“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
It is the fundamental human assumption that one lives at the time of terminal understanding of the world, the universe, and human affairs. This, I think, is the direct result of being temporal beings, doomed to live a finite existence making regular steady progress from birth to death on a planet that is always making its own equally steady journey. It is very challenging to see oneself as just at a sad point in the early part of history where not very much progress has been made and not very much is understood, nor will it be in one’s lifetime. This is a depressing and frustrating thought that leads to the apparent meaninglessness of one’s individual existence which is, in a very real sense, each person’s world. It is also, unfortunately, a true thought.
But we have toasters! We have airplanes and cars and iPhones and bombers! Surely this is the time of terminal understanding! Let’s turn to another celebrated British quote-maker on this one…
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”
-Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It’s really tough for us to wrap our minds around democracy being a failed and sort of silly experiment on the long journey toward functional government, or toward a favorable state of affairs for humanity. And yet I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the fate democracy faces, and sooner than later depending on the outcome of the next few elections in the major states subscribing to this theory of government. But there is a last gasp of the democratic spirit asserting itself throughout these nation-states, a last desperate tide to prove that a government alleging to be of, by, and for the people can actually produce results that live up to this claim. It is the sudden popularity of far-left populism. It is the election of Alexis Tsipras in Greece, the appointment just now of Jeremy Corbyn to head the Labour Party in the UK, and the emerging and ongoing surge of Bernie Sanders to the top of the polls in the US.
These people are unlikely heroes, and it is their unlikeliness that drives much of their power and appeal. Corbyn and Sanders buck all the trends of traditional democratic power brokers. They are old, they identify as socialists, they can easily be characterized as disgruntled ranters. They don’t play well with others in their party because they’ve carried decades of conviction that consistently spurn the wishy-washy adjust-to-polls commercialism of the last three decades of so-called leftist politics in their country. While Labour and the Democrats have been out starting wars, chasing corporations, and trading their principles for money, Corbyn and Sanders have been diligently trotting out the real principles of a people-driven left-wing agenda. And until now, getting basically no traction outside a loyal following in their home districts.
So what’s changed? Why is 2015 the year that these aging scions of consistency get popular?
The reality is that politics as a whole in most Western democracies have swung so far to the right, that really no one besides Corbyn and Sanders can even be described as leftists anymore. There are several key causes that can be explained as a general combined force, but have come together to make the right-wing shift radically rightward and the center-left head to the right of where the right-wing used to be. The shifts have been multifarious and subtle enough to not be noticed as a radical pendulum shift, but all the little hops along the way have suddenly led us to a place where the outrageously radical left is the only thing standing to the left of true center.
1. The learning of the military-industrial complex since the Vietnam War.
While the left went out and celebrated finally stopping an utterly insane slaughterhouse in Vietnam, the right went home and tried to learn from their mistakes. They realized that drafts were always going to create problems, so they altered the draft system into the Selective Service and went to work advancing the de facto economic draft. They improved jingoistic propaganda to promote the military, brought militaristic pride into sports and other venues where it would attract low-income soldiers who felt they had few or no other options. And they continued to buy massive amounts of technology to ensure that war would be more devastating for the “enemy” and less costly for US soldiers. They realized that only a few people cared about the dead Vietnamese in that war, but it was all the American body-bags that meant the gravy train of war had to end. So war would have to become more antiseptic, with fewer American casualties, so that more wars could be fought more often. The first Iraq War was the perfect test of the new approach to militarism, and went off without a hitch. By the time of the “War on Terror”, the military-industrial complex had ensconced a perfect system that “didn’t do body counts”, embedded journalists and the media right into the military, made sure everyone was on the same team, and neutralized all opponents as un-American. I could write tens of post on the little insidious ways all this has manifest since 9/11, but the groundwork for it was laid long before. The result is that even a President who most of the country saw as quite leftist and won the Nobel Peace Prize regularly kills named individuals abroad (something that was explicitly against US policy pre-9/11), intervenes with weaponry, advice, and soldiers in most armed conflicts around the world, keeps operating a prison that holds people who have been their for a decade and a half without charges, and is on a rather unscrutinized war footing with several foreign nations or people in their territory. And really no one questions it, outside of people in the radical left.
