The Obama (Anti)Revolution

November 7, 2008

Traffic ground to a halt in the East Village Tuesday night as the masses flooded the streets to celebrate Senator Barack Obama’s victory. The masses chanted “yes we can” and “change we can believe in” to the beat of clanking pots while some revelers clambered up traffic signals draped in American flags to wave Obama signs and capture the view. Even the typically annoyed cabbies ignored the gridlock, honking their horns in jubilation. The outpour of joy at the scene was, in a way, reminiscent of reunification of Berlin

Perceivable in the mass celebration was the shared belief in a real reclamation of power by and for the people from the ostensible tyranny imposed during the presidency of the George W. Bush. The masses interpretation of Obama’s victory as a real transformative political event, however, myopically embraces the subjective without comprehending the actual. Obama’s victory is, in reality, a non-event with anti-revolutionary implications.

In order for an event to be political, according to French philosopher Alain Badiou, it must effect change of the political system itself rather than the state of the situation within the political system. In other words, a political event disrupts the actuality of a political formation. The disruption is revolutionary. But why must the political system undergo transformation? The answer for Badiou lies in the indeterminacy of states’ power in relation to the determinacy of power possessed by the demos. Through revolutionary political function, the masses can determine the excess of power wielded by the state. The discussion of policy without realizing this excess of power is, then, a counter-progressive function. It is through recognition that the masses can move to separate their realm of limited power from the infinite power of the state and create a space of for liberty.

See Badiou’s formulations:

σ < ε                π(ε)<—>ε

Where σ = situation (the people)
Where ε = state
Where π = political function

Applying Badiou’s systemic-transformative definition of a political event to Obama’s election reveals its actuality as a non-event. The ubiquitous perception of this non-event as real, as demonstrated on the evening of November 4th, diminishes the peoples’ capacity to facilitate transformative political functions. I argue – and I believe that Badiou would agree – that revolutionary political functions need not be a violent disruption. Rather they can be a socio-psychological realization resulting in actual mobilization against the indeterminacy of the state’s power. If a political non-event is perceived as an event, however, this transformative possibility is extinguished.

For the sake of clarity (considering the strength and effects of the particularism instilled through party identity), the hypothetical election of Senator John McCain would not qualify as a political event since his election would still be reconfirmation of the existing indeterminate power of the political system.

In writing this, I am not trying to take away from Obama’s accomplishment. His battle for the presidency was well fought and the victory may even prove to be a real sociological event. However, Obama’s supporters have overestimated their role as transformative agents and, through this misidentification, are jeopardizing their potential to create space for the formation of political function and, consequently, the future production of real political events.

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One Response to “The Obama (Anti)Revolution”

  1. […] Those who have said anything mostly skirt the issue (the negativity one-liner is intentionally flippant I know, but compare the Zizek message on appearances – or, if your buy it,  think of Badiou’s commitment to event. Good call on Mob Rules though – my favourite hardcore find for an age). The few who have a stab at it end up looking a bit foolish. […]

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