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An Interview with Tariq Ali
The Obama Syndrome
by COLLIN HARRIS

I have no animosity towards people who supported and voted for President Obama. Well maybe a little, but only because I know your energy could have been put to better use. But if you vote, then given the options available, which is insanity or maybe slightly less insanity, then you could argue that it was perfectly reasonable for you to vote for what you perceived to be slightly less insanity. Maybe there was a time when there was some truth to this logic, and many would argue that there still is. This prevailing logic of supporting the lesser-than-two-evils, fitting for an era of diminished expectations, is the most important political resource of the Democratic Party and the typical cop-out for its “progressive” supporters.

It’s a useful cop-out. After all, how can we say a McCain Presidency, or now a Romney Presidency, wouldn’t be worse? How can you disprove such a statement? How can you compare Obama’s policies to the non-existent policies of some hypothetical Republican Presidency? Obviously, you can’t. Sadly, progressives have been reduced to comparing Obama’s record, atrocious by any measure, with what one of those crazy, rightwing nutjobs might have done, or might do in the future. That’s right, they’re using the counterfactual to explain away the cognitive dissonance induced by the reality of supporting a pro-corporate imperialist Democrat. This is the state of the mainstream American Left today. After all, we do have a rightwing lunatic to compare Obama to: George W. Bush, whom progressives proudly held in contempt as he plundered and blundered his way into the history books. What do we find when comparing Obama’s record to Bush’s? Nearly perfect continuity, even on policies that many people assumed were peculiar byproducts of a uniquely criminal Bush regime. It was clear from the beginning Obama didn’t intend to rock the boat, leading even Karl Rove, boogeyman to Obama’s progressive base, to praise the President for his reassuring commitment to the status quo. What is it that will finally deliver a deathblow to the logic of lesser evil-ism? What’s the tipping point for disillusioned progressives?  If giving trillions to Wall Street or assassinating American citizens without due process isn’t extreme enough then what is? Maybe we’ll find out in Obama’s second term. For those who don’t want to wait that long, a brief conversation with one-man political think tank Tariq Ali should do the trick.  Ali is a prolific author, journalist, novelist, historian, veteran activist, and world-renowned public intellectual. His most recent book is The Obama Syndrome.

Can you describe what you mean by the Obama Syndrome? 

A political disease. An ailment that afflicts even the most intelligent politicians—those desperate to enter the White house whatever the financial and political price they have to pay… in the US and we know only too well that there are not too many of them. Politics these days is little more than concentrated economics. No alternative to the neo-liberal system are permitted except the State is encouraged to bail-out the very rich and the rich. The Obama syndrome is a sensational demonstration of this fact: a mixed-race President and his black family enter the White House. The symbolism is important, but symbols often disappear rapidly as the rigours of everyday life and politics intervene. Then people see that politicians whatever theier race or gender must be judged on the basis of what they do…

What’s the role of mainstream progressives in perpetuating the messianic delusion of President Obama? 

They’re desperate. They like to think anyone but Bush and when the anyone, give or take a few token measures, essentially carries on like his predecessor many mainstream progressives go into denial mode. They blind themselves to the reality. When Jeffrey Sachs criticises Obama’s new budget from the left then the self-style progressives look very stupid stuck in coital lock with the President.

What’s your take on the logic of lesser evil-ism, the default, kneejerk response for defending one’s allegiance to Obama and the Democrats in general? What does this say about Americans’ political imagination? 

The traditional politicians of the United States are bereft of imagination or vision, with the marginal exception of Ron Paul on foreign policy. He wants the Empire dismantled and he speaks out against the craziness of even considering an attack on Iran.

An alternative political approach is desperately needed in the United States and, I must add in Europe and other parts of the world. Living  in a hollowed-out democracy where the form is preserved and much else is becoming rotten is depressing. We live under  the dictatorship of capital. At times it is necessary to vote against the incumbent of whatever party simply to register anger, but America needs a new political movement/organisation, call it what you will, to challenge the logic of capital and its wars. 

What has been its effect on the chances for serious social change in the U.S.?

Bad. Very bad. To get trapped in  the dilemma as to whether Obama will fight better wars and torture people more ‘humanely’ than Romney or some other Republican is foolish. When you accept the battleground of the centre you get lost.

Some would argue Obama can actually get away with more than a Republican president because of his savvy PR skills and the middle-class liberal propensity for hypocrisy and self-deception. It seems inconceivable that Bush and Cheney could have passed NDAA or claimed the right to assassinate American citizens without massive popular outcry. What do you think? 

This is certainly the case.  One can even imagine Senator Obama jumping up and down in manufactured rage denouncing these assaults on the Constitution.

How does Occupy fit into this picture? Do you agree that Obama and the Democrats are the biggest threat to the movement in terms of being co-opted and channeling that energy back into electoral politics? 

The Occupy movement is important precisely because it grew out of disenchantment with Obama. I’ve been arguing that a vital next step must be a Charter for Democratic and Social Rights that can be used to build strong bases against mainstream politics in every city. This means an agreed, minimum political program whose aim is to include rather than exclude people.

It seems that a massive, coordinated departure from the arena of partisan electoral politics and into the arena of movement politics is the most obvious course of action for dismantling America’s two-party duopoly. What do you think about this?

I agree totally, but movement politics on its own can disappear like a whirlwind does. A foundation for something lasts must be laid now.

What’s the cure for the Obama Syndrome? Is it much different from what’s needed to restore meaning to the American political system itself? 

No. The two objectives are, in fact, the same.

Collin Harris is a freelance writer and activist based in Portland, OR. He is launching MOSS Media in 2012, a grassroots media project using movements, music, and media to expand the boundaries of cultural possibility in the 21st century.