Tag Archives: crisis

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

The Key Question About The Crisis of Our Times

From Kate Soper’s review of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Had it had to pay for the bounty of nature or any of its debts to the labour of animals, slaves, the reproductive and domestic work of women, and so on, [capitalism] could never have existed. ‘The great secret and the great accomplishment of capitalism’, claims Moore, ‘has been to not pay its bills.’ Historical capitalism, moreover, has been able to resolve its recurrent crises until now only because of its continued success in ripping off what it should have been paying for, only because it has always managed to extend its zone of appropriation faster than it zone of exploitation – to overcome exhausted means or ‘natural limits’ to further capitalization, by engineering, with the help of science, technology and conducive cultural-symbolic forces, ever new means of restoring cut-price supplies of food, energy, labour and materials. Cartesian talk of Nature’s wreaking revenge on Humanity at some indefinite point in the future overlooks the often spectacular ways in which capitalism has overcome its socio-economic obstacles to growth. Particularly impressive in this respect has been its capacity to harness new knowledges in the service of economic expansion – as, for example, in the critical use made of cartography in the seventeenth century, or of time measurement, and other quantifying systems. Extensive historical illustration of all these devices and accumulation strategies is provided in the various sections of Moore’s book covering the colonizations of capitalism over the centuries, the territories thereby opened up for fresh labour exploitation, and the frontiers marked out for acquisition of pivotal resources at key historical moments (sugar, corn, silver, iron, oil, etc.).

But if apocalyptic formulation of nature’s limits is mistaken, Moore does also accept that capitalism may well now be running into the buffers, or, in others words, running out of the sources of the Four Cheaps [i.e., food, energy, labor power, and raw materials], and into a situation in which overcapitalization is left with too few means of investment and further accumulation. The problem here, he suggests, is a longue durée tendency for the rate of accumulation to decline as the mass of capitalized nature rises. In the process, accumulation becomes more wasteful due to increased energy inefficiency and the toxicity of its by-products; the contradiction between the time of capitalism (always seeking to short-cut that of environmental renewal) and the time of natural reproduction is made more acute; the eco-surplus declines, and capital has nowhere else to go other than recurrent waves of financialization. The key question, then, to which Moore continually returns without any clear answer, is whether the crisis of our times is epochal or developmental; whether, against the odds, new sources of accumulation will be located, or whether the combination of physical depletion, climate change, stymied investment opportunities and new anti-systemic movements now indicate a terminal decline.

Is This A Serious Conversation?

Is this a serious conversation? Is he discussing this question in earnest and giving you second-personal authority, or is he simply going to decide what to believe and do it unilaterally? If the latter, then not only will there be nothing reciprocal about his choice, but also there will be nothing genuinely reciprocal about the conversation; it will not be serious. He will have no particular need to determine what you are going to do, say, by listening carefully, because his choice will be unilateral. If he is an egoistic non-cooperator, he will not cooperate whatever you say or do. He has nothing at stake in the conversation and need give you no authority in it, either to answer the theoretical question of what (to believe) you will do, or to answer the practical question of what to do himself. No genuine co-deliberation, either theoretical or practical, will occur.

I found my way back to this discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Darwall’s Second Person Standpoint after reading this morning that a group of leading NGOs had walked out of the Warsaw climate talks. “Talks like these amount to nothing if countries refuse to come to them and negotiate in good faith or worse, try to drag the process backwards,” said the World Wildlife Fund’s Sam Smith. There are complaints that corporate sponsors compromised and undermined the talks from the get-go. But the conversation about what to do — and who should do what — was already at an impasse. There were a few fine speeches, but the time for fine speeches has long ago passed.

Some people — Suzanne Goldberg calls them “experts familiar… with the politics of climate change” in The Guardian today — seem to think that new research by Richard Heede will help “break the deadlock.” This seems like the sort of thing only experts and journalists who interview them can believe: that a piece of research is what’s needed to make an unserious conversation serious.

