U. S. Politics, Obama, and the Power of Symbolic Victories

Edwin Madunagu has done the Nigerian public a favour by writing his timely article, "Challenging Hillary and Obama," in The Guardian of Thursday, 3 April 2008. Anyone caught in the phenomenon now known as Obamamania produced by the on-going primaries and caucuses to nominate the Democratic Party's flagbearer at the November presidential election in the United States would appreciate why I call Madunagu's intervention timely. It provides a much needed historical perspective and a sober expectation barometer for the necessary task of following the history-making event unfolding in the U.S. I say necessary because with the U.S. now the lone superpower, literally every decision by its president has wide-ranging ramifications as much for the stock market and the cost of food as for world peace. But before going any further, I should, like Madunagu, begin by making a confession. Living currently in the U.S. and so able to follow every twist and turn of the primaries, starting from that white-vote litmus test moment in the Iowa caucus that defined Barack Obama as a viable candidate, it has been all I could do to resist the urge of a running commentary on the ensuing events.

Madunagu's is a reality check on our respective enthusiasm for either Hillary Clinton or Obama. Each candidate, by the sheer happenstance of gender and race, stands to make history if elected president eventually. Madunagu is a brutally honest commentator, and that in addition to a shared ideological vision, is one reason why I consider him the most important voice in the op-ed pages today. It was vintage candour, for instance, to get this disclosure from Madunagu right from the start: "My position on this matter is, to put it very mi[l]dly, that there is no reason for us to be excited or emotional about the possibility of a blackman or a woman becoming the President of the United States of America - for the first time. I had feared that this position would be unpopular even with most of my remaining comrades. I was simply not in the mood to provoke another round of private rebukes."

Consequently, Madunagu delayed writing his article until he drew courage from Kavila Mandini Ramdas's article, "Leveraging the power of race and gender," a piece that laments the missed opportunity for a more radical vision from Obama and Clinton. This regrettable circumstance, coming after Madunagu's synopsis of the bloody history of America's quest for global domination underlines his strong conviction that "we are being diverted by an exercise whose result would make little or no difference - one way or the other - to the conditions of the wretched of the earth" - be they nations, peoples or individuals."

I count myself among Madunagu's "remaining comrades." Far from losing me, however, he gets my loud applause. Yet I must ask, Is Madunagu right? My answer is Yes and No. Now, against Madunagu's cogent argument, it would seem not only a rash thing but also something of a contradiction for me, after the ideological affinity I have avowed, to disagree with him in any significant way. I believe the Yes part of my response needs no explication: Madunagu makes the case succinctly and eloquently enough. The No, of course, constitutes the burden of this piece. It is my view that in this instance, Madunagu has perhaps shown himself too diligent a student of history to give enough weight to what I have chosen to call "the power of the symbolic." It seems to me that his reading of what is happening this year and in this particular Democratic Party nomination process is too focussed on the meta-narratives of America's imperialist wars of domination  -   in other words, History with a capital ‘H" -   to appreciate the equally important but smaller implications of what a Democratic Party victory could mean for the lowercase "history" of the ordinary American people and the world as well. This claim, I think, would stand even if Obama and Hillary were to be out of the race. But I will dare further and say that a victory for Obama  -   and for reasons of space, I will focus only on the "race" factor and my sentimental support for him  -   and the Democratic party cannot be said to constitute "little or no difference." I will return to this claim in a moment but let me pause to enter a caveat:  I use the word sentimental advisedly, though my position is no less political for that.

While it is largely true that there are no major differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, thus making it correct to accept Nyerere's interesting coinage of the oxymoronic phrase, "two single parties" to describe them, it is also true that within the paradigm of bourgeois electoral politics, issues are reduced to tactical manoeuvres. No one with a radical left or revolutionary humanist agenda can justifiably expect a focus on what matters most: class issues. Class issues are fundamental and point to the institutional and structural inequities of society, while bread and butter questions  -   in other words, the quotidian existential concerns of the majority of the people  -  are consigned to tactical manoeuvres. Such as gender equality, equal pay for equal work, better conditions of work, ending racial discrimination, raising the quality of life through the improvement of public utilities and housing, upgrading and expanding infrastructure, a progressive tax code, universal health insurance, affordable university or professional education. This is why the current crisis engendered by predatory mortgage practices threatening to render thousands of ordinary Americans homeless due to bank foreclosures has become a hot issue on the campaign trail.

The question, then, is whether it matters which of the "two single parties" occupies the White House and shapes policy. The evidence of policy differences between the two parties suggests that it matters. While the Republican Party, now captive to its neoliberal wing, preaches the doctrine of the market and little or no government role in the public space, the Democratic Party has always advocated to an appreciable degree the idea of government as a force for change. And this is why its base lies in the black community, women and blue collar workers. When it comes to war, the area where America's imperialist power most visibly manifests itself abroad, many will argue that had Al Gore not been robbed of the presidency in 2000, the U.S. would not be in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor hovering over Iran, nor have goaded the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas into attempting a coup against Hamas thereby worsening the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Right or wrong, there is an argument there. The "difference" in the two parties' foreign policies  -   always an offshoot of domestic policy  -   is already clear in the commitment of Obama and Hillary to withdrawing from Iraq, while the presumptive Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, is not only pugnaciously in favour of continued military occupation but looks forward, for good measure, to U.S. military presence in Iraq for up to a hundred years.

