Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Sad Decline of Brand Obama

Good reading for Day One of the spanking new post-Brown era of (what I fear will be) reinvigorated Democratic panic and retreat: Naomi Klein.

If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the international failure to regulate the financial sector, even after its catastrophic collapse, is that the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as "free market" but "crony capitalist"—politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now. Correspondingly, public rage at corporate greed is at its highest point not just in my lifetime but in my parents' lifetime as well. Many of the points supposedly marginal activists were making in the streets 10 years ago are now the accepted wisdom of cable news talk shows and mainstream op-ed pages.

And yet missing from this populist moment is what was beginning to emerge a decade ago: a movement that did not just respond to individual outrages but had a set of proactive demands for a more just and sustainable economic model. In the United States and many parts of Europe, it is far-right parties and even neofascism that are giving the loudest voice to anti-corporatist rage.

Personally, none of this makes me feel betrayed by Barack Obama. Rather I have a familiar ambivalence, the way I used to feel when brands like Nike and Apple started using revolutionary imagery in their transcendental branding campaigns. All of their high-priced market research had found a longing in people for something more than shopping—for social change, for public space, for greater equality and diversity. Of course the brands tried to exploit that longing to sell lattes and laptops. Yet it seemed to me that we on the left owed the marketers a debt of gratitude for all this: our ideas weren't as passé as we had been told. And since the brands couldn't fulfill the deep desires they were awakening, social movements had a new impetus to try.

Perhaps Obama should be viewed in much the same way. Once again, the market research has been done for us. What the election and the global embrace of Obama's brand proved decisively is that there is a tremendous appetite for progressive change—that many, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.

Those kinds of transformative goals are only ever achieved when independent social movements build the numbers and the organizational power to make muscular demands of their elites. Obama won office by capitalizing on our profound nostalgia for those kinds of social movements. But it was only an echo, a memory. The task ahead is to build movements that are—to borrow an old Coke slogan—the real thing. As Studs Terkel, the great oral historian, used to say: "Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up."

Our current Democratic elites have mostly made a hash of their impressive late-Bush-era election victories; they have impressive majorities in the House and Senate, but they've used them to further stroke the finance industry, to pass a too-small stimulus package, and to bypass more popular healthcare reform ideas (single payer and public option) in favor of a corporate-friendly mandate system that inspires no great devotion among anyone, either right or left. Their tentative, apologetic steps in any progressive direction are usually followed by immediate retreats. I wish I could be confident that they'd draw the right lessons from the Coakley defeat—campaign like you actually want the job, don't piss off your base, stop retreating from popular ideas because of corporate/Villager opinion, etc.—but I'm not.

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