Networks, Crises, Political Change, and the BP Oil Spill
by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)
If there is one thing that the study of networks has taught us in regard to politics, its that systems don’t change because you want them to. Rather, political systems shift when the dynamics of the networks which support them move. One has to wait until a network is ready to percolate and cascade before applying pressure to certain key points, and then change occurs as if it was always meant to be. Until that point, one can try to produce the careful set of affairs needed to move a mountain, but the mountain will not move until the stars are correctly aligned. If you haven’t done the work of moving those stars into place, or they haven’t moved there on their own, no amount of effort will create political change. (Note: what follows does relate to my own personal political views on what sort of change is needed, and does not necessarily reflect the views of others on Orbis Mediologicus. These views are my own.)
Generations often have to wait until the conditions are right to bring about certain types of social and political change, and while they may spend their time working hard to produce those conditions, no real fruit may become evident until that key moment of conjuncture at which it becomes possible to bring about a massive shift. (Last week I wrote a commentary on the move of Middlesex Philosophy to Kingston, and I must say that since writing that, and hearing Christian Kerslake’s side of the story, my ambivalence over the solution has grown). The point, of course, is recognizing when a conjuncture is before you, and figuring out the relevant strategy. The danger of course is getting sucked into philosophical disputes on strategy when action is needed, and history is littered with examples of the dangers of this.
What then to make of President Obama’s performance in his first two years in office? Mr. Obama has been presented with an unprecedented set of crises, and as the soundbite goes, “let no crisis be wasted.” The reason why, of course, is that the crisis may not return. And crisis is precisely how one creates political change, because often without crisis, the masses are not woken up enough to care about doing something, and the system simply continues as it is. Crisis is the way to shift the status quo.
Of course, this logic works in more than one direction, for often crisis is what pushes a society into the arms of extremely dangerous folks as well. Anyone who has studied German history realizes that in 1929, the return of massive inflation brought about after the stock market crash caused the US to stop stabilizing the German economy, had the effect of radically polarizing the country into both right and left. The middle of the political spectrum was sucked out, nearly overnight, people wanted action, radical action, in either direction, so long as it was action. This is what Ernesto Laclau calls an ‘organic crisis’ – people simply want order, at any cost. More ink has been spilled as to why the German left failed at this point to collect itself (largely due to its own internecine squabbles, it seems, of the sort that are endemic to the left more than the right, for, thank goodness, important ideological reasons) than few other events in modern history. One needs to be prepared for the worst, but organize for the best.
Returning to the present, President Obama has been presented with a truly unprecedented set of crises: the massive economic failures that could have brought about a new Great Depression, and now a massive and seemingly unending environmental disaster (let’s bracket the two wars from this discussion, as they are much trickier affairs). Each of these two major crises, the economic collapse and the BP disaster, come with a picture perfect narrative for creating social change in a progressive direction: the financial collapse was caused by financial piracy and the economic policies of the Bush years, while the BP spill was caused by the corporate deregulation of the Bush years. In fact, these are two sides of the same, just one deals with the financial industry, the other with the oil industry. A one two punch, if you will.
President Obama could have come into office, and offered an FDR type solution, welcoming the hatred of Wall Street, and now, welcoming the hatred of the oil industry. He could have gone populist, and in the process, won back, or at least neutralized, a lot of the seething anger at government now fueling the Tea Party movement. And yet, desiring not to appear radical, he has done neither of these, and seems to have missed both key conjunctures. Had he missed the first one, it is possible that, learning his lesson, he could’ve picked up and utilized the second, and maybe retroactively gotten some mileage out of it. But it seems he has dropped this ball as well.
We may not get opportunities like this again for another generation. And it seems that while Mr. Obama promised change, the only change he brought to government is to make it work, to reinstate the status quo that Mr. Bush had destroyed. That status quo, of course, was business as usual, as operative under Mr. Clinton and Bush, Sr. Government by and for the corporations. Mr. Obama seems to think that by not angering these corporations, he can bring about a big tent. But in fact, he shrinks it, and loses the opportunity to even gain some Tea Party folks in the process. Because while racism is largely what’s fueling the Tea Party, economic issues are what fuel the racism. Racism is good for corporate America, because it shifts the focus of anger about unfair economic conditions off the corporations that cause these conditions and onto racialized groups. Populism is a good way to take some of the fuel out from under the Tea Party. You won’t get the committed Tea Party people to your side, but you will radically soften their support.
I wish Mr. Obama would make use of these opportunities (and I am very conscious to consistently call him ‘Mr.’ or ‘President’, because so many don’t, for only slightly veiled reasons). He may not get them again, nor will we. Right now it seems that he simply wants to be a technocrat, someone who fixes the system. And certainly, after the Bush years, a mixture of intentional incompetence and semi-intentional neglect, aimed at the eventual dissolution of the meagre protections the government gives its citizens from corporate control, competence is in its own way something radical.
But what is needed is massive reform, particularly in these cases, regulation of derivatives markets and the use of the financial markets as casinos. Break up ‘too big to fail.’ But beyond this, stop the era of corporate control of just about everything. The health care bill, while monumental, was done on the health care industry’s terms. And they knew they had to do something, or they would, in Marx’s terms, ‘dig their own graves.’ Obama helped the health care industry save itself. He should have massively dismantled it, in the name of populism. With the financial crisis as the wind at his back, he could have gotten much more, had he taken on the language of FDR.
Would it have gotten through Congress, or would the racist Tea Party faction whipped up enough fear of a non-existent (and racialized) socialism to defeat him? If they had, THAT’S when he should’ve compromised. Strategically, we would’ve gotten much more this way. And Mr. Obama would be remembered as the progressive Ronald Reagan, someone who while controversial, created massive change that lasted a generation. And progressive change at that. Ronald Reagan spent his entire presidency dismantling the New Deal, as did Bush, Jr.
Can’t we get a president that reinstates some of it? Of course, Mr. Obama just wants to fix the way things are, make it work. But that means we will eventually all be owned by the corporations, more than we already are.
I wish it were otherwise. I was a huge supporter of Mr. Obama during the election, and still continue to hope that he will live up to his potential. I am thrilled we have our first African-American President, and Mr. Obama is an amazing man on many, many levels. And being the first African-American president, he has to deal with difficulties that others have not. Which isn’t to say that smaller versions of this haven’t happened before. Under Pres. Clinton, the right was seething, looking for any reason to impeach, anything to stop the measley amounts of progressive change Mr. Clinton tried to push through. But Pres. Obama has the historical circumstances, with the financial collapse and now BP, to tap into populist anger to bring about massive political change. He’s wasting that opportunity.
I still believe he is a good man, a very good man, and the best man to be in that office for a very long time. But I fear he has bought too much of the ideology of corporate America. He may also be timid for strategic reasons, but these are sorely misguided.