I’ve really struggled to understand what makes Obama tick. And I’m not the only one. Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury cartoon strip typically characterises his political figures as emblematic objects. Bill Clinton was a waffle, George W Bush, a disintegrating Roman centurion’s helmet. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a huge groping hand, Newt Gingrich a round bomb with a fizzing fuse. Trudeau has yet to find a suitable image for Obama, and says he has struggled to do so.
Steve Bell, the Guardian’s long-time cartoonist, who satirised George W Bush as a depraved chimpanzee and Tony Blair as Bush’s demented terrier, also seems to have a lot of trouble getting a handle on Obama. Bell says he got David Cameron down as a jellyfish straightaway at the Tories campaign launch, a depiction that proved to be rather prophetic. But apart from drawing a recognisable Obama with extra large ears, his caricatures of Obama lack Bell’s usual savage insight.
In Obama’s first months of office I saw him as a cautious moderate probably overwhelmed by the multiple incessant and contradictory demands of actually being President of the United States. He didn’t seem to be anywhere as deranged as Bush Jr, as obviously duplicitous as Clinton, as mendacious as Bush Sr or as completely off the planet as Reagan.
Of course the Tea Party weirdoes didn’t make getting an objective take on Obama any easier. Their depiction of Obama as a socialist Muslim secretly plotting terror and the downfall of the American way of life, or as a Black Hitler seeking to kill white babies via the demonic vehicle of Obamacare, were almost reasons for liking him. And it seemed clear to anyone outside the US that the extraordinary attacks on Obama’s character and family were motivated almost entirely by the fact that he is Black. If anyone was in doubt that racism is still the fuel for American social relations, Rick Santorum’s contemptuous dismissal of Obama as a ‘government nig––’ set things straight. The rest of us might be slowly attempting to inch ourselves forward, but the US is heading back to 1860 at high speed.
But I always had the sense with Obama that he’s not really there. He’s not exactly robotic, but if you wanted someone to play a character in a sci-fi film who is an android, and who is an android being convincingly human, but who everyone knows is still an android, you’d have to pick Obama. He’d be an android with the personality setting switched to ‘Charm’. He could sink a basket from 50 metres with 100 per cent consistency, sing bits of Al Green, read Yann Martel to the kids, and probably repair the dilithium crystal engines while everyone is asleep. He’d also do a neat line in assassination as well. Need a baddie ruthlessly taken out? Android Obama’s your man. He’s got a flotilla of drones in the hold.
And that’s where things really went weird, and we found ourselves in a profoundly Loony Tunes moment. Obama does what?? He personally manages a kill list? Sorry, you mean he actually personally authorises the assassination of other people in other countries? Even if they’re American citizens? With no evidence but suspicion? When you say ‘Obama’, are you sure you don’t actually mean ‘Putin’? Oh.
Generally those in positions of sovereign power prefer to allow others to sign off on the dirty work, so that when the shit hits the fan, they can claim that they never knew or were never told and so on. Sometimes the boss doesn’t even have to give instructions. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, perhaps an FSB thug’s conception of a boss-pleasing gift.
In my worst nightmares about Bush Jnr or Ronald Reagan I never imagined them ticking off a list of their own citizens they personally wanted dead, authorising a missile strike, then checking that whoever was intended to be dead was dead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that either of them had clean hands, but I’ve gotten used to my political loonies being easy to spot: John Howard – ruthless paranoid, Donald Rumsfeld – probably a Terminator, etc. But if you’d said to me four years ago that Barack Obama would be personally sending Hellfire missiles to blow up wedding parties in Pakistan, I’d have thought you’d joined the Tea Party.
I’m still undecided as to why it is so difficult to get a handle on who Obama is. But either way, his ruthlessness is terribly apparent. The White House has positioned Obama’s personal kill list as an act of moral responsibility. That is, if the US is going to assassinate terrorists then the President should have the integrity to give the order himself and not leave it to other people. This elevation of the act of extra-judicial murder to the status of a deeply moral act is incredibly disturbing. Just as John Howard re-defined lying through the concept of the ‘non-core promise’, so Barack Obama has anointed political power elites with moral understandings not possessed by ordinary mortals.
