Wednesday, November 05, 2008

People Get Ready















So do we now refer to ourselves as the United States of Anti-America? The United States of Arugula? For eight years I patiently waited for my moment of schadenfreude as the right-wingers who talked about mandates and country first would simply have to face up to a demographic "pwning." Like with the losers at the end of Revenge of the Nerds, it becomes apparent ultimately that there are more of us than there are of you.












Obama's name is the sign under which popular sentiment has crystallized, and in exercising agencies we must use these signs as they come to us. Long planning to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, stumping for McKinney to numerous friends and acquaintances, I nevertheless wavered near the end. I admit with some reluctance that I am not a robot, I bend and change. I do not believe Obama is our political messiah. Yet, the energy and sense of community around his candidacy were there in addition to the regular establishment partisanship I can't stomach. I ended up casting my vote for Obama/Biden on the Working Families line because I realized that during the day, it would be around Obama that speculation and aspiration would cohere. People were talking about him in the bodega where I got coffee before voting. (Queens went 75% Obama, last I looked, which actually made it the most McCain-friendly borough after Staten Island.) The point is not him, he is the focal point projected by us. But in recognizing this fact it is vital that we do not establish a program of mere narcissism, which is what Palin offered her base. ("She's like us, she's normal like us!") Obama could offer something very similar to his supporters, and this we must avoid. We have to acknowledge the nature of our symbolic actions and movements. Obama will be a respectable president only if we ensure that he is one. I think his election is one step, an important landmark step of significant symbolic value and potentially significant policy value. But we must ensure our direction. Obama will almost definitely be a miserable president if we continue to cede him, ever more profoundly, to the owners of capital and the disseminators of images. He's already within their clutches. The only reason Americans do, and can, feel like we exercise any efficacy at all is simply because his ascendant star (so to speak) had not been completely preordained and overdetermined before even arriving on the scene. The fact that people worry about his inexperience is precisely why we can extend a measure of hope.













And I do not use that last word liberally.















I always enjoy reading Ran Prieur, who frequently comes up with angles I hadn't quite considered. Still, he's lamenting what he interprets as the "dodged bullet" nature of the election, which should have been a progressive landslide but wasn't. I, on the other hand, wonder if Prieur is being untrue to some of his more deeply-held principles—such as that change is best when it comes gradually. We should not invest too much in the feel-good symbolic value of this election, not unless we're just party hacks. Which is why we should not be too disappointed if the landslide (including more of that sweet, sweet schadenfreude) didn't come. If we're being serious, this should be the first part of a long-haul sort of move, and Obama will be succeeded by more progressive candidates, and federal government will find as a competitor more and more serious popular/grassroots threats to its power insofar as it is aligned with national and transnational corporate interests.














Let it break! We will figure out where to house the refugees of George W. Bush.















According to Thomas Friedman, the breaking of the modern Republican Party is more along the lines of being the long end to the Civil War. I know, I know—picking on Friedman is like shooting fish in a barrel. No serious person takes him seriously. He thinks that the election of Barack Obama is proof that, finally, "the American Civil War [has] ended." Unable to conceive of history outside of these sixth-grade storybook terms, Friedman dutifully hews to the liberal-capitalist party line, where the Civil War was "about" slavery, and the march of progress and the Union. But because the Southern states have dragged their feet with regard to Union "progress," with Jim Crow, segregation, and all that, the Civil War (i.e., "racism") has still had hot embers up until 11pm EST last night. What's offensive is that he says this: "the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America’s white majority actually elected an African-American as president." Come on, Friedman! Give it a few more generations, and America's white majority may no longer even exist. We wouldn't be so incredibly central to the project of his beloved white liberal history. Do you all hear this? White folks did this, they ended the War Between the States, they finally put a closing chapter on the long novel of racial strife that has divided our great nation. Sojourner Truth didn't do it. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't do it. Malcolm X surely didn't do it. It didn't take black people. It didn't take Barack Obama, even, really. It took white people electing a black man to let us know that the (trumpets please!) Civil War is finally over.
Stellar. We white folks ultimately elected a black person, even though the majority of us voted for his white opponent. I would be happier, and more surprised, if the news stories about Obama's historic victory were not explained in terms of what it means for white people and what great things we've finally done. If there is a job for the intellectual class over the next few years, it will be in exposing, correcting, and focusing the way our history is being written and peddled to us before our very eyes. How we understand popular or progressive history, especially, is how we understand our own history. This is too important to let textbooks, newspapers, movies tell it to us first. Their way. We will insist on ours.















