Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More on the Non-Political Character of the Presidential Race

If you read the section titled "politics" in the New York Times, the so-called "paper of record", you would be hard pressed to find anything remotely political. What you find, more often than not, is strategizing, instrumental tactical arguments and an intense focus on efficient means to electing some given candidate. You find inane debates focused intensely on the public relations management strategies employed by the campaigns of different candidates. You find talk of "branding", marketing, the manufacturing of "narratives", and so on.

What you won't find is anything remotely political.

Why is that? One simplistic, but nonetheless perspicuous explanation is given by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie has... since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

Accordingly, what gets discussed in the halls of power by politicians, by and large, are matters of common concern to the ruling class as a whole. This is as true of domestic policy as it is of foreign policy. Political discussions in Washington tend to presuppose, as a condition of legitimacy, that the basic goal of government is something like "economic growth", i.e. creating favorable conditions for capital accumulation. If ruling class profits are down, that's bad; if they're up that's good. Whatever else happens only matters to the extent that it affects this basic goal. The need to secure legitimation and political stability leads Democrats and Republicans to give this basic function a populist gloss, e.g. "what's good for GM is good for America", "rising tides lift all boats", "increasing wealth at the top trickles down to the bottom", "growth creates jobs", etc.

The debates among politicians, then, largely center around how best to administer growth from above. But even this non-political administrative debate is extremely narrow. These debates 100% exclude, for example, the Keynesian wisdom of mainstream, globally renowned economists at a number of elite institutions: Nouriel Roubini, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and many others. All of these folks largely accept the administrative perspective above, but argue for policies very different from those considered in Washington, e.g. a new, considerably larger public stimulus package, a massive public works program that puts people to work rebuilding infrastructure, a steep increase in the marginal rate of taxation, increased spending on health and education, and so on. For these folks, the way out of the crisis is to stimulate demand by avoiding austerity and increasing the purchasing power of the working majority. These aren't radical ideas. These were commonplace ruling class policies in the postwar (i.e. pre-neoliberal) period. What's more, all of these economists accept capitalism more or less as it is, but propose different ways of getting it running again. Yet, even these ideas aren't given a moment's notice in Washington.

By and large, Democrats and Republicans agree that the only viable way forward in the short term is austerity for the working majority. They disagree, of course, about how deep the cuts should go. But they are in firm, uncompromising agreement on the "need" to make deep cuts of some kind to public programs ranging from public transportation, roads and infrastructure, to health care, education and so on. At the same time they agree on the "need" to bail out the banks, to subsidize corporate profits through quantitative easing, to grant large tax breaks to the 1%, and so on. Their approach could be summed up as follows: austerity for the 99%, prosperity for the 1%. Of course, some Republicans talk as if they oppose the bailouts on principled, neoliberal grounds. But the truth is that these initiatives, begun under Bush and continued by Obama, already have their rubber stamp.

Anyone who, like Ron Paul, still genuinely believes in the viability of the neoliberal medicine of "small government" and "structural adjustment", so popular with elites in the 1980s and 90s, is simply deluded. They naively identify with ruling class window-dressing without realizing that that's what it is. Rather than drawing the obvious conclusion that capitalism is a highly unstable system which, when freed from even modest regulatory and counter-cyclical measures, periodically generates devastating crises, these bone-headed "free" market fundamentalists perversely draw the opposite conclusion: all of that neoliberal stuff really does work, it's just that there weren't enough tax breaks for the rich, not enough deregulation, not enough austerity, and so on. There are, of course, a number of people of this persuasion in the Republican Party (many of whom voted against TARP the first time around). But, as I say above, the national leadership of the GOP understands full well that this is mostly just talk. There is no reason to think that corporate welfare, quantitative easing, bailouts, tax breaks for the 1% and so on would end under a GOP-controlled government. As staunch advocates of the capitalist system, they realize that its stability depends for dear life on these sorts of policies.

This is all a way of saying that politics and government have been almost entirely disconnected from one another in the contemporary US. What goes on in government is largely administrative: how can we best manage the common affairs of the ruling class by promoting polices that achieve high levels of accumulation?

In a democratic society, the people would be sovereign. They would be able to have a voice in determining what goals society undertakes. But in our society, we have no say over goals. We have no voice in determining what the basic priorities of our society will be. The goals are fixed in advance, and we are asked to get worked up over various means of achieving these ready-made goals. And, what's worse, we aren't even given the full spectrum of reasonable means. As I say, the broad consensus among mainstream Keynesian economists at schools like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia doesn't even register as a possibility in Washington. So as if being locked inside the iron cage of instrumental rationality wasn't bad enough, we don't even get the freedom to exercise it fully!

