The Black Commentator: An independent weekly internet magazine dedicated to the movement for economic justice, social justice and peace - Providing commentary, analysis and investigations on issues affecting African Americans and the African world.
Feb 17, 2011 - Issue 414

Book Review
Barack Obama and Twenty-first Century Politics:
A Revolutionary Moment in the USA
By Eusi Kwayana Guest Commentator



Horace Campbell, a professor of Political Science at Syracuse University who gave us Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney and Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation, has been cutting some more edges in the thick maze of uncertainty that now surrounds  the earth’s people in the political sphere and its extensions.  Campbell approaches this formidable task through Barack Obama and Twenty-first Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA.

The book begins by defining examples of a number of “revolutionary moments,” naming among other moments, those preceding the US, Haitian and Cuban revolutions. His definition of a revolutionary moment is the backdrop against which the setting of his arguments can be evaluated. Campbell views all of these revolutionary processes as arising “out of  moments when the ideas supporting or propping up the old order had become unsustainable” (pg 3).

In this book of multi-level learning, Campbell goes on to distinguish the revolutionary moment from the “maturation of the revolutionary process” which begins “in the womb of the old society”. The maturation seems to be a process which must meet the point of a “critical break from the old when then ideas, the organization, and leadership of the new rising forces can decisively remove the old order from political and social power.” 

From here he passes on to the pre-political in the training of Barack Obama, to which he gives a unique explanation, differing with some less unbiased scholars, a range of whom either credit Obama with no exposure or interest in transformative ideas or find him to be a flaming, white-hating  radical in disguise.

 In “Confronting Racism and Sexism in the US Politics”, the book then devotes its pages to the issue of political organization describing with instructive care how the grassroots organization of the people in 2008 confronted the Democratic Party machine.  Campbell passes next to the rise of fractal wisdom and fractal phenomena in general. Next, he examines the past and speculates on the future of the Democratic Convention with keen observations on the conflicts and resolutions at the Denver convention in 2008. Campbell describes the “ground operation for victory” in a very informed  chapter  titled ”Beyond Messiahs”  and ends by marrying the concept of  Ubuntu  with the concept of 21st  century revolution. The book takes on orthodoxy as we know it, and in fact the sprit of orthodoxy itself, not only in political and social thought but in spirituality, natural science and gender.

The book is reader friendly, although written by a political scientist. It is perhaps written as a duty to place some notions on record in a methodical way for the general reader, as well as for students, the writer’s urgent sense of an important conjecture of various forces, the outcome of the standard texts and the silences of the history of the USA.

The book is also an informative beginning for people who do not know much of the internal history and meaning of the Democratic Party. Campbell traverses the relevant political experience, revisits the philosophical experience, as well as the influence of natural science on the social sciences historically. He notes the linear Newtonian physics which served its day and the link between it and Enlightenment philosophy largely influenced by the science. The book draws attention to the fact that quantum politics and fractal thinking represent a break with the linearity, hierarchy, and dominance undergirding Newtownian conceptions of reality. Linear models of domination manifest themselves in any hierarchy of human over human (racial, gendered, class), as well as human domination over nature. 

He welcomes the freshness of Albert Einstein and attempts to demonstrate the new path taken by science since the light of relativity exposed the entrapment and over- rigidity of linear concepts of the universe and of matter and energy. It is here Campbell explains that those enlightenment influences would not  adequately explain the rise of Obama, described as Black or African American not only to a place on the ballot, or as a contender in the primaries, but to the presidency of  the USA.  Many have troubled whether or not this outcome was revolutionary or whether it was some indication of revolutionary readiness. The author is careful not to hype it beyond its significance and barely succeeds in resisting the overpowering euphoria. The spectacular and astonishing outcome attracted many active minds all over the world.

In February 2009, Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate, described the election  in San Diego as “history in a remedial spin”. He speculated that some might try to ‘bring about his failure and infer the failure of a race’.

Campbell seems content to underline the historic significance of the event, but he is more concerned with demonstrating the nature of the forces at work and inviting the study of not only of their origins but also of their potential. The book itself is evidence that he does not underestimate the developments. 

The book also alerts the non-scientific community and readers to the significance of quantum physics and to the need to ponder the new knowledge that it has permitted. This is not a diversion. Campbell shows the relevance, and the shock to the laidback traditional mind of converging technologies and their implications. Not ready to break the connection between natural science and the paths of social transformation, he seems to argue for timely deductions by social scientists from the significance of Quantum physics and the convergence of  biotechnology, cognitive technology, information technology and nano technology.

