We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a speech delivered in South Carolina on November 3, 2007, Barack Obama told his audience that he was running for the presidency of the United States because, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he believed in the “fierce urgency of now” and that “there is such a thing as being too late.” This was a speech marked not merely by an appeal to lofty ideals, a signature trait of Obama’s rhetorical style, but also by a carefully constructed criticism of the Bush administration and its descent into darkness. He used the occasion to renounce what he designated as “the politics of fear and cynicism,” promising to repair “the enormous damage” of the dismal Bush years, which included the debacle of Katrina and the undermining of civil liberties by the use of wiretaps. He railed against corporate lobbyists for “setting the agenda in Washington” and insisted that he would stop “passing bills called No Child Left Behind” in which teachers are “just teaching to the test.” He also combined the language of critique and hope by insisting that “we are not a nation that makes excuses for torture, we are a nation that rejects it” and that he would build a world in which “my children and their children have the same chances that someone, somewhere gave me.”
In his 2008 victory speech in Chicago, Obama once again stressed a politics of hope by claiming that his own election as an African American pointed to an “America where all things are possible.” But he also grounded his politics of hope and what it had accomplished in the struggles of everyday people who supported his campaign. For example, he talked about “working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.” He mentioned the civic energy expressed by young people whose actions thoroughly discredited the stereotype of apathetic youth and who rallied in great numbers to his cause. He also pointed to an older generation of Americans “who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers” on his behalf. And, again, he linked what he called a coming era of responsibility to the fate of young people by arguing that “if our children should live to see the next century, if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?”
In his inaugural address, Obama further called upon the American people to choose hope over fear and reject “worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics,” reminding his listeners that politics and government must return to a “new era of responsibility” as the price of democratic citizenship. And, once again, he referenced young people as a measure of such responsibility, invoking “the test of carrying forth the great gift of freedom” and its safe delivery “to future generation.”
As the iconic harbinger of hope and a more democratic future, Obama’s appeal to “the fierce urgency of now” was evident, once again, in his speech to the NAACP in July 2009. Yet, unlike many of his other speeches, this one incorporated a number of ideological positions that suggested his commitment to redressing the mistakes of the Bush years was less firm than his previous positions had suggested. In the NAACP speech, he pointed to the evils of racism, citing the disproportionate influence of the wealth gap, unemployment, spiraling health care costs, HIV/AIDS, the housing crisis, and the effects of the economic meltdown on African Americans. And he spent a considerable amount of time talking about the ways in which public education does a horrible disservice to the needs of poor minority students, which he defined rightly not merely as an African American problem but as an American problem. He cited the legacy of Jim Crow and how it continues to structure high unemployment, the housing crisis, and the energy crisis, all to the detriment of African Americans. Obama also took a necessary detour through history and invoked W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. for their “fierce passion for justice” and for how they both understood the need to critically educate the public about the evils of racism, make the machinery of power visible, and forge anti-racist struggles in broad social movements. As he put it:
From the beginning, these founders understood how change would come—just as King and all the civil rights giants did later. They understood that unjust laws needed to be overturned; that legislation needed to be passed; and that Presidents needed to be pressured into action. They knew that the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation had to be lifted in the courtroom, and in the legislature, and in the hearts and the minds of Americans. They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people. It would come from people protesting lynchings, rallying against violence, all those women who decided to walk instead of taking the bus, even though they were tired after a long day of doing somebody else’s laundry, looking after somebody else’s children. It would come from men and women of every age and faith, and every race and region—taking Greyhounds on Freedom Rides; sitting down at Greensboro lunch counters; registering voters in rural Mississippi, knowing they would be harassed, knowing they would be beaten, knowing that some of them might never return.
But this particular speech took an oddly conservative turn when he wrapped it up by urging blacks to assume a sense of personal responsibility, claiming “government programs alone won’t get our children to the Promised Land.” Echoing many of his right-wing detractors, he urged parents, in particular, to work with their kids to make sure they stay in school, while failing to mention the insidious zero tolerance policies that push so many of them into the streets or the criminal justice system, often for trivial behavioral infractions. He exhorted parents to raise expectations for their children, but then only made a passing reference to a prison-industrial complex that incarcerates many black youth in staggering disproportionate numbers and to the lack of public services and employment opportunities ravaging many African American communities. He urged parents to read to their kids at night, but said nothing about schools that fail to teach kids how to read because they lack resources and good teachers, and are overcrowded. Young people were told that to get ahead they would have to turn off the television, pull up their pants, and do their homework. Lost in this glaring understatement of what Cornel West in a recent interview on Democracy Now calls “the very ugly realities of poor and working class people” is any reference to a market society that defines their needs largely as consumers.
