We Vote, They Rule: The Case for Voter Rebellion
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.
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.”
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.Since I have sounded a note of satire it is only fair to add that the partisan left in this country has often splintered into sectarian fiefdoms. All the same, my subject here is not the sectarian left, but the real and present prospects of the democratic left. No one expects the Green and Socialist parties to sweep into the highest offices in the next election. But if we vote with courage and conscience only when we are assured that a majority will vote along with us, then what can we possibly mean by either courage or conscience? If a good cause is worth a fair fight, then we are obliged to act now in creating the future majority. In this sense, every great social movement and revolution throughout human history has been “premature” until the very eve of every great evolutionary leap in social life.
Who honestly denies the intelligence and special talents of smooth operators such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama? Anyone convinced by the perennial “pragmatic” arguments made for the least destructive capitalist politician on the ballot will also be convinced that capitalism will be measured in the final scales of history according to some fine balance of costs and benefits, if not of outright good and evil. Something has gone far wrong with a definition of political pragmatism that forces citizens to choose only among candidates approved and financed by the ruling class. Collectively and historically, the sum of such “pragmatic” votes must be counted among the reasons that have brought this country to the brink of outright oligarchic rule. This phony pragmatism reinforces the actual dictatorship of big banks and corporations.
The environmental disasters generated by our energy and industrial system were barely alluded to in the recent Democratic convention, and Obama did not dare mention nuclear power under the fallout of Fukushima. Climate change got a formal mention, if only to keep ecologically minded Democrats within the party fold. Both corporate parties are unable to embrace ecological sanity, however, since happy talk about technological innovation within the limits of business as usual is the real ground of bipartisan consensus. Pragmatism was evident at both conventions only in the crass and obvious sense that it works to keep career politicians in public office, while the more important anti-social contract with the corporations is never called into question nor brought to a public vote.
The latest conventions of the two Titanic parties — no more than ruling class faction fights over which captains will steer the ship of state to the next disaster– are already history. Now we can get back to the politics of peace, economic democracy and ecological sanity with less distraction. This week I watched Bill Moyers interview Dr. Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala, respectively the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the Green Party. Both candidates made a good case for voter rebellion against the corporate duopoly of Democrats and Republicans. Stein was best at underlining the key points of the “Green New Deal,” the program to rebuild our economy on a sane and sustainable ecological foundation. No one else running for high office is as sharply eloquent as Stein when making the case for a truly comprehensive health care system.
Honkala was best at making the urgent case for public intervention against a rigged electoral system, and spoke about her own community work over the years with the homeless and with people struggling against home evictions. Honkala’s hunger for justice was fired up in the freezing confines of a car after she and her child had been evicted from their home in the middle of a Minneapolis winter. When she moved to Philadelphia, she continued her community activism, and in 1991 she founded the Kensington Welfare Rights Union to feed and house the poor of Philadelphia. I know the neighborhood of Kensington in North Philly well, since that was the site of one of the earliest needle exchange programs initiated by members of ACT UP Philadelphia in the same year.
Honkala has been charged by critics with public grandstanding, as though corporate politicians with all the mannerisms of Mussolini do not grandstand in American public life. There is a double standard at work here, in the most regressively class-conscious sense, since people in power are undeniably affronted by Honkala’s unapologetic determination to cut a figure in public life. Career politicians (and the kind of journalists who place “access” to power above digging for truth) made nearly the same charges of grandstanding against members of ACT UP chapters across the country in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Not content with ruling the heights of a corporate command economy, these politicians also feel entitled to own public airwaves and attention. In the many years I lived in Philadelphia before moving to Los Angeles, I attended any number of public meetings and protests with Honkala. And yet we never met in person, not even in police wagons on the way to jail, until I introduced myself to her when she spoke at a Green Party event in Los Angeles last month.
When Moyers asked about the possible “spoiler effect” of the Green Party in a presidential election, and made the usual misinformed references to Ralph Nader, Honkala responded by saying, “You can’t spoil what’s rotten.” When lives hang in the balance, Honkala explained, an ambulance will run through red lights. Honkala argued that we live in a time of emergency, and I agree. Electorally, the Green Party will not stop campaigning merely because the corporate parties put stop signs along the electoral route to democracy. When Moyers asked why Greens were not working to reform the Democratic Party, Stein explained that the first Obama campaign for the White House had already busted the illusions of hope and change. Stein was thereby extending an open invitation for decent and disillusioned Democrats to cross party lines. That makes sense to me. The political enemy is not the decent and despairing voter looking for some way forward across the electoral minefield, but instead the dictatorship of big banks and corporations.
