All this talk of change may amount to little more than a fantasy.
Obama’s victory marks a symbolically powerful moment in American history, defined as it is by the stain of slavery and the fact of racism. It will have hugely beneficial consequences for how the United States is seen throughout the world. His victory was also strategically brilliant and his campaign transformed those disillusioned with and disenfranchised by the Bush administration into a highly motivated and organized popular force. But I dispute that Obama’s victory is about change in any significant sense.
Obama’s politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It is the call to find common ground, the put aside our differences and achieve union. Obama’s politics is governed by a longing for unity, for community, for communion and the common good. The remedy to the widespread disillusion with Bush’s partisan politics is a reaffirmation of the founding act of the United States, the hope of the more perfect union expressed in the opening sentence of the US Constitution. It is a powerful moralstrategy whose appeal to the common good attempts to draw a veil over the agonism and power relations constitutive of political life. The great lie of moralism in politics is that it attempts to deny the fact of power by concealing it under an anti-political veneer. At the same time, moralism engages in the most brutal and bruising political activity. But the reality of this activity is always disavowed along with any and all forms of partisanship. Moralistic politics is essentially hypocritical.
Yet, what is most hypocritical, of course, is the talk of change. What are the elements of Obama’s strategy? Let me identify three. Firstly, we have a depoliticized moral discourse of the common good, backed up by a soft and inoffensive version of historically black Christianity. Obama inhabits the rhetorical space of prophetic, black Christianity, while adopting none of its critical radicalism, none of the audacity that one can find in the sermons of Pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Second, Obama’s strategy is about a shift or recalibration of the governmental, symbolic order of American society. As can be seen from a reading of the opening chapters of The Audacity of Hope, Obama is promising a return to liberal constitutionalism against the Schmittian or, more properly, Straussian extension of executive power that marked the Bush administration. All vapid talk of renewing the American dream is simply a return to the priority of the Constitution and the unimpeachable sagacity of the Founding Fathers. Henceforth, all political decisions have to be derived from legal norms whose basis for legitimacy derives from the Constitution. Obama’s genius is to have infused a very traditional, liberal constitutionalism with the elements of a civil profession of faith, and here what is essential is the implicit religiosity of the rhetorical force of Obama’s discourse.
Third, Obama’s strategy is about the normalization of capitalism, which in the short to medium term means the stabilization of financial capitalism given the grotesque deregulated irresponsibility and greed that have operated in these sectors in recent decades. As is clear from The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s moralistic refusal of conflict in the political realm somehow goes hand in hand with his faith in free market competition. Although the free-market system might be flawed, he insists, the capitalist economy is constantly open to change and ‘liberal democracies offer people around the world their best chance at a better life’. It is completely unclear to me how Obama’s views on the economy might truly begin to deal with the disgusting fact of poverty in a genuinely redistributive way.
So, Obama’s strategy is very clear. There is to be no change at the level of the state and capital. We must maintain and defend the state in its classical, liberal constitutional form and use the governmental mechanisms of the state to stabilize the current disorder of finance-based capitalism. Change alone consists in a moral-symbolic shift or recalibration that allows citizens to overcome their despair at the hands of Bush and reaffirm their civil faith in the US governmental system. To be clear, this is not nothing and I am delighted that my liberal friends are so ecstatic. However, not being such a good liberal myself, Obama’s victory begs the question as to what a leftist strategy might be in such circumstances.
What are the possible consequences of Obama’s victory? I think there are at least two possibilities that circle in a perhaps melancholy dialectic. One possibility – which is highly unlikely, but at least conceivable – is that the change of regime will lead to local and diverse forms of popular politicization which perhaps might place in question the current socio-economic doxa. On this view, emboldened by Obama’s victory, various groups might accelerate their political activity around issues such as immigrant rights, union representation or corporate greed. What Obama’s victory might unleash is a sequence of progressive radicalizations inside the US and perhaps outside as well that would act as a serious irritant to the usual business of the state or the usual state of business.
The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simplyexhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to Obama’s speech on the night of his victory: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term’. On this view, the rhetoric of change (‘Together we can change the country and change the world’) was simply what it took to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative government is elected.
This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process. Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.
I’d like to borrow an idea from the philosopher Alain Badiou. In his terms, a political event is what gives existence to a collectivity under the general norm of equality. Crucially, on this definition, politics does not consist in remaining within and buttressing the power of the state. On the contrary, it consists in taking a distance from the state. Now, such a distance does not exist, as the state, particularly the soft democratic state that merges with civil society, saturates more and more areas of social life. Distance, then, is something that has to be created. Moreover, it has to be created within what I call the interstices of the state. Politics, then, is the creation of interstitial distance through acts whereby collectives take shape. The question of scale is vital here. A collective can be something as vast and rhizomatic as the anti-globalization movement a few years back or as small as 5, 10 or 20 people deciding in concert on a program of action. The Paris Commune, lest we forget, began with an act of refusal by a handful of citizens.
Whatever is left of the left after Obama should be committed to the creation of local experiments with politics, the formation of collectivities that exist apart from and which can exert a pressure upon the state. True politics does not exhaust itself in the play of representation and spectacle characteristic of liberal democracy. It is about the emergence out of invisibility of collectivities in the interstices of the state and at the limits of capital. There was perhaps a moment on the evening of November 4th when the potential for such emergence threatened to happen. It might happen still.
Simon Critchley is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has authored over a dozen philosophy books including the celebrated Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, in which he argues for an ethically committed political anarchism.