Taking a detour to the ideological right, Obama resorts to telling young people that they have to use their own wits and resources to get jobs, stay in school, and take on a measure of social and moral responsibility. At the same time, Obama’s call to personal responsibility failed to say anything about the Wall Street elites whose greed and corruption caused a worldwide financial meltdown and who were rewarded for their lack of personal and social responsibility with billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailouts. Moreover, the privatizing message of personal responsibility has a long history as a vicious racial code for ignoring the myriad of structural forces that promote discriminatory lending and zoning policies, segregated schools, the diversion of federal funds from much needed social programs to dysfunctional tax cuts for the rich, the exploitation of people whose economic choices are limited by predatory financial institutions, an economic Darwinism that destroys any vestige of the public good, and corporate-controlled dominant media who endlessly blame poor minorities of color and class for their fate. The message here is clear: “individual initiative” and “personal responsibility” for the poor, bailouts for the rich.
What is missed is that personal responsibility becomes empty rhetoric in a society that collapses social problems into private issues (other than to suggest it has washed its hands of the misery, misfortunes, sufferings of society’s members). Obama has turned his back on the perils of a society that has been overly deregulated, privatized, and corporatized. He has chosen to ignore what Zygmunt Bauman (“To Hope Is Human”) identifies as a society in which “Citizens are now abandoned to their own cunning and guts while held solely responsible for the results of their struggles against adversities not of their making,” and those who are poor and powerless are deemed superfluous, redundant, and disposable. Obama’s endorsement of the tough love ideology that one usually associates with the far-right Manhattan Institute suggests that he is reluctant to learn from the lofty ideals that have shaped so many of his own speeches. Predatory capitalism, state violence, the reach of the prison-industrial complex, and the rise of the crime complex governing much of the everyday existence of poor minority youth were put on par with the force of individual responsibility—engendering a collapse of the public into the private, and the systemic into the murky waters of individual character. Black pathology, given its overbearing power in American history, once invoked, serves, once again, to trump and cancel out those economic, political, and social forces at work to undermine democracy in the United States. In this discourse “the fierce urgency of now” becomes depoliticized and privatized as struggle is reduced to an individual affair, while a form of social amnesia regarding the history of repression is sanctioned. Ultimately, it seems the transformation motivated by the “fierce urgency of now” relies upon shame, rather than a struggle for power that could raise individual awareness and promote real structural transformation. Under such circumstances, Obama’s notion of hope appears to have less affinity with Martin Luther King, Jr. than with the upper-middle-class African American and decidedly post-racial Huxtable family featured on the Cosby Show.
Many of the speeches by Obama from which I have quoted embody the very contradictions that now shape Obama’s leadership in the White House. They register the promise of real change, on the one hand, and a willingness to undermine such change, on the other, by refusing to take seriously Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning in “I Have a Dream” about avoiding the drug of gradualism in order “to make real the promises of democracy.” At the same time, these speeches make visible an understanding of Obama’s view of hope as not only a crucial reference point for imagining a better world, but also a central dynamic for infusing politics with both a commitment to justice and a willingness to intervene in the world to change it for the better. Hope, in this discourse, like the promise of democracy itself, is neither romanticized nor divorced from material relations of power and the necessity of social struggle. In fact, Obama’s notion of hope, expressed repeatedly in his speeches and books, provides an important measure to assess the nature of his own policies and the distance between his commitment to a militant notion of hope and the oddly conservative agenda he has pursued in its name. All of these speeches also share another common thread. They all refer to aspects of Obama’s politics that are rarely talked about in the mainstream media, which include his focus on the promise of democracy, the well-being of young people, and the importance of education, equality, and racial justice.
For the most part, the mainstream media have focused on three basic crises—the economic and financial crisis, the health crisis, and the crisis of climate change—and how the current administration deals with each of these has become the measure that will ascertain the success of Obama’s government. Obama has handled all of these crises so as to suggest that his notion of hope is not merely in retreat, but is being utterly stripped of its emancipatory possibilities. The script is too familiar to repeat in detail. What is evident is that Obama has moved closer to the right wing of the Democratic Party, surrounded himself with advisors who were perpetrators in the financial crisis, compromised with pharmaceutical companies in constructing health care legislation, and allowed lobbyists to shape climate change legislation that now benefits corporate polluters. Even mainstream and popular liberals such as New York Times writers Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Frank Rich seem to be disillusioned with Obama. Krugman (“Reading Bad Actors”) is baffled as to why the Obama administration would oppose a House bill “setting rules for pay packages at a wide range of financial institutions,” observing that it seems to be operating off the principle that “what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.” Bob Herbert (“Anger Has Its Place”) remarks that Obama prefers to “walk through the fire” than spend his time addressing racial problems. But Herbert (“Who are We”) does not restrict his criticism to either the crisis of race or the ever prevalent economic crisis—he goes right to the heart of Obama’s retreat from the politics of hope in pointing to the administration’s dismal policies concerning Bush-era attempts to undermine basic civil liberties.
