The spectacle of democracy in the US

The US presidential election looks like a massive TV commercial, an advertisement, extended over more than a year.

"This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility," Obama had told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev [EPA]

Tucson, Arizona – “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” The unguarded remarks of the US President – Barack Obama – to the Russian President – Dmitry Medvedev – captured by TV cameras, has once again drawn attention to the increasing perils and undelivered promises of US presidential elections. 

According to a transcriptof the recorded remarks, Obama told his Russian counterpart: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defence, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.” Medvedev responded: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you.”

Obama and Medvedev exchange caught on open microphone

What do these elections mean? Do they make any difference? Why does President Obama need “space” for his second term election – what did he do with the “space”, indeed the mandate he received after his first election? Why should anyone believe that the careerism that wasted that first term will not continue to spoil the second the term, the new “space” he will be given where to win the next election? 

The implications of President Obama’s asking for “space” from the Russian president until he starts his second term is obviously not limited to the missile defence and can be extended to just about any other domestic and foreign issue he faces – giving false hopes that in his second term he might indeed find the courage of what seemed to have been his convictions. 

So will he, for example, be more straightforward with the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the so-called “Palestinian peace process” or the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements in the most recent occupied territories, or at least pushing the Isareli borders back to 1967. 

Will the US President finally put his foot down about the Israeli warmongering against Iran? Will he heed the rising course of Arab Spring and yield to its free and democratic aspirations, rather than joining Saudi Arabia in trying to micromanage it for the specific and shortsighted benefits of the US-Isareli-Saudi alliance? Will he really push for a credible nuclear disarmament programme? 

These questions can be extended to a whole host of other more domestic issues in the United States – all creating a delusional hope that he might be more courageous in his second term than he was in his first. 

The grand spectacle 

None of these questions can of course be answered at this point with any degree of certainty. But what is certain is the pleading of President Obama with the Russian president to consider his predicament facing re-election. That question raises the more compelling issue of the general spectacle of American presidential election – perhaps the grandest political bravura of our time, repeated ad nauseum every four years.

Americans (and many others around the world) were counting the seconds that the Bush presidency would finally end and Obama’s to start – but to what avail? What did he do differently than Bush? Just look at his speeches in front of AIPAC and take it down from there. 

So what is the purpose, or the function, or the use of these American presidential elections? 

This is where it all starts – with the American presidential election. This is the political Oscars, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that starts the shopping season and the decorated windows down on 34th Street that attracts the tourists more than the locals. Take this phantasmagoric show, this exercise in utter futility, away from the US and it has scarce anything to parade and wave on its mass media when it gets to invade countries, occupy them, and maim and murder people in the name of fighting terrorism and spreading democracy. 

The globalised showmanship of American presidential election is geared and designed to sell one commodity and one commodity only “democracy” – that the US is a democracy and by virtue of that fetishised commodity, it gets the privilege of sending its aircraft carriers and fighter jets around the planet to drop bombs on people and their homeland and call it “humanitarian intervention”. 

As the paramount example of a product of the society of spectacle (Guy Debord), of the culture industry (Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer) and of the advertisement of “a bottle of wine” to sell health and happiness (Roland Barth), the US presidential election is now the supreme bourgeois myth that sells “democracy”, distinguishes military invasion from “humanitarian intervention” and justifies drone attacks to “combat terrorism” – and “protect peace” by mass murders from My Lai in Vietnam in 1968 to Hadithah in Iraq in 2005, to Kandahar in Afghanistan in 2012. 

Obama inching closer to new Iran oil sanctions

This is the spectacle of democracy, lo and behold, the spectacle that every four years renews a pact with US imperialism and gives it the moral audacity to impose its will upon the world and wage “humanitarian intervention”. The US Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act, the Guantanamo Bay, the Bagram Air Base, the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), all the way down to illegal wiretapping and move to internet control and censorship, the NYPD racially profiling and spying on Muslim communities and university campuses – these are facts of life in the US that are all camouflaged under the spectacle of presidential election that (like Roland Barth’s bottle of wine selling health and happiness) sells “freedom and democracy”. 

Commodification of democracy

As the grandest spectacle of American politics, the presidential election looks like a massive TV commercial, an advertisement, extended over more than a year, spread all over the major and minor networks, cable televisions, cyberspace, selling one commodity: and one commodity only – always already “new and improved” like any other brand of detergent. 

Having reached this point of self-negation, when the democratic will of a people is radically compromised by disfiguringly powerful warmongering foreign agents like AIPAC, this political culture has nothing to offer the democratic aspirations of the world except with bombs and bullets, facilitated by the Orwellian Newspeak of “human rights” and “humanitarian intervention”.

All the neocon, con and even democratic NGOs have to offer the world is incorporating them into this vacuity so that fifty years from now Egypt may look like the US today and produce the Arab replicas of Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama to the world. A platoon of native informers, comprador intellectuals and fifth columnists are employed by this mendacity to make sure of that outcome.

