Today America inaugurates its first black President. This momentous event will not, in itself, move the United States in a progressive direction. Indeed, there are no significant indications of a major change in policy.
On the day of Barack Obama’s election victory last November, the Evening Standard billboard at King’s Cross Station announced, “Obama Mania: Shares Surge”, thus vindicating in an instant what critical race theorists call “interest convergence” – not as they would have it between people of colour and white people per se, but more a shared interest in the election of a black Democrat between people of colour and national and international capital.
As Anindya Bhattacharyya has pointed out, while 73 per cent of the poorest households voted for Obama, so did 52 per cent of the richest ones. Top-down corporate mobilisation meant that by “mid-October [Obama] had raised a massive war chest of $640 million and spent $250 million on TV advertising”, while the budget of his rival, John McCain, was just $47 million.
The presence of this corporate capitalist machine behind Obama is not to deny the symbolic importance of his victory. The unmitigated joy and pride of people of colour in America and elsewhere, transmitted globally, surely brought tears to the eyes of even the most cynical anti-racist.
However, in critical race theory terms, the election of Obama may well be a major instance of a “contradiction-closing case”. After all, it might become more difficult to uphold charges of racism in that deeply racist society: how can America now be racist when a black child can become president?
Historian Simon Schama told the BBC that this election “wipes away America’s original sin”, while five days after Obama’s victory, a black reader, Winston Drake, wrote to a newspaper, stating “[t]here is now absolutely no reason for black people to complain they are mistreated racially”.
But the election of a black President will not end racism in the US. In addition to the fact that the massively discredited George W. Bush is no longer of use to capitalists, the election of a more “liberal” and apparently more pro-worker President (but in reality one who is just as pro-capitalist and imperialist, though with his sights on Afghanistan rather than Iraq), makes it easier to manage the workers as a class, to control their organisations and to make sure that it is not the rich (other than perhaps a symbolic handful) who pay for the current financial crisis – no interest convergence here…
There are, however, more realistic grounds for optimism, in that the tens of thousands of volunteers who worked for Obama were drawn mainly from the ranks of people of colour, and more generally from the working class (as indicated by the percentages above). What is crucial is whether this electoral base can transform itself into a mass movement that might challenge dominant ideologies, not just around issues of “race”, but against war, unemployment and poverty and for free healthcare and education.
From a Marxist perspective, progressive change tends to come from below, and it is crucial that these temporary celebrations are translated into a more permanent oppositionary movement, one that might eventually call for the end of the system that sustains and promotes racism, imperialist wars, class exploitation and other injustices. Only with the demise of capitalism can celebration be long lasting. Only then can the symbol become real and material.
There are further grounds for hope, given that the election victory has come at a time when the inherent instability of capitalism is there for all to see and experience. The inevitability of “boom and bust” in the capitalist system, paradigmatic for Marxists, is firmly on the international agenda and can provide grounds for optimism of the will and cause for a renewal of energy for all progressive people.
Moreover, it provides space for educators to nail the lie that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism; it provides a lacuna to debate the real alternative to it and imperialism.
Calls for more state-managed capitalism, for New Deal-type measures, are now commonplace, but they will not end the inherent contradictions of capitalism. The space that has been opened needs to be filled. A debate about Marxism and socialism is not only more possible, it is also more necessary than ever.