Doug raises some good questions.....

Mike Ballard swillsqueal at
Tue Jan 7 19:17:23 MST 2003

The mess we're in
[by Doug Henwood, from LBO #103]

After the Newtmaniac Republican sweep of 1994, LBO
quoted Murray
Kempton's observation that it probably meant the
demise of the
Democrats, since they had nothing to their name but
Clinton's re-election two years later, and his
subsequent high
approval ratings, made Kempton's prognosis look
excessively gloomy.
But after last month's election, it looks once again
that Kempton had
a serious point.

It's easy to dis the Dems for their lack of spine, but
that character
critique overlooks the party's structural role as an
loyal to capital that sometimes has to pretend
otherwise to appeal to
its base. That's not to say the parties are identical
-  two cheeks
of the same derriere, Christopher Hitchens, George
Bush's latest fan,
put it a few years ago  -  they're not. Democrats in
Congress are
more likely to support unions and reproductive freedom
and to oppose
free-trade deals and reactionary judicial nominees
than Republicans.
Clinton appointed far more tolerable people to the
NLRB than Bush has
and will. But Clinton also got NAFTA through, ruined
prospects for a
sensible public health care financing system, had his
secretaries roam the world prying open capital
markets, and presided
over one of the great profit and asset inflations in
world history.
And if they're doomed to fade, as Kempton argued, what

Which is where the argument for independent politics
comes in. But it
seems harder than ever now. Most third party
enthusiasts want to
efface the difference between D and R, arguing either
that there's
none at all or none that matters. Speaking of Western
Europe as well
as the U.S., cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek argues
that the best time
to make the argument that there's no difference
between the two major
parties is when the more liberal party is in power,
because when the
rightwingers are in charge, it's too obviously untrue.
Zizek may be
right. The Republican party is frightening. Trent
Lott's mistake in
praising Strom Thurmond was his honesty; he revealed
what Zizek has
called the "hidden underside" of his ideology. Nods,
winks, and code
words are fine, but letting the cat all the way out
difficulties. Though there are principled antiracists
on the right,
the Republican party as an organization depends on
covert racist
appeals, and much of the anti-Lott bleating is
designed to shroud the
rudely exposed underside, not exorcise it. As
obnoxious as the
Democrats can be, they're not that obnoxious.

Post-Nader. Those of us who supported Nader in 2000,
including this
mighty page, have to do some rethinking. That's not to
concede that
Nader's candidacy drew away enough votes to elect Bush
 -  that's not
true (and not merely because Gore won the popular
vote). The number
of Democrats who voted for Bush was far greater than
Nader's vote,
and Gore's dismal campaign blew what should have been
a Democratic
landslide. The rethinking is more about long-term
political strategy,
something about which the Nader campaign bothered

Where is Ralph? The theory of his candidacy  -  not
his own, since
he's allergic to theory, but one offered by many of
his supporters  -
was that it was part of the effort to build the Green
Party, and an
alternative political movement larger than electoral
politics. Little
of this has happened. Though there are some bright
spots  here and
there, the Green Party is mostly an embarrassment,
having failed even
to keep ballot status in New York and nominated a
ludicrous candidate
in the Minnesota Senate race. The national Green Party
platform has
its moments, but it's a frequently embarrassing
document, a laundry
list with little sense of coherence or priority. It's
not been going

But it's not just in the U.S.: it's also disturbing to
watch Lula's
government taking shape in Brazil. Unlike Nader and
the Greens,
Lula's victory came from a long organizing campaign by
the Workers
Party. It was a movement, not a letterhead or an ad
hoc coalition. He
was elected as a repudiation of the neoliberal
economics that has
left Brazil (and most of its neighbors) with lots of
debt and no sign
of the promised prosperity. But the government he's
forming is almost
thoroughly orthodox. His finance minister-designate
promises a fiscal
policy that's "the most austere possible." The head of
the central
bank last worked for a U.S. bank. The nominee at the
ministry has defended the right of landowners to take
up arms against
landless squatters.

