Interview on The Infectious Myth

My interview with David Crowe on his radio program, The Infectious Myth, from 11/29/16:

https://infectiousmyth.podbean.com/e/the-infectious-myth-peter-lavenia-on-us-election-2016-112916/

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Vote for Stein to Build the Left

 

If this election cycle in the United States has proven anything, it is the decay of the political system now firmly mirrors the decline of US military and economic hegemony. The crisis of American capitalism has two bookends: economic and political turmoil under Nixon in the early 1970s – solved for a time by neoliberalism – and the end that was hastened by Bush’s wars, now coming to a dénouement under the next presidential regime. American capitalism no longer hides its rottenness: the Clintons are openly corrupt and abetted by an entire institutional structure devoted to living off the continued easy access to capital, exploitative trade deals and hawkish military intervention promised by Hillary and Bill part deux, while Donald Trump is a clown of a politician seemingly chosen by the ruling class to ensure a Clinton victory through his own buffoonish behavior.

Where does this leave the radical Left in the United States?

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, Green Party candidates for President and Vice-President, have articulated a political agenda open to anti-austerity, pro-working class policies. During the Green presidential convention, an organized socialist faction helped insert a section into the national platform endorsing economic democracy and anti-capitalism. Stein and Baraka were given unprecedented access for national Greens to the media, including an hour-long interview on CNN, where they were able to discuss Left policies and critiques openly. Even Ralph Nader was never granted this courtesy during his runs.

Yet the Left electorate is not coalescing around Stein (or any other candidate for that matter); she’s polling at between 2-5% nationally.

Lack of Left electoral strength during a time when the right is resurgent and the working class has begun to cry out for solutions to the permanent crisis of late capitalism can, to an extent, be blamed on the usual culprits: election laws meant to prevent growth of independent political movements, the large amounts of campaign cash needed to win offices, media hostility, and hereditary voting blocs that create ideological walls against exit from Democratic or Republican parties. The decline of the American industrial working class, partly a product of this long-cycle of accumulation’s turn to financialization for super-profits, but also clearly manufactured by the political establishment in both major parties in their drive to kill the strength of American labor unions, manifests itself in the lack of support for independent left alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. The Sanders phenomenon pointed the way towards what could happen if a significant part of the left electorate bolted from the two parties – but that break was momentarily halted after Sanders tried to herd his supporters back into the Clinton camp.

If the radical electoral Left wants to begin reasserting itself as a political force in the United States, the Stein/Baraka Green Party ticket needs to receive 5% of the popular vote on Tuesday.

That result won’t reignite conscious political class struggle in the United States on its own. Rosa Luxemburg was quite correct a century ago that class struggle arises and peaks due to external shocks and tends to be pushed spontaneously into new forms by the masses of unorganized workers; we can’t yet know what that will look like for the United States. What the result would do is help with the dialectical counterpart of that spontaneity: a growth of an organized, potentially radical political party and a space for a radical culture of dissent to grow so that when spontaneous class struggle occurs, that organization can interact with and help guide the movement. This interplay of spontaneity and organization is the crucial dialectic that the Left here has been unable to fully understand or capture for the last half-century.

5% would mean that the Greens are entitled to millions in federal electoral funding, but this funding could go towards hiring organizers, staffers and funding campaigns at every level. A weakness of the party and the Left would turn to strength. Media would likely be forced to bring a Green or left representative on to discuss policy decisions made by the next presidential regime, and masses of potential supporters would be exposed to Left ideas regularly for the first time. Green ballot lines would allow the Left to run against the Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government. The next time real class struggle happens at any level, the Left would be more ready to build upon it, and might lay the groundwork for it with organizing on economic and political issues at those levels.

Karl Kautsky once observed that elections are “are a means to count ourselves and the enemy and they grant thereby a clear view of the relative strength of the classes and parties, their advance and their retreat.”[1] Kautsky’s flaws as a theorist notwithstanding, he is here correct to the extent we understand elections will never be a perfect means to count how powerful the Left is, or could be in a revolutionary moment. Parliamentary politics are not a perfect representation of the class struggle, nor could they be.  What they allow us is the possibility of examining the level of class-conscious electoral support parties may have and to build organizations and a political culture that could help guide the class struggle.

Conditions are ripe for a truly radical, anti-systemic movement – in fact they may be getting a bit rotten. The question for the Left is whether or not we will cast our votes to help build a space where radical politics can function and grow, bit by bit. I hope you will join me tomorrow in casting a vote for Jill Stein and then joining together in building a movement.

