Relational Politics: A new social deal for America?

Posted by Ian on Jan 20, 2009 in blog | No Comments


Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

Today, an estimated crowd of between 2 million and 5 million people descended on downtown Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. Completely covering the 3 mile span from The United States Capitol Building past the Washington Memorial to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd is the largest turnout for a presidential inauguration in US history. (The 2005 inauguration of President George W. Bush attracted about 400,00 people.)
President Obama’s first speech as president was brief and focused around the crisis and the challenges that face not only the United States but the whole world today. The speech was situated firmly within the history of social movements in the United States and the significance of his inauguration as a self-identified African American. Meditating on the legacy of social changes, a primary subtheme of his speech was that government alone that would not be able to solve the crises. Only through a concerted effort on behalf of society as a whole would be able to meet the challenges. He advocated a new affirmation of citizenship, duty and responsibility – similiar to calls made by JFK at his inauguration 48 years ago to the day.
These themes in President Obama’s rhetoric suggest an embracing of relationalism within his policies and ideologies. Relational art, as defined by Nicolas Bourriaud, is:
“a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”
Applied to policy-making, relationalism would urge us to take as our foundation the social and historical contexts of human relations, giving primary importance to social values over independent and private values.
As highlighted by Dr Shona Hunter at the University of Leeds, a relational politics also foregrounds issues of identity – something which clearly resonates with the significance of Obama’s self-identifications. Hunter worked from the basis of feminism to expound a radical proposition for applying relationalism to policy-making to achieve social equality. Considering these themes, it seems that President is working towards a radical shift in the foundations of American society in order to enshrine some values more common to European social democracies.
This re-socialisation of the US (phrased as the ‘remaking of America’ in Obama’s speech today) carries with it an expectation of active citizenship in order to balance fears of what has been previously argued to be a all turn towards socialism. In meeting the people of the United States in this effort, the newly relaunched Whitehouse.gov website carries the assertion:
“President Obama is committed to creating the most open and accessible administration in American history.”
Intending to provide a transparent (and possibly more intuitive) government fully accountable to the people, Obama is creating the opportunity for US citizens to re-engage in the negotiation shared social values and creation of their social spaces.
The Obama presidency will be historic for many different reasons. It will be particularly interesting to see whether it will be able to help US society accept this new social deal, foresaking its radical, fundamental assertion of the primacy of individualism in the interest of achieving social changes which benefit all.
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