Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The siren call of electoral politics

It happens every November (and sometimes it never goes away): otherwise seemingly intelligent people get stupid and put their faith in politicians who without fail will, predictably, betray them -- cut the "betrayed" crap, please. Each corrupt incumbent is replaced with a do-gooding reformer who, in a few years time -- sometimes longer, usually sooner -- become a carbon copy of the corrupt bastard they replaced. Liberal disappointment in Obama was preceded by conservative disappointment in Bush, which was preceded by liberal disappointment in Clinton, which was preceded by conservative disappointment in Bush, etc., ad infinitum, QED. It happens every time: soaring rhetoric and high hopes dashed on the rocks of political reality. For sure, each party has its rogues, its "mavericks" who will carry the torch of Truth and Justice, at least for a time, but they are the one-in-a-hundred exceptions to the rule -- I'm being generous with that ratio, mind you -- and invariably have no real power over the functioning of the State. Sorry Dennis, it's sad but true.

But come election time, millions of nice, almost sickeningly earnest people -- appearing to forget all this -- will head out to their local polling station to eagerly vote for one of two ideologically indistinguishable corporate-sponsored candidates, convinced not only that it matters, but that they are fulfilling their greatest civic duty (as some even love to patronizingly lecture their peers -- yeah you). The one saving grace of the election season, at least in the United States, is that the majority of the public doesn't bother to participate. Most people it seems wisely prefer, to paraphrase George Carlin, the comfort of masturbating in their home to getting off the couch for the masturbatory ritual of casting a vote in a race to decide whether Kang or Kodos get to call the shots.

That's not to say the passivity demonstrated by the average American is something admire either, though. The problem with electoral politics isn't that it gets people engaged in their communities -- that's a good thing; it's that it diverts any enthusiasm there might be for affecting real social change into places like Congress and the White House, where good ideas and basic human decency go to die. The great Emma Goldman expounded on this theme in an essay she wrote back in 1917, a piece that is both comforting to my mind because it illustrates mindless subservience to politics and politicians isn't a maddening phenomenon unique to our times, but also -- and for the same reason -- incredibly, profoundly depressing.

Writes Goldman:
One has but to bear in mind the process of politics to realize that its path of good intentions is full of pitfalls: wire-​pulling, intriguing, flattering, lying, cheating; in fact, chicanery of every description, whereby the political aspirant can achieve success. Added to that is a complete demoralization of character and conviction, until nothing is left that would make one hope for anything from such a human derelict. Time and time again the people were foolish enough to trust, believe, and support with their last farthing aspiring politicians, only to find themselves betrayed and cheated. 
It may be claimed that men of integrity would not become corrupt in the political grinding mill. Perhaps not; but such men would be absolutely helpless to exert the slightest influence in behalf of labor, as indeed has been shown in numerous instances. The State is the economic master of its servants. Good men, if such there be, would either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support, or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good. The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rogue.
Now if I had a chance to cast a ballot knowing my vote could defeat someone like Hitler, I wouldn't hesitate: I'd vote. And I don't see any problem voting on public referendums, like Proposition 19 in California to legalize marijuana, or even voting for congressional candidates, per se. Casting a vote can be a legitimate defense mechanism, and even a platform for spreading a movement's message. At the same time, though, it can also be a big 'ol waste of time and effort that'd be better spent organizing around issues and implementing change in your community independent of the state legislatures and city councils. And no, that doesn't mean Molotov cocktails. It means volunteering at your local soup kitchen instead of at the campaign headquarters for the latest charlatan begging for your vote, cleaning up your neighborhood yourself instead of complaining to some city bureaucrat about it. It could also mean, following the example of the employees at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, assuming worker control of a business whose owners have refused to pay wages owed.

What rejecting electoral politics doesn't mean, or at least doesn't have to mean, is embracing apathy or college sophomore nihilism, as some civic-duty (and simple) minded detractors might argue. No, if you want to peddle complacency, just tell people the problem is the politicians, not the governing institutions, and that everything can change! if you just get off your ass on November 2nd. Why? Because the unrelenting hype over elections pretty much guarantees the public will sit on its collective behind the other 364 days of the year, glued to the cable TV -- watching Tom DeLay go up against a five-year-old Border Collie in a surprisingly competitive battle of wits (the Border Collie only won by single digits) and some kids from Jersey exploring the many ways to kill a brain cell -- while waiting on some asshole congressman or president to change their world for the better.

And really, if you want an apathetic public you couldn't do much better than the system we have now.

Photo Credit: Aziez Ahmed


  1. Plus all you get at the ballot box besides choosing between a couple of yokels is one of those stickers. Not even a fun size Baby Ruth? Cheapskates.

  2. jcapan5:21 PM

    Hey, working in soup kitchens or cleaning up your neighborhood is great, but the notion that such local commitment is going to compensate for a failing government seems a bit naive to me.

    I'm not saying apathy/nihilism is the answer, by any means, but if we hope to arrest the consolidation of corporate power (the state merely doing their bidding), I'm afraid volunteering ain't going to cut it. That enormous grassroots movement that Obama inspired (now ancient history) and that Dean began a cycle earlier, such a movement needs to come about once more, but completely decoupled from the existing duopoly.

    What makes the teaparty utterly bankrupt IMO is not what it stands for but what it eventually leads to, more GOP members of congress, a reversion to the status quo that just wrecked the nation.

    Before Matt Taibbi spoke of the American peasant mentality, there was Conrad: "The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their homes to starve in ditches" The Secret Agent

    What this country needs (I say from Asia) is a movement that's outside the system. And not focused on so many disparate aims. The unifying issue is/always has been class. If there's a way FWD for America or its marginalized left, as their empire collapses, it'll involve relearning the narrative of class warfare.

    And one thing looks certain, the left should have plenty of time in the coming years to wander about the wilderness. My only hope is it won't involve electing better dems. BTW, none of this can begin until Obama is out of office.

  3. Well timed and well said.

  4. The astroturf "movement" to elect Obama was no more authentic than the Tea Party; just a different version of corporate-sponsored activities for channeling discontent away from substantial social change. As for meaningful alternatives to activities that maintain the status quo, volunteering for pro-democracy anti-fraud efforts to undermine the American aristocracy is a good choice. While there are no paychecks associated with this exercising of the duties of citizenship, there is the satisfaction of being genuinely human.

    As Nelson Mandela remarked, "The slogan is Attack".

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