Election to Nowhere

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As a metaphor for American electoral politics, the taste test used by marketers of food products is a master stroke of misdirection. In a taste test, ‘food’ is reduced to a matter of taste— versus digestion, metabolism, nutritional content, conditions of production and aesthetic appeal, for purposes of comparison. The products being compared are chosen to affect a predetermined outcome— they aren’t the result of honest inquiry. Finally, majority opinion— a social artifact, is used to place dissenters in a minority position. Choosing a losing product calls one’s judgment into question.

In the run-up to the Democratic primary in the Spring, real problems in need of being solved were put forward. Environmental degradation, the concentration of political and economic power in ever fewer hands, unhinged militarism being driven by business interests, the inability of the electoral system to affect needed changes to capitalist political economy, and the inability of elected officials to plan and implement programs necessary to ensure the perpetuation of the species, are political problems in need of solutions. By the time of the general election, these are but distant memories.

Implied in the selection of Joe Biden as the Democrat’s presidential candidate is that capital, rather than ‘the people,’ substantially controls the electoral process in the U.S. As much as the contest is proclaimed to be about the restoration of reasoned and responsible governance, the credentialed technocrats— the experts, being called upon to save ‘us,’ are but a different flavor of the tacky shills for capital in the Republican party. How do we know this? Because capital— the form of U.S. political economy, can plausibly be claimed to be the bi-partisan cause of each of these problems, as well as the central impediment to their resolution.

Graph: Climate change is posed as a political problem when its cause is economic. Capitalist production and consumption— concentrated in corporations owned by the rich and in the consumption of goods and services by the rich, are ultimately the cause of most environmental problems. Framing the problem in terms of national interests suggests shared benefit— and responsibility. But it is the rich who benefit, and who must be made to bear the costs of solving it if solutions are to be found. The poor don’t have the means to fix the problem except by forcing the rich to do so. Source: vox.com / Oxfam.

Not generally considered is that modern elections are an impediment to actionable politics, not an expression of them. To be clear, the point is to make elections an effective political means, not to end them. The role of Democrats in particular has been to give weak explanations of problems and then assert that little or nothing can be done about them. By treating capital, in the form of corporate interests, as ‘partners’ in crafting public policy, the result is that public policy is only possible if they benefit from it. Whatever Donald Trump’s incompetence, the Covid-19 pandemic was met with Obamacare, not a functioning health care system.

Taken at face value, favoring the candidate who can win begs the question: win what? Winning power without a political program implies that there is no political program, when in the present context, such quite profoundly isn’t the case. The existing order is a web of economic and political relationships that remain largely invisible until they are disturbed. Once disturbed, their defense quickly becomes the top priority of the political realm. This can be seen through the rapid delivery of trillions of dollars of public funds to nominally private enterprises during the pandemic shutdown and during the Great Recession.

Graph: Following WWII, Democrats and Republicans together saw the world, and legislated, through the economic relations and institutions of the New Deal. From the 1970s forward, Democrats and Republicans together came to see the world through the economic relations and institutions of neoliberalism. Democrats stopped being the party of the New Deal at the same time that Republicans did. Residual memory of the difference is a marketing ploy when broader political economy determines the form and function of political interests. Source: inequality.org.

As generations of outsiders entering government through reform politics and official programs of inclusion have demonstrated, the ‘system’— the institutional prerogatives of capitalist democracy, determines the politics, rather than elected officials determining the system. The Congressional Black and Progressive Caucuses have overseen the ascendance of capital, providing ineffectual resistance— and with it the illusion of democratic opposition, along with capitulation at crucial points to restore the political economy they were elected to challenge. The same is true of European Social Democrats, who reliably act as spokespersons and guardians for capital during crises to enforce the capitalist order.

Capitalist institutions don’t intend to cause environmental destruction, inspire wildly murderous wars with few determinable goals or positive achievements, cause mass economic dislocations, and with them social upheaval, or undermine democratic processes. These are by-products of the logic of capitalist social relations. And this is the basis of the political logic that solving these problems will cause more economic harm than social benefit. Politicians see the perpetuation of their own power through the logic of the system that produced it. The farce of elections lies in the premise that changing the players will somehow change the nature of this political and economic order.

Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. will resume the nuclear arms race, consume its way to global environmental devastation, consolidate more income and wealth in fewer hands, continue to build out the public-private infrastructure of surveillance and social control, and create an architecture of racial reconciliation that shifts the onus for disparate political and economic outcomes onto those least able to affect them. These are ultimately economic outcomes. Each reflects developed and deeply integrated economic relationships that are difficult to reverse without causing debilitating economic dislocations.

Nuclear weapons are cheaper per unit of destructive capacity than other types of weapons, and military production is central to U.S. economic production. This focus on thrift, particularly given the contribution that military production makes to the national economy, frames economic austerity in a broader light. The production of nuclear weapons makes public-private ‘capitalists’ rich and serves the alleged national purpose of ‘defense,’ while the focus on thrift helps legitimate tax avoidance by those who benefit from this process. In fact, the capitalist defense against cuts to military spending is to fire thousands of military production workers.

