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Hope cuts across barriers

Obama and equality

After eight years of political free fall, President-elect Barack Obama is being cast as America's knight in shining armour: the liberator, the longed-for messiah. Hopes are so great that they are bound to be disappointed to some degree, and this may already be happening in the arena of equality and civil rights.

Many people have taken Obama's victory as symbolising that there are no barriers left anywhere - no racism, no sexism, no class problems. On the one hand, it is true that we "have come so far", as Obama himself said in his acceptance speech. The distance travelled over the past 50 years is considerable. African Americans have become much more integrated in workplaces, in the media, in the professions. Women no longer enter clubs by the back door, nor are they barred from professional sports; and half of all law school graduates are female. An all-American diversity of minorities - gays, Latinos, Hmong Americans, Arab Americans and Jewish Americans - has made strides, thanks to various civil rights laws barring discrimination.

So it is not just the nadir of the Bush administration that, by contrast alone, renders Obama's ascendancy so attractive. Our democracy has demonstrated an unusual ability to rethink its hierarchies and remedy its own inequalities.

At the same time, the United States remains marked by significant social divisions. Housing and schooling are still disgracefully segregated by race. The conditions in our prisons - to say nothing of the astronomically disproportionate rates of incarceration for blacks and Latinos - are so dire that they have become a matter of concern to international human rights organisations. Hate crimes against gays, Sikhs, non-English speakers and Muslims are on the rise. Women are still bumping their heads against glass ceilings and fighting for invitations to corporate power lunches. And given the plummeting economy, class divisions and resentment are likely to become much more of a force in American society than in the past.

So it is a sad paradox that Obama's success is sometimes used as an excuse to undermine the very laws that allowed the country to transform itself over the past decades. Our media throngs with pundits who crow that we have arrived at a "post-race" moment. The calls to end affirmative action (or positive discrimination) programmes in schools and recruitment grow louder; there have been disturbing moves to eliminate crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Barack Obama will have little to say about this in the short term. The future of many civil rights laws now rests in large part with the courts. And one of the most enduring legacies of the Reagan and Bush years is the composition of our federal judiciary: more than three-quarters of the appellate courts are Republican choices, appointed for life. Similarly, the Supreme Court is composed of four relatively liberal justices, four hard-right justices and one wavering, somewhat unpredictable tie-breaker.

In working to elect Obama, we Americans explicitly acknowledged the wretched recent past: the inexplicable ruling of 2000 in Bush v Gore, the uncounted ballots, the disenfranchisement not only of felons but of anyone whose name "resembled" that of a felon, the degree to which these actions victimised communities of colour, liberal communities and Jewish and immigrant neighbourhoods. In view of this recent history, armies of citizens turned out en masse to monitor the polls this time round. This was a wonderful expression of "the will of the people" but at the same time the courts seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In the past couple of years, our highest courts have upheld new prerequisites for voting, such as photo IDs issued by a government office. This may sound neutral, but such requirements have a history of being ciphers for more complex racial realities: in rural black communities, for example, where birth certificates may be lost or never have been issued, the ability to vote had been based on showing something like a utility bill.

There are so many serious struggles ahead. Yet, over the course of his campaign, Obama repeatedly reminded us that "out of many we are one". Indeed, he won this election because he built a real community on the ground; he didn't just woo a statistical constituency. And if anything at all can sustain the "superhuman" expectations abroad in the land, it just might be that feeling of cohesion and engagement. I'm not thinking of the industry of hagiography surrounding his image - the T-shirts, the hats, the button badges, the praise songs - but of the phone networks, the Twittering, the websites, the accumulated power of millions of small donations from students, labourers and "poor widows". African Americans felt suddenly connected; young people showed up in unexpected numbers; Americans of all stripes really worked to get Obama elected. That sense of investment is why up to four million people will be flocking to Washington, DC on Inauguration Day, exhilaration undimmed.

This is hope in action and we must share Barack Obama's good-natured sense of purpose. But it must not be defeated by burdening a single man with the dead weight of idol worship. It is about all of us, huddled around our newborn dreams for the future, keeping them alive and shepherding them to fruition.

Patricia J Williams is the James Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times