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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Obama Victory: Lessons for the Left???

The importance of the Barack Obama victory cannot be overstated. It has changed America. Unprecedented events took place in order for that victory to taake place. Even though a majority of whites voted for John McCain, a majority of Americans, white, black, Latino, and all others, elected an African American community organizer to be its 44th President. While the politics at this stage have paid off, the inherent injustices of the capitalist system, as we know it, remain to be addressed. Michael Novick spells out how the left needs to learn from this election and push a progressive political agenda that is not nihilist and self-serving. Novick argues that organizing is the key the success of a left political agenda, not making demands. RGN

Obama's Election: Lessons for Defeating White Supremacy and Rebuilding
Revolutionary Resistance
by Michael Novick,
Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)

The election of Barack Obama has been greeted in a variety of ways:
elation and relief (tempered by fear of a racist backlash or
assassination attempt) by supporters, particularly US Africans;
predictions of enhanced recruitment opportunity by organized white
supremacists; doomsday predictions by conservatives. On the left there
have been "exposes" of Obama's Zionism, militarism and dismissal of the
particular needs of Black people or the working class. A group of DC
anarchists has called for a disruption of his inaugural.

But any analysis needs to start from this reality: masses of people in
the US feel they have helped make and change history by electing Obama.
His victory is indeed historic in many ways. It required the largest
voter turnout ever, and the highest percentage of registered voters to
vote in decades. Obama gained a clear majority, the highest percentage by
a Democrat since FDR except for Johnson's landslide after the JFK
assassination. He ran the most expensive campaign in history. He is the
first "bi-racial" (called Black or African-American) president-elect, and
incidentally the first child of an immigrant, the first Hawaiian-born,
one of the youngest, and by far the least "embedded," president.
Moreover, his was the first victory by a self-proclaimed 'anti-war'
candidate in the midst of a war. But Obama's victory hardly signals that
we are a "post-racial" society, as evidenced by the self-contradictory
self-congratulation of those who proclaim that "by electing the first
Black president" we have shown that we are "color-blind." Exit polls
showed that about a fifth of 'white' voters acknowledged that "race" was
a significant factor. Interestingly, of those, 30% voted for Obama. One
explanation of this is the fact that Obama's race made his intellect
acceptable. US voters would never have elected a 'white' candidate as
obviously intelligent as Obama. Yet they accepted and understood that a
'Black' candidate would have to be twice as smart, twice as cool, as any
'white' to have a chance to succeed.

Paradoxically but perhaps most essentially, Obama's election is also a
manifestation of the extent of the radical left's weakness, irrelevance
and inability to communicate. Over the past eight years of Bush misrule,
what effective strategies or serious ability to develop a countervailing
force or consciousness has the left or the anarchist movement manifested?
In that vacuum, people made a judgment that Obama represented the best
hope for the kind of change that could be achieved through electoral
means. This was not merely because he was 'Black,' but because he was
intelligent, calm, organized, and an effective and reassuring campaigner.
McCain's charges of 'inexperience' didn't stick because Obama was
attractive specifically as a relative outsider not deeply corrupted by
long tenure in Washington, DC or in office. His mild centrist critique of
the Iraq war made 'sense' in a context in which the anti-war movement had
proven incapable of making a dent or marshaling an extra-parliamentary
opposition and resistance to the war. Within the Democratic Party
spectrum -- and the anti-war movement has been tailing the Democrats for
years-- he was the electable 'opponent' of the Iraq war.

To imagine that a proclamation of opposition to Obama's inauguration as a
capitalist, imperialist and statist will do anything to overcome the
left's weakness, irrelevance and inability to communicate -- in fact,
that it will do anything other than deepen and intensify those failures
-- is the height of arrogance. I have a different take on what we have to
do or learn in response to Obama's victory. It starts with the
perspective that the greatest on-going weakness of the left strategically
and politically is a refusal to recognize the nature of this society as
an Empire based on white-supremacist settler colonialism. Related to that
is our greatest tactical flaw, an inability to practice authentic
self-criticism, through which we learn from our errors and defeats in
order to eventually overcome them and win. Our failure to do that has
engendered a deep defeatism in masses of people
-- manifest as accommodation to Empire and unwillingness to struggle
against or even make a sharp break with the system.