[1] Kautsky, Karl. The Social Revolution. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co, 1902. https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/pt1-3.htm#s6

Against Amnesia

“In my own country, amnesia is the norm, the schools teach us to unremember from birth, the slave taking, the risings up, the songs of resistance, the first May first, our martyrs from Haymarket, to Attica to the redwoods of California, ripped whole from our hearts, erased from official memory….” – John Ross, “Against Amnesia”

Donald Trump’s declaration that the election system is rigged made me laugh a bit – it is, though not in the way he means it – and think about John Ross’ fabulous poem on our nation’s own utter (and often willful) ignorance of history. I wonder how many of the pearl-clutching journalists and Clintonistas were part of the brigade that wished Al Gore had decried the clear election fraud in 2000 and fought as hard as Donald claims he will after Nov. 8? More than a few, I suppose.

The election system is rigged, of course. A decade ago Citigroup produced a frank memo that said the United States was fast becoming a plutonomy, a neologism for a society with extreme class inequality; Profs. Gilens and Page said as much in a 2014 study: American politics responds to what our oligarchs want, not voters. It is hard to imagine oligarchs permitting democracy – Aristotle even categorized oligarchy as aristocratic government run in the interests of the wealthy, and not the many. Our ruling class uses the spectacle of national elections to pretend it doesn’t exist. This election cycle, more than others, has given us a glimpse into how deeply corrupt our system is, perhaps because Trump and Clinton are so universally despised by voters.

Why is the system rigged? The national presidential popular vote is irrelevant; instead there are 51 separate elections going on across the United States. A candidate can lose the national vote and still win due to the electoral college. There are only 10 or so states where the vote is even in doubt from election cycle to election cycle. To have a chance of winning a candidate must raise millions of dollars and convince outside groups to spend billions (really, after counting the amount of cash spent on this election it will total in the many billions). You have to get on the debate stage – a stage controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Before that you have to get on the ballot, which is a maze of 51 different election laws – please read Theresa Amato’s amazing book detailing the problems candidates face doing so if they aren’t running as a (D) or (R). A candidate has to receive media coverage, which is often hostile if a candidate doesn’t meet political norms prescribed by the oligarchs.

Not to mention the gerrymandering that has left perhaps 20 House seats (out of 435) as truly competitive elections.

Or that our economy is controlled by a small segment of very large and powerful corporations, who will, by and large, work with anyone in power (and usually split donations to various candidates over time to make sure this happens).

So yes, the election is rigged! As a public, we understand parts of this from time-to-time, but often forget in the heat of campaign season.

The question is, can we learn from this collective amnesia? Start organizing to change this before we unremember again? One can only hope, I suppose.

 

 

Politics Is a Racket

I don’t often like to resort to overused analogies when analyzing politics, but when talking about the U.S. presidential election I find the best way to view it is as a protection racket. A protection racket, of course, is a mafia-like scheme where a group threatens violence against businesses or people unless they are paid to “protect” said groups. You know, the old “you’ve got a nice store here, wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to it, would you?” Our political system has been carefully crafted by the Democratic and Republican parties to frighten voters into selecting what they perceive to be the best worst option, rather than the most positive outcome. Keep in mind that the opposite is true for the ruling class and donors to campaigns: they tend to get what they want because both candidates are likely to promote the interests of the people and groups who fund their campaigns and control the levers of economic power. The two major parties and their large retinue of paid staff also get what they want: political power and access to jobs/resources.

The Shape of the Racket

The political protection racket has been built and maintained by the Democrats and Republicans using a number of techniques:

  • Gerrymandering rendering the majority of the country into non-competitive Congressional and state-legislative electoral districts.
  • Use of the Electoral College, and not the popular vote, to elect the president.
  • Placing of ballot-access and electoral hurdles in the way of alternative party candidates.
  • Preventing the establishment of fully publicly financed elections.
  • A symbiotic relationship with media outlets to both indoctrinate and propagandize the voting public as an extension of the media’s role in supporting the state and ruling class ideology.
  • Extremely negative responses to attempts by voters to exit the system by voting for alternative parties and candidates: predictions of voter irrelevance giving way to constant propaganda that third-parties (which may be the voter’s preferred outcome) will prevent the voter’s least non-preferred outcome from happening.
  • Actual reprisals against districts and voters who have successfully chosen to exit the protection racket.

