Friday, November 14, 2008

From audacity of hope to audacity of action?

From audacity of hope to audacity of action? Perhaps it is fair to say that never in the history of the world have so many people followed the political career of one man with so much anticipation. Barack Obama’s election to the presidential office of the United States of America is in this sense a world historical event. One would be tempted to say that it is in fact revolutionary. But it is important to use such words carefully. It is only by virtue of Obama’s race and its particular historical significance that one can such a loaded term as revolution. Perhaps in this sense the word evolution would be more appropriate here. America has evolved from a racist to a post-racist society and Obama is the very incarnation of this evolution. Obama is not a revolutionary nor is he likely to be one. He is in fact the product of a complex set of circumstances, America’s geo-political and economic crisis to name but two. He is the prophet, if you like, of a nation that has lost faith in its own mythology.

As President Obama is a disciple of the Chicago School of Economics, whose founding member, Milton Friedman, fanatically defended the neo-liberal model of laissez-faire economics, it would be naive to expect any substantial change. Obama did after all appoint Jason Furman to head his economic team. Furman is a fervent supporter of one of the world’s most disreputable corporations Walmart. Obama had previously accused Hillary Clinton of sitting on the Walmart board. Now, the head of his economic team is someone who feels that efforts to force Waltmart to increase its wages are creating “collateral damage”. Collateral damage indeed, to the Walmart board, that is. Obama has talked alot about change. Average American wages have stagnated since the second world war in a country where over a quarter of the wealth is owned by 14,000 people. Will Obama change this? Unlikely. So, why all this euphoria. Perhaps, it’s because we want to believe in America; seeing as the decisions taken by the US government directly or indirectly affect the rest of the world, a rational America still leaves us with some hope. In this election God was eerily absent and perhaps, ipso facto, so was war. Moving American political discourse away from theology and belicosity was perhaps Obama’s most impressive contribution. Obama’s intellectual brilliance and Ciceronian oratory were key factors in his global appeal. One feels that a man of such qualities has the ability to negotiate complex diplomatic and economic issues. Obama’s unique blend of race and culture has enabled him to transcend the stagnant dichotomies and divisions that have paralysed American society for centuries. But the danger is that the euphoria one feels about his historic victory could serve as an obfuscation of the real hopes and concerns of the vast majority of people, both in America and more importantly, in the wider world,that is to say an end to famine, war, poverty and oppression. Is this the change that Obama heralds? Of course not, as such a change would involve a revolution and as the vast majority of Americans still desperately cling to the illusion that a privatised capitalist world is the only possible form of civilisation, such radical change is a priori impossible. If Obama had espoused such real change he would have remained a non-entity, as corporate America would have snuffed out his campaign from the very start.
The problem with advanced capitalist societies such as the USA is their ability to absorb all opposition by appropriating it to serve that which it opposes. In such a society Che Guevara becomes a lucrative T-shirt industry for diasaffected youth, or the icon for a ‘revolutionary’ private health insurance add, as we recently saw in an Irish TV commercial.Everything is absorbed and neutralised by the capitalist machine. The German philosopher Herbert Marcuse put it thus : ‘The unification of opposites which characterizes the commercial and political style is one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal’. The vast majority of Americans believe that they live in a democracy, even though they realise that the corporations control everything.The reality is that the United States is run by an oligarchy,one which controls a vast media empire, ensuring that any change of the social order can only remain cosmetic. Obama is precisely this cosmetic make-over. Real change will require more than the audacity of hope, it will require the audacity of action through strikes, grass-roots organisation and demonstrations. On a symbolic level, the American election has brought an end to official racial inequality. The challenge now is to tackle the problem of social inequality. Let’s have the audacity to hope, then, that I am wrong about the revolutionary potential of Obama’s election, soberly bearing in mind John Dewey the American philosopher’s warning that ‘government is the shadow cast on society by big business’.

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