“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 Outdated.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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What shape is your firing squad?: “What’s Left?” June 2016, MRR #397

Circular Firing Squad red rosettes
(Visuals are crucial in social media. As this is a blog, and because these columns will be reposted on Facebook and beyond, I will be adding graphic content on the top of each column from now on to enhance their dissemination.)

It’s June. I’ve been on Facebook six months now. You’d think someone who was an IT guy would be all over that, and I must admit the whole Zuckerberg = Satan equation had a lot to do with me not getting on Facebook sooner. After all I email, I blog, I surf the worldwide intrawebz. It was inevitable I would make a pact with the devil sooner or later.

The Facebook shit is a part of my social media strategy to publicize my second novel when I publish it, but it has been pretty interesting in its own right. I’m still figuring out the “Friends” thing, so I clicked on someone’s profile who had a mutual friend, as Facebook so kindly pointed out. His profile came up with “Friends 3,316 (1 mutual)” and I clicked through, wondering how anyone could accumulate so many digital acquaintances. Turns out, 3,000 of them were Bernie Sanders supporters, most of whom had incorporated the Bernie meme into their profile picture, often with their selfie plus words like “Feel The Bern,” “Not Me, Us,” “I Am A Democratic Socialist,” “Bernie or Bust,” or just “Bernie.” Sometimes, the profile picture was a soulful photo or graphic portrait of Bernie in unabashed adulation. I’d stumbled upon a secret cell of Sandernistas, only they were just a bunch of Facebook “friends.”

The Democratic National Convention is next month, and Hillary’s coronation is assured. Bernie doesn’t have the delegates and he’s pledged not to resist Clinton’s nomination. I can’t help wondering what anger or soul-searching is in progress among those “friends” on Facebook, and how many will remain friends come August, or November.

Before Bernie’s candidacy maxxed out short of the nomination, his presidential run deeply divided the Left. So, what else is new? The Left gets deeply divided over what to order from the deli, so Bill Scher’s 2-4-16 story in Politico Magazine (“Why Socialists Can’t Wait for Bernie to Lose”) is somewhat predictable and cliched. In that old joke about what kind of firing squad the Left would form, the punchline being a circle guns pointed inward, there’s already disagreement over whether to make the firing squad a triangle or square instead. Bernie calling himself a democratic socialist has not only raised the word and a discussion of socialism to the fore in the American public, it motivated actual democratic socialists to support and campaign for him. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has endorsed Bernie and is actively campaigning/canvassing for him. Same with Socialist Alternative (SA). In the parlance of the Left, both are pre-party formations or activist organizations, not political parties or mass organizations.

My coverage of Jacobin Magazine’s range of opinions on Bernie’s campaign covers the thoughtful, non-dogmatic Left—from Bernie’s “moving the discussion to the left, and mobilizing an absurdly high number of people” to contending that he is “this election’s Democratic sheepdog […] charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party.” (MRR#389) Then we have the leftover Left, the serious third party electoralists and dogmatists, the sectarians and vanguardists, the wreckers and splitters. That last phrase was what Communist Party members used to call Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists, before the CP turned social democratic and Trotskyism splintered into oblivion. The CP has even given Bernie its reticent support by not running its own slate of candidates in 2016. So, what about the leftover Left?

Let’s recap Scher’s dissection of Jill Stein and the Green Party of the United States, but not without pointing out that this fully electoral, national Green Party (henceforth GP) is not associated with the non-electoral Greens/Green Party USA or the meta-electoral Association of State Green Parties (which encourages the formation of independent Green parties on the state level). Right away, you can see why I put the green party phenomenon into the leftover Left category as none of these different entities get along or have a chance of winning crap. Because anyone can become a member of the GP, and because those members then determine who runs under the party imprimatur, the GP has occasionally become the pawn of lefty vanguard parties like the Workers World Party or the Party for Socialism and Liberation who run their leadership as GP candidates. My old Peace and Freedom Party is chronically exploited for its reputation and ballot access by such Leninist relics.

“Do you root for Bernie as an almost unique chance to get millions of people to think seriously about socialist ideals, or against him for planting a false flag of revolution? And if you expect him to lose in the end—which, to be fair, most socialists do—should you ride the train as far as it goes, or get off it now and throw your energy into the real revolution?” Such are the dilemmas dividing the Left as Scher sees it, who then argues “[i]n many ways the split is most acute around the Green Party.”

