My company’s summer party is imminent, and I’m facing a choice of appropriate attire for the event. Last year, I’m told, the party involved a great deal of drinking under the stars, and saying things to senior managers and salespeople that inhibitions would otherwise forbid. In short, it’s a good time to be disruptive, perhaps the only truly appropriate juncture to wear a statement, though I’ve done so under less propitious circumstances. I could go for a t-shirt which attacks Wal Mart, saying they represent “Always Corporate Greed…Always”. Alternatively, I’ve got my eye on a shirt which shows a clenched fist and says “I’d Rather Be Fighting the Man”. My final selection is perhaps the most subtle option: I have a shirt that reads “Obama 2008”.
Why do this? I think most radical people have an anarchist streak running through their soul: to disrupt, to shake, to rattle, to knock over – these actions cause an intake of breath, the heart to beat faster, a smile to involuntarily appear. Things as they are, are not adequate, therefore the avatars of the present order deserve a hard kick right in the complacency. A t-shirt with a political statement is an admittedly minor form of disruption, but as I am a manager myself, the statement is marginally more magnified. A frisson of disapproval is likely to be all I that I will get, but to me it’s worth doing, a small portion of a larger symphony of resistance.
To be fair, my superiors are not any better or any worse than most of their counterparts in the rest of the business world. In my experience, senior managers have rarely understood the profound effect of what they do. They see fixed and variable costs, and see the people who work below them as “variable”, a number in a spreadsheet which can be reduced without too much hint of conscience intruding. Ironically, however, it is those who are at the base of the heirarchical pyramid who have the greatest stake in the company’s survival: without it, they (and me, for that matter) can’t pay the mortgage, can’t pay for education, can’t pay for energy bills. The company, as Henry Mintzenberg rightly pointed out, is a social organisation, not a pure generator of shareholder value. Few in leadership want to understand this, or care to see, because thinking this way would require more humanity in decision making.
The depersonalisation at the apex of businesses’ decision making is replicated in politics and government both in Britain and the United States. Worse, America may be an egalitarian country; its politics are not (Britain is almost the opposite). We came very close to a scenario in which we would have had the Presidency held by only two elite families for nearly 30 years. Given this, one of the more laughable spectacles of this election was watching Hillary, a millionairess and doyenne of the establishment, morph into the champion of the working class. By any objective measure, the plight of anyone having trouble make ends meet is something of which she only has a marginal awareness. Why I like Barack Obama, and still like him, is how he has disrupted and continues to disrupt this ridiculous state of affairs.
We must keep in mind that the 2008 election was not supposed to be this way. The script was written well in advance: Hillary was supposed to win the nomination easily. The other part of the script was that the Republican nominee would be a white Protestant: at least that went according to plan. However, there was no room in this scenario for a seismic shift of any kind: politics was to continue to be practiced by a narrow clique of professionals. Certainly, there would be differences in emphasis and on some policies, but it was to be a debate in a country club, not in the town halls or internet forums.
Barack Obama has destroyed this. Few people talk about his nomination in these terms: yes, much is said about his humble origins, and how he is the first African American nominee, and potentially the first African American President. But that’s missing the point: more important than his ethnicity is his outsider status. He did not come from a family belonging to a political establishment; his politics come from community activism on the South Side of Chicago, a pedigree which makes Republican attempts to paint him as some sort of arugula chomping elitist as extremely peculiar. By his efforts, talent and charisma, he has torn up the script, and because of this disruption, politics have become more free flowing. The doors have opened to greater egalitarianism in high office.
It is fashionable among progressives to argue that Barack has abandoned and betrayed them by shifting to the political centre; this is perceived as “selling out” by some. However if the Obama Revolution was to continue to advance all the way into government, he was going to have to bring moderates along with him; he could not win solely with the quarter of the electorate that identifies itself as being “liberal” and “very liberal”. In spite of this, he remains a disruptive influence, that kick in the complacency, that refusal to bow to the hegemony of a few. He may not do everything one would hope for: no politician is a messiah. However, if only for the chaos he has wrought amongst the elite, he is still worth liking, and giving one’s wholehearted support.