Campbell goes on to explain that nano technology involves  “moving individual atoms and molecules, building machines using molecular building blocks, and creating a new kind of materials and structures from the bottom up. Science and technology on the scale of a nanometer is revolutionary. It could change the way almost everything works – from medicines to computers, from clothing to skyscrapers – and lead to new products not yet imagined.”

He cites expert opinion that the projection of this technology is towards the ”crossover to the tipping point where solar energy will be less expensive than fossil fuels in almost every situation is within in five years” ( pg 14 ).

Eventually (page 255) he offers a practical,  citizen – friendly tool by reminding us that “revolutionary moments are therefore precarious unpredictable. There are many zigs and zags, twists and turns.”

“Quantum politics assists us in understanding the unpredictable, contradictory nature of people and social phenomena. It alerts us to political and economic philosophies that are more appropriate to the realities of the 21st century where separation and compartmentalization have no meaning.

Quantum politics holds many possibilities in a fast changing society with the innovative capabilities of the young innovative capacities of the young - the young who, like women have always attracted unfairly and unjustly attracted offers of guidance which they hardly need more than the offerers.

As against the monist physical scientists, Campbell favors Einstein who allows for the factor of human spirituality. More important, he poses certain implications and seems to make a link between fractals, quantum physics and the politics of the 21st century. Fundamentally, when Obama elected to run for president and, through what is now recognized as a new fractal network in rivalry with “the machine, was able to energize the best part of a nation with his undoubted and effective Ubuntu energies or at least establish a parallel between it and fractal politics in its various manifestations at the social human level”. We are therefore left to ponder the question:  if quantum society is the dialectical opposite or consequence of the classical Newtonian physics, expressed on the eve of its collapse in the fascination with mega trends, posing a threat to such trends in a matter of decades, how will the Society obtain resources to pay for the humane transition from the economic domain of the collapsing mega trends to a new human scale and nature friendly economy very likely dominated by the kindred of nano technological structures?

Campbell sees Obama, to whom he is not at all hostile, as dithering and seeking to negotiate with oppressive forces. This issue is being raised in a timely manner.

Campbell has found optimism to be a positive force, as it really is. Mere optimism, however, is short-sighted. Bush had deserved something more severe than merely leaving office without a censure although peace poets in some parts of the country and mavericks of the left, like Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney, were demanding impeachment, which, if not malicious can be in keeping with healing. An awareness is needed of the very deep abyss into which George W. Bush’s policies and the activities of the financial and military industrial prison complex had sunk the country. For some reason or other, whether through political politeness or through lack of relevant information, that is to say ignorance, the Obama advisers failed to dramatize the crisis and left the expectant millions that had effected the electoral change in a cloud of innocent and uncritical anticipation.

Campbell states “Barack Obama inherited the military infrastructure for permanent war and it was naïveté on the part of some in the peace movement that made them believe that he could, as president, change the militaristic direction without the power of a mobilized grassroots movement.”  It goes without saying that, as Campbell notes, “a revolution would be required to bring the Pentagon back under democratic control.” Quoting from Bill Fletcher,- in the Black Commentator,  the book call on the progressive forces not to look to Obama and his administration for answers but to a remobilized progressive movement. . Campbell agrees and adds that the movement needs to use as its reference the call of Martin Luther King Jr for a “ revolution of values.” 

He credits the peace movement with knowledge of the real implications of the permanent war plans, and claims that the movement has known that    “hope must be at the forefront in creating spaces for nonviolence and peaceful change”. ( page 257)

Implied here is a criticism of all those who supported Obama’s decision to engage the presidency and also did so with unreasonable expectations of winning the establishment both inside the party and elsewhere. The victory over the party establishment, more correctly styled by Campbell as “the machine”, was a historic victory which instead of softening the more pernicious establishment, the military and its client bureaucracy, very likely stiffened it. Even in Venezuela with its less calcified establishment an elected president has been encountering persistent resistance. The US electorate by all standards did itself proud in giving Obama a majority from all its “diverse ” sections. Unfortunately, the existing state of the nation posed equally compelling problems of sheer survival with their own immediate and compelling urgency and ways of assaulting the people outside of the corridors of economic and political power.  The dominant class of the economy, despite its many frauds and failures, had safeguarded its personnel in financial bunkers in which to wait out the siege. The president, genuine in his healing mission, had relied heavily on the Ubuntu of bipartisanship and, it will be remembered, often displeased the democratic base by appearing to rely too heavily on it. This reliance on bipartisanship, which I would classify as one of Obama’s expressions of Ubuntu as a governmental culture, meant slower movement on every front with the possible exception of military and in some cases no movement at all.  It is possible that many of the reforms which the masses of workers, housewives, middle class and citizens desired, business operatives and home owners   would have been readily attainable in the time anticipated if the Republicans,  bitter from their defeat by an outsider at that, had been disposed to agree to or to negotiate an acceptable bipartisanship. Had it been possible for a body of Republicans to respond positively on important issues other than military to the President’s bipartisanship on the centers of economic resistance, it might have been somewhat less inflexible. This is, however, like saying that if the President had begun by recruiting the tough economic interests these might have encouraged support at the level of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

