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Greening the White House.

By Ben Trott

The Guardian and have put together a report on which of the two main US presidential candidates would, according to their policy proposals, make the White House 'greener'.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Powell Endorses Obama

By Ben Trott

So, it happened. Colin Powell today endorsed Obama on MSNBC's Meet the Press.

There's a short biography of Powell on the Guardian website

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Obama and the Changing Climate

By Ben Trott

Obama appeared to get a few words of support yesterday from the head of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri. He commented that Obama’s increasingly likely looking election would create momentum for December’s round of international climate negotiations in Poznan, Poland. The December talks are a preliminary to next year’s planned conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to be agreed.

The statement comes hot on the tails of an announcement by Jason Grumet, Obama’s energy advisor, that if elected he would classify carbon dioxide a dangerous pollutant – similar to lead and carbon monoxide. If implemented, according to the interview given by Grumet to Bloomberg, this may lead to caps being placed on emissions and, potentially, a halt to the construction of some of the planned new coal plants in the US.

Any such official restrictions placed on carbon emissions, however, are likely to be coupled with explicitly market-based approaches, such as the cap-and-trade scheme referred to in the Obama-Biden ‘New Energy for America’ plan.

Powell for Obama?

By Ben Trott

Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky has some interesting thoughts on the widespread speculation (Huffington Post, Politico, Washington Post, Seattle Times) that Colin Powell might endorse Obama on tomorrow’s Meet the Press, a US public affairs programme. Check out Tomasky’s video here.

Powell, a General, served as National Security Advisor to Reagan, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush Sr. during the 1991 Gulf War, and as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State during his first term. He played a key role in arguing for the current war on Iraq. That Powell’s endorsement would be a blow for McCain is certain. He is without a doubt one of the few senior figures within the Bush administration who still commands a level of popularity amongst the population. What is less clear is both whether the endorsement could also prove detrimental to Obama’s message of ‘change’, or raise further concerns about his increasingly overt hawkish-leanings amongst potential Democratic voters.

Or perhaps Tomasky is right, and Powell’s (potential) endorsement will be seen as saying less about Obama and more about Powell’s own need to cleanse the stain of his role in the Iraq war by endorsing a Senator who opposed it from the beginning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Alaskan Women Demonstrate Against Palin

By Sue Katz

The following article first appeared on the main Red Pepper website.

Sue Katz looks beyond the lipstick and the sound bites to unravel the real Sarah Palin. In this extract from her new book, Thanks But No Thanks: The Voters' Guide to Sarah Palin, she examines the critical response from Alaskan women to the next possible US vice-president.

A couple of women were sitting around in Anchorage, depressed by the widespread impression in the United States and around the world that Sarah Palin was thoroughly supported by Alaskans, especially women. These particular women not only objected to Palin’s political views, they didn’t like the way the image of Alaskan women was being turned into a caricature.

A ‘Welcome Home Rally’ was being held for Palin at Anchorage’s Den’aina Center the morning of 13 September. The women, over their coffee, decided to put together their own rally, two hours later at lunchtime. They called it ‘Alaskan Women Reject Sarah Palin.’
Michelle Goldberg, a journalist who attended, whom I later had the chance to interview, reported on the relative numbers:

‘According to a police officer on site, the rally drew between 1,500 and 1,700 people, an astonishing turnout by Alaska standards ... To put it in perspective, according to official estimates, 1,500 people turned out for Palin’s first Anchorage campaign rally Saturday morning, an event where, according to the Anchorage Daily News, the governor was ‘treated like a movie star.’ Marianne Spur, an occupational therapist who out of curiosity attended both rallies, insisted that there were many more people at the anti-Palin event.’

Another person who attended the demonstration was the now well-known AKMuckraker writing at Mudflats (
Tiptoeing through the muck of Alaskan politics), who was blown away by the demonstration. The emphasis is AKMuckraker’s:

‘Never, have I seen anything like it in my 17 and a half years living in Anchorage ...
This was the biggest political rally ever, in the history of the state … This just doesn’t happen here.’

Socialist, baby-killing maggots

The organisers had decided to publicise the event using email and a press release. Anchorage right-wing AM talk radio creep named Eddie Burke had received a copy of the release and decided to do a little unprofessional releasing of his own. He read out the names and contact phone numbers of the women who had signed the press announcement on the air. As if that behaviour wasn’t bad enough, he also called them ‘a bunch of socialist, baby-killing maggots.’ Their phones started ringing and they were forced to report some of the nasty calls and threatening messages to the police.

