Theorizing Obama’s Call to the Masses

Slavoj ZizekBarack Obama

As I’ve begun the process of forming an intelligent opinion on Hugo Chavez (with Alejandro Sanz providing me with some good insight into Chavez’ handling of criticism), I have re-read Slavoj Žižek’s “Resistance is Surrender”. In it, he posits that capitalism has proven itself to be “indestructible,” and so the question now is how we (on the Left) interact with government in a way that will best facilitate our desired changes.

Most might say that we in America have what he calls “Third Way social democracy,” in which we accept the impenetrability of global capitalism combined with liberal democracy but work within it for progressive change. But do we? So many have become disillusioned with our main parties because they don’t represent radically different choices. They will say that democrats have a duty to take on all progressive causes in order to earn the Left’s vote, even when the viable alternative offers progressives… nothing.

It is that kind of view which perpetuates what Žižek calls “an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics” that exists in a state of “mutual parasitism.” As the Left makes demands that the government cannot fulfill in the current system, or demands that can be made in small increments, or demands that call for a paradigm shift in the broader culture, the government will hold up these instances as examples of how the system is actually working for them. He illustrates it beautifully:

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

It is, “what we want, or nothing,” and this often becomes nothing because of the nature of the system and the citizen interaction with it. Especially when you hear quite often in the blogosphere that Obama’s talk of bipartisanship is a betrayal. People are “afraid” of the notion that compromises may have to be made in policy in order to push things through. If you don’t think that he will really push for progressive policy, and only make concessions when necessary, please think again. As well, he will push for civil rights even in inhospitable environments.

Žižek’s conclusion — that what will truly further the cause is to “bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands” that can’t be written off as too utopian — has everything to do with what Barack Obama has called for:

Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed. – Michelle Obama

Engagement in a meaningful way, that pushes for what can actually be achieved, is what is necessary. Ignoring or writing off the fact that other divisions exist, regardless of how irrational those people are, misses the point of the situation we’ve gotten ourselves in with “Third Way social democracy.” The way to work against hegemony is not to become a stubborn monolith whose demands amount to not much more than whining in the grand scheme of things, but to know what’s going on at every level of government and developing specific strategies. Large displays such as protests allow the group to be ignored as a fringe without any knowledge of how things “really” work.

And isn’t that the Clinton campaign’s argument against Obama? It’s all “false hope,” a “fairy tale”? Well it appears to be a little bit more than that. When Obama talks about a politics of the future, letting go of how things used to be done, it seems that what he has in mind is just what Žižek has, rather soundly, prescribed… at least in this one instance.


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