Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA (London: Pluto Press, 2010) by Horace Campbell
Reviewed by Wilson Idahosa Aiwuyor
The election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States of America in 2008 was unprecedented, and took place at a critical moment in the history of US and world politics.
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A book written in 2010 by Horace Campbell, Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA, examines the economic, political, social, and historical threads woven into the revolutionary elections. Horace Campbell is the author of several other books, including Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation and Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney.
In Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics, Campbell offers explanation for the current political climate in the U.S., and proposes a new theory for politics, couched in the African humanist philosophy of Ubuntu.
Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics interrogates the conventional understanding of revolution, usually the violent ousting of an existing order by self-acclaimed revolutionaries (p xiii). It redefines revolution as a “fundamental transformation in the society, sustained by a consciousness of the challenges of the moment bound to a new form of thinking among the rank and file of the society” (p xiii). At revolutionary junctures, the old ideas that prop up the previously existing order can no longer sustain the new realities.
At the moment of the elections, five revolutionary challenges confronted the American society (p 11-15). First, a financial crisis led to massive government bail-out of giant corporations and some mega banks, against the laissez-fare ideology of neo-liberal economics. Second, the counter-productiveness of military might in international relations was being amplified. The third was the need to protect scientific research from old concepts of human hierarchy and conservative religious values. The link between consumerism and environmental destruction was the fourth challenge, while the fifth was the imperative for a break with vestiges of racist and eugenic ideologies.
The turmoil in the U.S. stock market on September 15, 2008 alerted the American public that the country was at a critical juncture which “will be recorded in the history, politics, and economics of the United States as an inflection point…” (p 184). The ripple effects of the financial crisis shook the fundamentals of American economy and politics as unemployment and loss of homes skyrocketed while the American economic hegemony was shaken.
Campbell argues that Obama was caught in this revolutionary moment, though he is not a revolutionary (p 271). As a major actor in the revolutionary moment, Obama leveraged the values and lessons of his upbringing and his training. He had been influenced by the humanist values of his mother and by the lessons he learned as a student of the black liberation struggles (p xiii). Also, his worldview of the historical struggle against domination had been broadened by his reconnection with his African heritage in Kenya (p 29).
Mobilizing for his election campaign, Obama tapped into the humanist philosophy of Ubuntu (which is an African philosophy that celebrates shared humanity). He invoked the kind of hope and optimism that had motivated African Americans to undauntedly assert their humanity and win their civil rights during an era when blacks were regarded as less than human (by what is known as the three-fifths compromise of American law).
The message of hope and optimism that reverberated in the “Yes We Can” slogan of the Obama campaign had been a tool of doggedness in the psyche of African Americans since the eras of slavery, blatant racial persecution (Jim Crow) and legal disenfranchisement. After witnessing a defeat in New Hampshire during the Democratic Party primaries, Obama sought inspiration from the memory of the historical black struggles. While preparing the minds of his supporters for the task ahead, he invoked dogged hope and optimism, saying:
“It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can…” (143).
Armed with his message and grassroots mobilization tactics, Obama organized Americans of different races and sexual orientations, attracting over 3 million small donors, about 8 million volunteers, 13 million email addresses and more than 2 million Facebook partners for his election victory.
Since Obama became president, the gigantic obstacles that his administration has faced in reining in the financial oligarchs and bringing about people-oriented reforms have made it obvious that the task of transforming society cannot be left for any one “messiah” without the kind of grassroots movement that had mobilized for the election victory. In fact, Campbell states unequivocally that Barack Obama is not a messiah and that he alone “as a person, cannot fundamentally alter the conditions in the society…”(p 27).
Indeed, it would require the Obama campaign kind of grassroots organization across racial/ethnic boundaries and societal divisions, stretched beyond election cycles and devoid of messiah complex to resolve the many challenges confronting societies in the 21st century.
The absolute challenge before the U.S. society after the election of Barack Obama was to deploy the self-mobilization strategy and agitate for genuine, people-oriented change. Instead, while those who perceived of Obama as a messiah waited on him to effect revolutionary changes overnight, counterrevolutionary forces arose and now threaten to reverse the gains that have been made.
The book argues that the counterrevolutionary force is epitomized by fringe groups, like the Tea Party movement, which stir up racism, religious extremism, anti-government sentiments, and anti-multiculturalism. They and their wealthy sponsors exploit the frustrations created by the economic crisis to whip up sentiments against Obama. They allege that Obama is not an American, and hence is not supposed to be President. Campbell quotes one Tea Party leader, Tom Tancredo, who mentioned that Barack Obama won the elections because the U.S. no longer has “civics, literacy test before people can vote” (p 253). That is only one of the voices advocating a reversal of the civil rights gains. In public rallies, they chant: “We want our country back.”
Against this backdrop, Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics puts forward a new theory of politics stating that, “a new concept of shared humanity must be the basis of social collectivism if humans are to survive the challenges of the 21st century” (p 2/10).
The book is a comprehensive guide for grasping the economic, political, social, and historical conjecture of events trailing the election of President Obama. It is a guide for comprehending the essence of grassroots mobilization beyond election cycles, and for understanding the urgency for a humanist approach to politics with the ultimate goal of harmonious coexistence in the 21st century.