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The ambivalences of electoral democracy

The materiality of all things political

 Electoral Democracy (ED) as a form of government is above all a political topic. Reflections on this theme must deal not with the abstract or imaginary, but with the material world, the given society, in which ED exists. In our case, we must examine the specific socio-historical circumstances of the emergence of electoral democracy in the U.S., its form(s) of development, its main historical beneficiaries, as well as the main recipients of the concealed burdens that arise from the type of electoral democracy that rules the nation.

If we do otherwise, if we ignore the materiality within which concepts like electoral democracy were conceived and materialized by human action, we risk confusing things with their names. We may be led to believe that ED exists somewhere in a socio-platonic digital cloud, ready to be downloaded. Or worse, acting with patriotic confusion because we continue believing that we, as a nation, by some unexplained concoction of history via the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, are the legitimate heirs of a mythologized Ancient Greece’s version of demokratia (demos = people + kratia= rule) which makes our political system righteously superior to others, and the crib of freedom around the world.

The economic conditions the political

For revolutionary intellectuals schooled in Marx, such as Lenin and the theorist and critic Walter Benjamin, the materiality of any form of government is to be found in the forms of class struggle present in society. For example, for Lenin, “ the type of freedom in a capitalist society remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: freedom for slave owners.” In other words, the unbalanced distribution of freedom and other social benefits of democracy remain conditioned by an economic model based on the appropriation of other people’s labor. Yet these undeniable links between the economy and certain forms of the political are too often ignored, occluded, or minimized by official historiography which seeks to emphasize idealized versions of democracy as beacons of civilization, immaculately conceived without reference to how social wealth is produced.

For Benjamin, on the other hand, the materiality of events widely thought to have a civilizing effect on the history of humanity—i.e. electoral democracy—is better understood by acknowledging their innate ambivalent character, expressions of barbarism and civilization simultaneously. For Benjamin, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” In his Thesis on the Philosophy of History, for instance, he argues that widely perceived ‘cultural treasures’ owe their existence both to the agency of ‘great minds and talents’ and also to the ‘anonymous toil of their contemporaries.’

Our greatest democratic barbarism

So what is barbarism? The British historian Eric Hobsbawm defined barbarism as a general social decline meaning two things: “First, the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behavior by which all societies regulate the relations among their members, and to a lesser extent, between their members and those of other societies.” Second, Hobsbawm describes what he called the reversal of universal “rules and standards of moral behavior, embodied in the institutions of state dedicated to the rational progress of humanity.” 1

Instances of modern barbarism

American democracy carries the birthmark of slavery in service of capitalism. This stain from the past has morphed but continues to mar present day American policies and institutions. It is no exaggeration to say that as a society, we seem to care less and less about the wellbeing of our members. This ‘careless-ism’ about others less fortunate because of class membership, racial characteristics, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual identity is what colors the definition of today’s American democracy. It is difficult to ignore inequality in America and refrain from mentioning at least some illustrative examples of our modern barbarism:2

Wage Inequality: “Over the last 30 years, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the over-all level of inequality now approaching the extreme levels that prevailed prior to the Great Depression.

CEO pay: “ in 1965 [CEO’s] made 24 times more than the average production worker, whereas in 2009 they made 185 times more”

Homelessness: There are 750,000 Americans who are homeless on any given night, with one in five of them considered chronically homeless. The ranks of the sheltered homeless include disproportionate numbers of males, blacks, middle aged people, veterans, and disabled.

Gender pay gap: Women earn 20% less than what men earn for the same work. Since 2005 “the pay gap has remained roughly unchanged.”

Racial gaps in education: “High-school dropout rates are least among whites and highest among Hispanics, while college enrollment is least among blacks and highest among whites.”

Health Insurance: “In 2007, 8.1 million children under 18 years old were without health insurance. Children in poverty and Hispanic children were more likely to be uninsured.” This number would increase had recent efforts by the administration and Republicans to repeal Obama Care succeeded, leaving an additional 22 million people without health insurance.

Wealth Inequality: By 2007 “the top 10% of households controlled 73.1% of the total wealth.”

Incarceration: “The U.S has one of the highest rates in the world. The rise in incarceration has been especially prominent among black males.” One of every four African-American males is incarcerated between the ages of 20 and 34.

All this reality, needless to say, occurs not in an impoverished, small country located in the ‘Global South’, but in one of the wealthiest and without doubt, the most powerful country in human history. As Joe Biden, our must recent ex vice-president says, “ The Greatest Democracy in The History of the World.”