But how much do the small existential questions matter vis-à-vis the grand historical issues that bedevil the times? Noam Chomsky, the well-known anarchist and advocate of revolutionary change, would answer that they matter enough to deserve our attention. Explaining why he would vote for Bill Clinton in 1996 while "holding his nose," Chomsky justifies that decision as well as his contributing to the campaign of a liberal senator, thus:  "the decisions that have serious consequences and matter most for people are mostly tactical judgments, after all." It bears quoting him at some length. "[R]ight now," Chomsky argues, "voting decisions in the United States are pretty subtle matters, in which the policy differences between the two major parties are not great. But just because I say they're ‘tactical,' I don't mean to demean it … [W]e can have big discussions about what society ought to look like in the future, which is fine, but that doesn't affect what happens to people in their lives right now, except extremely indirectly. What happens to people in their daily lives usually depends on small, difficult, tactical assessments about where to put your time and energy  -   and one of those decisions is whether you should vote, and if so, who should you vote for. And that can be an extremely important decision, with significant implications." I take this quote from a volume of Chomsky's interviews and conversations aptly entitled, Understanding Power.

The impulse behind Chomsky's view here is the same as Madunagu's, the only difference being the weight the former gives to the small issues that affect the daily existence of the overwhelming majority of the people. But is a Chomskian balancing act possible or legitimate, especially for a revolutionary? Do we stand the risk of perpetuating small issue electoral politics to the detriment of revolutionary change? Madunagu clearly fears this danger: "we are being diverted," he says, by our respective enthusiasm for Hillary and Obama. But whether we go all the way with Madunagu depends on the relative value we assign the small issues that Chomsky describes as extremely important and which I believe have significant implications to the wretched of the earth  -   as individuals, groups or nations.

It is also important to understand the objective material conditions for Chomsky's decision to cast a negative vote for Bill Clinton and that makes it improbable for Obama and Hillary to seize their unique positions to transform American politics. Those conditions, alas, are perhaps the most constrictive in the annals of liberal democracy. Hillary cannot, as Ramdas suggests, present herself as the nurturing mother who therefore understands family values  -   a powerful even if dubious Republican  slogan  -   and have a prayer in her bid to be president. The militarist ethos of the U.S. that mark its founding as a nation, product of the barbarism of conquest through genocide against Native Americans and enslavement of Africans, would not permit any pretender to the White House, man or woman, to espouse the softer and more humanising attributes. He or she would be damned as a weakling unable to stand up to America's enemies, an idea sired by America's siege mentality. This informs Hillary's puzzling refusal to recant her vote for war in Iraq and the self-defeating need to portray the hawkish image of a woman ready to be commander-in-chief on Day One. It has driven her to the ridiculous embellishment of her resume as First Lady to claim involvement in actual combat, as in the fiction of her 1996 landing under sniper fire at the Tuzla airport in Bosnia. And it informs Obama's constant repetition of the line that he would not hesitate to strike at anyone who would do America harm.

But perhaps a single word, liberal, will help make clearer the extreme inclemency of the American political space for a radical politics of transformation-from-within. According to the American political lexicon, to be dubbed a liberal by the conservative right is to be portrayed as the nearest thing to an armed communist. It is probably a vestige of McCarthyism, defined as a paranoid anti-Communist witch-hunt. Consequently, Obama, who has been described as the most liberal senator in the U.S. on account of his voting record on a handful of legislation that cannot be said to threaten capital, has the right even calling him a Marxist! It is not only that nothing in Obama's past and present, as we know it, lends the slightest credence to this charge, but also that he has left no one in doubt about his faith in capitalism. So haunted is American politics by the spectre of Marx it cannot care that in Marxist revolutionary parlance, to be called a liberal amounts to being denounced as a traitor. Even now, I'm still struck by the sheer polemical fervour Lenin deployed to absolve Marx of that charge from the "renegade Kautsky" in his "How Kautsky Transformed Marx into an Ordinary Liberal."

Establishing the importance of subtle tactical matters to the people within the paradigm of electoral politics is, however, only one leg of my quibble. The other leg, which I call the power of the symbolic, appeals to history as well. For one striking omission in Madunagu's recital of historical precedence for his caution is the peculiar history of the black presence in America ever since the epochal arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The sordid history of slavery not only branded black identity with inferiority but also defined the American national identity in opposition to blackness. The novelist and Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, has shown the powerful role of this master narrative in creating the American national imaginary in her lectures published as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Simply put, the further away arriving immigrants could define themselves from being black, the closer to being American they came  -   hence the interesting theses on how Jews, Poles, and even the Irish became white in America.

