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Obama: Progress in regress: The end of "black politics"

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 6 | September 2008

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The election of Barack Obama will be an event. But it has proven confusing for most on the “Left,” who claim to want to overcome anti-black racism and achieve social justice. Rejection of Obama on this basis has been as significant as the embrace of his candidacy. There is as much anxiety as hope stirred by Obama, especially regarding the significance of his blackness.

For instance, the usually discerning and astute black political scientist and critical intellectual commentator Adolph L. Reed, Jr. — he is perhaps the single best thinker in American politics for a generation — has published several articles critical of the Obama phenomenon. Reed’s journalistic criticisms during the Democratic Party primary election season hit some false notes, not least Reed going back on a pledge made years ago to “not vote for a Clinton for anything” when he endorsed Hillary as a “lesser evil” over Obama. Reed has been quick to point out the obvious, that the Obama phenomenon is no social movement, but only a marketing ploy of otherwise typically “centrist” (i.e., not even “reformist”) Democratic Party politics. Reed has been keen to disenchant Obama from early in his emergence in Chicago politics. Reed has pointed to the blindness of enthusiasm surrounding Obama, but Reed’s attempts to scotch illusory hopes raised by Obama went too far in his endorsement of Clinton as some kind of backstop against the Obama effect — perhaps out of Reed’s respect for the fact that Clinton did not pretend to be anything but what she is. Overall, Reed’s criticisms have articulated something that others have been perhaps less open about saying, that the Obama candidacy might be a setback for the political and social interests of black Americans.

Reed’s most recent article, “Where Obamaism seems to be going” (in the Black Agenda Report, July 16, 2008, on-line at: www.blackagendareport.com) marks a deeper and less rhetorical engagement than his prior critique, which had been hampered by hyperbolic accusations, for instance of the “cultish” quality of the Obama campaign. In his recent article, Reed writes that,

“An Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy.”

This is a serious matter to consider. However, what must be addressed first are the effects of the Obama candidacy on the existing “Left.”

The diminished possibility of substantially linking struggles for racial justice to reforms of political economy needs to be grasped in light of ideology, specifically on the “Left,” which Reed has raised as an issue surrounding Obama more generally. If Reed is correct about what Obama represents, we need to ask why this might be so, and how the “Left” is responsible.

People on the “Left” respond to Obama in ambivalent ways, through idolization or demonization. But neither is appropriate or realistic, and both are equally hysteric in character. The problem that Obama presents for the “Left” is that they cannot decide whether they really want him, or rather fear what he might represent: the obsolescence of their politics. Even Reed evinces this effect.

Obama has not claimed to be anything but a typical Democrat. Despite burnishing credentials as a “community activist” in Chicago when running for Illinois State Senate, Obama has not presented himself as a “movement” candidate, despite what many may wish from him — to pin their mistaken hopes on this or else find him wanting. It seems that the idea of an entirely “mainstream” (i.e., conservative) black political candidate is beyond the imagination of most on the “Left.”

So we are treated to some “shocking exposés” of Obama as a supposed product of the “Chicago School” of neo-liberal economic policy (of the former University of Chicago Professor of Economics Milton Friedman) — see for example Naomi Klein on “Obama’s Chicago Boys,” June 12, 2008, in The Nation, and various articles in Counterpunch — as if any president of the U.S. today would do anything but pursue post-Fordist/neo-liberal policies!

The candidacy and election of Obama will continue to send the “Left” into a tailspin, and in this sense will be “bad” for the Left — but this is Obama’s greatest value.

Hitherto, the “Left” has expected that black politicians should either “represent” — or even “lead” — a fictive black “community.” Conversely, black Republicans have been demonized for being sell-outs or otherwise “race traitors.” It has been a fundamentally racist imagination that denies that black Americans can run the entire spectrum of policy positions and therefore social politics.

As witnessed with Obama, the racist illusion that seems to die the hardest is the notion that black people are especially insightful let alone “progressive” in their outlook on American society. It is an old canard on the “Left” — somewhere between wishful thinking and demagogic propaganda — that the most oppressed are somehow the most critically conscious of social realities. Behind this spectacular illusion the “Left” has spun, however, has been the more prosaic realities of the Democratic Party and the role of “black” politics in it.

