What is politics? What is the terrain of the political? What's at stake?
Ask many people these questions and their answers will understandably point to Washington, elections, Democrats, Republicans and so on. Having an interest in politics, on this view, means watching CNN, following the inane daily hubbub on Capitol Hill, etc.
But as Alain Badiou astutely points out, "If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apolitical procedure." This is a fecund observation that is worth unpacking further.
The definition of politics offered above seems, on the face of it, uncontroversial. What should the raison d'etre of our electoral institutions be, if not to facilitate collective decision-making, organized by certain principles, aiming to unfold the new possibilities currently repressed by the dominant state of affairs?
Yet this is patently not what electoral politics are about in the US. Here, elections are about an endless, narrow see-saw maneuver between Democrat and Republican parties. Consider for a moment what this narrow back-and-forth is not: it is not a struggle between different substantive political visions. Nor is it a disagreement over how a just social order would be organized. It is, for all intents and purposes, a process of narrow bickering between two pro-business entities. Politics, if it has any place in this process at all, is merely a small, incidental side-effect.
Today we're trained to think that the highest form of political activity possible is voting for either a Democrat or a Republican. We're encouraged, then, to think that politics itself is an individualistic practice in which we go, alone, behind a curtain to decide to cave in to one or other pro-business organizations. I think it's fair to say that things haven't always been like this. At other periods in world history, there have been serious debates about big questions, about what kind of society we want to live in. It is helpful here to revisit some of the debates from the early 20th century on the Left about tactics, strategy, and elections.
At the very beginning of the 20th century, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest Marxist, left-wing party in the world. The labor movement in Germany had been growing steadily in membership and in power, and it looked for a time as though the SPD was leading the charge for another, more just kind of society. The SPD's leading theoretician was Karl Kautsky, a fiercely dogmatic defender of Germany's existing parliament as a strategic means for constructing a socialist society.
An interesting debate was instigated by a polemical brochure entitled "Terrorism and Communism", penned by Kautsky, directed at discrediting the tactical and strategic trajectory of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Trotsky wrote a reply in 1920 with the same title, that was later published as a book (republished recently by Verso, and introduced by Zizek).
For Kautsky, the debate between reformists in the SPD and Bolshevik revolutionaries is one of "democracy" versus "dictatorship". He casts his own reformist view as the "democratic" alternative to the allegedly violent, impetuous and "authoritarian" strategy endorsed by the Bolsheviks. The crucial question here, however, is what does Kautsky mean by "democracy"?
He means a representative parliamentary system coupled with capitalist control of industry and social life. In other words, he conflates democracy as such with a certain kind of electoral procedure situated in the context of a particular configuration of capitalism. In short, he reduces democracy itself to the parliamentary mechanism such as it was in early 20th century capitalist Germany.
Trotsky's reply (and we might add here that Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin and others shared this view) is that we cannot speak of democracy at all unless we talk about the conditions it would require to realize it. The view is simple: you can't speak of "democracy" (or freedom and equality) in the legal sphere if workers are in chains in the social and economic spheres. You can't institute true democracy by legal procedures alone if such procedures are instituted against the backdrop of massive inequalities of power. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in the foreword to the recent Verso edition of Trotsky's text:
"For Trotsky the true stakes of the debate are not simply democracy versus dictatorship, but the class 'dictatorship' which is inscribed into the very form of parliamentary dictatorship.... the true question is... how the very field in which the total political process takes place is structured."In other words, our question here must be: what extra-electoral conditions would have to obtain in order for democracy to be realized?
Now, surely some will object here that if this is Trotsky's view, he'd do well to eschew the language of 'dictatorship'. This objection, however, misses the mark. What Kautsky blithely dubs "democracy", Trotsky calls a form of dictatorship. In other words, parliamentary democracy under capitalism is, for Trotsky, a form of class "dictatorship". This is analogous to Rosa Luxembourg's distinction between "bourgeois democracy" and "socialist democracy", the main difficulty with "bourgeois democracy" being that there's not enough of it. It not extended to the social and economic sphere; those spheres are under the control of the capitalists who own the commanding heights of the economy.
