Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Give the people what they want?

May 11, 2009

The “center-right” myth lives on, though the major players no longer bother reciting it, so threadbare and unpersuasive has it become. Now it’s left to the sub-pundits, the “strategists” and “advisers” who make their careers pretending that politics is no different, fundamentally, than pro hockey:

The second organization founded this past week chose the name Resurgent Republic, and has as its leaders two veteran Republican campaign strategists and advisers: Ed Gillespie, who most recently was a Bush White House counselor, and Whit Ayres, a pollster and strategist for an array of GOP candidates in recent years.

In its launch, the organization stressed its view that conservative positions were not as out of favor as Obama’s successes might make it appear. “America remains a center-right country,” Ayres argues. “They perceive Barack Obama as a liberal, and they perceive themselves as center-right. They voted for him not to support liberal policies but because he represented change.

What electorate is this, that believes in “center-right” values and deliberately votes for a candidate who opposes those values because they want “change” from what they actually want? No wonder Mencken called democracy “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

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The myth of the money power.

March 21, 2009

Glenn Greenwald is beyond doubt one of the most thoughtful and independent political thinkers around today. I say that with just the slightest twinge of uncertainty, because I’m not entirely sure what Greenwald’s politics are. Judging from things he’s written about himself here and there, he was a fairly apolitical type — thought we were being well taken care of by our “checks and balances” system, just like they teach you in Social Studies — until the authoritarian pretensions of the Bush Administration shocked him into the realization that the Constitution is not a self-running, self-perpetuating machine — that all popular government will deteriorate if left to our rulers alone. To my knowledge, he’s yet to explain exactly what his view of government is, what it should be doing and what it ought not to interfere with. But our greatest political thinker, Jefferson, never wrote a systematic treatise on politics either. Greenwald’s running commentary on the misdeeds of our rulers is better political thought than 95 percent of the drivel being pumped out at any Washington think-tank. He’s our most indispensable blogger, the only one I’m aware of who might merit a comparison with I. F. Stone.

So it’s distressing to see Greenwald choke on the oldest and most self-destructive leftist myth about politics in his latest entry. Behold:

Matt Taibbi’s new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full. In sum: financial elites own the Government and both political parties. Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it. They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do. In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit. And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government’s response is, to ensure that they — the prime authors of the disaster — are the prime beneficiaries, at the public’s expense, of the “solutions,” solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.

What I object to here isn’t the content so much as the way it’s framed. It’s incredible to believe that Greenwald, our most penetrating observer of the deviousness and Machiavellian ambitions of the political ruling class, actually believes that our political leaders let “financial elites” tell them what to do. We suffered eight years under a president who thought the Constitution a “piece of paper” to be rewritten at will, a vice president who thought the president had the right to refuse to carry out Congressional laws he disapproved of, and an Administration eager to seize upon any pretext to trash American liberties. We heard nothing but snivelling excuses and evasions from the oppositional party — which, for most of Bush’s term in office, held the support of half or more of the voters — about why they refused to oppose any of this, why they cracked down on any upstart Democrat who dared speak out against any of it. Even in the last election, when a majority of Americans would have been happy to see Bush hauled up in front of their county judge and sentenced to 60 years of janitorial work, Democrats insisted that all Americans cared about was “the economy.” They hastened, in fact, to criticize Wall Street and big business in general. Why would they do that, were they beholden only to Wall Street and big business?

Greenwald knows all this — he hammers it harder, in fact, than any blogger I know of — which is why I find it so hard to believe that he could even entertain the notion that allegiance to big business, of all things, made them do this. Why would a Wall Street broker be eager to see the power of the presidency expanded, or see American troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, or see the Democrats lose elections? Do “financial elites” often favor undemocratic policies? Certainly. But it’s a major leap from that to assuming that financial elites run the country. (Yes, I’m aware that most politicians are rich. But most celebrities are rich too, and we don’t assume that Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson have any sway over our politics.) Why do we not assume that politicians, who actually wield real power, have their own reasons for wanting to maintain that power?

In truth, there is no evidence whatever that the major tenet of leftist thinking — that corporations and corporate bosses run our political system — is true. It amounts to nothing but an extended apology for our political class. Rather than a powerful oligarchy, eager to swindle us out of our democracy, they appear as nothing but well-meaning schmucks who would help us if only they weren’t so frightened of those CEOs. The notion of Washington as a city cowering under the vicious gaze of lobbyists is a pathetic one, but that doesn’t stop foolish leftists from assuming that clamping down on lobbyists would result in a virtuous Washington.

The great Walter Karp, in Indispensable Enemies (the one and only indispensable book ever written about American politics), disposed of this hoary myth beyond any reasonable doubt, and I can’t hope to do justice to his remarkably persuasive argument in a few words. In brief, Karp’s thesis is that there’s no need to resort to hidden forces or conspiracy theories to explain why we are so badly misgoverned. If we assume that we are misgoverned because our political leaders — the bosses of the Republican and Democratic parties — want to misgovern us in order to secure and sustain their own power. It is the very nature of republican government, Karp argues, that forces them to do this. In an authoritarian state, the leaders would largely be free to ignore the discontented unless a revolt broke out; here, the parties’ monopoly control over politics is constantly threatened by the very freeness of our politics, founded on the Constitution and the federal principle. This is why the extension of democracy — contra the Menckenian objections of our libertarian friends — is always and forever a threat to undemocratic government, and the only real solution to it.

