Obama’s Election: Genuine Revolution or Successful Branding Campaign?

by Ashley Sanders

It’s inauguration time, and you know what that means: last chance to board the bandwagon headed toward happy delusion. This time around, the Dems have even saved some space for erstwhile opponents—people who can usually keep a cool head amidst all the media hoopla. From the looks of it, Adbusters saw fit to drop their bionic anti-advertising stare and reserve a seat right next to the New York Times and a bevy of other “progressive” magazines that wanted to celebrate the reality they created.

Don’t believe me? Here is the prompt Adbusters sent out to all their meme warriors in holy expectation of the upcoming coronation (an event that, beyond being as transcendentally historical as we’ve been promised, will also usher in a whole new generation):

Meme warriors, cultural creatives and Generation O:

The outpouring of euphoria around the globe following Barack Obama’s victory has raised expectations. Like the president-elect, we (and you) have been calling for change for eight long years. On November 4th we got it, a genuine, bloodless revolution. The question now is: will it amount to anything?

Obama’s campaign benefited hugely from enlisting young voters in the cause. Obama told them that the post-baby boomer era had begun. He challenged their cynicism and spoke to them through their own media: through Facebook, through Twitter. They overwhelmingly gave him their support at the polls. And they won. They won big. Maybe now Generation O will finally drop the hipster pose and become a force to change the world.

For the next issue of Adbusters we want your thoughts and opinions on whether you think Generation O has revolutionary potential.

So I responded (what pissed-off, media-abused leftist wouldn’t?) with my thoughts on the so-called Generation O.

There was something a little less than comforting about the prompt Adbusters used to solicit our thoughts on the revolutionary potential of Generation O. In their solicitation, Adbusters gave a series of givens before asking their readers to answer for the undecided: It was incontrovertible that Obama had contributed to an “outpouring of euphoria across the globe,” that he had been extending the mission of Adbusters by “calling for change,” and that his election amounted to a “genuine, bloodless revolution.” All that was decided. Agreed upon. Now the only question left was whether Generation O would “drop its hipster pose” long enough to carry the revolution forward.

Adbusters’ givens beg far more questions than their actual question does, and while the actual question is not whether Obama will bring change, but whether the younger generation will carry out that change, the attitudes Adbusters revealed in their intro to the question are the same attitudes that will keep Generation O from possessing or exercising true revolutionary potential.

First things first: global euphoria. It is unclear whether Adbusters was using an exaggerated expression to convey a point or whether their maps are wrong, since—last I checked—there are large swaths of the globe that have no reason to rejoice over an Obama presidency: Palestine, which will continue to live under an occupation and have their resistance branded as terrorism; Iraq, which will see the same amount of bloodshed and hypocrisy behind a thin, tactical critique of certain specific aspects of the war (instead of an urgent critique of war in general, the forces that lead us into it, and the duplicity of waging terrorism to fight a wrongly-labeled threat); Afghanistan, which will endure a surge that ensures more bloody wedding parties and the notion that it is the rightful recipient of a ‘good’ war; Pakistan, Syria, and Iran, who by virtue of simply following the United State’s lead in nuclear weaponry, border armament, and realpolitik self-interest, have earned only Obama’s wrath and saber-rattling; Venezuela and Bolivia, whose very real revolutions will continue to be interpreted through the lens of fundamentalist free-marketeers who use Obama as their willing mouthpiece to equate utterly financial notions of freedom-for-some with the expansive freedoms of human rights; the third world in general, which will carry the same old NAFTA-esque burdens on its back; immigrants wanting to escape that selfsame NAFTA, who will encounter border walls and increased border police; poor and middle class communities, who will pay dearly for the almost unquestioned corporatism and Wall Street influence that—despite flowery phrases—controlled Obama’s campaign; the sick, who will require more and more band-aid tax dollars to get terrible care: in short, an overwhelming mass of people whose stories have been silenced for so long that they are no longer even factored into a world that even progressive magazines claim is euphoric with Obama-mania.

But what about reality? After shrieking that Barack Obama is against war, for comprehensive healthcare, against NAFTA, and funded by small donations—and after I tell you wearily to check your facts and get back to me—you will surely wage one final protest and insist that the majority of the world really was rejoicing after, and that this kind of mass joy amounts to nothing short of a revolution—a promise of great changes from Generation O. I admit openly that even many of the people from the regions I just listed were ecstatic. But that is part of my point: that the way that people perceived Barack Obama (not to mention why they were convinced to perceive him this way) is more indicative of their lack of revolutionary potential than anything else. Case in point: the word revolution itself. Just because George Bush didn’t force a third term, and just because one of the six billion people who isn’t George Bush will be president this January, doesn’t mean that we witnessed a revolution. In fact, the word revolution is bandied around so freely these days that it could now unapologetically apply to switching from Froot Loops to Cheerios. Cereal imagery aside, the analogy is a good one: Should we eat the outright terrible stuff marketed to us by one major conglomerate, or should we eat the pretend-it’s-good-for-you stuff brought to us by another major conglomerate? Sometimes the sheer choice is so damn exciting we forget that we should be free to eat something besides bullshit altogether.

