Philosophers and politics: oil and water?

Since Barack Obama was elected two weeks ago, it has been open season on the president-elect. Open letters, advice and commentary has been pouring into Obama HQ (or at least have been made public). Obama would have to be some kind of contortionist to meet even a fraction of the demands being placed on him. He would need to be a conservative (for, after all this is a “center-right country,” at least according to Karl Rove), he would need to focus on the economy, on health care, protect net neutrality and on free choice of joining a union. He would need to repeal the Patriot Act, stop warrantless wiretapping and at the same time move beyond “partisan” politics.

Many of these pieces of advice have come from those engaged in the political process, either as members of the commentariat on TV or the traditional media, or former members of the Bush/Clinton/Bush administrations (how ironic to see, by the way, that many Clintonistas are being tapped to be part of the Obama administration after one of this summer’s talking points that Hilary Clinton was unacceptable because she would bring back…. so many members of the Clinton administration).

But this has not stopped those more distantly related to the American political process from offering their own two cents/pence/euros. Far be it from me to erect entry barriers to this game (ones I would very likely balk at myself) but isn’t it premature to say that Obama has failed already (or will inevitably fail)? Žižek for example calls him already “Bush with a human face” who “will pursue the same basic policies in a more attractive way and thus effectively strengthen the US hegemony, damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.” For added impact he cites a friend of his who cried when Obama was elected (with tears of joy or sorrow was not stipulated, but someone who apparently does not read polls during presidential elections: “Obama’s victory was clearly predictable for at least two weeks before the election, but it was still experienced as a surprise” he claims, when most politicos were predicting a Democratic victory from oh, about 2006 onwards–remember the Midterms anyone?).

But as to whether Obama will increase American hegemony:

I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture, and I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.

Not quite clear how shutting down Gitmo is hegemonic, or promises on the campaign trail to withdraw troops in 18 months. Nor is it clear how Obama’s success with the vast majority of different people in this country is indicative of “failure.” Here for example is a graphical representation, based on the exit polls of which constituencies Obama won (in blue) or lost (in red):

Now it seems to me that if you want to direct your analysis of failure at anyone from the standpoint of saying that they aren’t leftist enough, you would do better than to pick Obama. How about them Democrats in Congress? As usual, Glenn Greenwald provides a timely reminder:

It is worth remembering that the Democrats who are going to exert dominant political control are the same ones who have provoked so much scorn — rightfully so — over the last several years, and particularly since 2006.  This is the same Democratic Party leadership which funded the Iraq War without conditions (and voted to authorize it in the first place); massively expanded the President’s warrantless eavesdropping powers; immunized lawbreaking telecoms; enacted the Patriot Act and then renewed it with virtually no changes; didn’t even bother to mount a filibuster to stop the Military Commissions Act; refrained from pursuing any meaningful investigations of Bush lawbreaking; confirmed every last extremist Bush nominee, from Michael McConnell to Michael Mukasey; acquiesced to even the worst and most lawless Bush policies when they were briefed on them; and on and on and on.  None of that has changed.  That is still who they are.

To this we could add the fact that today Senate Dems vote on whether Joe Liberman keeps his main committee chairmanship; all signs point to the fact they will allow him to do so despite the fact that he campaigned against the Democratic party and for John McCain.

But I guess railing against Congress doesn’t get you into the LRB on a regular basis! I guess that’s what blogs are for.

There’s no point being naive here. If Žižek really wanted to provide political analysis instead of empty rhetoric, why didn’t he look at what is actually going on to determine Obama’s position on Gitmo and extraordinary rendition? Paul Rosenberg shows how it’s done in a recent piece on Open Left. Rosenberg focuses on John O. Brennan, who with Jami A. Miscik is in charge of Obama’s intelligence transition team. Brennan in particular, as Chief of Staff for former CIA Director Georege Tenet is associated with the corrupt CIA culture of dubious evidence for the Iraq war and extraordinary rendition and even warrantless wiretapping. NPR have attributed Obama’s reversal on FISA and the issue of telecom immunity to advice from Brennan (if you remember, THE major policy push last spring by bloggers was to oppose such retroactive immunity: they failed).

Mel Goodman, former CIA and State Department analyst said recently:

John Brennan has defended the warrantless eavesdropping. John Brennan has basically defended all of the violations that were committed at the CIA in the run-up to the war and in the postwar period. So the signal this sends to CIA employees who tried to get it right-and there were a few who tried to get it right-is the worst kind of signal. And if this is Obama’s judgment about a national security team, it’s very reminiscent of what Bill Clinton did in 1993, when he appointed people such as Jim Woolsey and Les Aspin and Warren Christopher and Tony Lake to the national security positions, and all of them had to be removed before the first term was over. So this is very disquieting, what we’re learning now.

Well if it gets too bad, Žižek can always join the ELITE program:


* * *

Simon Critchley suffers a different problem: bad political timing. In 2006, the same year that change first swept America, he published Infinitely Demanding, in which he argued that the Bush administration had so dulled political sensibility in America that…change was inconceivable. We are all nihilists now, he argues:

there is a motivational deficit at the heart of liberal democratic life…if secular liberal democracy doesn’t motivate subjects sufficiently, then…[what will] are frameworks of belief that call that secular project into question (p. 7)

By this Critchley means radical Islamic, Jihadist and Christian fundamentalism (he draws a parallel between Bush and bin Laden). But even as Critchley was writing, that’s not what happened.

