Reflection On The Obama Revolution

BARACK Obama is an African-American, an “inexperienced” young man whose father was a Blackman from Africa, whose wife is a direct descendant of a black slave, or slaves, and whose middle name is said to be a Muslim name. Obama was not trusted – and perhaps, still not trusted – by a large segment of those who wield the ultimate power in America. In normal times, any of these five attributes was sufficient to deny Obama the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination. But not only did Obama win his party’s nomination, he proceeded to win the November 4, 2008 Presidential election convincingly.

The question is: Why and How? More directly, why was Obama not stopped by those who wield the ultimate power in America, those who (to paraphrase a local proverb in Nigeria) hold both the yam and the knife and are thus able to decide who should feed, who should go hungry and who would be advised to be patient? A frightening, but false, story about Obama on the eve of the election could have kept many voters away. Why was this weapon not deployed?

An answer was provided by The Economist, a leading global organ of free market economy, in its issue of November 1-7, 2008. “For all the shortcomings of the campaign, both John McCain and Barack Obama offer hope of national redemption. Now America has to choose between them. The Economist does not have a vote, but if it did, it would cast it for Mr. Obama. We do so wholeheartedly: the Democratic candidate has clearly shown that he offers the better chance of restoring America’s self-confidence. But we acknowledge it is a gamble. Given Mr. Obama’s inexperience, the lack of clarity about some of his beliefs and the prospects of a stridently Democratic Congress, voting for him is a risk. Yet it is one America should take, given the steep road ahead” (Editorial).

This editorial reminded me of a maxim in the history of revolutions, namely, that a revolution occurs when the ruling class can no longer rule in the old ways and the subject classes refuse to be ruled in the old ways. In other words when a ruling class can no longer propel the nation along the path it had chosen and the masses also reject that path, then a revolution – in the broadest sense of the term – occurs. The new national direction will not be the autonomous choice of the ruling class. This revolution may not always produce a new ruling class (or classes), or a new social order. But the resultant change may be sufficiently profound to be called a revolution. That is the way I see the clear and overwhelming victory scored by Obama in the American Presidential election of November 4, 2008.

There is another, less abstract, way of conveying the idea expressed above. In a period of deep crisis, the ruling class may be compelled to surrender power to social forces it does not like or trust, or allow the forces it does not like or trust, or allow the forces to come to power, or refuse to oppose their coming to power, or even assist them to come to power – provided the ruling class believes that these “alien” social forces can help it overcome the crisis and hopes to restore power to its “natural” location when the crisis is over. The United States of America was, and is still, in deep crisis and the ruling class allowed Barack Obama and the social forces he generated to come to power. Humanity is lucky that the “Obama social forces” are popular – democratic. In 1933, when Germany was in crisis, the country’s ruling class, frightened to its marrow, assisted Hitler’s fascist forces to come to power.

Taking a long view of history, I may repeat myself: Humanity has to be grateful to America for its 2008 choice.

Almost nine decades after the Declaration of American Independence – in 1863, to be precise – Abraham Lincoln, in a historic speech, repeated the essence of the Declaration. He said: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. It was during the American Civil War. Lincoln ended the short speech by asking his compatriots to resolve “that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Barack Obama repeated this declaration on Wednesday, November 5, 2008.

Abraham Lincoln gave us a powerful and elegant formula for democracy: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. It was an expansion of the formula given by ancient Greeks who created the concept: “government by the people” in contrast to “oligarchy”; government by a select few. Ancient Greece was a slave society. Even as he gave us this formula, Lincoln, according to some historians, was not an “ardent champion of slave emancipation”. As late as August 1862, these historians recount, Lincoln had said that his “paramount object is to save the Union, and not to save or destroy slavery”. Slave emancipation was proclaimed on January 1, 1863, twenty months after the start of the Civil War. And it took almost another century before ex-slaves were admitted into the ranks of “the people”.

So, were the Greek City – states not democratic? Was the United States of America – before the blacks were given the right to vote – not democratic? The answer is that they were democratic if you simply exclude slaves and women from the ranks of “the people”. What the ruling classes of both societies did was to “package” democracy for themselves. This practice of packaging, through outright exclusion, or “disempowerment”, or institutional “arrangement”, has continued to the present day. And each act of packaging has been presented ideologically as an elaboration of the Lincolnian formula. While some forms of packaging been carried out deliberately by the ruling classes, others have been the products of mass struggles.

Long ago, I read C.B. Macpherson’s The real world of democracy, a series of lectures delivered by the author over the BBC. The lecturer, in simple language, recounted the advent of “liberal democracy”. He told his audience that, contrary to popular belief, liberalism came long before democracy, and not the other way round. Put differently, it is not that democracy came first, and was later qualified or expanded by liberalism. On the contrary, the ruling classes gave themselves liberalism (multiple parties as in Lincoln’s time), but denied democracy to the subject classes. It was the latter that forced themselves into the system and brought about democracy and, in so doing, established “liberal democracy”.

In other words, this latter “packaging” – “liberal democracy” – is a product of popular struggles, not a gift from the ruling classes.

Even as the ruling classes proclaim liberal democracy as the end of history, popular struggles are continuing because there are still several forms of technical exclusion from this democracy and its “dividends”. Let me repeat a story I have told several times: In 1990, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, I visited the country for two weeks. One day my guide and I boarded a taxi from our hotel in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to the airport. We were on our way to Alma Ata (now Almaty), the capital of Kazakhstan. In the course of our discussion the driver told me that the Soviet rulers gave themselves “socialism” but gave the masses “capitalism”. In other words, the rulers packaged socialism only for themselves, leaving the masses, in whose name they ruled, in the “cold”. The man literally shut me up for the rest of the journey.

I have heard it repeated, over and over again, that democracy is democracy and cannot, and should not, be qualified; in other words, that there is no “African democracy”, “Russian democracy”, “Chinese democracy”, “Arab democracy” etc; that democracy is universal. I would have no problem with this idea if it is restricted to the Lincolnian formula” “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. But as soon as we move from this point, towards application or “packaging”, what we get is qualified, often heavily qualified, democracy. Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we admit it or not, the democracy we now practise, or are urged to practise, in the continent, has been specially packaged for us by the new imperialism. It is organically tied to neoliberal capitalism and the Washington Consensus. It is heavily monetised and technically excludes the working and toiling people, the “common people”. It is a cynical “package”.

In the wake of the Obama revolution, the task before the continent of Africa and its nations and peoples is to go back to the Lincolnian formula and package a democracy that will serve the people. In carrying out this task, we may need to re-examine a difficult question posed by Karl Popper in his April 1988 extended essay on democracy: “How is the state to be constituted so that bad governments and rulers can be got rid of by a majority vote, without bloodshed, without violence – but before they can cause too much harm?” (emphasis mine).

•Culled from THE GUARDIAN

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