A real revolution turns things upside down; it gets at the root of a problem or radically includes or excludes a new or old idea. What we got from Obama was not a revolution, as even a cursory study of his own centrist, American-myth-heavy rhetoric would attest. What we got from Obama was just what Adbusters (glowingly) said we got: a President who used technology to speak to us in a language we understood. What we got wasn’t a new generation or a refurbished democratic era. What we got was the logical conclusion of a corporatist takeover of democracy: a brand revolution that took the images of rebellion, cored them out, and resold them as image. What we got was decoy democracy—a series of jingles, trademarks, and images that kept us from the reality of business as usual.

Barack Obama is not a departure from the corporatism of Bush; he is the fulfillment of it. If Bush fulfilled Orwell’s worst predictions, Obama is busy fulfilling Huxley’s more candied but just as ominous predictions of a world so controlled by false pleasure and feel-good propaganda that people no longer know that there are Others at all.

Adbusters should know better than anybody that the triumph of the corporate age is to pair a series of unlike things together to give potential customers an impression that is stronger than fact—in other words, to create brand loyalty. Marketers know that blatant salesmanship will only alert people to the fact that they are being conned, and so their goal is not to argue but to create a sense in someone over time: a sense that Pepsi is better than Coke, a sense that you shouldn’t be caught dead in anything but skinny jeans. These senses are far more commanding then anything other tactic in controlling people’s behavior.

Anyone with an intro-level rhetoric class under their belt laughs when ads are used against them this way. As an example, Exxon just launched an unbeatably ironic greenwashing campaign on the DC subway. In the ads, respectable people smile out at you with the phrase “I will leave my car at home more” underneath. But the pretty pictures hardly hide what is actually going on: a major corporation, under pressure from a growing public awareness about global warming and peak oil, is using the language of its detractors to get people to use more oil by distracting them with piecemeal reform—to convince them that small actions can offset systematic pollution. In other words, they are manipulating the good intentions of would-be environmentalists in order to keep doing exactly what they have always done. More insultingly, they are transferring the responsibility for the problem they created onto the victims, a classic case of shunting corporate responsibility off the irresponsible and onto the consumer.

These ads probably won’t work, largely because people know they are being sold something and are looking out for corporate smoke-and-mirror tricks. But people are less wary if they think they are operating in a non-commodity system—if they don’t think they are being sold something, they won’t be suspicious buyers. Democracy, to most, appears as a non-commodity market. Steeped in the traditions of political debate, high school civics, and a complete Founding Father myth set, they believe that they are engaging in a battle of ideas in which the best person still wins.

But the actual election process looks a damn sight more like a marketing orgy than a Lincoln-Douglas debate; by the end of last election cycle, the two major candidates had spent close to two billion dollars to convince people to vote for them. A smart person might ask: What kind of person needs a billion dollars to convince me to vote in my own interest? Answer: A person who does not have your interest in mind. The sheer fact that politicians now need unimaginable amounts of money and a whole legion of callow reporters to ‘win’ an election is a sure sign that democracy has moved into its final phase: fascist feel-good PR. Politicians are no longer selling a substantive set of platforms (if they ever were); they are, to borrow Naomi Klein’s idea, abandoning actual production of ideas to pour billions of dollars into making a brand.

Don’t believe it? My friend Jason, a graphic designer, told me that he had endured endless discussions in and out of school about the genius of Obama’s logo strategy. “It’s so clean,” his friends said, “so clean and hopeful.” And that’s when Jason hit the nail on the head: “To these people, the difference between Obama and McCain is the difference between a Mac and a PC.” In a democracy where press has been traded for publicity, politics for punditry, and reporting for reality creation, graphic design is both medium and analogy: art once-removed, the uncomfortable gray land between ideas and advertising.

