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I can’t deny the exhilaration I felt on Tuesday, November 4th when the presidential election was called for Barack Obama. When people in my working class multiethnic neighborhood started setting off firecrackers and shouting out their windows, my housemate’s daughter joined them. The feelings most of us felt on knowing that the reactionary Bush regime was on its last legs were genuine emotions of hope and relief. Our job now is to turn the critical support that Obama received from many on the left into a movement that strives to return the focus of the movement away from the man and his victory and towards ending the war/occupations, etc. To do this, we must engage the issues. The most important issues are the issues of imperial war and capitalist failure. We should understand the difference between the symbolism of a black man winning the presidency of the United States and the reality of a moderate liberal free marketeer who believes that there is a war on terror and that it can be won by killing Afghanis and other people whose religion and culture are used to define them as the enemy.
We need to learn from history. For starters, this means push for and support any left leaning reforms proposed by Obama and oppose his reactionary efforts to continue, expand and intensify the war on the world and the impoverishment of the nation. As activists, we must resist cynicism and embrace the desire for change. The Obama campaign on the ground reminded me of other bourgeois popular movements that were supported by the national left in those countries–Peoples Power in Philippines comes quickly to mind. This reform movement rid that nation of the Marcos dictatorship, but replaced it with a regime that entrenched itself in the neoliberal economic politics of its day. The Philippines remains a nation that fails to serve a large number of its people. In short, we must keep in mind what we already know–that the defeat of the reactionary Bush regime and the election of Barack Obama is merely the first forward step in a long time in a struggle that is even longer. Even more importantly, the Left must help the larger numbers of antiwarriors and seekers of economic justice understand this as we organize and work to make our most fundamental hopes come true.
How then, do we do this? There are two key elements. Politics and organization. Let me discuss the second one first. This is where we can learn from the Obama campaign. As an observer, I was impressed by its grassroots nature, steadiness of message, understanding of its purpose and its relentless yet levelheaded pursuit of its goal. There are a couple elements here that the Left can surely learn from, no matter what the political situation is in the world. We must understand our purpose and maintain a relentless yet levelheaded pursuit of our goals. Opposition to the occupations and wars of Washington must be organized with an understanding that it is imperialism that causes these wars and that understanding must be translated to the grassroots. Resistance to the capitalists’ theft of the peoples monies for their aggrandizement must be explained for what it is–the natural workings of monopoly capitalism, not some aberration due to greed and lack of regulation. We know this because we study this. It is necessary that we make this knowledge better understood by many more people. After all, people do want to understand why their world is so screwed up. The election of Obama and his message of change is evidence of that. His presidency is almost certain to prove that the change he is referring to is not going to be enough.
Obama’s message is one that encourages inclusiveness. We have all heard him say that this nation is not the “blue states of America or the red states of America, but the United States of America.” No matter what we think about the red, the blue or the red, white and blue, the fundamental message of this statement is that humanity shares several commonalities and that is what we must emphasize. As leftists, we must naturally go beyond the commonalities of our humanity and address the commonalities shared by those whom we wish to organize–the working class and its allies. There are many organizations on the progressive and left side of the political spectrum here in the US. They are naturally composed of both members of the working class and their allies. A few that come to mind are labor unions, SDS, UFPJ, ANSWER, and even MoveOn and the Green Party. In addition, there are other informal movements and networks organized around death penalty and prisoner issues, immigration and sanctuary issues, women’s and TBGLT issues and so on. Add to that the national networks opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on drugs and you come up with a substantial number of folks. This is our potential base. This is who we must debate anti-capitalist politics with. This is who we must enter into coalitions with–coalitions that will rebuild the movement against the war and torture; coalitions that will end the police state actions of the immigration authorities and insure full human rights for those who live in this country without papers; coalitions that will expose Wall Street for the gang of criminals that it is and insure that working people and those without work but looking benefit from any bailouts legislated in Washington; and so on.
We have lived under one of the most unabashedly antidemocratic regimes in US history for the past eight years. We have seen principles written into this nation’s most important document–the Bill of Rights–openly and gleefully violated and buried. We have seen the richest people, the corporations and banks in this country steal without shame from the national treasury. We have seen authoritarian bigots impose their regressive and racist dogma into the national conversation and law books, sometimes under the pretense of security and other times under the cloak of a religion built on hate. We have seen men and women sent off to kill men, women and children in the name of power and wealth. We have heard the politicians and technocrats in Washington discuss the torture of other human beings as calmly as they touch the switch that lights the national Christmas tree every year. The blatant contempt we have felt has resulted in a despair I haven’t seen since the dark days of the early 1970s when Nixon and his secret police were using whatever means they could to destroy the popular movements of the 1960s.
The election results on November 4th, 2008 prove to us as much as anybody else that, despite this recent legacy, many residents of this land hope things can change. History has not always been kind to those with hopes such as these. After all, this nation, like all nations, has seen times worse than these past eight years, only to have their hopes picked up by some politician speaking pretty phrases but limited by his determination to resolve the crises he faced while leaving the very system that created the crisis intact. Yet, hope is better than despair. I leave you with a quote from the 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin:
“Revolutions are born of hope, not despair.”
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org