Jan 20, 2011 - Issue 410
Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics: A revolutionary moment
has produced a rigorous, thought-provoking look at the political moment
in which we find ourselves. Barack
Obama and Twenty-first Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the
USA presents challenges to a reviewer because it is three books
in one. This is not to be taken literally. But content-wise, there are
three very distinct components to this book such that each could have
been a book in its own right. One ‘book’ deals with how
The first ‘book’
is a provocative examination of the uniqueness of the moment. It opens,
interestingly, with a discussion of revolution.
The second ‘book’
is an in-depth look at the Obama campaign that is preceded by an examination
of race and the history of the
The third ‘book’
emphasizes the post-election period. This third ‘book’ focuses on both
a critique of Obama-as-President but more importantly on the unwillingness
or inability of many progressive social forces to retain the level of
mobilization that was evident in the 2008 election. Instead there has
been an overreliance on Obama-as-individual rather than treating him as
an instrument which needs to be pressured.
and Twenty-First-Century Politics is a must-read, but I offer this with important qualifications. On the
one hand, I have not read a piece about the Obama campaign that has been
as insightful and gripping as
Yet here is where
I have several differences with
The second concern
revolves around the nature of the Obama campaign itself and, to some extent,
Obama himself was programmatically not very different from Hillary Clinton. In 2011, this is becoming more clear as we look at recent appointments, but if one examined the program of the respective candidates, there was no ‘Chinese Wall’ between their views. Obama saw himself as a reformer of neo-liberal capitalism, not as even a New Deal ‘revolutionary’, contrary to the irrational claims of the political Right.
Though Obama built a unique mass base, he also received significant support, financially and otherwise from Wall Street.
All of these factors were in evidence during the 2008 campaign. Obama was not only NOT on the political Left, he was not a political progressive. He was a liberal, slightly to the left of center. This does not mean, contrary to the ultra-left, that he should have been opposed. Rather it spoke to the sort of administration that one needed to anticipate, certainly in the absence of real mass pressure and specifically pressure from left/progressive forces.
So, while Obama tapped into a current among the people that sought progressive and significant change; and while he and his campaign were able to galvanize millions, this did not mean that at any point he represented a politics that could or would transcend current elite politics irrespective of the desires and wishes of much of his base. Confusion around this among progressives led to a mis-estimation of what would, on its own, result from an Obama victory.
There was also an unofficial campaign. This was the campaign of individuals, social groups, labor union members, etc., who established their own forms of organization operating outside of the realm of both the Democratic Party as well as the official Obama campaign. These two campaigns co-existed. The unofficial campaign did not ask for permission to exist; it came into existence and served as a base for those seeking a new politics and a progressive administration.
The existence of these two ‘campaigns’ is critically important in both upholding part of Campbell’s thesis, i.e., that there was an ‘Obama moment’ that led to the upsurge of a collection of forces looking for a different way, plus the idea that these forces could have and could even today serve as a social pressure on the administration, along the lines of the abolitionist movement vis-à-vis Lincoln in the 1860s, as Campbell points out.
It is nevertheless important to acknowledge that there was a major tendency for individuals and social forces to see in Obama what they WANTED to see rather than correctly analyzing who he was and what he represented. The failure to correctly analyze Obama led to a significant strategic mistake upon victory in November 2008: the willingness of the troops to return to the ‘barracks’ and provide Obama with a so-called ‘honeymoon’ period. The failure to keep pressing the Obama campaign / Obama administration led to the materialization of neo-Clintonian politics in the White House and, ultimately, the rise of a right-wing counter-offensive against Obama and the Democrats that has thrown everyone off balance.
This is, perhaps,
a good segue into the ‘third book’ for it is in the final part of Barack
Obama and Twenty-First-Century Politics that Campbell introduces a
significant and sober critique not only of the performance of the Obama
administration, but of the social forces that made it possible for Obama
to get elected. It is here, in the ‘third book’, that
To a great extent
this ‘third book’ was, for me, the most important. While I found the analysis
of the workings of the campaign enlightening, the affirmation of the need
for independent politics to the left of the Obama administration, having
its own voice and program, points to precisely what is needed at this
At the same time,
Obama can certainly
be pushed to be more than a neo-Clintonian and
this is where so many forces, including but not limited to organized labor
and the Black Freedom Movement, have largely dropped the ball. At the
same time, Obama presides over a global empire and the sorts of politics
that are necessary at this moment are those that actually challenge the
prerogatives of empire, not to mention the polarization of wealth within
This point of view
is not articulated in order to promote any form of cynicism, but rather
to encourage a realistic assessment as to potentials at any particular
moment. While there is good reason to believe that pressure from left
and progressive forces in the USA (and globally) could result in shifts
in US policy, there is no particular reason to believe that Obama himself
will be the transformative force advancing the new progressive program.
It is for this reason that I have highlighted the comradely differences
that I have with
By challenging both left and liberal paradigms, Horace Campbell has offered not only a very interesting reading, but a very though-provoking work that compels the reader to grapple with far more than the ideas and activities of one Barack Hussein Obama, but instead, to focus on the nature of the moment and what possibilities exist if, instead of passivity or hero-worship, left and progressives engage in well-grounded but nevertheless audacious politics that focus on the fight for power.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.