BARACK OBAMA: THE MAN AND THE CHALLENGE
     

By Zegi Ergas (source: mediaforfreedom.com)

As I write these lines Barack Obama has won a big victory. The American people ‘has spoken’ -- as the cliché goes, but every cliché has a kernel of truth, that is why it is a cliché, in fact -- and this time, unlike the last two times, in 1980 et 1984, it has ‘spoken’ well. Obama has been elected with a comfortable majority -- with about double the electoral votes, and seven million more popular votes than his rival John McCain. So, a catastrophe has been averted – mainly because a person so inexperienced, so intellectually limited and so extreme and war-mongering in her views would have been at a heartbeat from the presidency of the militarily, economically and politically the most powerful nation on earth. Therefore, not only a significant majority in the United States, but also a far larger majority around the world, have recovered the hope that was lost in the last eight years because Barack Obama, on January 20, 2009, will become the 44th president of the United States of America. 

Perhaps anticipating a great deal, some are already calling him Franklin Delano Obama. Whether he will – in one, two, four and … eight years -- deserve that honour remains to be seen. What we know is that he is certainly an extremely knowledgeable, intelligent and fair man with exceptional leadership qualities. He appears to be the right man who has appeared at the right time. A pragmatic man, Obama seems to have an innate understanding of knowing how far not to go, because he faces very  powerful enemies that can, and will, if need be, destroy him physically, if he tries to go too far, too fast. 

Obama did what he had to do to win the election. Some of the positions he took, he had to take. These, obviously, may not reflect fully his deepest convictions. Obama knows intuitively – intuitive intelligence is far more important than rational intelligence (as a certain Immanuel Kant has taught us a very long time ago) -- that America is not yet ready to deal with certain big reforms, even if they are obviously ethically and vitally necessary, even indispensable. Telling the American people that Americans will have to reduce their extremely high and wasteful standard of living so that the greatest problem faced by humanity, global warming, is solved and a viable, or sustainable, world, created. Telling the American people that the cohabitation of extreme wealth and extreme poverty is morally wrong. Telling the American people that the military establishment is gobbling up too many resources that could be more wisely used to educate their children.

Obama’s greatest task and responsibility will be to educate the American people about new ideas, new values and aspirations that are compatible with building a viable, or sustainable, world. To educate the American people that there is only one world, and that America is part of that world, and that America and that world will swim or sink together. Which means that to the global financial and economic problems that the world is confronted with presently, there are no national solutions, only global ones Obama has embarked, is the pioneer of, a very long term project. Much longer than one presidential term, or even two. This is a project that may require two generations to be realized. 

The American people needs to understand, and to accept, that solving America’s problems – the financial and economic crises, the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, healthcare  insurance for all Americans, is only a small part of the challenge that their great nation faces. A far bigger challenge is the American contribution to the great transformation that the world needs to go through and succeed, in order to become viable, or sustainable. America needs to be fully a determined partner of that global struggle that is presently being waged around the world to save humanity and the planet from severe damage and, possibly, even destruction.           

That sooner or later humanity will receive an organisation of a socialist aspect … is, so to speak, the last chance left to it by God. Because the fact that millions of men are oppressed in the most brutal manner, so that a few thousand others do not know what to do with the power that they derive from it, that fact is not only unjust and criminal, but also stupid, unpractical, and suicidal! 2

These lines were written by a great writer some eighty years ago. They are, without question, even more true and relevant today. Socialism is a dirty word in America. Not so in Europe and other parts of the world. Contrary to what is believed in America – and in some circles in Europe and elsewhere --, what happened in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China, especially under Stalin and Mao, was not socialism.

It was state capitalism of the worst sort by means of which, in Soviet Union, an extremely corrupt leadership and bureaucracy, and in China, a misguided omnipotent leader, exploited and sacrificed the people at the altar of greed and megalomania. 

True socialism is, has to be, democratic. It cannot be imposed from the top. The people need to be persuaded, convinced. Teachers, thinkers, professionals, artists, musicians, movie makers, playwrights, etc. have the big role to play and an enormous responsibility in that respect. It is them that must persuade and convince the people that true socialism is good for them and the world. It is only through true socialism that a better and  sustainable world can be built. Even Americans, given enough time and with quality education, will come to understand and accept that truth. Obama can be the educator-in-chief of that educational process. 

Here is an example of the unbelievable extremes that market fundamentalism and bush capitalism can go. The following paragraph was taken from a recent report in the Style section of the International Herald Tribune: 

Extreme luxury comes in many forms: a Gulfstream private jet; a Euro 29,500 Gucci crocodile bomber jacket with fox fur collar; a Euro 160,000 Louis Vuitton Minaudière evening purse in white gold … At the Millionaire Fair of Moscow, a diamond-studded cellphone sold for $ 1,27 million. At the last  Cannes Yacht Show, a famous builder declared that there was  a three-year waiting list for the biggest luxury yachts, with a price tag of $ 40 million or more.

That this is sheer madness and unbelievable – or limitless, as Einstein once said – stupidity goes almost without saying. It is also shameful and criminal in a world in which every five seconds a child dies of preventable disease, hunger and malnutrition.

