Repressive Democracy

There is no sugar-coating the fact: the failure to recall Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin was a defeat for organized labor and the entire American working class, and for everyone with interests opposed to those of the plutocrats for whom Walker fronts. By some estimates, this would be 99% of us.

Still, judging by the reaction of the corporate media, the election was barely newsworthy – except, for a night or two, to the Republican flacks at Fox News and their Democratic counterparts at “left leaning” MSNBC.  What they both cared about was the impact on Barack Obama’s reelection.

Predictably, at Fox, Walker’s victory spelled doom for Obama; at MSNBC, also predictably, it wasn’t that big a deal.   Sure, Ed Schultz, self-declared friend of the working stiff, was mad as hell, but he’ll get over it; Rachel Maddow, growing more tiresome by the day, seemed over it before she even got into it.

To the extent that they offered any analysis at all it was about how zillionaires, the Koch Brothers especially, pumped in so much money for Walker that he outspent Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate, seven to one.

This translates into seven times more mind-numbing commercials.  No one bothered to fault a political culture where this has become what it’s all about.  Nobody complained that these ad campaigns leave little or no time or space for rational deliberation, the hallmark supposedly of collective decision-making in democratic states.

What the “left leaning” talking heads complained about instead was how unfair the PR wars have become now that the Supreme Court has given corporate “persons” carte blanche to spend all they please.

There was hardly a word, therefore, about how Obama remained aloof from the events in Wisconsin throughout 2011, as people from all walks of life mounted the most sustained revolt in decades against capital’s escalating attack on the working class.  And neither was there much discussion of how, in the days before the election, Obama couldn’t even be bothered with the recall election – except to send a bland tweet of support for Barrett the day before.

He was too busy palling around with corporate CEOs in adjacent states, and chatting up hedge fund managers and banksters in Chicago; too busy, in other words, showing his true colors.

And, of course, no one thought to mention how little the Barrett campaign had to do with the aspirations of the tens of thousands of people who occupied the state Capital in the winter and spring of 2011; or of how the class offensive Walker launched was only an extreme version of the neo-liberal assault on the gains of the middle decades of the twentieth century, a regressive project that Democrats and Republicans alike have been pursuing for more than thirty years.

Therefore no one pointed out how the most one could have hoped for from a Barrett victory was a kinder and gentler version of Walker’s overreaching.

None of this is surprising.  Serious discussions of anything other than the horse race between Romney and Obama would be too much to expect from the pundits at MSNBC.   They are basically cheerleaders for Obama.  They work a different angle.

Because they have so little to cheer, they fear monger shamelessly — making much, perhaps too much, of Republican idiocy.  It’s nice work if you can get it because Republicans are easy prey – their plutocrats are more than usually repellent, their elected officials are morons, and their useful idiots wear their ridiculousness on their sleeves.

Rubbing all this in is well and good.  But it is also diversionary.  It helps Obama and Company go ahead with their endless (and largely secret) wars.  It draws attention away from their war-induced disregard of the rule of law.  And it frees them up to toady to the capitalists whose hearts and minds they yearn, in vain, to win over.

While Obama and the others do all this and more, liberals don’t notice or else they notice but still cut them slack.  And why shouldn’t they?  By their lights, Obama and his minions are all that stand between those who still have the wits they were born with and the demented theocrats and market theologians on the other side.

No matter that if there was anything like equal justice under law in the Land of the Free, Obama would have been indicted or impeached long ago.  Having American citizens put to death without even a semblance of due process is only the most egregious of the high crimes and misdemeanors with which he could be charged.  Nixon did no worse; by comparison, Clinton was impeached for a trifle.

No matter too that many of the Nobel laureate’s machinations abroad are actionable under international law.  Were the mighty held to the standards they impose on others, Obama, like Bush and Cheney before him, could count on spending the rest of his life in an orange jump suit.

But none of this matters to the “liberal” media — not when there are Republicans to mock and Democratic voters to frighten.