Moyers should also be urged to interview Stewart Alexander and Alejandro Mendoza, respectively the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the Socialist Party, the historic party of (small d) democratic socialism in this country. Since I previously interviewed Alexander about the Socialist Party presidential campaign for Truthdig, I am also drawing due attention to the Green Party campaign. For full disclosure, I am glad to put on the public record once again that I am a member of both the Socialist and Green parties.As for the pretense that NBC News chief anchor Brian Williams (to take only one well-known example) is more politically “objective” than I am, that is a fiction of the corporate mass media. That is an industrially produced item of ideological faith, and I do not share the faith. If we choose to revisit the debates about ideology — or even the illusions about “The End of Ideology” proclaimed in the previous century — we would do best to begin from the more realistic premise that position is perspective. I do not need to watch MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and still less Chris Matthews to convince me that the Republican Party is to the right of the Democratic Party. Maddow is, of course, wittier than Matthews, and she is at her best when (with staff research) she is able to point out all the rabid bats and squirrels dwelling in the branches of that sick old oak tree, the Republican Party.
But when I found Alessandra Stanley policing the official boundaries of objective journalism in The New York Times of Aug. 31, I felt like Alice passing through the looking glass and falling down the rabbit hole. Stanley’s article, titled “MSNBC, Arch Counterprogramming to Fox,” was an ideological mash note to Williams. In Stanley’s view, Williams is an exemplary gentleman of old school objective journalism. Stanley noted that Williams “has conspicuously avoided the most fractious MSNBC discussion panels. Those anchors who do make dutiful appearances, like David Gregory and Tom Brokaw, are badly needed but don’t stay long or join the fray — like piano players in a brothel, they don’t go upstairs.”
No, on the contrary, we know that some of the best piano players in brothels did and do go upstairs, including Brahms and Joplin. Those musicians found sources of music beyond polite society, and likewise any independent journalist should describe the political whorehouse of Congress without the pieties and prejudices of a New York Times reporter. Stanley praised anchors and reporters who “stay neutral” and “keep their opinions to themselves.” Stanley’s final summary line of the riskier forums on MSNBC came down to this kiss: “No wonder Brian Williams stays away.”
Oh, but Williams does not stay away from letting the public know that he loves (quite generally) dogs, soldiers and astronauts. Williams also loves the alpha dogs of the corporate parties, and his behavior when interviewing members of the ruling class is impeccable. No question ventures beyond the limits of bipartisan etiquette, and certainly not in the direction of voter rebellion. Does anyone remember Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor who was a high school dropout and got his start on Canadian radio? Jennings was by no means a radical, but his background put his questions and comments slightly aslant the culture and political pieties of the United States. I mention Jennings because he would sometimes ask the startlingly naive question, and at least in my memory he was among the more unscripted anchors of the big networks. He died of lung cancer in 2005, and ever since the network anchors have been cast in the same leaden mold, and dropped in the depths of the best flat screen TVs money can buy.
Presently, many “progressives” have fallen under the spell of Elizabeth Warren. She has the charm and common sense and even the worldliness of an excellent school librarian I knew long ago. If the choice is between Warren and Sen. Scott Brown, I would choose Warren. But in fact I do not choose the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, since that would be a truly wasted vote. Given the menacing objective problems in this country, the partisan program of the Democrats is by no means a “pragmatic” response to reality. Not even close — not in the realm of war and peace, nor in the realms of education, health care and the economy. Certainly not in the realm of the natural world, which we still treat like a 19th century gold mine or else like a public toilet.
Warren gave a populist speech at the Democratic convention, but the Democratic Party is not even close to being a populist party. She added a spoonful of sugar to the usual dose of corporate strychnine, but whatever remains of the left wing of that party is certainly starved for small favors. She also stuck all too neatly to her own script of warmed over New Deal populism, while campaigning on behalf of a party that advanced a program of corporate and financial deregulation under the Democratic Leadership Council and the Clintonistas. Obama deviates in no important way from the party line of the Clintons, except in the factional sense that he played the game of triangulation better than Bill and Hillary. In regular four-year cycles, some new oratorical star rises to dazzle voters starved for hope and change. Obama was also among those rising stars, and now joins the firmament of burned out managerial politicians.
If the Democrats were a party committed to the real reform of capitalism, then party leaders such as Obama would be taking the advice of economist Paul Krugman, who is a regular columnist on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times. Krugman reliably proposes a stimulus program along Keynesian lines, and the Democratic Party reliably treats him as a court jester. This is one more reason why voters inclined toward common sense social democracy should be looking beyond a party far more committed to drone wars than to labor unions.
