Talking (Some) Politics: Obama, the Elections, the Idea of a President, and What’s Being Left Out
Marcus Alexander Hill
Greetings. First off, I would like to say that this is in no way intended to be an "Obama bashing" article. Rather, I’d like to try to expand the focus of our political discussions a bit beyond Obama support and onto much broader and arguably more relevant areas of political concern. I’m not against Obama, but I think the Obama campaign should be looked at strategically as much as possible (to the extent that it matters—I’ll get into this later) as opposed to his supporters merely resting on hope or the cult of personality he has attained.
I’m writing this because I’ve noticed how increasingly difficult it has become to discuss politics with liberals from a more radical leftist angle, especially ones that support Obama. And this is just discussion I’m talking about—I have no intention of attacking liberal politics because that does nothing to develop dialog and move things along. By liberal, I’m referring to a sense of politics that has some concern for improving society (expanding individual freedoms and pursuing social justice), but only from within contexts that accommodate the institutionalized status quo—it’s the idea of changing things without rocking the boat too much, so to speak. The perspective from which I’m speaking is a more radical leftist angle: one that recognizes deep flaws in our institutions and seeks to get rid of the status quo directly in order to expand individual freedoms and pursue social justice—it’s getting out of the confines of this leaky and hopeless boat altogether and collectively building a better one, so to speak. Ultimately, while this is not an attack on liberal politics, it is an argument for incorporating more of a radical leftist angle into the discussions of presidential politics that abound. This would do more to achieve the ends of social improvement than liberal conversations going on around the presidential candidates ever will, as I’ll explain.
In the course of this article, I’d like to address some of the points that seem to come up quite a bit whenever I have meaningful political discussions with liberal Obama supporters (I don’t think I’ve had a real political conversation with a McCain supporter, but I’m really only interested progressive dispositions anyway). I’d like to challenge these liberal angles with the intention of generating a fuller understanding of political life beyond just public support by way of a vote for a candidate—one that either seems "alright", seems to be for "the people," or of a candidate that is at least not John McCain. I’d also like to lay out my conception of what a political life could be if we agree that such a life is indeed important parts of who we are, and offer some foundations of my conceptions of what radical leftist politics could be if we agree that real social improvements are indeed important and understand that they can only come by going beyond the confines of the status quo and our political institutions as they stand.
Expanding Liberal Dialogue
There are, of course, a lot of different reasons people are supporting Obama. I’m obviously not going to attempt to address most of them, but there does seem to be a noticeable continuity of the type of support he has been receiving. He casts a populist message far and wide, extols change and hoping for better, and he wears a very progressive hat due to his youth, race, symbolism of change behind his democratic political background (basically that he is not another visibly Bush-like Republican), etc. Of course, it should be noted that he was not the most progressive choice amongst the Democratic hopefuls—Edwards and Clinton had very similar politics (although Obama didn’t vote for the war) and Kucinich had far better analysis and progressive arguments all around. So there are other more subtle reasons to look into behind Obama’s support. I’d like to take a look at a few of these points I’ve heard arguing support for Obama and challenge them with the aim of pushing this political (not just presidential, but more robustly political) argument further.
— "At some point we will be required to take some action—beyond thinking about the larger issues"
I’ve heard this in response to my attempts to bring a larger social critique into the discussion of Obama and presidential politics. This is interesting because (1) it accepts the premise that voting is action with a capital "A" and (2) the premise that trying to understand larger institutional challenges and social contexts beyond that act is mere philosophizing and unnecessary: "We might have time for it later, but right now we need to act." It also often receives the larger social critique as a direct critique of Obama, as if I’m saying that Obama is not going to fix the environment, the problem of corporations, the situation in
Action is needed, I agree. But I would argue that what is needed is action with a good understanding of the larger institutional issues. Presidential/electoral voting to me is not action, but rather the complete opposite—it is a willful self-exclusion of any direct involvement with the direction of things and a grant of permission to allow others to make decisions for us. In the spectrum of decisions to be made, only a small number get presented to this superficially democratic process anyway (national economic decisions are held far outside this range). In fact, in practice, the more we discuss and pursue accountability of elected officials (which is the only way presidential/electoral politics will ever work for us), the less they are needed (more on this later).
