“Democracy is so overrated:” “What’s Left?” September 2016, MRR #400

democracy-the-majority-against-the-minority
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

― Winston S. Churchill

If a majority voted for you to jump off a bridge—would you?

— CrimethInc., “From Democracy to Freedom”

I set the table by covering it with a dark cloth and placing a lit candelabra on it. I position my Ouija board and planchette on the table in front of the chair before I sit down. I’m ready to prognosticate.

As I write this column, it’s the first week of July and both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are happening later in the month. I predict Hillary will win the DNC and Trump the RNC. Neither party or electoral base is exactly keen on their respective nominees, but the “Bernie or Bust” or “Never Trump” crowds won’t prevail. Further, I predict that Hillary will win against Trump, but it will be a close election, uncomfortably so. My final and last prediction is that the surprising surge in votes for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson will be to the Trump campaign what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore. Oh yeah, and there will be rioting in Cleveland in 2016 to rival Chicago 1968.

That’s four predictions, four pretty obvious political forecasts on which you as the reader can score me, starting with the August issue and running through the November elections. Also, there’s four months to fill commenting on the elections, tap dancing on air if you will. Because by the time my comments on what’s happening right now, at this moment, reach your eyes they’re already past their prime. Outdated. And as I’ve hinted at above, I’m not a soothsayer by any means.

One of my major annoyances with American politics is its unrelenting pettiness. Hardcore Republicans for instance purposefully call their opponents the Democrat Party, not the Democratic Party. Their rationale is that the Democratic Party is far from democratic in operation and intent, but it’s clear when Republicans use Democrat Party in partisan debates they’re really intending to needle and provoke their opponents. It’s such elementary schoolyard antics; the wannabe tough kid insisting on calling another kid surnamed Wankel “Wanker” all the time. Far from entertaining the rest of us with clever puns, this mean-spirited sparring is debasing our language and degrading our political discourse.

The deepening clusterfuck that is Brexit follows closely behind in terms of politically humbling experiences. Who would have thought that Britain’s two main political parties—the Tories and Labor—as well as the political geography encompassed by the names Great Britain and United Kingdom would be destroyed by a simple non-binding referendum of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union? As David Van Reybrouck commented in The Guardian: “Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.” (“Why Elections are Bad for Democracy,” 6-29-16) As the political edifice of the United Kingdom continues to crumble, threatening the EU in the process, the efficacy of elections and liberal democracy are in serious doubt.

Let’s start with the word democracy. The term comes from the ancient Athenian practice of the adult males of the city-state (the demos) gathering in assembly to directly vote on all civic matters and leadership. Right away we understand the qualified nature of the word because the right to vote did not apply to women, children or slaves, a limitation shared by that other classical political system from which the West draws its inspiration: the practice of the Roman republic. The complex property-based system in ancient Rome (collective voting for magistrates and tribunes) provided for an indirect, representative form of government where the franchise continued to expand as Rome itself grew, encompassing allies and conquered peoples, until the original republic mutated into an empire ruled by Caesars. The more geographically prescribed scope of Athenian democracy did not prevent that city-state from acquiring an empire however, nor from devolving into oligarchy under decades of war.

For America’s founding political elite steeped in Enlightenment liberalism, there was a sharp distinction between a democracy and a republic. Pure democracy always ran the risk of despotism and imperialism, of mob rule where “51% of the people could vote to take away the tooth brushes of the other 49%” as a John Bircher once told me. By contrast, republicanism intended to contain such problems with territorially small, constitutionally-limited, mixed representative government, which was a central principle of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison further argued in the Federalist Papers that the necessary limitations of a small constitutional republic could be transcended by the judicious application of legal checks-and-balances within a physically expanding domain of ever-multiplying, contending factions. Thanks to this political reformulation, the spread of the American republic across the continent and beyond was never in contradiction to or in conflict with oligarchy or empire.

But these political distinctions have been muddled and mongrelized to the point where we now think that democracy and republicanism are just the names of two different political parties, not two distinct political systems. We are told constantly “we live in a democracy,” we pledge allegiance “to the Republic for which it stands,” and we believe like Candide’s Professor Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Rather than remain befuddled however, let’s simplify matters by saying that the West’s ideal is for representative democracy in the context of a national state.

“[I]n an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years.” David Van Reybrouck of The Guardian writes. “This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.” We tend to fetishize elections, according to Reybrouck, while demonizing the subject of that voting, resulting in an almost universal distrust of governments, political parties, and politicians while increasing calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” He concludes that “Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.”

