Yes You Can. Yes You Did.

What a night. I am happy to have been alive to see this. Right now a million people packed into a park in Chicago await the arrival of Barack Obama, the next president of the United States. John McCain finished speaking a few minutes ago.

In part because the competing sides that dominated the election were often too close on critical issues of global engagement, and in part to minimize any disappointment from what might have been another bewildering outcome as in 2000 and 2004, I have been very critical, skeptical, and sometimes cynical about this U.S. election. There is no denying that this election has been of tremendous importance to a vast number of Americans, who see this as a momentous shift in the American political landscape. John McCain’s concession speech spent an almost inordinate amount of time focusing on issues of race and civil rights — inordinate because this was not simply an election decided by African American voters alone, nor is its potent meaning restricted to them alone. One must concede at least the obvious, that for the majority of voters this election has wrought a significant change, not another form of continuity.

It was very tempting, on many occasions, to simply shout support for Barack Obama. Everyone he ran against seemed determined to make him look good. I started posting months ago about Hillary Clinton’s smear campaign, and the vile undertones of racism that emerged early on. I am personally very relieved not to have to hear from McCain and Palin again, and especially the latter who distinguished herself for her unforgivable ignorance, malice, and sheer dishonesty. Goodbye, get lost, you lost.

Without a doubt, I will return to criticizing the next government of the U.S. to the extent that President-elect Obama lives up to his word to expand the war in Afghanistan and to station tens of thousands of troops in Iraq even past a “withdrawal” date.

President-elect Obama has just finished offering his victory speech. He spoke of “a new dawn of American leadership” in the world. He will need to understand, hopefully sooner rather than later, that some of us, perhaps most of us, do not want your “leadership.”

One must also bear in mind the fact that Americans, like voters elsewhere in other “Western democracies,” did not get to vote for any of those things that affect them most, that affect most of us worldwide, such as:

  • globalization
  • perpetual wars
  • the International Monetary Fund and World Bank
  • the private sector
  • the state
  • debt and trade

As a prelude to more sober assessments, I will quote from Jeremy Seabrook’s article in The Guardian on July 27, 2008, titled “Obama and the illusion of leadership” and his caution against worshiping political leaders in contemporary Western polities:

The fascination with leaders is an alibi for democratic impotence….

Preoccupation with individuals, of course, deflects attention from the powerlessness of the people, the voiding of democracy, even in places where the most highly sophisticated “electoral process” prevails. Leaders are keen to display their control over events over which they have waning influence, an influence they have willingly ceded to the stark urgencies of globalism. The great movements of goods and money around the world, and the vanity of efforts to deter humanity from following this licit and highly profitable mobility, clearly indicate the limits of their power….

It may well fall to him to restore the “image” of the United States, especially among the poor, non-white majority of the world – an eloquent comment on the disreputable shabbiness of the Bush years. But it would be folly to imagine he will do anything that runs counter to US interests. The most we can expect is some skilful choreography, a “performance” to reconcile the peoples of the world with American supremacy once more.

Time for a break.

8 thoughts on “Yes You Can. Yes You Did.

  1. […] Max Forte, of Open Anthropology, wrote cautious support, and, after the parts I don’t quote below, makes some key points regarding the fetishization of leaders: It was very tempting, on many occasions, to simply shout support for Barack Obama. Everyone he ran against seemed determined to make him look good. I started posting months ago about Hillary Clinton’s smear campaign, and the vile undertones of racism that emerged early on. I am personally very relieved not to have to hear from McCain and Palin again, and especially the latter who distinguished herself for her unforgivable ignorance, malice, and sheer dishonesty. Goodbye, get lost, you lost. […]

  2. I’m sorry, Maximilian, but this is way off base. The Democrats won precisely because they were able to out-organize the Republicans at the grassroots level for the first time. Whereas the Republicans have long had an army of evangelical voters willing to canvas for them, the Dems have lost the union machine which was so important for JFK’s success. Obama succeeded in using the social web to mobilize millions of people on the ground to get out the vote. And they did so precisely because of issues like globalization, debt, and perpetual war. Moreover, Obama has been stated from the beginning of his campaign, and at virtually every speech he gave, that this grassroots movement was essential for his success. In fact, the day before the election he sent out this message:

    “We just made history.

    And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.

    You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change.

    I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.

    But I want to be very clear about one thing…

    All of this happened because of you.”

    Now there are lots of reasons to be skeptical of Obama. He is not a genuine progressive even as he is not a neoliberal or a neoconservative. He is a “liberal” in the classical sense and his policies will reflect this. I’m sure there will be disappointment and disagreement. But to criticize a president who was a community organizer and who won precisely because of his ability to tap into that experience for not understanding the importance of ordinary people in a democracy seems a little absurd.

    It is illustrative to compare Obama with Kerry. In Ohio Kerry had just three field offices, in the most populous counties. Obama, on the other hand, had field offices in every single county in Ohio. Even in terms of fundraising there were important differences, with a significant portion of Obama’s millions coming from small individual donations. Obama also dedicated huge amounts of efforts to registering new voters – who showed up in record numbers to vote in this election. When Obama speaks of leadership he means the ability to inspire people to do just that. This election was a victory for the power of secular organizing. Don’t forget how close the election was. McCain still got close to half of the popular vote. It was a tough battle, well fought – with good competent leadership. I personally am not sure Hillary could have pulled it off (her campaign was very badly run by the same people responsible for the defeat of Gore and Kerry).

