November on an even-numbered year is upon us. The buzzword is "voting." This happens more than I would like to admit. I am discussing politics with some liberal leftists and while they cannot deny the Democrats are complete asshats they simply cannot think of any alternative other than to continuing being a cheerleader for them. Come next month they will vote blue. I vote sometimes and am always surprised that I don’t see the partisan politickers showing up drunk, shirtless, their bodies painted either red or blue, some rainbow-colored clown wig on their empty heads and their hands stuffed into oversized foam hands that proudly proclaim “GOP #1” or “Go Dems!” Folks who are stuck on partisan politics like a spectator sport think one of the two parties is for them and that showing up every couple of years is all there is to democracy and that their civic duties are complete.
What follows is a typical response (though, not always this long). I get asked, “Are you telling me I shouldn’t vote then?”
No, no, no. Go ahead. Vote. Knock yourself out. . .
While you’re at it drive a hybrid (and drive less), consume fair trade, eat organic, go solar, turn off your lights and appliances when you’re not using them, and sort your trash into the right bins. You know the three r’s: reduce, reuse, recycle.
But don’t expect this to do more than make you feel good about yourself.
We should all do these things anyway but doing them doesn’t change the political and economic systems that are the root of the problems. Voting is similar in many ways, in that, unless we get to the root problems of our political system, which aren’t being voted on, then we are simply chasing our tails.
For example, let’s consider markets (because there are some important similarities, and then I will wrap it up with my two cents on voting in our prevailing electoral system). There is a video circulating the internet of an eleven year old speaking about local organic farming. He responds to the argument that eating local organic food is more costly by making a rhetorical comment about the health costs of the dominant food system (i.e. eating processed food contaminated with pesticides transported from the other side of the country isn’t cheaper if we include the health costs into those low, low prices at Wal-Mart). The boy doesn’t seem to get that this hiding of prices is intrinsic to markets and part of a much deeper problem. He's a fifth grader and his country accent is pretty cute, so I will cut him some slack.
One of the main issues abolitionists have with markets is there is no democratic room for affected third parties to be a part of business transactions. It’s just between the buyer and the seller. And the buyer and seller are not looking to account for all costs (i.e. externalities like the ones mentioned above), nor are they looking to ensure those costs—like labor in particular—receive adequate compensation. When you buy something, you want to get the most for your buck, which means if you can NOT pay for something, then hip-hip hooray for you. Similarly, the seller will look for any corner to cut to maximize his or her gains, which means if he or she can then it sucks to be you.
Examples abound. Remember the BP spill? Of course you do. The shoddy job of closing the well was done to save costs, which is another way of saying increase profits. The prospects of an ecological disaster were second (maybe third or fourth) to making more money.
Remember the peanut contamination from a couple of years ago? That wasn’t this year so you might not remember it (sadly we have a shallow memory; when was the last time you thought about Haiti or Honduras?), but a peanut factory owner in Georgia intentionally violated health regulations to increase profits. A lot of people got sick but it’s not as if that were his intentions. It's just that their health didn't come before his profits.
This mentality—the market mentality—is not rare. These are not bad apples. The inefficiencies and misallocation and mispricing and anti-democratic and inhuman aspects of markets are not the exceptions. They are the rules. The problem is systemic. It’s not always legal (the BP spill was technically legally; it was also obscenely reckless). Consider Goldman Sachs selling and then betting on bad sales. They knew it was illegal and that it would be disastrous for others but that was secondary to their narrow monetary interests.
Hell, the mispricing and misallocation of goods and resources are a big factor to “bubbles” in economies (if you know your history you know not to buy tulips from the Dutch). They’re also a big factor in global hunger. More than enough food is grown to more than meet the caloric requirements for every human, yet a billion people are starving. Tons of food either gets wasted, over-consumed, turned into livestock feed or agro-fuel. Why? The answer is simple: because Mammon, the god of Marketheism, commands it.
Markets—which are just the allocation arm of capitalism—as Keynes put it, simply “doesn’t deliver the goods.”