It is important to understand that these larger issues are not just philosophical excursions (they shouldn’t be anyway), but rather a systematic questioning of things, asking what these things and traditions really mean, breaking through hollow symbolism, and actually doing something that works towards our goals and upholds our values. This is the whole notion of praxis—not just thinking and not just doing, but combining the two. Our political outlook needs to be oriented more around praxis and being open to change the things that don’t work.
— "You speak of participatory democracy and empowering the masses, but when will this ever realistically happen?"
I don’t have an answer for when this will happen, but I think the root of this question may be a misunderstanding of the process and an undervaluing of what it really means. As there is no scientific formula to enacting truly participatory democracy, the masses will not just wake up one day with newfound participatory understandings, visions, networks, and plans. This, rather, is a gradual process—project by project—organizing and reorganizing. People have been out organizing for Obama like crazy with very impressive outcomes as far as mobilization, so it seems hardly farfetched to me to think that other more pertinent political issues and outlets could be pursued in similar ways with worthwhile outcomes. This is how the Zapatistas got started, and that was like a decade or so of just organizing around their own politics and interests before the world ever heard about them. This is just basic social processes of making connections with others, being creative, and figuring things out. Small groups form and come together with others, dissolve and coalesce according to interests and projects at hand, form networks, and eventually larger political constituencies. Not necessarily to create other political parties, but forms of interactions that actually work (parties or whatever those forms may be). Different modes of doing things—of social organization and pursuing participatory politics—has been the reason much of Latin America has been at a world-wide focal point for left political action for some time now (from the Zapatistas quest for direct/participatory democracy in Chiapas, Mexico to Chavez’s socialism in Venezuela to the factory takeovers in Argentina to land reform and the Landless Worker’s Movement in Brazil…).
— "People aren’t up for the task of acting on these big considerations. Few have it so bad that thinking about restructuring our current system is actually realistic and few will even consider some form of mass resistance."
Such a negative outlook seems too quickly presumptive and cynical to me. Cynicism’s really nothing more than just a lazy way to disengage from the world when things aren’t going your way anyway—it’s what happens when nonparticipatory attitudes and general hesitations about living life are actively convincing themselves they have a purpose, as Speed Levitch put it. I can understand where the feeling is coming from, but it still can’t hide the fact that—in conversations—it emerges more from personal dispositions than real-world evidence. The distinction between what people are capable of and what they actually pursue can be huge and very poorly correlated.
However, with that said, I feel like more than merely lethargy and complacency (which there is) as to why people don’t effectively build up mass resistances often, there’s a real lack of knowledge about alternatives and a sense of entitlement to pursue them. I mean, the most pressing sphere of society, the economy, is far far from democratic and thrives on people thinking there aren’t any viable alternatives to super capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher said.
I also think that underlying this, there is a huge misconception with the assumption that because people don’t seem to be forming mass resistances, things aren’t bad enough for them to do so, thereby making it unrealistic to think about changing the system. Logically (to me at least), if someone has a really unfortunate lot in life, it is not necessarily an automatic and logical step to go for mass resistance, so I would not automatically correlate the two—mass resistances with life conditions. I mean, a lot of people have it pretty bad. Not bad enough that they’re being kidnapped by the government during the night for dissent or brutally suffering under apartheid (in that sense, there’s great freedom we enjoy in this country), but at the same time, there are still unacceptable levels of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, incarceration, mental and physical health issues and disparities, poor healthcare, lack of security in general, and being chained to unsustainable and inherently exploitative modes of life under this capitalist system, etc.