In the rest of this short essay, I shall try to briefly answer the following two questions: Why is the present crisis essentially different? and: What needs to be done to build a better and sustainable world?

Why is this crisis essentially different?

The New Deal which beat the Great Depression was a huge, and ultimately successful, effort to save industrial capitalism. This time, in an era or epoch that financial capitalism is dominant, fixing the existing system will not do the trick. The world needs change. Obama has acknowledged it as indicated by his famous slogans: Change we can believe in and Yes, we can. What we need to understand is that what we are witnessing presently is more than an economic recession, more than even a great depression. Something has gone essentially wrong in America and the rest of the world, as a result of which they have both become not viable, or unsustainable. If serious structural, institutional and systemic reforms are not adopted soon, in the following few years, the world be, like a train derailed, hurtling toward its destruction. I can see five major reasons for this to be the case: 

1. The quantitative and unlimited economic growth model under which the world has been living since the Industrial Revolution has run its course. There are simply not enough natural and energetic resources in the world to duplicate in the ‘emerging’ great powers -- China, Russia, India and Brazil (known as the four CRIB countries) –, not to mention the rest of the world the standards of living that prevail in the US, Western Europe, Japan and Canada. Actually, even if there were enough natural and energetic resources, the continuation of the quantitative and unlimited economic growth model would not be sustainable because it would be destroying the planet through the consequences of global warming. 

2. In a world of shrinking natural and energetic resources, there is a non-negligible risk of a global war among the great powers for the control of these scarce resources. The rising great powers, especially China and Russia, will not ad infinitum accept that the US consumes one third of the world’s energetic resources when it has only five per cent of its population.

3. This market fundamentalist model has created unbearable inequalities. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is not ethically acceptable. These inequalities exist not only within the same country, but among countries, and even among regions and continents. 

4. This same model, quite amazingly, in fact, given the financial resources that were mobilised to save the banks and other financial institutions – several trillions of dollars -- has been unable to eradicate extreme poverty in the world – a catastrophic situation which I have called, in another essay, genocide by omission.     

5. It is hard, but we must have the courage to recognise that the four global reasons very summarily described above, are, at least in part, responsible for international terrorism. Because, if it is true that terrorism by misguided Islamic radicals is largely due to the humiliation of Islam by the West – Americans having military bases in Saudi Arabia was an incredibly stupid provocation – it finds a very fertile soil in a world marred by greed, poverty and inequalities.

What needs to be done to build a better and sustainable world ?

The present quantitative and unlimited economic growth model must be phased out and replaced, gradually, with a qualitative and ecologically-balanced economic model. This transformation, which is indispensable, is going to be difficult. Inevitably, there will be a great deal of resistance from those few who will want to perpetuate the gist of the old system because they derive from it their extraordinary privileges. The confrontation between the forces of renewal and the forces of the status-quo is, to a certain extent, inevitable. One hopes, however, that common sense will prevail and that large scale violence will be avoided. But if the past is an indication of what may happen in the future, there are grounds to be pessimistic in that respect. 

          There will have to be a global lowering of the standards of living in the rich countries and a concomitant increase of the same in the poor countries. This means a significant transfer of wealth and resources from the rich to the poor countries. Natural and energetic resources will have to be SHARED. Income and wealth will have to be limited. 6 The billionaires, like the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago, will have to disappear. Western imperialism will have to come to an end. Americans must be dissuaded from the temptation to go to war to defend their extraordinary privileges. Their very high standard of living, through huge trade deficits, has been for too long significantly subsidized by the rest of the world. That cannot, and will not, go on forever. 

It will  take great leadership in America to choose the path of peaceful transformation which will involve a reduction of their standards of living. Will they be able to do it ? In the past, Americans, when it was necessary, rose to the great challenges by producing great leaders -- such as the Founding Fathers, Abe Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Is Barack Obama such a leader? Does he have what it takes to steer America and the world to a better future that requires important sacrifices? Will he be the man of the great transformation that the world needs? Only time can tell. But an inner voice tells me that he is. And I am holding my breath.         

Notes

  1. An earlier version of this short essay was published recently in www.mediaforfreedom.com. It is the continuation of a reflection that I have started in : Can Barack Obama Make the Withering American Democracy Bloom Again? written a few months ago and posted on  www.stwr.com and www.mediafrofreedom.com . 

  2. From Robert Musil’s great work: The Man Without Qualities.

  3. See my Globalisation, Rising China and Declining America: Is War Inevitable?, in Ergas, In Search of a Better World (Printed by Robinco in Budapest, 2008), pp. 144-152. Copies of that book, a collection of seventeen essays, can be purchased from www.globalmarshallplan.org ‘s on line bookstore.

  4. Is Extreme Poverty a Form of Genocide by Omission? In Ergas, op. cit. pp. 66-73

  5. The American Conundrum, in idem pp. 135-144

  6. See: Ergas, Z. Aristotle, the Rule of Twenty and the Building of a Better World, posted in www.mediaforfreedom.com on 28 October 2008