Sunday, November 09, 2008
I stood outside my hotel at midnight with my three month old daughter, Shayari, in her stroller. The wind had just picked up but the hundreds of people lining the sidewalks in front of our hotel refused to be moved by the sudden chill. We were all strangers standing shoulder to shoulder waiting. It was the night of November fourth. The hotel was a block away from Grant Park. Suddenly a cheer went up from the waiting crowd. CNN had just called the election for Barack Hussein Obama the first black president of the United States. Startled by the sudden noise Shayari woke up, looked around and then her face broke into a glorious toothless smile.
Over the past few months, I must admit I have felt like a recalcitrant hack. As a socialist I have argued furiously with friends and students about why they should not put their faith in Obama. How his servile agreement with McCain about the $700 billion bailout for the very corporations that he claims to attack was a forecasting of the economic direction of his presidency. How his repeated acquiescence to the three gods of American conservatism--nationalism, religion and family—only made him a more eloquent and more intelligent version of the republicans. How can you campaign for him, I have argued with my colleague and friend who teaches queer studies at my University, when he openly opposes gay marriage on the basis of his Christian faith? How can you campaign for him I have argued with my anti-war activist student when he plans to extend this war in to Afghanistan and Pakistan? But despite my (sometimes shrill) almost Cassandra-like hectoring, scores of friends, students, neighbours and co-workers campaigned for Barack Obama. My 53 year old Jewish friend who has never been on a picket line or anti-war march tirelessly knocked on doors to urge people to vote. My neighbour from a working class background who had never once held a banner spent hours in the campaign office making them. A student who had never voted before spent her entire month's earnings on petrol so that she could drive volunteers around. And that night as I stood on Michigan Avenue, thousands of these people across the country--somebody's friend, somebody's neighbour, somebody's student--celebrated the end of their campaign by "bending the arc of history".
When independence was declared at midnight on August 15 1947 in India, thousands of people took to the streets celebrating the end of more than 200 years of colonialism. The country had just been devastated by a bloody partition where millions had lost their lives and homes. The Indian National Congress had struck terrible deals during the transfer of power including collaborating with the British to defeat a brilliant strike by sailors. So when freedom finally came at midnight the young Communist Party, heavily influenced by Stalin, declared it to be a "false freedom" (yeh azadi jhoota hai) and refused to be a part of the festivities. How hollow and historically irrelevant their pitiful slogan must have sounded to the men and women who danced on the streets of Delhi and Calcutta that night. Men and women who had lost brothers and sisters to the freedom struggle, who had risked lives and either suffered or witnessed untold brutalities. Were the Communists right in their analysis that independence would not bring change to the lives of the majority? Absolutely. Were they right to criticize and distance themselves from the mass movement that brought that freedom? Absolutely not.
I understand that there are significant differences between the long years of political struggle that led to Indian independence and the US elections of 2008. For starters, there was no armed resistance from a powerful imperial government or its police force to prevent people from participating in the election campaign for Obama. The electoral defeat of John McCain can hardly be compared to the political defeat and ousting of the two-hundred year old British colonial government. There is however something to be said for the spirit that animated the crowds on Indian streets 60 years ago and those in Chicago that night. Every single woman, man and child came out on both occasions because they powerfully felt that a major change had been achieved. I say achieved, as opposed to a change that just happened. In both cases, as in the case of countless other political victories--in strikes, campaigns or nationalist struggle—the participants experienced a confident surge of empowerment for the gain achieved was in part because of them. This feeling so common in mass movements is however rare in electoral campaigns, as the bourgeois electoral process is by its very nature a passive exercise that requires minimal political commitment from ordinary people. And this is where the Obama electoral campaign will be remembered for its uniqueness. In an economy devastated by free market capitalism, in a society torn apart by racism, at a time when the combined cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has been over $3 trillion grassroot organizers campaigned tirelessly to elect a black, anti-war man who spoke openly about corporate greed. The campaigners gave the election campaign the flavour of a grassroots social movement.
This was done in several ways. As early as October 6 the much discussed Acorn claimed to have registered 1.3 million new voters. Although the NY Times argued that these numbers were vastly exaggerated the meticulous task of organizing these registration drives on a national scale, in door-to-door campaigns and campus mobilizations can hardly be denied. This process could not but have a historical resonance with people of colour in general and the African American community in particular where memories of the right to vote are still laced with violence. The usual process of voting was thus transformed in this election from the very start into a much more politicized practice.
