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Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of “government”:
(1) Unrestricted freedom
(2) Direct democracy
(3) Delegate democracy
(4) Representative democracy
(5) Overt minority dictatorship
The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a façade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). . . .
In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected officials. The candidates’ stated policies are limited to a few vague generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their actual decisions on hundreds of issues — apart from the feeble threat of changing one’s vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in “democratic” regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don’t even know who they are. . . .
In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on others to act for them, distracting them from more significant possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. (The Vietnam war, for example, was not ended by electing antiwar politicians, but because there was so much pressure from so many different directions that the prowar president Nixon was forced to withdraw.) If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil.
Even in the rare case when a “radical” politician has a realistic chance of winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his (or her) personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few “progressive” measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.
As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, “It’s painful to submit to our bosses; it’s even more stupid to choose them!”
* * *
My intention in circulating these observations is not to discourage you from voting or campaigning, but to encourage you to go further.
In October 2008 I wrote:
Like many other people, I am delighted to see the Republicans collapsing into well-deserved ignominy, with the likelihood of the Democrats recapturing the presidency and increasing their majorities in Congress. Hopefully the latter will discontinue or at least mitigate some of the more insane policies of the current administration (some of which, such as climate change and ecological devastation, threaten to become irreversible).
Beyond that, I do not expect the Democratic politicians to accomplish anything very significant. Most of them are just as corrupt and compromised as the Republicans. Even if a few of them are honest and well-intentioned, they are all loyal servants of the ruling economic system, and they all ultimately function as cogwheels in the murderous political machine that serves to defend that system.
In October 2010 I added:
I don’t think I need to take back any of my words. The Democrats did indeed recapture the presidency and increase their majorities in Congress, but their accomplishments since then have been as pathetic as could be imagined. Some people will say that they are still better than the Republicans. But being better than a party of sociopathic demagogues and gullible ignoramuses is hardly much of an achievement. And being so lame that you risk getting defeated by such a party is an achievement of a wholly different order.
During the last two years we have seen the consequences of relying on political representatives to act for us. If the antiwar movement and other more or less progressive currents had put even a fraction of the immense amount of time and energy they invested in election campaigns into more directly radical agitation, the situation would be very different today. As a side effect, such agitation would actually have resulted in more liberals being elected. But more importantly, it would have shifted the momentum and the terrain of the struggle. The liberal politicians would have been under pressure to actually implement some significant changes (such as ending the wars and inaugurating free universal health care), which would have invigorated their base while putting the reactionary forces increasingly on the defensive. And that momentum shift might well have inspired even more radical actions and aspirations — not just protesting against this or that particular outrage, but calling into question the whole absurd and anachronistic social system.
A year later the Occupy movement appeared — a participatory direct-action movement that within a few weeks did indeed “shift the momentum and the terrain of the struggle,” reorienting the public discourse much as I had envisioned and far more widely and rapidly than I had dared to hope. Despite police repression and the destruction of virtually all the encampments, the same spirit persists in countless ongoing gatherings and actions around the country, though in recent months these have been largely eclipsed by the election spectacle.
From the beginning the Occupy assemblies focused on direct actions rather than electoral politics, constantly stressing the complicity of both major parties with the ruling economic system. Nevertheless, as predicted above, the movement had the side effect of influencing the election in a radical direction. Its joyful communitarianism undermined the mean-spirited Republican talking points and its “99% versus 1%” meme shifted public debate onto a terrain much more favorable to the Democrats.
Despite the fact that the Democratic Party, and Democratic mayors in particular, were shamefully hostile to the Occupy encampments, many Occupy participants will undoubtedly vote for the Democrats as lesser evils, just as others will vote for protest candidates or not vote at all. The point is that, whatever their choice, their recent experience has made all of them aware that electoral politics is at most only one facet of social struggle and that direct, creative, experimental action is ultimately much more effective (as well as usually being a lot more fun!).
In any case, I don’t think this is an either-or issue. Voting for lesser-evil candidates does not preclude also working in more active ways toward more radical goals. The problems arise when people get stuck in rigid, one-sided positions — radicals becoming so fixated on ideological purity that they reject any hint of “reformism,” ignoring the significant differences there may be between different policies and different politicians; or voters becoming so caught up in electoral spectacles that they end up relying on political stars to act for them and to set the bounds of what is “possible.”
Personally, much as I dislike the Democratic Party, I dearly hope that it will trounce the Republicans this November. The Republican Party was already pretty bad decades ago, but in the last 12 years it has become so willfully ignorant and infantile that it routinely blocks any rational response to the momentous issues we face. If, as the saying goes, both parties are only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the difference is that the Democrats are dithering because they think it might be too complicated to slow the ship down or to change directions, while the Republicans are screaming that the iceberg is a hoax and urging full speed ahead. Neither is going to save the ship, but which would you prefer to be at the helm while you attempt to rouse the passengers to a collective mutiny?
Fortunately, the Republican Party’s long accumulation of lies and delusions seems to be finally catching up with it. As its contradictory components break apart in mutual recrimination, its most delirious and repugnant aspects are coming to the surface and becoming evident to everyone, including many of those who were previously taken in by it.
In the best of cases, if the Democrats make a clean sweep of the elections and the Republican Party continues to fragment and self-destruct, that will still only be a beginning. The system will still be in place and the Democratic politicians will continue to be in the pockets of its owners. But I think we will be better off if we can fight directly against them, without the constant blackmail of an “even worse” alternative.
Ken Knabb edits the Bureau of Public Secrets.