What is the Meaning of Obama’s Election?


1. Questions

It is still said, maybe believed in Texas and Alaska, that in the American democracy the people are approximately equal and they are free in choosing and influencing those who govern them and deal with the rest of the world. In fact American democracy is hierarchic democracy. The American people, of course, like any other, is for general purposes rightly thought about in terms of classes somehow understood — as Americans themselves have lately been saying. The fundamental classes surely are neither equal nor free in choosing and influencing their government. They are instead a hierarchy, ranked from top to bottom.

So it has confidently been said. But patently the Obama election was unprecedented. More than that, it overjoyed most of the human race in America and in touch with America. It overjoyed me, along with others, to the point of tears. Next day no voice was heard against this fine thing at the common table of a London gentleman’s club in which I found myself, a table whose conservatism until then was impervious to the outside world.

There are questions we still don’t hear about the election and questions we do.

Is it now too simple to say that American democracy, like the English democracy that superimposes on itself crown, prince and little princelings, is hierarchic? If you make a judgement about this democracy, for or against, by what means do you do so, by what principle or whatever? There is also the commoner question of what will come of the Obama presidency, and the question of what ought to come of it, and the little question of whether some of us must now repent error about America.

2. Hierarchic Democracy

Certainly until the election anyone capable of detaching from conventions of vagueness, and capable of registering some simple numbers and their consequences, could come to contemplate a certain proposition. This proposition is that the top 10th of the American population in terms of wealth and income, that class, has about 1,000 times the political influence and power of the bottom 10th.

The first of the simple numbers in support of the proposition is that the top 10th of Americans in terms of wealth and income has about 70% of the wealth of the society. The bottom tenth has none — it owns nothing significant and probably owes more money than it has. In income, the top 10th has about 30%. The bottom tenth has about 2%.

There used to be Marxists. Whatever Marx’s percipience as moralist, denied by himself in favour of his view of himself as scientist, we did not need and do not need his metaphysical, historical, economic and political theory to know the connection of the wealth and income inequality with political influence and power.

What is needed is only escaping from self-admiring lesser intelligence, think-tank intelligence. What is needed is actually taking in what has been reported at least implicitly in decent newspapers about poverty, as against the profits of the finance houses and the stinking bonuses. What is reported, say, of the parents who only have time for trying to get for themselves and their unhealthy, ignorant and ill-fated children half a life.

Do you say that the actual proposition on American hierarchic democracy, that the top tenth has about 1,000 times the political influence and power of the bottom tenth, is plucked out of the air? Yes it is, in a way. It rests on fact, of which you have heard a little, but it certainly is not the result of quantification by known economists and political scientists. That is their failing, not mine. It is a failing of the known members of whole professions. Whether the estimate of about 1,000 to 1 is a little overdone or not, we are right not to be intimidated into hesitancy by their weakness in academic will and the pursuit of relevant truth.

Do you say Americans have been unequal in political power and inflence, all right, maybe just 500 to 1, but they have still been free? Do you have the idea, murmured by liberals for their own purposes for decades, that equality and freedom or liberty are two different things? And that they conflict — as taxes for universal healthcare conflict with the rights of money? Do you say that inequality in missiles does not affect freedom of action, affect it long before they are launched?

There has never been a greater social and political nonsense. Suffice it to say, to the perceptive reader, or even a Pentecostal, that if you and I are in competition or conflict, and you become more and more unequal to me, in cash and maybe in the end in my having a gun, your voluntariness reduces at every stage, in the end to zero. Equality and freedom, where they matter most, are one thing. They are one thing in hierarchic democracy.

3. The Election

Did the Obama election refute, modify or anyway re-open the proposition that in America the top economic class has had and will have 1,000 or 500 times more political influence and power than the bottom class? Is there more to this democracy’s nature? Is it changing? Do some of us have to think now that the future obligation of Americans may not be the same as their obligation until now, which has been mass civil disobedience against their hierarchic democracy?

One part of work towards an answer will have to do with a fact rightly remarked on. The campaign of Obama and the Democratic Party raised unprecedented funds, about $640 million. McCain and the Republican Party had about $360 million, partly as a result of accepting public financing, which had some effect on their private donations. The totals are important, but less important than the source of the Obama donations. Somewhere on the way to half the $640 million was raised from small donations. It was raised from  people giving less than $200. It was raised, you might risk saying, from ordinary Americans.

It has to be allowed, I think, that the victory showed that American hierarchic democracy has had in it certain possibilities. It had in itself the possibility, in particular, that in an extraordinary circumstance it could rise above its grotesque inequality and subjection.

The circumstance, however, was not in itself the new ideas of raising money on the part of the Obama campaign, partly by means of the internet, or the military campaign of voter registration and the like. Causal explanation of anything interesting is rarely simple. Those several things can be said to have succeeded, but succeeded because of something more fundamental. They succeeded, in brief, because of two other more significant necessary conditions. One was a nearly unique national circumstance. The other was an absolutely unique candidate.

