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29 July 2010

The Hope for Change

Obama was doomed from the start. He was doomed before he even took the oath of office. He signed his fate during his campaign when he became the candidate of Hope and Change. Shortly after the election, I wrote an essay for a class, which I also published in part here, in which I essentially accused Obama of (perhaps unintentionally) co-opting the spirit of change that was percolating in the American public. I said in that essay that Obama couldn't ever manifest the change that he promised, and predicted that his election would bring about more disappointment than hope. At the time, I didn't really justify or thoroughly explain my position - mostly because the concepts I was working with were only vague impressions in my mind - but now I think I have a more solid idea of why exactly Obama was destined to fail.

The critique of Obama was not the main theme of my essay, and, indeed, it wasn't so much a critique of Obama himself so much as it was a critique of our political system as a whole. In the essay, I was really trying to do an anthropological analysis of the electoral process. I described it as a ritual in which "'...American society is disarticulated metaphorically every four years and then rearticulated through the election/inauguration cycle” (McLeod 1999; 360). The effect is to renew our vision of America, refresh or rearrange our values and ideals, and legitimate the position of our elected leaders as the embodiment of that vision (McLeod 1999)."

I then explained how Obama had followed this familiar path in his own campaign, specifically citing his nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention. Towards the end of the essay, I shifted towards my critique of the political system. "For those of us who view the world with a more cynical eye, the election ritual can present another, somewhat more sinister face. Behind the ritual sociodramas in which values and ideals compete for dominance, lies another motivation: the pacification of the American people, and the redirection of energy for change into a predictable and institutionalized format."

I described the electoral process as a kind of sleight-of-hand, similar to one described by David Graeber in terms of monetary value. For Graeber, value created in the mundane interactions of individuals is abstracted and reified as money and expropriated through ritualized exchanges by the Capitalist class (this is explained more thoroughly in Graeber's books Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, and Possibilities). The same could be said for the ritualized dramas of the election and politics in general, except that the values which are abstracted and reified are different from those in the economic sphere. In his election, Obama came to embody Change, and in so doing, his campaign drew upon energies for change that had been stirring for years in the American Public. These energies were channeled into his election and essentially pacified (though, maybe only temporarily). But, and here is where I failed to explain myself fully, Obama could never be the change that people expected of him - he could never fulfill that promise of Hope that he had come to embody.

Part of the explanation for this lies in that symbolic sleight of hand that I described. Change doesn't take place at a systemic level, but Obama had become, symbolically at least, the manifestation of systemic change. In practice, though, he is only one part of the system, and everything he does radiates outward through the many relations he has with other individuals and offices. Though his actions may change the system in many ways, those changes will not necessarily be widespread, and their effects will almost certainly be uncertain.

This is not to say that it was somehow wrong to elect Obama. What's wrong is that all of that energy for change got sucked into his election - as if his election was exactly the change that we had been seeking. And for a while, it pacified the American Left. They waited patiently for the change to take place. They tolerated his missteps and failures. They accepted or ignored his shortcomings. They gave him a free pass. Meanwhile, the Right was working to build a movement from the ground up. Had the energy that was channeled into Obama's election been allowed to radiate - to work toward transforming our day-to-day interactions, toward creating new ideas and new associations, toward building a better future - I think we might be in a better position than we are today.

People want change to be fast and easy. They want to change an entire system in the blink of an eye simply by electing the right person to office, getting the right peice of legislation passed, or even overthrowing the whole political system. But change takes time. It takes work. It takes billions of little changes - not a single massive change. What's more, change is unpredictable - it takes experimentation, an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to do some work. I'm not saying that we should eschew politics or elections, but that we should see them as only one tactic among many (and, perhaps, not a very powerful one) for creating effective change.


Timothy Morton said...

That's a great post. Did you hear Van Jones's talk to the Commonwealth Club? You echoed it almost word for word--you can hear it on KQED's archive I bet.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I had not heard Van Jones's talk, but will be sure to check it out now.

Jeremy Trombley said...

For those of you interested, you can listen to the Van Jones talk Tim mentioned here:
It is pretty much exactly what I'm saying in this post. The only difference is that Jones emphasizes political and economic change, whereas, I think that change has to be conceived more broadly. Politics and economics are too often taken to be synonymous with systemic change, when, in fact, they're only one small part of the system and subject to the same feedbacks and complexities as everything else.

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