If, as Alain Badiou puts it, politics has to do with "collective action, organized by certain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed" by the status quo, then it is clear that our existing electoral system is an essentially apolitical procedure. Rather than offering us the possibility to changing things, the election accepts things as they are and asks us to adjust our expectations.
Rather than giving the people a genuine voice, it silences them and encourages them to sit down passively and choose between tweedle dee and tweedle dum. Rather than allowing the 99% to have a say in decisions of momentous importance that affect everyone, we are told to join in supporting one or other of a list of approved candidates who all share the basic aim of furthering the interests of the 1%.
At this point, the 2012 elections aren't even political--they fail to even register as an instance of democratic self-governance. They don't provide us with an avenue to change things. They don't even offer us an opportunity to discuss what's wrong with our society. The elections are a little more than a cynical performance, already scripted from above, which shoehorns us into certain courses of action we did not choose.
Now, some left-liberals will strongly disagree here. They may acknowledge that the analysis is basically correct. But they'll argue that the Republican candidates are substantially worse than Obama. And they'll talk about how Obama has done the best job possible under the conditions: he passed a stimulus bill in 2009 that had good elements, he fought for health care reform and "succeeded" in a way that no other past Democrat was able to do, he "ended" the war in Iraq, he has a great plan for jobs, etc.. They'll concede, of course, that it would have been better if Obama had passed single-payer, if the stimulus had been bigger, etc. But they will counter that we must, nonetheless, loudly and publicly support Obama in 2012. Because to fail to do so would be to let the "best be the enemy of the good".
Let's leave aside the lowly Republicans since liberals and radicals can agree on their reactionary character. What about Obama and the Democrats? All things considered, does the balance of "good" that they've accomplished outweigh the bad?
Context is needed here. The economic meltdown that began in 2007 was threatening to drag down the entire global economy in late 2008. The crisis had origins in the speculative activities of the financial sector, most of them enthusiastically encouraged by the Clinton Administration in the 90s. Profit-hungry financial institutions had systematically engaged in a huge orgy of reckless speculation that left them holding massive heaps of toxic assets in 2007. The whole system seemed on the verge of collapse. In October of 2008, Henry Paulson (Bush's secretary of the treasury) stepped in with a hastily thrown-together bailout plan that aimed to inject the nine biggest banks--all in dire straits--with billions of dollars. Paulson's plan was pieced together through behind the scenes negotiations with the CEO's of the nine largest banks. The Treasury didn't ask for anything in return for this massive $700bn bailout and, predictably, the financial sector did not resume lending and did not give relief to homeowners facing foreclosure. Instead they dolled out massive bonuses to themselves, invested offshore, etc.
Now, $700bn is a lot of money. But the actual bailout figure stands closer to $3.3 Trillion. And add to this "quantitative easing", i.e. the practice of printing money to lend to the banks at interest rates close to zero. The banks, of course, don't use this cheap credit to invest in production or lend to small businesses. They don't help restructure mortgages and create jobs. Instead, they use it to buy up US government bonds (which give them a return of 4-5%) or high-grade consumer debt (which pays as much as 12-18%). This is what explains the record-high profits reported by the financial sector in 2009 and 2010--despite soaring unemployment, low growth, and general economic misery for the 99%. Through quantitative easing, the Federal Government has been, in effect, heavily subsidizing their profits by giving them huge piles of cash at low interest rates which are used to by government bonds that pay higher interest rates. Add all of this up over the period of 2007-2010 (including the TARP bailout) and you get a figure of $3.3 Trillion given away to the US ruling class--i.e. the group who led us into this crisis to begin with.
To sum up, the response of the State in the US was to shift massive amounts of private debt onto public rolls, thereby enabling the ruling class to resume profitability in the short run.
Now, this policy began under Bush with Henry Paulson. But it was continued, consolidated and extended under Obama at a time when the Democratic Party had a super-majority in the Senate and crushing majorities in the House.
Of course, once the public absorbed such a massive amount of private debt, it threatens the solvency of the government itself. Obama and the Democrats have a simple solution here: let's make deep cuts to basic social programs and force the 99% to foot the bill for the bailout of the banks. In order to erase the massive amounts of public debt that were incurred through a bailout of the ruling class, we should force the 99% to pay for it through cuts, layoffs, and austerity. The Republicans, of course, agree wholeheartedly with this solution. Their only disagreement concerns how deep to cut and where to stick the scalpel.
Predictably, the news media exaggerates this disagreement and tries to make it appear that the overblown sabre-rattling between Democrats and Republicans evinces serious differences in "political philosophies". This leads confused idiots to step in and call for "reconciliation", "dialogue" and "post-partisan civility", thereby giving a vigorous defense of the status quo while purporting to criticize it. Of course, the idea that the Dems and Republicans sharply disagree over fundamental matters couldn't be more false. They disagree over minutiae. They agree 100% on the idea that the government should bailout the banks, subsidize their profits, and then force the majority of the population to pay for it with unemployment and reduced living standards.
Obama himself, of course, has lead efforts to slice and dice working class living standards through austerity. He hasn't just been pulled along for the ride. He pieced together the "Bipartisan Commission on Deficit Reduction" which had such great recommendations as raising the age limit for Social Security, cutting Medicare and reducing the marginal rate of taxation on the 1%. What's more, Obama's "deficit deal" with Republicans ended with pledge to cut more than $4 Trillion in spending--the biggest austerity plan in history--in order to pay for the give-aways to Wall Street. Obama has even offered up cuts to Social Security as a bargaining chip with the Republicans. Along the way, he has defended a pay freeze for Federal workers, given massive tax breaks to the wealthy, and chastised us for getting upset about the massive bonuses given out on Wall Street.