Let me try to spell this out a little more clearly. If Trotsky and other Marxists are correct to define capitalism as a mode of social organization in which the major productive resources and institutions are privately owned by a specific class (rather than democratically, by all), then we must conclude that parliamentary procedures are compatible with a high concentration of undemocratic economic power. Another way to put the point is to lean on Marx's distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation. For Marx, the transition from feudalism to liberal capitalism represented a great step forward in that it granted a larger degree of "political" (read "legal", "electoral") equality and freedom than feudal societies allowed. But, Marx held, merely political emancipation is not enough; the bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism didn't go far enough. Democracy, he argued, had to be extended not only to political/legal institutions, but to social and economic institutions as well.
Thus, if you're committed to human (rather than merely legal) emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization, Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.
Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of large concentrations of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They can lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Often, after hundreds of years of capitalist development, they've managed wield military institutions to serve their interests.
The point here is that economic power is not relinquished without a fight, and we have no reason to expect that fight to be waged "fairly", within parliamentary bounds, by the ruling class. Even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists by governments, capitalists will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get such limits and regulations repealed. In extreme cases, when it appears that a government will make real, systemic changes... the ruling class has been known to support right-wing coups and reject parliamentary democracy entirely. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.
Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.
Multinational corporations in Chile such as the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) set to work quickly to fight against Allende, and they weren't interested in trying to win the battle over electoral terms (a battle, the company's owners realized, they'd have little way of winning in the face of a broad popular mandate for Allende's policies). We now know from memos circulated amongst elites in ITT and the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company that their goals were to "“to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Allende". Also- their influence convinced the US and related institutions like the World Bank to impose an economic blockade on Chile to help the destabilization effort.
The point of this is that all of these efforts were effective against a democratically-elected government precisely because of the concentrations of economic power under capitalism. Admittedly, "dictatorship" somewhat overstates the case, but the case of Chile in 1973 makes the point that capitalist's stranglehold on economic power must be challenged directly in order for real democracy to be possible.
So, either you are open to the reconfiguration of social/economic organization or you are not. If you are, as socialists purport to be, then you cannot be dogmatically committed to the narrow strategy of merely trying to elect certain people within predetermined parameters (e.g. Democrat or Republican). You must be committed to a broader conception of political activism, one that embraces extra-electoral struggles (strikes (conventional, sit-down, wildcat, etc.), community organization, grass-roots protest and demonstration, sit-ins, etc.) as a means to alter the entire political center of gravity. In other words, the goal of a progressive social movement is not to merely operate within narrowly circumscribed procedures prescribed by the existing order, but to dynamically create the conditions for its own success.
We've recently lived through a massive change in electoral holdings of power. In 2004, people were talking about a "permanent Republican majority". Four years later, the GOP has lost control of both chambers of Congress and the Presidency, while the Democratic majority in the Senate sky-rocketed to 60. But for all this massive changing in electoral terms, the political content of the change (as we see today) is extremely thin. The continuity between the last days of the Bush government and the Obama administration is extremely discouraging. Foreign policy has essentially stayed the same. Regulation of financial markets is about as forthcoming under Obama as under Bush in 2008. The response to the crisis of giving spectacularly large amounts of welfare to Wall Street was virtually the same under Paulson as under Geithner, in fact the "Paulson Plan" was implemented lock stock and barrel under the latter's tenure. After all of these massive interventions to save the assets of powerful economic elites, Obama even had the audacity to talk of the importance of "market solutions" and the "private sector" when discussing health care. The message was clear: massive government spending for economic elites will be forthcoming and plentiful, but all we've got fo the majority of the population is the thin gruel of laissez-faire.
Aside from snagging a bit of low-hanging fruit (raising the minimum wage, redirecting some much-needed, overdue funds into education and infrastructure), the Obama administration has not deviated from the course taken by Bush. For all the talk of change, this has been a rather smooth transition from 8 years of Bush compared to what, in electoral terms, was a major alteration of course.
What further proof do we need that the end-in-view must not be "getting Democrats elected"? Whatever else is true, the Civil Rights Act was not passed by a drive merely to "get the right people elected". Neither do not have Social Security or unemployment benefits because of electoral fetishism.
Rather than being a means of change, current Federal elections in the US are a way of staving off real change. We must not forget that the large swells of community energy, activism and volunteerism that was poured into getting Obama elected reflected real needs and real discontent with the existing order. The heartbreaking reality, however, is that the election of Obama siphoned off all of this important energy and defused it.
The question we are confronted with is: now that this swell of energy and excitement has been betrayed, what can be accomplished within the parameters of electoralism? Do we have an electoral means of holding those in power accountable? However we answer, no honest response could have anything to do with getting more Democrats elected or with staving off a Republican backlash.