He cites Obama’s support for preventive detention and the state secrets privilege, the refusal to release “photos of American soldiers engaged in the brutal abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and a continuation of what is essentially a cleaned-up version of extraordinary rendition. He could have also made reference to Obama’s embrace of the Bush policy of issuing signing statements. Frank Rich (“Is Obama Punking Us?”) reminds us that the biggest thing to fear about Obama is not that he is a socialist, as the looney wing of the Republican Party claims, but “that he is a corporatist.”
These policies, launched by the Bush administration and threatening to erode the very foundations of our civil liberties, have been examined in great detail by many on the left as well as by some moderate progressives. Glenn Greenwald, the ACLU, David Cole, and a host of prominent writers have joined the fray in criticizing Obama for not only extending but also reinforcing many of the egregious policies instituted by Bush as part of the war on terror. Other progressives have pointed to Obama’s refusal to support the most empowering elements of the Employee Free Choice Act, thus undermining the right of workers to form unions. Similarly, many liberals and leftists have been alarmed over Obama’s continuation of the tough crackdown on immigrants initiated by the Bush administration. In all of these cases, there has been a profound discrepancy between Obama’s rhetoric and his political actions. Chris Hedges (“Nader was Right”) is particularly insightful in capturing the contradictions and false promises at the heart of the Obama administration. He writes:
The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury to enrich the corporate elite as rapaciously. It will not give us universal health care, abolish the Bush secrecy laws, end torture or “extraordinary rendition,” restore habeas corpus or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of citizens. It will not push through significant environmental reform, regulate Wall Street or end our relationship with private contractors that provide mercenary armies to fight our imperial wars and produce useless and costly weapons systems.
Hedges has responded to Obama’s retreat from the politics of hope and real change by arguing that “Our last hope is to step outside of the two-party system and build movements that defy the Democrats and the Republicans. If we fail to do this, we will continue to undergo a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion that will end in feudalism.” Hedges has no desire to try to influence the power elite from within. He believes that only a mass movement unequivocally on the side of socialism will be capable of mounting the collective struggles and change necessary to reclaim the power and the tools for a viable democracy.
Peter Dreier (“We Need More Protests to Make Reform Possible”) argues that while there is considerable anger among the American public over a number of Obama’s policies, extending from health care reform to the war in Afghanistan, such anger is meaningless unless it is mixed with hope. And as he rightly puts it, “to be effective politically that hope has to be mobilized through collective action—in elections, meetings with elected officials, petitions, e-mail campaigns, rallies, demonstrations and even, at times, civil disobedience.” With the election of Obama, hope, for many progressives, seems to have exhausted itself, as if it had found its final resting place in the election of an African American president. But hope never ends, because no society has perfected democracy or is democratic enough that the “fierce urgency of now” becomes either outdated or irrelevant. Hope needs both a discourse and a sense of possibility, just as it demands a concerted effort on the part of individuals and social movements to combine the pedagogical conditions for creating an informed citizenry with a sense of urgency that demands informed action. At the heart of this struggle, though neither Hedges nor Dreier mentions it, is the need to make the crisis of agency and the importance of education and pedagogy both central to such a politics. A democratic politics demands an informed citizenry, especially at a time when citizenship has been reduced to consumerism while politics and agency appear largely drained of any substance. Obama defied the onset of cynicism for a short time, and one feels compelled to ask the question, how did he successfully resurrect in his presidential campaign the issue of agency through modes of education that helped defeat John McCain? Put more abstractly, what does his victory suggest about the role that intellectuals, unions, educators, workers, parents, youth, and others might play in rethinking how the media, schools, Internet, newspapers, and any other sites can be utilized as important pedagogical spheres that become central sites of struggle? Such a struggle will need to create a sense of public urgency, affirm democratic public values, and provide the conditions for the growth of ready and willing individual and collective agents for change.
Ironically, Obama himself has provided both a language for and an example of how this might be done. He used the new media to spread a message of hope, he made clear that the Bush administration had created a nightmarish crisis of such proportions that the very nature of democracy was in peril, and he masterfully reached out and educated a wide range of constituents to support his candidacy. His call for people to educate themselves in the spirit of citizen activism, find cracks in the system, put pressure on politicians (including presidents), and take to the streets for the causes they believed in can be found in many of his speeches—and can be read in retrospect as both a plea and a blueprint within the current historical moment to create new mass movements to continually challenge Obama himself, pushing him to move away from his centrist tendencies and the conservative pressures of corporate-driven party politics.