Solution: Get rid of markets. If you want something that allows for consumers and buyers to come together to plan their economies in democratic and fair ways that strive to provide an accurate account of all costs and benefits, then what you seek is something like participatory planning—which is the allocation arm of participatory economics. (In the participatory economy model the four main economic issues of ownership, allocation, division of labor and remuneration are resolved with (1) social ownership of productive assets; (2) participatory planning by consumer and workers councils helped with an Iteration Facilitation Board; (3) balanced job complexes to ensure that all have fair access to empowering work; and (4) compensation for effort and sacrifice. All of this is part of building a classless and democratic economy.)
The problems with markets are not solved by a new regulation. (Though if we manage to win some that improve our conditions, we shouldn't oppose it. I was taught not to cut my nose off to spite my face and I still think it is sound advice. Listen, we can accept a bone while still struggling to take over the dinner table, right? Let them try and placate us. Accept their scraps, but we can stay committed. It's like that line from a Rage Against the Machine song: "A thousand years they had tha tools/We should be takin' 'em/Fuck tha G-ride/I want the machines that are makin' em!") Driving hybrids and consuming fair trade doesn’t address the underlying problems either. In fact, let’s consider an all-too-real example. You work for some big company. You put in sixty hours a week and are rewarded nicely. You are moving up the company ladder. But then you begin feeling you are losing quality time with your family. The problem you face is that if you put in less hours then you’re not much of a “go getter” and know some other young buck will be more than willing to step in your place. You’re no longer climbing that ladder. But if you keep putting in sixty hours a week then you'll miss out on the joys of being a parent, your spouse may leave you because he or she is tired of doing all the caregiving (or has found someone else to give them the quality time they need) and your kids will probably resent you for putting your career before them and because they never really knew who you were. Markets reward bad behavior. That’s a big part of why we have the problems we have. Thinking we can keep the system but be good people is absurd. The social institutions we construct play a large part in defining the people we become. Capitalism pits people against each other in order to seek material gain at the expense of others, and our liberal democracy conditions us to being passive spectators who routinely choose who gets to represent Wall Street for the next few years. God bless America. Praise the Man Jesus. Halle-fricking-lujah!
Something similar can be said about voting. And it bares some resemblance to markets since at this point our electoral system is really a byproduct of the market system. With political science theories like Tom Fergusson’s Investment Theory of Party Competition we know that the candidates who get the most funding have the best chance of winning elections and thus influencing the policies of elected officials, and the reason those candidates get the most funding is because they have shown to be more appealing to investors, which usually are concentrated centers of power and wealth (I can only speak for myself but I am certain that I am not alone on this, but I don’t have the money to compete with Wall Street).
Our electoral system has direct voting and indirect voting. The direct voting is next month. The indirect voting is always going on. It never stops. It is the primary before the primaries. And like the market system, those with the most money can use their wealth to influence the outcomes. You vote with your dollars; the more dollars you have the more votes you can cast. (If you ever wonder why so many resources are used for cosmetic surgery in Beverly Hills and not for the poor Appalachians the answer is simple: the rich in Beverly Hills have the money to determine what goes where.) The ability to donate private money to campaigns gives those, with the money to spend, more indirect votes that shapes the process and outcomes of elections. It should be pointed out that in regards to the timid uproars over the recent Supreme Court ruling that abolished all the limitations, the problem was already really bad to begin with. So it was strange to see President Obama speak out against it after he spent a few years raising almost $750 million for his election. This midterm election will not be much different from past elections where the rich have the money to finance the campaigns of candidates who will use the money to pay for the best PR firms so they can brand themselves positively in the eyes of consumers/voters. Even before the ruling the average cost for a seat in the House was $1.5 million.
But this process of allowing private donations to influence elections also serves another function: to make alternatives ambiguous. In Daniel Ellsberg’s famous paradox we know that we humans have a natural aversion to ambiguity, so it’s helpful for corporate-financed campaigns to saturate voters with ads by their favored candidates so when voting comes they have an aversion to folks like Ralph Nader, who they know nothing about. It’s common to hear people say, “I trust the devil I know more than the devil I don’t know.” Well, they don’t really know anything about Obama and Palin, at least as far as issues stand, but they are branded pretty well.