  3. […] Open Anthropology: Yes You Can. Yes You Did. “(…) It was very tempting, on many occasions, to simply shout support for Barack Obama. Everyone he ran against seemed determined to make him look good. I started posting months ago about Hillary Clinton’s smear campaign, and the vile undertones of racism that emerged early on. I am personally very relieved not to have to hear from McCain and Palin again, and especially the latter who distinguished herself for her unforgivable ignorance, malice, and sheer dishonesty. Goodbye, get lost, you lost. […]

  4. Sorry Kerim, your comment was marked as spam for some reason and I only just found it and retrieved it.

    I have more sympathy for the movement that put Obama where he is, than for Obama. Parts of that movement, especially the anti-war movement, are showing far more disillusionment already than you are. I think you will be unpleasantly surprised as more time passes, and I absolutely hope that I am wrong and that you can come back here and proudly gloat about how wrong I am, and I will be relieved.

    In the meantime, his administration is a decidedly neoliberal one (Clinton Take Two, it might be called). His constant talk about ramping up the war in Afghanistan is chilling, and is no change at all. His support for a bankers’ bailout should have set off all sorts of alarms among his most “progressive” supporters, and I think it has. So the best thing to do is to remain vigilant and skeptical.

  5. To be disillusioned means one was deluded in the first place. Like I said, he was never a progressive, nor did he pretend to be – even though some on the left tried to paint him as one. But to call him a neoliberal is to misunderstand the term neoliberalism. I imagine we will be seeing Keynesianism-light rather than a continuation of Miltion Friedmanesque monetarism. We do need to apply pressure to move Obama further to the left than he is willing to go, but for such a movement to be successful we need to accurately understand where he stands to begin with.

  6. (Once again, straight into the spam queue, and you don’t have even one single link in your comment, so something is wrong and I cannot understand it.)

    You’re right, it does not sound like undiluted neoliberalism, and we have yet to see any real Keynesianism (his cabinet consists of neoliberals thus far). Obama seems to have spoken out against trickle down economics, has called for some wealth redistribution, and more regulation (which is where I can see why you refer to Keynes) … and then he appointed nobody who has done any of these things or ever called for such approaches (which does not mean that they won’t now, but it does suggest that if they are being selected for their “experience” then their experience is the wrong one). It’s not entirely about where Obama stands — what we need to understand is what networks of power he is embedded in and to which he frequently adjusts. It’s not that Obama is utterly insignificant, it’s that his own power is very limited (hence the commentary by Seabrook I linked to in the post), and the people he is now surrounded by seem to have a record of practice that is quite different from what he promised in his speeches. Otherwise, I have to agree that unreserved, unstoppable neoliberalism is not the likely path ahead, especially as the climax of unleashed finance capital is usually what comes at the end of imperial hegemony.

    This is a crisis that will largely be “managed” for Obama, and the most unfortunate thing about the personality cult that is developing is that it will immobilize some, who will delegate all their power to him, while motivating others to believe that he can do no wrong and that all criticisms must come from sinister sources.

    You can try to push Obama … I am not sure any of the pushing has worked thus far, as some of the larger anti-war organizations are finding out. There is also the possibility that he will push back. Let’s bear in mind that his donations did not just consist of nickles and dimes from students and pensioners, but also donations from a wide array of powerful transnational corporations. Have you ever known such entities to give money away for free? McCain would have been worse, I grant that you can say that much. Anything else strikes me as heady optimism. Otherwise, I really see nothing about the original post that is “way off base” or even “absurd” in light of your comments.

  7. You might find this interesting:

    Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart
    Why Americans Shouldn’t Go Home
    By Tom Engelhardt:

    “It is a moment when Obama has, not surprisingly, begun to emphasize continuity and reassurance alongside his campaign theme of “change we can believe in.”

    “All you had to do was look at that array of Clinton-era economic types and CEOs behind Obama at his first news conference to think: been there, done that. The full photo of his economic team that day offered a striking profile of pre-Bush era Washington and the Washington Consensus, and so a hint of the Democratic world the new president will walk into on January 20, 2009.

    “How about former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, those kings of 1990s globalization, or even the towering former Fed chief from the first Bush era, Paul Volcker? Didn’t that have the look of previews for a political zombie movie, a line-up of the undead? As head of the New America Foundation Steve Clemons has been writing recently, the economic team looks suspiciously as if it were preparing for a “Clinton 3.0″ moment.”

    Anyway, the broader points of my post were not about the fine nuances of what is neoliberal in 2008, but rather that the most fundamental issues were not ones that Americans (like anyone else in these Western ‘democracies’) ever gets to vote on, and I listed those. I have also repeatedly made the argument that on these fundamentals there is virtually no difference at all between Republicans and Democrats, not when it comes to defending capitalism, maintaining American dominance in the world, etc. Some might not like the term “one party state” being applied to the U.S., for their own nationalistic reasons, but it shows less disagreement than has existed between factions of the Chinese Communist Party over the past 40 years, much less disagreement.

    So my advice is: don’t waste too much time waiting to spot every little minute difference or similarity with Obama, while missing the bigger picture. Otherwise the wait becomes an excuse for inaction, confusion, or silence. Obama is a cosmetic, and before too long those who care to notice will.

  8. However, if one can write: “We do need to apply pressure to move Obama further to the left than he is willing to go,” then it means you really are much more “illusioned” than you would care to admit, or recognize. I suppose Kerim’s consistent support for Obama, the badges of his campaign on his own website, the statements urging support for Obama in Twitter, were merely accidental. “He never was progressive”–precisely.

    It was the norm among U.S. anthropology blogs to produce statements of unqualified support and admiration for Obama, from Kerim, to Alex Golub, to Lisa Wynn, to Neuroanthropology. Years after all of the destruction, the active support for neoliberalism as I said, there has been silence from those quarters, not so much as a shadow of an apology, a reassessment, or anything…except continued support and accommodation.

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