On most domestic issues, Kennedy and Johnson and even Nixon were better than Obama by orders of magnitude.  But like Obama and Bush before him, they waged ruinous wars that outraged the moral sensibilities of people throughout the world.  Then, like now, the situation they brought about seemed impossible to set right; not, anyway, through the usual political channels.

The apparent impossibility of changing the old order from within led some of the opponents of Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, and Nixon’s wars to call on intellectual traditions that transcend the horizons of normal politics by focusing on the contradictory character of prevailing institutions and norms.

The most venerable and soundest of these radical currents, and the most influential in that period, derived from the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831).  The usual point of entry to this tradition for anti-war and anti-imperialist militants in the
United States in the sixties and seventies was through the writings of thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School.

Herbert Marcuse was not the most eminent exponent of Frankfurt School thought but he was by far the most influential propagator of it in the United States.  As such, he quickly rose from obscurity to fame, becoming a target of adoration in New Left circles and, needless to say, of media vilification.  Today, he is an all but forgotten figure.

But his work remains a source of suggestive – and timely – insights that can be useful for thinking about overcoming hopelessness in the Age of Obama and in the aftermath of the Wisconsin defeat.

* * *

Four decades ago, Marcuse published a widely read essay with a seemingly self-contradictory title, “Repressive Tolerance.”

His aim in that essay was to account for the astonishing degree of political conformity he observed in the United States and other liberal democracies.  What struck him was the fact that, despite a comparative absence of overt repression, “critical” thinking, counter-systemic thinking opposed to the established order, was, if anything, even less evident in liberal democracies than in societies where speech and other forms of expression were subject to government suppression and control.

For Hegelians like Marcuse, history is the story of the career and ultimate realization of Reason in society or, what comes to the same thing in the Hegelian view, of a certain idea of human freedom, according to which, at the end of history, universal principles of Right govern human interactions and institutional arrangements.  The United States, for all its liberal virtues, was nothing like the ideal.  Marcuse was struck by how politically inconsequential this fact was, and at how much support there was instead for the existing order.

From within a broadly Hegelian perspective, one possible explanation for political conformity could be a rational consensus supporting the status quo.  It could be, in other words, that there is little critical thinking in societies like ours because the goal of criticism has already been realized.  Marcuse, for obvious reasons, rejected this explanation.  For him, as for all “left Hegelians” since the 1840s, liberal democracy was, at best, History’s penultimate stage; not its “end.”

How then can the inherently conservative, non-critical “one dimensionality” of our politics be explained?   Marcuse’s ideas were sketchy and problematic, but they grew out of a striking insight that warrants careful consideration.

He thought that while liberalism had been and in many ways still is part of Reason’s forward advance, and while tolerance of speech and other forms of expression is a defining element of liberal doctrine, tolerance can and sometimes does work to maintain an oppressive status quo.  Marcuse claimed that tolerance did for the regime in place in the United States and similar societies what repression did for societies on the other side of the “iron curtain.”

He was vague about how this comes about.  Much like his contemporary, Marshall McLuhan, his reflections focused on the nature of modern mass media and, for reasons he never made clear, he ascribed great causal significance to the differences between, say, flat screens and printed words.  His reflections were at most only suggestive.  They were also vague enough to be ignored or dismissed once the political moment that had made them seem timely passed.

But however unsatisfactory or obscure his explanations were, he was clear as can be about the phenomenon itself:  in (literally) repressive societies, subversive ideas are potent.  On the other hand, where repressive tolerance reigns, anybody can say anything, but it doesn’t matter; critical thought is effectively neutered.

According to Marcuse, it is not the potency of critical ideas that necessitates their repression in authoritarian societies; quite the contrary, it is their repression that renders them potent.  Similarly, it is not the impotence of critical thinking that makes pure tolerance possible in liberal regimes.  Tolerance, Marcuse argued, is what renders criticism impotent.

