Monday, August 24, 2009

What's Left?

A friend of mine recently lamented that the euphoria over Barack Obama’s election victory seemed to have waned since that thrilling November evening. While I could acknowledge some truth in what he said, fully sensing that the party fizz had flattened somewhat, I also detected something much more urgent in his comment. I suspect that beyond the historical implications of Obama’s win, as well as the ripe possibilities and hopes that it raised, there was also a utopian element at work in my friend’s expectations. It was as if his hatred of George Bush had been so intense that the love of Obama was, to some degree, just the other side of that coin.

For many on the left, Bush had made America the scourge of the planet which meant that (after Obama won) the world would soon be spinning on its proper axis again. The belief seemed to be, with Obama in the White House, that the violent insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan would now put away their toys and play nice. But the world hasn’t changed in that manner and the zealots (seen recently hampering the Afghan election) haven’t gone away. I do think that Obama sensed the unreal expectations being heaped upon him which is why he underplayed the significance of his election. He knew that the world he was about to confront was the same world that the previous President confronted. Their approach to it might be radically different, but he understood that the irrational ideologies threatening democracy were not solely the product of American corporate power.

This observation was further developed in an article in the Sunday Toronto Star by Angelo Persichilli, the political editor of Corriere Canadese, as he speculated on the recent NDP convention. He noticed that the New Democratic Party, in trying to find some relevancy on the Canadian political landscape, was invoking Obama’s name (as if Jack Layton represented Canada’s great hope for social justice). Persichilli suggested that the current economic crisis had “broadened the ideological spectrum” by forcing liberals and conservatives to move further left in fighting the recession. He saw that they were adapting policies historically the domain of the NDP (i.e. the nationalization of troubled corporations and government intervention in the market). Persichilli was criticizing the NDP though for abandoning those values because they were being endorsed by the “enemy” (i.e. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives). Elaborating on that point, Persichilli posed some lucid observations:

“The traditional left is looking to Obama for political inspiration. But Obama has repackaged economic ideas borrowed from George W. Bush. It was Bush who started the corporate welfare binge, giving billions of public dollars to banks and corporations like those in the auto industry. Obama supported this and now his administration is involved in running some of these enterprises and shaping the new economy. Layton, in contrast, chose to vote against the last federal budget without even reading it, consequently becoming irrelevant.”

What Persichilli is essentially saying is that the NDP position is formed more by what it opposes rather than what it actually supports. This is why he believes that Jack Layton prefers “positioning to principle.” None of this, of course, excuses the responsibility the right-wing corporate policies (or overreaching unions) share in creating this current mess. But the left or, in this country, the NDP need to (as Persichilli asserts) “go back to NDP basics and represent the clearly defined interests of the working class.” According to Persichilli, Layton should “drop old ideas based on the conviction that ‘American imperialism’ is the source of all the world’s problems and that socialism is the solution to all of them.” But is this likely to happen? I wish I knew.

In his 2007 book What’s Left? British left-wing activist Nick Cohen expressed these same concerns in a larger context. He looked around in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and saw some of the left acting as apologists for the Iraqi insurgents. Cohen also wondered why Palestine was the major cause for the left and not, say, the Sudan, China or Zimbabwe. (He also was curious as to why the left couldn’t, or didn’t, wish to define what kind of Palestine they wanted to see emerge. It was far easier to criticize solely the Israeli occupation.) Cohen perceived a left that had grown reactionary, rather than responsive, in the wake of 9/11. In that sense, it’s easy to see why the hopes around Barack Obama became so intense during the election campaign. But I wonder, in the years ahead, if the world continues to act out its long battle between secular democracy and religious totalitarianism, if Obama’s constituency will continue to support him with the same zeal. In the wake of 9/11, it was easy to lay all the blame on Bush. But, if the world doesn’t change, who will get the blame further on down the road now that Bush is gone?


  1. Hans Castorp here.

    Who indeed? That remains the perenniel question doesn't it? But might that that not also be a rhetorical question?

    But from my balcony in the alps, the news of the world seems rather blurry. perhaps its the altitude here. My friend Harry Haller often feels it too.

    Oh my, here comes that Jospeph Knecht fellow, he always drags his infernal game with him, its like the game 'go' but for thoughts instead of stones...


  2. "Who will get the blame further on down the road now that Bush is gone?"

    Well, for now, with Obama in the White House, the Left's obsession with Israel has become more single-minded.

    But anti-Americanism hasn't been fully forgotten. The Scots just let a terrorist out of prison in part to give America a poke in the eye (though mainly of course to endear themselves to the oil nations).

    And of course self-styled anti-imperialists will always hate America.

    So, further down the road, I expect things to revert to the pre-Obama status quo (even with Obama in the White House), with the Left hating Israel and America with equal lack of sense.

    P.S. Good posting.