Framed as things often are against this backdrop, mass protests in the street often sound like exercises in futility—blowing into the wind—when there aren’t any viable alternatives being discussed; and who has time for that stuff anyway when they’re just trying to survive (especially when street protests are more often than not seen as historical symbolism rather than actually effective and powerful).
The logical step to me if you have an unfortunate lot in life would be to know your interests and have some kind of interest in improving things as best you can. This might be a really small radius, but I think it can take many forms; and being out in the streets protesting tomorrow might very well just be hollow symbolism if it doesn’t have compelling vision to work toward with some real potential for winning change. So with a more robust vision and then a real discussion of strategy and then specific tactics, who is to say what can or can’t happen?
Vision should guide action, not the other way around. The fact that there are (1) clear problems with our systems and (2) no real chains pulling people down from taking action, makes action seem very reasonable and possible (whatever that specific action’s determined to be).
It should be noted too that there is (and has been) stuff happening on the ground for years around here. A long history of agitation and radicalism that has won many victories (labor and so-called "minority" rights especially), but is always faced with new challenges. This is how change has happened in the past and I believe it’s ultimately self-defeating to talk about such movements with such finality and with such antiquated tones. They are lessons to learn from and tools to help move forward; not trivial trinkets of the past to be put up on a shelf or in the attic of collective memory and forgotten.
— "Change takes a long time. How long will it take for us to get to a point where we’re not primarily consumers? I can’t visualize any real change happening while we’re super capitalists."
Very true—change can take a long time. I guess one upside to this is that capitalism isn’t sustainable, so it will change drastically whether people-orchestrated or not. The sooner it changes though (the people-orchestrated route hopefully) the better off everyone will be because more of the planet will still be intact and less people will be exploited beneath it.
While admitting that change can take a long time, I’m not saying that any of these systemic changes are easy or quick. I’m just saying if we’re going to dialog about politics, then let us dialog about politics to their full logical expanses. Just because something may take a long time doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about and not worth trying to change. The worst oppressions are always hard fought for and difficult to change but that hardly makes the fight itself unworthy or the outcome automatically negative or hopeless.
The fact that change can take a long time seems to argue once again that talk of change is being unrealistic. Personally, I’m not about overthrowing exploitative and destructive systems just for the sake of having something to talk about or to say that my politics are more radical than anyone else’s. That gets us no where. I’m just saying that people have interests–I have mine, you have yours, a lot of ours are interdependent, etc. Why police ourselves and cut the dialog short instead of taking everything into account that is at stake and do our best to work toward situations that actually reflect those things?
I also wouldn’t call us all "super capitalists". The real capitalists in this system are the decreasing percentage of those at the top that own an increasingly large portion of the wealth. The rest of us under capitalism are either producers/consumers or part of the "disposable" population (this is the portion of the population that isn’t contributing enough to the economy under their own initiative—largely those groups that statistically make up the bulk of our prison population). While capitalism is an oppressive system for all within it (CEOs are slaves to the machine of profit/production/exploitation too, but with more perks), those lower on the higher hierarchy have greater incentives to change it.
— "I don’t see Obama at all like a savior for the country, but I do see him as a stark contrast to all the wrong that has been perpetrated by the Bush presidency. If we are to have a president (which in 2009 we will), why then not vote for him? He has to touch you on some level with what he is doing—why not support those ideas he has that mirror (in some way) your own beliefs about human goodness?"
I think this is one of the most important parts of the pro-Obama argument. It’s a realist perspective (for most) that rests on the understanding that this is the system we have, and one way or another we will have a president in 2009, so why not just vote for someone, and as far as the least evil of the options go, it might as well be Obama. I get this perspective, but my problem is the lack of substance holding up the argument. I’ll explain.