It’s important to examine each of these in turn.

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is drawing a district so that one party has an overwhelming registration advantage over all others. This makes voter rebellion (exit) unlikely because it would require the opposition to either enroll a significant number of new voters, encourage non-voters to vote, attract a significant portion of the majority party voters to vote against the party, or a combination of the three. In the United States, the Congressional district map has been so gerrymandered that there are between 16-19 races out of 435 that can truly be called competitive. That’s 4% of all House races! The Senate is slightly more competitive, with 7 seats out of 35 up for election in that category (20%), but keep in mind they are only 7% of the total Senate (7/100).

I mention this as a building-block of the political protection racket because by eliminating choice in vast majority of elections, you force voters to A.) consistently elect people from one political organization no matter what their preferences might be, B.) inevitably discourage many voters from participating in the political process, and C.) train voters to consistently vote for one particular party (no matter what) and that this is part of a democratic political order’s proper functioning.

Keep in mind this is all even worse at the level of state legislative elections.

Thus the Democrats and Republicans and their paid staff are assured a certain amount of political spoils no matter what, as exit from the system is blocked in most areas of the country. Like a company store, the voters an residents have to go because there seems to be no other option.

Electoral College

The Electoral College was designed to prevent the working class and poor from electing a radical executive who might try confiscate the property of the wealthy. Alexander Hamilton put this in an eloquent way when he wrote that the Electoral College was designed so “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” That is, because the vast majority of electors were originally chosen by state legislatures, this meant there were safeguards in place to prevent the popular will from being exercised, should it prove unacceptable to the elite.

Today the Electoral College is a part of the protection racket not because they are selected by state legislatures, but rather because it limits the truly competitive (swing) states to just 10 or 11: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. 40 of the 50 states have voted for the same party since the election of 2000.

Think about this!  Preventing a fully national electoral campaign and limiting the impact of democratic choice (in the form of the popular vote) but means there is precious little chance of voter rebellion and exit. The protection racket has tightened its grip by limiting the swing vote to merely 11 states.

On top of this the state-by-state nature of the vote means the two parties can attack alternative party candidates like Jill Stein in two ways: first for being irrelevant (they can’t win electoral votes) and second because they could be so relevant as to tip the election. They can have their cake and eat it, too, and petrify voters into choosing between two candidates even in non-swing states due to the irrelevance/relevance pretzel-logic of the Electoral College.

Those of us who fight for instant runoff-voting and the popular vote in presidential elections should bear in mind that it is the Democratic and Republican parties who love the Electoral College and the fear they can create in the hearts of voters if alternative presidential candidates gain any traction (while ignoring and disparaging them when they do not). It is a perfect example of the racket.

Ballot-Access and Electoral Hurdles

I doubt most people think of how difficult it can be to even appear on the ballot for office in the United States. There are 51 different rules (including Washington, D.C.), and the process used for independents and alternative party candidates is usually onerous. Not only that, but since boards of election issue the rules and are staffed by Democrats and Republicans by law, non-major party candidates start at a disadvantage.

As for electoral hurdles, while gerrymandering is one, the single-member district, plurality voting system tends to replicate the racket at the local level. Alternatives (which often include the disadvantaged major party candidate in that district) are either derided as a wasted vote or they are seen as a mortal threat to the party that controls the racket.

By limiting the ability of candidates to appear on the ballot and then limiting their chances of success, the racketeers rarely have to worry about serious rebellion.

Campaign Finance

The amount of campaign cash spent on elections in the United States is staggering; the Economist estimates nearly $5 billion will be spent in the 2016 cycle. Neither major party has much interest in limiting the gusher of donations available to them from the very wealthy and corporations. In fact, the political economist Thomas Ferguson developed his investor-driven theory of elections after determining that political parties set their policies and limit their rightward and leftward tilts based on investor-blocs donating to the parties. Since no investor-bloc seems interested in eliminating private funding of elections, there is no real movement to do so in Congress or at most state levels (with Maine and Arizona as rare exceptions).

Quite simply, this is part of the protection racket because A) candidates and parties unable to raise vast sums of cash cannot pay for ads, staff and mailings necessary to appear viable – which is only the case because there is no system of public campaign financing, B) voters either become non-voters due to despair or disgust (which is preferred by the racketeers in gerrymandered districts if a voter is not an orthodox party supporter) or dismiss alternative candidates and choose to keep the racket because nothing else seems viable.

