Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes but

It’s impossible to overestimate the symbolic value
of Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency,
particularly to African-Americans. Joy is utterly
justified. The positive impact of his victory will
resonate in a multitude of ways for years to come.
For America, and probably for the rest of us on
this planet, this is a turn for the better.

But.

Let’s not get too carried away here. What really will
change? The United States has only changed leaders,
not the fundamentals of its economic system, nor its
gargantuan military-industrial complex, and the
chances of an Obama administration making a
profound difference to either are not great. As some
charismatic liberal-left leaders do, Obama will put a
nicer face on capitalism till the next right-wing
warmonger comes along. He will do good,
undoubtedly; that wouldn’t be hard after the harm
done by George W Bush. But the revolutionary
change that many of his his ecstatic followers seem
to think will happen won’t.

It feels mean saying that at such an historic moment,
but expecting the Earth of him is not doing Obama
any favours. Nothing but the most rigorous realism
will serve him well now.

1 comment:

Giovanni said...

But the revolutionary change that many of his ecstatic followers seem to think will happen won’t.

Wow, that's really, really presumputious. How do you know what people expect of Obama? How many of these ecstatic followers have you spoken to or polled? I haven't got the pulse of the movement either, I hasten to add, but it could very well be that many if not most of his followers are savouring the impossible-to-understate symbolic moment - as you are - and yet are fairly realistic about the change that might or might not occur. At the very least, I'd like you to point me to a single follower who's expecting a marxist revolution or massive demilitarisation at this point.

Notice how Obama himself has never talked about dismantling the military industrial complex, nor substantially reforming capitalism. He's talked about healthcare reform, about a new culture of public service, about a foreign policy that privileges diplomacy over military intervention. We can have some expectation that he will be more honest with the country regarding the problems that face America. And that his governing style with be more inclusive than the preceding administrations' (including Clinton's).

These changes are not unsubstantial. They say Reagan changed America, and it's probably true to a fairly significant extent. Even just changing (or even questioning!) the rhetorical framing of poverty, employment and taxation that was one of the hallmarks of the Reagan era would have entirely desirable repercussions.

And then, yes, there is the symbolism, the (transformative) power of which really cannot be underestimated.