Posted June 5, 2008
Last night, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign achieved the number of Democratic delegates needed to win the nomination at the Party’s convention in Denver this August. Hillary Clinton just pledged to end her sleazy, racist campaign with an endorsement of Barack on June 6. It’s an important time for revolutionaries to reflect on the meaning, opportunities and challenges of this presidential election season. I wrote previously about the election, in January. Since then, some things have changed, and others remain very much the same. Certainly, I did not expect the momentum behind Obama to develop in the way that it has.
At the same time, it remains true that the amazingly broad “coalition” he has assembled includes both my old union, UNITE HERE, and Penny Pritzker, one of the owners of Hyatt corporation which I worked for (in fact she’s his finance chairwoman). They buy the candidates, we deliver the votes, haven’t we been down this road before?
And yet, the Obama campaign does have a mass character and unavoidably raises the centrality of racism in US society (and damn, has he tried to avoid it!).
A fish-eye view of the presidential campaign
I was just looking at used lenses for my camera, so pardon the clumsy metaphor. While focusing on the presidential horse race, it’s crucial to also survey the broader political, economic and cultural forces at work. These are open to debate! But any examination of Obama has to include an idea of what else is going on.
Now, the economy. I’m not an economist, and am aware (and wary) of the fact that “marxists have predicted 10 of the last 3 depressions” – but the danger zone that the US financial system has entered seems very precarious, and newspapers of the international ruling class, like The Economist and Financial Times, are worried about bubbles and crises on the horizon. The fact that Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch endorsed the “Rock Star” Obama – along with a big chunk of other big capitalists – should tell us something, as well.
The ruling class has formerly sought out redemptive figures like FDR during moments of crisis to provide a “human face” for the system. It’s possible that for all the talk of “change” and “hope,” the inherent contradictions of capitalism have begun to open a chasm that will define the coming political period. IF that is the case and IF the Democrats win in November, the optimistic expectations of millions will run into reality.
Remember, the war criminal Lyndon Johnson ran a “peace” campaign as well, and the dissonance of his betrayal resulted in one of the most powerful anti-war movements in history:
The worldwide military offensive of the United States since 2001 (not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but in Latin America and Africa as well), intended to prop up the troubled economy with an iron fist, has had its own troubles – particularly in Iraq. Generals and other imperialist strategists have jumped ship from the saber rattling of the neoconservatives and taken a bunch of liberals with them. The thoughts of Mike Davis in the latest issue of Against the Current are important in this second case. Despite the overall disorganization of the labor and social movements – which have been a check on capitalism’s brutality (and a school of revolutionary education) – the stability of the system, on multiple fronts, is in serious question.
Or, as rapper DMX put it, taking racism into account: “They done fucked this shit up then give it to the Black people, “Here you take it. Take my mess.”
Finally, the winds in the so-called “culture wars” – an important part of presidential politics for two decades – may be shifting as well. LA Times columnist Rosa Brooks wrote in January that The Super Bowl, watched by nearly a third of the U.S. population, is about football, beer and machismo. It’s not about the antiwar movement, the environmental movement, the antipoverty movement or peace, love and understanding. But on Sunday, Barack Obama aired a 30-second Super Bowl ad that drew unabashedly on the iconography of the American left — and no one batted an eyelash.
Certainly it is important to note that, while Obama does not represent anything like a social movement leader, the type of politics many supporters have imprinted on him say fundamentally good things about the political mentality of a significant number of people:
There is an important element of co-optation of social movements. But taken on balance, in a moment when the global hegemony of the United States is unsteady, I’d rather have massive support for a candidate who co-opts the imagery and messages of the Left than of the Right (like a Ron Paul figure, for example.) I think this says fundamentally good things about the territory we might be operating in in the years to come – varying, of course, on who is victorious in the general election.
A Colorblind Campaign? or Right on, Reverend Wright?
An important contradiction of this campaign has been Obama’s attempts, as a Black candidate, to conduct a largely colorblind campaign. His political career hit the national spotlight with a 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention, in which he enthusiastically claimed “there’s no such thing as a Black America or white America, but a United States of America!” and, with pleas for “unity” and “nonpartisanship,” there’s been no looking back.
Barack rocks the mike in the marshmallow city, Portland Oregon
Early on, Obama had a surprising lack of Black support – among voters and among elected officials – for a Black Democratic candidate. In some ways, he represented a challenge to the tradition of accomodationist Black politics, post- Civil Rights (this is not to say he’s not equally accomodationist!) It wasn’t until after he passed the racial acceptance test of the first few primaries (most, of course, in practically all-white states) that he really took off. And ever sense, the white power structure and media have thrown their own loyalty tests at Obama. Even during his celebrated Philly “race” speech – round one of his trials with the racist attacks on Jeremiah Wright – the political strategy that he proposes is a color-blind one. “African Americans [should bind] our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans.”
Because of the depth of exploitation of indigenous, Black, and Asian immigrants in the construction of American capitalism [Kim Moody’s essay “Accumulation, Class Formation & Consciousness in the U.S.” covers this well], the “broad” formula cannot work and never has, historically. Attempts at creating “broad” campaigns that did not centrally highlight the special oppression of racism have not delivered lasting gains for any oppressed people. As Karl Marx identified in Das Kapital, “In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic.” Rather, the organization of multiracial movements for feminism, peace, environmental justice – and the labor movement – must go hand in hand with a challenge to the systematic targeting and exclusion of of people of color from political equality.
The rich Black political tradition of struggle around democratic demands (for example, to not be incarcerated at a rate where .5% of the world’s population has become 13 fucking percent of the world’s prison population – and systematically erased the voting rights of thousands of Black men; or for defending affirmative action; and so on) has been absent from the Obama campaign. I could go on, but The Black Agenda Report has covered this issue masterfully for months.
A Referendum on White Supremacy
However, the Obama phenomenon also represents what some Solidarity members have called “a referendum on white supremacy.” The chance for African-Americans (and white and other nationalities) to register confidence in the potential of a Black president has clearly resonated strongly with millions. While the so-called “Bradley effect” – which refers to he failure of white California voters to actually vote for a Black governor, Tom Bradley, after telling pollsters they planned to do so – cannot be discounted, if Obama ends up being elected it would represent a significant step from the overt racism of previous generations. The support Obama has among young voters of all colors, versus older voters, is important to note here.
And for those of us who would not vote for Obama, the more openly political discussion of race and class that have entered popular culture are an opportunity to discuss capitalism and white supremacy with coworkers, neighbors, and so on. (I am less convinced by the “gender” arguments surrounding Clinton, basically because patriarchy has operated so much on a “private” level that it is compatible with formal political leadership by women – such as Margaret Thatcher – while the African-American struggle has consistently concerned itself with access to political power. And because Hillary Clinton has fallen into the same hole the white suffragist movement did, of appealing to white supremacy. But the overlap of all three is, of course, complex.) It’s important to discuss ways to do this – especially critically defending Obama during the racist onslaught to come – while not endorsing him.
Political Independence: The Example of McKinney
One important way is, as I argued before, through whatever support possible for Cynthia McKinney’s “Power to the People” campaign. Because of the historic nature of Obama’s campaign, the McKinney campaign seems unlikely to resonate except among a small core of independent radicals and Black activists. However, one role of revolutionaries is to take unpopular positions. And if Obama is elected and
McKinney speaks at the May Day strike of the West Coast dockworkers union, ILWU, against the war in Iraq: