Readings — From the November 2008 issue

The American Void

From remarks delivered at the American Political Science Association in Boston on August 30 and at the New School in New York City on September 18. Critchley is the chair of philosophy at the New School. Critchley’s most recent work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, is forthcoming from Vintage.

There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good.” Of course, this is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” Obama’s remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the U.S. is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as we restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalized anomie, we need “to affirm our bonds with one another.” Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama’s entire push for the presidency.

The obvious criticism one could make is that Obama’s politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It lies behind the appeal to the common good, that “no one is exempt from the call to find common ground”; or “not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike.” This, one might claim, is the familiar delusion of an end to politics, the postulation of a state where we can put aside our differences, overcome partisanship, and come together in order to heal the nation. The same longing for unity governs Obama’s discourse on race, with his call for a black-brown alliance and his appeasing remark that “rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself.” Obama dreams of a society without power relations, without the agonism that constitutes political life. Against such a position one might assert that justice is always an agon, a conflict, and to refuse this assertion is to consign human beings to wallow in some emotional, fusional balm. One might add that the source of this longing for union is its absence. We anxiously want to believe, because we don’t and we can’t. The yearning for the common good comes from the refusal to accept that perhaps Americans have very little in common apart from the elements of a sometimes successful civil religion based around a sentimental, indeed sometimes teary-eyed, attachment to the Constitution and a belief in the quasi-divine wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

In the face of George W. Bush’s ultra-political presidency—his massive extension of executive power and his prosecution of a politics of fear based on the identification of an enemy as morally evil—it is not difficult to understand the popularity of Obama’s anti-political vision. Against the messianic certainties of Bush II, Obama promises a return to a beatific liberalism whereby everything is seen sub specie consensus. This is a world where good old democratic deliberation replaces decisionism and where the to and fro of civil conversation replaces religious absolutism. Democracy is not a house to be built but “a conversation to be had.” After eight disastrous years of gross mismanagement, secrecy, and lies, it sounds like an absolutely blissful prospect.

Of course, one might wonder how Obama’s evacuation of power relations in the political realm goes together with his faith in the agon of capitalism, competition, and the salutary effects of free markets. One might also wonder how such a political position might genuinely begin to deal with poverty. But I don’t want to go down the route of the classic critique of liberalism, according to which politics is evacuated in favor of the bifurcation of ethics, on the one hand, and economics, on the other, and the former is the veil of hypocrisy used to conceal the violence of the latter. I do not even want to propose a critique of Obama. Rather, I’d like to describe a puzzlement that I don’t think I am the only one to experience. What fascinates me is what we might call Obama’s subjectivity and how it forms his political vision and how this might begin to explain his extraordinary popular appeal.

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October 2019