Voting in this climate is almost pointless. It’s like voting in Iran. By the time voters get to the polling stations they are choosing from candidates filtered out by the ruling clerics. Here in the US we choose from the candidates that have been filtered out in a more subliminal way by the Lords of Capital.
Let’s get back to Fergusson’s investment theory, for what I think is the important lesson. There is a center of gravity; a fulcrum on which all things balance. Our chances of winning badly needed reforms—or transforming our society into something better and more meaningful where people can focus on fulfilling themselves and realizing their full potential and not resign themselves to struggling to live paycheck to paycheck and selling themselves short for the gain of others because they lack the bargaining power to fleece others—all hinges on whether there is a popular and organized movement to counter the influence of the ruling class. This countering could be done by turning themselves into a major investor which isn’t likely considering the extreme income inequality in the US (among other problems), or the mobilization of large parts of the population to actively struggle against the business community and the government—that is to say, civil disobedience and direct action.
When you watch the video of protesters clad in black fighting with police you only see a handful. When, as was the case in Minneapolis, a cop has got one by the shirt and he’s dragging him off and one of his buddies comes up and tackles the cop to free his friend your heart may swell, as mine did. But why is it only a hand full of kids? Surely the political and economic agenda of both parties and international organizations like the WTO and G20 and IMF warrant the wrath of more than white male college students from the suburbs. When Obama announced the second end of combat missions in Iraq and a small group of vets tried to stop the deployment of more soldiers being sent, why was it less than a dozen? There are hundreds of thousands of soldiers who should be resisting our unlawful wars of aggression and being used as petrol-imperial cannon fodder. Sure it’s easier for tens of millions of voters to be mobilized to vote for a clown like Obama than to get them to be active members in a decentralized social movement but it’s been done before and must be done again. Calling for direct action and civil disobedience doesn’t mean we’re calling for violence—though we shouldn’t rule out self-defense—but it does mean we’re talking about getting physical in disrupting things that are wrong and must be stopped (i.e. the Free Gaza Flotilla was not violent, that is if you focus on the activists and not the actions of Israel, but it got physical to disrupt the blockade). Apathy, inaction, passive-aggressiveness . . . none of this will liberate shit.
If we show up and vote for candidates then we shouldn’t expect them to act in our interests unless we happen to be bankers, oil execs or big lobbyists . . . or an organized mob that threatens their power base.
What we should be focusing on is building movements around the issues that matter to us—and in turn these movements should come together in solidarity, especially since they are closely related, in democratic assemblies that plant the seeds for future germination. From issues about reforming the electoral process (abolishing private campaign donations is a good place to start) to home foreclosures to employment to Social Security to health care to the environment to gender and race issues to living wages to ending the wars to sustainable energy and much, much more. We need to organize our communities and workplaces. And if we don’t want to reinforce some of the authoritarian trappings of past and existing systems and organizations then we should take the task of building self-organized and self-managed ones serious (i.e. utilizing participatory democracy, balanced job complexes, etc).
We need to get beyond the prevailing partisan paradigm and shift towards the building of self-managed and self-organized autonomous social movements so that the issue of voting isn’t asking, “If not for Obama then who,” (a ridiculous and counter-productive game of Follow the Leader), but more like “Which is the path of least resistance?” When we internalize the understanding that existing elections are spectacles—extravaganzas designed to make rubes out of us while perpetuating the systemic problems and hooking for the Lords of Capital—then we can look at voting as not an end in and of itself, but as a means/tactic to facilitate our struggles. While the candidates often have more in common than they do differences, they are not all the same. We won’t choose the lesser of two evils because we will hold our noses and be content with the lesser, but because we know that regardless of who is elected we will have to struggle and that if we are going to struggle then it makes sense that we ought to choose who will be the easiest to struggle with.
If we ever get to the point where this is the new way of thinking about elections then I think our prospects of overcoming the problems we face will be greatly enhanced. So, yeah, go ahead and vote. But please, I'm begging you: let's focus on movement building and use voting as a tactic of clearing away the brush—in order to pave the way for the path of least resistance. Once you vote, don't just go home. Organize. Agitate. Take action. Disrupt. Abolish. Help build something new and better.
From the plains of North Texas and in solidarity,