I call myself a Democrat because that’s how I’ve been registered all of my voting life. In fact, the older I get, the more disconnected I feel from that label. I don’t want to register as an independent because, Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, I can’t get over the prejudice that American independents are all right-wing at heart. Was it George Wallace’s American Independent Party that instilled this in me? Who knows? It’s beginning to feel, however, that the correct radical stance in this disintegrating context is to not register or vote at all. A vote begins to feel like acquiescence to the corruption.
Did Democrats or any other Obama supporter vote for the fiasco of the last month, culminating in the supreme surrender by our audacious leader last night to the anti-democrats of the Republican Party, bypassing the leaders of his own party to give the (fictional) partisanship-loathing centrists of the electorate the White House is courting for 2012 the illusion of “operational bipartisanship?” Well, yes, we actually did vote for it, unfortunately, and that’s where the whole problem lies.
I was reading Slavoj Žižek’s afterward to the paperback edition of Living in the End Times last night, which may also be accounting for some of my pessimism today, in particular this passage (which appears in slightly different form in the paperback; this is from an article that appeared on Counterpunch that Žižek elaborated upon for the book):
It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country—does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker–management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by ‘extending’ democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing ‘democratic’ banks under people’s control. Radical changes in this domain lie outside the sphere of legal rights. Such democratic procedures can, of course, have a positive role to play. But they remain part of the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie, whose purpose is to guarantee the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. In this precise sense, Badiou was right in his claim that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire or exploitation, but democracy. It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations.
Žižek, of course, is an unreconstructed Marxist. I point this out only to acknowledge the strangeness of his terminology to American ears. This in no way detracts from the validity of his point: modern democracy is at the service of global capitalism. We will not be voting our way toward a more humanist redistribution of resources, least of all if the market does not require it. Similarly, when we voted for Obama in 2008, we did not really vote for what we had the audacity to hope we were voting for, nor for change we really could believe in. We were voting, simply, for the choice the Democratic Party, through its intricate, arduous and obscenely expensive vetting process, presented to Democrats and Americans as the titular head of its party. We were not voting for any ideas other than the usual handful that get talked about endlessly in media that also owe their existence and wealth to global capitalism. We get what global capitalism pays for and wants and needs in that office to further its aims and agenda (of enriching the rich and distributing resources toward that end).
As I think, not without considerable bitterness, about the constrictedness Democrats in the White House have manifested since Watergate compared to the freedom Bush-Cheney, for example, displayed acting on the extremism they promised would be their watchword, I wonder why this obvious imbalance here? Of course the answer is that Republican ideology, even at its most extreme, is more harmonious with the wishes of capitalism than even the most moderate-left Democratic ideology traditionally has been. In essence, the market-democracy has been making Democrats pay for Roosevelt’s Welfare State (and Johnson’s anti-racist elaboration on it) since 1968.
Žižek has an interesting (disheartening) point to make about this dichotomy in modern democracies (for him, the compelling context is post-1989). He notes that while the left has been reduced to critiquing the right and defending the welfare state, effectively removing itself from actual popular struggle, the right has succeeded in inflaming the masses, particularly over points of resentment politics, such as immigration and minority rights. This is true not only in Western Europe (witness the conservative trend in the UK, France and Germany) but also in Scandinavia (as July 23rd made painfully clear) and Eastern Europe (where Poland provides an excellent example). Rick Perlstein noted the same phenomenon already well underway in the 1960s in his excellent history of right-wing Republicanism Nixonland, the only difference being that the left then, was also engaged as though its actions mattered.
Of the US now, Žižek says (in Living in the End Times‘ afterward):
Is the Tea Party movement in the US not their own version of this Rightist populism which is gradually emerging as the only true opposition to the liberal consensus? The Tea Party movement has, of course, some features specific to the US, which allows us to safely predict that its rise will be strictly correlated to the further decline of the US as a world power. More interesting is the conflict between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party which is already exploding here and there: heads of the big banks already met the leaders of the GOP who promised them to repeal the Volcker law which limits the speculations that led to the 2008 meltdown; the Tea Party set as its first task to extend the Bush tax cuts for the very rich, thus adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit it wants to abolish; etc. How long will this masterful ideological manipulation continue to work? How long will the base of the Tea Party stick to the fundamental irrationality of its agenda to protect the interest of the hard-working ordinary people by way of privileging the “exploitative rich” and thus literally countering their own interests? It is here that the ideological struggle begins: the blatant irrationality of the Tea Party protests bears witness to the power of the ideology of the »freedom of the individual against state interference« which can blur even the most elementary facts.
I can’t find any faults with the portrait Žižek paints of America’s right wing, which is also a portrait, as he says, of “the further decline of the US as a world power.” Yesterday’s betrayal by our audacious leader at the service of the populists of the Tea Party and global bankers pulling their strings and certainly not at the service of the hopeful who elected him only confirms the faithfulness of Žižek’s dark palette to our present grim reality.