One thing this election has demonstrated is how far into the past the
revolutionary militance of the civil rights and Black power movements and
the mass anti-imperialist opposition to the Vietnam War and domestic
colonialism have receded. McCain's inability to make the Bill Ayers smear
stick to Obama was because not only Obama but most of the electorate was
no older than 8, or perhaps not yet born, when Ayers was an
armed-propaganda radical. That period of revolutionary optimism, when the
Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army or the WUO were the tip of
the iceberg of a massive upwelling of rebelliousness and armed
resistance, is now ancient history. (Speaking of white privilege and
class, Obama never would have associated with ex-BLA members, nor would
any have been on the board of an Annenberg charity.) No amount of
posturing could "Recreate 68" (or even 2000) in Denver for the DNC or in
DC for the inaugural. 47% of high school seniors in the US today were
registered to vote in time for the election, and I suspect an
overwhelming majority of them cast their first ballots. They were born
while the first George Bush was president! Who better to speak to them
than Anti-Racist Action, which has historically been an attractor of high
schoolers? Yet ARA's current ability to do outreach, education, agitation
and organizing in high schools (or prisons, factories, community colleges
or the military) is miniscule.

The DC call relates that anarchists opposed and disrupted the last two
inaugurations, and therefore should do the same again. This flawed
reasoning lacks a material analysis of the consciousness of masses of
people in relation to the electoral process and the presidency. Bush's
two stolen victories undermined the authenticity and legitimacy of the
electoral process and of the imperial presidency. For his first
inaugural, he was anointed president by the Supreme Court after having
lost the popular vote. For his second, he was plagued by an unpopular war
and evidence of vote flipping and vote suppression. Protesters and
disrupters were speaking for millions when we denounced the inaugurals
and the presidency, and our message fell on receptive ears.

The current situation is far different, and blaming it on the voters is
another example of the left's lack of self-criticism and ability to grow.
Obama's victory signals a new lease on life for the presidency, electoral
politics and the two-party system. Obama won by a clear majority, in
which voter suppression was a negligible factor and in which all minor
parties together barely hit 1% of the vote, including McKinney, Nader,
Barr and Baldwin combined. His inauguration, even apart from the
historicity of his "Blackness," is being welcomed by the overwhelming
majority of the US population as proof of the "mystery and majesty" of
electoral democracy. In that context, a disruption wouldn't express the
unease of the general population in a radical and uncompromising way, but
would be taken as an alienating slap in the face. It wouldn't be seen as
a call to a higher form of direct democracy, but as a rejection of the
popular will expressed through a peaceful, honest and democratic election
and transfer of power.

Now is the time for a sober reassessment of how to grapple with these new
realities. Obama did not merely collect millions of dollars from hundreds
of thousands of people -- he established a relationship with them. He
organized effectively tens of thousands of volunteers, and turned out
tens of millions of people to vote. Why has the left or the anarchist
movement been incapable of inspiring, stimulating or organizing anywhere
near that level of support, involvement, voluntarism or participation?
How can we start to do so?

Obama accurately read the demographic, technological and ideological
changes that are taking place in the U.S. and effectively offered himself
and his campaign as a vehicle for implementing or realizing some of the
aspirations those changes have generated. Obama seized on the opportunity
of the latest and deepest capitalist economic crisis to develop a
compelling narrative of how a lack of regulation, a lack of attention to
the 'middle class,' and an arrogant unilateralism in 'foreign policy'
weakened the economy, national security and the fiscal stability of the
state. Neither the statist left nor the anarchists are anywhere close to
having the intellectual, political or organizational capacity to
challenge that narrative or that definition of "change."

Unless and until we engage in a thoroughgoing self-criticism and
re-orientation towards an anti-colonialist politics of decolonization as
the basis of an effective anti-capitalism, we will be playing with
ourselves on the sidelines of history.

We need to put forward and undertake effective organizing strategies, not
merely demands, for self-determined direct action against economic and
environmental devastation, mass incarceration, militarism, occupation and
anti-immigrant hysteria. We need to participate in building self-reliant
communities of resistance. It is only oppressed and exploited people who
can make revolution, and save the planet by saving ourselves. Go to the
25% of 'homeowners' who owe more on their mortgage than their home is
worth and unite them with the homeless. Go to 30% of "War on Terror"
veterans who report no earned wage income, and who have massive
unemployment rates, and help unite them with GI resisters, with teens
resisting recruitment, or with millions of prisoners and their families.
Then we can begin to make some history of our own.

The editorial above appears in the November-December 2008 issue of
"Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education,"
Volume 21 Number 6. A free sample copy of the entire issue is available
by writing ARA-LA, PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232, emailing, or calling 310-495-0299. (Give us your
postal mailing address, please.) Subscriptions are $18 a year in the US,
$28 institutional/international, payable to Anti-Racist Action at the
above address. Comments and responses are most welcome. PDFs of recent
back issues are available on-line at

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