Saturday, July 04, 2009
Not dead yet. posted by Richard Seymour
By far the best talk at Marxism yesterday was Gary Younge's discussion on Obama's election and the fall-out for the left, with much of the discussion following up on last year's assessment. One has to wade through mixed feelings. Testimonials of massive, spontaneous celebrations on Obama's victory in the US, and enthusiasm for his success in the UK, were supplied amply by speaker and audience alike. (I don't mind mentioning that there were a couple of speakers from the audience who were still out of their minds with Obamamania, or so it seemed to me.) Younge reported that in Chicago on the night of the election, cops drove up and down the streets yelling Obama's name through their speakers, while crowds stopped traffic. For days after the result, he swore, white people wearing Obama badges actually smiled at black people. Determinedly. Until they got a smile in return.
It is easy, and enjoyable, to mock this kind of mania. But it is also worth thinking about why it should be. Younge suggested one possibility: it has been a while since white people were asked, in a significant way, to be anti-racist, or to think that things could be better. And when asked, it turned out that there were more anti-racists than people might have suspected. It was a close-run thing: had it not been for Obama winning the mostly white state of Iowa, and proving that enough white Americans could get behind him, there were probably a lot of black voters in places like North Carolina and elsewhere who would have tactically backed Hillary. More importantly, Younge argued, there was a success worth celebrating. In a country with a disgraceful criminal justice system where one third of black males spends time in jail, proving that there could be a black president was important. Moreover, as he also pointed out, it was a comparatively progressive result, and not just because Obama is black - had black voters been asked to rally behind Condoleeza Rice, they would not have done so. Indeed, according to Younge, Obama's campaign marked a divergence - in presentation at least - from the trends in European social democracy and Third Way Democrats. He was not the DLC's man. He was not relying on 'Third Way' rhetoric. He raised expectations. And it was up to the left to gauge how much of the promise was purely symbolic, and how much was real; how far Obama would widen the margins for the left to operate in, and how much he would ultimately fuel cynicism about any progressive agenda by failing to deliver.
Some of us hoped that the frenetic popular activity during the election campaign could somehow be carried on into a movement to keep pressure on Obama. from the left. Younge reported that such hopes have, with some exceptions, not been borne out. Moreover, the success of the Obama campaign also makes it less likely that an independent class-based third party could emerge. So, with people demobilised, the pressure from the public is mainly passive - Obama knows he needs his popularity, and so has to offer something. The healthcare and climate change bills are inadequate, but are broadly in the right direction. Some parts of the stimulus package offer a modicum of support for ordinary Americans. There is some very mildly progressive talk of immigration reform, with pledges to reduce ICE raids and so on. I think one of the better moves recently has been from a right-wing Democrat, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who is pushing for a National Criminal Justice Commission to review the whole system and lower the appalling rate of incarcerations. I could be wrong, but I don't think such a move would have been feasible under the reign of Ricky Ray Rector's executioner.
You could add to that list, but you could also compose another, lengthier one, outlining the ways in which Obama has pursued a right-wing imperialist foreign policy, and pandered to ruling class interests. The current, more conciliatory posture of the US in the world takes us back to Clinton-style imperialism, with an attempt to restore the US as the 'indispensable nation'. The absence of some Bush-era excesses, in the context of escalation in Afghanistan and the bombing of Pakistan, are "small mercies, indeed". You could add another list of Obama's compromises and betrayals on even his most limited progressive agenda. Whether there is a 'net' amount of 'progress' over the next few years, however, isn't the only point of interest. Younge points to the emergence of an electoral coalition that will give the right some cause for reflection. The increase in turnout among black voters and Latin Americans, and the coalition with left-wing whites, especially unionised whites can provide, should it prove durable, a check on the kinds of racist dog-whistling that characterised the McCain-Palin ticket.
There were some good lines as well. Obama's solicitous efforts to win over white voters by avoiding too explicit association with African Americans made him "The Incognegro". The Euston Manifesto group were casually satirised as "the white boys' fight club". Asked about the right-wing argument that Obama's success proved that black people could succeed, he reminded people of the presidential tradition of pardoning a turkey on thanksgiving: "so you see, if this turkey can make it, there's no excuse for the rest of you." I paraphrase. Anyway, just to remind you, I'll be speaking on Monday morning, 10am at the Friends Meeting House main hall, with David Edgar, on the topic of 'left-right defectors'. Be there, or be a filthy apostate running dog of capitalism.