And if you accept a morality shorn of political context – the morality of superheroes – Obama’s position might make sense. It implicitly argues that terrorists are just bad people – stateless supervillains – and dropping a Hellfire on them is something like taking out Dr Doom. Except the people Obama is killing are just ‘suspected’ of being terrorists and sometimes not suspected of anything at all. Increasingly, people are being targeted because they engage in behaviour that looks suspicious. From the air.
I keep coming back to Obama’s comment on the death of bin Laden: that bin Laden would ‘no longer walk the face of this earth.’ If George W Bush claimed to answer only to God, Obama has become God: a vengeful deity striking evildoers from the heavens. Obama has eyes in the firmament that survey the entire globe and strike like Jehovah.
Of course the most obvious aspect of Obama’s assassination campaign is that it is a terrorist act. One can only imagine the response if US citizens were annihilated by missile strike in Iowa by another sovereign country claiming that those killed were suspected of plotting terrorism. When Obama was first elected I was worried that he wouldn’t make it through his first term, that he’d be topped by some fringe Tea-Party type with a high-powered rifle. Instead it’s Obama carrying out the assassinations.
Obama’s criminal use of drones brings to mind Alain Badiou’s idea of the Event, something that does not make sense within conditional paradigms, an irruption which must have the rules of conditional normality rewritten to accommodate it. To put it another way, getting your head around an Event like Obama’s use of Hellfires is like suddenly being told that Jaws was a really a Disney movie.
Badiou’s philosophical lineage goes right back through the work of Jacques Lacan; indeed, he and Chantal Mouffe, Slavoj Žižek and Ernesto Laclau and others, have been loosely grouped under the heading of the ‘Lacanian Left’, an invention yet to really exist but which is worth discussing nonetheless. This is a Left that foregrounds a radicalising of democracy, not the traditional utopian politics of revolutionary imagination, of which it is highly sceptical. Sometimes when we advocate revolution we can just be acting out our paranoia, our desire for a universal, actionable meaning.
The Left has often been plagued by paranoid orthodoxies. Perhaps that is why the Left often seems to factionalise so easily: it never seems to get its fill of orthodoxies. Everyone is convinced they are right. Replacing topographic dominant power structures with an isomorphic version built by the Left isn’t a viable option. We are past the stage of finding our paranoid rage useful.
Obama’s Hellfires openly raining down on his own citizens and on children have finally pushed the Left into the shadow of the Real, a shadow that has been troubling the Left for a long time, disturbing both its dreams and its waking hours. The Left has fucked up even worse than we imagined, and now every day we will be confronted with the unimaginable: the consequences of that failure.
Lacan was a strong supporter of the Events of May 1968. In fact his popularity with the students, many of whom he met with and whom he gave his written support to, led to the attempted cancelling of his university seminars. But Lacan also made clear his analysis of the Events to the students. ‘I won’t mince my words,’ he said. ‘What you want is another Master!’
In his excellent book on his idea of the Lacanian left, Yannis Stavrakakis argues, pace Freud and Lacan, that the Left’s inability to carry out the mourning of the traumatic failure of utopian politics has seen it fatally bogged down in a field of never-ending melancholia. Indeed this is where the jouissance of the Left is now often located, in its despair that nothing has gone to plan. Meanwhile the hegemonic fantasies of post-democratic neo-fascist political elites continue to eat away at the pillars of democratic possibility. Stavrakakis points out that Marx’s idea that elected governments are basically fronts for power elites themselves in bed with business interests was once a radical concept. Now, as the current economic debacle in Europe has shown, everyone accepts that this is the way things are done, and indeed should be done.
It seems to me that as far as the Left is concerned the revelation that Obama is personally unleashing missiles on civilians is of a very different order than, say, the story of the death squads of Latin America or the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, and we need to recognise it as such. There is something being concealed here even as it is unveiled in plain sight. Some new beast is awakening, and while it may be clothed in the lineaments of the old, it is evidence of an unspeakable fracture in the administration and conceptualisation of justice.
This is not just another expression of the usual US fantasy of the extra-political act, of a complete and perfectly executed power. Obama’s use of Hellfires ruthlessly confronts the Left with its traumatic sense of loss over the failure of its historical endeavours. Millions of people protested against the Iraq War, but it went ahead just the same. Why has the Left been unable to turn mass dissent into a coherent program of change?
