Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Political Limitations of Obama's 'Big Brain'

Robert Scheer is concerned that some of Obama's actions indicate that he is more likely to continue some of the major failed Bush policies, rather than changing them significantly. He singles out Obama's lobbying for the second half of the bailout, which is a crass example of corporate welfare at taxpayers' expense, and the escalation of a failing strategy in Afghanistan.
The good news is that we have a big-brain president. The question is: Will he use it?
That is good news indeed, especially after what we've had the last eight years. Obama may well be one of the most intelligent and intellectual presidents so far.

But the question is not whether he will use his immense intellect. Of course he will, just like he has in the past. The question is which of his ideas he can communicate and act on effectively, given the constraints within which he operates, and what might be called the 'logic' of US politics, which has a mind of its own, as it were.

For instance, he might actually believe that TARP should be changed significantly in order to do what it supposedly was intended to do, but so far has utterly failed to achieve. But he might be unlikely to say so, because this would jeopardize his support from Wall Street, from which he raised more money than any other president (His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was one of the House members who raised the most from the same sources).

And probably he knows that 'clean coal' is a dangerous contradiction in terms, and yet feels constrained to support it, because that's how you win elections and get re-elected. Or that nuclear is unlikely - at tremendous costs and huge risks - to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels or emissions.

Again, the question is not what Obama, or any other politician, 'really' thinks - we will never for sure anyway. The question is what he can communicate politically, and political communication is highly selective in the statements it accepts and rejects. If people in general, and perhaps progressives in particular, better understood the very strict limits imposed by highly structured and scripted political communication and rhetoric, they could save themselves a lot uncalled for excitement and disappointment stemming from unrealistic expectations, and could instead invest those resources in changing the limits of what is politically not only acceptable, but actually stands a reasonable chance of success.

In other words, the political system has its own rationality, and it tends to be very different from the rationality of individuals and that of other social systems such as the economy, law, education or moral discourses. For example, the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce GHG gas emissions, has failed to do so, in part because it is very difficult for the political and legal communication to lead to actual economic and environmental changes.

More fundamentally, this focus on individual rationality overestimates the capacity of individuals - and be they the most intelligent, best intentioned, and most resourceful - to change social systems that have their own rationality and are self-organized, and therefore are very difficult to 'steer.'

The traditional and still dominant understanding of politics is that it's the 'head' or the 'tip' of society, able to steer society in a certain direction. However, we can see more and more clearly that a globalized, functionally differentiated world society can't be effectively steered, because there is no position from which a collectively binding description of the world, its problems and its solutions could be formulated and implemented.

The implications of the functional differentiation of world society for the potential and limitations of political strategy are important, and we have only begun to think them through. It raises the core strategic question of where best to concentrate scarce resources.

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