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<nettime> fwd: What’s Left After Obama?
n i c o l a s on Thu, 13 Nov 2008 14:56:05 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> fwd: What’s Left After Obama?


What's Left After Obama?
All this talk of change may amount to little more than a fantasy.

Obama's victory marks a symbolically powerful moment in American
history, defined as it is by the stain of slavery and the fact of
racism. It will have hugely beneficial consequences for how the United
States is seen throughout the world. His victory was also
strategically brilliant and his campaign transformed those
disillusioned with and disenfranchised by the Bush administration into
a highly motivated and organized popular force. But I dispute that
Obama's victory is about change in any significant sense.

Obama's politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It is the
call to find common ground, the put aside our differences and achieve
union. Obama's politics is governed by a longing for unity, for
community, for communion and the common good. The remedy to the
widespread disillusion with Bush's partisan politics is a
reaffirmation of the founding act of the United States, the hope of
the more perfect union expressed in the opening sentence of the US
Constitution. It is a powerful moral strategy whose appeal to the
common good attempts to draw a veil over the agonism and power
relations constitutive of political life. The great lie of moralism in
politics is that it attempts to deny the fact of power by concealing
it under an anti-political veneer. At the same time, moralism engages
in the most brutal and bruising political activity. But the reality of
this activity is always disavowed along with any and all forms of
partisanship. Moralistic politics is essentially hypocritical.

Yet, what is most hypocritical, of course, is the talk of change. What
are the elements of Obama's strategy? Let me identify three. Firstly,
we have a depoliticized moral discourse of the common good, backed up
by a soft and inoffensive version of historically black Christianity.
Obama inhabits the rhetorical space of prophetic, black Christianity,
while adopting none of its critical radicalism, none of the audacity
that one can find in the sermons of Pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Second, Obama's strategy is about a shift or recalibration of the
governmental, symbolic order of American society. As can be seen from
a reading of the opening chapters of The Audacity of Hope, Obama is
promising a return to liberal constitutionalism against the Schmittian
or, more properly, Straussian extension of executive power that marked
the Bush administration. All vapid talk of renewing the American dream
is simply a return to the priority of the Constitution and the
unimpeachable sagacity of the Founding Fathers. Henceforth, all
political decisions have to be derived from legal norms whose basis
for legitimacy derives from the Constitution. Obama's genius is to
have infused a very traditional, liberal constitutionalism with the
elements of a civil profession of faith, and here what is essential is
the implicit religiosity of the rhetorical force of Obama's discourse.

Third, Obama's strategy is about the normalization of capitalism,
which in the short to medium term means the stabilization of financial
capitalism given the grotesque deregulated irresponsibility and greed
that have operated in these sectors in recent decades. As is clear
from The Audacity of Hope, Obama's moralistic refusal of conflict in
the political realm somehow goes hand in hand with his faith in free
market competition. Although the free-market system might be flawed,
he insists, the capitalist economy is constantly open to change and
'liberal democracies offer people around the world their best chance
at a better life'. It is completely unclear to me how Obama's views on
the economy might truly begin to deal with the disgusting fact of
poverty in a genuinely redistributive way.

So, Obama's strategy is very clear. There is to be no change at the
level of the state and capital. We must maintain and defend the state
in its classical, liberal constitutional form and use the governmental
mechanisms of the state to stabilize the current disorder of
finance-based capitalism. Change alone consists in a moral-symbolic
shift or recalibration that allows citizens to overcome their despair
at the hands of Bush and reaffirm their civil faith in the US
governmental system. To be clear, this is not nothing and I am
delighted that my liberal friends are so ecstatic. However, not being
such a good liberal myself, Obama's victory begs the question as to
what a leftist strategy might be in such circumstances.

What are the possible consequences of Obama's victory? I think there
are at least two possibilities that circle in a perhaps melancholy
dialectic. One possibility – which is highly unlikely, but at least
conceivable – is that the change of regime will lead to local and
diverse forms of popular politicization which perhaps might place in
question the current socio-economic doxa. On this view, emboldened by
Obama's victory, various groups might accelerate their political
activity around issues such as immigrant rights, union representation
or corporate greed. What Obama's victory might unleash is a sequence
of progressive radicalizations inside the US and perhaps outside as
well that would act as a serious irritant to the usual business of the
state or the usual state of business.

The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force
that has been mobilized around Obama's presidential campaign simply
exhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama
has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and
watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a
spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this
possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign
itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to
Obama's speech on the night of his victory: 'The road ahead will be
long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or
even in one term'. On this view, the rhetoric of change ('Together we
can change the country and change the world') was simply what it took
to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no
further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be
mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the
experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its
awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative
government is elected.

This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late
evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a
vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were
spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many
others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This
was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state
and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power
and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the
activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a
demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective
joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a
potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative
process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become
aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are
simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process.
Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware
of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not
surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to
accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: 'The victory is
yours. But when you've finished celebrating, dancing and crying,
return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of
government is ours and we will take it from here. We'll let you know
how it goes. P.S. Please don't take popular sovereignty too

I'd like to borrow an idea from the philosopher Alain Badiou. In his
terms, a political event is what gives existence to a collectivity
under the general norm of equality. Crucially, on this definition,
politics does not consist in remaining within and buttressing the
power of the state. On the contrary, it consists in taking a distance
from the state. Now, such a distance does not exist, as the state,
particularly the soft democratic state that merges with civil society,
saturates more and more areas of social life. Distance, then, is
something that has to be created. Moreover, it has to be created
within what I call the interstices of the state. Politics, then, is
the creation of interstitial distance through acts whereby collectives
take shape. The question of scale is vital here. A collective can be
something as vast and rhizomatic as the anti-globalization movement a
few years back or as small as 5, 10 or 20 people deciding in concert
on a program of action. The Paris Commune, lest we forget, began with
an act of refusal by a handful of citizens.

Whatever is left of the left after Obama should be committed to the
creation of local experiments with politics, the formation of
collectivities that exist apart from and which can exert a pressure
upon the state. True politics does not exhaust itself in the play of
representation and spectacle characteristic of liberal democracy. It
is about the emergence out of invisibility of collectivities in the
interstices of the state and at the limits of capital. There was
perhaps a moment on the evening of November 4th when the potential for
such emergence threatened to happen. It might happen still.

Simon Critchley is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has authored
over a dozen philosophy books including the celebrated Infinitely
Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, in which he
argues for an ethically committed political anarchism.

"The point is, inflation is not just the price of goods. It is above
all the price of salaries." +BH+

+ http://www.derelictspaces.net/ +

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