The new era of responsibility that Obama talks about found resonance in his own attempts, against great odds, to inspire people to take chances, take risks, and exercise civic courage in order to deepen and expand the possibilities of a substantive democracy. But that responsibility was not meant to be either privatized or romanticized, or relegated to a strictly individual task that depoliticized politics and furthered the myth of Obama as the iconic, solitary, heroic symbol of a new future. On the contrary, it is a discourse of responsibility Obama forged in the heat of politics, power, and struggle, one in which matters of agency and politics transcended the space of the privatized individual.
But once Obama assumed the office of the presidency and surrounded himself with the captains of corporate power, his call to responsibility was fueled by a notion of hope that downplayed its emancipatory potential. Politics after hope was sabotaged by a movement of centrists, lobbyists, market fundamentalists, militarists, and right-wing ideologues who believed that there was no longer any need for either hope or struggle. And it is precisely this bankrupt notion of responsibility and politics that must be challenged by those who imagine a very different politics from both the Obama administration and from emerging social movements. In opposition to a hope uncoupled from a viable radical democratic politics, there is a need to forge a notion of possibility motivated by the collective responsibility of a mass movement that is capable of creating and sustaining a new kind of politics, one that does not end with Obama’s election but sees it as a starting point for a new level of mass protest, collective struggle, and movement building. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for “the fierce urgency of now” suggests the need to forge mass movements that can push Obama further to the left and begin the long, difficult, but necessary, task of developing a third political party. There are too many people suffering both in the United States and abroad at the current moment to put all of our efforts toward the one goal of building a third party—we need both short-term and long-term strategies for change. Obama urgently needs to be pushed into reclaiming his democratic sensibilities and attentiveness to the suffering of those most disenfranchised by the dominant society. But there is still one even more foundational, and therefore more pressing, task than calling for bold action from Obama, new social movements, and a radical third party.
What is most needed in the present historical moment is a concerted effort to create the educational and political conditions necessary to resurrect a new kind of citizenry capable of thinking through and acting on the problems that threaten to destroy both the United States and the planet. This political precondition suggests that central to any viable notion of political agency is the issue of education and the multifaceted role it must play in developing both the spaces for a new kind of civic and critical subjectivity and the tools and tactics necessary to support a social movement capable of challenging official power while maintaining the sense of urgency needed for restructuring the entire economic, social, and political order in an effort to overcome the current crisis of democracy. This civic culture can then provide the foundation for the emergence of a mass movement that struggles to educate and push Obama in a new direction while at the same time opening up new public spheres for alternative political parties and social movements. There is a dire need for a social movement that not only demands fundamental structural changes but is also capable of connecting diverse struggles as part of a larger movement for political, economic, and social transformation. This is not a question of ignoring particular agendas and often isolated struggles but affirming and reaching beyond them to a set of common interests that can both strengthen their impact and broaden their understanding and struggle for a radical democracy. We need a politics that recognizes the local but is also capable of connecting it with the totality of interrelated and myriad projects that constitute a truly anti-capitalist project.
Obama offered hope, but has instead embraced corporate power; in doing so, he has put the democratic connection between hope and politics into exile. Obama’s notion of hope has succumbed to a politics that has lost its hold on the present as he now ignores the sufferings of everyday people, shirks the responsibility to protest injustice, and defies the need to disrupt the workings of empire. At this early stage in his presidency, the cracks and contradictions are clear, but so are the possibilities for a different kind of politics after hope, one that suggests that history is open and power is not confined to the elites and power brokers in the military, financial sectors, or government. The passage from passivity to anger to engagement can begin by recognizing the gap between Obama’s inspiring calls for change and the actual policies he has put into place. It is precisely in the space of this tension between what is and what ought to be that politics can be reinvigorated by educating the public with the very same words that inspired so many of them to vote for Obama in the first place. This education does not rest by pointing to the swindle of fulfillment that followed the election, but asks what can now be done to go back to a politics in which hope is only the beginning, not the end, of what it means to see and act otherwise.
Hope provides the conditions for humans to imagine how things can be different from what they are in the present. When armed with knowledge, it links the power of judgment to the urge to change the world around us. When dismantled in the discourse of cynicism, perfection, or finality, it loses its sense of possibility and dissolves into a world where tensions fade away and conflicts and contradictions cease to exist. A politics after hope recognizes that hope is never finished; it always remains uneasy in the face of unchecked power and never stops its quest for equality and justice. Politics after hope recognizes that the fate of the future is never settled and that democracy is always a process of becoming rather than a state of being.
HENRY A. GIROUX holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.