Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2008

The Obama cult

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

Recently I have noticed an interesting but disturbing phenomenon in New York City. On the streets, subways and buses, you can see people still wearing Barack Obama buttons even though the election is long over. I wonder to myself whether these buttons express an inchoate political/psychological yearning. In some ways it reminds me of how people wore pictures of the fifteen year old guru Maharaj-ji, who counted former 60s radical Rennie Davis as one of his main followers.

When I spoke to a fellow radical in my department at Columbia University about my concerns, his eyes lit up and he said:

I know exactly what you mean. There’s this guy in my health club who wears an ‘Obama Knows’ t-shirt. The other day I went up to him and asked him, “Knows what?” He really couldn’t answer me.

At some point I will ask one of these Obama button wearers the same kind of question. What’s up with the Obama button? What are you trying to say? I once asked someone wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt the same kind of question. Trust me; they did not decide to wear the t-shirt after reading “Socialism and Man in Cuba”.

Apparently novelist and social commentator Joan Didion has had the same kinds of qualms as me. In the latest issue of New York Review, she has an article that was adapted from comments she made at “What Happens Now: The 2008 Election,” a November 10 symposium sponsored by the journal that generally hews to DP centrism. She writes in part:

Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.

Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.

Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.

I couldn’t count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people’s babies dressed in Obama gear.

I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade’s war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see. It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism-by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions-“convenient” because such redefinition makes those questions seem easier to answer, “dangerous” because this was a time when the nation was least prepared to afford easy answers.

Some who were troubled by this redefinition referred to those who remained untroubled by a code phrase. This phrase, which referred back to a previous encounter with militant idealism, the one that ended at the Jonestown encampment in Guyana in 1978, was “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Lest anybody assume that Didion is some kind of neoconservative, her leftist credentials are pretty well-established. She never gave an inch to the Democratic Party’s backhanded support for the war in Iraq and treated their 2004 convention with the contempt it deserved in an October 21, 2004 N.Y. Review article:

Senator Joseph Biden, also in The New Republic, believed his vote for the war to have been “just,” but had “never imagined” the lack of wisdom with which the war would be pursued. “I am not embarrassed by my assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed the sort of arsenal that made him a clear and present danger,” Leon Wieseltier declared in the same New Republic. The cadences surged: “And so I was persuaded,” “Prudence and conscience brought me to the same conclusion,” “But I was deceived.” As for the collective “we” that represented the magazine’s editors, they could see “in retrospect” that there might have been “warning signs,” to which “we should have paid more attention.” “At the time,” however, “there seemed good reason not to,” and, in any case (the larger framework again), “if our strategic rationale for war has collapsed, our moral one has not.”

It is understandable why a cult around Obama is being formed. I imagine that for most people who wear his image, politics mean nothing except voting every 2 years or so. Although I vote as well, I cannot escape the feeling that pulling a lever is a bit like pressing the “Close” button in elevators whose doors only close after a predetermined amount of seconds (sometimes it feels like minutes) have elapsed. The close button serves merely to allow the impatient passenger to feel like his action is making a difference. Same thing with voting basically.

So if voting is merely a psychological mechanism, no wonder that the voter will be open up to all sorts of ways of feeling a connection to the men and women in power. Since they are not in a position to put a bathtub full of cash at their doorstep, as a George Soros or a Bill Gates can, the next best thing might be to offer up a kind of prayer: “Please President Obama, don’t end Social Security. Don’t attack Iran”. Wearing a picture of your savior on you coat jacket would serve in these circumstances to make your prayers more effective. One imagines that this might be the big difference between the Bush presidency and Obama’s. For the average person, praying to Bush eventually came to be seen as a waste of time.


  1. At some level, we have a deep psychological desire for unity, collectivism, and coming together.

    That’s why people get emotional when casting a vote. That’s why people were thrilled to see an African American win the presidency. And that’s why people want to believe that Obama will ‘heal’ the nation.

    There is definitely a dangerous cult of Obama amongst Democrats, liberals, and some sections of the ‘left’ in the US.

    As a result, there will be no voice of opposition when Obama bombs Pakistan, or surges into Afghanistan, or let’s Hillary ‘obliterate’ Iran, or gives Israel the green light to commit the next crime of the day.

