“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.” Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
Today I awoke to a wave of electronic euphoria as people from America, the UK, Ireland, and an assortment of other western countries intruded upon my Facebook to jubilantly announce the return of Barack Obama as President of America. The majority of my e-friends are overtly left-leaning or at the least critical of neo-liberal economics and the trimmings of modern western society. Yet, they responded to the election of what is ostensibly a centre-right administration with unbridled delight. To be honest my initial reaction was not so different. Given the alternative of a Romney administration focused on tax-breaks, wide reaching public service cuts, and the potential reemergence of neoconservative foreign policy, what right minded leftie wouldn’t? However, a niggling annoyance remained stuck in my gut: why do we care more about American elections than elections in any other part of the world?
The text book response (or alternatively the problem with text books) is that America is the hegemon and what it does affects the entire globe, yada yada yada yada. We’ve all been told this story time and time again, America acts and the world feels its tremors, be it in Vietnam, Iraq, or even in its own domestic economy. The story is compelling because there are palpable effects to American actions; we can see war torn societies, we can feel the ripple of economic recession. We know that America is important because we are witnesses to its materiality. Nonetheless, for those of us who care about the ways in which ideas are constitutive of materiality, there should be something worrying about American hegemony in the modern era. At bottom: if ideas about power, importance, etc are inseparable (as many of us believe) from their materiality, actuality and essence, then our infatuation with American politics is part of the construction of American prestige on the global stage. The fact that we commonly accept the proper name America is a symptom of our infatuation, endowing the prestige of two continents upon a singular state.
In his novel American Gods Neil Gaiman continues a thread evident in much of his work, the existence of God(s) through ideas. Gainman’s fantastical narrative positions Gods as rendered material and existent in the world through peoples’ beliefs. In this metaphorical construct Gods’ power is defined in terms of belief and worship; their existence, and indeed vitality, is predicated upon the extent to which the idea of their existence is disseminated and honoured within a community. The death of Gods, then, is silent and unremembered; a noiseless echo in the dark. Taking Gainman’s fantasy seriously allows us to reconsider our role in the perpetuation of the idea that America is at the centre of global politics. Above all, America’s mythological centrality is predicated upon the idea that material power endows it with a privileged political status. Not only is this understanding of power a direct throwback to traditional IR theories, especially the neo-neo debate, the idea of privilege was also a cornerstone of the neoconservative project. This is not to reject materiality; America is the largest military and economic power. Yet materiality, in the traditional terms of military and economic might, is only important to the extent by which we value these things as the core of politics; the raw material signifiers alone do not equate to de facto importance, what we need to consider is the relation between numerical materiality and our ideas about their importance. In turn, placing so much importance on material facets of politics paints a rather specific view of what is politically important, and what politics and the political constitutes. If we want destabalise a world that seemingly revolves around American politics, we need to start with our own beliefs and actions. To start with we need to reflect upon whywe think we should be interested in one specific aspect of American politics, above other politics, and how our interest feeds back into America’s centrality in global politics.
My personal frustration, and this is not isolated to the American electoral system, is that a significant section of left leaning individuals seem to be so utterly entrenched in anxieties about the ramifications of the triumph of the political-right that they have given up on seeking any real alternative. By enthusiastically backing milder, more palatable variants of the neoliberal project, be it under the guise of Obama, Blair or whoever, left politics becomes increasingly conservative. It becomes directed toward protecting the last vestiges of the welfare state against its terminal dissolution, while simultaneously solidifying the logics that have so effectively dismantled the very project they are trying to preserve. What could be harnessed as a critical and creative nexus capable of positing an alternative to neoliberal politics has become a co-opted force in the sustainability of the very system it wants to challenge.
Ronan O’ Callaghan