Because American politics has been about the struggle for inclusion in the power structure by successive waves of various immigrant and other marginalized groups, it has been perhaps the most destructive illusion that the Democratic Party, which has played the inclusion game of its constituency politics better (especially in urban machine politics) than their Republican rivals, is somehow to the Left socially or politically. — As Gore Vidal once put it, American politics is really a one-party affair, the “party of property,” with “two Right wings.” The Democratic Party is simply the party that tends to include the interests of parvenu bourgeois elements from non-WASP groups, along with perhaps some of the more enlightened WASPs. “Black politics” has been part of this game, especially since the reorientation of American party politics as a result of the Civil Rights movement and the defection of the Southern “Dixiecrats” to the Republicans in the 1960s. Whereas previously the Democratic Party represented the unholy populist lash-up of Southern rednecks with Northern ethnic constituencies and organized labor, and the even earlier phenomenon of blacks voting for the Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant as a matter of course, today it is taken for granted that black Americans naturally find their political interests expressed in the Democratic Party. But this has worked to ill effect, especially as the “Left” has contributed to the charade.

The election of Barack Obama represents something very difficult for those on the ostensible “Left” to understand, that since the 1960s the Right (in both its Democratic and Republican Party forms) has been very successful in depoliticizing — effectively defusing — the issues of poverty and other forms of social degradation faced by most black Americans. The Left has played into this very well, doing their own work of replacing style for substance and, as Adolph Reed has put it, “posing” for politics. Thus, the “Left” since the 1960s has actually become a part of the new Right, a key factor in the depoliticization and hence conservatizing of American politics and society, for more than a generation now.

Of course Obama is just as much a product of this conservatization and depoliticization. This should shock no one. — Yet it does, and so this symptom is extremely important to note and understand.

The election of Barack Obama will be an event. It should be a moment for reevaluating American society and politics. It should be an opportunity for throwing overboard illusions the “Left” has sown for at least 40 years about the realities and possibilities for American society and politics. The incredulity with which the Obama election is met, either in hopeful expectation or denial based in fear, is less about his election itself than it is about the confused, mistaken and utterly reactionary consciousness on the American “Left:” it is a measure of the racism of the “Left,” how this “Left” is a key bulwark of racism in American life.

Note how the Obama candidacy has been met with hostility from all the usual suspects, the sexagenarian post-Civil Rights leadership of Jesse Jackson, Sr. (who said he wanted to cut Obama’s balls off!), to the unblushing racist politics of Democratic Party stalwarts like the Clintons (who were “just saying what the Republicans will, anyway”), and those like Rev. Jeremiah Wright who cannot countenance any challenge to the wounded narcissism they’ve made their profession. — Obama was entirely correct about Wright et al. being stuck in the 1950s. The vested interests of black politics are rightfully wary of Obama. Their game is up. The time for reckoning has come.

So what can be made of this campaign by Obama that completely eschews the business-as-usual of the business of racism in the U.S., and one that does not run politically on the basis of “opposing” the racist demagogy of the Democrats (like the black Republicans do, making of their “criticism” of black Democratic hucksterism a business of their own, in their own way: see for instance Shelby Steele on Obama), but rather seeks to bypass such politics?

One catch-phrase that has flown in the wake of the success of the Obama candidacy is “post-racial,” raising the question of the degree to which America has overcome racism. But perhaps the matter is not one of our historical moment being post-”racial” but rather post-racist. Perhaps racism has changed. For the historical racism that plagued the U.S., from the failure of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through Jim Crow until the overcoming of legal racial segregation with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s, is over. But this has not meant the meaningful improvement of conditions of life for the vast majority of black people in America, but rather has accompanied worsening conditions, as part of the broader greater stratification and brutalization of American society in the general downturn since the late 1960s - early ‘70s.

In the meantime, the political issues of racism, as they stood in 1950s-60s, have been rendered obsolete. On the one hand, American society and culture is less “racist” than it has ever been; on the other hand, real suffering is rendered, if not invisible then politically insoluble. There has been “progress” on the issue of “racism” while there has been regress in terms of addressing any problems of greater substance for black people. The hollowed-out politics of “anti-racism” meanwhile has come to serve, at best, the racket politics of black and other Democrats, and at worst a paranoiac narcissistic trap for anyone who might be willing to think radically about political and social change in the U.S.. — The more sensible people have done what the rest of America has, come to avoid the madness — or the simple cretinism — of such politics as much as possible.

The degree to which it has at all, American politics and culture has tried to address the social concerns of black people according to a peculiar and confounding mixture of the older Civil Rights and subsequent Black Power political models — think of the successful conflation of the diametrically opposed politics of MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X by Spike Lee, for instance — for an entire generation, without at all improving the lot of the greater portion of black Americans.

This presents a paradox, and the Obama election is a very good emblem for it. For it is truly the case that Obama does not stand at the head of a groundswell of a social movement but rather only a successful marketing tweak of Democratic Party electioneering. The inability to critique Obama without recourse to de-authenticating his “blackness,” which everyone feels to be a hollow move, exposes the utter contemptuousness of what stands for “politics” today. — In the end, the election really will hinge on whether Obama as an image makes people feel better than John McCain does. This is an outrage, but not especially outrageous given the state of American politics today. But at least now political symbolism has developed so that the image of a “black man” can be one of jejune “hope” (and not only for black Americans), and no longer just a jigaboo bugaboo, as the Republicans (and many Democrats) have made it their cynical trade to ply disingenuously and opportunistically for the past generation, finding it an increasingly less successful ploy to pull off today.