The national circumstance consisted first in two wars, inane and grisly to many, at least doubtful and self-hurting to many more. There was climate change in it too, and the denial of it refuted by hurricanes. There was the dimwit President. The circumstance came to consist more dramatically in what came out of nowhere at the right time, the collapsing of the money-system, until then supposed to be a natural edifice and defended and extolled as such by the Republicans.

There was something else that also came out of nowhere, a little earlier, the other significant necessary condition. That was Obama, the human drama of Obama. Because he was black, he was rightly perceived as having some humanity unknown or uncertain in previous presidential candidates. He was perceived as being bound by his own existence to humanity. He did not have to be more than black for it to be true. But he had, too, the freedom and audacity of intelligence, demonstrated where it always must be, by language.

The election might turn out to be the most consequential in American history. But, to come to what you do not need telling, it did not change the simple numbers with respect to wealth and income or the resulting inequality and subjection in political influence and power. Those things are with us. Nothing has changed, for example, with respect to what may be not only a financial but an otherwise politically valuable fact in the next presidential election, an answer to this one. That would be many more small donations than had by Barack Obama, gathered by wealth on behalf of a reactionary Republican candidate.

4. The Principle of Humanity

Do you anticipate an adverse judgement on American hierarchic democracy, more than implied already? Are you, maybe, superior in advance to any such judgements? Do you remember some first year philosophy and say that maybe there is no standard of right and wrong, no moral truth, only subjectivity? Does the weakness of so much political philosophy come back to mind?

Do you remember the social contract theory of justice of John Rawls of Harvard and that it sticks in its liberalism at the beginning, in something called the Original Position, and so is dead certain to get it out at the end? Do you remember that the neo-conservative Robert Nozick, also of Harvard, chose not to notice that a liberty is not any freedom, say a freedom to rape, but a freedom with justification, which latter justification he did not provide for the freedoms of his just society, where the starving have no right to food?

Do you remember stuff about human rights, much of it of good intention, some of it merely liberalism, all of it forgetful of the fact that every human right is trumped by another one, often the same right also had by someone else? Do you go further back, to Utilitarianism, or to the London School of Economics today, and note that Utilitarianism commits you to a slave class in a society when that will none the less produce the greatest total of satisfaction taking into account everybody, the greatest happiness of the greatest number?

There is something plainer, something blessedly short on theory, something without contrivance, loose abstraction, easy metaphor or readily manipulable generality. Hierarchic democracy is wrong in terms of fundamental right and wrong, right and wrong often understood differently, but open to being understood literally and clearly. It is so understood in the Principle of Humanity.

This is the principle that we are to eschew pretences of impossibility and the like, but instead take actually rational steps, steps that do serve a certain end and do not in themselves defeat it — the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. It is not that the end justifies the means, but that the end and the means justify the means.

Bad lives, and good lives, are not left obscured by the cant of our political classes, but defined in terms of the fundamental desires of human nature, our fundamental human goods. These are a decent length of conscious life, bodily or material well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, and the goods of culture. It not a principle of respect, of which we have too much. It is not a principle that pretends that there is a general exonerating or mitigating difference between acts and omissions. It is not so temperate in expression, so restricted to Parliamentary Language, as to serve pretences of reason and the tolerable in a society. It is the principle of the Left in politics, the Left when it is true to itself.

If the Principle of Humanity is an attitude, like all things ranged against it, including the Word of God, it is also a moral truth. It is such in virtue of being the  principle to which we are all already committed by our common human nature. One part of that is those shared fundamental desires. Another part is our all having and depending on reasons, these by their nature being general. You are committed to the Principle of Humanity or something very like it, for a start, by your justifying your escaping a bad life rather than somebody else’s having a still better good life, and your reason being by its nature general, useable by all.

What remains here is only to make explicit a judgement on hierarchic democracies, America first, a judgement resting at bottom on the Principle of Humanity.

As a consequence of the class-inequality and class-subjection, and the selfishness that is all that defines the political tradition of conservatism, our democracies have not had what alone can be the greatest recommendation of anything that has the name of democracy. Nothing else is near to this recommendation. Our democracies, that is, have not been in anything like accord with the truth that in making decisions two heads and hearts are better than one, and more are better than two. The truth, evidently, rests most of all on the heads and hearts having equal and free expression.

Our merely hierarchic democracies have instead been standing crimes against humanity. They have been such at home and abroad, in Kentucky and Iraq. They are taking from an easily defined group of Africans 20 million years of living time. They have made insignificant in its consequences what is ordinarily and dimly called terrorism, including the terrorism of the Palestinians against neo-Zionism in historic Palestine. American democracy is the product of two political parties owed to the class structure, the Democrats with a greater inclination to humanity but about as much constrained by a society organized in its denial of moral and other truth.

