From underneath the stale and predictable Democracy Now! coverage of the Democratic National Convention, an issue of actual importance emerged on last Friday’s show. Veteran journalist and Black Agenda Report Executive Editor Glen Ford debated Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson on the merits of the first and potential second Obama administrations. From this conversation surfaced a central question regarding the future of Black left politics and left politics more generally: is the field of politics in the United States limited to electoralism and thus to the choice between greater and lesser evils?
Glen Ford demonstrated with eloquence, clarity, and, given Dyson’s antics and name-calling, a tremendous amount of restraint, the crimes, misrepresentations, and blatant neoliberal offensive mounted by the Obama administration and consequently by those who insist on supporting it. In contrast to those who, like Dyson, insist that Obama is the lesser evil, Ford argues that Obama has proven to be the more “effective evil,” making possible and in fact popularizing policies that if proposed by Republicans would have been (and were) met with outrage. These include: the move from preventative detention to extrajudicial assassination and the consequent destruction of the most fundamental constitutional principles and enumerated rights this entails; the implementation of the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s health reform plan aimed at eliminating the possibility of public health care; multiple initiatives to privatize public education; the active removal of the separation “between Bank and State” as was so blatantly demonstrated in the administration’s refusal to extend to homeowners the hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage debt relief that had been pre-approved by both Democrats and Republicans in congress; the congressionally unauthorized bombing of five countries at one time; and an astounding and record-setting number of deportations, to name just a few examples which illustrate Ford’s point perfectly. Obama is not the hapless victims of right-wing Republicans, but rather the champion of imperialist wars and domestic austerity. To all of this horror, Dyson’s reply: yes, but…this is the only game in town.
As weak as his argument is, Dyson, despite himself, hits upon a grain of truth. The U.S. left, he argues, has lost its capacity to intervene in the material reality of ordinary people’s daily lives. We say that he makes this point “despite himself” because Dyson and so many others have deluded themselves into believing that through their support of the Democratic party they do in fact have a positive relation to people’s daily wellbeing. But it is abundantly clear that figures like Dyson and progressive supporters of Obama more generally are mere props whose function is to retroactively create a multicultural and apparently pluralist justification for the politics of global warmongering and domestic austerity. This politics is actually developed and decided upon in the halls of investment banks, conservative think tanks, elite lobbyists, and weapons manufacturers, as far away from voters and ordinary people as possible. Let’s be clear then: the Democratic party today provides no avenues for ordinary people to positively intervene in their own material reality; it is rather the mechanism through which we become wedded to the fate decided for us by others. Ironically, it is this very confusion and the consequent addiction of the left to the Democratic Party and electoral politics that has played a primary role in undoing our capacity to build effective political power.
The history of Black struggle, however, teaches us that the options have never been, and are not now, between “apathy” and participation in the Democratic Party. Time after time, the Black community has come face to face with the obvious inadequacy of the entire electoral spectrum and more particularly with constant betrayal by the Democratic Party (much as is the situation today for all of us, as bravely detailed by Black Agenda Report on a weekly basis). This realization, however, did not lead Black organizations to cross their arms in “apathy;” rather, it gave birth to creative and multiple projects for self-determination in which, as Malcolm insisted, “everything that is done for us is done by us.” From the Underground Railroad to Marcus Garvey’s Liberty Halls, from W.E.B. Dubois’ neighborhood assemblies to the Black Panther Party’s community survival programs, Black struggles in the U.S. have always presented an option beyond the lesser of two evils. In fact, the moments in which Black struggles were able to successfully intervene into electoral politics it was in large part thanks to (and without sacrificing) self-organization. It is horrifying to imagine where we would be today had these struggles accepted the logic of the lesser evil.
Given our contemporary situation, the long-term structural impasse of global capitalism, and a political class that is perfectly happy to simply bicker over management (but not resolution) of this crisis, it is absolutely imperative that the left finally come to terms with this history. What might this mean? How might we all remain faithful to the truth elucidated by these struggles? Our top priority must be to rebuild, from the ground up, our capacity to intervene in the material conditions of our daily existence. We must build self-organized spaces in every city that will allow us to provide for employment, housing, food, and our general wellbeing so as to build our capacity to make our own collective political decisions (even electoral ones) independent of the whims of the financial sector and their politicians in Washington.
Beneath Dyson’s insistence on support for Obama lies an entire conception of politics which Dyson lays bare: our words and actions must be directed toward attaining only what is “possible” within the confines of the given situation; there is no alternative but the lesser evil. We believe, on the contrary, that the left must move beyond both lesser evilism and mere critiques of Obama; it is time that, through organization and unwavering determination, we give life and daily sustenance to concrete alternatives. It will not be easy. We understand that what we are asking is impossible. Luckily, the truths of the black struggle precede us even here. In the words of James Baldwin “but in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand – and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”