Elections and the Problem of Politics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For most readers of political commentary, the human consequences of deindustrialization, the 1994 Crime Bill, the bailouts of Wall Street, etc., are abstractions. Deindustrialization left capable adults with the choice of taking low-wage, low-status service jobs or muddling through in the informal economy. The 1994 Crime Bill built out the infrastructure of policing and prisons to make the reach of official power more punitive and onerous. The bailouts of Wall Street re-started the reorganization of economic life around financialization and the commodification of everything. The bailouts also shored-up the distribution of political and economic power between capital, the oligarchs, and the PMC.

What are abstractions to some, define the contours of the lives of others. In theory, democracy is the mechanism that maintains the relationship between political decisions and their social consequences. The political problem with class difference is that it separates the power of political decision making from those who bear its consequences. For instance, if the rich and powerful got their healthcare through Obamacare, it would be replaced with a functioning healthcare system overnight. But they don’t. The rich and powerful decide what healthcare system the rest of us get. And they profit from our inability to vote in functioning healthcare.

Additionally, class power means that one class gets to tell the story of all of the classes. In poor and working class neighborhoods, deindustrialization left little economic alternative but to join the informal economy, meaning the illicit drug trade. The 1994 Crime Bill increased the capacity of the police and the carceral system to imprison those who turned to the drug trade. In urban neighborhoods across the country, three or more generations of fathers, brothers, uncles, and community elders are, or have been, in prison. In rural areas, alcoholism and drug addiction have consumed entire communities, leaving them bereft of the people needed to provide core social functions.

Their stories, as told in the bourgeois press, are of self-generated moral debasement. The language has changed as liberals have moved into the space formerly occupied by political conservatives in chiding the lesser classes. By degree, formerly functioning neighborhoods and societies turned to the drug trade, prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide through the moral failings of their citizens (goes the chide). That the centers and sources of economic life around which they were built— most prominently industry, were relocated for the benefit of capital, has no bearing, go the stories. Economic apartheid assures that the bourgeois only rarely come face-to-face with the people whose circumstances they claim to have knowledge of.

The politics that the American distribution of political and economic power produces isn’t left / right, but rather an official politics that serves the interests of capital through acting as the (only) legitimate field of political contestation. This was made evident when interloper (Donald) Trump dared to treat the ‘process’ as the farce it is to get elected. The political not-skill that it takes to make Mr. Trump appear to be an anti-establishment outsider demonstrates how fragile this process is. In terms of left / right, Joe Biden is to the right of used-car-salesman cum oligarch Trump in almost every dimension. Even in the Newspeak of identity, anyone with an interest can hear Biden match Trump word for word with vile racist and xenophobic rants on YouTube.

In a nation where political campaigns are funded by and for the rich, the improbability that denizens of the deindustrialized heartland, motivated by racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and unreasoned resentment toward their educated and virtuous betters, hoisted Trump into the furniture formerly occupied by the likes of Bush the Elder, Clinton the Despoiler, Bush the Younger and Barack the Ambivalent, suggests that there is more to the story than meets the eye. That B the E sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, C the D has a record of raping young women, B the Y destroyed an entire region of the world and B the A just elevated Joe Biden, taken together suggests that Trump the In-Over-His-Head is in the company he deserves.

To be clear, this isn’t support for Trump the In-Over-His-Head. There is a special circle of hell reserved for the entire American political class. The problem is temporal. In one sense, there is now and speculation regarding the future. In another, it is an absolute guarantee that Joe Biden as President is going to suck ten times worse than the outer bounds of current imagination. The #Resistance heroes of late will return to being the lying, murdering, war mongers and domestic spies they are. And in a similar turn-of-the-prism moment, Biden himself will be the retrograde stooge that is exactly what Donald Trump meant by ‘make America great again.’

The flip side of the bourgeois getting to write the stories of all of the classes is that just because they write them doesn’t mean that ‘we’ have to believe them. And various aggregations of ‘we’ most certainly don’t. Writing from Trump country, the class division behind the hatred of ‘liberals’ is framed in aesthetic terms to avoid the contradiction between class antagonism and support for ‘their’ oligarchs. A similar story emerges from bourgeois loathing of the lesser classes, where oppression was frozen in time in an ‘earlier period’ to distinguish its rightful from wrongful forms. Righteous oppression is that which aids bourgeois self-realization in case there was any confusion.

