23 November 2008

The Academic Left on the Coming Obama Administration [UPDATED]

We are nearly three weeks past the election. And, by now, some of us are watching the initial contours of the Obama administration emerge and we wonder if the audacity and unlikely stories are coming any day soon.

Here are the perspectives on the prospects of the Obama administration from four five writers on the academic left.

Judith Butler of Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter in a widely-circulated email:

Obama is, after all, hardly a leftist, regardless of the attributions of "socialism" proffered by his conservative opponents. In what ways will his actions be constrained by party politics, economic interests, and state power; in what ways have they been compromised already? If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential. Maybe we cannot avoid this phantasmatic moment, but let us be mindful about how temporary it is. If there are avowed racists who have said, "I know that he is a Muslim and a terrorist, but I will vote for him anyway," there are surely also people on the left who say, "I know that he has sold out gay rights and Palestine, but he is still our redemption." I know very well, but still: this is the classic formulation of disavowal. Through what means do we sustain and mask conflicting beliefs of this sort? And at what political cost?
Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Late Victorian Holocausts, at TomDispatch.com:
In addition, both Obama and his vice presidential partner Joe Biden, in their support for Secretary of the Treasury Paulson's plan, avoid any discussion of the inevitable result of cataclysmic restructuring and government bailouts: not "socialism," but ultra-capitalism -- one that is likely to concentrate control of credit in a few leviathan banks, controlled in large part by sovereign wealth funds but subsidized by generations of public debt and domestic austerity.

Never have so many ordinary Americans been nailed to a cross of gold (or derivatives), yet Obama is the most mild-mannered William Jennings Bryan imaginable.



… perhaps Obama has become the reluctant prisoner, intellectually as well as politically, of Clintonism: that is say, of a culturally permissive neo-liberalism whose New Deal rhetoric masks the policy spirit of Richard Nixon.

It's worth asking, for instance, what in the actual substance of his foreign policy agenda differentiates the Democratic candidate from the radioactive legacy of the Bush Doctrine? Yes, he would close Guantanamo, talk to the Iranians, and thrill hearts in Europe. He also promises to renew the Global War on Terror (in much the same way that Bush senior and Clinton sustained the core policies of Reaganism, albeit with a "more human face").



More than likely comprehensive health-care will be whittled down to a barebones plan, "alternative energy" will simply mean the fraud of "clean coal," and anything that remains in the Treasury, after Wall Street's finished its looting spree, will buy bombs to pulverize more Pashtun villages, ensuring yet more generations of embittered mujahideen and jihadis.

Am I unduly cynical? Perhaps, but I lived through the Lyndon Johnson years and watched the War on Poverty, the last true New Deal program, destroyed to pay for slaughter in Vietnam.
Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe and Freedom Dreams, in Counterpunch:
We’ve heard jubilant claims that Obama’s victory marks the final nail in the coffin of racism.

Unfortunately, these premature proclamations obscure what is most significant about this election: Obama’s politics of hope – his vision of uniting the nation around the creation of a caring, compassionate culture built from the “bottom up”– is actually rooted in the traditions of abolition-democracy, the ex-slaves’ post-emancipation Republicanism, and Obama’s own direct experience organising the black urban poor in Chicago.

The President-elect brings an age-old vision of civil society, born in the age of Reconstruction (1865-1877), that demands democratic engagement and understands the state’s role to support those in need, educate its citizens, ensure equal opportunity for all, protect civil liberties and civil rights and remove discriminatory barriers. It was a political vision for the nation, not just for African Americans, and one that was tragically rejected by most white Americans. By the 1890s, white supremacists had effectively used legal and extralegal means, including mob violence and assassination, to disfranchise black voters.



Of course, there is no guarantee that President Obama will not betray his political heritage, and his militarism already stands in sharp contrast to his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted that we cannot end poverty without ending war and the unbridled and violent march of global capital. Likewise, we will never have real economic stability unless the U.S. defends workers’ rights around the globe, supports environmental justice, democratises economic institutions and protects the rights of women and persecuted minorities.

