Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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 www.infoaut.org and collaborates with several movement journals in Italy.

Translation from German: Ben Trott.

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