More broadly, political aesthetics and aesthetic politics are capitalist versions on simulated democracy where voting is an act of identity creation rather than political participation. In simulated democracy, voters treat voting as an exercise in aesthetic self-realization— people ‘are’ who they vote for. This is particularly true of the American bourgeois. They imagine that so-called elected officials promote the programs and policies that their respective political parties pretend to represent. As long as all involved stick to the script, the powers-that-be can go about their business, and political self-realization (and ‘healing’) can proceed through the experience of the act of voting.

It is noteworthy that neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden are offering political programs. And if they were, no one over the age of nine or so years -would believe that they intended to follow through if elected. They are selling ‘feelings’ about the nature and character of the nation. Mr. Trump is selling nostalgia for an age that never was. And Mr. Biden is selling a ‘return to normalcy’ and ‘restoring integrity.’ In an age of rapidly accumulating social¸ political and economic problems that require substantive social solutions, what is needed are political programs. And in fact, both Trump and Biden are selling de facto political programs through their respective versions of the status quo. Through the anti-politics of capitalist political choice, political aesthetics are all that can plausibly be claimed to differentiate them.

So again, the difference between the candidates isn’t right and left. Left isn’t on the ballot. The difference is between aesthetic factions of the capitalist party. To the extent that right versus left applies, the dominant tendencies are imperialist, militaristic, and toward crushing all power that threatens the rule of capital and the oligarchs. But these are already baked into any possible electoral outcome. Trump and Biden are the end of a political process, not the beginning. The restoration of ‘normalcy’ means a return to the conditions that got Donald Trump elected. And it seems logical to assume that up-and-coming politicians have been taking notes should the radical center once again lose its grip, as it did with Trump.

Political aesthetics are evidence of both the totalizing nature of capitalist logic and its takeover of the public realm. It is ‘consumer choice’ applied to politics. As with the choice between products on store shelves, every relevant decision that went into production was made before the products made an appearance. The decision to make the product, the terms under which it was produced, the political economy of the inputs and the mechanics of distribution, the very idea of store, and the political decision to base domestic political stability around capitalist consumption. Sure, people can choose between products, but doing so is to forego political participation, not an expression of it.

Graph: following WWII, the American model of industrial production was distributed around the globe under the theory that it would produce political stability. In fact, the most capitalist country, the U.S., has also been the most militaristic. Back-and-forth over environmental issues has posed them as partisan— internal to the political deliberations of the U.S., while their cause in industrialization means that they are economic in nature. By focusing on political, rather than economic, organization, the misdirection is put forward that electing better leaders, rather than radically curtailing industrial production, is the solution. As long as capital controls political outcomes, how would leaders determined to curb the power of capital get elected? Source: c2es.org.

The 2020 presidential election demonstrates this consumer choice view of politics quite clearly. Following a Democratic primary ‘process’ in which the major vote counts were conspicuously indeterminate (Iowa, the delay in California), a group of party insiders led by Barack Obama reorganized the competitive field to unify support for Joe Biden while leaving it divided on the social democratic side. The result: the candidate that best represents bi-partisan establishment interests, and through it the interests of capital, miraculously emerged as the Democrat’s ‘choice.’ The retort of ‘that’s politics’ doesn’t explain the forced gravitation toward the generic (commodity) candidate. Adding to this farcical nature is that reform Democrats actually believed they had forced concessions from the party insiders that would make the primaries fair and transparent.

And again, in terms of political programs, the open secret is that both parties are offering business as usual. Donald Trump is going to create ‘law and order’ and Joe Biden is going to ‘advocate for’ a Green New Deal. These are advertising slogans, with details to be filled in, or not, at some later date. What they do is tell voters about themselves (voters) for the purpose of self-gratification through self-realization. The political content is the ‘message’ they are sending by voting. But the oligarchs, party apparatchiks and candidates couldn’t care less about ‘messages.’ This leaves voters sending messages to themselves.

With more young people in the streets than has been the case for several decades, the political establishment is a wall of NO against responsive governance. But this NO isn’t a political reaction. It connotes the utter irrelevance to them of proclamations, acts or protests that don’t emanate from capital, the oligarchs, and / or corporate executives. A few decades ago about 10% of the population, the aforementioned chair-sitters of good fortune plus the PMC, decided which way the wind was going to blow and situated themselves accordingly. Until countervailing forces set the wind to blow in a different direction, the (mis)fortunes of we little people are but ambient noise— background chatter really, that official misdirection is put forward to silence.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.