The commodification of democracy in turn amounts to its fetishisation into a global sign over which the US and its European and regional allies wish to have a solid monopoly – a monopoly that in turn justifies whatever means of violence at their disposal, in every way they deem necessary, to protect their values and their interests, as Obama put it when justifying the US involvement in the NATO bombing of Libya to protect and promote democracy. 

It is not accidental that in his Wretched of the Earth (1961) Fanon said “every time Western values are mentioned they produce in the native a sort of stiffening or muscular lockjaw… it so happens that when the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife – or at least he makes sure it is within reach.” 

But the emperors’ proverbial pants – left or right, Oriental or Occidental – are all on fire.  That commodity is self-destructing as its seems with the combined forces and facts revealed and marching in the current course of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the European Indignados and the Arab Spring. It is the formal destruction of this political culture in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, inspired by the Arab Spring, that has much to learn and much to offer to it in response. 

So in a bizarre turn of events marking our historic moment, Americans face the same choice of opting not to vote in a sham presidential election in which their choices is between a Gingrich/Romney/Santorum and Obama – the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of American politics – precisely in a year when a vast spectrum of Iranians had decided to refuse to be part of the monumental joke that passes for parliamentary election in March 2012. 

It is not just the Arab potentates who have run out of time, exited the force of their historical destiny, so have European democracies facing the systematic uprising of their people revolting against austerity measures they can no longer bear. And so, a fortiorihas the outdated and crooked political system of the US, deeply corrupted by corporate money and special interest lobbies (AIPAC symptomatic of a much deeper disease).

Inside Story US 2012 – ‘Fear of a Black Republican’

The charade of American democracy can no longer fool the world (if it ever did) – a system that generates a Gingrich or Santorum at its top and to which Ron Paul suddenly sounds reasonable and sane, just to expose the hypocrisy and banality of Barak Obama, is no model of democracy to wage its war of “humanitarian intervention” anywhere in the world.

People around the world are on there on. For the world at large “democracy” is now a tabula rasa: there is no model, no template and no blue print. We have just entered a period of open-ended revolutions in search of a political ideal. 

The centre cannot hold 

As it was discussed in The Stream Programme at Al Jazeera, money has now deeply corrupted US politics perhaps beyond repair. “The landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission,” The Stream reports, “has ruled that individuals working through corporations, unions or independent political action committees, known as SuperPACs, could make unlimited campaign contributions,” which has resulted in a situation where “candidates can depend on a handful of the wealthy in America to fund their campaigns even when they lack strong grassroots support.” What sort of δ?μος (d?mos) “people” κρ?τος (kratos) “power” is that? 

The American political culture as it stands, from A to Z, has long since ceased to be an arbiter of truth and it is no measure of where the humanity has been or where it is headed.  Quite to the contrary: it is the singularly harmful force to the cause of liberty anywhere in the world, including the US, as indeed best evident in the brutality of the police in suppressing the Occupy Wall Street Movement. 

Instead of the delusion of the American democracy aiding the cause of democracy anywhere in the world, it is the fact of the global democratic uprising aiding the ordinary Americans revolt against their own degenerated system that is the only cause of hope for future. 

Not just the American or European democracy, in fact no existing alternative has much to suggest itself. The ideals and aspirations of an alternative have now ended up in banalities like Chavez and Ahmadinejad on frequent flier programme to each other’s capital in search of business and legitimacy. Even Castro has no qualms giving honorary degree to “Dr Ahmadinejad”. 

Ideals and aspirations of political Islam have degenerated into the Islamic Republic and the horrors of Holocaust are abused by a colonial settlement cum apartheid garrison state called “Israel”. We, the humanity at large, are at the cusp of a new dispensation, a moment of moral implosion when all has gone wrong and all has to change – and that is precisely why masses of millions of people around the globe are out in the street, sleeping in tents, withstanding militarised police brutality, claiming their public space, their hands in the cosmic dark looking for something that even they might not know what it is. 

In the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Americans have joined the world and share in their struggles for the ground zero of a politics of emancipation. A young Iranian political activist and graduate student at Yale University, Ali Abdi, late last year began a solidarity campaign in which he is asking participants in the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the US and around the world to share with him their story and in return listen to the story of a political prisoner in Iran, and then prepare a hand-made poster with a message for that prisoner. 

In recognition of the 99 per cent movement, Ali Abdi plans to prepare an exhibition of 99 of these posters. I know of no better sign of reimagining world politics beyond the banality of US Presidential election and the corrupt cruelty of the Islamic Republic than these budding signs of hope beyond political boundaries and ideological boxes. Ali Abdi was part of a movement boycotting the sham parliamentary election in Iran in March 2012. Come November 2012, Americans ought to join him boycotting yet another exercise in futility – for the “space” the President Obama is looking for and cannot see in Zuccotti Park. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  Among his recent Publications is Post-Orientalism:  Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008).