    His choice of economic advisors and cabinet members is a blatant betrayal of the so-called ‘movement’ that Carl Davidson is so keen on.

    With the left completely incorporated into the Democratic Party, however, there will be no opposition, and neoliberalism and US empire will be restored with the blind support of the Obama cult.

    Who needs to think and act when there is a savior to take care of things.

    Comment by john.williams — November 28, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

  2. I suppose for some it is a form of post-electoral gloating. On another level it demonstrates the state of bourgeois politics today (and not only in America), with celebrity taking precedence over ideology and policy. They’ll soon end up in the trashcan like they always do, because there is no real substitute to ideology and policy when it comes to politics.

    As for Guevara t-shirts, isn’t he being portrayed as a kind of hippy activist, and therefore hip and cool, a commie who meant well (unlike the rest of us), back in those days (which will never come back because they were proven catastrophically wrong, outdated ideas, end of History, end of Ideology etc). A kind of castration of whoever dead rebel persists in being popular despite the propaganda against his ideas. See also Malcolm X as simply another black icon (he was good-looking after all, as was Guevara), Marx and some out-of-context “cool” quote like “Religion is the opium of the masses”, Lenin as a mohican punk painted by that apolitical moron Banksy (as if that image -or any of Banksy’s- mean anything) the list is endless.

    Comment by Antonis — November 28, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  3. I too have observed this phenomenon…on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where hordes of well-dressed white yuppie women proudly parade up and down the avenues wearing the biggest possible Obama buttons day-in and day-out since the campaign ended. I can’t imagine that any of them would have been caught, dead or alive, wearing buttons for Jesse Jackson, let alone Al Sharpton, and certainly not before election day.

    I assume that, aside from wanting to be seen sporting the latest trendy fashion item, they want to show everyone just how open-minded they are in embracing a non-threatening Black man who, they, no doubt, see more as a fellow yuppie than some-one who speaks up for victims of institutionalized racism. I would also guess that they are once again proud to be Americans. For now the DU and cluster bombs will once again rain down on some swarthy Third World “rogue nation” in the name of “human rights,” as they did in the glory days of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. And they will be dispatched by a dapper and erudite JFK-like figure, backed by both New York intellectuals and Hollywood superstars, rather than by a bumbling Bush, backed by his medieval-minded fundamentalist fans. Then, of course, there the few remaining sixties-style rad-libs left in the neighborhood, who, like long-suffering Phillies fans, finally backed a winner this year.

    Indeed, the whole Obama phenomenon has been a media-made production from the get-go as the latest “outsider” to serve as preferred candidate of the capitalist class peddled his sound-byte banalities and platitudes about “change” and “hope” while all the time embracing the standard “right-of-center” DLC agenda of increased aggression abroad and austerity at home for anyone who bothered to listen. With the war and the economic collapse intersecting, it was finally the chance for “Anybody but Bush” as both the ruling and ruled classes had had their fill of the GOP’s mismanagement of both.

    Far from being any kind of “insurgency” based on a “mass movement” the way Jesse Jackson could have once claimed to have been, Obama’s campaign was a top-down internet fan club that mesmerized the burned out baby boomers, New Left left-overs and cyber-Stalinists like Carl Davidson desperate to finally get a Democrat into the White House. Had Hillary Clinton won the nomination instead, not only would we see the same cabinet appointees, but the same crowd of button-wearing fashionistas and “mass-movement” tailing fake-leftists, only they’d be enthusing over the first woman president instead of the first Black one.

    Comment by MN Roy — November 29, 2008 @ 3:21 am

  4. Don’t you guys think Personality Cults are simply some kind of mass psychological disease? I think it is just like nationalist, religious hysteria that grips societies every now and then. There may be many reasons why this disease happens. But there is no doubt that people who are followers of these personality cults are quite abnormal. They definitely don’t behave like grown ups when they are in its grip.

    Leftists, rightists, liberals, centrists, you name it, everyone has practised this politics of personality cult. It is dangerous and sick. I am ashamed to admit it, I too was a sucker for this politics of personality cult. Everyone is guilty of this atleast some moments of life.

