Hope For Obama?

Posted January 30, 2009

[This is a talk I gave in Durban, South Africa a few days ago….]

The election of Barack Obama and unfolding drama of the economic crisis have combined to present the US and the rest of the world with a political moment that would have been close to unimaginable from the viewpoint of even our recent past. As an activist radicalized in the 1990’s at the so-called “End of History,” it seems amazing now—in an era when former fed chairman and his acolytes admit to “paradigm” failure–to remember how much energy and creativity was required even to think of an alternative to “Free Markets” and US global dominance, not to speak of organizing one. A friend from the ’68 generation, who helped to organize the radical protest campaign to elect Eldridge Cleaver to the highest office in the land, recently commented to me that, from the perspective of that year the chance of a global socialist revolution seemed infinitely more likely than the election of an African American president under non-revolutionary conditions.

Given the massive outpouring of relief and excitement here and in the US at Obama’s election, perhaps we can be forgiven for seeing revolutionary “change” where there is, for now, only “hope.” In Brooklyn, New York, where I live, I waited three hours in line with many first time voters who came to be “part of history,” though the electoral college blocked our votes from having any concrete impact on the outcome. When we complained about the lines, old people warned younger ones that we had it easy; lines hardly match up to hoses and dogs. When he won, the outpouring in the streets of the world was the largest demonstration since the global ones that opposed the war in Iraq. This week, four million spectators came to stand in freezing temperatures on the Mall in Washington to witness the inauguration of the 44th president, the first African-American to the office. The speech they watched, if they were lucky enough to have a view, was the first, since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 address on the Civil Rights Act-–entitled “We Shall Overcome”–to come from a President that clearly evoked the long history of struggle against slavery and segregation and racism. It was the first I’ve heard from a President to so eloquently point out the contributions of working people to the economy. Pete Seeger’s performance at the celebration was probably the first official White House serenade by a once-blacklisted former member of the Communist Party USA.

But for those who see Obama’s “change” as victory in the making for the historical movements that the President honored, and those who urge a wait-and-see approach, should read the well crafted speech carefully, with an eye toward Obama’s vision for the nation. Comparisons between Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, between Obama and Nelson Mandela or between Obama and Roosevelt and Kennedy are everywhere these days, and imply so many contradictory ideas that someone, somewhere, has to be wrong. But more importantly these analogies miss Obama’s own, more telling, self-comparison with Abraham Lincoln.

In repeating Lincoln’s Civil War era pilgrimage by train from Springfiled, Illinois to his Washington DC inaugural, Obama evokes not only a certain air of personal fatalism, but positions himself in a moment of economic crisis and global war as the true answer to Bush’s cynical attempts to be a “uniter” not a “divider.” In comparing himself to the Lincoln whose emancipation proclamation famously freed not one slave, and who’s leadership restored the progress of US imperial expansion across the continent, Obama tells us something about his vision for the role of the US as a nation in the world.

In his speech, Obama tells us that his vision of “hope” is one of a “unity of purpose,” but beyond his successful election, it’s hard to see where the unity of purpose can lie. In the civil society movements in the US, we’ve been taking our hope from what we see as “two” Obama campaigns – or more accurately, from the second of those two. The first is the Obama campaign that drew the highest contributions from Wall Street and military concerns in history, one that holds out hope to these supporters that it can end the banking crisis, stabilize the economic conditions for profit and restructure the US Empire into a more legitimate global force.

The second campaign is the one that mobilized thousands of people into political action for the first time, drawing on hope that a new administration, headed by an African-American former community organizer, could end the needless and murderous wars of the last eight years and begin to address the decades old economic pressures that have bred increasing inequality and insecurity for larger and larger numbers of Americans and people around the world. These pressures are rapidly intensifying in the US, with now more than two and half million jobs lost and credit cushions drying up.

The banking crisis exposed the emptiness of neoliberal rhetoric, but Obama’s speech shows us that the ideas — and strategies – that define the neoliberal era are far from dead. For decades, rhetoric of “personal responsibility” and faith in the workings of the invisible hand were used to justify privatization of state resources, dismantle welfare, and attack unions. So, although Wall Street types admit that the “whole intellectual edifice” collapsed last year after “decades of euphoria,” their policies and values live on – in Obama’s rhetorical commitment to the power of the free market and in the fall out from the global economic crisis.

Of course we know that the “decades of euphoria” Greenspan mentions were decades of euphoria only for the few. From the grassroots perspective, these were decades of exponentially increasing inequality and insecurity. Unrelenting attacks on unions, stagnating wages, high un- and under-employment and household budgets supplemented by doubling or more of work loads and the accumulation of massive debt have paved the way for the now increasingly acute crisis in the standard of living for most people in the US, and on the planet.

Months before Lehman Bros collapsed, In February and March of last year, food riots broke out in more than thirty countries as prices for basic commodities soared. Within the borders of the United States, working class communities of color were the first affected when a wave of foreclosures on subprime mortgages hit in the summer 2007.