At any rate ... now another stage begins. The other party's back is broken, and we the electorate should make the Democrats aware that we could do the same to them if they do not heed us. Now should be when the gloves come off.

24 comments:

dave said...

Zach,
Thanks for joining the tidal wave. We're happy to have you.

I was really happy to see Ran's essay on supporting Obama, which hints at some of the reasons I was especially excited about his campaign apparatus, which might have been the best political campaign in American history, returned significant investment in politics to the grassroots, and went about building a base for (moderately) progressive positions in states that Democrats haven't bothered contesting in 40 years.

David Rees, the day after Election Day, 2004:
"CHIN UP.
We’re smarter than those motherfuckers.
We can learn more quickly than those motherfuckers.
We can be more ruthless than those motherfuckers.
We can be some six-million-dollar motherfuckers ourselves.
Chin up.
We’re more American than those motherfuckers.
We’re more responsible than those motherfuckers.
We’re more compassionate than those motherfuckers.
Hell, our atheists are more Christian than their Bible-thumpin’ motherfuckers.
There’s an election in two years.
There’s nothing we can’t do.
Chin up.
Because it’s on, motherfuckers.
It is on."

GODDAMN RIGHT.

There's much more work to go, but this step has me very enthusiastic. For now - I'm still giddy.

Anonymous said...

Watching the election from Europe, I'm obviously missing out on the huge feeling of community that I've just begun to understand is for many people one of the determining hopes and achievements of this campaign and election; so take whatever I say with a grain of salt.
But even then, there are a few things that make me sceptic, especially when I see dave's comment about this being the best political campaign in political history. Well, it is also the most hugely expensive, and I'm not quite sure what kind of signal that sends out. By refusing the government subsidies and then spending more than anyone else before getting the most a democrat candidate got since 1976, Obama is sending out the message that money is going to make political campaigns a spectacle to an extent unheard of before. I'm not sure if that will turn out to be true or not, but for the moment all the reports about how europeans are watching his campaigning methods with interest certainly suggest that much. And maybe I'm just fighting against something that's a given, but mass money to buy "hope" (and here it is used in the liberal sense) as the only way to create community is certainly not my views of politics.
Secondly, though I agree with you that what the campaign has demonstrated is the willingness for change, and what it has created is a possibility for it, I'm still sceptic about Obama's version of change. Here is a man, after all, who voted for the patriot act, who supported the war in Irak and didn't talk about ending it, who joined the republican's sides on bailing out Wall Street... And when he started constituting his team, many names belonged to the Clinton administration. There is no doubt that for many people he symbolizes hope. I'm just very unsure that he embodies it.
But one thing for me is clear, and that is that I agree with you 100% that grass-roots political activism is the only way that some of what Obama prones might come around. If his presidency turns out to have yielded even half of the results people hope for (which would already be quite something, no irony intended), it'll have been because those people were behind him making very, very sure it would.
Nathan

Anonymous said...

Zach,
One thing that makes me hopeful about Obama is that I think he understands what you said that we will have to make him and the Congress accountable for him to have a successful administration, per when he says, "This isn't about me. This is about you."

Anonymous said...

By the way, "anonymous" just above is me.
Greg

Alex said...

"Obama will be a respectable president only if we ensure that he is one."

Respectable?

Alex said...

As you'll note, Obama's speech Tuesday night hinged on two explicit quotes from Abraham Lincoln - perhaps the greatest and wisest of all modern statesmen. Obama does follow the best models.

Anonymous said...

http://november5.org/

dave said...

Alex,
There's a hefty dose of Martin Luther King, Jr. in there as well.

Nathan,
Obama's grassroots campaign strategy combines financial with physical participation. I don't share your skepticism about the encroachment of spectacle (well, not much) in part because much of his resources were devoted to actual personal interactions, and in part because the financial component implies a truth about (capitalism) - that small contributions from many people are more powerful than large contributions from the few. Obama* is the first politician to understand the electorate rhizomatically, and the effects of that understanding won't be understood for some time. But those of us who are skeptical of both capitalism and government can see this as a terrific opportunity for reasons beyond policy.

[* by Obama, I mean Axelrod]

ZC said...

I'll get to more substantive stuff later, or tomorrow, but to answer your one question, Alex: "respectable" would probably have been more clearly expressed as "estimable."

Alex said...

"There's a hefty dose of Martin Luther King, Jr. in there as well."

Obama will often link, and usually does in his more important speeches, explicitly or implicitly, Lincoln and King together (remember that Obama often literally places his important speeches in locations that either Lincoln or King once spoke at - Springfield, the Cooper Union, etc). This isn't some name-dropping tactic - Obama's most used rhetorical structure is to create a speech where he moves from Lincoln to King or vice vera. He mentions JFK (or Ted Kennedy) or FDR a bit, but King and Lincoln are the fulcrums.

