Prof. Ashley Dawson is Associate Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and at the College of Staten Island, where he specializes in postcolonial studies. He is also an Author, having published several articles in academic journals; and a Co-editor of three essay collections.

A commentary on progressive politics in today's America
By Prof. Ashley Dawson


The election of Barack Obama underlines the significant advances as well as the limits of progressive politics in the U.S. today. First of all, Obama is the first black president of a major Western power. This has huge symbolic significance around the world, and has already contributed to a sea change in the U.S.’s image in many nations. Obama’s election is also testimony to a profound demographic shift within the U.S.; within a few decades, whites will no longer constitute the majority ethnic group in the nation. More important perhaps than the raw numbers is the sense among many young people of having overcome the divisive racist ideologies of previous generations, of embracing the new hybrid cultural condition exemplified by Obama’s family, which transcends not simply the divide between whites and blacks in the U.S. but draws from a remarkably multi-cultural, multi-national background.

Obama’s rise to power was facilitated to a significant extent by new forms of organizing. Significant here is the use of new electronic communications technologies such as the Internet to disseminate information, mobilize volunteers, and catalyze feedback from grassroots to leaders. The global justice movement has been a pioneer in using these new forms of communication and organization at protests such as the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle during 1999 to create non-hierarchical participatory democratic forums and new forms of nonviolent direct action to protest the inequalities of the neo-liberal order. Of course, progressive politics in the U.S. is playing a catch-up game in this regard, inspired by visionary organizations such as Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, the transnational peasant group Via Campesina, and the anti-dam protests of India’s Narmada Bachao Andolan.

But we are clearly not in the promised land yet. While the new Obama administration has decisively rejected criminal policies of the Bush administration such as torture and “rendition” , there are significant continuities with the past that are vexing. Most prominent of these is Obama’s “post-partisan” rap – which has recently gone down in flames in the face of Republican intransigence concerning the stimulus bill. Obama’s notion of bipartisanship is not simply a convenient bit of electoral rhetoric; instead, it suggests continuity between his vision and that of the Tony Blair-Bill Clinton “Third Way” ideology of the 1990s. Faced with the collapse of the Soviet Union, these two leaders jettisoned their parties’ historical ties to labor unions and socialism, advocating a mix of market and state interventionist ideologies that tacitly favored oligarchical trends in Britain & U.S. This "Third Way” legacy is visible most clearly in Obama’s economic team, which consists of many of the same players responsible for deregulation of financial markets under Clinton. Not surprisingly, these folks have rolled out a series of financial half-measures and equivocations that are completely insufficient given the escalating global crash of the capitalist system.

Underlying the current economic collapse, we face a crisis of the relatively stable climate that has sustained humanity since the Neolithic revolution, the rise of agriculture, and the creation of extensive political polities. Everything that has gone into the world we know today is in danger: not simply millions of plant and animal species, not simply the intensive energy-consuming lifestyle that arose during the Industrial revolution, but also the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings. We must rise to the challenge to remake our world.