Adbusters was right, but in an ominous way: Obama won by speaking to the rising generation in their own language, a language so pervasive and invisible that most don’t even know they are fluent in it. He spoke to them in the language of branding, taking powerful feel-good words from the Sixties—words like ‘grassroots’ and ‘movement’—and updating them for the corporate era. An Obama ‘grassroots movement’ was neither grassroots nor movement but, rather, a highly orchestrated, top-down spectacle that got people to do exactly what they were supposed to by making them think it was their idea to do so. The word change—already tired from years of political servitude—also got a marketing makeover. Detached from any substance or questions of policy, ‘change’ was Obama’s ultimate brand: a hazy feeling that Obama (despite all evidence to the contrary) was the peace candidate, the environmental candidate, the Black candidate, the people’s candidate. The whole production borrowed ideas that were actually dangerous to Wall Street, gutted them of danger, and resold them as ideas that were dangerous to Wall Street. It used spectacle to create the illusion that an infinity of similar options was the same thing as a meaningful choice, as real change or authenticity. It was the triumph of ideology: getting people to vote against themselves in the name of themselves.

The fact that enough people—particularly those in the rising generation—were persuaded to perceive Obama as a revolutionary is far more indicative of their susceptibility to brands than their revolutionary potential. Generation O is just as unlikely as the hipster generation to affect real change because they are willing, if unwitting, participants in the same corporate project: aesthetic rebellion. True, Generation O is much more earnest, much more willing to work. And they will work, and work hard. But unless they are willing to break through the brand floor and find the roots of problems underneath—until they are willing to look for substance rather than senses—then they will accept the image of change rather than securing the real thing. It is far more dangerous to think you are doing good when you are actually complicit than it is to be apathetic. In the latter, there is no perception but self-absorption; in the former scenario, the bad guys win by getting their enemies’ perceptions to work for them.

But if aesthetic rebellion doesn’t neuter the next revolution, then the professionalization of rebellion surely will. There is branding, yes, and PR. But if that doesn’t work, the corporations have one more powerful tool on their side, one that operates on the same principles of co-opting movements and shunting responsibility. I’d call it the non-profit industrial complex: a complete union between the interests of major corporations and the technocratic do-gooder mentality of Generation O. Instead of the Protestant work ethic, the next generation will suffer the ripple of the corporate work ethic, a model of ‘effective’ organizing that is so powerful that it has tainted the very structures that criticize it.

Generation O is a far cry from the radicalism of previous generations. If the Sixties cried revolution, the Seventies faced disillusion, the Eighties slumped into unironic greed and the Nineties went nevermind, the 21st century college kid is the model for resume reform: a perfectly manicured series of internships at powerful think tanks or non-profits that teach him or her to think in the narrow language of reports and impact statements rather than the robust language of the radical. These internships combine the respectability of the resume with the neo-bohemian desire for a ‘meaningful’ job. Rather than challenge corporate power or entrenched interests, these kids will solve for narrow, piecemeal problems; rather than linking arms with groups in other fields to bring the whole operation to a stop, these kids will work myopically for their own organization, eschewing other groups that might threaten the success of their own; rather than pointed social commentary, these kids will make bureaucratic suggestions. The corporations, for their part, will be delighted that there are people who are forced to use corporate-funded grants to fight the excesses of corporate power; they will be glad for a do-gooder smokescreen to ensconce themselves behind.

There is no better symbol for the rise of the technocrats than Obama’s own organizational structure. Obama openly admits to stocking his administrative cabinets with self-confessed eggheads, memo-writers and other members of the non-profit elite. His staff is not interested in rebellion, they are interested in tedious refinement of old-guard ideas; they do not care for philosophy or ethics, but technology and edits. They speak of curbing excesses rather than admitting that the system is by its nature excessive.

This is a government that will please the Patagonia-wearing, hybrid-driving, well-read early-thirties couple whose education is not a source for radical action but a badge of prestige. Similarly, the non-profitization of for-profit corporatism will beget an ethic that trades prestige for good marks, a system in which learning does not radicalize or politicize but professionalize.

And so I have no doubt that Generation O will make a more efficient car, curb the excesses of the Orwellian state, and start a slew of think-tanks that will solve narrow problems narrowly. There will be reforms. But at what cost? At the cost of talking about the car itself and what it represents, at the expense of Simone de Beauvoir’s reminder that a State that speaks of excesses is complicit in the State as excess; at the expense of the do-tanks of yesteryear, in which hippies who were not attached to the prestige and professionalism of the organization had both the time and the requisite guts to actually disrupt something big. Waylon Jennings got revolution right when he said: “We just couldn’t do things the way they were set up.” Generation O says: “Set it up and I’ll do it.”

Brand technocracy comes at a real cost. It isn’t just that it lets corporate power grow and persist. It is a matter of letting dangerous myths grow and persist: the myth of the American dream, the myth of the founding, the myth of the market, the myth of finance as freedom—all the myths that keep us from recognizing our profound hypocrisy, all the myths that keep the concept of nation alive and well, all the myths that say we must harm to survive, and, most importantly, all the myths that leave whole groups of people looking irrational and storyless while our great delusional story marches on in self-seeming rationalism.