Obama himself did not fail to see this transformation. His speeches repeatedly alluded to past social movements and more importantly to the power of social movements. "Words on a parchment" he told us in his speech on race in Philadelphia "would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage". What would be needed instead were actual people who "through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk" narrowed the gap between ideals and reality. At a large anti-war rally in Chicago in 2002 in a sharp invocation of classical left-wing rhetoric he urged us to stop "the arms merchants in our own country" from "feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe". More explicitly, dubbing the elections merely as an agitational platform in faux-Leninist fashion he reminded us that the campaign was merely "the occasion, the vehicle, of [our] hopes, and [our] dreams". Over and over during the course of the campaign words such as community, grassroots and organizing were used in a fashion that matched the fervour and the demographic of the anti-war and anti-globalization movements of the recent past. Whole sections of people roused by this call plunged into the campaign as though it were a social movement and not merely an electoral campaign. But the most important thing to understand is that their doing so actually made it such.
In my small mid-western University town the Obama campaign included old social and labour activists, young students who had never been at a demonstration before and whole sections of people, particularly women and minorities who have been actively disenfranchised not just from the electoral process in the past but from society itself. It is also significant to remember in this context that in Indiana for instance although Obama secured a historic victory for Democrats, the first time in 44 years, none of the other local Democratic candidates fared well. Indeed only 22.2% of the votes polled in my county were straight Democratic votes. A vote for Obama was thus only nominally a vote for the democratic party. It was largely I would argue a vote for a radical new direction that the voter felt he represented. The Democratic Party label became almost incidental, Obama the man and his historic significance spilled over the ordinariness of a democratic party ticket and that is the man the ordinary woman/man voted for. There was an African-American woman at our hotel in Chicago that night who had come to the rally with her 84 year old father. My partner's friend, an African American historian told us that he was "bawling like a baby" when Obama gave his speech at Grant Park. We will always remember those truly historic images of Jesse Jackson and even Oprah Winfrey crying that cold night at Grant Park. They all worked for the "movement" and not for the election of a Democratic Party candidate. So when victory was declared on November 4 th most of them were shocked to see Democratic party bureaucrats take over the floor of the campaign office and make speeches. One of my friends there told me "I was shocked to see these people. All I wanted to do was dance". . We had all apparently forgotten that this was an electoral campaign to elect the head of the leading imperialist nation.
So as President Obama surrounds himself with big-business backers such as Robert Rubin and Paul Volcker, shapes his foreign policy in consultation with former secretaries of state and ex-CIA officials what is to become of the all the people who joined the "movement"?
There is a short answer to that question, given by a young black woman in Harlem. When asked by CNN about Obama's victory, laughing and crying she said that she had helped achieve it and she was going to stay active to make him accountable. I cannot emphasize how right she is.
Again I come back to my small college town in Indiana. The context of the Obama victory in this town and on my campus must be clearly understood. In my university a very popular white male full professor seeing a young African American colleague on his cell phone commented that he thought that his black colleague was doing a drug deal. In my department when I had organized a very tame diversity forum earlier this year I received an anonymous letter which argued that all non-western (read non-white) histories and non-western historians should be scrapped from the curriculum and the department and in the field of American history we should not obsess about race and African American History. My partner who runs the American Studies program was accused by this eloquent letter writer of only being interested in historically marginalized groups. Since November 4 th graffitis saying "fuck obama" have gone up on campus and I know of at least one incident of a white male yelling "nigger" at a black student from a passing car.
And yet Obama polled 55% of the votes in my county whose population is 97% White. Despite Hilary Clinton trying to stir up racism against Obama by claiming to represent the white working class, the majority of Obama voters from Indiana was the white working class. Obama carried 15 Indiana counties compared to John Kerry's 4 in 2004. Northwestern Indiana counties, composed largely of the industrial working class voted overwhelmingly for him in this election. Workers here have been hit hard by the economy in areas like South Bend, Portage, Anderson, and south along the Wabash and Ohio Rivers in Terre Haute and Evansville. Nationally, 67% of the AFL-CIO voted for Obama. It is not the Democratic Party but Obama riding the wave of anger and hope that secured that vote. It was the movement that achieved this not the electoral process per se. It is now up to this multiracial movement—a movement that arose from homes, schools, churches, and the factory floor—to make sure that the gains of these last few months are protected. To defend and remember the racial solidarity that was the hallmark of the campaign. To mobilize in similar large numbers not just for voter registrations but to fight against all those small incidents of racism that will no doubt happen in other conservative public spaces like my campus. To demand that Obama deliver on his promises of healthcare, jobs and education. And when the time comes, and it will, to mobilize against him.
So unlike the Indian Communists in 1947, I was glad to have been there in Chicago on the night of November 4th. I would like to tell my daughter that I celebrated the movement that threw Bush out of office and elected the first Black President. I would like to tell my daughter that on that night I looked around me at the hundreds of people, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, that had lined the streets of Chicago with a true audacity of hope.