Critchley on Obama (Again).


I think we should start a new series “So-and-so on Obama” as many people have expressed their opinion on the significance of the election. Simon Critchley’s take

Obama’s victory marks a symbolically powerful moment in American history, defined as it is by the stain of slavery and the fact of racism. It will have hugely beneficial consequences for how the United States is seen throughout the world. His victory was also strategically brilliant and his campaign transformed those disillusioned with and disenfranchised by the Bush administration into a highly motivated and organized popular force. But I dispute that Obama’s victory is about change in any significant sense.

So Obama’s victory is not about change. Check. It’s all about the search for unity which in politics, Critchley argues, translates into political moralism – exactly how that takes place is not really dealt with in the article:

The great lie of moralism in politics is that it attempts to deny the fact of power by concealing it under an anti-political veneer. At the same time, moralism engages in the most brutal and bruising political activity. But the reality of this activity is always disavowed along with any and all forms of partisanship. Moralistic politics is essentially hypocritical.

So Obama’s victory is all about the move away from partisan politics, or, I suppose, an apparent move away from partisan politics, it is an electoral strategy aimed to emphasize the divisive nature of the previous administration, i.e. it is a political move that presents itself as anti-political. How exactly was Obama concealing power? Wasn’t his whole strategy based on the promotion of the “power of the people”? So far so good. Critchley’s summary of Obama’s approach comes, unsurprisingly, mainly from Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope. He writes: 

Obama’s strategy is very clear. There is to be no change at the level of the state and capital. We must maintain and defend the state in its classical, liberal constitutional form and use the governmental mechanisms of the state to stabilize the current disorder of finance-based capitalism. Change alone consists in a moral-symbolic shift or recalibration that allows citizens to overcome their despair at the hands of Bush and reaffirm their civil faith in the US governmental system. 

So Obama is about change, but not the kind of change that is really required. 

The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.

What is it exactly that Critchley wants from Obama’s victory?

Politics, then, is the creation of interstitial distance through acts whereby collectives take shape… True politics does not exhaust itself in the play of representation and spectacle characteristic of liberal democracy. It is about the emergence out of invisibility of collectivities in the interstices of the state and at the limits of capital. 

I generally consider myself to be a somewhat educated person, but what exactly does Critchley say here? I understand that his critique of the general perception of the election of Obama as a true sign of coming change is all about the spectacle and visibility and the lack of “real change,” but how are we to know now what the effects of the election will be say in the next couple of years or so? Why is Critchley so sure that nothing significant will happen? Just because those in power do not seem to agree with him on what constitutes real change, does that mean that whatever the fake change they bring will not turn out to be somewhat influential in the long run? The last couple of paragraphs in the article read to me as a kind insider talk, a kind of arrogant commentary by a thinker who, of course, knows better than the stupid masses what the “real significance” of the event is. Yes, Critchley is saying, people are rejoicing in the streets, but that is only because they don’t know sophisticated words like “interstice” or “collectivity”…

7 thoughts on “Critchley on Obama (Again).

  1. I mean I think he has a point there vis-a-vis “moralistic politics” being hypocritical, but he doesn’t really make an argument connecting it to Obama’s rhetoric – what was so moralistic about his campaign? Or so unusual for that matter? He was running against the incumbent and did it from the classical “we need change” perspective. I think Critchley essay betrays a sort of hidden fascination with Obama’s ability to pose the questions, state the issues and to enforce them rhetorically, a kind of fascination people have with excellent speakers (regardless of the message) – but there was certainly more than simple excellence at public speaking (actually, it was not that excellent, just in comparison with other politicians), people didn’t celebrate in the streets because they were naive. I think Critchley imagined a kind of “real change” he wanted and theorized and was disappointed that the masses did not quite rise to the occasion and were spontaneously bursting into songs as opposed to sophisticated philosophical analysis of the situation…

  2. For what it’s worth, guys, Critchley is actually fascinated by Obama. He gave a talk at the New School back in September, I think, on Obama as a political figure, etc. I’m not terribly sure what’s so fascinating about Obama, nor was Critchley able to articulate the grounds for his fascination, but that might simply be my — and Critchley’s too — foreigner status shining through.

    It might also be worth pointing out that Critchley’s understanding of politics — despite it’s anarchistic bent — is by and large the same as Badiou’s (who, on Election Day, gave a talk at the Cardozo law school on why Obama’s win is (1) not a political event, and (2) ‘only symbolic.’ Badiou’s conclusion: be happy for the symbolic win, be prepared for nothing but disappointment.

    I don’t know what you think, Mikhail, about the political culture in post-soviet Russia, but my friends from former communist countries have all expressed a similar sentiment: the black-market lifestyle, and the bribery/corruption that were necessary techniques for surviving The Party’s 5 year plans were effectively institutionalized and transformed into rights of ‘upward mobility’ after communism’s demise. Cynically rephrased, ‘the great change’ (think of Zizek’s discussion of Romania’s revolution at the beginning of Tarrying with the Negative, where he emphasises the empty signifying space left in the country’s post-communist flag) seems to be nothing more than a symbolic, rather than real, reorganization.

