Saturday, December 6, 2008

Left Hope after Bush?

By Rob Augman

While Progressives are hoping that Obama will pass a new New Deal, or that with a push from social movements he could make social democratic reforms, the radical left’s Hope has not to do with Obama, but with the grassroots mobilization that put him in office and the new political climate. After 8 years of Bush´s policies the change to an Obama administration is broadly received as a breath of fresh air. What this change will mean is hotly debated amongst U.S. radicals.

One clear change for the radical left is shown by a recent call to celebrate in Washington, DC on Obama’s Inauguration day. Radicals from a variety of anti-racist, anarchist, ecological, and academic milieus signed onto the call of the Celebrate People’s History and Build Popular Power Bloc. Describing the inauguration as a 'watershed' event opening the possibility of speaking about the country’s long history of racial violence, it calls for joining the celebrants, 'those who are not radicals but who have been exploited, oppressed, and relegated to powerlessness,' in order to build social movements.

Contrast this with the two previous inauguration protests when radicals effectively disrupted Bush’s parade. This is the movement born on the streets of Seattle, when a coalition of left groups shut down the WTO meeting through civil disobedience and direct confrontation. For the next 8 years, it followed every major political meeting, from neoliberal summits to political party conventions, getting beaten up by riot cops and tear-gassed, until the protest numbers dwindled to insignificance.

Has the U.S. radical left lost its edge? Is this mass of anti-authoritarian, direct actionists, 'becoming social democrats'? Have they drunk the Obama kool-aid?

The U.S. radical left is conflicted about the new President, and what the context really means for radical change. There is major disagreement as to whether this is government as usual or a historical opportunity for left intervention. While the Obama administration might make certain social improvements on healthcare and instigate less reckless wars, sympathies for Obama are mostly due to his symbolic representation: Obama the community organizer, Obama the Iraq War opponent, Obama the proponent of the poor, and certainly Obama the first black President. All this despite his actual foreign policy, which seeks a troop surge in Afghanistan and increased military attacks inside Pakistan, and despite his inferior healthcare plan in contrast to that of Hillary Clinton’s, to name just two examples.

There is a broad radical left consensus that the election of an African-American to the highest political office does represent an historical event in U.S. history, and that it changes the dynamics of both racism and anti-racism. But what precisely does the change represent? If the overcoming of some of the most excessive forms of white racism, which enabled a majority of voters to support a black President, represents a 'watershed event,' it should make discussions about racism effectively easier. But what if it does the opposite? 'What happens to the politics of antiracism,' asks Anarchist People of Color author Dylan Rodríguez, 'when the phenotype of white supremacy "changes?"'

Conservative commentators are hailing the arrival of the 'post-racial' society, in which America’s foundations of equality have been fulfilled, despite hundreds of racial attacks and incidents across the country since the election. Accompanying the 'post-racial' ideology are calls to rollback affirmative action and social policies aimed at alleviating some of the most excessive forms of racial disparity, as was done in practice in ballot initiatives passed in some states across the country on election day.

How have U.S. radicals responded? With raw facts. For their new campaign, titled 'Stay the Course,' the pseudo-Situationist propaganda collective, Crimethink, designed a poster reading, 'One Black Man Could Be President, One Million Black Men are in Prison.' And the anti-racist activist, Tim Wise, tells a story about visiting a white suburban community and observing the deep inequality between black and white living standards in terms of housing, health, employment, criminal justice, and police treatment.

But the 'post-racial' ideologues aren’t unaware of ongoing racial inequality, and this is where radicals need to be more clear and focused. The ideologues are taking a position on racial disparity, and shifting blame away from institutional analysis and placing it onto individual blacks themselves, for not achieving success in equal opportunity America. Conservative politics has consistently attacked remaining vestiges of the welfare state, and with a black President, they have a powerful symbol to update their attack. For radicals to be effective in addressing racism and racial disparity in this new climate, it will require addressing this 'post-racial' ideology and its accompanying neoliberal politic.

The centrist Democratic administration that Obama is currently building shows some of the misperceptions the left has been holding throughout the Bush administration about 'the opposition.' Hegemony is being revealed, not as progressive, but as centrist Democratic. Instead of the 'democracy spreading' mission of remaking the Middle East, here comes the return to multilateralism and a 'realism' of expanded military endeavors towards 'stabilization.' The 'international community' is already singing praises. Obama received much support on these grounds from conservatives who believed McCain and Palin were unequipped to achieve these aims. Centrists might more accurately represent Obama’s base than progressives do, no matter how much misguided hope leftists might have had on these issues.

This reformulated hegemony also means something for the left. For U.S. radicals, the hope that arises in this moment has as much to do with the end of the old administration as it does with the arrival of the new one. But the end of the Bush regime means the removal of a strong unifying element for the left, their personified Evil character, George W. Bush himself.

This unifying element enabled the left to appear and to feel much greater than its actual size, due to the attraction of non-left anti-Bush activists, including 9/11 Truthers, isolationists, and other 'oppositional' actors. Rather than opposing Bush’s Manichean worldview, its reversal has become the common denominator of 'anti-War' politics, so much so that 'peace' and 'reconciliation' activists such as Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice conducted meetings with Iran´s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

We can only hope that with a charming multilateralist in the White House, the loss of the unifying element might upset the ideological foundations holding the left´s reductionistic politics together. There will be a disorientation that will require realignment, and this realignment will be fought over. What will the new common denominators be?

The fact that anarchists and other radical leftists are not going to the inauguration to disrupt it, but rather to celebrate, shows already a reorientation. It is not a conciliation of the radical left with Obama’s policies but a surge of interest in the sudden politicization and activity that was repressed under the Bush administration, a welcoming of this changed mood, and a desire to be involved in shaping the future.

In order to achieve any influence in this conjuncture, however, the left needs to reorient itself, to renew its critique, and not be led by every new event. Despite the change in administration, the situation remains largely unchanged. Only the years ahead will tell whether the left after Bush will become an effective force in addressing the long-standing crises in the U.S.

Note: This article was first published in German as 'Radical Amphetamine' in Jungle World, Nr. 49/08. December 4, 2008.

Biog: Rob Augman is a U.S. activist based in Berlin, Germany. He co-founded and co-edited the now-defunct anarchist newspaper Onward, and was a Board Member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. He has written for Znet, Clamor, Jewish Currents, and Swindle magazine. He hosts the website and is doing an MA degree in political science at Potsdam Universitaet. He can be contacted at

No comments: