Now that the Canadian election has ended with a whimper, all eyes are back on the US, where the latest polls are showing that the next President will likely be Barack Obama. Some progressives have whipped themselves into a giddy frenzy at the possibility. I am not one of them.
Obama, to sum up, is for the PATRIOT Act, for FISA wiretapping, for escalating the war in Afghanistan and for the right to launch preemptive wars of aggression wherever the US sees fit. Even on the Iraq war, Obama’s leftist credentials are suspect. Obama does not call for anything remotely like US military withdrawal from the Middle East, but rather for a change in the way the war is being carried out, and would still allow for things like US airstrikes and “anti-terrorist” actions inside Iraq. What exactly is progressive in all this?
Obama’s position should come as no suprise when one considers the strategic importance of the Middle East to US power. It is simply too important an issue for the ruling class to leave up to ordinary Americans. It’s here we see a key role of elections in our societies, namely the construction of “acceptable debate” and the distinguishing between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” politics. Elections, let’s be frank, are simply not how such important decisions get made. We should recall that it was the Democrat Lyndon Johnson who escalated the Vietnam War after defeating the warmonger Goldwater, and that the Republican Nixon was forced to draw down and end the war mainly because of the military defeat that was being handed to them by the Vietnamese. In France, it was the Socialist Guy Mollet who greatly escalated the Algerian war after running on a promise to end it. In these cases, it was questions of national interest and power that decided matters, not anything so quaint as the democratic will of the people.
Given the tragic history of attempts to make progressive change through electoral means, it would be tempting to dismiss Obama supporters as naive. But I think their fervour and optimism point to something more troubling, namely, the near-complete absence of any kind of truly emancipatory politics in public life, and the lowered sights that accompanies this absence. Perhaps it’s a failure of the imagination, or the ideological triumph of a deep-rooted cynicism, but whatever the cause the result is the bizarre sight of America’s progressives lining up to support such an obviously pro-system candidate on the flimsiest of grounds — their energy and enthusiasm sucked up and transformed so that it ends up strengthening the very system they first set out to oppose.
In times like this I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at the work of Slavoj Zizek, who argues in his latest book that “what prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely the belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism.” If we are to get genuine “change we can believe in”, it is precisely this illusion that may need to be shattered. My worry is that many more people around the world will have to die, this time at Obama’s hands, for this to happen.