Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and the limits of liberalism

Obama's speech in South Africa, marking the late Mandela's 100th birthday, is more liberal white washing of radical social movements of the past.

Barack Obama (third from the left) at the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, with Mpho Makhura, Cyril Ramaphosa and David Makhura. Via Flickr.

Barack Obama’s recent speech for the 2nd Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa, lauded by many mainstream publishing outlets, demonstrates American liberals’ continued refusal to engage seriously with the global collapse of the postwar liberal order. It was an excellent case study of American liberalism’s blind spots, specifically its unwillingness to confront capitalism and American imperialism and its ignorance of how democratic politics operate. It is ironic that the occasion of such a speech would be to celebrate the 100th birthday of a socialist revolutionary, who was a member of the South African Communist Party and of Mkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. Yet, it’s also appropriate given liberals’ long history of sanitizing leftist leaders’ pasts.

Obama began his speech by briefly reflecting on the state of affairs in the imperialist past. He described the social movements of the first half of the 1900s with a series of passive, actor-free clauses that obscure the direct link between capitalism and the many problems it created:

In those nations with market-based economies, suddenly union movements developed, and health and safety and commercial regulations were instituted, and access to public education was expanded, and social welfare systems emerged, all with the aim of constraining the excesses of capitalism and enhancing its ability to provide opportunity not just to some but to all people.

The liberal view of social movements Obama voices erases the connection between domestic and international injustice, the reality of class conflict, activists’ agency in effecting social change, and oppressive social structures which reproduce themselves via the protective mechanisms of social inertia and enormous power inequities. It treats movements as the inevitable response of a beneficent system to its own deficiencies. It also refuses to confront the massive violence and repression that capitalist elites, often using militaries and police, deployed against social movements within the metropole and against colonial subjects in the global South.

Every domestic regulation and law curbing capital, every aspect of the social safety net, every expansion of public education and the franchise, had to be fought for tooth and nail, and most of these did not extend to American and European colonial possessions—a reflection of the shamefully incomplete concept of solidarity that most western social-democratic parties had at the time. Workers and activists literally died for the sake of social democracy, and capitalist exploitation and imperialist divide-and-conquer strategies of domination wreaked havoc on large swathes of the global South, resulting in suffering and death on a scale that dwarfed the misery suffered in the global North. Obama serenely passes over the immense cost that organizing under 19th- and 20th- century capitalism exacted. In so doing, his speech illustrates a major weakness of liberalism: the absence of a real theory of social change.

Instead of an accurate account of social progress, one which regards collective movements and transformations of society’s basic economic and political power relations as the engines of historical change, liberalism substitutes individual leaders’ personalities and dismisses the lasting impact of material inequalities. Obama’s discussion of Mandela’s accomplishments illustrates this to a tee:

Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit—that all that was crumbling before our eyes. Then, as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections, as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, we understood that—we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.

“Forces of progress” (seemingly “inexorable”) motivate history: the anti-apartheid movement—a movement which encountered violent suppression within South Africa and considerable hostility outside of it—is barely mentioned. The “old structures of violence and repression,” Obama suggests, can melt away without being concretely dismantled; in his telling, the oppressed black majority was liberated from “the shackles of the past” despite the absence of policies to correct immense socioeconomic inequalities that resulted from centuries of deprivation. The undeniable force of Mandela’s “grace” and “generosity” was enough to do the trick—“reconciliation” could ostensibly occur on an elevated spiritual and interpersonal plane without the transformation of the South African economy and political system. It wasn’t necessary to enact the Freedom Charter’s economic and social planks; Obama presents “fair and free elections” and psychological reconciliation between the races as the epitome of liberation. The deeply rooted legacy of South Africa’s painful history, in this telling, was banished simply through an act of will and the statesmanship of an admittedly brilliant leader, albeit one who presided over the ANC’s gradual drift away from its revolutionary roots and towards neoliberalism.