So the question is this: will Obama be the first “freedom democrat” in the White House, or will he prove to be just another Democratic President who happens to be black? Moreover, will America embrace or reject freedom democracy, or what W.E.B. Du Bois has called “the gift of black folk”?
Cornel West, who, to me, is still the author of Prophesy, Deliverance!, with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now:
CORNEL WEST: We’ve got to organize—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —supporters—passionate supporters of Barack Obama, who pushed him from the outside?

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Now that he is the state, how do people organize?

CORNEL WEST: Well, we use, in many ways, his own words. He says that he wants the bottoms up. That’s fine. We organize, we mobilize. We don’t look simply for a top down. The Clintonites have often been top down. It’s the bottom up. We organize, we mobilize. We consolidate our organizations. And in the end, of course, we may have to take to the streets. That’s how people’s power is expressed, but it’s expressed in a critical and, for me, in a loving way.

I do still support Brother Barack Obama gaining access to the White House, because he was the best that America could do at this particular moment in the midst of imperial occupation in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, financial Katrina, legacy of Katrina in New Orleans, wealth inequality, dilapidated housing in chocolate cities, disgraceful school systems, unacceptable levels of unemployment and underemployment, not enough access to healthcare for fellow citizens across race and region, not enough access to childcare. At this moment, the best America could do was Brother Barack Obama, liberal, centrist.

Will he govern like a progressive Lincoln? Will he triangulate like Clinton? Will he be an experimentalist like FDR? Those are the challenges. I hope he’s a progressive Lincoln. I plan to be—aspire to be the Frederick Douglasses against, to put pressure on him.
UPDATE: Then, there's the wise old man, Noam Chomsky (I don't need to mention books by him, do I?) on Democracy Now this morning:
It was a historic election. To have a black family in the White House is a momentous achievement. In fact, it’s historic in a broader sense. The two Democratic candidates were an African-American and a woman. Both remarkable achievements. We go back say 40 years, it would have been unthinkable. So something’s happened to the country in 40 years. And what’s happened to the country- which is we’re not supposed to mention- is that there was extensive and very constructive activism in the 1960s, which had an aftermath. So the feminist movement, mostly developed in the 70s-–the solidarity movements of the 80’s and on till today. And the activism did civilize the country. The country’s a lot more civilized than it was 40 years ago and the historic achievements illustrate it. That’s also a lesson for what’s next.

...

Obama did organize a large number of people and many enthusiastic people in what’s called in the press, Obama’s Army. But the army is supposed to take instructions, not to implement, introduce, develop programs and call on its own candidate to implement them. That’s critical. If the army keeps to that condition, nothing much will change. If it on the other hand goes away activists did in the sixties, a lot can change. That’s one of the choices that has to be made. That’s Haiti. Of course that didn’t last very long. A couple of months later, there was military coup, a period of terror, we won’t go through the whole record. Up the present, the traditional torturers of Haiti, France and the United States, have made sure that there won’t be a victory for democracy there. It’s a miserable story. Contrary to many illusions.Take the second poorest country, Bolivia. They had an election in 2005 that’s almost unimaginable in the West. Certainly here, anywhere. The person elected into office was indigenous. That’s the most oppressed population in the hemisphere, those who survived. He’s is a poor peasant. How did he get in? Well, he got in because there were again, a mass popular movement, which elected their own representative... the election was just an event that was particular stage in a long continuing struggle, a lot before and a lot after.
Conclusion: Read up, sharpen your pencils, fill your ink wells, tie your shoes and stretch your legs. It’s already time to start strategizing, organizing and getting down to demand change.

4 comments:

nadia said...

The Butler one is my favourite post-Obama buzzkill article.

Did you see Zizek's?

Buster said...

Yeah, and she came out the gates hella fast with that email!

Now, Zizek... ukh. I take his point, but I classify him more in the eccentric left than the academic left. Dude is just all over the place--little compelling snippets, followed by marginally-important philosophical sidenote, appended to ungrounded readings of history. It's hard for me to make myself read some of the schlock.

Butler, in contrast, was unprecedentedly coherent and down-to-earth in that missive.

nadia said...

I think he is funny and occasionally says interesting things but I've never been a fan; but I know a lot of people that swear by him. I've never been much of a philosophy person though so I'm just going to plead ignorance and say I don't get it.

Desi Italiana said...

I could not agree more with Judith Butler.