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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #103, December 2003. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

The mess we're in

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 incumbency. 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 institution 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 Treasury 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 then?

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 causes 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.



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 little.

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 well.

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 agriculture 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 electricity 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 regulation 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 institutional 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 either.

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.

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