    Comment by Ajit — November 29, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  5. The important question, Louis, is essentially, ‘what are you/we going to do about it, especially in regards to young people who have little, if any, exposure to independent political action, but who clearly long for a different definition of politics in this country?’ Enough of this superior carping about the naivete or superficial consciousness of these folks — that’s a given, deeply rooted in a host of American and some not-so-American notions about the role of ‘leaders’ in society and the absence of genuinely left wing voices in the national discourse. The best way to combat their illusions is to present concrete alternatives that people repulsed and disillusioned by thirty years of neo-liberalism can become a part of. I am much more interested in hearing about attempts to develop bridge issues to working class power in the context of the current crisis than I am in hearing cultural and psychological critiques of Obama-mania that anyone with half a left wing brain can espouse. Perhaps you believe that you’re articulating a valuable ideological corrective — something along the lines of Richard Seymour’s ‘Liberal Defense of Murder’ — but with all due respect you appear to be underscoring your own frustration and marginality.

    Comment by Burghardt — November 29, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  6. Once a Turkish poet, an old friend of mine wrote a critical piece on Nazım Hikmet, on how he reduced his poetry to a simple tool for his Marxist ideas, masculine tone of his language, etc. etc. There he stated that he hates the sort of poetry that one can’t read without raising one’s left fist to air. But the problem is, as I sarcastically told him later, he has never raised his left fist anyway. Nevertheless, he was right on one thing. Whatever the reason is, raising your fist is dangerous since it presupposes you have a particular mediated connection with art, poetry, philosophy and other elements of the superstructure. My brief explanation of what Louis calls “the Obama cult” is, I think the image of Obama provides a feeling of a fist up in the air but without being involved with all the notorious mediations.

    Comment by Memet Çagatay — November 29, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  7. btw, I just noticed the picture of Super Obama above: Obama and his left fist… hilarious.

    Comment by Memet Çagatay — November 29, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  8. Obama has set such high expectations, however obscure, that he will – in the face of impending ‘reality’, be pressed to lower those expectations.

    As conditions worsen in the US, the speed of reducing expectations, while paradoxically attempting to keep them afloat in order to raise confidence in Wall Street, will clash.

    What will be most interesting is what the effect of lowering expectations will have on Obama hope.

    Comment by don — November 29, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  9. Memet clearly has a point, but the condescending tone of Memet’s remarks typify the problem I’ve already described — the distance between the left, particularly left intellectuals (which is not a derogatory term), and the rising tide of discontent. Not everyone wearing an Obama on the streets of New York City is an upper middle class limousine liberal who lacks the stomach for radical action or revolutionary politics. Many are young people of different nationalities and varied social classes who have not yet experienced a genuine social movement but a certainly possible candidates for one. They won’t be recruited to anything if they are dismissed as dilettantes and wannabes.

    Comment by Burghardt — November 29, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  10. My experience in New York is not the same as Lou’s. I do not claim that what I’ve encountered is in any way representative of anything. I work at a community college in the Bronx. A number of students and workers (not faculty, not administrators)continue to wear Obama buttons. I’ve spoken to them about it. I have the impression that, for them, the pre-election and Election Day excitement continues. A few are even planning on going to Washington for the inauguration.
    It strikes me as a far cry from people wearing Che t-shirts.

    Comment by Alan — November 29, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

  11. The Obama personality cult is not just beginning. It has been around a long time. I’ve been talking about it for more than a year. Obama’s promise to incorporate dissent about the project to rebrand American Empire is precisely why corporate capitalists backed his campaign.

    Comment by Andrew Austin — November 30, 2008 @ 3:34 am

  12. There was a similar, even more deranged personality cult around Hillary Clinton (go figure) and of course Sarah Palin inspired swoons among a certain crowd.

    As I’ve stated here before I voted for Obama even though I knew he meant Clinton Term Three. He never promised anything else, but what a masterful sales job! No wonder Bill hates him. I’m not in the least bit surprised by anything he’s done since the election and no one else should be either.

    Comment by John B. — November 30, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  13. I like the elevator button/voting analogy, Louis. T

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — December 1, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  14. This whole public Obamaism seems like a very NYC thing. What’s up with that city?

    Comment by Chuckie K — December 1, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

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