Oh, really?

Representative democracy, from Roman republicanism to Western liberalism, doesn’t seem to be the solution for nationalist extremism, capitalist exploitation, oligarchic despotism, colonial conquest, or imperialist appropriation. If we switch out the word nationalist for patriotic and capitalist for commercial this is true for direct democracy, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. Ah, but what we need is more democracy; real democracy, radical democracy, participatory democracy. We need decentralized, participatory decision-making with easily recallable elected representatives, rights for minorities, rotating offices, ad hoc organizing, impermanent institutions, even consensus process.

“And how do you insure democratic control of industry?” Marvin Garson once asked rhetorically, spelling out a kind of radical democratic ultra-leftism called Council Communism. “Why, by setting up workers’ councils in each industry which operate with full respect for all the normal democratic procedures—especially the right to establish caucuses and factions, and the right to strike. The economy, in short, will be run the way a government is SUPPOSED to be run; it will be like a gigantic New Left convention—impeccably democratic and a stone drag.” (“Going Beyond Democracy,” 1968)

Such a tedious scenario is in no way enlivened by the absurdity of consensus process, which is nothing more than tyranny by the minority if not the individual, as CrimethInc well grasps as the myth of unanimous rule in its provocative essay “From Democracy to Freedom.” The group also understands that democracy is institutionalizing governance and state-production by its very nature. But CrimethInc’s attempt to substitute autonomy for democracy and to insist on the permanence of the revolutionary moment is pure sophistry. “Thousands of us flood into the streets, finding each other in new formations that offer an unfamiliar and exhilarating sense of agency. Suddenly everything intersects: words and deeds, ideas and sensations, personal stories and world events. Certainty—finally, we feel at home—and uncertainty: finally, an open horizon. Together, we discover ourselves capable of things we never imagined.” This is Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution on MDMA, and much like some fantasy of permanent orgasm this raises the question: what do we do after the revolution when we once again have to make mundane decisions. Do we make decisions by lottery or drawing straws, by rotating onerous tasks or making each individual boss-for-a-day, even by adapting Reybrouck’s concept of sortition in which a representative sampling of the population makes decisions for the whole? Let me return to Marvin Garson again.

“Every industry has its own inchoate underground of people who take pride in doing good work, who aren’t in it just for the money, who get angry when their employers make them sacrifice quality for the sake of profit. Let that underground get together and suddenly a real alternative to corporate capitalism will exist. […] Perhaps it’s impossible to run a steel mill or an electric power plant in a free and creative way. In that case, run it automatically.”

I’ve made the argument that, even at its best, democracy is a stone drag by quoting Garson before. By next column, I should have plenty to say about the dueling circuses of the RNC and DNC.

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Third Party and Skinhead Spoilers: “What’s Left?” May 2016, MRR #396

[My original intro for this column is below. Clearly, shit has happened. No more contested GOP convention. It’s between Clinton and Trump. Marx help us!]

[Covering the primary elections is like trying to nail jell-o to the wall, an almost impossible task. Last column I predicted that evangelical voters will go for Rubio, Cruz or Bush and largely pass over Trump. I was wrong. Evangelicals are flocking to Trump, against their church leadership and their professed Biblical morality. More surprises to come, I’m sure.]

I’m the first to admit that living in the Bay Area, between freewheeling San Francisco and the Peoples Republic of Berkeley and post-Occupy Oakland, my politics don’t really stand out. And living in California, with its Democratic Party hegemony and progressive social bent, means that my politics are also often an indulgence, me being able to honor a picket line when the union movement is essentially dead, or vote for Bernie Sanders while not affecting Hillary’s inexorable win one iota.

So, on viewing the 2016 elections from my Left Coast perspective I tend to oversimplify matters, and maybe dumb down certain aspects of American politics. Like in emphasizing the chaos in the Republican camp versus the dull inevitability on the Democratic side, I gloss over the relentless shift of those politics to the right in the last 45 odd years, something I’ve emphasized in previous columns. Even with the ongoing melee in the GOP, Republicans are on track to elect a significant majority of conservative state governments. That’s because, although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans nationwide, Republicans vote more consistently. So while both parties turn out in force for national elections, Republicans also vote heavily in mid-term elections while Democrats don’t. Thus Republicans choose more of the state governors and legislatures which then control the process of redistricting in each state, which then further skews state-level elections toward the Republicans. If the GOP retains its hold of either the House or the Senate, and perhaps both, about the only thing the Democrats will control outright is the presidency. Hillary’s seemingly unstoppable bid to be the next president is not merely a triumph of the lesser of two evils, but a potential right-of-center Democratic Party victory that fulfills Bill Clinton’s New Democrat turn towards neoliberalism. Obama was never the “great black hope” of American progressives so much as a middle-of-the-road Democrat treading water while the rightwing tide steadily rises. Hell, Bernie Sanders ain’t even all that progressive when it comes to gun control or Black Lives Matter or Israel or military interventionism.