Anonymous said...

http://www.democracynow.org/2008/11/6/president_elect_obama_and_the_future

Anonymous said...

The Obama Transition has set up a site where you can share your views on government policy, at:

http://change.gov

Greg

Alex said...

"I'll get to more substantive stuff later, or tomorrow, but to answer your one question, Alex: "respectable" would probably have been more clearly expressed as "estimable.""

I'm not certain that estimable works either.

ZC said...

Estimable works for me. Obama will be worthy of esteem, respect, admiration insofar as the millions of people who have worked very hard on the ground to get him into office continue to exert pressure on him. Obama is a focal point, even something of a cipher, and his statecraft will necessarily reflect influence. But whose? Drawn from where? The elite or the popular ... ?

In these first few days of "transition" I have not been impressed. We'll see where things go. If I have energy and time I'll try to keep a series of "feet to the fire" posts here.

Alex said...

"Obama will be worthy of esteem, respect, admiration insofar as the millions of people who have worked very hard on the ground to get him into office continue to exert pressure on him."

Again, this formulation remains extremely problematic. Let's deal first with the problem of esteem. I'm not certain why you keep rephrasing how we should praise or honor the new prince. While this is an extremely important question, it's not the primary question.

Rather, the primary question is for what deeds (not how) should we honor or praise in the prince? Your sentence seems entirely incoherent here - what does "exert pressure" mean? It seems to be some sort of abstraction, an analogy drawn from engineering terms. I don't know what it actually means politically.

Second, Obama is to be honored because others "exert pressure" on him? Again, is it good or praiseworthy merely for the prince to do whatever those others want? (and we do not know even whether these particular others exerting pressure are a majority of the populance, or are the wisest in political judgment, or are those most in need, etc. Why, necessarily, are some of Obama's supporters the best judges of what he should do and not others - including possibly his opponents?)

I.E. we can not discuss how the new prince is to be praised or condemned, if we do not first know what the prince should do.

ZC said...

Again, is it good or praiseworthy merely for the prince to do whatever those others want?

The president will do this regardless. I take this as a given. It is simply a question of whose ambitions, intentions, and grievances are attended to. I think where we might differ is in 'Who's the Prince?' I don't think it's Obama (nor is it Bush, nor would it have been McCain) ...

bill weber said...

I stuck, very reluctantly, with McKinney (even though she's marginally irrational).

There are too many of Obama's supporters who will be even less likely to pressure him from "the left" than there were among Bill Clinton voters. So I hope he's braver and bolder than I think he is.

Alex said...

"The president will do this regardless. I take this as a given. It is simply a question of whose ambitions, intentions, and grievances are attended to."

It simply can't be a question of whose interest a leader acts in. That's because "self-interest" is an incoherent (and ultimately essentially empty) concept. Of course, here's where I will clash with the social contract theorists (or more classically, where Socrates clashes with Thrasymachus in the Republic or as Socrates discussed in the Hipparchus).

For example, it is probably safe enough to say that many of the people who supported Obama want what they perceive their economic self-interest improved. But what does that mean? It is not clear that all of these supporters have the same idea of what their economic self-interest is, or even, in many cases, have any coherent of what their economic self-interest actually is.

Further, since their level of economic wisdom is low, they do not know how to achieve their perceived economic self-interest. Only if a person correctly understands the economy can they understand how best to fulfill their economic self-interest. I think it is safe to say that relatively few understand the economy. Therefore, it is necessary for the prince to determine who best understands the economy, and what actions best fulfill true (not percieved) economic self-interests.

Jake said...

The other party's back is broken, and we the electorate should make the Democrats aware that we could do the same to them if they do not heed us. Now should be when the gloves come off.

I'm confused. Are you saying that citizens electing Obama broke the Republicans? While there was a very vocal minority against Bush, and a lot of popular disapproval, I don't think there was enough popular action against Bush during these past years, and now it is through the simple inking of Obama's name on a voting card that people 'fight' back? If this is the kind of response we can expect from citizens after Bush, I don't see how the Democrats will have any problems dealing with negative reactions to their own policies for the next 4-8 years.

In any case, while I certainly voted for Obama, I am still skeptical of his ability to change the direction of this nation. It's kind of silly to pin all our hopes on to one man, but there is potential for him to be somewhat effective. While there is certainly a lot of hope, a lot of it is based on this idea that citizens and popular organizations can somehow 'pressure' Obama into doing what they want. Especially now that he is elected, and can be molded into an ideal leader. I think otherwise. Joe Biden has already expressed his distaste of public opinion on public policy.