A great merit of the book is demystifying the internal working of the Democratic Party in historical phases. Even more important is the description of the new processes which overcame the old. The Clintons had inherited the party machine and though they had modified it or allowed it to be modified to include an African American largely client section in New York, with a number of prominent African-American leaders who were loyal to them and regarded them as the most possible racially empowering, these assumptions crumbled or proved unreliable under the impact of the new bottom up organization, which Campbell calls the fractal organizing.  He thanks Sreeram Chaulia, his Asian colleague, for insisting on an elaboration of this fractal phenomenon. In fact, it was a rewarding pursuit.  Small groups, as has been well known to industrial engineers for decades now, have the possibility of empowering individual members, eliciting ideas and building confidence  which only then have to be multiplied in a purposeful network without limit. With a clear political objective in mind it is easy to accept the testimony of the power of small, focused but self -articulating groups not endorsing central directives.

Over and above its research and analysis about the Obama campaign, the political “River” (Vincent Harding ) of  US emancipatory politics brought close to an estuary, its revelation on the part of fractals in the wider political universe, a resurrected wisdom from around the 1960s that had played a part in many places, the book is really  about Ubuntu. This is a worldview and practice that may be traced to South Africa on which Africans of good standing, Desmond Tutu, Mandela, as well as scholars have pronounced.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying “Ubuntu is very difficult to render in a Western language.  It is to say ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours’”.

Whether he knew it or not, Obama's campaign for president was extremely controversial, new, unusual and revolutionary. He was a biracial candidate, and he openly proclaimed his biracial origin. He could simply have adopted the mantle of African American. He did not. He spoke of his two human parents with equal respect. He called for “a more perfect union”. He did not indict whiteness or white mindedness in any marked degree. He took extraordinary risks. When Reverend Jeremiah Wright introduced into the debate some of the known atrocities of the USA attributing them historically to the whites in control, Obama countered with "that is not where America is.”  He put forward a perspective, using his experience in Illinois, of a society breaking down politically into a convergence of variously originated citizens united by similar needs for social goods, services and similar concerns about the present and the future. For those months, it seemed that the whole nation had set aside its plethora of separate class, ethnic and gender agendas and looked for hope and promise into a common pool of social service to be promoted and assured by an enlightened and accountable government. Campbell witnessed the unfolding of this necessary optimism throughout the campaign and its decisive notional outcome at Denver where there was a fight to the finish.

Campbell’s boldness and “audacity” in offering the West an African philosophy and mode of healing is typical. He is in a strong position to do so. Well grounded in the enlightenment philosophies of all trends and in their periodic strengths and their long term purblind vision, he seems to believe that basic African egalitarianism springs from deep spirituality which Africans themselves take in their stride and may not consciously value. When the situation began to change in the care of African scholars, who in the modern world need a dual education, he at once became conscious about Ubuntu in the place where it dared to proclaim itself, South Africa. Ubuntu, however, is no more African than the circulation of the blood is European, Asian or Mayan. If anything it may be the feminine aspect of the human polarity.

Citizens of the United States of America, indulgently called “Americans” can release themselves from either guilt or sense of shame by an understanding of the force that dehumanized the majority of citizens on all sides of the racial roadblocks.

The book goes beyond the mere political and party competitions and reaches into the roots of the conflicted psyche of the population. Building on scholarship and daring to raise to life those buried by the mainstream scholarly tradition, Ella Baker comes to life as a serious architect of the ground plans of liberation organization. Baker, whose “mantra was that those organizing must work with people where they are”, and “ called on young people to think of transforming the entire social structure ”.

