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In this post I am going to try to weave together cultural theory and Barack Obama’s future presidency.

In this post I am going to try to weave together cultural theory and Barack Obama’s future presidency.


Let’s start with cultural theory. I won’t go into too much detail, but the basic idea as that a person makes sense of her life in terms of five basic forms of rationality: the egalitarian, the hierarchical, the individualist, the fatalist and the hermit’s position (this latter is a withdrawal from the other four). Reflecting the first four forms of rationality are forms of social organisation or ‘solidarities’. For example, individualists identify with markets or networks of groups. Hierarchists with rule-governed institutions or ordered groups of networks. But for cultural theorists the two domains are not separate: an individual just is the attitudes and stances she actualises through the forms of social solidarities she identifies with.


This gives us the central unit of analysis in cultural theory, the ‘dividual’ – the individual viewed as a node in a network of social structures. For cultural theorists, the four forms of rationality and corresponding social solidarities exhaust the possibilities for human action and behaviour. But moreover, the four forms require one another in order to exist: individualists can only define their attitudes and solidarities in opposition to egalitarians and so on. Cultural theorists may take the further step of arguing that unless all four forms of are in play, in reasonable proportion, solutions to problems will be too ‘neat’ – too biased to one form of rationality. What we want are ‘clumsy’ solutions that are not biased by being neatly tapered down to a dominant rational monopoly or duopoly. With such solutions, everyone comes away happy, as it were, but also, the resultant solutions are better, because they draw on a richer array of possible forms of behaviour and social organisation.


A very obvious candidate for a far too ‘neat’ set of solutions to a nest of problems is the neo-conservative approach to foreign policy - so recently lauded, yet so recently crestfallen. Neo-cons undoubtedly systematically stacked solutions in terms of individualistic concerns (with, in places, the fig-leaf of egalitarianism). And everyone can agree that this has had distastrous consequences.


Now, Obama seems to me to be one of those human beings who is ‘well rounded’ – he has the ego-led charm of the individualist, as well as the self-confidence. Yet he displays strong egalitarian impulses – ‘So let us… look after not only ourselves, but each other.’ He is also not anti-hierarchist, as Bush was: he wants to work with multilateral institutions such as the UN (but he does not naively believe in their intrinsic goodness or effectiveness), and he sees a positive role for Federal institutions within the US. And he has something of the humility of the fatalist: he accepts that his personal journey has been somewhat fortuitous and that both the power of the United States and its erosion are to some extent dependent on contingent historical events.


So it looks, in cultural theory terms, like a good package: all four forms of rationality are well represented in Obama’s personality and character, and thus in the forms of social solidarity he seeks to forge. He is certainly less likely to be as one-sided as Bush. But what of his own model for his presidency? He is said to be avidly studying Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office. If that’s his model it bodes well and perhaps not so well in different contexts. On the home front, an even-handed approach to social progress: a humble fatalism that says you can’t control everything, including the economic situation you inherit; a balance between egalitarian concern and individualist energy and innovation; and this balance delivered through renewed but responsive hierarchies of expertise.


But what of foreign policy? Like Roosevelt, he may effect a split. Roosevelt’s version of the split was social progress at home, isolationism abroad. Obama is perhaps more likely to split between the former and focussed hard-power abroad (hence his call to arms over Afghanistan). The rest of the world must hope his egalitarian impulses and hierarchist sympathies overcome his individualist and fatalist tendencies here  – that he tries to use the moral exemplariness of soft rather than hard power, wherever possible. 


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