Burke eventually received a little love slap on the wrist. His station manager, Justin McDonald suspended Burke for a week with no pay, but made clear that his own affection for the radio jockey with maggots coming out of his mouth remained intact.

It is tough to be anti-Palin at any time in Alaska and now that she has been nominated for vice-president, people are particularly nervous. The organisers worried about trouble, especially after being targeted by Burke. Despite those threatening messages, they persisted, courageously, in passing the word around to their friends and networks.

The rest is Alaskan and feminist history

Burke brought along his right-wing cronies to crash the event, but they numbered less than 100. Whenever he tried to spew his attacks on these ‘socialist, baby-killing maggots,’ the crowd of women, children and men just drowned him out with chants of ‘Obama, Obama.’

As footage of the rally
shows, there was a charged atmosphere of noisy comraderie, almost a giddy sense of relief in finding each other. No one had imagined that there were so many Alaskan women willing to so publicly reject Sarah Palin. The police had anticipated a few hundred demonstrators at the most and the organisers hadn’t expected even that many. The 1,500 plus demonstrators brought their own signs, as they had been encouraged to do, which made for a colourful and witty protest quilt. Afterwards, one person produced a YouTube montage of some of those signs, while writer Karl Vick put together a list of them for the Washington Post, some of which I’m reproducing below:

‘Palin: She Be Failin’’
‘Jesus Was a Community Organizer’
‘Palin: Thanks But No Thanks’
‘Smearing Alaska’s Good Name One Scandal at a Time’
‘Candidate To Nowhere’
‘Rape Kits Should Be Free’
‘Voted For Her Once: Never Again!’
‘Community Organizers are the Real Patriots’
‘Give Palin Your Vote AND Your Draft Age Child’
‘Coat Hangers for McCain’
‘Sarah Palin, Undoing 150 Years of American Feminism’
‘Hockey Mama for Obama’

In the same
Washington Post piece, one of the initiators talks about her personal motivation. ‘The whole thing grew out of frustration,’ said Charla Sterne, one of the organisers, who like several people at the rally declined to say where they worked (several said they were state employees and feared retribution). ‘Last week this was just ten women sitting around talking about this perception that all of Alaska supports Sarah Palin. We apparently hit a nerve and started a movement,’ Sterne said.

Another woman in
Vick’s article, Maia Nolan made fun of the Republicans’ glorification of common attributes by wearing a sticker that said, ‘My Mom for V.P’. ‘My mom is from Alaska. She’s a working mother. She’s good looking,’ said Nolan. ‘So she seems to be qualified to be vice president.’

We know that Alaska is among the
least populated states, right in between South and North Dakota. In comparison, if we compare this to California, the state with the highest population in the country, 55 times that of Alaska, an equivalent demonstration there would have over 82,000 singing, yelling opponents to Palin.

While it was an ad hoc event, not the product of an existing movement or organisation, it certainly has fired up progressive people. The progressive blogs in Alaska were getting a lot of hits. Emails and video clips about the demo dropped into my inbox at a breathtaking rate.

I asked the journalist Michelle Goldberg if she expected women in other states to mount similar demonstrations about all the excitement. ‘For the Alaskan women there is a special incentive to demonstrate because of Palin being presented as embodying their values, which is so galling to them. Moose-hunting is being talked about as something so fantastically gutsy and an actual credential, but it’s something they all do … The Alaskan women’s demo was a repudiation of everything she claims to represent.’

In fact, according to subsequent
polls, these women represent a mainstream view held by women and men throughout Republican Alaska. Surveys show a large majority pick Joe Biden over Sarah Palin when asked ‘which has the background and experience to be a good President.’

Thanks But No Thanks

Sarah Palin has also changed the face of national politics. She has subverted the feminist agenda, running as a woman and mother, but neglecting to look after the needs of women and children. She has subverted the notion of experience, turning the PTA into a major qualification while ridiculing Obama’s three years of community organizing with poor people. She was nominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, but she became the campaign headliner.