In reality, Bush’s popularity ratings had been in decline since about September 12, 2001, and 9/11 marked not the apogee of his presidency, but the beginning of its destruction and failure. Or if the 2006 Midterms are too thin gruel for you, despite it being a “wave” election (not a single sitting Democratic lost their seat), Critchley published his book just 24 months before part II, an election being called a radical realignment of the political landscape. Candidate Obama announced he was running for president in early 2007 and presumably encapsulates the rejection of nihilism Critchley identifies in the contemporary zeitgeist.

Certainly, Critchley is no Žižek:

[Obama’s victory] will have hugely beneficial consequences for how the United States is seen throughout the world.

Critchley’s argument is at least more reality-based than Žižek’s. It seems Žižek’s self-appointed role is to provide his readers with knowing nods and winks without providing any substance. In this, he adopts the philosophical equivalency of Sarah Palin.

But for Critchley, Obama is a hypocrit:

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.

Common good to be achieved through post-partisanship, is I think, likely to be the enduring weakness of an Obama administration. It is what leads to the decision to keep the Republican Robert Gates as Secretary of State and to appoint Brennan to your transition team. So Critchley is correct I think that Obama comes in emphasising a change from the extreme and toxic partisanship of the Bush administration.

But how structural is this? Would say President Hilary Clinton also have had to position herself this way? Maybe Obama’s policies are formed by the times as much as form them, at least at this point. The people have spoken and as Karl Rove said, they have spoken clearly: they want change from Bush, and they want both Congress and the White House in the hands of the Democrats.

Critchley also finds Obama to be lacking in radicalism; he will “normalize” capitalism by reversing deregulation (a question mark is warranted over that argument; perhaps better to say he will overturn elements of unregulated neoliberalism, espcially in the financial sector where the credit default swaps and subprime mortgages have resulted in the current recession) and return to the Constitution. Hard to argue against those and Critchley wisely doesn’t.

What he is really concerned about is what next. He sees a real possibility that prticipatory politics as a populist movement will dissipate.

The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simply exhausts 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.

I think this whole paragraph is wrong. First, the Obama campaign shows no evidence that it wishes YouTube, blogs, ActBlue, the Voter Activation Network, VoteBuilder, small donations etc. to go away. After all, he has to run again in four years.

Second, the popular political movement centered around the netroots and grassroots did not emerge around Obama, it pre-existed Obama, and as such it will continue with or without Obama. The political blogosphere for example, which is a large part of this, started over ten years ago with It will continue now that Obama has been elected. Of course the campaign is over and the campaign offices have closed (for now). But there are thousands if not millions of new registered voters, predominantly Democrat, and young (18-29) voters in their millions, again going heavily for the Democrats. Catalyst and VoteBuilder are going to track, contact and network these voters. Sure, the intensity will die down (we’re 2+ weeks after the conclusion of a two year campaign; a little rest is perhaps not unwarranted).

This year (and to some extent 2006) really saw the rise to the first stages of maturity of the netroots as a voice and outlet for alternative political views and activism beyond the traditional media (all of whom, by the way now have blogs–tell me again why that model is broken). GOTV practices, using VoteBuilder on the Democratic side (and VoterVault on the GOP side) are now well established and nationally implemented. They work (well most of the time; as a sometime data entry volunteer during the campaign, response times were a little slow to the database). Over $82 million has been raised in amounts averaging just $98.16 through ActBlue, the leading Democratic online fundraising site. Millions of people, not hundreds, not thousands, visit blogs every day (Daily Kos has a viewership larger than almost all the political programming on TV).

If anything I think the political blogosphere and loical political activism will be emboldened by its success this year. Everyone knows Obama’s campaign during the primaries and later the election was powered through local activism and by taking advantage of online networking (though that full story has yet to be adequately told). They will work to install and support more progressive candidates to replace the “Blue Dogs,” and to nullify and rebut conservative talking points (see Media Matters). Partisanship, Critchley should note, is vibrant here.

Indeed they are still working on behalf of those races which are not yet over; such as Jim Martin here in Georgia, or Al Franken in Minnesota, raising money, providing the latest voter tallies and providing reporting from the ground.

I love both politics and philosophy, but I do wonder (if Žižek and Critchley are exemplars) if they can really mix.


4 Responses

  1. Zizek, typically full of shit, doesn’t say WHY Obama doing nothing to reduce American hegemony is a bad thing. Anybody who studies power and history should know that no one is going to win the presidency with promises, or intentions, of rolling back American influence and power. Zizek may as well call the entire election, and any possible election, a failure (indeed, he may have already done so). The important question is what Obama will DO with American hegemony, and I think there’s no doubt that for people who actually care about human rights and welfare, his victory is a clear success in comparison to the direction the country has been heading over the past eight years, or even where it had been heading its entire history. Zizek can continue to be a contrarian hypocrite. Obama is going to do his best to help the world.

  2. […] Philosophers and politics: oil and water? « Foucault blog Eine Diskussion verschiedener Kommentare von Philosophen zur Obama Wahl (glaube ich – gelesen habe ich den Text nämlich noch nicht) (tags: philosophie obama usa wahl) […]

  3. […] Philosophers and politics: oil and water? « Foucault blog Eine Diskussion verschiedener Kommentare von Philosophen zur Obama Wahl (glaube ich – gelesen habe ich den Text nämlich noch nicht) (tags: philosophie obama usa wahl) […]

  4. i am a pastor in Lampung-Indonesia. I love this blog. Philosophy is in a creative intention between oil & water. Sometimes Zizek to pesimistic!

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