The dilemma of whether to “build the party” or to “build the movement,” identified by Scher with respect to Stein’s Green Party candidacy, has been around at least as long as Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” Lenin himself came down heavily for building the socialist party, and that building the socialist party was building the socialist movement for Lenin. After the party, the priority is for a party newspaper to announce, propagandize and recruit for the party, but I’m not doing Lenin 101 here. As a footnote, Lenin’s electoral strategy was entirely utilitarian, subservient to the needs of the party to seize state power by any means necessary.

But what was footnote has become scripture for many socialists, who then split hairs and fracture organizations. As a consequence “there are plenty of parties: the Socialist Party USA, Peace and Freedom, Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Equality, Socialist Workers and Workers World” to name but a few. All agree the party is paramount, but what is the party’s strategy? Is it solely parliamentary, devoted to educating the masses and hopefully winning elections, like the Socialist Party? Or is it proudly revolutionary, eschewing any electoral involvement for politics in the streets and hell bent on seizing power, like the Revolutionary Communist Party? Is it conveniently electoral, seeking to move the Democratic Party to the left in the process and quietly deferring to the Democrats over the Republicans as the lesser evil, like many third party supporters of Bernie Sanders? Or is it opportunistic, switching between strategies as the times dictate, and occasionally running their leadership as candidates in surrogate parties, like the Party of Socialism and Liberation?

Stein’s GP is independently electoral and one of a half dozen third parties in the electoral popular front called LeftElect, which includes “Socialist Party USA presidential nominee Mimi Soltysik. (Other socialist candidates already announced are Gloria La Riva of the Party of Socialism and Liberation and Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party. The Peace and Freedom Party, another LeftElect participant, is deciding whether to endorse Stein, La Riva, Moorehead or a fourth candidate now running as an independent.)” Scher gets it that the fight for ballot access in our electoral system is all consuming, and that whether to run one’s own candidates or support a progressive Democratic candidate like Sanders is a life-and-death decision for most electoral third parties. Ralph Nader’s high profile run for president in 1996 and 2000 on the GP ticket no doubt helped that party with recognition and recruitment, until it didn’t and the Bush/Gore Florida hanging chads controversy overshadowed everything else. Stein herself expects Bernie to lose, giving her GP an opportunity to enlist “soon-to-be disgruntled Sanders voters.” As Sher quotes Stein in conclusion: “‘let this be a learning experience, the teachable moment’ for Sanders backers, so they will discover that ‘political revolutions that start in the Democratic Party, unfortunately, they die in the Democratic Party’.”

Which brings me full circle to the hordes of disappointed Bernie supporters come July. I registered Peace and Freedom Party in 1971 when the voting age was lowered to 18. Somehow, I never got the memo from Anarchist Central not to vote because it only encourages and I’ve been voting ever since. On the heels of the electoral tumult in 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and Eugene McCarthy’s loss, I colluded with fellow anarchists and a cadre of New American Movement lefties to run for city council and board of education in Ventura on an anarcho/democratic socialist ticket. We lost resoundingly, but we did get a county-wide bus system out of the deal by moving all the other candidates to the left. Then Nixon defeated McGovern in the landslide 1972 elections. I’d campaigned for McGovern, handed out literature, even did some precinct walking. I was distressed over McGovern’s loss and angry that Nixon’s win portended impending fascism, but I also became acutely aware of the limitations to the electoral process through these experiences.

I never took American elections seriously again, or more precisely, I finally put them into perspective. Voting and elections do change things, but only incrementally, and are worth only an incidental amount of my attention. The notion that any voting or electoral participation at all legitimizes the entire bourgeois corporate-state edifice is as much sophistry and mythology as is the official American ideology that voting and elections make a real difference. I continued to register Peace and Freedom Party until changes to the California electoral process forced me to choose between being a member of that party and participating in the Democratic Party primaries. Now, I get a ballot by mail every two years, fill it out in under ten minutes and put in the post, then be done with electoral politics for another two years.

It’s not difficult to predict that chaos will reign both inside and outside the RNC in Cleveland come July. Much harder is to predict what will happen in and around the DNC in Philadelphia. Bernie’s supporters certainly will push their quasi-socialist agenda and protest when they’re shot down, but will they start floor fights and fist fights, walk out of the convention, defect to one or another third party, or riot in the streets? Or will they bite their lips, hold their noses, and in the end vote for Hillary?

My crystal ball is clouding up.

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.

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