As The Guardian headline has it, Heede has identified ninety companies that have “caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions” since the start of the industrial era. His list includes state-run companies and coal producers from around the world as well as big oil companies from the developed world. The idea, or at least the hope, is that Heede’s comprehensive, historical accounting of fossil-fuel producers will change the dynamics of the conversation, which has tended to pit developed against emerging economies, rich countries against poor, and so on.

It’s hard for me to imagine that Heede’s findings will really bring about anything like what Darwall calls “genuine co-deliberation” or translate to new cooperation. These talks are a game of dodge ball.

Al Gore is quoted here as saying that Heede’s list places “a clear obligation” on companies “historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere.” But what exactly does that obligation entail? “To be part of the solution,” says Gore. And how are these companies to be held to that obligation? Gore does not say; but without binding agreements and a whole new set of rules I am not sure we will get anything but the usual greenwashing rhetoric, more corporate funded climate denial and more inaction.

And even if we somehow do manage to hold fossil-fuel producing companies historically responsible, or (as Michael Mann suggests) fingerprint the sources of future emissions, we will need to hold ourselves and all fossil-fuel consumers responsible as well. That’s where the conversation gets really serious — when we start talking about historical responsibility as shared responsibility. Are we ready to start enumerating the obligations we all have on this score and figuring out how we are going to meet them? It seems very few people in Warsaw or anywhere this week really want to have that conversation.

Trending Towards The Gray

I’m watching Procter & Gamble stock today, looking for some reaction on the trading floor to the announcement that Robert McDonald will succeed A. G. Lafley as CEO. The market did not exactly raise a huzzah or hurrah at the news yesterday, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the AP wire. P&G finished slightly down. It was a gray day.

Maybe traders and investors are waiting for today’s official announcement before reacting, but when have you known Wall Street to wait? Maybe McDonald just isn’t seen as an inspired or inspiring choice; but I refuse to believe that. After 29 years at P&G, McDonald now serves as Chief Operating Officer of the sprawling consumer products giant. He has an impressive military background (West Point, 82nd Airborne), and a degree in Engineering. He is a logistics man. In his tenure as COO, McDonald focused on making P&G’s manufacturing and transportation network more efficient. He implemented a monitoring system to track trucks and reduce empty truck miles. And he made efforts to move production to emerging markets – another push for virtuous efficiency (or cheaper labor, depending on your perspective and your politics).

These are not the actions of an empty suit. McDonald is clearly someone with a deep and hard-earned knowledge of how P&G works and the expectation is he will make a concerted effort to institute new discipline across the company. No small task, given P & G’s size, breadth and depth: the company makes everything from my Braun coffee-grinder to dish soap, Gillette razors, potato chips, AA batteries and cosmetics; even the diapers your child is soiling right now are probably made by P&G. Imagine directing all that traffic, or simply trying to bring the whole thing into focus. The company claims people around the world use its products three billion times a day. By my reckoning, that’s about 35,000 uses every second of every day.

That makes the collective shrug yesterday over McDonald’s appointment all the more puzzling. Or maybe that shrug was the intended effect. P&G certainly could have made a big splash if it wanted to, by choosing Susan Arnold over McDonald. Arnold was often mentioned as a likely successor to Lafley until she left P & G in March of 2009 (motivated, no doubt, by the fact that she’d been passed over. The succession process had been two years in the works; the writing must have been on the wall sometime in 2008). Arnold was a P&G superstar. She started out selling dish soap (a brand assistant), and gained the highest rank of any woman in P & G’s 168-year history. But wait, there’s more: she’s openly gay, according to her profile on Wikipedia. (These are the wages of success: to have one’s sexual preferences detailed on Wikipedia.) Think Carly Fiorina meets Ellen DeGeneres. Think of the cultural capital the company would have reaped: over-the-top praise from big media outlets, eager to portray themselves as socially progressive; the lashing and futile threats of boycotts from the Religious Right. At the very least, it would have been a good day at the circus.