First of all, I honestly don’t know what the substance is behind Obama’s ideas. If this were a democracy, we as a constituency in a more-than two-party system would delegate our ideas out to him (perhaps even swap him in and out for other delegates regularly taking the cult of personality out of it) and those would be her/his ideas and they would speak for and be directly accountable to the group, not the other way around–selling their ideas to us. Most of what I hear from Obama comes across as rhetoric because he has not offered any real satisfactory analysis of anything, but I’m aware that that may just be me. Sure the economy is bad, but my analysis calls for revolutionary change whereas he might call for something more reformist and leave it at that. I don’t expect him to offer anything revolutionary of course, but I do acknowledge that the outcomes of our two approaches could look drastically different and oppositional depending on which way we went.
That matters to me and my support. If you look at his stance on the war, nuclear energy, foreign policy…it sounds decent if you don’t look into it too much, but if you do, some of it is downright scary. And while some may say Obama is the best we can do right now, I would say fine, but that that doesn’t take any of the danger out of his policies, so we need to watch his administration extremely closely. This is not to say he’s ‘evil’ or ‘not a good guy’ or ‘worse than bush’—it instead is merely referring to his potential policy, its outcomes, and rationally acknowledging what is at stake. The real stuff on the ground. His personality and character will matter more when he invites me over to dinner and wants to be friends, but for now, what he actually does is where I’m placing focus. Placing more importance on character than policy is just an easy way to completely extract yourself from this political process—as if to say that a president with a solid character will police her/himself and do the right thing so you won’t have to put in the work into making them accountable.
Beliefs about human goodness: I don’t think people are fundamentally good or evil. Those are moral frameworks I have a hard time understanding and a harder time talking about. I don’t fundamentally think people will generally do the best good thing and I’m not going to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. As far as ‘good’, staying outside of theological understandings, I generally relate that to ‘quality’. That’s a long discussion, but it works to the effect of "is what Obama doing quality?" and that harkens back not so much to pre-sorted abstract notions of ‘goodness’ where you can get by with saying all the right words: "he talks about hope, the strength of the people, the common good, yeah that all sounds good…" where its all abstract enough to be "good". But, rather, good as in "quality": what’s the quality of what he’s saying? What analysis is he bringing, what support, what’s the quality of his cabinet/administration? etc. My conceptions of people are pretty humanistic, which is to say generally good things about them, but not to say that they’re all inherently good. I think we all do inherently seek quality though in one way or another, but we’re free to frame that as we want, and good quality for one person isn’t necessarily good quality for everyone else. So we have to watch how Obama frames what he sees as a quality decision because that doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for everyone (or anyone); he’ll surely speak passionately about it though and try to sell it, as would anyone pursuing quality.
As far as being touched, he doesn’t touch me. Sometimes I’m touched by reality show characters if I watch a show long enough, but I don’t see Obama like that. He doesn’t touch me anymore than any other person (perhaps less because of the position he is in—sounds harsh, but acknowledging drastic differences in class interests and the machinery of electoral politics is big in my book). The advantage I could see voting for Obama would be from the fallout of the really hopeful people out there. There will be some disenchanted fallout regardless of Obama’s or McCain’s win, but I feel like if McCain wins, that fallout will probably just take the form of "Don’t blame me, i voted for Obama" bumper stickers and a return to jadedness as usual; whereas the fallout from Obama might just push some more radical thought forward as far as dealing with these things since he’s managed to reach so many people so deeply.
Taking Presidential Politics beyond Presidents
I said earlier that the more we focus on and pursue the accountability of elected officials and making the decision-making process as transparent as possible (which is the only way presidential/electoral politics will ever work for us), the less these representatives are needed. I’ll explain.
Regardless of how important anyone thinks presidential politics are and how they feel about Obama, there are a few logical truisms that revolve around this whole process that are critical to understand if we’re to stick with traditional voting and this manner of representative democracy.
The first is the understanding that the president and other elected representatives can’t possibly know everyone’s interests and act on everyone’s behalf (obviously), so this means then that the event of the election is inherently just one part of our current political process as it stands (and not the most important part). The other part—the most important part as I see it—of this political process then would have to be working to make sure that your interests are known and upheld, holding the elect’s feet to the fire (so to speak), and so on.
