Barack Obama and the Internet for Activists Conference
An excerpt at Liberal Conspiracy from the Fabian book about Obama gives me the perfect opening to return to last Saturday’s conference, “Internet for Activists.” I was speaking at it, on a panel with one of Obama’s many net campaign managers, some anonymous chap from the anti-scientologist movement and an anti-deportation activist. My speech focussed on Liberal Conspiracy’s efforts as regards the defence of women’s rights during the HFE Bill debates, but in the course of my summation I also introduced a wider question about activists.
Surely, I thought, the sort of campaign that we individuals want is one built and run by, and accountable to, activists. I contrasted that vision to the reality of Obama’s election machine – though (inevitably) a dissenting view can be found from the Obama campaign manager who attended. Obama may have at one stage been an activist, but when he ran for President, he was a US Senator. Obama was actually backed by banks such as Goldman-Sachs to the tune of almost a million dollars – and they weren’t the only ones.
Wall Street executives “bundled” for Obama, throwing big events which were used to collect in staggering amounts of money. Names from Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase can also be found on Obama’s list of donors – not to mention that several figures were tapped by the great man to help put together his administration. Because nothing says activist or accountable like investment bankers on the payroll. In this, the Democrats actually outdid the Republicans for a change – these companies gave more to Obama.
The book about Obama, and the wave of American political change he’s riding, misunderstands the relationship between activists and power. It discusses MoveOn.org as a group that linked up over common issues – and that’s great. It can exert pressure through the media, it can provide a forum for debate free from the jingoistic distortions of the Republicans and it can highlight information neglected by the mainstream – but only in the crudest way possible can sites like that hold any individual politician to account for the power they wield.
Say that in four years, America is mired still further in economic crisis and Obama hasn’t turned it around. A group like MoveOn.org could tell it like it is and provide these wonderful services which activists need, but that won’t mean a better Democrat in power – it’ll mean a Republican. Online campaigning and record levels of individual donations, even if these things are put to use through the ultimate individualisation – the Primary, will not have changed Obama’s record in office, the same way they didn’t stop the Iraq War or Clinton’s impeachment.
Our “Internet for Activists” conference didn’t discuss these things at all – I didn’t want to pick a fight when I was only there at someone else’s request, to tell a particular story about a particular campaign. I did, however, outline my basic view of praxis – in this case the interrelation between our online war of counter-contextualisation against the mainstream media, and our relationship with a specific political movement. It is the question of that relationship which is at issue when we talk of Obama as an activist.
To begin with, I need to define what political movement I’m talking about. My goal is to knit together a movement, potentially numbering in the millions, who will not just put individuals into government but will collectively redraw government from the ground up. This is the goal of every socialist revolutionary – what CLR James described as the Paris mob taking a hand. I feel justified in using my vision as paradigm here because Obama used a lot of rhetoric which is appropriate to such a notion of grassroots, collective politics.
Yet my goal is not the same as Obama’s goal. There are many things about Obama of which I approve, but he’s not interested in expanding the power of a grassroots, collective movement. People were invited to do their bit for him, whether via MyBO or the millions of dollars in individual online donations – but that’s not grassroots on the basis that between Obama and those people there is no real connection other than that they share some of his ideas. There is no accountability.
To respond that these people will have the chance to de-select Obama in four years is to ignore the nuance of politics. Most of us who consider ourselves on the Left would rather have Obama than any Republican. So this leaves the grassroots, those activists who give of themselves, with little real clout. As in the UK, the grassroots can be taken for granted in electoral politics because they can’t vote for the other side – however bad Labour gets, the Conservatives are always going to be worse.
In America, through the primary system, they can choose between candidates – but the millions of people involved in campaigning are tied to individual politicians, not to each other. The relationship is heirarchical, not associative.
When, at the conference, I demanded a movement led by activists, this is what I was referring to, which seems to have escaped Karin Robinson in her rebuttal (linked to above). Barack Obama is not John Kennedy, no one is pretending that he is – but the absence of a politically dynastic family background doesn’t make Obama any more “of” the people, much less a one man government “by” the people. Within American politics, there is no provision for government by the people except 2-, 4-, or 6-yearly elections.
In between times, activists have no power to control their elected officials. Moreover, even when it comes to elections, there is the power of the media to consider. Without an organised, activist-led, accountable movement, the way is open for politics to become simply another form of marketing. This is the problem I have with Sunny in the comments section of the LibCon article; when we are relying on people like Glenn Greenwald to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire”, we forego our own need to do that.
The problem is, we have no way to do that.
Labour has had fights about this issue since the 1918 constitution. Conference, the united body of Labour activists and their representatives, regularly came into conflict with the PLP, led by a Labour Prime Minister. The result was a defeat for the activists – the PLP flouted the desires of Labour Party members. When activists were in the ascendant, the Labour Party moved sharply to the Left; when activists were weak, the Party bureaucracy fought back, divesting conference of much power.
Hence Labour is now in its current impasse; power in the Party is held by the Party bureaucracy – the PLP, the Trades Union leadership and so forth. Activists are not the arbiters they should be – since upon activists rests the greatest responsibility for the movement as a whole. Moreover, its with an activist-led movement that lies the only chance to escape politics as marketing and an endless series of talking heads. This is something we share with our American and European cousins, and this is why I made a dig at the Obama campaign.