To be clear: Marcuse was not an opponent of liberal values.  For him as much as for any defender of pure tolerance, an ideal world would be a tolerant world.  And he agreed with the founding figures of modern liberalism — John Stuart Mill, for example –when they maintained that in general tolerance is a means for advancing the ideal; that the end and the most effective means for achieving it are in many cases one and the same.  His point was just that in societies like ours, for any of a variety of barely specified reasons, tolerance had “turned into its opposite”; that what had been and ideally is an instrument of human liberation had become a means for impeding humanity’s forward march.

Marcuse’s account of repressive tolerance was not just an idle philosophical reflection.  It was a contribution to on-going philosophical debates about free speech, but it was also a political intervention at a time when students and others engaged in struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War would sometimes disrupt the speeches of racists and war defenders.

His views on disrupting speech were more subtle than those of many of the disruptors: he held that illiberal means are almost always counter-productive, even if there is no moral constraint in deploying them.  Still, his brief against pure tolerance was taken as a theoretical justification for a political practice that had taken on illiberal colorations.  This was yet another reason why Marcuse’s fame was brief.

But his position was not as out of line with mainstream thinking as might appear.   For example, among those who think that violence has no place in an ideal world, there are some (the vast majority) who think that a judicious use of violence in the actual world can be, and often is, useful for advancing the ideal.  Only pacifists, for whom violence is everywhere and always morally proscribed, think otherwise.

Liberals who uphold tolerance in any and all circumstances are like pacifists.  Marcuse’s position is analogous to the non-pacifist’s.   He thought that, in certain circumstances, a judicious use of intolerance can be beneficial for bringing a more tolerant society into being, just as others think that a judicious use of violence can help bring about a more peaceful world.  Presumably, the bar with respect to both transgressions of the ideal is best set high.

Whatever we ultimately make of Marcuse’s position on free speech, his main point, properly generalized, is unassailable: that in the actual world, where the misfortunes consequent upon the indefinite prolongation of capitalist civilization are manifest, it can be and often is counter-productive to act as one should in a world closer to the Hegelian ideal.

In that spirit, it bears reflection whether, in our circumstances, democracy, or at least the electoral system that captures a large part of what we nowadays mean by that word, can work to the detriment of democratic ideals, whether it too can function repressively (or, more precisely anti-democratically).

This is a possibility that the Wisconsin insurgents would have done well to worry about more, and that people involved with the Occupy movements should think carefully about as well, especially now that Team Obama is eager to coopt their energy while quashing the ideas and not-yet-fully-articulated intuitions that spurred them into action.

* * *

The analogy with repressive tolerance is imperfect, of course. Marcuse’s target was pure tolerance, tolerance of speech and expression regardless of content.  His point was that acting as if we are already living in a world in which pure tolerance can work the beneficial effects its defenders imputed to it can impede efforts to bring that condition about; that there are times and places – our own, for example – where tolerance that takes no account of content actually works to the detriment of the ideal.

But our democracy is anything but ‘pure.’  It is an amalgam of institutional arrangements and practices concocted long ago by lawyers, merchants and slave owners who sought democratic legitimacy at the same time that they were intent on shielding themselves from the consequences of government of, by, and for the people.  Thus we don’t even pretend to implement anything like the principle of one person, one vote.

In addition, our democracy has lately been sullied further by Republican Supreme Court Justices intent on making plutocratic domination – they call it “free speech” — the law of the land.  And lately, again thanks to the GOP, efforts at voter suppression are rife.

Therefore even if we identify democracy with competitive elections that, like ours, are more or less “free and fair,” our democracy is not nearly as ‘pure’ as our tolerance is. Nevertheless, Marcuse’s reflections on how tolerance turned into its opposite are applicable to what passes for democracy in our time and place.

Implicitly, the people fighting Walker’s depredations in Wisconsin realized this before the force of circumstances caused their efforts to take an electoral turn.  The masses of people involved in the Occupy movement realized it too with even greater clarity.  They grasped what had not yet become clear to many of them a year or two earlier or indeed to the millions who voted for Obama in 2008: that if the idea is to make the world a better place, forget about an electoral regime dominated by Democrats and Republicans.

If only it could have stayed that way!