Is it right to scream "sellout"? Or is it better to
look at
structural reasons for rightward turns (and not just
in Brazil  -
the ANC in South Africa and the German Greens come to
mind too)?
Clearly there's something about taking power itself
that turns former
radicals into conservatives  -  pressures from
domestic and foreign
capital markets, of allaying the suspicious fears of
the middle
classes, of managing the technostructure to assure the
keeps running.

American independent politicians seem to focus on
purity of
intention: the right people with the right platform
can do the job,
with little sense of how conservatizing proximity to
power can be. As
one skeptic puts it, would a Green in Congress behave
all that
differently from Nancy Pelosi?

Way out? But surely this is all too pessimistic.
Radical change has
happened in the past, and no doubt it will again in
the future. One
hope would be concentrating on building independent
institutions who
weren't slavish subsidiaries of "the more liberal
party" rather  than
running chimerical campaigns.

Existing Naderite politics  -  which has a lot in
common with
mainstream American Lone Ranger individualism  -
thinks differently.
As Thomas Burke, author of Lawyers, Lawsuits, and
Legal Rights,
argues, Nader prefers litigation to regulation because
creates bureaucracies that can be captured by the
industries they
regulate, while litigations involve juries, entities
that dissolve
upon delivering the verdict and which are made up of
ordinary people
with no vested interest in the outcome. It's
conceptually strange
that social policy should be set by people with no
interest in
outcomes; isn't politics all about struggle among
interested parties?
Policy by litigation is scattershot  -  the U.S.
judicial system is
massively fragmented by geography and jurisdiction,
and only a small
minority of injured parties ever sue  -  and leaves no
residue. But that's fine with Ralph (and to lots of
mainly youthful
protesters), to whom bureaucracy is an abomination,
and which never
can be domesticated or democratized. And so too with
his chimerical
campaign, which has left no institutional residue

Some institutions have to be bureaucratic  -  it'd be
impossible to
run an industrial economy or anything larger than a
block association
without one. But not all. The protests that now
accompany every elite
convention have spawned all kinds of institutions and
networks, which
helped a pretty healthy antiwar movement grow quickly.
We urgently
need more of this  -  institutions that live apart
from the
temptations and constraints of state power, that can
scare the bad
guys and make the good ones a bit more faithful to
their promises on
the rare occasion they win office.

Yes, but... This would be the place for the rousing
finale, the call
to action, and the hopeful prognosis. But that would
be a forced
conclusion. Sure all these independent institutions
and flexible
networks of rebellion are essential and inspiring. But
what about
state power? Are the corruptions of power too
dangerous even to flirt
with it? Is it a mistake to run for office and try to
govern? Should
we follow the model of the Zapatistas, don skimasks,
and forswear the
state? Or is radical social change impossible without
capturing the
state? Not sure, really.


I'd say that a genuinely grass-roots, democratic,
class conscious organization could deal with State
power.  State power is, after all, the expression of
class rule.  If workers as a class have an
organization functioning within the State, it could
remain true to their class interests.

Is it in the class interests of the workers to bow to
Capital's demands?  No.  Does e.g. Lula bow to
Capital's demands?  Yes.  Is Lula's "Workers Party"
grassroots democratic?  Perhaps a bit, but if so, it
is not an expression of class conscious workers.  And
that's the rub.

It is not a mistake to run for office and to try to
govern.  The mistake is to allow a politico to govern
in a way which conflicts with your interests.

The power behind any political expression must remain
beholden to its roots.  Power must come from the
bottom up.  And most importantly, power must be class
conscious of itself, of its interests.  I'm convinced
that we'll learn that someday, maybe after all the
easy ways have been tried.  Let's roll the union on:

Wobbly greetings,

Mike B)

"We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that.  The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history.  We carry a new world, here, in our hearts.  That world is growing this minute." -
    - Buenventura Durruti

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