Obama’s discussion of decolonization more broadly suffers from a similar myopia and refusal to connect the dots between the colonial, capitalist past and the neocolonial, capitalist present:

A respect for human rights and the rule of law, enumerated in a declaration by the United Nations, became the guiding norm for the majority of nations, even in places where the reality fell far short of the ideal. Even when those human rights were violated, those who violated human rights were on the defensive.

With these geopolitical changes came sweeping economic changes. The introduction of market-based principles, in which previously closed economies, along with the forces of global integration powered by new technologies, suddenly unleashed entrepreneurial talents to those that once had been relegated to the periphery of the world economy, who hadn’t counted. Suddenly they counted. They had some power. They had the possibilities of doing business. And then came scientific breakthroughs and new infrastructure and the reduction of armed conflicts.

Decolonization occurred only after much trauma and bloodshed. This is an inconvenient fact with long-lasting consequences, and one which Obama largely elides. Whether such violence was prosecuted by western imperial powers seeking to maintain their empires (as in Algeria, Vietnam, or Kenya) or erupted as a consequence of poorly drawn maps and the old colonial divide-and-rule strategy (as in Nigeria, Rwanda, the Indian subcontinent and Eritrea), the past isn’t so easily swept aside in a mystical surge of “entrepreneurial talents.” The suggestion that “market-based principles” have empowered people in the global South, rather than having been western imperialist powers’ original motivation to annex and exploit most of Africa and Asia and the source of intra-national and international inequality today, is remarkable in its audacity. To name just a few US-backed dictators—Somalia’s Siad Barre and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Joseph-Désiré Mobutu—didn’t seem particularly good at exercising “respect for human rights and the rule of law.” What’s more, the notion that human rights discourse’s ineffectuality may be no accident, but rather a consequence of inbuilt defects in conceptions of human rights which sideline economic and social rights doesn’t seem to cross Obama’s mind.

Obama’s proposed solution hasn’t evolved, nor has it grappled with any of the contradictions it entails. He envisions “an inclusive capitalism,” adding that “we have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.” No consideration of the centuries of exploitation, imperialism, and colonialism and concomitant underdevelopment of the global South; no consideration of the contradiction inherent in the notion of “inclusive capitalism”; no consideration of the continued exploitation of the global South’s land and labor. Why are some pockets of the world forgotten and not others? Why are there immense wealth inequalities between nations? On these questions, Obama is silent.

Obama does not offer a vision of how the world he envisions—timid though it is—will be brought into being. He does, however, seize the opportunity to criticize the confrontational mode of politics that offends his sensibility of compromise and civility and likely represents our only hope for real change:

So, those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get a hundred per cent of what you want all the time; sometimes you have to compromise.

As has become quite clear over the past 30 years, the American Right and capitalists worldwide are entirely uninterested in compromise. Setting aside Obama’s dubious assumption that American formal democracy has ever produced genuinely democratic outcomes, the presumption that it’s possible to bargain in good faith with today’s Republicans (and their reactionary ilk globally) is dangerously naïve—just as it was throughout Obama’s presidency. But absent a robust understanding of social movements’ role in achieving political change, Obama and liberals in his image are forced to fall back on vague appeals to discourse and deliberation instead of advocating a politics that speaks truth to power and embraces productive polarization as a means of achieving real change. As Mandela himself put it, “[H]istory progresses through struggle and change occurs in revolutionary jumps.”

Obamian liberalism continues to exhibit an astonishing rigidity given the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves: lip service paid to market failure; an unwillingness to connect colonialism, imperialism and capitalism; the refusal to connect the past with the present; and the continued failure to comprehend the need for constructive antagonism in politics. Perhaps it would be better to take a page out of Mandela’s book. In his autobiography, he described tribal South African society before colonization, writing: “There were no classes, no rich or poor and no exploitation of man by man. All men were free and equal and this was the foundation of government… [I]n such a society are contained the seeds of revolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want, and insecurity shall be no more.”

Such a vision should be our rallying cry today.

Further Reading