Barack Obama and the Empire: Where Do We Go From Here?

“Obama has to hold something in reserve. He has to dial down expectations … he has to play it cool … if only to have any hope of surviving.” (quote from here)
The scene from Grant Park on Tuesday evening was mesmerizing, spectral, simply stunning. I sat there looking on (via television) in utter amazement at this “historic” moment. The majesty of the staging, the sheer numbers of people participating made anyone who watched want to be, indeed have to be, part of this movement for change. The diversity in the crowds was eschatological. No one could miss the M L King overtones. Barack Obama’s speech was delivered with the cadence of Martin Luther King, the brilliance of John Kennedy, the gravitas of Abraham Lincoln calling a nation together at Gettysberg. I was moved by the diversity, glad that our country’s aggressive posture towards war would be over, heartened that we might begin listening and conversing with the rest of the world again, blown away by the conciliatory tone, blessed that such a gifted man would be lending intellect and leadership to this country’s problems. To all appearances, Obama looks like the counter-Bush. Today, despite my reticence to vote and support some of Obama’s policies towards abortion, I sincerely rejoice that the Bush era is over.

So what do we do now? I suggest three things to start.

I am hoping for some preservatory acts: some changes in government that preserve us from some of the more carnivorous societal injustices of the most recent laissez-faire capitalism gone mad, but that’s about it. Sadly (excuse me while I wince), as symbolic of an event in history as this is for every body, as good as it all makes us feel, this presidential change has little potential to produce anything significant for God’s justice in the world. Obama himself brilliantly proclaimed that nothing has been accomplished with his election. The work lies ahead. He spoke with seriousness on his face revealing just how much he knows that the task ahead is beyond the scope of any one man, that all people must participate. The speech very subtley warned us of a danger – the danger that all of us seeking the justice of God maybe don’t realize – there is very little Obama or the US government can do to bring in God’s justice even if Barack is everything as promised. His face said it all – the mountains of debt, the calamity of the capitalist markets, the economic crisis have made it virtually impossible for Barack to do anything but cooperate with the corporatist forces hoping for a time when the economy can even itself out and accomplish some of the things this country desperately needs: a new health care structure, a new economic structure, and a new international structure that retracts itself from war as a viable policy instrument.

The powers and forces at work on the levels of U.S. government are so overwhelming that they will engulf anyone who dares enter into it. Barack is no different. In fact, in some ways, he comes specifically tailored to be used as a malleable instrument by the existing corporate structures of capital to further its territorilizing over America and beyond. Now that George Bush has exhausted his usefulness, indeed has no usable credibility anymore, corporate economy needs a black man/white man, rich man/who was poor man to be the instrument for furthering the flows of capital. Frankly, I don’t believe Obama has any other choice. I know this all sounds so conspiratorial. It’s not. I’m just reflecting observations already made elsewhere in political theory by theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

Political theorists Negri and Hardt have written famously how “a new form of sovereignty” has emerged at the turn of the millenium. It includes “dominant nation states along with supra-national institutions, major capitalist corporations and other powers.” Despite the inequalities between these various components, they all “must cooperate to create and maintain the current global order.” (preface Multitude). “Today nearly all of humanity is to some degree absorbed within or subordinated to the networks of capitalist exploitation.” (Empire p. 43) As such, the global networks of power organized primarily through global capitalism are the new more subtler form of power governing us all in this new Empire. In short, the State is the subordinate servant to the Global market.

This was all written prior to the economic developments of the last 6 months. Yet how forthtelling. Contrary to those Christians who argue that Obama is initiating a new world order that has apocalyptic implications drawn from the book of Revelation, Hardt and Negri’s work suggests that it is way too late to worry about that. The Global network is already firmly entrenched, too entrenched for pres. elect Obama to do anything about it. Likewise there are people who argue intelligently that the recent “Government bailout of Wall Street” was a capitulation to socialism. And the real reason that this happened was because we allowed the government to intrude into free markets forcing the banks and Wall Street to lend to poor people. Yet even Greenspan himself, the prima donna of free markets and Ayn Rand moral objectivism, declared he overestimated the ability of free markets and the banks to police themselves. He was shocked and horrified that the banks did this. And so, in the aftermath of Hardt and Negri, we must understand the government of the United States has no choice. They have to structure these vehicles to accommodate the carnivorous enslaving forces of capitalism, because to not do it would be catastrophic for the economy. The State is now the servant of the global capitalism and now every body must cooperate or die.

Obama too has little choice. It will be difficult to lead this country in the midst of this crisis without either sinking the US into all out depression or giving in to the interests and powers of corporate capital. This is why we truly must pray for the new president. For perhaps this will be the one good man who can become the instrument for a more just society. Yet I am convinced he can do so only by the power of God that supersedes his own or the US governments. Remember (I’m convinced) George W Bush was a good man at the outset as well.

The kingdom’s work is always small (Matt 13:31-32), close to the ground (Matt 25:32-40) and subversive to the powers (Eph 6:2). This speaks to the fact that we really cannot expect too much from the new president. It is why I felt compelled to say earlier “Go ahead and vote, just don’t expect too much.” Instead, let us now get back to the primary call on our lives, nurturing communities of God’s justice, salvation, and reconciliation in the world.
The danger of Obama is that everybody wants to be part of something big … but the kingdom is usually small (It’s like a mustard seed). Let us not look to something big like the Obama presidency to bring in Christ’s justice. I fear the young emerging missional Christians have just shot their entire energy outtake for 2008-2009 into getting Obama elected. I fear we sit euphoric (if exhausted) as if to say we did it, its accomplished. And now the daily life engagements for Christ and his salvatiomn/justice do not seem near as exciting. This is the danger of Barack Obama to the emerging/missional churches.

So I respectfully ask, based on the above, that all young emerging/ missional Christians not get their hopes up. The sheer volume of antagonistic e-mails I’ll get for saying that reveals the ideological spell we are all locked into. In the midst of the new political euphoria however, I respectfully ask the emerging/missional church people to get on with being the church, the subversive micropolitics that actually can, under the Lordship of Christ, bring in the Reign of God, subvert the Empire, bring in the Kingdom of God on the ground. Emerging leaders read Hardt and Negri, understand Empire and let’s have a good discussion about it. I loved Tuesday night, yet, if given a choice, I would have preferred Tuesday night’s revival meeting have been in a church- or in a park with the cross at the center, recognizing Jesus as Lord. Blessings to us all as we seek to navigate being and doing God’s justice in the name of Jesus in this new world we have post Wall Street Bailout, post pres. George W Bush, post gas guzzling SUV’s. What do you think the danger of Obama is for the new emerging missional churches of America.

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