Gloating over the collapse of the Republicans then does not mean celebrating a Democratic victory. And there’s no joy to be found in third party politics, whether in alternative ones like the Greens or Libertarians, mildly leftist ones like the Peace and Freedom or the Socialist Party, or even vanguardist ones like the Workers World Party or Party for Socialism and Liberation. America’s 50%+1 winner-take-all electoral system virtually ensures that only two political parties dominate the political process by favoring the middle-of-the-road, thus marginalizing all other electoral contenders. Third parties do persist, but they have little to no chance of directly influencing politics let alone gaining power. Or, they do so well that they actually replace one of the two main parties, as when the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party to face off against the Democratic Party. But breaking the two-party monopoly with a more European, parliamentary system isn’t in the cards.

What third parties are good for is fucking with the two parties currently alternating in power. Third parties hope to move the main party with which they identify further to the political extreme—left or right—as when George Wallace ran as an American Independent Party candidate in 1968 hoping to capture the white working-class Democratic vote that Trump now garners so effortlessly. But Wallace didn’t make much of a difference in Nixon’s landslide victory of that year. Instead, third parties are often the spoilers in a heated two-party contest, as when Ross Perot’s Reform Party cost Bush Senior a second term in 1992 against Bill Clinton, or Ralph Nader’s campaign as the Green Party presidential candidate in 2000 cost Al Gore the White House against Bush Junior.

Sometimes, just the threat of an independent third party run can cause political turmoil as when Donald Trump—whose ongoing campaigns virtually guarantees that the Republican National Convention will be a contested one—threatened to mount a third a party breakaway effort upon rumors the GOP establishment intended to broker the convention to favor a predetermined outcome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently exploring a third party presidential run if Trump wins the Republican primary and Sanders wins the Democratic endorsement. Being a moderate Democrat-become-Republican-become-Independent, Bloomberg is a socially liberal (pro-abortion, gay marriage and gun control), fiscally conservative (small government, lower taxes) politician, meaning he doesn’t have a chance to be nominated by either party in the best of circumstances.

There is something to be said for the more, the merrier. Certainly, the chaos of a split or contested GOP convention, with the potential for third party splintering, all but hands Hillary the presidency. But she can still lose. If Trump manages to secure the nomination on the first vote, there is a chance he can defeat Clinton. Paradoxically, Hillary’s juggernaut is built around a weak candidacy, one which lots of people dislike even as they grudgingly support her. And if Trump manages the impossible and unites the shattered GOP behind a convention nomination, it’s time to start practicing the Roman salute.

I commented at the beginning of this column that my voting for Bernie in California won’t impact Hillary’s campaign in the least. California holds its primaries in June, meaning that by the time I actually vote, the Democratic Party nomination will be pretty much sown up. That’s on top of having to register as a Democrat to vote for Bernie in the first place. Used to be any registered California voter could vote in any qualified political party’s primary without restriction, whether or not said voter was a member of said party. Then, the state’s two party Democratic/Republican duopoly passed legislation to restrict party primary voting to registered party members only, with the consequence that third party supporters had to decide between belonging to their party of choice or participating in the Democratic/Republican party primaries. Third party memberships plummeted state-wide as a result of these semi-closed primaries and many third parties, like the Peace and Freedom Party to which I belonged almost from its inception, now constantly struggle just to qualify for the ballot. In turn, parasitic vanguard parties like the aforementioned Party for Socialism and Liberation or their sectarian front groups like the ANSWER Coalition, unable themselves to qualify for the general elections, take over vulnerable third parties like the Peace and Freedom in order to field their own leadership as political candidates.

