Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Open Letter on Obama Campaign & Citizen Activism

To a friend, fellow activist, and intellectual colleague:


As I said in an earlier email I really appreciate your participation in responding to my general call for various perspectives and stances on the Obama campaign. Many of your comments and much of your analysis is obviously correct when it comes to properly identifying the ideological strengths and weaknesses of Obama vis-a-vis other presidential contenders for the Democratic Party nomination. Clearly, most of what you've said here is not only intellectually accurate but irrefutable. I wouldn't argue with most of what is stated here because as you know I already agree in principle--as a fellow socialist and 'radical thinker/activist'--with the fundamental ideological and political bases of your arguments. There's clearly no denying the highly reductive, utopian, and crudely positivist aporias that motivate, confuse, and mislead so many Americans--of every nationality, "racial group", and gender identity. The questions you raise and the critiques you offer are absolutely crucial to clearly addressing and struggling through the huge maze of contradictions, blindspots, infantile motivations, and false consciousness that haunt, manipulate, and torment so many African Americans (as it does so many 'other Americans' as well). We wouldn't be intellectually honest or politically mature if we didn't admit and seriously seek to confront these limitations.

However, having said that, it appears just from your comments here that there is a crucial dimension of both theoretical and practical politics that you have neglected to acknowledge and address. And that is the paramount issue of linking one's ideological and theoretical ideas, biases, and agendas to the inherent dialectical (and dialogical) realities of grassroots activism and participation (i.e. praxis). For example: The structural reality of electoral politics vis-a-vis the much broader democratic necessity of mass-based political education and mobilization is precisely the tension between unavoidable contradictions and constraints that are the automatic result of engaging people to organize on behalf of much larger goals than merely getting someone elected. Which is to say: Every political struggle-- whether in the electoral realm or in the mass participatory fight to initiate and carry out reforms and/or various "revolutionary" agendas--must be informed and guided by the dynamic principle and disciplined recognition that as we encounter opposition, confusion, ignorance, corruption, reductionism, dogma etc. etc. we must NEVER FORGET that WE as thinkers, writers, artists, activists, CITIZENS have an obligation to engage each other in a creative discourse no matter how "uneven" and "distorted" the intellectual and political development of certain members of our various "communities" (however they are defined) are (or we THINK they are).

This means that we must always be (and remain) highly conscious, aware, HUMBLE , and VIGILANT about the evidence of these limitations and blindspots in both OURSELVES AND OTHERS because not only do we ALL have them, but we ALL must, from our collective and multivaried positions, perspectives, and experiences (desires, needs, fears, anxieties et al) engage in STRUGGLE with each other over WHAT is important and necessary and WHY. This is what real, authentic activism and theory IS. It is this particular synergy of concerns, needs, desires, and aspirations that constitutes a sound and viable PRACTICE/PRAXIS. Without this creative paradigm of thought and action we can't possibly determine HOW we are to proceed toward CRITICALLY TRANSFORMING our understanding of WHAT is to be done and WHY.

