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     Sep 25, 2010

Humanist manifesto
Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics by Horace Campbell

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Presidential literature is an established genre in the United States, with reams of print devoted to the personal and political traits of each occupant of the White House. The bulk of such works tends to focus on the leaders in high office, their nature, foes, allies and policies, not on them as symbols of broader trends sweeping American society.

There are few among the presidential authors interested in a "people's history". But senior peace activist and political scientist from Syracuse University, Horace Campbell, has succeeded in linking epic shifts in US society to the rise and tenure of President Barack Obama. Far from the run-of-the mill hagiographies and screeds, Campbell's new book uses the Obama phenomenon as a peg for a reflective exercise on the unjust past and hopeful future of the US.

As the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis such as rising unemployment, hunger, homelessness and despair became clear, ruptures in American history have deepened. The hardship has exposed the inadequacy of Eurocentric concepts of rationality and domination over nature. At this point, argues Campbell, philosophies that compartmentalize human beings have lost traction as new modes of organizing economy and polity emerge on the bedrock of "shared humanity".

The author portrays the grassroots mass movement that catapulted Obama to power as a manifestation of the present juncture, where the ethos of "including all" is replacing hierarchical thought. It is revolutionary in nature since the neo-liberal ideas propping up the old order were untenable. The consciousness which legitimated individual accumulation of wealth at expense of society as a whole is in disarray. Linear notions of competitive progress and "unlimited growth" face a dead end in the American psyche. And the consensus that the US could consume the planet's resources through endless wars and military bases has waned as calls grow for reining in the Pentagon's budget and global sway.

The American educational system, which had been geared to "dumbing down" and supplying manpower for finance, insurance and real estate, is now forced to reckon with democratization of knowledge on a worldwide scale, while a rising belief that the Fordist model of production is disastrous for the environment has crept in.

Despite the above-mentioned portents, Campbell insists that the revolutionary moment has not yet reached a "climactic stage" in the US. For the non-violent, bottom-up political organization glimpsed during Obama's presidential campaign to mature, it will have to spread across the length and breadth of the country.

The author places Obama's "Yes We Can" wave in the participatory democracy traditions of yesteryear black liberation heroines like the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and the civil rights activists Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. These trailblazers represented the antithesis of the age-old "leaderism", "bossism" and machine politics of the Democratic Party, which had been dominated by Bill and Hillary Clinton since 1992.

Obama's political training in a multi-racial and multi-religious household, and later as a community organizer in Chicago, imbued a determination to break with the top-down mentality of conventional American political parties. He saw with his own eyes in the mid-1980s how Ronald Reagan's neo-liberal assault depoliticized community-based organizations in the name of individual self-interest. Awareness of his father's persecution by post-colonial elites in Kenya also fortified Obama's faith in the desirability of a non-racial democracy in the US.

One significant leap Campbell ascribes to Obama is that he presented himself "as a person, a human being - not a black candidate" (p 61), unlike scores of previous African American politicians who used to leverage for positions in the Democratic Party in return for delivering minority votes.

By his own admission, Obama stood on the shoulders of anti-racist and anti-sexist ancestors who sacrificed their lives for a more equal American society. Campbell adds that "Obama was taking the rights that had been snatched from millions after the 1877 compromise" (p 94), a deal that was struck between the Republicans and the Democrats to resolve the dispute of the results of the presidential elections of 1876 that former slaves in the South deemed the "Great Betrayal." It meant Republican efforts to assure civil rights for the blacks were totally abandoned.

The author highlights several organizational innovations that Obama's primary campaign employed in 2007-2008 to counter the vast patronage empire of the Clintons, which was marshalled by legendary Democratic spin doctors and "political consultants" like Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe. In training volunteers, "teaching and learning were reciprocal relations and roles were not fixed". (p 97) Campaigners told their own stories of finding life's purpose "to attract social forces who wanted change". (p 99)

Even before Obama turned into a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, an infectious optimism to expect the best or at least a favorable outcome pervaded his rank and file. Thanks to "distributed leadership", volunteers saw themselves as motivators and change agents in their own right.

Obama's campaign plan rested on the African fractal precept of "scaling up", wherein the house-to-house formations in one community would be replicated by county across a state, and then iterated state-by-state to reach the national level. Campbell reminds readers that the much-touted Internet-based wizardry of the Obama team was not mechanistic but rooted in people and relationship building. With over 50% of campaign contributions drawn from small donors ($200 or less), social networking tools enabled a democratization of fundraising.

Campbell lauds the youth-driven small donor revolution as a product of "interplay between structure and spontaneity" (p142), classical music and jazz. He credits the novelty of the Obama campaign with converting amateur average Americans into professionals, while reducing professional political pundits into amateurs.

Yet, once Obama's route to the presidency eased, big corporate elements jumped onto his bandwagon to attempt an eventual demobilization of the radical core, which was deemed temporarily necessary for electoral victory. Campbell documents from firsthand observation how conservative planners and lobbyists blanketed the Denver Democratic National Convention in August 2008. He notes the contentious process by which the convention stifled debate on pressing questions of the financial crisis, US wars abroad and climate change.

In the presidential election campaign, a special attribute of Obama's volunteers was what Campbell depicts as "a high level of political and cultural literacy". (p 181) Such meticulous capacity building engendered "a new nested loop of energized citizens". (p 182) Still, Americans had been dulled by corporate media for so long that the ongoing bailout of Wall Street worth trillions of dollars was not allowed to be the number one issue of the election.

Scare tactics in the camp of the competitor, John McCain, using the prospect of an impending terrorist attack, only further obfuscated the "economic terrorism" of over-financialization. Eventually, the economic meltdown did flatten the Republican candidate, whose resort to classic American wedge issues did not wash before Obama's "progressive majority".

After Obama took office as the new president, the mainstream media turned on the volume of stories lionizing him as a charismatic "Black Jesus" and savior. Many networks in his "Vote for Change" movement sank into a trap of "silencing themselves by looking to answers from Obama". (p 217)

As the grassroots coalition dissipated, the Obama administration stuck to neo-liberal practices of accepting the whims of financial barons and "securocrats" of the US military industrial complex. In the absence of collective mass action to pressurize the new regime, says Campbell, "Obama descended into the abyss of being a messenger for Wall Street". (p 224)

The book's final chapters emphasize that elections do not bring about revolutionary change. Rather, continuous organized actions of citizens do. Campbell sketches a parallel between Abraham Lincoln and Obama to draw the lesson that only propulsion from independent movements from below can push American presidents towards social justice. He uses a memorable formulation to drive home the point: "It is not up to Obama, it is up to us." (p 274)

Campbell believes that decentralized and autonomous revolutionary tendencies are not dead in the US, but that fostering a permanently engaged "politics without intermediaries" would depend on social alliances which transcend outmoded ideologies of the "old left". (p 246) The book concludes by asserting that in an age of prolonged economic stress, if networks for peace and the environment keep crystallizing outside the realm of electoral politics, qualitative change is certain to come.

Campbell's radical tour de force is unique in combining sharp academic rigor with an agenda of healing the historic wounds that have grated American society. His book's uplifting and universally applicable message is to center politics on people and to realize that the power to change is within each of us.

Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics. A Revolutionary Moment in the USA by Horace Campbell. Pluto Press, London, August 2010. ISBN: 9780745330068. Price US$29, 344 pages.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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