But what about Obama's stimulus bill from 2009? Didn't that do a lot of good? Here I basically agree with many liberal economists (e.g. Krugman and Stliglitz) who argued repeatedly that the Obama stimulus was far too small and included too little spending and too many tax breaks. This has been proven true over and over again (although I disagree with Krugman and others that a Keynesian stimulus would have resolved the contradictions that produced the crisis in the first place). After the extremely brief economic boost that the 2009 stimulus spending made possible, unemployment began soaring again as municipal and state budgets plummeted. And the tax-breaks in the bill have done virtually nothing to boost demand--if anything all they've done is drain public finances of much-needed funds (thereby exacerbating crisis by priming the pumps for public layoffs and austerity). The economic crisis continues unabated and it shows no signs of letting up in 2012.
In stark contrast, Obama need not have continued the Paulson bailout, he need not have subsidized the profits of Wall Street, he need not have extended the Bush tax breaks, and he need not have lead the charge to force austerity on the 99%. He could have nationalized failing banks, raised taxes on the 1% (or at least demanded that they pay what they already owe), spent money rebuilding infrastructure thereby creating jobs, forgiven household debt rather than ruling class debt, and so forth. Obama could have forgiven the massive amounts of debt held by students who can't find jobs because of the bad economy that was wrecked by bailout-recipient bankers. At the very least, he could give students the same interest rates on their loans that he's giving to the ruling class, who pay interest rates near zero. He and the Democrats could have decided to stop spending billions more on war and occupation. They could have used that money to give us single-payer. But they did none of it.
Instead, they decided to more or less exactly what we could've expected a Republican regime to have done. Obama, from the very beginning, has surrounded himself with forces drawn directly from the 1%. When it was revealed that GE paid no taxes last year, Obama appointed a high-ranking official from GE to be his "jobs czar". To be sure, the public legitimacy of the Democrats depends on convincing their "base" that they actually believe in things like Medicare and Social Security. So it is possible that the Republicans might have been more assertive in attacking those programs than the Democrats have been. Or maybe not. The Republicans understand as well as the Democrats that Medicare and SS are extremely popular and are difficult to attack directly. The difference between the two parties is minuscule when set across the backdrop of everything they agree on. This makes it obvious that we're going to have to fight if we want to win even modest reforms.
And what of the crown jewel of Obama's "legislative achievements", the so-called healthcare reform bill? First off, it is hardly reasonable to call it a "reform". It's not even much of an adjustment. Aside from snatching low-hanging fruit by nominally opposing recision and denial of care on the basis of "pre-existing conditions", the bill made things considerably worse for the 99%. It consolidated and further institutionalized the role of the for-profit health insurance industry in the US health care system. It provided subsidies to these goons at the same time that it cuts funding for Medicare under the banner of "efficiency". Worse still, it includes an individual mandate which forces citizens to purchase a product from one of these for-profit parasites, without a public option. The plan also solidifies the tie between health care and job benefits--contributing to job-lock and punishing the unemployed. The health care crisis continues unabated as the for-profit health care industry continues to reap big profits on the backs of ordinary Americans. And let's not forget that Max Baucus (D-Montana), who oversaw the committee that wrote the bill, was the #1 recipient (in all of Congress) of campaign contributions from the health insurance industry in 2008.
By any reasonable measure, Obama and the Democrats have done far more harm than good. They have fought tooth and nail to lower the living standards of working Americans to finance a ruling-class bailout. They have attacked teachers, called in the cops to brutalize Occupy protesters, and deported more immigrants than Bush did. They have expanded wars and drone attacks. They have kept Guantanamo open for business. They insulated BP from any liability for one of the worst environmental catastrophes in recent memory. They have placed Pell Grants and Stafford Loans on the chopping block. They have made cuts to Medicare and other vital social programs. They have made attacks on civil liberties that would make John Ashcroft blush. They are a menace to the 99% and staunch allies of the 1%.
As the Occupy movement has decisively shown us, we can and must ask for more than what the lowly Democrats are able to offer us. We do not need to profoundly scale back our demands. Neither should we sit back passively in hopes that Democrat politicians will do the right thing when we know they won't. And what's more--we have to organize ourselves to resist the attacks that Democrats--just as much as Republicans--are launching against us. We have to stand up together and build collective struggles capable of exerting pressure on the entire system. Rather than buying the lie that the 2012 elections are the most important thing on the horizon right now we have to be clear: they are not political at all. They are a charade. Politics right now is on the streets, at mass demonstrations, on the picket lines, in workplaces and schools, in rooms where powerful figures are getting mic-checked, at GA's held by Occupy movements around the country.
The 2012 elections, on the other hand, are nothing but a mass of confusion, disorientation and cynicism meant to convince us to forget everything that's happened since the Occupy movement burst on the scene. They are nothing more than a way of making our broken system appear as if it enjoys democratic legitimacy. It is meant to corral us back into the "proper channels" that are neatly organized to insulate the power of the 1% from any challenge from below. The 2012 elections offer us neither a voice nor a genuine choice: they offer us two different avenues to place a stamp of legitimacy on the bailouts, on austerity, on repression, on war and occupation. As such the elections are not political: they are merely an occasion to choose which hack is going to misrepresent us for the next 2-4 yrs.