A short entry I wrote in elation immediately after the Obama election victory. The event seems a long time ago with Obama’s presence in the machinery of the White House becoming nearly taken for granted. I still hold onto the idea that his triumph does signify an utopian event in these dark times:
It has been absolutely unthinkable that an African–American would become president of the US in our times. Even if we secretly imagined Barak Obama might win the US election, deep down most never believed he would. The real surprise, even though Obama was predicted to win in the last few weeks, was that he did actually triumph at the ballot box. The impossible happened. The extraordinary enthusiasm and visible elation around the world, needs to be understood in the midst of deeply pessimistic, dark times, when the possibility of progressive change has been a distant memory, at this conjuncture, where the left is entrenched in a politics of cynicism and defeatism, the possibility of progressive change cannot even be imagined. In these times of neoliberal economic crisis and the futile global war on terror, the Obama victory is sign of possibility.
Thinkers such as Judith Butler and Simon Critchley, with their acute analysis of the inevitable false expectations and disappointments engendered by the new regime, are of course right about the severe limitations of Obama’s concrete policies, but are missing the effectiveness of the progressive utopianism of ‘Obamamania’. Obama may offer a continuation of the bankruptcy of the contemporary capitalism and American-led geo-politics, but the victory nevertheless is a indicator of political hope, even if his rhetoric was framed within American patriotism and national uniqueness. Even in terms of race, his victory is not necessarily an immediate sign of post-racial times but maybe of how racial politics are themselves integral to the broad social change. Race in the US, while central to the history of America, has also been regarded in liberal circles as a problematic stain on the ideals of the nation; something that needs to be eradicated, so that the nation can carry on with its democratic project. What Obama’s victory points to is how race is the modality through which social change needs to be articulated. Further, the grassroots turnout of the electoral vote of working class African–Americans is a sure sign of how class and race are integrally connected in these utopian politics.
While Obama is maybe an empty sign, a fantasy figure, the ‘over-identification’ with him pushes more and more impossible demands onto him. A whole generation of young, racially mixed people went out and casted their vote. This was no endorsement of the democratic system or even of the policies of the Obama-led politics, but a challenge to the present status quo. That in itself seems a radical act when we see the depoliticisation of young people, especially in the west.
What was probably the most moving aspect of the victory was the images of the older African Americans, many with tears in their eyes, repeating after the victory, that they never believed that we would see a black president in their lifetime. That this happened was itself an singular victory for anti-racist politics. It defied the assumption that positive racial change was impossible. It does not mean that racism has even alleviated but that in spite of the racism that has been endemic that a black man has been elected to the highest public office in the nation and the world. This in itself may represent a key catalyst for anti-racism at a time where notions of multiculturalism and cultural tolerance are being mobilized by conservative politics and corporate culture. The re-articulation of a language of racial hope and class politics seems possible by the rhetoric of Obama. While his victory is being dismissed as merely being symbolic, it is in fact at the symbolic level that the Obama victory is most politically significant.