What’s key about this situation (our current situation) is that logically it behooves you to know what your interests and your politics are (having some kind of vision); it behooves an understanding of what’s going on (some functional theory) and an understanding of what’s at stake; it behooves coming up with tactics to make your voice heard while understanding that others have more voice than you (see: corporations, the elite, dominant culture, etc.), so how to make your voice heard beyond them (this is a huge point and I would say nearly impossible to get to by way of just electoral politics as usual); it behooves working with each other to watch whomever is elected to ensure some type of transparency in what they and their administration do, etc.
To me, this seems like a lot of work just to watch over some shoulders. But this is the only way presidential/electoral politics are to really work, no? And beyond just a lot of work to watch over shoulders, it doesn’t seem all that far from what truly participatory democracy would look like—we have to accept accountability either way, but we should be able to figure out which way is more effective at preserving elite interests and marginalizing the rest of us, and which way would be more effective at taking everything at stake into account and working toward a participatory situation that would reflect and respect that.
If our conception of politics didn’t include a president or our elected so-called representatives (not that they have to be magically plucked out or disappear through some mass uprising, but more so in just how we function in our daily life and feel the need to talk about politics every 4th November), would real participatory democracy really look all that much different than where it stands now in the sense of the recognizing the full political task at hand?
This isn’t an argument so much against a president or presidential politics, but just to argue that the dialog at hand is huge, and would be huge in the face of a president and hierarchical government or anything else. Ultimately, if we are to accept that, then talking politics is simply talking politics (rather than just talking tradition or just talking hope), and all that is necessary and relevant should be included in the dialog if we really care about making things better.
So What Else is There? Moving on from Here and Talking Vision and Theory
By now, conversations usually start thirsting for something more concrete in way of direction. What is it that we are for if we’re trying to expand the political discussion in a functional way beyond presidential/electoral politics? For me, this has been a question of vision and praxis—incorporating analysis of the larger institutional issues to guide action toward a certain goal (in this case, participatory democracy). Encircling vision and praxis, this has also been a question of developing radical theory in order to begin to conceptualize the notion of social change so things don’t seem quite so impenetrable and daunting. I’ll just touch briefly on some of the points that I’ve come across that have helped develop radical theory.
A good start for thinking about developing radical theory for me has been Michael Albert’s Thought Dreams: Radical Theory for the 21st Century (http://www.amazon.com/Thought-Dreams-Radical-Theory-Century/dp/1894037103/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213901088&sr=8-1). It’s a good start at looking at how to incorporate ideas of various radical theories (feminism, marxism for its economic issues, etc.) in such ways that account for all of them instead of shutting any number of them out….all working toward the notion of a fully participatory society. You can find some stuff online here: http://zcomm.org/znet/places/Parsoc (for some reason, participatory society and participatory economy get referred to respectively as "parsoc" and "parecon"). The theory the book works toward is essentially a multi-issue, -focus, -tactic, growth-oriented, revolutionary perspective that has its strong points in learning from past social movements and not being elitist or academic/cryptic.
From there, personally (and I don’t mean for this to sound instructional by any means) I got interested in looking at each of the concepts that I would want to incorporate into a robust radical theory—so reading up on feminist literature, class and labor issues, radical environmental and sustainability stuff, participatory economy stuff, anarchist literature, etc. They piece together really well as systemic trends of domination emerge across the board in various shades, sometimes with historical links that you can trace back through the growth of dominant culture (Christianity and capitalism for instance). But you can make your own connections. The point is that social issues/problems/concerns are largely traceable and don’t seem quite as complex or insurmountable with good radical theory (one that helps explain/predict/guide certain aspects of the world and action) as they seem when you’re only confronted with raw sensationalism.