Knowledge of what is unjust is not enough to shift our practices of acquiescence. We have profound libidinal, toxic investments in remaining subordinate. The affective domain of hypercapitalism has saturated the way we relate and think and fantasise. As Lacan well knew it is our jouissance, our pleasurable investment in the conditions of our own subjection, that makes justice so difficult to achieve.
Maybe that is why we stay in weird relationships, continue to buy products made with great suffering, ignore the daily cruelties around us – because we have given little examination to the politics of our enjoyment. Leaving the strange politics of romance, childhood and adulthood aside for another time, merely looking at the objects that fill our daily lives makes this apparent. Though we know iPhones are made under cruel conditions by a totalitarian regime, we still buy them. The question is not, where is the green, ethically produced phone, but why we cannot give up the iPhone in the first place (and why we remain fused to practices, events and relationships we know are destructive).
One of the refreshing things about Occupy, perhaps it’s most radical aspect, is that it has no utopian agenda but asks a lot of questions, both directly and in its methods of organisation. Occupy was also an Event in Badiou’s sense. Occupy is the expression of a different politics of the Left, a demos that is local and particular. Occupy has disturbed elites, and we have seen representations of it almost immediately in Hollywood films such as The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers.
The sustainability of any present or future mass movement is going to depend entirely on the countless small radical structures created by ordinary people in our seemingly ordinary lives. Without a loose network of a million tiny groups, each radicalising a demos that questions its own conditions and rewrites the economics of enjoyment, a mass movement is impossible. And these groups and relationships that will unknit the vast, ostensibly unstoppable enterprise of hypercapitalist destruction are things we can create ourselves.
A few days ago I was trying to recall something I had read at Overland that summed this up, then I remembered that I had written it myself:
In essence though, to dissent we have to know what we have assented to in the first place, where the Real lies. We have to know what we couldn’t possibly give up. And how we conceptualise that assent and what it looks like to us, in the morning or the evening, wherever you are, is where the vocabulary of dissent starts.
The use of Hellfire missiles by the President of the United States as tools of extra-judicial execution of his own citizens is a development that marks the proclamation of a new order of political action, redefinitions of justice and ‘citizenship’. And one shouldn’t ignore the fact that Hellfires don’t fall off trees, but are manufactured by a transnational corporation, Lockheed Martin, one of the top ten financial donors to political parties in the US. The meld between neoliberal economics and its conception of the practice of democracy is complete.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, I reckon Obama will win in November. I don’t know much about the byzantine structures of US electoral processes, but it seems to me that Romney has to be a standard GOP conservative, a raving Tea Party nutjob and a card-carrying Mormon all at once. And that’s probably an unplayable hand. But the real reason why I think Obama will win is because The Avengers went super-gangbusters at the box office.
As you may recall: Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson as Barack Obama with one eye) is the head of SHIELD (i.e. America): a bunch of cool young people in a flying aircraft carrier (Obama staffers on Capitol Hill). Fury is accountable only to the mysterious ‘Council’, (Congress) a bunch of cruel white people (Republicans) on TV screens who all seem to be sitting in badly lit rooms on black and white TV (they live in the Fifties). Nick Fury wants to give the world ‘limitless energy’ and save the world from warmongering space-monkeys (Asian terrorists) so he recruits The Avengers, a bunch of oddballs who have had their idealism sadly tarnished (Democrat supporters). The Avengers include Iron Man (green capitalist), Thor (good aristocrat), The Black Widow (feminist, i.e. sexy but troubled), Captain America (old but sincere US imperialism) and the Hulk (Occupier who just wants to trash the system and go and help sick people in India).
But unbeknownst to them, The Avengers are really being manipulated by Nick Fury into saving the world. But he has to do it, because he lives in solitary moral grandeur and can see that sometimes you have to be unspeakably violent to be cool and moral. He wishes he didn’t have to do it, but there it is. That’s Nick Fury’s burden and why he is really even more virtuous and heroic than The Avengers.
So that’s why Obama will win in November. Because he is so ruthlessly cool, only Nick Fury can play him in The Avengers. And because Mitt Romney is so uncool that only a dorky dork from Dorktown could play him. But there is no movie dorky enough for him, so he’ll never be played by anybody. Not even one of the space-monkey-things. You heard it here first.