Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Electoral Sham--or, 'What is Left?'


co-opt vt
1. to adopt or appropriate something, for example, a political issue or idea, as your own
2. to absorb an opponent or opposing group into a larger group or society by making promises and concessions

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


To what degree can electoral progressivism in its many guises be seen as a safety-valve for the agents of state and corporate power against real social change?

Judgment on these grounds should extend from the neoliberal/corporate "left" to the social-democratic mainstream represented "Liberal" Democrats in the US, PRD in Mexico, Labour/LibDems in UK, PSF in France, Congress in India, Lula's PT in Brazil, Kirschner's Peronists in Argentina, Labour and Meretz-Yachad in Israel, &c.; it is perhaps axiomatic that in more developed post-industrial nations, the mainstream "left" parties can move away from pretensions to socialism/social democracy that are more necessary in the slightly less consumerist societies of the developing world while still performing their safety-valve function (to some degree, the reform movement of Khatami of Iran may have played the same role for the secular Iranian middle-class in the late years of the last decade, but that is the topic of another thousand blooming paragraphs). Of course, all of these parties subscribe as religiously to the neoliberal world order as the right.

There are, needless to say, characteristics of these mainstream/electoral left parties that are specific to each of the polities in which they have developed, and from a historical standpoint, these differences are important and instructive.

The essentially binary nature of party dynamics in modern representative democracies (even in Parliamentary governments) strengthens this safety-valve effect by limiting the acceptable range of discourse to increasingly narrow bounds. In the United States, this is highly advanced and refined, and as time passes, the European left will go about policy-making and campaigning in a similar fashion, all the while cutting substance out of political discourse while narrowing the range of acceptable opinions. Of course the process has been taking place at least since the First World War in Europe and probably about two to three decades before that in the United States. In the coming years, observe "free elections" in the west for further evidence of this. Early election campaigns in France and the United States are already shaping up in this ever-narrowing and increasingly slick, Madison Avenue fashion.

Note, however, that this use/effect of the electoral left is almost never a result of conscious formulation--except of course at high levels of state and corporate power (as with the Kennedy-Johnson administrations' simultaneous support and intimidation of the civil rights movement in the 1960s in the US). Working- and middle-class people who work to elect Democrats in the United States, for instance, are often passionate and well-intentioned, and the same goes for the rank-and-file of most bourgeois left parties in the Global North and South. Indeed, that is the very point; it is integral to this formulation that there would be a rank-and-file intent upon social change working for a party that is so highly unlikely to produce that change. That is the definition of the safety valve in electoral politics, and nothing more can be expected. Electoral democracy develops organic structures for co-opting social change. It is an inherently reactionary force. Accordingly, what I have been calling the electoral left--from the softly corporate Democrats of the United States to many of the social-democratic parties of the developing world--weakens social movements and functions to extend the life span of imperialism. This is, perhaps, why so many of the more intelligent élites in the Global North locate themselves on the left of their narrow political spectra. It should be clear, however, that subscribing blindly to the graces of a powerful corporate party, even one with the colors and language of the left, ensures only continued state violence accompanied by corporate hegemony over human lives and the earth.

The safety-valve effect of this corporate/electoral left is thus magnified by a sloganization of political discourse in the aforementioned countries combined with a sense that the individual or group has to "be realistic"/"wake up from your utopian fantasies", &cetera. It is overlooked intentionally by corporate mass-media and effectively by the public in various countries (largely as a result of the myth of electoral "democracy") that political power is only in the hands of limited groups as long as the people capable of paralyzing it grant it their trust, or at the very least, their acquiescence. This tension between adopting strategies of reform or revolution has been a topic of lively debate on the left since Rosa Luxemburg's great work titled, creatively, Reform or Revolution.

Advances in technology and the expansion of consumerism have strengthened these organic structures to some degree, while at the same time perhaps ensuring their demise and eventual replacement by something resembling localized-yet-simultaneously-globalized participatory democracy. This particular sham cannot continue indefinitely, for practical reasons apparent to all with working brains. True economic democracy (workers' self-management and control of the means of production) and political democracy (beyond the quadrennial obligation to vote for candidates none of whom you wholeheartedly endorse) will only be achieved together.

Or perhaps I'm being optimistic.

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