If you buy this — and I admit that it seems difficult to swallow at first, considering how schmucky our leaders look and sound on C-SPAN — it becomes increasingly hard to feel safe, to retreat to banalities about “pluralism” and such. Our wrecked economy, dominated by corporations, becomes easier to explain: What better way to prop up corrupt power than to give the moneyed class a stake in it? (Alexander Hamilton, no fool, understood this and believed that it ought to be written into the Constitution.) Karp writes:

It is obvious … that those who wield party power, or would consolidate party power, have compelling political reasons of their own to foster monopoly and no political reason of their own to sustain an economy of small competing producers. We should expect to find in the history of monopoly capitalism the oligarchs’ determined effort to engender monopoly and destroy competition-and that is what we do find. We should expect to find that effort strenuously opposed by the great majority of Americans-and that too we find. What we will not find is what conventional history tells us to look for, namely the “triumph of laissez-faire,” for the history of the formation of monopoly capitalism is history of deliberate government intervention to further monopoly. … what the majority of Americans once clearly understood (is) that behind every monopoly stands the government and, by extension, the party bosses. The notion that the monopoly system developed through autonomous economic processes is an ideological myth.

The list goes on. Our frighteningly arbitrary foreign adventures begin to make sense: Why is it that every major war happened at a time of tremendous domestic turmoil, when the parties’ power over the populace was threatened? Why were party leaders so eager to encourage a centralized school system, with an ever more ferociously dictated curriculum? Why are our tax dollars forever funneled into maintaining a vastly overblown standing army — the very thing the Founders most dreaded and warned against, as the ultimate pretext for governmental abuse — instead of being used to fix that same miserable school system? Finally, why is it that the press is so eager to blame everyone in the world for our troubles — bankers, the rich, the poor, even the press itself — but politicians themselves? Could it be that this is really the most unlikely taboo of them all — to hold those in power responsible for what happens on their watch?

Thoughts on revolution.

October 12, 2008

How stupid is it to lionize Che Guevara? Depends on your point of view, I reckon, but certainly any self-respecting revolutionary deserves better than the kind of empty-headed bravura Evan rightly criticizes. He’s not the first former Wildcat columnist to register his disgust with the Che cult, either.

Of course, the kids who worship Che — more a cartoonish abstraction of Che — don’t actually want to live under a totalitarian dictatorship, any more than kids obsessed with Twilight want to be sucked dry of their blood by reanimated corpses. Like so many other icons, Che was absolved of all earthly guilt by his death. Not only of guilt, but of meaning; the Che on the T-shirts is just a floating image cut free from any possible context, a signifier that means anything you want: violence, rebellion, revolution, cool hair.

The real Guevara was certainly a ruthless, bloodthirsty son of a bitch, and his real-world (as opposed to cultural) legacy is a grim one. The fact that he’s become the central icon of revolution tells us something about the way revolution is regarded nowadays. Revolution is primarily defined by what it is not — that is, whatever we already have. It’s defined as anything that violates the status quo. Anything that “changes the norm,” as one student quoted in the Wildcat inelegantly put it. As anyone who’s ever hung around a coffeehouse in a university well knows, every disaffected left-of-center student’s favorite complaint is that “We’ll never have a revolution in this country.” There you have it: Revolution as the ultimate cure for boredom.

Well, of course, we did have a revolution in this country, and one that was virtually unprecedented in human history. While the French Revolution, whatever its roots in popular disgust and loathing of the monarchy and aristocracy, was usurped and dominated by power-crazed ideologues, the American Revolution was, to a surprising degree, a popular revolution, sparked and led by the people. Even more remarkably, it wasn’t crushed by a Napoleon figure; political power was so dispersed by the very nature of the American colonies, and the one man who could have become a Napoleon (Washington) so decent and unambitious in his character, that the American republic entirely escaped the fate of most other revolutionary countries. Even more remarkably, with the exception of the attempted secession in 1860, the United States never came close to any kind of revolution again. How that happened would take a book to explain, but it’s safe to say that if America ever experiences an armed revolution again, it probably won’t be of the 1776 kind.

As the great Hannah Arendt wrote in On Revolution, the American and French revolutions set the pattern for all future revolts against authority. But while the American Revolution was simply a struggle for liberty and political representation, the French Revolution was an attempt to bring about total social equality by force. This didn’t simply fail because it was impossible (though it more or less is, barring the Second Coming or the discovery of the Shmoo); it failed because no political leader can be entrusted with such an insanely ambitious goal. The leaders of the French Revolution took it upon themselves to save humankind from injustice, and this meant essentially wiping out a good portion of humankind. Valuing actual humans less than they did justice, they transformed the state into an instrument of equality. So it was with Robespierre and Marat, and their twentieth century descendants.

They were all of them ideologues, and notably less than reluctant to impose their ideologies on a nation of inferiors. Since most of the nations they trampled — France, Russia, China — had existed under strict societal hierarchies for centuries, it was often a task of replacing a weakened authoritarianism with a rigorous one. What made it different from other, previous forms of authoritarianism was not its use of violence and terror, but how effectively those instruments were wedded to a political theology. Stalin differed from the 16th century Anabaptist leader John of Leyden, who took over the city of Münster in 1534 and advised his starving subjects to eat the cobblestones from the street, only in how successfully he imposed his madness on a population.

“Lenin was a saint,” D. H. Lawrence would write in Apocalypse, reflecting on the evil of great men. “He had every quality which defines a saint. He is worshipped today, quite rightly, as a saint. But saints who try to kill all brave power in men are vile fiends.”

Needless to say, societal and political injustice continues to flourish in this Republic, some of which our political system seems ill-equipped (or unwilling) to combat. One can sincerely hope, however, that if a “revolution” ever sweeps across the land, it will be neither sparked nor led by the Che cultists.