November 03, 2008

Barack Obama: Change Worth Fighting For?

by Chris Rossdale

Barack Obama has become the progressive superstar of the upcoming US presidential elections. His message of change resonates powerfully with a world weakened after eight years of radical neoconservatives occupying the White House, and his skin colour adds emotion and symbolism to the new and exciting vision he has for America. Unfortunately it is not clear that the direction in which he plans to lead the US is particularly new or exciting, and the ‘change’ that Obama offers looks on closer inspection to be consistent with the long-term consensus in Washington that America owns the world.

Some examples may help to illustrate this point. To the joy of Liberals, Obama talks about engaging in dialogue with Iran, (although he has not ruled out the use of military force). We should focus, however, on the context in which his comments on Iran are situated. In the first presidential debate, Obama insisted that the US “cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran” [1]. His assumption is that if the US is unhappy with a particular situation in the world, it may take steps towards rectifying the situation, with the threat of force always in the background. Such assumptions have become the gripe of the planet, not purely because of their arrogance, but because of the intense hypocrisy underlying them. In the debate, both McCain and Obama noted the threat that Iran poses to Israel, but neither acknowledged Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, nor it’s own aggressive history which could itself be taken to constitute a threat to the rest of the Middle East. What would Obama’s reaction be to an Ahmadinejad statement which insisted that Israel, which is currently refraining from attacking Iran on US orders [2], take steps to disarm? How would he respond to an Ahmadinejad threat of military force, as a last option, if talks with Israel failed? Obama warns in the debate that an Iranian nuke may precipitate a Middle Eastern arms race; his blithe assumption that Israel’s own nuclear arsenal and various wars do not beg such a situation shows the misplaced assumptions so prevalent in the US political environment, consistent across the two major parties.

This analysis can be extended to include other examples. Obama insists that the US has a right to carry out operations within Pakistan, he supports the extension of the disastrous war in Afghanistan, and his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reflects the standard position, including ‘concern’ about a united Palestinian leadership and a belief that “no Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to…the negotiating table by the United States. [3]” On this he was lauded by the conservative commentator Shmuel Rosner for sounding “as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani” [4]. On every case, Obama’s analysis is rooted in the notion that the goal of foreign policy should be that of assuring US hegemony on a worldwide scale.

Obama’s position on the economy is just as concerning, as evidenced by the crisis of recent weeks. Whilst he differs from McCain with respect to the specifics of a solution to the current financial crisis, his essential position is tied to the obscure logic of a system which, as Mark Carrigan explores elsewhere in this issue, seeks to socialise the risks of the ‘free market’ whilst privatising the profits. The laudable plans to raise capital gains tax and roll back Bush’s elite tax-cuts mask the fact that such measures are merely tinkering with an edifice which must be overturned if real progress is to be made.

None of this is to say that Obama will not be a better, more progressive and less bellicose president than George Bush. He is a better bet than McCain, and whilst the differences between the two candidates may be small, small changes at the top can mean a lot to those at the bottom. The problem is that a let-down from Obama could have serious repercussions for the future of the progressive movement in the US. Unprecedented numbers of young people in the US are becoming interested in politics for the first time, and the reason is Obama. His online fundraising has been highly successful, and he has built a broad base of supporters who spend their time both on and off-line stumping for their man. When they realise that, rather than change, his presidency signifies a “return to normalcy” [5] after eight years of the extreme, there is no knowing what they may do. The concern, and the likelihood is that they will sit at home grumbling, wholly disenfranchised, disenchanted, and unempowered . If, surpassing all expectations, they did rise up to force Obama’s hand, it would be thanks to the determination of ordinary people, not the exulted leader who has failed them.

The American political system has never been the vehicle for radical change that it so desperately needs to be. The ‘Power Elite’ structures, first examined by C. Wright Mills over 50 years ago, [6] are stronger than ever, and exert considerable influence on the presidency. The logic of the market, with it’s “virtual senate” ready to move capital out of the country at a moment’s notice, prevents radical overhaul of the economy from the top-down, and the media, subservient at every moment to the wishes of the elite, will not allow presidential actions which do not accord with the received wisdom (witness their harsh treatment of Carter). Obama may be the best presidential candidate on offer, but if we wish to build a better world he is not enough, not even close. Looking to the top will always let us down; the positions reflect elite context, and the trappings of the office restrain even that action which might be considered positive. Obama should not be the darling of the progressive movement, his change will only be more of the same.

[6] Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Joe

    Fantastic article Chris…

    08 Nov 2008, 18:16

  2. Scott Redding

    The US is a country where Thomas Jefferson was a slaveowner … but was able to write that all men were created equal. That’s the seismic shift of Obama, the fact that he, his wife, and his daughters represent American families for at least the next four years. He has changed what black people are capable of, and the kind of public roles they can play in American society.

    I also think that his promises to open up US government and make it more transparent (releasing raw government data for mashup software that tracks corruption; live streamed meetings of Congress; wikis and blogs to interact with citizens) could be more signficant than you give hiim credit for.

    That is, far more than McCain or HR Clinton, he may offer the structural changes that will enable longer-term progressive change to occur. He won’t do it all on his lonesome, and he’s never said he will. He needs to have the 600 000 most engaged of his 60 million odd voters to jump into the process. Otherwise, you’re right, he’ll just be another President tinkering with the system.

    09 Nov 2008, 17:10

  3. Chris

    Very well written, but I won’t tell you what I think is good, I’ll tell you what I think is bad, so apologies for the negativity.

    I understand this piece is supposed to be ideologically and politically loaded – obviously. But, the core arguement is pretty weak; i.e. Obama is a capitalist! Obama is a politician! Obama is an American! Obama believes in direct unilaterial (US) action, the maintenance and use of military power, FDI, MNCs e.t.c. e.t.c. e.t.c.

    Obama’s message of change therefore, is a message of American change for the American system, not some other imported or necessarily ‘new’ vision. The US is a country build upon enterprise, the army, and its politics are dominated by the same people as always, hence things like a pro-Israel stance being inevitable. And, although you quite correctly highlight all these things, its all abit obvious really I think.

    I think it would be much more worthwhile really investigating the reasons for this, past and present, what are the bases of the elite structures, e.t.c. e.t.c, (as opposed to skimming over it all with a C.W.Mills reference) rather than going for what is esssentially an attempted character assination of a politician who hasn’t actually done anything.

    11 Nov 2008, 18:50

  4. “And, although you quite correctly highlight all these things, its all a bit obvious really I think.”

    Do you think? When I watch videos of hundreds of thousands of people chanting “yes we can!” and crying with sheer joy, it makes me think these points are apparently far from obvious. Repeating them might seem tedious but it’s far from trivial given the very real risk of a cynical and apathetic backlash – both in the US and, to a lesser extent, here – when Obama inevitably fails to live up to the arguably unprecedented levels of expectation he’s generated.

    12 Nov 2008, 12:26

  5. Chris

    Well no, because the people shouting ‘Yes We Can’ aren’t ‘hoping’ for ‘change’ that ends capitalism, or brings the radical change which this article hints towards. They are quite happy with Obama the way they is – a liberal capitalist. And they want him to support the army and its vetrans, and to support Israel e.t.c., what they want to change is politics itself and a reworking of capitalist society (and its wealth), not its transformation. Criticising him for being these things IS pointing out the obvious. Re:unprecedented levels of expectation, well yes he definetely has that, but in a country where the Republican party is in meltdown, he’ll have to seriously drop the ball not to get 8 years to have a crack at it.

    14 Nov 2008, 01:50

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