Media Coverage and Propaganda

It would be easier to view the media as a crucial part of the state and ruling class’ tools for indoctrinating the population than as an independent body; it is enmeshed in the ideological superstructure of the system. Regardless, the media’s role is to be a gatekeeper for their paymasters. 6 corporations control 90% of the media in the United States! Not only does that give unprecedented control to the heads of those corporations, but given their own interests in maintaining a relationship with the racketeers (for “access”) the journalists and editors rarely take a negative view of the electoral racket, and even more rarely afford third-party and independent candidates equal, fair time and consideration.

They are in fact more likely to propagandize in whatever way keeps the racket stable for the elite; in 2016 this seems to mean almost every media outlet denouncing Donald Trump and backing Hillary Clinton (the elite consensus choice).

If one never knows about an alternative, the limitation of choice means a large contingent of voters will simply choose to become non-voters when discouraged, and the rest will remain trapped loyal party members.

Negative Response To Racket-Exit and Third-Party Votes

The main response to a concerted decision by a bloc of voters to reject the racket is to belittle their chosen candidate(s) and to shame and scare them back into line. We see this with the development of the “spoiler” mythology during, and then immediately after the election: the Democratic Party, which has helped game and rig the system almost since the inception of the United States, blamed Ralph Nader and the Green Party for their candidate’s loss. It is as if the owners of a casino (another racket) were sobbing about losses due to card counting at the blackjack table – hilarious, to be sure, since they set the rules to a corrupt game!

This is a very persuasive tactic and most people don’t like being constantly belittled for their choice of third-party candidates or “losers.” It’s ideological shaming and part of the larger indoctrination into the systemic rules that are enforced by hard and soft power.

Actual Reprisals 

Actual reprisals are rare, since the system is rigged against alternative candidates to begin with, but examining wins by Green Party state legislator John Eder in Maine (2002 & 2004) we can see that the first course of action is to redistrict (this also happened to Dennis Kucinich in Ohio even as a Democrat, albeit one very critical of the Democratic Party apparatus). Eder happened to run in Portland, Maine, a very liberal city and won his second election after being redistricted; it helps that Maine has a very good public campaign financing law as well. Matt Gonzalez, who was a GP head of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, very nearly won the mayor’s race in 2003. During the run-off election the Democrats and Republican celebrities campaigned together and there were threats to city workers to campaign for the Democrat (Gavin Newsom) on the job.

Break the Racket

The solution, of course, is to break the racket. Build alternatives by supporting them with money, time and votes – and refuse to accept the fear-based racketeering of the major parties. Easier said than done, of course, but the decay of the two-party apparatus in the United States – which mirrors the swift decline of old-guard 20th century parties in Europe – should give hope that a battle against the racket is not fruitless.

 

The Election and The Spectacle

  1. Spectacular political mobilization divorces participation from political action. Consumption of the product, in the form of a candidate, replaces the activity demanded of party members in previous eras.
  2. The spectacular nature of presidential politics in the United States requires fear of the other to operate. The demonization of opponents, especially so-called third parties, is a feature of the system and not a bug. The content of the election cycle is reduced from policy into reified images of the candidate(s) and their opponent(s).
  3. The reified image of the candidate, sculpted by P.R. firms, mirrors the nature of the “good” party member/voter, whose job it is to parrot and consume media and the story projected as the image of the candidate. Little is said of party work or to do more than repeat tropes fed to the voters. The passive consumer becomes active only at the moment of voting. Even within situations of debate with opponents it is the illusion of party differences (reified images) that war, not policy or social forces.
  4. The spectacle no longer needs masses of voters to act together as in previous eras of the mass party. Proper political consumers are individuals. Mass movements threaten passive consumption and the spectacle by creating active participants – which the ruling class views with grave suspicion.
  5. Mass frenzy/hysteria prior to an election is a prelude to the removal of the hysteria. Afterwards their role is to become either apathetic, cheerleaders of or angry consumers of oppositional media. Bereft of use as voters, they are barely political at all.
  6. This complete political alienation is built alongside a capitalist economy in the core that no longer has much use for productive labor. Alienation becomes complete in all aspects of modern life.
  7. It seems clear that a political party in this era cannot combat the spectacle without existing in multiple realms: electoral, social movement, economic, and cultural.