There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction – a key dimension is missing from it. Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggle for a majority, with all the pragmatic calculations and manipulations that involves. It is a sign of something more. This is why an American friend of mine, a hardened leftist with no illusions, cried when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.
In The Contest of Faculties, Kant asked a simple but difficult question: is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress, not just material development.) He concluded that progress cannot be proven, but we can discern signs which indicate that progress is possible. The French Revolution was such a sign, pointing towards the possibility of freedom: the previously unthinkable happened, a whole people fearlessly asserted their freedom and equality. For Kant, even more important than the – often bloody – reality of what went on on the streets of Paris was the enthusiasm that the events in France gave rise to in the eyes of sympathetic observers all around Europe and in places as far away as Haiti, where it triggered another world-historical event: the first revolt by black slaves. Arguably the most sublime moment of the French Revolution occurred when the delegation from Haiti, led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, visited Paris and were enthusiastically received at the Popular Assembly as equals among equals.
Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognosticum. A sign in which the memory of the long past of slavery and the struggle for its abolition reverberates; an event which now demonstrates a change; a hope for future achievements. The scepticism displayed behind closed doors even by many worried progressives – what if, in the privacy of the voting booth, the publicly disavowed racism will re-emerge? – was proved wrong. One of the interesting things about Henry Kissinger, the ultimate cynical Realpolitiker, is how utterly wrong most of his predictions were. When news reached the West of the 1991 anti-Gorbachev military coup, for example, Kissinger immediately accepted the new regime as a fact. It collapsed ignominiously three days later. The paradigmatic cynic tells you confidentially: ‘But don’t you see that it is all really about money/power/sex, that professions of principle or value are just empty phrases which count for nothing?’ What the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions.
The reason Obama’s victory generated such enthusiasm is not only that, against all odds, it really happened: it demonstrated the possibility of such a thing happening. The same goes for all great historical ruptures – think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although we all knew about the rotten inefficiency of the Communist regimes, we didn’t really believe that they would disintegrate – like Kissinger, we were all victims of cynical pragmatism. Obama’s victory was clearly predictable for at least two weeks before the election, but it was still experienced as a surprise.
The true battle begins now, after the victory: the battle for what this victory will effectively mean, especially within the context of two other more ominous events: 9/11 and the current financial meltdown, an instance of history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as comedy. President Bush’s addresses to the American people after 9/11 and the financial meltdown sound like two versions of the same speech. Both times, he evoked the threat to the American way of life and the need for fast and decisive action. Both times, he called for the partial suspension of American values (guarantees to individual freedom, market capitalism) to save those very values. Where does this similarity come from?
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on November 14th 2008.]