Obama represented the best hope for the kind of change that could be achieved through electoral means. This was not merely because he was ‘black,’ but because he was intelligent, calm, organised, and a reassuring campaigner. His victory shows the Left what galvanises popular politics of change. His inauguration, even apart from the historicity of his ‘blackness,’ is being welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the US population as proof of the ‘mystery and majesty’ of electoral democracy. From this the Left needs to learn.
The election of Barack Obama has been greeted in a variety of ways: elation and relief (tempered by fear of a racist backlash or assassination attempt) by supporters, particularly US Africans; predictions of enhanced recruitment opportunity by organised white supremacists; doomsday predictions by conservatives. On the Left there have been ‘exposes’ of Obama's Zionism, militarism and dismissal of the particular needs of black people or the working class. A group of DC anarchists has called for a disruption of his inaugural.
But any analysis needs to start from this reality: masses of people in the US feel they have helped make and change history by electing Obama. His victory is indeed historic in many ways. It required the largest voter turnout ever, and the highest percentage of registered voters in decades. Obama gained a clear majority, the highest percentage from a Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt – except for Johnson's landslide after the JFK assassination. He ran the most expensive campaign in history. He is the first "bi-racial" (called black or African-American) president-elect, and incidentally the first child of an immigrant. He is the first Hawaiian-born, one of the youngest presidents and by far the least ‘embedded’. Moreover, his was the first victory by a self-proclaimed 'anti-war' candidate in the midst of a war. But Obama's victory hardly signals that we are a ‘post-racial’ society, as evidenced by the self-contradictory self-congratulation of those who proclaim that “by electing the first black president” we have shown we are “colour-blind." Exit polls showed that about a fifth of ‘white’ voters acknowledged that ‘race’ was a significant factor. Interestingly, of those, 30 per cent voted for Obama. One explanation of this is that Obama's race made his intellect acceptable. US voters would never have elected a ‘white’ candidate as obviously intelligent as Obama. Yet they accepted and understood that a 'black' candidate would have to be twice as smart, twice as cool, as any 'white' to have a chance to succeed.
Paradoxically but perhaps most essentially, Obama's election is also a manifestation of the extent of the radical Left's weakness, irrelevance and inability to communicate. Over the past eight years of Bush misrule, what effective strategies or serious ability to develop a countervailing force or consciousness has the Left or the anarchist movement shown? In that vacuum, people made a judgment that Obama represented the best hope for the kind of change that could be achieved through electoral means. This was not merely because he was ‘black,’ but because he was intelligent, calm, organised, and an effective and reassuring campaigner. McCain's charges of 'inexperience' didn't stick because Obama was attractive as a relative outsider uncorrupted by any long tenure in Washington DC. His mild centrist critique of the Iraq war made sense in a context in which the anti-war movement had proven incapable of making a dent or marshalling an extra-parliamentary opposition. Within the spectrum of the Democratic Party --and the anti-war movement has been tailing the Democrats for years-- he was the electable 'opponent' of the Iraq war.
To imagine that a proclamation of opposition to Obama's inauguration as a capitalist, imperialist and statist will do anything to overcome the Left's weakness, irrelevance and inability to communicate -- in fact, that it will do anything other than deepen and intensify those failures -- is the height of arrogance. I have a different take on what we have to do or learn in response to Obama's victory. It starts from the perspective that the greatest on-going weakness of the Left strategically and politically is a refusal to recognise the nature of US society as an empire based on white-supremacist settler colonialism. Related to that is our greatest tactical flaw, an inability to practice authentic self-criticism, through which we learn from our errors and defeats in order to eventually overcome them and win. Our failure to do that has engendered a deep defeatism in masses of people -- manifest as accommodation and unwillingness to struggle against or even make a sharp break with the system.
One thing this election has demonstrated is how far into the past the revolutionary militancy of the civil rights and black power movements and the mass anti-imperialist opposition to the Vietnam War and domestic colonialism have receded. McCain's inability to make the Bill Ayers smear stick to Obama was because not only Obama but most of the electorate was no older than 8, or perhaps not yet born, when Ayers was an armed propaganda radical. That period of revolutionary optimism, when the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army or the WUO were the tip of the iceberg of a massive upwelling of rebelliousness and armed resistance, is now ancient history. (Speaking of white privilege and class, Obama never would have associated with ex-BLA members, nor would any have been on the board of an Annenberg charity.) No amount of posturing could recreate ’68 (or even 2000) in Denver for the DNC or in DC for the inaugural. 47 per cent of high school seniors in the US today were registered to vote in time for the election, and I suspect an overwhelming majority of them cast their first ballots. They were born when the first George Bush was president! Who better to speak to them than Anti-Racist Action, which has historically been an attractor of high school students? Yet ARA's current ability to do outreach, education, agitation and organising in high schools (or prisons, factories, community colleges or the military) is miniscule.
The DC call relates that anarchists opposed and disrupted the last two inaugurations, and therefore should do the same again. This flawed reasoning lacks a material analysis of the consciousness of masses of people in relation to the electoral process and the presidency. Bush's two stolen victories undermined the authenticity and legitimacy of the electoral process and of the imperial presidency. For his first inaugural, he was anointed president by the Supreme Court after having lost the popular vote. For his second, he was plagued by an unpopular war and evidence of vote flipping and vote suppression. Protesters and disrupters were speaking for millions when denouncing the inaugurals and the presidency, and our message fell on receptive ears.
The current situation is far different, and blaming it on the voters is another example of the Left's lack of self-criticism and ability to grow. Obama's victory signals a new lease of life for the presidency, electoral politics and the two-party system. Obama won by a clear majority, in which voter suppression was a negligible factor and in which all minor parties together barely hit 1% of the vote, including McKinney, Nader, Barr and Baldwin combined. His inauguration, even apart from the historicity of his ‘blackness,’ is being welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the US population as proof of the ‘mystery and majesty’ of electoral democracy. In that context, a disruption wouldn't express the unease of the general population in a radical and uncompromising way, but would be taken as an alienating slap in the face. It wouldn't be seen as a call to a higher form of direct democracy, but as a rejection of the popular will expressed through a peaceful, honest and democratic election.
Now is the time for a sober reassessment of how to grapple with these new realities. Obama did not merely collect millions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of people -- he established a relationship with them. He organised effectively tens of thousands of volunteers, and turned out tens of millions of people to vote. Why has the Left or the anarchist movement been incapable of inspiring, stimulating or organising anywhere near that level of support, involvement, voluntarism or participation? How can we start to do so?
Obama accurately read the demographic, technological and ideological changes that are taking place in the US and effectively offered himself and his campaign as a vehicle for implementing or realising some of the aspirations those changes have generated. Obama seized on the opportunity of the latest and deepest capitalist economic crisis to develop a compelling narrative of how a lack of regulation, a lack of attention to the ‘middle class,’ and an arrogant unilateralism in ‘foreign policy’ weakened the economy, national security and the fiscal stability of the state. Neither the statist Left nor the anarchists are anywhere close to having the intellectual, political or organisational capacity to challenge that narrative or that definition of ‘change.’
Unless and until the Left engages in a thorough self-criticism and re-orientation towards anti-colonialist politics as the basis of an effective anti-capitalism, it will be on the sidelines of history.
We need to put forward and undertake effective organising strategies, not merely demands, for self-determined direct action against economic and environmental devastation, mass incarceration, militarism, occupation and anti-immigrant hysteria. We need to participate in building self-reliant communities of resistance. It is only oppressed and exploited people who can make revolution, and save the planet by saving ourselves. Go to the 25 per cent of ‘homeowners’ who owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth and unite them with the homeless. Go to 30 per cent of ‘War on Terror’ veterans who report no earned wage income, and who have massive unemployment rates, and help unite them with GI resisters, with teens resisting recruitment, or with the millions of prisoners and their families. Then we can begin to make some history of our own.