Those who know her best, her fellow Alaskans who have lived under her leadership, give her mixed reviews. But the women who reject Palin have injected the missing element of street activism into the mix, clearly saying Thanks But No Thanks.

Read Sue’s blog here: Sue Katz: Consenting Adult

Book blog:

Biog: Sue Katz’s Thanks But No Thanks: The Voter’s Guide to Sarah Palin is published by Harvard Perspectives Press.

Author, journalist and blogger, Sue Katz’s passport shows more wear than Palin’s, she has lived and worked on three continents, teaching martial arts in her institutes in Israel, promoting global volunteerism while living in Europe, and writing, editing and teaching in the United States. A rebel with a newfound interest in electoral politics, Katz continues her lifelong commitment to social justice activism from her home outside Boston.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Friends on the Left

By Gary Younge

The following article first appeared in the October/November '08 issue of Red Pepper.

Barack Obama is unique among recent Democratic presidential candidates in terms of the support he has mobilised and his relationship to his base. Win or lose, his supporters will need to stick around and organise, argues Gary Younge, as he analyses their dynamic and their role in determining Obama’s prospects

Shortly before Independence Day on 4 July, Barack Obama felt the sting of his own rhetoric as it boomeranged and struck him as he drifted to the right. The issue was a spying bill that would have given ‘retroactive immunity’ to telecom companies that have been involved in spying on US citizens. This was a flip-flop. Obama had once promised his supporters that he would filibuster any bill that contained immunity – but now he was going to the senate to vote for it.

His supporters first got angry, and then got organised. They started a networking group on Obama’s own website opposing his new stance. The numbers swelled to 16,000. Twice the size of any other user-created site on his portal, it started slowing down traffic. The group’s open letter literally used Obama’s inspirational words against him. On the campaign trail he had repeated the late June Jordan’s dictum, ‘We are the ones that we have been waiting for’, to rouse his supporters into action. Now it was his detractors’ turn: ‘As you have said time and again senator, “We are the ones we have been waiting for”, and we are here, working to bring about real change in Washington.’ Obama responded, explaining his volte-face and saying he ‘expects to take his lumps’ on his site. A week later, with concern mounting that he was ditching his commitment to troop withdrawal from Iraq, he was forced to address the same constituency again.

Shifting to the centre

‘Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the centre,’ he told a crowd gathered at a town hall-style meeting in Atlanta in early September. ‘The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me ... And some of this is my friends on the left ... ’

‘I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp,’ he said. But, he noted, he does not believe that the active hand of government is a replacement, say, for parental responsibility in education. ‘I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith,’ he said. ‘That’s not something new; I’ve been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look’ – at which point he waved his hands around his head – ‘centrist is not true.’

There are two points about this exchange that are worthy of note. The first is that Obama believes he has ‘friends on the left’ who need addressing. For the best part of the past two decades the entire raison-d’etre of Democratic candidacies has been to demand a full-scale retreat from the left. Were this Bill Clinton or Al Gore (the candidate not the activist) they would have taken this an opportunity to trash the left and prove their centrist credentials.

The second is that there is a sizeable amount of active, critical support for Obama that is mobilised both for his election and for progressive politics. Where those two things appear to be in conflict they are at least as committed to the latter as to the former.

This is the most important and interesting thing about Obama’s candidacy so far – his relationship to his base.

Obama the candidate is a fairly mainstream, progressive Democratic Party figure. Much of the uncritical adulation heaped on him as the last great hope for the American left is quite misplaced. On the issues he must confront both at home and abroad his agenda is inadequate. At home, the economic situation is dire. One in seven US homeowners has negative equity – the biggest percentage since the Depression. Meanwhile, mortgage repossessions are at their highest rate since records began in 1979 and unemployment has leapt to its highest rate in five years. Obama’s economic policies will barely make a dent in a crisis of that magnitude.

Abroad, his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq is mitigated by his desire to send them to Afghanistan instead. The day after he clinched the nomination he went before the pro-Israeli lobby to declare himself a ‘true friend of Israel’ and promise that ‘Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided’. (This is astounding, given that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.) None of this will help the US fight terrorism, establish peace, improve its diplomatic standing or keep its citizens safe – all things that much of the electorate quite reasonably desire.

