On Facebook i have been having a very interesting exchange with my friend Ajamu Baraka about the November 6th election. Yes, Ajamu and i disagree around the question of whether to critically support Obama, but what has struck me about the exchange is that despite our differences, it is principled and sober. I regret that Ajamu and i disagree (i do not like to be in disagreement with people i like and respect) but disagreements are natural and can be productive.
At the heart of the disagreement that Ajamu and i have, however, is a question of whether a Romney/Ryan presidency would both be no worse than an Obama presidency but also whether a Romney presidency would, in fact, expose the toxicity of the system in a way that might galvanize opposition.
At different points in the history of the global Left–and certainly the US Left–the suggestion has been offered that a more blatantly repression regime will clarify the contradictions in such a way that it will catalyze masses of people into action. The most extreme variant of this is the suggestion that ‘…the worse things get, the better they are…’ In real politics, the slogan of the Communist Party of Germany in 1932 was “After Hitler, us”, with the obvious suggestion that the rise of the Nazis would so alienate masses of people that they would turn to the Communists. History did not quite work out that way.
Ajamu and i agree that both Obama and Romney seek to lead the empire. We also agree that whoever wins, opposition and movement from the Left must be developed, encouraged, organized, etc. to push for an alternative set of politics and economics. There is no difference there. Where we tend to disagree has to do with how we see this very moment and how to engage in electoral politics.
My view is that, after seeing one Republican after another enter into office, the worse things get…the worse things get. Yes, under certain very specific conditions a repressive regime or administration can catalyze resistance, but that is also tied into the level of organization that has been developed over time. Spontaneous resistance, in the absence of organization, can often be crushed or thrown into chaos.
When i have suggested that an Obama victory offers a certain amount of “space” it is not to suggest that an Obama victory means that we are on the road to a progressive transformation of the USA. It means precisely what i said, i.e., that there is some space within which we, on the Left, can do some levels of organizing but also because there are some reforms that will simply be easier (not easy!) to win. To put it another way, there are actually life and death decisions that are related to the outcome of the election. Yes, repression can and will happen. Let’s not be naive. There are alliances (whether tactical or strategic) between different forces that have been interrupted by gun-fire! There are moments when one supports a party, organization or individual only to be turned on. The question is not whether one will be turned on but whether one is prepared in advance for that possibility (or eventuality). The world is covered with examples of organizations and parties that placed total hope in an ally only to be crushed later. So, there is no room for illusions in an actual political moment.
It is also important to unite with a point that Ajamu raised that under so-called liberal administrations there can be a demobilization of the progressive forces. We saw that under Clinton and Obama, for sure, though it was interesting that under JFK and LBJ, masses were in motion. In either case, Ajamu and i agree that during the four years of the Obama administration there was a demobilization. Certainly there were areas of resistance, e.g., among the LGBTQ forces and many immigration rights activists, but at the national level, forceful pressure was played down, largely by the leaders of liberal and progressive social movements and organizations. That needed to have been challenged much more and much more vocally!
A final point: our revulsion with the practices of a particular elected official is important but is not the same thing as a political analysis linked with strategy. We may adamantly oppose a particular political leader but that does not mean that in a contest with someone else that we take a pass.
I continue to argue that the November 6th elections are a referendum on the changing demographics of the USA and, second, whether government should have the right to redistribute even a modicum of the wealth. I wish that this were a referendum on other matters. It is not. Therefore, the question is how to we respond to the actual, objective referendum. One part of that response is where Ajamu Baraka and i agree: after the election, the struggle continues irrespective of who wins. The question remains, under which administration are the conditions for progressive struggle (and victories) more likely. If one thinks that a more repressive administration will provoke a mass, progressive and spontaneous response, i would only suggest reviewing a few key moments in history.