Yet, despite the thoroughly non-political, administrative and fundamentally undemocratic character of our electoral system and our State, we are encouraged by the media to think that this election is the most important one of our lifetimes. We are bombarded, everywhere we turn, with the injunction to tune in and participate in the inane chatter about what's going on with the election. It is assumed that this process is the essence of politics, it is assumed that this it is a hugely significant event that warrants 24-hour television coverage. But those assumptions are not harmless. They are highly damaging and deeply conservative. They are, in effect, suffocatingly anti-political.

The media, of course, positions itself as a populist force that merely "gives the people what they want". But that is nonsense. This top-down argument assumes that what's going on in, say, the Republican debates actually reflects the genuine interests and concerns of real people. It grafts the priorities, framing and rhetoric of those approved candidates onto real people. It imposes the TV chatter about a given set of political candidates and organizations onto the people. But why should we think that entire top-down procedure is legitimate? A far more sensible procedure, would be to start with ordinary people, in complete and total abstraction from their relationship to the electoral system, and see whether or not the system actually has anything to do with their interests and concerns. Of course, this bottom-up procedure, though far from perfect, is non-existent in the for-profit media industry. The interests of ordinary people only become intelligible to the media to the extent that they fit within pre-existing rhetoric and ideology. Rather than demanding that a political party actually earn its significance and legitimacy from speaking to the needs and interests of the people, the media antecedently grants significance and legitimacy to the Republicans and Democrats because they are the status quo. They are given a free pass each election cycle and it is assumed that the population could have no needs or interests in excess of what those two parties offer. No remainder is possible, therefore no discontent with the two-party system is possible.

Though common sense tells us that they are everywhere, these contradictions between the whole political system and the interests and concerns of ordinary people are rarely visible in the mainstream media. And even when these contradictions are there implicitly, that is, when a poll reveals that super-majorities of Americans favor single-payer, they are almost never explicitly discussed. No mention is made of the fact that the political system simply doesn't register this pro-health care sentiment. Instead, it conflates what people want with what's on offer from the two-party duopoly. It's almost as if the media operates as though it's logically impossible to register discontent with the system itself, rather than with this or that politician within it.

Some readers may think that I am too extreme in firmly rejecting the 2012 elections as a genuinely political event. But I challenge them to defend a system that makes it impossible to articulate the jarring contradiction between the daily experiences of the 99% and the priorities in Washington. I challenge them to defend a discourse that robs us of the very language with which to articulate our own oppression. I challenge them to give us reason to accept the legitimacy of a system that has nothing whatsoever to do with giving the 99% a voice in determining its own conditions of life. I challenge them to explain why we should accept a list of pre-approved candidates who all, in any case, stand for the pre-determined goal of maximizing capital accumulation.

At this point, the more intensely we are asked to focus on the (ultimately marginal) differences between this or that Republican or Democrat, the more we obscure the underlying issues and foreclose the possibility of any real change.

If we are to achieve even the most modest reforms in the here and now, we have to be prepared to struggle independently of the electoral system. We have to stand up and fight alongside all those resisting foreclosure, school closures, layoffs, wage cuts, furlough days, student loan default, pension "reforms", and so on. We have to stand up, against the two parties of the 1%, and fight for the 99% because nobody else but us is going to do it.


JM said...

There's rocky anderson..
and there's also not voting:
As for me, I'm writing in Saunders and Feingold.

Richard said...

I'm 51 years old. I can't remember a time in my life where people have so clearly tuned out a presidential election. Even friends that usually follow them avidly are silent.

t said...

I agree that a lot of previously interested people are tuning out. And who can blame them?

I have, however, noticed a large swath of lesser-evilist liberals who are obsessively tuning in to the Republican primaries, fixating on all of the horrific things they say, and so on. (Sometimes I wonder whether 90% of the viewership of the GOP debates isn't liberals who watch just to smugly laugh to themselves about how dumb the republicans are). My sense is that this is a way comforting themselves and rationalizing their acquiescence to the Democrats.

But I take your point. Smug liberals aside, I doubt that a majority of Americans invests 2012 with the significance that the media does. My sense is that discontent with the system, not with this or that politician, is reaching a peak not experienced for generations. I have doubts about the nature of the revolt in 1968, but it's undeniable that there was widespread discontent with the system among a certain layer of people. I'm wondering if we aren't experiencing something approaching 1934, however. We'll have to see. But austerity isn't going to stop, the crisis isn't getting any better, and unemployment remains sky high. Sooner or later, the axe will come down again to drive down living standards even further, and people will rise to the occasion and fight back. But, as far as I can see, the success or failure of that fight back has little if anything to do with the 2012 dog and pony show.