So, I’m a reluctant Democrat. Even with a somewhat more progressive candidate like Bernie to vote for, I’m disinclined to give much more to the electoral process than my vote. Which is why I’m more than a bit irritated by all the bandwagon Sandernistas out there braying 24/7 about how Hillary is Satan incarnate and we all need to support Bernie unconditionally. I did my time promoting my share of Establishment politicians, everything from campaigning for George McGovern to phone-banking for Barack Obama. I’ll give Sanders my vote come June, but all that crap about Bernie being the resurrected Eugene V. Debs and his democratic socialism being a classless utopia and his presidential candidacy being the fulfillment of the American dream is so childish as to be embarrassing. What’s more, I’ll also vote for Clinton in November solely to prevent a lunatic Republican from winning, without hope or guilt.

Returning to my oft-repeated observation that American politics has moved steadily to the right in my lifetime, let me exaggerate to make my point. There’s this documentary—“Riot on the Dance Floor”—of the Trenton, New Jersey punk club, City Gardens, and Randy Now, the mailman who ran it. I think it’s still in the Kickstarter stage of funding, but there’s a 6-7 minute YouTube clip freely available. A much younger Jon Stewart is briefly interviewed by phone because he was a bartender at the Gardens in the mid-1980s, but the really interesting footage that accompanies his voice-over is of the extremely violent pit in the Gardens’ shows. There’s a particularly striking scene of what I call the skinhead wave, a human wall of mostly shirtless baldies that gathers at the back of the hall and then rushes en masse toward the stage, trampling everyone in its path until it crashes up against the people at the stage. Those who were a part of this skinhead wave, they were only a small minority of the visible crowds, yet they dominated that show with their violent antics. I experienced the skinhead wave when I lived in San Diego during the 80s at some of the larger venues, but I think it was mostly a phenomenon of larger scenes like LA, or the East Coast.

The conservative shift in American politics over the last half century is like a slow-motion skinhead wave. Initiated by right-wing individuals who are a definite minority but who sweep all before them with their aggressive attacks, ultimately hoping to crush liberals and progressives against the stage of history, this turn to the right in the country’s politics is deliberate and orchestrated. Just voting for Bernie Sanders won’t accomplish much. And quoting Joe Hill’s last words “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” doesn’t get us much further. It’s a tired platitude, and actually, Joe’s last words were “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” If Trump is elected, it’s a sentiment that many may apply to the whole US of A.

Anarchism by Fools: “What’s Left?” February 2014, MRR #369

Part Two: Anarchism of-by-for Fools

I think it was Bill Clinton that once said that if you thought the ’50s were great, you’re probably a Republican, and if you thought the ’60s were great, you’re probably a Democrat.

Bill Maher, “Bill Maher Isn’t Sorry,” Politico (11-21-13)

And if you thought the ‘70s were great, you’re probably a libertarian. Libertarianism is just anarchy for rich people. Libertarians are big business fucks who don’t want to smash the state, but instead lobby the government for more tax cuts.

The number of prominent entrepreneurs, politicians and entertainers who openly declare themselves to be libertarian is legion. Mark Ames has done an excellent exposé regarding how libertarianism became the house philosophy for capitalism [“When Congress Busted Milton Friedman (And Libertarianism was Created by Big Business Lobbyists),” NSFWCORP, 11-16-12], and Bruce Gibney has revealed how libertarianism has infested the tech industry (“Silicon Valley’s Libertarian Problem,” Inc., 8-13-12). Science fiction has long speculated about the consequences of a free market capitalism run amok, from the cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to mainstream SF like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and oddities like Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

Flipping from science fiction to history, it needs to be made clear that the use, or rather abuse of the term libertarianism in America has almost nothing to do with the use of the term libertarianism historically. Of European political origin, and synonymous with social anarchism, historic libertarianism belonged to the broad category of socialism, and for the most part was leftist in orientation. It was extremely hostile to and ardently opposed to the classical liberalism of the Manchester School of Economics. Classical liberalism propounded a limited state assigned the narrow task of strictly protecting life, liberty and property while a laissez-faire capitalist economy was allowed unfettered activity, regulated only by the invisible hand of the market. Social anarchism in the European context was the majoritarian collectivist, mutualist, syndicalist and communist anarchism advocated by Bakunin, Proudhon, Rocker and Kropotkin in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. It was challenged by the minority individualist anarchism of Mackay and Stirner. Yet even then this minority tendency was highly critical of capitalism and bourgeois individualism. Nevertheless, noted anarcho-communist Albert Meltzer raised objection that “Individualism (applying to the capitalist and not the worker) has become a right-wing doctrine […] the ‘Individualist Anarchist’ approach that differs radically from revolutionary anarchism in the first line of descent. It is sometimes too readily conceded that ‘this is, after all, anarchism’.”

