‘A Bogie Man is Haunting America’ By David Archibald The streets approaching Grant Park are lined with hawkers; ‘Blondes for Obama’ t-shirts go for 20 dollars; two-inch button badges are three for 10 bucks. Presidential elections are big and small business. Inside the park, 85,000 exuberant ticket-holders are corralled carefully into one security zone. An audience of up to a quarter of a million, overwhelmingly young, energetic, and white, assembles in a more relaxed area nearby. Tonight’s rally may have been organised by the Democratic Party, but the mood is more akin to a music festival than a political event. All eyes are trained on the giant screens broadcasting CNN. Is this the first major political event in history where the crowd turn up to watch television? As the results come in, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the outcome looks certain early on. On this spot 40 years previously, campaigners protesting US involvement in Vietnam at the Democratic Party convention were beaten savagely by the police. How many of the 1968 anti-war campaigners or civil rights activists would have predicted this? Obama’s opening words cast the Doubting Toms aside: ‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.’1 It was a theme first raised by McCain when he conceded defeat hours earlier: ‘I have always believed that America offers opportunities to all that have the industry and will to seize it.’2 Bush developed the theme the next day: ‘It shows a president whose journey represents a triumph of the American story, a testament to hard work, optimism, and faith in the enduring promise of our nation.’3 Symbols of the triumphs of the American story dominate the skyline on the west side of Grant Park. Monuments to power and capital, the city’s skyscrapers include the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US and the pinnacle of the International School of architecture. It was built by the Sears Corporation in 1973 to accommodate somewhere in the region of 7,000 employees. It is not visible from where the crowd stands, but in the racially segregated city’s south side, populated by two million black men and women, rich and poor, sits another monument to power and capital, Cook County Jail. A sprawling formation, perhaps only two stories high, it is the largest single-site jail in the US. A prison with a past, from the Haymarket Martyrs4 to Al Capone, it accommodates somewhere in the region of 10,000, predominantly black, male prisoners. It is important to recognise a victory when you see one, but, as the President-Elect invites the audience to ponder what is possible for one black man, one million black men are in prison throughout the US, a country with approximately 5 per cent of the world’s population and approximately 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. In March 2008, in a widely reported speech about race, Obama paraphrased William Faulkner: ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ His victory speech narrativises the 20th-century through the life of a 106-year-old black woman, Ann Nixon Cooper: ‘She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “we shall overcome”.Yes, we can. A man touched down on the Moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.Yes, we can.’ It is the past as progress. Theodor Adorno took a different view: ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the
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slingshot to the megaton bomb ... the One and All that keeps rolling on to this day – with occasional breathing spells – would teleologically be the absolute of suffering.’5 Let’s just deal with the latter half of the 20thcentury: Korea and China 1950-53, Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1958, Cuba 1959-1961, Guatemala 1960, Congo 1964, Laos 1964-73,Vietnam 1961-73, Cambodia 1969-70, Guatemala 1967-69, Grenada 1983, Lebanon 1983, 1984, Libya 1986, El Salvador 1980s, Nicaragua 1980s, Iran 1987, Panama 1989, Iraq 1991-2008, Somalia 1993, Bosnia 1994, 1995, Sudan 1998, Afghanistan 1998,Yugoslavia 1999,Yemen 2002, Afghanistan 2001-08. Tonight at least, suffering is not on the agenda; there is struggle ahead, but a happy ending is predetermined: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.’ The Messianic oration echoes Martin Luther King’s most famous speech: ‘But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land …’ Less well known is the Alabama preacher’s coupling of race and class in a speech in 1966 where he said: ‘You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars.You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums.You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then.You are messing with captains of industry … Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.’ The S word is seldom mentioned in US politics, but it featured strongly throughout this campaign, alongside the M word. ‘How is Senator Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?’ asked WFTV’s Barbara West when interviewing Joe Biden. ‘Are you joking,’