But slavery derived its force from the legal code that governed it, and that code in turn defined the African as property. Consequently, the African's very humanity was denied. He or she was deemed outside the reach of the heady motto of the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 cause célèbre that tested this claim as it applied to the African, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court put the matter rather bluntly. "[I]t is too clear for dispute," he said, "that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted the [D]eclaration of Independence. … The unhappy Black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property." Similar reasoning fills the annals of parliament- and judge-made laws that legislated Blacks outside the American nation. The scholar, William Goodell, compiled copious instances of this in The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice.

It is against this backdrop that the civil rights movement earned its monumental place in the history of struggles for liberation and human dignity. I think that its lasting gains as enacted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, prohibiting all forms of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin, go beyond such retail issues as the right to vote for blacks or ending discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. The movement's true legacy lies in the symbolic: recognition of the equal human dignity of blacks. And I suspect that Madunagu may have been insufficiently attentive to this abstract or psychological dimension of what excites so many today about Obama. Surely, from being considered mere property to being considered as a potential president of the U.S. must count as a major symbolic victory worth every level of excitement. Already, Obama's performance has awakened the sense of dignity and popular participation that the black church, through its exhortatory message of racial uplift, sought to instil from pre-emancipation days to the epoch of the civil rights movement. That spirit seems to have waned in more recent times, paving way in part for the nihilism given graphic illustration by inner city violence and gangster hip-hop music and videos.

Yet, if it is true that you cannot tackle the core class issues that go to the foundations of power without establishing a political movement that can make effective demands on power, then any process that points towards such a movement, however tentative and limited its agenda, ought to be celebrated. All the statistics indicate that young people, especially, and other groups long disenfranchised and consigned to apathy are active once again. It is true, of course, that the Democratic Party is far too much a part of the very structure of U.S. power to sponsor a class-conscious movement. And no one expects Obama, let alone Hillary, to lead a class war. Still, there is something empowering in the fact that through his message and by exploiting the democratising power of the Internet, Obama has out-organised the famed Clinton machine, oiled by eight solid years of patronage. As deplorable as the role of money is in American politics  -   in politics anywhere  -  it is remarkable, nonetheless, that Obama's fundraising machine consists of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people donating less than a hundred dollars each. Over two hundred thousand new donors gave him the twenty million dollar edge he has over Hillary in the latest figures for the month of March. If nothing else, that says something for the people as the engine of any genuine democracy.

At the risk of repetition, I say all of this only within the electoral politics paradigm and, in particular, with reference to the peculiar American political system. While the views I have expressed here give a rationale for my excitement about the history-making prospect of a black person becoming president of the U.S., that limited goal does not exhaust my political vision. In stressing the power of symbolic victories, I merely wish to show the undeniable significance of such small achievements in a world where even access to safe drinking water cannot be taken for granted. After all, the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did not induce similar excitement in 1984 and 2004 respectively. The sense of self-worth and of full and equal membership in the imagined community called the U.S. nation that an Obama presidency would engender in African-Americans and the swelling army of new immigrants of colour warrants any amount of enthusiasm. It is for a similar reason, I think, that the symbolic victories of our flag independence, or of the nominal end of apartheid, achieve their historical resonance. And that is what Obama encapsulates in his theme of hope, "Yes We Can" slogan, and his call for a more perfect union while defending his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose rage against the local and global injustices of the U.S., threatened to derail his campaign.

This is the hope that Karma Nabulsi of Oxford University, expresses in his piece, "Obama's old virtues," in the Guardian (UK) published the same day as Madunagu's article. Nabulsi sees Obama's theme of hope and courage as derived from "crucial republican virtues" that form "the very engine that encourages others to join a common endeavour that can take on powerful opponents." A "dynamic," Nabulsi believes, that "creates a great deal more than particular benefits for individual citizens" because it "recognises that they themselves possess the ultimate liberty of designing their common future." If we take Nabulsi's rapturous tone and extravagant claims down a notch, we will find the populism that informs his reading of the Obama phenomenon: a mass movement of people behind the process. In a frighteningly cynical epoch, anytime the people can be inspired and mobilized for a cause, however limited, is a time for excitement.

Ifowodo may be reached at ogaga2@yahoo.com

© Ogaga Ifowodo



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Re: U. S. Politics, Obama, and the Power of Symbolic Victories
Mikolo posted on 04-08-2008, 00:30:01 AM
Orendos! A lovely piece you have written and I guess the Fire Next time referred to by James Baldwin is what we are witnessing now. It did not work with Rev. King and Jackson, this is the moment!
Re: U. S. Politics, Obama, and the Power of Symbolic Victories
Emenanjo posted on 04-09-2008, 01:39:21 AM
Good piece. Madunagu should note that there are so many routes to a just socio-economic arrangement. It must not be through a revolution. Capitalism is expanding and waxing stronger and stronger, through both overt and covert activities and action. Based on global trends, I expect hard core marxist to learn to change tactics. Being ideologically rigid will not lead us to the promise land. Hugo Chavez, who came to power through an election, is doing well in Venezuala.
Ephraim Emenanjo Adinlofu
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