    Point being: Obama’s victory somehow fails (according to Badiou and Critchley) to be a true political event, and hence can only end in disappointment because it does not actually reorganize political space (indeed, it is predicated on the precise contours of contemporary politics), and hence does not create a new space — i.e. an interstitial space among the State, state power, and their constitutents — in which we can (inter)act. More simply put, this time to use good old east European terminology, Obama is a technocrat — And technocrats seem able only to disappoint and leave hyper-conservative, reactionary politics in their wake.

    But I should leave off here, since this ramble is threatening to turn into a tirade….

  3. Alexei, I certainly would not compare the Bush to Obama transition to Soviet to Post-Soviet transition, the former was simply not intended to be such a radical transition. Every politician runs on a platform of change, otherwise, one might wonder, why we should even consider electing new leaders. Even if the times are good and the same party candidate is running to replace the incumbent, there must be a subtle message of the need to bring a new person in to continue the wonderful policies of the predecessor – otherwise one might argues that whoever is in power should stay – in the US the assumption that 8 years is long enough is simply taken as natural, because one’s own system is always better, but why 8? Recent reform in Russia proposed to amend the constitution and extend the presidential term to 6 years – 4 is democratic, 6 is an abuse of power, seems to be the argument.

    Now to Obama, of course he is not going to reorganize the political space, I don’t think anyone expects him too – in a way if he puts things back where they were before Bush, it would be great. Some reports that are coming out now about, for example, Obama’s policy of very tight control over the information that leaks from the White House or the incredible vetting that any candidate for any position in administration should go through show that he is indeed a technocrat. I get a sense that Obama administration will be very careful with any decision that make, trying to avoid any mistakes and any surprises. Some would say it’s admirable, some would say it’s just fixing up the political machine and making it work “for the people” and some would clearly say it’s “more of the same” – I don’t think we know enough yet to know for sure what this administration will be like. Bush ran on a change message as well, he promised to clean up Washington and we see how that worked out…

    As for Badiou and Critchley announcing whether this was or was not a true political event or it was only symbolic, don’t you find this kind of discourse extremely arrogant? I mean it sounds very much like the elitist posturing everyone hates – on the day of the election, the great philosopher announced: “Not to worry, it was just symbolic, go back home and continue as usual, nothing will change.” Not to make any comparisons here, but I have recently had a talk with a friend about how strange it is to listen to Lenin’s public speeches from 1917 – he literally spent some hours explaining to large audiences what exactly the meaning of the revolution was and what needed to happen in order for it to survive. And people listened, factory workers with little or no education – was it an event in February or in October? did Lenin’s tireless public education make it into an event? What makes anyone eligible to declare on the presence or absence of a true political event?

  4. By the way, Alexei. I had seen the footage from Critchley at the New School and particularly liked when during the Q and A an audience member accused him of being a cross between Maureen Dowd, Dr. Phil and David Brooks. Critchley did not like that very much, the Dr. Phil part, I mean.

  5. Mihkail: you’re right, my attempt at a defamiliarizing comparison (between electing Obama, and the revolutionary transition away form communism) was ill conceived.

    What I hoped to show was that there seems to be a structural similarity between the two, insofar as both are more symbolic than ‘eventival’ (now that I think of it, the stimulus was probably Badiou’s example of the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions as Events, which makes me think all the less of ‘evental’ structures). Given the block parties that erupted all over my Neighborhood in Brooklyn (and Harlem from what others have told me) there was definitely a sense ‘among the people’ that something momentous had taken place. Although I doubt anyone would have compared Obama’s win to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Military’s stand against the coup, or Ceaucescu’s arrest, I do think that most folks in the USA would consider a ‘minority present’ to be a pretty big deal. An Event even.

    Maybe all I needed to suggest was that the emotional intensity that a large number of people seemed to experience after Obama won shares some similarity, however small and tangential, to the emotional outpourings felt by a large number of people after the dawn of “democracy” and “capitalism” in post-communist countries. Apparently I pushed this slim connection past its load bearing potential. This response, however, seems largely to be symbolically organized — like all hope is — rather than politically motivated. Perhaps there’s s worthwhile distinction to to be made there.

    As for Obama, we’re already hearing his ‘yes we can’ message become ‘wait a sec.’ I’m not even sure that he can reverse the more egregious Bush policies, without admitting to serious breaches in legal and executive powers that tie him to less productive changes, like public hearings concerning the limits of executive authority, etc. But all this is wild conjecture on my part. Again, you’re right: we’ll have to wait and see.

    Suffice it to say, I’m glad we agree that Obama’s a technocrat. For all I wanted to suggest is that technocrats seem to have a nearly impossible time at changing anything, and tend to catalyse a radical, reactionary movement that not only undoes ‘good work’ but swings matters even farther to the right. Or so the recent history of some of the post-communist countries seems to suggest.

    Finally, viz. Critchley and Badiou. I emphatically agree with you! there’s something very odd about trying to define the political in terms of ‘events’ (although perhaps no odder than trying to define it in terms of the groundless intensity of the friend-enemy relationship [Schmitt], or as an individual’s answer to the publicly posed question, ‘who are you,’ which allows that individual to enter into a web of interpersonal relationships in order to begin something [Arendt]). In fact I found Badiou’s talk to be less than compelling (especially when he invoked — only half in jest — his right as an old french philosopher to talk down to young americans).

    Shahar, I only half remember the comment you’re alluding to — there were a number of rather funny ones (and I’m not sure whether they all made it online), including one guy who insisted that Critchley was transforming Obama into some kind of Messianic figure… Good times.

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