5. What Will Come of the Presidency?

Will the presidency of Obama falsify that judgement, trim or qualify it? We don’t know, any of us, but I and many others remember that there was once a lesser joy. It was a lesser joy only because of its being in a place now of less consequence for all of us. It is easy to remember another election, in Britain, that other hierarchic democracy, the election of May 2, 1997. It was to be, maybe, the end of the vile dragging down of Britain from 1979 by Thatcherism. Here are some recollections of that election written down before now.

“As the spring of 1997 came on, the state of Britain was…awful to me and others. A Conservatism despicable in its cupidity and stupidity was now at least questionable to all persons in touch with the world. All now had reasons in their own lives for doubt about the condition we were in, reasons of self-interest. … But the state of Britain now, compared with five years ago, was in fact not so much more disturbing that the Conservatives could not possibly win again. They might again call up benighted selfishness and make good use of it. …

…But during election night, despite this resignation beforehand, my feeling became the feeling of many, which was joy. Lovely joy. Long before morning, the shits were gone. Their electoral defeat was complete and unprecedented. Their departure had been long delayed, but they were gone. …

It took me aback, as my own joy did. Could it be that my paper on democracy and the need for it to be accompanied by civil disobedience…was put in doubt by this glorious election?”

Blair and those with him then did as much as Thatcher, indeed more than Thatcher, to worsen and disgrace a nation. The terrorist war against Iraq was not according to international law but owed to the pomposity of two shysters. It was owed as well to lying or culpable self-deception about weapons of mass destruction. It has been the intentional killing of innumerable innocents. In his own country, Blair made the poor poorer and the rich richer. He degraded the public discourse on which tolerable government depends, first by establishing that the response to a question need never be an answer. He reminded us that the aim of selling, whether in business or politics, is never truth. He reminded us that his conservatism is indeed that tradition in politics whose self-interest is without the support of any moral principle whatever.

May we anyway persist in the hope for America and the world that has succeeded the joy of the election of Obama?

The hope of Britain in 1979 was also owed to relief and happiness and hope, but it was different. The election of Blair had in it no honest openness. At the time it was left far more unclear what New Labour would do. It was the party that had changed its name, taken the public ownership of essential things out of its founding document, had in it the sociological bumble of a Third Way in society, but it was also the party that declared its allegiance to a history whose unsurpassed contribution to civilization was the National Health Service.

Obama did not take only small donations, and he has also been a politician in that line of life’s necessity of concealment. He has not been and is not being as open and specific about all the policy or inclination to policy that it is reasonable to think he has. But he has been more specific than Blair. He undertook, and not merely conjecture, that the rich would pay a little more income tax, that the very poor would not pay any, that corporations would not be able to feed off a society and its laws and institutions while escaping contributing to it by having an address somewhere else.

Obama undertook enough to make talk of his ‘socialism’ useable. He left us in little doubt about the direction of change as distinct from how far it would go. To his eternal credit, whatever happens, he made his countrymen at least smile at that sum total of pretence of humanity and relevant intellectual content in the tradition of conservatism, the joke against reality of the trickle-down theory of economics and well-being. Blair did not make us smile at the wretched thing, but added to the number of its pious enunciations of the thing and the hypocrisy of it.

6. What Ought To Come of the Presidency?

Partly for reasons of which you have heard something, the Principle of Humanity is not hard to establish, despite the self-interest of us all. You can say that it alone is open to the proof that a principle of right and wrong can have, which is a consistency with our human nature. Something else implicit in it is as clear.

The supposed means to ends in our societies divide into three kinds: the real, the ineffective and the self-defeating. The exemplar of a political party devoted to the second and third kinds of supposed means, among other things cheaper, is of course Britain’s New Labour Party, the party of lofty shams, nearly as dismal and truth-averse under Brown as it was under Blair. From Obama, we can maybe expect something else, the use of real means, to the end of a recognizable idea of the Principle of Humanity.

There is something harder than the general question of what is right, and such general truths about means as to how to do it. What is harder are many more particular propositions about real means. You do not get to particular policies, for or against terrorism or anything else, by a leap from such a principle as that of Humanity. You get to them by way of propositions of fact, minor premises in lines of argument. Inevitably many of these are judgements of probability.

Still, some conclusions are evident. One is that the world is indeed patently in need of change, America will be ascendant in it for a while longer, and so America needs to change.

For a start, it needs to be led by its President as near as possible to a truth, for which only memory or some reading is needed. That is the truth that Islam is a great culture, of great peoples. If it understands them, it no more consists in killers than the great culture of which America is a part. Indeed by comparison, rightly leaving aside patriots defending their people against invasion and occupation, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islam has only little handfuls of killers. There is nothing in Islamic history in our centuries that is remotely comparable to the barbarism of our war on the people of Iraq and the illusion that our war on Afghanistan is our own actual self-defence.