Perhaps young (black) people have embraced Obama precisely because they have become so “sick and tired of being sick and tired” with the politics of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps it is enough that Obama means turning the page, even if the basic story remains the same. Change is its own value — if only because it represents an opportunity. — In this case it is the opportunity presented by the failure of “black politics.”

The election of Barack Obama will not solve the problems faced by the greater lot of black Americans, but it might at least deliver the coup de grâce for a politics that was not working for social improvement anyway. And this should be welcomed — at least by anyone who is honestly concerned with the politics of substantial reform and emancipatory transformation of life in the U.S.

Those on the “Left” who thought it would take a revolution — of whatever kind — to have a black leader have had a profoundly mistaken social imagination. It turns out that racism was not the kind of problem they thought it was. The problems facing black Americans were both less and more intractable than they thought. They have mistaken the political significance of anti-black racism — and black Americans have paid the price for this depoliticization of their social grievances.

The election of Obama will be an event. It is a signal that we need not be held back any longer by the invidious illusions the prior “Left” bequeathed us — amidst the botched world they have made. We have been stifled too long under the weight of their obfuscations and rationalizations, while society has gone to hell — or has gone, if you prefer, to “Nixonland” (the title of a recent book by Rick Perlstein): The “Left” has been complicit in the degradation of politics by mirroring the “culture wars” unleashed by the Right, becoming caught up in symbolic imagery, as in the late-’60s Black Power turn, at the expense of real political progress.

As Adolph Reed has pointed out, Obama might indeed represent the “severing” of the “last threads” potentially linking anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics. But the specific ways these have been “linked” in the social imagination and politics — the ideology — of the “Left,” for more than a generation, have not helped but actually worked to the detriment of either addressing the social problems faced by most black Americans or addressing the problems of capitalism in the U.S.

Perhaps the very attempt to address these two sets of issues in identical terms, as if struggling against racism and capitalism were not only indissolubly linked but were somehow the same thing, fudging the issue of how to articulate them, was the mistake, especially as the struggle against racism and for “black empowerment” came, since the late ‘60s, to take the place of the struggle for working class empowerment and against capitalism.

Capitalist politics since the 1960s has succeeded in effectively separating, neutralizing and eliminating both agendas, empowering working class people and ameliorating social conditions for black people, and both in the name of “black politics,” which today does not require reform but abolition. “Black politics” has done nothing to empower black working-class people, but only to chain them, in a more or less roundabout way, to the Democratic Party and its capitalist politics. So we do not need “better” black politics, but rather to overcome such politics entirely. We have stood sorely in need of a specifically working class politics that can effectively speak to (black) workers comprehensively, to all aspects of their social reality and political empowerment.

This need can be found reflected in the fact that Obama leads in the current electoral polls of all lower-income people, including more than 10 points among “white” workers. — So much for the specter of the supposedly so intractable racism of the “white working class” that the post-’60s “Left” has peddled so hard and for so long! Instead of this, pursuing the chimera of some kind of purportedly “progressive” black nationalism or other distinctly “black” politics has sent the “Left” so far around the bend that it has become unable the recognize the true nature and character — and range of varieties — of black conservatism (including among working class people), of the inherently conservative nature of “black politics” itself. — Hence, Obama.

With Obama we might be able to wake from the nightmarish “dream” of “black politics:” in the “mainstream,” in both the miserable Democratic Party ethnic racket variety and the cynical and phony “sobriety” of black Republicanism; and, among “radicals,” the “revolutionary suicide” of which the Black Panther Huey P. Newton spoke, as well as what Frantz Fanon and the late Malcolm X called the “sickness and madness” of black nationalism — only to perhaps be able to face our grim social realities more squarely. If Obama represents the “end” of “black politics,” this should be welcomed, not least as a salutary — if painful — shock to the bad “Left.”

The surprising “black face” of conservatism Obama reveals ought to send reeling — and finally into the “dustbin of history” — the complex of assumptions involved in “black politics,” so that we can interrogate what it was that it was supposed to accomplish, for it clearly has not, and perhaps never could.

The Obama election will be an event — in that it will not be one. Nothing will change. But this might help the “Left” to change — certainly some for the worse, clinging to ever more demented and ineffectual “black politics,” but perhaps also some others for the better, who might finally extricate themselves from the trap such politics has presented for more than a generation. |P

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