The democracies of others

If we take a quick glance at the past, it turns out that the “greatest democracy in the history of the world” also has a longstanding practice of non-democratic military interventions into the same world Joe Biden had in mind with his pompous proclamation. This is not the place to enumerate the 212-year list of American interventions, from the time the marines were sent to Libya in 1805, to the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Suffice it to say that most of these actions have constituted open acts of aggression against the rights and wellbeing of people of other countries. Never mind that many of those countries had legitimate democratic governments (e.g., Allende’s Chile, 44 years ago as I write these lines). What is important here is to highlight the contradictory fact that these interventions were acts of aggression, no matter how democratic or constitutional the internal process of approval was within the U.S system. As Lenin and Benjamin cautioned, American electoral democracy seems to be ruled by a double standard of moral and constitutional behavior regarding the rest of humanity. This persistent, insistent disingenuousness elevates political hypocrisy to the level of a national trait.

Elections are not enough

Democracy should not be defined by the existence of elected officials, but by the way they get elected and the interests they represent. In the U.S., most of the highly positioned officials in government owe their situation to the affluence of the new corruptors of democracy: super PAC’s, corporations, financial associations, and seedy wealthy individuals who are able to funnel unlimited amounts of money to their subservient candidates.

To the democratic deficit of the American electoral process, we must add the ancestral gerrymandering originally aimed to block the participation people of color from public life. David A. Lied3 describes how this “manipulative practice” was able to alter the result of U.S. and state legislative contests clearly benefiting the GOP in 2016. His argument is supported by research conducted by the AP, the Princeton University Gerrymandering Fund, and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The legal electoral barriers that affect people of color did not disappear with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Lyndon Johnson, or with the outlawing of voter literacy tests by Congress in 1975. Coated with the lexicon of democracy that feeds the fantasical beliefs of many Americans, anti-democratic practices continue to expand and flourish.

Playing the piano with both hands

So, what’s to be done with electoral democracy? Again, any response should be historically situated:

Electoral democracy in its current form in the U.S. should be criticized for the false pretentions and ambiguities that contradict its original ideal: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Democratic rights should be defended from the current outbreak of anti-people’s wellbeing legislation, and the current administration’s benevolent tolerance of racist, homophobic, and proto-fascist organizations.

It should be defended with a sense of emergency and an awareness that American capitalism seems less and less able or willing to coexist with democratic principles, and that the affairs of the nation are managed by an increasingly small group of billionaires lacking democratic legitimacy and supported by a growing police-state apparatus.

Finally, we must be aware that only by a process of struggle for continual radicalization of the currently existing forms of democracy will it be possible to transcend electoral democracy and create a socialist society.

The social revolution is not a single battle

In this context, it seems pertinent to end with a quote from Lenin’s The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Be forewarned: Lenin’s analysis comforts neither the prudish liberal left nor the sanctimonious right:

The proletariat cannot be victorious except through democracy, i.e., by giving full effect to democracy and by linking with each step of its struggle democratic demands formulated in the most resolute terms. . . . We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics         on all democratic demands … While capitalism exists, these demands—all of them—can only be accomplished as an exception, and even then in an incomplete and distorted form. Basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved, and exposing its incompleteness under capitalism, we demand the overthrow of capitalism, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, as a necessary basis both for the abolition of the poverty of the masses and for the complete and all-round institution of all democratic reforms. Some of these reforms will be started before the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, others in the course of that overthrow, and still others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of problems of economic and democratic reform, which are consummated only by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It is for the sake of this final aim that we must formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way. It is quite conceivable that the workers of some particular country will overthrow the bourgeoisie before even a single fundamental democratic reform has been fully achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the spirit of the most consistent and resolutely revolutionary democracy.

Lately we have witnessed a rise in the level of political consciousness of the masses, from Black Lives Matter; to massive rallies against the current administration policies regarding immigration, health care, and the environment; to last week’s protests in St. Louis against racism and police brutality. These events demonstrate the creative power of the masses and how, in spite of social duress, people continue to struggle against the deficiencies of liberal democracy.

Enrique Quintero lives and writes in Washington.

1  See Barbarism: A User’s Guide. New Left Review I/206. July-August, 1994.

2  This abridged list is taken from a 2011 publication by the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality: 20 facts About U.S. Inequality that Everyone Should Know.

3  Reporting for The Associated Press (June, 25, 2017).

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