Disrobing the system: Obama vs. "real change"

While making this issue of Slingshot, we have struggled with our desire to write something about Obama that could comment on what is going on without being either too negative or silly. Slingshot usually concentrates on direct action, not the mainstream political process, and yet a number of aspects of the current Obama mania seem to transcend politics as usual. The level of popular excitement and civil engagement related to Obama’s rise is palpable. We cannot remember thousands of people literally dancing in the streets like they did the night of his election. This goes beyond Obama merely being the first non-white president or being charismatic and it goes beyond mass relief at the end of 8 years of Bush.

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss what is going on as hero worship, hype, and a sort of mass false consciousness that the election of a single man can bring “change” (whatever that may mean to each listener). In fact, it is important to keep in mind that Obama has been elected president of the world’s most powerful imperial government. He has no interest in dismantling the unequal power relations that make the US government possible since he depends on those relations for his own power. He is by, of and for the mainstream, and to the extent he seeks change, it is to make the system function more efficiently and effectively, not to fundamentally alter the system itself.

But we also feel like there is an unfortunate tendency for radicals to be so aloof from mainstream politics that we miss opportunities to engage with other people. When millions of people are ecstatic about the idea of change, our only response shouldn’t be to tell them they are stupid. We have hope and seek change too, but the change we hope for is beyond what can be offered by the mainstream, hierarchical systems of government and capital.

Figuring out how to interact with people caught up in this moment is not an easy thing to do. Some of us feel that there is something important and optimistic about this moment, because the mood of engagement and excitement can be focused beyond just one man and mainstream politics. If this is true, the key for radicals is to figure out ways to emphasize the difference between false change within the system and the real collective action that can create social transformation. This outpouring of popular involvement can be powerful because once people start to think of themselves as actors in history — rather than pawns or witnesses — they are unlikely to long be satisfied with just voting for a leader. If people hold onto their sense of hope and engagement long enough, they’ll be able to think critically about Obama once they realize he isn’t living up to his rhetoric, and perhaps think critically about the whole damn system.

Others of us don’t believe that we can meaningfully engage with ‘change’ as Obama formulates it in any way because that idea of change is about making capitalism palatable for the masses and co-opting the real movement for freedom and revolution, turning it toward the cul-de-sac of electoral politics and the swamp of hierarchical structures. We believe the radical’s job is to show people he cannot deliver, that his promises are empty; not because he is a bad person or even a bad president, but because the job of the president is not to get rid of capital, alienation and all that; his job is to perpetuate the capitalist system as it is.

Despite our different takes on this moment, we have no illusions that Obama is going to create anything like the kind of change we are about. We are gearing up to critique him and protest his policies. There are many reasons for concern, from his silence around the Gaza slaughter to his generally conservative cabinet choices. For the moment, we’re holding off on getting bogged down in the details, since a lot of what Obama may or may not be pushing is not yet clear. And we’re interested in the complex racial dynamics of this moment — they are surely significant and complex but must await another article.

We agree that real change happens not because of speeches or governments, but because of grassroots action on a local level. Real change is do-it-yourself. Nothing about Obama’s rise eliminates the need for grassroots action to advance positive change. The social and environmental crisis has not been solved. It is amazing, however, that millions of people are engaged with this energy right now, because for years the accepted, mainstream, “reasonable” attitude has been one of resignation, selfishness and cynicism. We hope this new energy will not merely fizzle into passive confidence in the system, but rather lead people to reflect on how their lives are connected to each other and the world, and then take action.