There may be a glass ceiling at P&G, but Arnold came pretty close to shattering it. There’s no questioning her competence, and it’s likely she was passed over not because of some institutionalized sexism or homophobia, but because of the business she was in. She came up through the beauty and cosmetics line (look for institutional sexism there, if you must), a business that flourished under Lafley; but there is a suspicion that in hard times, Cover Girl and Pantene won’t do as well as some of the more essential consumer items. Some investors had begun to question whether the acquisition of Gillette had made the company unwieldy, too big to succeed. The future of the company doesn’t lie in Arnold’s bailiwick. So it might have been as simple as that. The McDonald appointment suggests a new sobriety about the marketplace, a shift in focus or a correction of the Lafley strategy. (Since Lafley will stay on as Chairman, it’s a subtle suggestion, at best.)

But doesn’t the P&G succession story also suggest something larger and more significant? Something about the mood and tone of the country right now? I’m tempted to see in McDonald’s ascent something like the start of a trend — away from the superstar CEO, and towards the nuts and bolts operations guy. Less sizzle, more logistics. A similar restraint seems to have played into the thinking behind the choice of Fritz Henderson to lead GM through its dark days and into Chapter 11. There are doubtless other examples.

It’s sometimes said that the operations-minded are too immersed in the details to see the big picture; but sobriety, details and logistics might be exactly what we’re looking for after the housing bust, the financial crisis, the Madoff affair, the private jets, all the CNBC hype and John Thain’s $1,400 wastebasket. And it may be what we’re looking for, more broadly, in leaders: think of it as a trend toward the gray, more Ike, less Dubya. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could never have conceived, let alone plan D-Day; Eisenhower would never have invaded Iraq without a postwar plan. Obama is a rock star, to be sure. But many like him for his sobriety and evenness of temperament; he is unflappable, and he likes to make careful distinctions and discuss things coolly, so much so that before the elections some right-leaning pundits were praising his “conservative” instincts. (That’s over.)

Remember when Ronald Reagan famously told us it was morning in America again? Now, it seems, we’re just happy to hear that it’s a gray day and that nothing too out of the ordinary is happening.

Reckoning on a Riot

Yesterday’s New York Times Week in Review section found sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondering why we are not out in the streets, rioting for bread.

You can tell it’s a prospect that gives him a little thrill – or a touch of academic brain fever. Venkatesh’s writing rises above social-scientific banalities only when he’s describing the complete breakdown of social order.

He is sure that if we all stop blogging and texting, twittering and talking on cell phones, and if we can all get over the shame we all feel over the massive credit card debt we all carry — no, really, this seems to be his argument — we will all get in touch with our true feelings again, or at least with the righteous anger we ought to be feeling over AIG bonuses and Chrysler’s nosedive and John Thain’s interior decorating budget; and in the light of that new day we will all rise up and take to the streets.

Not to worry, of course: Professor Venkatesh assures us that there won’t be angry, unruly mobs in the streets bent on mayhem. Why would there be? We will all turn out for a riot, but stay just for good conversation with our fellow citizens, kind of a democratic carnival or street fair, or a big town hall, in which, I guess, unemployed bankers, sinecured academics, Toledo plumbers and everybody else will come to approve a new program of social justice.

Maybe I’ve been living in New York City too long, but I prefer to avoid crowds when I can, especially angry crowds, and I don’t expect people driven to the street by anger suddenly to turn all warm, mushy and benevolent at the sight of fellow sufferers or the prospect of a conversation. Maybe we would all be moved by pity and compassion and realize a sense of shared purpose if we only could come face to face, and acknowledge our pain. But isn’t it just as likely — more likely — that the day of reckoning so eagerly anticipated by Professor Venkatesh wouldn’t turn out the way he expects?

What the world needs now may be love sweet love; but there will be no easy resolution to the political and social conflicts this economic crisis might generate. Democratic deliberation is above all a habit, one we are out of; concerns about the thing we hold in common — the res publica — have given way, for now, to worries over the losing everything we have, or own. So it is with some regret that I would inform Professor Venkatesh — pace Rodney King — that we probably can’t all just get along; and, what’s more, we probably won’t.