The rugged individualism and self-reliant frontier ethic of American society proved inimical to social anarchism and nurturing to individualist anarchism. The waves of revolutionary anarchist immigrants to this country, while responsible for extensive labor unrest and the founding of May 1st as International Workers Day, tended to de-radicalize and assimilate quickly. The anarchist individualism of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner fit right into and bolstered the American conservative mainstream, even as it remained critical of the capitalism of its day. Yet it took American conservatism’s confrontation with the ebullient, if somewhat crazed politics and counterculture of the 1960s, to separate out the individualist, pro-capitalist and limited government strains of the conservative movement proper into a bona fide anti-statist, radically individualistic quasi-anarchist capitalist movement by 1969. Anarchist capitalists like Murray Rothbard, and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess (before he moved to the anarchist left), actually attempted to forge alliances with compatible New Left individuals and organizations between 1965 and 1968. Jerome Tuccille’s pair of books, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, detail this history for anyone interested.

Bona fide means genuine, but the existence of American capitalist libertarianism doesn’t absolve it from being full of shit, despite having multiplied and broadened in the last fifty odd years. Today, the American libertarian spectrum includes those with libertarian tendencies like quirky liberal Bill Maher and eccentric conservative Clint Eastwood, the mainstream of corporate libertarianism described above and the Libertarian Party proper, and the pure libertarianism of anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard and free market anarchist, 3D gun printer Cody Wilson. To quote an old saying, “the dose makes the poison” (or as Tom Waits sings: “She always had that little drop of poison.”) There is plenty of evidence that toxins like arsenic or radioactive iodine, in tiny amounts, are not just harmless, but might actually be healthy (See Henry I. Miller’s “Can Tiny Amounts of Poison Actually Be Good For You?”, Forbes, 12-20-11). In science, its called hormesis. Just so with capitalist libertarianism. A little bit, in the form of Bill Maher, can be bracing, invigorating and healthy. Too much, as with corporate libertarianism, can be sickening, and the pure libertarianism of anarchist capitalism are out-and-out deadly.

The reason I extended Bill Maher’s quote above is because the 1950s didn’t actually end until 1965, and the 60s in truth spanned from roughly 1965 to 1975. Similarly, the 70s actually covered from 1975 until 1985. I attempted, with a couple of left anarchist friends, to explore some form of left-right association with an equally small group of anarchist capitalists around 1975, a story I’ve told many times before. Big mistake. Aside from constantly babbling about their secret stashes of gold and silver bullion, those free market anarchists were all talk and no action. All they pontificated about were the blessings of capitalism without a state, until I shot back that, if the US government was overthrown today, US corporations would buy and install another government tomorrow, because American capitalism needs a state to protect it, regulate it, keep it safe and healthy. Free market capitalism is a myth, because capitalism requires government. Unfortunately, corporate capitalism in this country has already bought off the government lock, stock and barrel, even as a strand of corporate capitalism advocates a privatizing, deregulatory, anti-tax libertarianism that is fundamentally unhealthy for our body politic, what Rothbard in 1994 called “Big Government libertarianism.”

The 70s were also formative to the rise of capitalist libertarianism, in part because of the anti-Keynesian turn to the right produced by the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. This quasi-libertarian variant came to be known as neoliberalism, which combined domestic privatization, deregulation, financialization, rolling back organized labor, and dismantling the welfare state with an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. In its neoconservative permutation, it preached a democratic imperialism spread internationally by military power. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has distinguished itself from both establishment Republicans and orthodox conservatives with a virulent strain of libertarianism. While libertarian-like tendencies seem to be proliferating like a plague, attempts to build alliances between rightwing libertarians and congruent left libertarians have never amounted to shit. From the demise of the Radical Libertarian Alliance to the recent hard times experienced by Lou Rockwell’s Antiwar.com, time and again the idea of libertarian left and right working together have amounted to delusion and derangement.

As you might have noticed, this discussion of American style capitalist libertarianism has veered toward ill health and affliction, from the explicit analogy with poison to the implicit comparison with pathology. Well, let’s take the metaphor a step further. Matt Taibbi, in his Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine” (7-9-9) described the role of Goldman Sachs in crashing the economy and bringing about the Great Recession. “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Classical liberalism, capitalist libertarianism, corporate libertarianism, anarchist capitalism, neoliberalism, Tea Party libertarianism; they are all structural capitalist modifications encompassed by this vampiric theme, first explored by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital:
As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labor. Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Time for a wooden stake, beheading, and fiery cremation.

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