What does all this have to do with the Obama campaign and the electoral Democratic process of selecting and most importantly ORGANIZING PEOPLE AROUND a 'viable candidate'? Well, first of all it's IMPERATIVE that we not merely inform or tell people what specific CATEGORIES of thought, behavior, and belief they should deal with. We have to go far beyond just using what the radical philosopher and educator Paolo Friere brilliantly referred to as a "banking" or "receptacle" method or model of (political) education and become deeply involved and immersed instead in a dialogical and dialectical approach TO KNOWLEDGE AND ACTIVITY THAT WILL ALLOW EVERYONE INVOLVED IN THE ONGOING PROCESS OF DEMANDING AND WORKING FOR REAL "CHANGE" (and not merely as a rhetorical device or empty campaign sloganeering) to realize and work toward substantive reforms and radical proposals that are much greater than the celebrity of any one candidate. This means that no matter who is the nominee--Obama or Clinton--since our preferential ideological choice--Edwards--doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of actually gaining the nomination--we must continue to struggle for and actively demand that these politicians own up to the structural and philosophical IMPLICATIONS, if not the ACTUAL CONTENT of what they say. So the real job before is much greater and much more impoertant than merely deciding "who" gets the nomination, and thus the opportunity to "run" for President. As activists, as intellectuals, as workers, as thinkers, as CITIZENS we have much bigger fish to fry. Because no matter "who gets in" from the limited field of what is frankly two rather highly compromised NEOLIBERALS at best (Obama & Hillary) WE STILL HAVE TO MAKE DEMANDS OF THEM AND PUT FORWARD OUR OWN AGENDA(S) NO MATTER WHAT. It of course it won't be "easy" or "automatic" or even "satisfying" as far as those sentiments go, but it will be a genuine mass-based struggle for REAL CHANGE THAT ADDRESS NOT ONLY REAL ISSUES AND CONCERNS, BUT REAL CONTRADICTIONS in again both "them" and "us." These are not idle or mushy sentiments. That's what real reform and real revolution are actually about and it's an endless process that we MUST continue to struggle to elevate from one level of consciousness and praxis to another. As C.L.R. James so aptly reminded us in his profound and magisterial text MODERN POLITICS (1960):

"All development takes place by means of self-movement, not organization by external forces. It is within the organism itself (i.e. within the society) that there must be realized new motives, new possibilities."

Change (of political economies, cultural structures, philosophical verities, ethical truths, historical patterns, community institutions, etc.) can only be realized through CONSTANT intellectual, physical, ethical, and empirical activity that dialogically engages, critiques, embraces, and opposes various forces "within the society itself." The proof of the veracity, effectiveness, or clarity of one's various "positions" lies not in our heads or even hearts but in our social, cultural, political, and 'moral' interactions and challenges with others. Aside from this kind of civic and organizational work no revolutionary or reformist change (strategically, tactically, programmatically) is possible. As we deal with the inevitable problems and limitations of what exists in the political sphere of this country--both inside and outside the electoral realm--we will have to remember that African American citizens (as well as all other Americans) are both far MORE and far LESS politically 'sophisticated' than we think they are (just as WE are as well; "Intellectuals" MUST remember that or we seriously risk turning into mere pedants, snobs, hacks, nihilists, and cynics--all of whom are enemies of any genuine revolutionary process and activity.

I have much more to say about these issues and concerns vis-a-vis Obama, Hillary, Edwards etc. but for now I'll end my windy disquisition at this point. Ultimately what's most important for us all is that we must remember THERE IS A LOT OF NECESSARY WORK TO DO AND NO ONE BUT OURSELVES CAN DO IT--BUT WE CAN'T AND SHOULD NOT DO IT ALONE. True democracy won't come about because we "always already" know what the "proper categories and understandings" are but only through constantly and critically, and assiduously looking beyond what we think we know and understand to what we must ALSO KNOW, INVESTIGATE, AND CONTEND WITH. And the absolutely essential bottomline is that we must ALWAYS SHARE WHAT WE KNOW AND ALLOW OTHERS TO SHARE WHAT THEY KNOW WITH US. This goes for the Obamas and their supporters, as well as the Clintons, and Edwards within these political spheres. Besides we have to have a broader knowledge and understanding of what to combat and oppose, as well as what to embrace and defend. We can only do that through struggle and work with the forces that actually exist. Not merely the thoughts and desires we carry around in our heads (no matter how "fancy", "deep", and "wonderful") we think those thoughts and desires are. One last James quote that I think is relevant and I'll check out for now: "One cannot change in one's head that which can only be changed in society." Later comrade brother...


P.S. When I finish my final draft for the long piece I'm currently writing on the Obama campaign and what I think it means I will send you--as well as all other participants who respond to my call-- a copy for your critical appraisal.

"At the risk of sounding ridiculous Iet me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality."

-Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967)