Given these shortcomings there are also some on the left who insist that to treat Obama’s candidacy as anything other than that of a mainstream Democrat is to indulge the euphoria of his fans: as his positions are no different to those of, for example, Kerry or Gore, he deserves no more investment or support. To pretend otherwise, they argue, is to set people up for disappointment.

The problem with this position is threefold. First, this is no ordinary time. Americans are desperate for a shift in direction. A culture not given to national malaise is seriously in the dumps. Just 15 per cent believe the country is on the right track, according to a recent poll – around a third of the figure following the election of Bush in 2004 – and almost half believe the country’s best days have been and gone. For the past 18 months almost every opinion poll that has asked Americans about their country’s direction has produced some of the most pessimistic responses on record – a more extended period than anyone can remember since Watergate. Inflation is up, real wages are down and, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, ‘common sense is at an all time low’.

Second, Obama’s detractors from the left need to show that they can come up with some alternative path that could galvanise so many people against the Bush agenda. The US left has been decimated over the past 30 years. It cannot be rebuilt by fiat, but only by a long and difficult process of engagement.

Third, Obama’s base is quite different both in composition and its level of involvement. During the primaries he managed to galvanise two dormant constituencies who between them create an almighty electoral bloc – black people and the young. His victory wasn’t solely down to them. But it was their unprecedented mobilisation that gave him the edge and literally transformed the electoral map by introducing new voters into the process who had previously remained aloof. Between them the young and the black increased their share of the Democratic primary electorate by 25 per cent this year compared with 2004. There is considerable leverage there that the party establishment cannot ignore.

Why they went for Obama, rather than Hillary Clinton, is not a mystery. But it was not obvious either. In the end he only beat her by 4 per cent of the vote. For African Americans there is a degree of racial solidarity – although that bond is not as automatic as many imagine. After eight years of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, black Americans have recent, painful experience of those who look like them not representing their interests. Unlike Jesse Jackson, for example, Obama was not produced by the black community but presented to it.

It stands to reason, then, that their attitude to him was originally ambivalent but morphed first into race-pride when it was clear he had a chance of winning and finally into anti-racism as the Clinton campaign became more racially-divisive.

US presidential politics do not provide a huge amount of opportunity for thoroughgoing examinations of policies and platforms. Alongside the traditional demographic allegiances related to class, race and region, there is an indefinable element that both pervades and infuriates.

The appeal of any presidential candidate is based on a ‘gut reaction, unarticulated, non-analytical, a product of the particular chemistry between the voter and the image of the candidate’, argued Richard Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price. ‘[It’s] not what’s there that counts, it’s what’s projected.’ And that projection, he continued, ‘depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself’.

That element, carefully mediated through handlers, talking heads, talking points and marketing, won’t win it on its own. But without it, victory is tough. There was something about the stiff, studied demeanour of Gore or Kerry that was difficult for people to identify with, even if they are no more elitist than Bush and, in reality, probably a lot less so. Covering the 2004 elections, I never met a single person who was enthusiastic about Kerry. He received more votes than any Democrat in history because they hated Bush.

A marked and clear shift

Obama is different. There is a definite and deep connection. He is the only living politician I have seen emblazoned on t-shirts and with posters up in homes and stores, apart from Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s first elections in 1994. One crucial reason may be that he represents a marked and clear shift from the generation who have been misleading America for the past few decades in general and from Bush in particular.

To some he is the anti-Bush – conciliatory, worldly, curious and refined where the current president is belligerent, parochial, indifferent and oafish. The child of a single mother who worked his way up through community organising as opposed to the scion of a wealthy family who was handed it all on a plate.

Whatever the basis of the connection, the fact is that Obama’s candidacy has unleashed at least eight years of pent-up frustration at an administration hell bent on pilfering the US economy and debasing its constitution, and at a political class intent on abetting it. The Obama campaign likes to call its supporters a grass-roots movement. It is half right.

It is certainly grass-roots. Thanks in no small part to the campaign’s mastering of new technologies, the campaign has been able to draw in new people and involve them meaningfully at the most basic level. It has set up field offices in every state, has an impressive voter registration drive staffed primarily by volunteers and has a funding base that, while still reliant on money from huge corporations, has a broader base of small individual donors than ever before. Lots of ordinary people literally have a stake in his victory.