The Socialist Party has a great deal to learn from the grounded electoral campaigns of the Green Party. I have always advocated open dialogue between Greens and Socialists, and even coalition electoral campaigns in places where this might be possible. But both parties must also keep their own programs and partisan independence. The first rule for real dialogue between Reds and Greens is simple and clear: no secret diplomacy. Of course any political party will have prudential reasons for holding sensitive negotiations in relative peace around small tables, but in every point of true public policy a future alliance of Greens and Socialists must be founded upon public communication and public charters.This country is still under the fatal spell of red scares. Famously and absurdly, even Obama is charged with the high crime of “socialism” by the usual demagogues. This background of rabid political provincialism is one reason the Green Party decided to retool the New Deal of the 1930s under the rubric of a Green New Deal. And in fact the Green Party is, if we consider its economic program, a party of European style social democracy.
The Socialist Party, on the contrary, is a party of democratic and revolutionary socialism. Democratic because we do not abstain from elections, while being well aware that the public life of any true republic neither begins nor ends on election days. Revolutionary because we do not merely claim that workers should negotiate with management, but that working people should seize public control of the economy and manage our own affairs. The ruling class under such conditions will dwindle as its hidden bank accounts are frozen and its corporate privileges are revoked, though of course it will also be free to earn an honest living.
Democracy in the realm of the economy remains the unfinished business of the Enlightenment. When we speak of a global economy we are truly speaking of a common household, including the metabolism of the human species with surrounding nature. In this sense, all economic choices will have ecological consequences. A class conscious and civil libertarian movement for democratic socialism will pay due respect to national cultures, but the perspective of revolutionary socialism goes beyond all national borders.
The United States is not an honest ambassador for democracy abroad when our Congress long ago became the front office of the ruling class. We should not be surprised that an anti-democratic system on the national scale of the United States will also be drawn into imperial adventures well beyond our borders. Both the Green and Socialist parties are resolutely anti-militarist, not least because the funds and resources exhausted in war and counterinsurgency are better spent to create real security in jobs, schools, homes and health.
A trailblazer of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, noted in a letter to a friend in the wake of the Civil War that he feared the growing power of corporations over the republic. One very telling feature of current “progressive” ideology is to hark back to the era of distinctly Progressive and Populist parties and movements in the United States dating to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Certainly all social movements of all periods in our national history deserve to be revisited, but in one respect the contemporary “progressive” promotion of the past has a distinctly reactionary dimension. Namely, under cover of economic populism, the distinct history of explicitly socialist parties and movements is slighted or reduced to footnotes. Yet the labor history of the United States cannot be told honestly without a fair account of the revolutionary syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World, or the influence of socialists and communists in labor strikes and in the AFL-CIO. Even the electoral history of this country is incomplete without noting the socialists who gained public office in town halls and city councils. Today Sanders is the only member of Congress who owns up to being a democratic socialist, though elected as an Independentindependent. He was interviewed on an earlier segment of the same Moyers show that featured the Green Party candidates, and he always makes a reasonable case for a kind of Scandinavian welfare state.
On Election Day, a vote for either Obama or Romney is a vote for Wall Street criminals to go unpunished, and for working people to go under the wheels. Only a voter rebellion will put fear and trembling in the hearts of career politicians. Political liberty includes our right to fight fair and square against the Democratic and Republican parties, against a system that puts profits before people, and against corporations that are burning down the planet. The militarism of the United States is not an accidental side effect of this corporate regime, but the necessary consequence of the collision of corporate spheres of influence beyond all national borders.
This country needs both an economic and political revolution, by all peaceful and democratic methods possible. But let’s be honest about the many forms of established violence, including the class struggle of the very rich against both the working class and the increasingly proletarianized and impoverished middle class. That class struggle is coded into electoral laws that are designed to lock out any insurgent party from presidential debates, ballots and fair elections. That class struggle also breaks out well beyond the bounds of constitutional law every time police lock public protest into “free speech zones,” and terrorize legitimate public assemblies with brutal sweeps and mass arrests.
The unrestricted mobility of capital over the whole globe inevitably creates international corporate cartels, and regular boom and bust cycles whose greatest cost is always paid by workers and the poor. Next year will mark the centennial of the first edition of “The Accumulation of Capital,” Rosa Luxemburg’s great work on labor, finance and empire. As she wrote of global capitalism in 1913, “Its predominant methods are colonial policy, an international loan system — a policy of spheres of interest — and war. Force, fraud, oppression, looting are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and it requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process.”
Today we can say that the wizards of high finance take more care to hide their worst gambling habits, but when the truth comes to light they still enjoy full impunity and remain entrenched in Wall Street casinos with lordly disregard of the proles below. The only practical policy for the defense of democracy is an independent, class conscious and civil libertarian struggle against the corporate state. Without widespread rebellion among voters on Election Day, and without social movements of resistance every other day of our lives, we will never regain the spirit of revolution expressed in these simple words: We, the People. That is the lost treasure of our republic, and until we dare to dive among the reefs to find it again we can be sure that the only golden rule among the ruling class will remain the pursuit of power and profit. By all means, occupy the elections. But occupy our workplaces and neighborhoods and public places as well. Otherwise we vote and they rule.