When the electoral season was still far off, it was still possible to ignore Obama and the national Democratic Party, to pay back Obama’s indifference in kind. [In Wisconsin, the state Democratic Party was a different story; at key moments – for instance, when the entire Democratic caucus in the Senate fled the state – Democrats actually played a constructive role.]

But it soon became apparent that democracy in the streets would have to assume a more political focus.  It was not possible to ignore Obama and the Democrats indefinitely, especially in an election year.

After what happened in Wisconsin, it has become as plain as can be that, in a repressive democracy, it is essential to name the enemy.  The enemy includes benighted theocrats and free marketeers and, of course, the plutocrats who bankroll GOP candidates.  But the list includes Obama too, and the Democratic Party, and their paymasters.

That’s not exactly news, but it is a point that that not everyone in the MSNBC demographic and in the ranks of organized labor realizes yet.  Or, if they do, they don’t dare draw the obvious conclusion.

It’s that lesser evil thing again.  And who can deny the reality of the menace?  Romney and the Republicans truly are pieces of work.

Even so, it’s not clear what follows.  Lesser evil voting almost always has race to the bottom consequences that must not be overlooked and that can be devastating over time.  And it is demonstrably the case that when a Republican is in the White House, Democrats in Congress become better (less bad).

Compare the period from 2006 to 2008, when the executive branch was still in Republican hands and Democrats controlled Congress, with the period between 2008 and 2010, when Democrats controlled both branches of government.  A case could be made that we were better off in the earlier period, even despite Nancy Pelosi’s, Harry Reid’s and other leading Democrats best efforts to keep the party on its rightward, Clintonite, course.

On the other hand, it is almost certainly the case that we can’t get from here back to there because a Romney victory in November would all but assure another Democratic “shellacking” in the House and Senate.  And there is the additional consideration that a Republican administration would make worse judicial appointments than Obama would, and that we’d be living with the consequences for decades to come.

In short, the coming election raises problems for which there is no obvious solution.  The only sure thing is that the outcome, whatever it is, will be awful – for everyone for whom the failure to recall Walker is awful, but on a grander scale.

A first step in gaining a sound purchase on just how bad the situation is, and therefore for figuring out what to do about it eventually – there may be nothing that can be done in the short run — is to realize, in the spirit of Marcuse’s account of repressive tolerance, that our democracy is indeed a repressive democracy, and that the electoral system itself — not in general but in our time and place – has become a means for keeping an oppressive status quo in place.

* * *

The problem would be mitigated, of course, if elements of the old liberal-labor coalition would break free from the Democratic Party by voting for candidates who run on platforms that plutocrats don’t own.   In the presidential contest this time around that would mean voting for Jill Stein of the Green Party.

However it is a deeply entrenched dogma of our political culture that third party votes are wasted.  This self-fulfilling prophecy is all but impossible to dislodge, and so its consequences cannot be evaded.  If even a deeply respected national figure like Ralph Nader could only garner 2.74 per cent of the vote in 2000, running against Al Gore and George W. Bush, what chance is there for someone who is unknown and massively underfunded to break out of the iron cage?

The short answer is: none at all.  But that doesn’t mean that her candidacy can’t be useful for telling people, those who are able to listen, what they need to hear.  And it doesn’t mean that it there is no point in casting a protest vote when the alternative is piling on votes for the lesser evil, especially when it isn’t clear who the lesser evil is.

In our very impure repressive democracy, the only way to cast a protest vote against Obama is to vote for somebody else.  Since voting for Romney is unthinkable for any ninety-nine percenter with minimally developed moral and intellectual capacities, voting for the Greens may be all that’s left.

To be sure, voting for someone, no matter how estimable, who has no chance of garnering a single electoral vote is making the best of a very bad situation.  But at least it is not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, wasting a vote – at least not in states where, thanks to our impure democratic institutions, the electoral votes are already effectively cast.

In those cases, the best, perhaps the only, way to waste a vote is to cast it for the purported lesser evil, the drone-besotted corporate flunky who has made it all but impossible even to speak without derision of “hope” or “change.”

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).