But it’s not a movement. At present Obama has galvanized two significant demographic groups and many others to back his candidacy. But his campaign has no purpose or meaning beyond his election. In its current form, once he wins or loses it will cease to exist. It operates not from the bottom up but from the top down. Yet, as the interaction over the spying bill suggests, this relationship is extremely fluid. The potential for his supporters exists in the very rhetoric and technologies he attracted them with in the first place.

We have been here before – and the lasting effects were important. When Howard Dean stood in 2004 his anti-war, web-based insurgency took the Democratic establishment completely by surprise. Dean lost. But his supporters continued with the mission of trying to reform and reinvigorate the party. His candidacy gave voice and force to a disparate group of activists, bloggers and other progressives who were opposed to the war and frustrated by the Democratic leadership’s reluctance to really push for an end to it.

Many of those who gathered around the Dean candidacy did not stop after he was ejected from the race, remaining instead to help build a sizeable and vocal progressive wing in the party that bore real results in 2006 when the Democrats took back both Houses of Congress. These are not social movements – their work is almost entirely limited to the Democratic Party. But nonetheless these campaigners have displayed a vibrancy and efficacy that would be the envy of the Labour left here in Britain.

Whether this will translate into electoral victory is an open question. John McCain, invigorated by the adoption of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and aided by the way this has helped to distance his candidacy from the Bush old guard, could certainly win. Some white people – more than admit it to the opinion pollsters – are still not prepared to vote for a black candidate. And who knows, until election day, how many black people, young people and Latinos – historically three of the least likely groups to turn out but also the bedrock of Obama’s base – will actually show up and vote? Obama’s aim is to win by expanding and transforming the electorate through voter registration. If they turn out he could take it by a landslide, but if they stay at home then he could be crushed.

Obama had a commanding 59-32 per cent lead among Latinos according to polls in early September (Bush took 44 per cent of the Latino vote in 2004). For all the hoopla about the nomination of Sarah Palin, moreover, he continued to lead McCain by seven points among women (Kerry beat Bush by just three points).

Obama needs 18 more electoral college votes than Kerry mustered to take the presidency. As the conventions drew to a close there were two states that Kerry won where Obama was facing a serious challenge – New Hampshire (four electoral college votes) and Wisconsin (ten votes). There is one state – Iowa (seven votes) – that Bush won narrowly where Obama now has a commanding lead. Overall most of the states in contention are ones that Bush won and McCain must defend while Obama is on the attack.

Win or lose, the transformation that so much of Obama’s base seeks in US foreign policy, economic direction and civil liberties cannot be achieved by votes alone. If he loses his supporters must be there to mobilise against any attempt to build on the Bush agenda, just as the Christian right was there to block progressive measures under Bill Clinton. If he wins they will need to exercise sufficient leverage for him to realise the limits to what he can concede to lobbyists, the military and big business without losing the support of his base.

The potential to expand and build a broad progressive front to check and reverse the reactionary excesses of the past eight years has opened up as a result of Obama’s run for office. To achieve their goals, his supporters must not stand still after election day.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Barack and Roll

By Keir Milburn


I find it hard to write about Obama.

It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention. The US election is undoubtedly important. Indeed it’s possible that the name of the next president will become forever linked to a certain epochal transformation. We are, after all, in the midst of several related crises, not least the credit crisis that has been rumbling on for more than a year but also the food crisis, the energy crisis and the climate change crisis. To me this seems to involve the playing out and the coming to a head of the contradictions of thirty years of neo-liberalism. As such the next few years might well bare witness to the emergence of a new regime of regulation. Either Obama or McCain will play an important role in this process, but neither we nor they have much idea what that role will be. Indeed we can’t be sure how the crisis will play out, or what shape of this new model will take. And if we want to think about what that ‘change’ will consist of, then scouring Obama’s policy statements might be one of the least interesting or illuminating ways to go about it. So what do you write about Obama?

There is of course another aspect of Obama that we can talk about and that is the affect that his candidacy has produced and the ‘movement’ that has developed around him. Rather than second guess policy, we could speculate on the potential affective and symbolic consequences of him coming to power. This is all important stuff, yet I also find this hard to write about it for the simple reason that I don’t feel it. The affect of hope hasn’t grabbed me and so I find it hard to relate to. I do want to think and talk about the way a figure can come to stand in for complex processes of social change. Of how a mediatised personality can become a screen upon which people can cast their desires. About how an individual can play a role in the development of a new common subjectivity – allowing developing subjectivities to recognise each other. Or how they can embody and amplify a changing sensibility.