The subprime mortgage swindle had its foundation in racist federal policies that cynically promoted “minority home ownership”–billed as a repayment for years of racially exclusive lending policies based on red-lining–while relaxing regulations that safeguarded home buyers. Lenders specifically steered African-Americans and Latinos into subprime loans with promises that the housing market had nowhere to go but up. Though many have tried to name “unqualified” borrowers as the primary reason for these staggering statistics, three-fifths of these subprime loan buyers would have qualified for safer mortgages, but were not offered the option because of the high profits made by mortgage brokers on these deals.

As the housing bubble burst, risky loans were the first to default. Repossession of homes in communities of color created one of the most rapid upward transfers of wealth in history making it clear that subprime mortgages were a method of extracting wealth from communities of color via the housing market after decades in which those same communities had been barred from accumulating wealth there—a “financial Katrina”, in the words of geographer David Harvey.

The Southwest Atlanta neighborhood where, in 2002, George Bush rolled out his goal of 5.5 million minority homeowners by 2010, now has one of the highest rates of foreclosure in the nation. Foreclosures have continued to soar in 2008, with expectations of more than one million homes repossessed by year’s end.

Just a generation ago, the “Rust Belt”, was the industrial core of the US. Now, the area’s major cities–Detroit, Buffalo, Gary, Cleveland—read like a list of urban casualties, hollowed out by neoliberal restructuring. In Milwaukee, the need for federal food assistance resulted in nearly 3000 people waiting for help in chaotic lines last June. It left Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines incredulous. “We expect long lines for free food in Third World countries. We don’t expect a line of 2,500 people waiting for food vouchers [here in Milwaukee].” Even government officials recognized that this scramble for disaster relief was not a response to flooding earlier that month, but to decades of de-industrialization that had eaten away at the region’s economic base.

In Detroit, workers face the near-collapse of the auto industry and mass layoffs after decades of job cuts, slashed wages, pensions, and benefits and astronomical rates of unemployment. Detroit has been one of the worst hit by the recent foreclosure crisis. Along with job loss and deteriorating city services, over 40,000 of Detroit’s poor and working class residents have had their utilities cut off.

Viewed this way, the economic crisis and the “solutions” for it so far proposed are a continuation and intensification of the decades of attacks on working people we’ve already witnessed–despite the new weakness neoliberal rhetoric.

The trillion-dollar total bailout and stimulus packages proposed by first the Bush administration and back by Obama, at this point, are most concretely committed to equity injections into banks and tax cuts for the rich, strategies that even sympathetic observers concede will do little to solve the acute crisis that the working class now faces. Obama’s military commitments to ramping up the war in Afghanistan, and commitment to continued funding of Israel’s occupation are an expensive investment in the status quo.

In New York, where I live, these circumstances have already paved the way millions of dollars in cuts to the public sector, including to the City University of New York, the institution where I work and learn, and which serves the majority of New York City’s working class, mostly immigrant students who are excluded from most private colleges by tuition costs can be has high as $50,000/year, more than ten times the cost of tuition at CUNY. Three students I know personally have been forced to withdraw from school due to tuition increases and wage cuts for their parents, many of whom will see their wages cut with the state payroll.

So forgive me if I think change, in the form investment in this kind of infrastructure is not already a given despite the clear necessity for it, or if I am suspicious of Obama’s meaning when he calls on “the kindness of strangers” when the levees of New Orleans break and “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose a job.” The kindness of strangers was insufficient to save the lives of those left to drown after the hurricane, and most workers don’t have the option of choosing between their jobs and their coworkers. Under this false dichotomy, Obama’s “new era of responsibility” sounds much like the old era of three decades of neoliberal “personal responsibility.”

So I don’t share Obama’s hope for a renewed commitment at the civil society level to an Imperial foreign policy, or new grassroots “dedication” to austerity for civil society and the public sector. But I do see hope. This week, viewing Obama from abroad, I’m hoping that those millions who were watching from the mall, and around the world are more than spectators. The signs are already there in small ways—from in Boston, the organization City Life, has organized blockades against home foreclosures, while a two-year struggle in Detroit has fought for a moratorium on foreclosures. These struggles have done much more to keep people in their houses than the ongoing debate in the congress about appropriating taxes to bailout “underwater” homebuyers.

In Oakland, California, angry people protested the police execution of Oscar Grant, without waiting for words of wisdom from above, and won the first arrest of a murderous cop in my memory.

In the antiwar movement, veterans in Iraq veterans against the war are struggling to redefine their mission in in the face of Obama’s commitment to keeping troops deployed in Afghanistan. Legal rights activists today are already testing Obama’s stated commitment to the rule of law, by pressuring him to redraft yesterday’s draft executive order that would keep Guantanamo Bay open for another year, and which makes no explicit provision for public trials of the kind that were more common eight years ago.

In Obama’s political home town of Chicago, workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged the first factory occupation in the us in 77 years, and won the right to their legal severance, though they were unable to halt the outsourcing of their jobs to a non-union shop nearby, since they were unfortunately facing an employer and Bank of America, who haven’t yet come to appreciate the moment of “change.”

Internationally, and at home, activists have begun to call on Obama to address the crisis in Gaza—while demonstrators in Capetown, here at CCA and students occupying universities in London are clearly, and happily, unwilling to wait-and-see whether hope can become change without their help.

My final hope is that these activists who are already pushing for more can share in some large part of international goodwill that Obama’s election has produced around the world.