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We Vote, They Rule: The Case for Voter Rebellion

Posted on Sep 16, 2012
AP/John Raoux

Like he’s re-enacting the introduction to the film “Patton,” Vice President Joe Biden makes a speech in front of an enormous American flag.

Democratic and Republican politicians keep each other in business. That matters much more than the usual dead end debates about whether there is a dime’s or even a dollar’s worth of difference between the two ruling parties of this corporate regime. Of course there are differences, and the divergent points in public policy are very much what we would expect from a party that hopes for a better regulated form of capitalism on the “left,” and a party that hopes for a more dictatorial rule of the rich on the right. Only in the bizarrely reduced worldview of “our two-party system” would the borders of one country define the borders of political thought and practice.

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Beyond our borders, millions of people freely and regularly vote for socialists and communists of various kinds and parties, and those citizens are not trembling under jackboots or facing summary execution in the soundproof basements of police states. If we insist on principle that the regime in Sweden is a political twin separated at birth from the regime in North Korea, then we will not be above calling President Obama a socialist and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont a Bolshevik. Those rhetorical steamrolling tricks can be left to the far right, however, if we identify in any way with the democratic left. Let us generously define this democratic left to include left-leaning members of the Democratic Party, as well as the growing number of people who are opposed to this bipartisan corporate regime. We need a public conversation about the present conditions and future prospects of the democratic left in the United States. This is why the question of a change in our whole economic and political system cannot be ruled out of order. That kind of censorship is not a promising premise for any political conversation.

There is not a single word of hope or political idealism that has not been dragged through the mud and blood of history, including democracy and socialism, and even “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet the distinction between democratic socialism and single-party forms of state totalitarianism is not a mere sectarian point of pride, but a real and necessary dividing line between radically opposed traditions on the political left. If we try tracing this conflict back to the great intellects of the 19th century, we might say that Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were never properly introduced and never conducted a civilized conversation—neither those two thinkers nor their followers ever since. In theory and in practice, whole branches of the left have effectively disowned either class struggle or civil liberties.

That division is not simply theoretical, but founded upon all too human historical struggles between classes and regimes. The guillotine in the public square already threw a long shadow over liberty, equality and fraternity in the course of the French Revolution; even as slavery recreated the class divisions of Europe within the American Revolution; even as the bloody basement of the Lubyanka undermined the foundation of the Russian Revolution; and even as the drone wars now conducted by the apostle of hope and change have extended the meaning of empire in the 21st century. Historically, we cannot always decide in what critical period a bourgeois republic becomes a bastion of war and empire, any more than we might notice when a simmering kettle begins to boil. This late in history, however, we may have to become revolutionaries to accomplish the essentially conservative task of defending a secular and democratic republic. Even the more radical task of creating a truly social democracy is also another way of returning to the roots of the republican tradition, in the sense of making a more grounded claim upon our life in common.

Anyone who reads Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” will linger in sadness and wonder over many passages, but for my present purpose this sentence sums up the practical program of totalitarianism: “The Leader’s absolute monopoly of power and authority is most conspicuous in the relationship between him and his chief of police, who in a totalitarian country occupies the most powerful public position.” Arendt noted that such a position of power is not the same thing as being able to seize power, since Stalin’s last chief of police, Lavrenti Beria, survived Stalin just long enough to become one more victim of state security. Beria, as Arendt wrote, “must have known that he would forfeit his life because for a matter of days he had dared to play off the power of the police against the power of the party.”


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Later in the same work, Arendt wrote: “The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man,” namely, the person with any real claim to equality under the law. One way to do so, Arendt added, is by “placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the normal judicial procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty.” In that respect, the extrajudicial prisons and executions conducted by our current regime are stark illuminations of dark times.

A great deal of the social life of comfortable members of the Democratic Party is spent in a kind of political primate grooming, picking the nits of distinction between their chosen candidates—while insisting on the absolute Grand Canyon between the party of enlightenment, the Democrats, and the party of benighted reaction, the Republicans. An unwritten manual of good manners prevents such discussions from venturing into any clear and present consideration of honest socialism, much less of the necessity for breaking away from an anti-democratic economic and electoral system. Nostalgia for the high tide of labor struggles and for the glory days of the old New Deal is often encountered around certain middle-class dinner tables, and even in the offstage, off-the-record comments of some Democratic career politicians. Indeed, it is possible to find members of the Communist Party who find dialectical and “scientific” reasons why they must vote for the Democrat in every big election. In their heart of hearts, they keep a private shrine for Marx, while in public they campaign for Obama. The spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt hovers dimly in the air, evoked at such seances to comfort the grieving survivors and to resolve all contradictions.

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