Campbell resurrects one of her contemporaries, Bob Moses, (the Algebra Project) who was active in the Civil Rights Movement and never ceases to sing the praises of the women who mentored them. Furthermore, he proffers a new approach to the Civil War informed by a more varied and vigorous scholarship which includes perceptive scholars regardless of race. The double mindedness and soul wrenching about letting loose millions of Africans who had been forcibly kept enslaved and dehumanized in a necessary study to find a path.  He shows the importance of an elected official Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina who was elected again and again ending in the Senate where he lent his influence  and support to the ideological bolstering of the anti emancipation forces.

Benjamin Tillman is fingered for sponsoring The Clansmen, a celebratory work on the KKK, and the film it inspired, The Birth of a Nation by D.W Griffith, which Campbell says marked a notable leap in the advance of the forces arraigned against human freedom. A welcome departure in the book is Campbell’s adoption of the findings of a series of feminist scholars in revealing the hidden side of racism and its sexualized aggression.  He convincingly reveals the KKK as essentially a masculinist organization that castrated Black males and raped black females under the directive of” splitting” them.

This gratifying adoption of a feminist vision as well as older womanist perceptions from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth show their relevance, even in current times, if we are truly to acknowledge the profundity of Shirley Sherrod, can only enrich the analysis and the possibility of a more perfect union.

This book also brings out the depth of Campbell’s ideological deepening and maturing. He has long been aware of the limitations and unsustainably of Newtonian physics, as has the scientific world. This time he de-mystifies the link between the findings of natural science and human consciousness. In doing so, he proposes a link to human political organization.

Campbell,  a liberated Jamaican at base, a soldier of peace and human liberation and a practicing Pan Africanist, has no difficulty treating Obama’s sojourn in Reverend Wrights’ church as an incubation in Black Liberation Theology which, like other variants, should be an agency of human liberation and not imprisonment. It is known that the media attempted to represent Obama through the preachings of his pastor. Obama was expected to stage a walkout when themes did not fit with his personal conscience while simultaneously encountering charges of wishing to politicize the church. In noting that Obama disappointed large sections of his supporting electorate by failing to deliver an appropriate critique of the capitalist system after it had exposed itself through the collapse of Bear Stearns, Campbell perceives that it was his decision to deal with race and healing in response to Wrights that kept him from a manifesto regarding the dominant economic system, capitalism. A willing and ready candidate would have found it convenient to discuss race in the context of the economy, race itself being “an economic factor.”

As indicated earlier, Campbell’s over-arching concern is with Ubuntu and its effectiveness in human healing and transformation after peace and transformation. He presents arguments of the “fractal” forms of existence Ubuntu in widespread African societies. His attraction to Obama then seems to be a purveyor of historic Ubuntu rather than to a perceived radical race redeeming an African American candidate. In his last chapters, Campbell returns to these themes. He leaves the reader impressed with the need for nonviolent change and reiterates that a revolution is not a linear process, but is subject to liftings, fallings, setbacks, leaps and may entail chaos rather than a Newtonian determinism.

The revolutionary then is optimistic, the acid test being optimism in the face of known obstacles, all these being challenges to the increasingly better prepared revolutionary movement.

Campbell’s measured but passionate and motivational strictures against the new administration may be seized on to reflect on the high expectations of the campaign process, which certainly did not aim only at an electoral victory, but at the change that was the mantra and the energy of the momentum. He repeats that Obama is not a revolutionary, but a good and well intentioned man entrapped in liberal illusions of class behavior.

But what if Obama had been a revolutionary, without a revolutionary movement, merely caught up in a political crisis attended by a deepening economic crisis in the world's largest and most alienated economy? It must dawn on us that the institutions that own, manage and service commercial property, or capitalist property including the military rather than individuals are a stubborn determinant of change which human capacity is destined to overcome or go into global decline. The major absent factor is education, but this must mean not merely schooling, but the experience of struggle, ethnic reconciliation and all the influences of nurture. Among those influences he lists the arts, and finds the immortal creation, “we are the world, we are the children”, one of the inspiring expressions of the ubuntu spirit. Guest Commentator Eusi Kwayana is  a Pan Africanist and one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished political activist, writer, thinker and theoreticians .He lives in San Diego. Kwayana is a poet, playwright, singer, and lyricist.   He has written numerous books and was the political colleague (some would say mentor) of the late Walter Rodney. His most recent book, The Morning After deals with the current political violence in Guyana, South America. Click here to contact Mr. Kwayana.