This same defense mechanism supports the continuation of potentially world-ending environmental destruction. As the top graph illustrates, environmental destruction is overwhelmingly a product of the rich. From the birth of the modern environmental movement to today, environmentalism has successfully been portrayed by opponents as an elite and effete concern. In the 1970s environmental regulations were enacted with little thought given to the economic dislocations that were their predictable consequence. Competent environmental politics would have assured meaningful employment for dislocated workers.

This broad array of economic relations, institutional organization, and prerogatives of power are aligned to perpetuate the existing distribution of power and wealth, and to cause severe economic dislocations if it is threatened. The path of least resistance is now toward environmental, geopolitical and social calamity. Insightful in a limited way is the assertion that the 2020 electoral choice is between fast (Trump) and slow (Biden) annihilation. Related is the call for political ‘breathing room,’ as if every day that environmental problems remain unresolved means they won’t be that much harder to resolve in the future.

Graph: Teams Red and Blue are talking past each other because they get their facts from different sources. The Democrat’s insistence that their facts are true and the Republican’s aren’t, and vice versa, is necessarily from ignorance. There isn’t enough cross-readership to produce a determination. This renders the arrogance and self-righteousness of Democrats a particularly loathsome characteristic. Additionally, the source of these facts in commercial and ‘intelligence community’ channels means that combining Red and Blue ‘truth’ is more likely to result in double the insipid propaganda than a merging of partial truths into a whole. Source: Pew Research / Glenn Greenwald.

In 1975, the Church Committee re-forbade the CIA to conduct domestic surveillance and propaganda operations, leaving the option open for it to purchase ‘private’ surveillance. A recent Netflix documentary on surveillance and social control through so-called social media, The Social Dilemma, resembles the taste test in terms of misdirection. Not only does social media reside on hardware and software technologies created by the U.S. military, but the CIA was a major funder of social media companies. The oft stated irony is that users of social media willingly give the CIA, NSA, FBI and state and local police information through social media that they would guard with their lives if these agencies asked for it directly.

However, this formulation still lets ‘private’ interests off the hook for political behavior hidden behind commercial motives. The problem for capitalists at the outset of the twentieth century was that past a low threshold, people didn’t want the stuff that capitalism produces. Propaganda, rechristened advertising after the Nazis sullied the concept, isn’t necessarily about selling particular products. Modern retailers rely on people buying what they weren’t looking for when they walk into a store. Social media broadens and brings this want generation process— the virtual store, to the people. In this sense, social media extends the (social) construction of consumer culture to an even more stilted and commercialized conception of the self.

This process is political, both in the sense that ‘external’ worldviews are used to manufacture willing selves for commercial ends, and through the use of coercive technologies for explicitly political ends. The Red Team / Blue Team commercial frame of political competition uses real class antagonisms— between the PMC, working for its own and the interests of capital, versus the working class and poor that they have been firing, downsizing, outsourcing, deskilling, surveilling, multi-tasking, optimizing and monetizing, since the 1970s. The PMC is the public face of capital for the rich to hide behind.

What emerged after 2016 was and is the bourgeois, nationalist, state-corporatism of the PMC versus racialized, nationalist, state-corporatism of the Trumpists— American versus European-style fascism if you will. The PMC spent five decades (as agents of capital) creating the conditions for capital to benefit from racial and xenophobic scapegoating, and then blamed the people they had disenfranchised for looking for scapegoats. And even this doesn’t do justice to the outcome. The working class and poor by-and-large didn’t bite. The number of racist groups in the U.S. has been declining since 2008. But the class divide is real and gaining momentum.

Deference given by establishment Democrats to former suburban Republicans, while dismissing the interests of workers, if not precisely of ‘labor,’ gets to the point that the absence of an articulated political program is no less a political program because it is politically expedient to leave it unstated. Former suburban Republicans are the PMC. A return to ‘normalcy’ means the PMC (and capital) continues to prosper while the lesser 90% of the population continues to see its lot diminished. A recent drive across the heartland found 300 Trump signs for every 1 Biden sign. With the PMC cloistered in cities and the rich suburbs, true and deep class loathing seems ready to boil over.

With respect to commercial propaganda and social media, it is a mistake to grant undue power to shape particular outcomes to these. Marx’s insight that we come to know ourselves through our social relations is the basis of a century old effort to construct capitalist selves— homo economicus, to fill the need for compliant consumers of capitalist products. The statistical saw that as categories are added, people move toward particularity illustrates the ultimate indeterminacy of commercial selves. And to the studied idiocy that Russia used psychological coercion to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump, the Democrats and Republicans used exactly and precisely the same methods with several hundred million times more resources.

There are myriad real and pressing problems in need of resolution. And we can only solve them by replacing the existing order with social organizations determined to solve them. We, the left, had to try the bird-in-the-hand of electoral politics. But it didn’t work. In and of itself, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to write the electoral route off. But what was illustrated is that not only is the electoral route not open to the left, but without a revolution to dislodge the power of capital first, it never will be. This capitulation is undoubtedly what the Democrats were hoping for. However, with a wall of foreclosures and evictions due early next year, and the total unemployed from the pandemic still in the multiple tens of millions of people, establishment politicians are about to get a taste of interesting times.

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