From there, it’s been more action oriented stuff and trying to give theory some substance, so I can stop feeling like I’m blowing in the wind. Spending some time with David Graeber has been pretty huge here. An anarchist and anthropologist, he was teaching up at Yale right before I got there (allegedly let go for his political views). His Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was incredibly insightful for me (www.prickly-paradigm.com/paradigm14.pdf). It takes a compelling anthropological look at arguing that other more participatory and non-market-dominated societies are very possible, but feel free to take a look at it for yourself. I also looked at what has been going on down in Chiapas with the Zapatistas’ self-government and new leftist movement, various global movements they’ve influenced, self-managed labor movements down in Argentina, and a bunch of alternative stuff going on throughout the US—like the Seattle WTO protests, Patch Adams’ Gesundheit Institute and his idea of "whole system design" when it comes to redefining health and redesigning health care, a non-money system of exchange up in Ithaca, NY, radical environmental stuff that has been challenging this idea of " living green," freeschool movements, alternative media and journalism outlets, etc. Smaller scale stuff too. It’s all along the lines of direct action and what’s called prefigurative action—the idea of "building the new in the shell of the old" and creating our own alternative institutions that work according to our values.
What all of that means of course depends on what you see as valuable change. That old conception of a sudden revolution out in the streets with some traditionally oppressed group now taking power is largely outdated. New conceptions of what change looks like are largely encircled by what’s called the "new left." This is a leftist understanding that social change does not start with a sudden clash out in the streets, but rather it’s a gradual change from within. You don’t like how hospitals are run, start your own and work to make the old ones obsolete. Schools, same thing. Sounds daunting, but people are doing it. Different interests, different projects. This is all also two-fold. Work outside the institutions to build new forms, but at the same time, work within to modify the old forms. So within a job, you don’t just work for a certain reform, but instead work for reforms that lead to other reforms that lead to larger reforms that work toward a larger goal of full institutional change. And that’s for the movement as a whole, not just employees alone. The movement working in this direction needs to focus on both creating new and destroying old. The goal (as I see it) would be self-managed workplaces where people have a say in decision-making to the extent that they are affected and get equally remunerated based on effort and sacrifice (the basic notions of a workplace in a participatory economy).
So far, that’s largely developing theory (around what is) and vision (around what could be). Developing vision is key as it’s a step beyond constant critique that leftists have grown so used to. Steps from there to pursuing vision depend on what your vision is, of course. The overall strategy you have will depend on your vision, and the tactics you use should depend on your overall strategy.
Honestly, none of this sounds too outlandish to me. On the other hand, as to why people drape so much of their potential political energy on something so distant and purely symbolic as presidential politics sounds awfully absurd. Well, absurd until you consider the dominant culture anyway. It’s extremely difficult in this culture to think that there are any real viable alternatives to any of this. Capitalist economics are treated as the pinnacle of social evolution and voting and presidents are cast as noble things. Beyond that, we’re so scared and distrustful of each other as every day and night we’re presented with spectacles of the absolute worst of ourselves to make that personal alienation complete. Its been said that in the Roman republic, one of the ways representatives held power instead of the people and fostered legitimacy was by convincing them that such democratic power would be chaos, mob rule, anarchy (interestingly), etc., and they did this largely by the coliseum gladiator spectacle—"look at how bloodthirsty you are, look at how ruthless…" That was the image of what democracy would look like. Now, what we have seems to be no different. We’re presented daily with a ton of negative spectacles: the news, reality shows, etc. etc. where we’re primarily vain, greedy, lazy, cynical, violent, distrustful, vindictive, etc. Even as we’re primarily seen as consumers, we assume we’re too selfish/careless/lazy/greedy to make a direct democracy work—so we should be thankful for our representatives… No wonder the thought of a non-hierarchical, classless, anticapitalist society is completely abstract after so much indoctrination.
Conclusion (For Now)
Hopefully this offers something more to think about. More than thinking about Obama or how cool it was when he made that three-pointer, think about what your interests are, what you want to see happen, how to go about pursuing it, and who to network with in solidarity to help make it happen—with or without Obama in office. The answers might not come easy or right away, but it does put you back in the equation and will surely make for a far more democratic outcome.