"There are going to be a lot of you who want to go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, yo, whoa, whoa, I don't know about that decision.' Because if you think the decision is sound when they're made, which I believe you will when they're made, they're not likely to be as popular as they are sound. Because if they're popular, they're probably not sound." - Joe Biden

And who is really going to be influencing Obama when he says:

"The allegation that Senator McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling. Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO. Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House."

Again, I remain skeptical of popular fronts being able to guide Obama's future actions. They have already been silent during the elections, or rationalizing Obama's many capitulations. Who is to say citizens won't rationalize any poor choices Obama might make in the future, as they have done so already? He's already supported federal bailouts for Wall Street (who have contributed immensely to Obama's campaign - it was not strictly grassroots), social spending cuts, the FISA act, war efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's victory is generally understood as victory of the masses--maybe in theory--but it was a victory for American imperialism too.

dave said...

"Obama's victory is generally understood as victory of the masses--maybe in theory--but it was a victory for American imperialism too."

The price of democracy in the age of Neoliberalism is that theoretical "victories of the masses" are at best half-measures, and at worst massive defeats.

ZC said...

Alex, your second sentence states that self-interest is an incoherent and essentially empty concept. Your last sentence proposes that "true" economic self-interest is a goal of the prince. What am I missing? Is self-interest something we can talk about or not? (I'm not being rhetorical.)

I do not think that a populace has to appeal to authority with policy fully formed. A population has to know what its grievances or demands are (which is practically a given on atomized levels, at least), and then has to organize those grievances & demands in such a way as to inject itself into the demos. This is how I see it.

A monarch needs to keep his subjects content or preoccupied whenever his power may be in question. In good times he can be quite liberal and retain his legitimate authority. But in a representative democracy there must remain the potential for that mass body to articulate itself along procedural lines, too (not in enormous unison, it's not like it's USA vs Washington here). Elections are part of this. Only part. But I do not think that the exercise of politics is the same as the exercise of statecraft, and in a democracy (broadly defined) people must struggle in groups internally, politically, amongst each other in order to influence, or even overthrow, the practicioners of statecraft.

Of course there is the question of the worth of democracy itself.

We could go down that path if you want, but I'm not completely certain that is the path you're trying to go down.

* *

Jake, you're certainly right. The potential, I think, comes in the giant network of citizens (what's the email list, 11 million--the NYTimes just reported on it the other day) who may be better organized and energized than the anti-Bush movement was. ("May" is the operative word.) There will be party hacks who defect from the progressive wagon to the DP wagon. But people are easily connected, shit is hitting the fan economically, and even if the Obama administration turns out to be a nightmare of neoliberal militancy, I think that the affiliations among the populace will persist and proliferate.

Alex said...

"Is self-interest something we can talk about or not?"

Not in the sense that I believe you're using it. See that the Comrade in The Hipparchus literally cannot give any definition of what self-interest is without turning to Socrates and admitting that he needs a knowledge of the good, otherwise self-interest is meaningless.

Alex said...

"and in a democracy (broadly defined) people must struggle in groups internally, politically, amongst each other in order to influence, or even overthrow, the practicioners of statecraft."

But to organize, they must have a common idea of the good they wish to achieve. No one could organize a political party asserting that the party's policy is to: "satisfy your self-interest". Naturally, potential partisans will demand to how what you mean by self-interest, i.e. what good you hope to do. They can only judge this not by the level of your desire to fulfill their self-interest, but rather whether the good you propose to do for them seems to them to actually be good and whether your method of doing good accords with their understanding of what is possible.

Alex said...

"A population has to know what its grievances or demands are (which is practically a given on atomized levels, at least), and then has to organize those grievances & demands in such a way as to inject itself into the demos."

I would challenge your understanding in this sentence. I would conversely assert that it is very rare to know what one's demands are. Even if a population is hungry and needing food, there is never only one resulting course of action. Obviously, the demand is for food. But how do we obtain this food? (and, of course, what is food and what is not food?) We can grow it. We can buy it (with what funds?). We can invade our neighbors and steal it. We can pray to the gods or the demons so they will provide it. Maybe some of the population should starve so that the remainder will survive. Perhaps we should appeal to better-provisioned neighboring states for their surplus food. Perhaps we should eat each other. Perhaps we should hunt animals in the forest, or fish the sea.

Our population's need for food does not tell us enough to be able to determine a course of action.