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Obama-Mania at the universities

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| Categories: USA

Interview with an activist at an American university about the situation before the elections

Scott is an activist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (USA). He spoke with REVOLUTION about the political situation at the universities a few weeks before the elections. We don’t necessarily agree with all his points (for example, the support for Cynthia McKinney), but we think this interview is an important contribution to the debate.

The Democratic candidate Barack Obama is getting a lot of support from young people. What’s the feeling like at a big US university?

Obama’s historic campaign has attracted two-thirds of college students who are looking for something different than the failed polices of George Bush. In the last year we have seen a huge growth in the level of politicization on our campus, with the Democrats spending thousands of dollars and working hundreds of hours reaching out to kids who want something – anything! – besides Bush.

“Obamania” seems like a personality cult. Obama stickers, t-shirts, posters, and flyers litter the campus and create the illusion of the campaign as a grassroots movement. The hyper-optimistic organizers who work on the campaign have done a great job registering voters, hand-making signs with peace symbols, and also masking the oppressive nature of bourgeois politics.

Obama is often seen as the “anti-war candidate”, even though he’s never claimed that title for himself. He is for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq in the next two years, but only so he can send more troops to Afghanistan. Where do you think he got this pacifist image?

Obama voted against troop funding in 2007 – once! – and Obama’s campaign has used that to effectively stall the anti-war movement. What has been even scarier is that the Republicans had peace signs at their national convention! When the major parties adopt symbols of peace, it is only to counteract their saber-rattling imperialism that should have been evident to everyone in the first few Presidential debates.

The anti-war movement has been marginalized by the Dems elected in 2006, who held a few critical speeches against the war but then never did anything to end it. The Democratic Party has always had a very progressive grassroots element that pushes for “peace”, but this element will never make its voice heard in a party of US corporations. Ultimately, Obama’s peaceful image comes from a need for the ruling class to rebrand their politicians in the face of failed wars abroad and popular opposition at home. Obama and the Dems have done a great job exploiting left-wing people using the failed logic of lesser evilism!

But many people on the left have failed to recognize how they are being used. The leadership of the anti-war movement in this country put all their hopes in electing a Democrat in order to end the war, both in the elections in 2004 and now. This strategy has been a disaster: either the Democrats lose because they are indistinguishable from the Republicans, or they win and carry out the same policies of war and occupation. This has demobilized the anti-war movement out on the streets and has disillusioned a lot of activists.

US politics has been dominated by the same two parties for the last 150 years. Clearly, neither of the two parties will offer significant changes. But do you think a “third party” candidate like consumer advocate Ralph Nader offers hope for change?

I’m not a big fan of Nader, who has always advocated a more “fair” version of capitalism. Even as a revolutionary, I am planning to vote for Cynthia McKinney, who is supported by the Green Party. This is not because I think she’s a revolutionary or the ideal candidate – I see it as a protest vote. She is a Black woman who talks about bringing power to the people, rebuilding New Orleans, ending the occupations in the Middle East, and several other left-wing policies completely ignored by the big parties.

However, it needs to be clear that this kind of protest vote won’t change anything – it only makes sense if it’s combined with long-term work to build up a movement to organize workers against US capitalism and imperialism, not just a movement to collect votes. Ralph Nader had some good electoral results, but he never aimed to build up a movement, much less a workers’ movement.

For me, democracy doesn’t occur every two to four years in the voting booth, but in the streets and in the campaigns fighting for change and for builidng a revolutionary force in society.

What would the alternative look like? Can you sketch what kind of party is necessary in the US?

Obviously, the new political consciousness amongst formerly apolitical students provides the left with a unique opportunity. Organizers should see Obama’s likely election victory as a way for people to measure the Dems against to their promises – when they can’t provide on their promises of “change”, we will be out talking with folks and letting them know their true enemy: not this or that Democratic or Republican politician from the ruling class, but the capitalist system.

In a time of economic crisis, it is important that local forces organize into effective bodies to fight the inevitable cuts in the standards of living for millions of people in the US. Starting here, we can work for building a true challenge to the two capitalist parties of war: a socialist party based in the working class and fighting all forms of oppression, most importantly capitalism. I think we should support all initiatives to create a political party based on the workers’ movement, but we need to make clear that only a revolutionary party will solve the workers’ problems.

If you’re not in love with Obama, what does activism at the university look like?

Despite the amount of people who expect Obama to save the world, there are quite a few people interested in alternatives. As organizers, we would miss a huge opportunity to radicalize people if we weren’t out taking the same issues as the two parties (such as the financial crisis and the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but from a socialist perspective.

The ensuing economic crisis has already caused many universities and public hospitals to slash funding, which has endangered the livelihoods of many workers. The number of students participating in worker-led struggles – especially for our University’s employees to have a voice, dignity, and respect on the job – has been very high. Through these struggles, students are seeing the importance of building strong community ties, ties to the working class.

In a time of so much debate, we must not avoid our most important task of fighting for a socialist future. The crisis of capitalism has the potential to bring forth a strong grassroots movement, against mass home foreclosures, no money for student loans, and thousands more in tuition increases. Over 200 demonstrations have occurred against the $700 billion bailout for the super rich on Wall Street! The next year will be a huge time for organizers on the left to challenge Obama (or McCain, possibly), to fight against his policies and show that the only real alternative is to replace capitalism with a socialist system based on human need.

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