Obama must remember that he can do more in history than Abraham Lincoln did in freeing the slaves. He can act for the world by acting in America. He can do more than anyone else to try to bring about peaceful revolution. No one supposes, and no one should suppose, that the end in view can come about by any other means than American hierarchic democracy, very importantly the means of a democracy first made less hierarchic, as it certainly can be.

No one supposes that some of the U.S. Army might wake up one day, as indubitably it should, and as the British Army once did, and might discover its own Col. Rainsborough, who says in good American and keeps alive the idea ‘Really I think that the poorest he that is in America hath a life to live as the greatest he’. So the future if it is to be decent is to be found in the indecency of American democracy.

There are other things about as clear. Of course the concentration camp that is Guantanamo must be closed immediately, and of course America must give up the torture that is alien to almost all of its people. The useless pretence that our armies remain in Iraq for the good of the Iraqis should be abandoned absolutely, and we should withdraw immediately. Obama should also see his way to something not half-witted about Russia, for example the truth that to be threatened by missiles on the puerile ground that they are only defensive is to be threatened by missiles.

Palestine, that cause of so much, the running sore of the world, is also clear. Zionism, the project and defence of Israel in roughly its original borders of 1948, has the clear justification of the Principle of Humanity. Neo-Zionism is the intention and policy, long-running and settled, to deprive the Palestinians of at least their liberty in the last 1/5th of their homeland, historic Palestine. Their defence of themselves against this, their liberation movement, their terrorism, also has the clear justification of the Principle of Humanity. Both Zionism and the Palestinian defence against neo-Zionism are to be reverenced.

If, unsatisfied by what you have heard, you ask what the Principle of Humanity is, one part of the answer is that it is the principle that has these consequences. It is inconceivable that human decency brought into clear reflection could do other than accord to the Palestinians a moral right to their terrorism against neo-Zionism within historic Palestine. Obama should think on this in particular, remembering the past of his own people.

It is also clear that in a circumstance in which an indigenous people is being destroyed in the homeland taken from them, there is every reason not to resist the arming of those who are capable of supporting them. Whatever may be said of avoiding further proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is perfectly arguable that Iran should not be obstructed from coming to possess them in order to have a power in support of the Palestinians comparable to that of neo-Zionism against them.

To come back to America, of course a New Deal is needed in order to bring about recovery from our economic crisis. What is not needed is deference to the those who brought it about. They are not only the money-grubbers in Wall Street, of course, but the rest of America in business that has given them respect. Where Roosevelt went before, Obama can follow.

What is also needed is a presidency of audacity that goes beyond its first thoughts about bringing Americans of moral distinction and force into its administration, or at least to the edge of it, maybe to give a lecture or two in the White House. The new presidency needs to bring in people whose line of life and powers and independence of character, free from the compromises of politics, have let them and made them think more about things, show the gross inconsistencies of America. The first of these people in America is the greatest of its academics, he who has transformed his own subject in the universities, and for his judgement on his own country has had the acclaim of the civilized world, Noam Chomsky.

7. Errors to Repent

There is an error for the likes of me to repent. There was indeed more hope in its democracy for America and hence for the rest of us than we thought. It is clearer now. Some other shits have gone. Here are sentences of mine that were in their conclusion mistaken.

“One smaller sample has to do with the American elections to the Senate in November 2004, when Bush became president again, this time by winning. Of the eight Senate seats where there was no sitting incumbent, and thus a real race, winners officially spent an average of $9,473,789, much more than the losers. One consequence of such facts is is a tremendous reduction in voter choice, a decimation of it. This is not about the losers. Ideas and options of potential candidates who cannot attract dollars and so do not run at all are never heard. No real reformer of health or corporation taxes is going to raise $9,473,789. He might get $100,000, and so he doesn’t try.”

In the Obama election, America achieved a kind of wonder. It showed the world that human nature, in its fundamental desires and in its ability finally to see by way of its reasons through absurd conventions of thought and feeling, can on occasion lift the hope of the world by the use of hierarchic democracy. Although main facts of that democracy are still there on the ground, I and others have been wrong. I do not persist in the mistake.

I do persist in something else. There can be an honour and courage on the Left that can never be had on the Right. That honour and courage is what is lacked, say, by any father in the conservative tradition. He knows that he is defending what he would rightly abhor and would in circumstances kill for if some tables were turned — if, that is, his child were growing up maimed by inequality and subjection so that somebody else’s child could ride to school rather than walk.

TED HONDERICH is Grote Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University College London and Visiting Professor at the University of Bath. His relevant books are After The Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003), Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War (UK: Continuum Publishing / US: Seven Stories Press, 2006), Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Pluto, 2006); Philosopher: A Kind of Life (Routledge, 2001).





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