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he replied, flabbergasted.6 Conservative radio presenter, Laura Ingraham, stated: ‘You could make a plausible argument that a lot of his [Obama’s] associations are Marxist outlooks on how we should overthrow capitalism.’7 In Specters of Marx, Derrida’s rapprochement with a spirit of Marx(ism), written just after the collapse of the Eastern European bureaucratic states, when Marxism had never been weaker, he writes: ‘There are many who, throughout the world, seem just as worried by the specter of communism, just as convinced that what one is dealing with is a specter without a body, without present reality, without actuality or effectivity, but this time it is supposed to be a past specter.’8 If a spectre haunted Europe in 1848, the 2008 US Presidential election was haunted by a bogie man. Yet, as the current economic crisis ensures that Friedman’s freemarket economics and Fukyama’s end-of-history thesis take further, perhaps terminal, body blows, in Europe, Marx is being resurrected in a different guise. Sales of Das Kapital have increased sevenfold in Germany,9 while economic commentators have turned increasingly to his work. In the Financial Times John Plender writes: ‘Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but in 1893 he provided as good an account of today’s financial implosion as any living commentator. “To the possessor of money capital, the process of production appears merely as an unavoidable intermediate link, as a necessary evil for the sake of moneymaking. All nations with a capitalist mode of production are therefore seized periodically by a feverish attempt to make money without the intervention of the process of production.”‘10 Even Lenin is finding his way into the mainstream. The Guardian columnist Gary Younge suggests that: ‘It is rarely regarded as common sense to quote him [Lenin] in polite company,’ before doing just that: ‘Capitalists can buy themselves out of any crisis, so long as they make the workers pay.’11
In the final days of the election campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that he ‘left Europe four decades ago because of socialism’. He wasn’t talking about the National variety practiced by his Brown-shirt-wearing father. Schwarzenegger suggested that ‘Obama wants to pursue the same spread-the-wealth ideas that Europe vacated decades ago.’12 Writing in the Financial Times in the final week of the election, Edward Luce highlights how the wealth was spread around under Bush: ‘Between 2000 and 2006, the US economy expanded by 18 per cent, whereas real income for the median working household dropped by 1.1 per cent in real terms, or about $2,000 (£1,280, 1,600). Meanwhile, the top tenth saw an improvement of 32 per cent in their incomes, the top 1 per cent a rise of 203 per cent and the top 0.1 per cent a gain of 425 per cent.’ Luce goes on to draw comparisons with the eve of the Wall Street Crash: ‘In 1928, the top 1 per cent of Americans took in 24 per cent of national income, compared with 23 per cent today. Between 1940 and 1984 their share never exceeded 15 per cent and it was in single digits for most of the 1960s and 1970s.’13 The workers have been paying through the boom years, never mind the years ahead. The real question is why more of them don’t vote, or organise, for change.
The level of change on Obama’s agenda remains to be seen. ‘Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism,’ he says. On foreign policy he prepares to transfer US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, threatens increased (illegal) incursions inside Pakistan, voices support for the economic siege of Cuba but says nothing about the plight of the Palestinians. If Obama is a prowar Democratic President it will be consistent with the past. In his speech he praises the New Deal and has subsequently announced plans to create 2.5 million jobs as part of a broader plan to stave off a deflationary slump. Howard Zinn argues that ‘as the first African American in the White House, elected by an enthusiastic citizenry which expects a decisive move towards peace and social justice, he presents a possibility for important change.’14 What change Obama delivers, or what kind of change is forced from below, is yet to be determined. Breaking the two-party, dollar-fuelled dictatorship that is the US electoral system is a tall order, but that does not rule out possible political and social movements developing, movements inspired by Obama’s victory and driven by the economic situation. For the moment it is an important victory for the idea that the world can be changed, for a view expressed by Heraclitus some time ago: ‘The only thing that is constant is change.’
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The full text of Obama’s speech is available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/ us_elections_2008/7710038.stm CNN, 4 November, 2008. CNN, 5 November, 2008. The Haymarket Martyrs are commemorated in annual May Day marches throughout the world. Quoted in Terry, Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996, p. 50. Extracts of the interview are available at: http:// www.foxnews.com/video-search/m/21319071/ west_defends_controversial_interview. htm?pageid=63693 Bill O’Reilley Show, 9 October, 2008. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx:The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Translated by Peggy Kamuf), Routledge, New York and London, 2006, p. 47. ‘Marx popular amidst credit crunch’, http:// news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7679758.stm, accessed on 20 October, 2008. John Plender, ‘Shut Out’, Financial Times, 18 October, 2008, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ b63025ca-9cad-11dd-a42e-000077b07658.html, accessed on 19 October 2008. Plender’s date is wrong here, but the point stands. Gary Younge, ‘America has a terrible headache, but it seems like no one wants to cure it’, The Guardian, 29 September 2009, http://www. guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/29/ uselections2008.useconomy1, accessed on 29 September 2009. CNN, 31 October, 2008. Edward Luce, ‘Stuck in the Middle’, Financial Times, p.9, 29 October, 2008. Howard Zinn, ‘Obama’s Historic Victory’, l’Humanité, 8 November 2008, viewed on http:// howardzinn.org/default/, 10 November 2008.
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