I”m not sure what Curtis White had in mind with his recent article for Salon.((Curtis White, This is an Oligarchy, not a Democracy: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and the Real Reason Why Change Never Seems to Come. Salon, Jan. 30, 2016. Available: http://www.salon.com/2016/01/30/this_is_an_oligarchy_not_a_democracy_donald_trump_bernie_sanders_and_the_real_reason_why_change_never_seems_to_come/)) I agreed with his argument against regime change which is carried out through the back door of democratization, but after that he plummeted into a fatalistic downward spiral.
“Among the conspicuous realities of social life in the United States, this reality should be the most conspicuous: we are not one and never have been. There is no We. There are no Americans.”
He argues that regardless of whether you’re talking to a social conservative or a follower of Bernie Sanders, if they refer to the electorate as ‘we’ they’ve hit the ‘high-water mark for political naiveté’.
This is bad enough, but if we keep reading we still have a ways to fall before we bash our brains out on the bedrock below. We soon learn that it’s not really naiveté that worries him at all. It’s the secret stealth of those who appeal to ‘the people’.
“Beneath the call to communist solidarity and the reign of the people’s Party Congress, Stalin understood that there is no “we,” no “people,” no “everyone” and got on with the execution of “right-Trotskyite” plotters, and generally on with egg breaking for his invidious omelet. What Stalin understood that we try to keep hidden from sight is the certainty that the bedrock of every form of mass social organization—including democracy, including our democracy—is force.”
White presents this as the first of democracy’s three ‘fatal ironies’. If you’re wondering how he ended up at Stalin, he got there by assuming that we will eventually flock to strongmen. We flock to strongmen because we believe that we need a strong guiding hand.
We might want to inquire as to how on earth Stalin became a democratic archetype—or an archetype of any kind. Stalin seems to have been squished together with 1. the idea that the use of force is inevitable and 2. that all force is Stalinesque. Until we get a clarification on these points I think we can safely ignore this part of the argument except to note its common sense disguise. It didn’t get past us this time but unfortunately, the sheer volume of ‘common sense’ in this article could lobotomize any unwary reader. On second thought I guess it’s necessary to talk about the strongman after all.
He first mentions the strongman when talking about non-democratic governments.
“We often hear it reported that in some benighted countries the people believe that “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s not for us. We need a strong guiding hand.” So convinced of this are these people that, given the opportunity, they will in fact vote for this strong hand and all that comes with it, making democracy an oxymoron.
We tend to think that these foreign skeptics just don’t understand, and so some of us think that we ought to help them to understand. As my representative, freshman Republican Darin LaHood, said during a recent visit to a local high school, “The goal of our foreign policies is to try to make the world more like us.” (LaHood, son of Ray LaHood, was elected to the seat vacated by disgraced Republican Aaron Schock, he of the Downton-red office walls.)
A default neocon, LaHood wants to bring democracy to the heathens, an even worse idea than trying to convert them to Christianity. The appeal to democracy, coming from the lips of politicians like LaHood, is a paternalistic fraud—at the best! At the worst, it is no more than what it was in the colonial Middle East after World War I: the preparation for a “great looting.”
Again with the inevitability! So he’s saying there are countries where ‘the people’ reject democracy and vote for strongmen. Or is it that they start with democracy and throw it away? It’s not clear. And who are ‘the people’, I thought there were no people? But either way we’re told that Americans do the same thing. Hence Stalin.
Okay, I think we can dispense with the fiction of inevitability. Our electoral process is based on Plato’s premise that ‘the people’ can’t be trusted to rule themselves. One answer to Plato is America’s electoral college. This is not inevitability! This is a purposeful solution to a supposed problem—the problem of a self-ruling population.
Next, I think we can dispense with the notion that there is no ‘us’ or ‘we’. In Plato’s scheme ‘we’ are the ones who can’t be trusted to elect the candidate of our choosing. So either Plato was delusional, or ‘we’ really do exist. I think the real delusion is the belief that our needs and priorities are so opposed that we must each elect a different representative. We should be asking ourselves what we can do about that. I think most differences come from artificial divisions created by the ruling class, as well as a poor understanding of our political responsibilities.
Now on to the second of democracy’s fateful ironies—the ‘fooled again’ syndrome. This is White’s term for what happens after the election is over and we find that our candidate has become one of ‘them’.
First, I don’t think that’s quite how it happens. Take the example of reigning in the corporations. Even if they’re cooperative, which they won’t be, the biggest ones are tangled up with foreign policy. So if a president is determined to shake things up, he’ll have to shake very carefully. The whole world is connected, and anything we do will affect everyone else. And don’t forget the hostile Congress and all the unelected people with their own agendas and influence.
If Bernie is elected, we will have already accomplished something important by electing someone who isn’t owned by the oligarchs. At that point we can work on reforming campaign finance so that we can elect more people who will do what we want them to do. I think it can be done, but if you’re expecting the miracles to commence next January you’ll be disappointed.
White gives us examples of candidates who became one of them: Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, Putin, and the candidates who have failed to satisfy the Tea Party, but he talks as if these people are all free agents who could have done whatever they want to do but chose to betray the voters instead. Talk about naive! Our representatives are constrained by the system. Yes, even the representatives who aren’t corrupt. The most we can hope for is someone who will listen to us rather than the oligarchs. Once we accomplish that we’ll need to make sure we understand how the system works so we can be part of it. That should at least keep us from flailing around and wailing when things don’t go our way.
The third fateful irony is White’s claim that any change will have to be bloody and in the end the oligarchs will win anyway. Really? I’m sorry but this is just not an option. It’s not an option because lives are at stake. Our country is on the rampage as we speak. People are dying. Natural resources that belong to all of us are being squandered by criminals who never had the capacity to really appreciate them, and never will. It would be bad enough if this agenda had a beginning, a middle and an end, but it doesn’t. These people will continue to go from one terrible thing to another for as long as we let them. So I’m gonna have to call BS on this whole stream of self-indulgent sophism.
Is change going to be hard? Yes, but I can promise you that if we do nothing it’s going to be much worse. This election is only our first step. It’s natural to be overwhelmed by a fight like this but it’s far too early to go sit in the corner and sulk. By the way, doesn’t it make you the least bit suspicious that a Democrat would write an article like this before we’ve even seen the results of the Iowa caucus?