My problem is, I’m just not sure if any of this is happening around Obama. It’s certainly not happening for me. And to be honest, I’ve never had anything like this experience with any political figure. So it’s hard for me to talk about Obama in this context, but I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps I should just talk about something else and see if there is any overlap.

In 1982, French philosopher and activist Felix Guattari visited a Brazil just coming out of military dictatorship and in the midst of an explosion of political vitality. The book that Suely Rolnik produced with Felix as a record of the trip has just been translated into English and published as Molecular Revolution in Brazil. The book includes a conversation between Guattari and Lula, the then leader of the Workers Party and current Brazilian president. Guattari’s remarks that: “The role that Lula is performing in the media is very important, because nowadays one can’t consider the struggles at all the levels without considering this factor of the production of subjectivity by the media.”

Towards the end of the book, Rolnik calls Guattari a “becoming-comet” and I want to suggest that this is a useful concept in thinking through not just the philosopher/activist but also the mediatised figure. The image that the concept brings to mind is of active forces gusting through and animating different bodies. Guattari as becoming-comet suggests there is an element of his subjectivity that starts blazing when it comes into contact with active forces. So lets think about what the diagram of a becoming-comet would look like.


Comets can’t actually be seen when they are moving through the stillness of the outer solar system, but when they come within the influence of solar heat and wind they burst into visibility. In fact it’s the comet that makes those active forces visible.

We can only see such forces in their effects on bodies. And at certain times particular bodies have the right affects to make visible particular forces. Guattari in Brazil might have been one but the concept also made me think about Johnny Rotten from the punk band the Sex Pistols. That’s because, while political leaders have generally left me cold, I have experienced, the role in transformation that mediatised figures can play in other spheres. And Punk is a good example.

At certain points the creation of new subjectivities seem to become embodied in a particular subject. And these new subjectivities can be transmitted, even if in a reduced and flattened form, through the media representations of this figure. There’s no point denying this possibility. With the example of punk this flattened image is picked up and reworked as it is imported into new contexts. In fact the whole history of pop music is based around these dynamics of imitation and innovation.

By thinking about this through the concept of becoming-comet we can avoid mistaking the body for the active forces animating them. We can avoid isolating the individual from its field of relations. After all, these forces move on or change direction and effect. The body of the becoming-comet might, in turn, stop being receptive or be unable to find the right affect or combinations to detect those forces. Then all you are left with is the burnt out husk, a mere cinder of what was. Such is the present day John Lydon trapped in a caricature of his younger self, not the vital embodiment of the emergent common that he once was. Isn’t it better to become a comet rather than become a star? The comet is animated by the active forces it comes into contact with, whereas the star has pretensions to luminosity – as though it generates its own light independent of the bodies around it.

There’s one last aspect to this diagram. Comets have historically been seen as the harbingers of doom, but perhaps that’s just a way to talk of them as the harbingers of change. Becoming-comets accompany momentous events.

Perhaps then we can look to the epoch shifting events of the mid- to late-1960’s and the accompanying changing attitudes of both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King as examples of the becoming-comet effect in political leaders. Watching recent 40-years-on programming about these two figures it’s striking just how much they had adopted the language of the movements of the day. The people, the poor, the youth. When we look back at the changes in their trajectories we can see how they became influenced by the active forces that were blowing through society. King began widening the concept of equality to include economic justice with his ‘Poor People's Campaign’. Bobby came out against the Vietnam war and ran a presidential campaign professing concern for the poor and disadvantaged. We might still say that the more Obama functions as a becoming-comet rather than a becoming-star then the more open he’ll be to popular forces and social movements.

Who knows whether any of this could survive the disappointment that would follow an Obama presidency bound by the constraints of the Washington beltway. The shooting of MLK and RFK within two months of each other means they provide no guide as to whether the comet effect can survive institutional office. What is clear though is that the greater the magnitude of active forces blowing through a society, then the greater the likelihood that they’ll affect bodies and reveal comets. It’s to the amplification of active forces that we should dedicate our efforts.

Biog: Keir Milburn is currently finishing a PhD at Leeds University. He is a member of the collective writing project the Free Association and an editor of Turbulence: Ideas for movement.