2. The advancement of debt as a tool of control.
Call this more learning from the Vietnam era. In an age when the most academically inclined and ambitious young people all gathered together to think about the future of their country for an affordable price, these campuses fomented a strong awareness of the problems with that society and how to fix them. These students were being raised as future leaders, they saw themselves that way, and anything was possible. In today’s economic landscape, college students don’t think of the future as a place of possibility, by and large. They think of the present as a brief respite from the real world, an oasis of personal exploration before they have to start paying for it, literally, for the rest of their life. While some are starting to break away from this system quite recently, most still believe that the piece of paper that comes at the end of this spending spree is the only possible ticket for the future they imagine and that the alternatives are too ghastly to contemplate. As a result, they willingly sign away their future economic well-being to have some hope at an even further-flung future of economic well-being. Thus, today’s college students are far more interested in law school, investment banking, corporate consulting, and anything else that greases the wheels of the neo-capitalist machine because it offers the whisper of relief from their enormous indebtedness. It’s all well and good to debate the merits and ethics of a job when one has economic freedom. When facing six figures of crippling debt that one cannot declare bankruptcy from, the choice quickly seems like fealty to the highest corporate bidder or death. Most choose the former. And thus the greatest minds of my generation expend their energy fueling an immoral system that places profit above people unquestioningly. Worse, almost everyone in that system feels they have no choice and no control, thus they don’t feel agency over the people-defeating choices they make. This is an incredibly right-wing system, but people just see it as “the way things are”. The result is massive wealth consolidation at the top and increased desperation at the bottom. And the bottom is increasingly close to 50% or 60% of the population.
3. The unfettered rise of the corporation.
When the corporation is the only thing that can save us from our debt, we increasingly see ourselves as workers first and everything else (family members, Americans, humans) second. Or last. The increasing rise of disaster capitalism, sampled in the dot-com bust and accelerated to a fever pitch in 2008’s financial crisis, have forced the issue time and again of the corporation’s pre-eminence over the nation-state. There have been so many insidious large and small steps in this chain of events that they are almost too difficult to all chronicle, though I have blogged about many of them individually. The endless rhetoric that government is inefficient while corporations are ruthlessly efficient, even though only corporations produce the waste we call “profit”. The meme that lowering taxes creates growth, despite forty years of evidence to the contrary. The definition of everything about the success and health of society in economic terms, which enables us to support things like a bloated, crippling private health industry that routinely bankrupts thousands of people each day because that industry is a huge portion of the economy and the health of “The Economy” is all that matters. Free-trade deals and agreements that offer massive power to corporations at the expense of countries. Corporate personhood. Citizens United and an unending stream of decisions that give corporations the power to buy off the government. Massive deregulation. The investment of everyone’s retirement fund into the stock market. Too big to fail. Bailouts left, right, and center. Unending zero-percent interest, amounting to an endless free loan to corporations direct from the printers of currency themselves. The list goes on and on and on.
4. The rise of the prison-industrial complex.
An unabated series of “tough on crime” local authorities have been able to arm their police forces like our new high-firepower dehumanized military and funnel people into prisons or graves. The dire consequences of this reality have only gotten attention in the last 18 months, somehow, despite years of an administration with an African-American President perfectly positioned to discuss these issues and bring them to the fore. Our police imprison and kill more people than any law-enforcement authority in the world, by far, and they are so sequestered and marginalized and sent away for so long, that no one advocates for them whatsoever. Worse, the increasing rise of private prisons means that conditions are more dehumanizing than ever, in the name of profit and shareholders, our new gods in the increasingly right-wing world. Anyone who disagrees is seen as pro-crime, someone who wants the world to be more dangerous, and disregarded.
5. The destruction of social safety nets.
The Clinton administration, arguably more of a shift to the right than even the Reagan presidency, is largely responsible for this one, though it’s been ongoing for some time. Policies like workfare, putting more pressure on the unemployed, the destruction of school lunches and mental health facilities and everything else that takes care of people at the bottom have combined to make being poor totally unlivable. The fact that government is no longer taking care of people at the bottom increases the pressure on them to put themselves in the dead-end economy, which is why so many single mothers are now working 2-3 jobs and are still completely unable to pay their bills. Mythical memes like “welfare queens” have fueled this crazy rage at the poor that has led to a massive increase in homelessness that would be out of control were so many people not, through #4 above, now housed in prisons instead. Non-profits have emerged and grown to pick up the slack left by government absence, but even these (and I say this as a loyal non-profiteer) are increasingly beholden to corporations and the wealthy to fund their efforts, leading to almost none of them advocating for policy changes. The more that the government is put out of the business of taking care of those at the bottom, the more that those already doing well financially are seen as the saviors of everything in society, creating greater loyalty to their interests, just as investing government pensions in the stock market creates government interest in propping up its value.
These are the big ones, though you can see that each contains a bevy of large and incremental changes that have lulled us into this right-wing fantasy world. And there have been just enough socially leftist changes to distract us from what a massive rightward tilt every other policy has made. The rise of gay marriage and legal marijuana, almost entirely through popular referenda or the courts, have made us think that political progress in the last thirty years is somehow a mixed bag, when actually it’s a giant right-wing stomp. But these also illustrate the ever-widening gap between politicians and the people. When the people get to decide directly, then left-wing policies tend to be enacted. Politicians would never have implemented gay marriage, as seen by how many establishment politicians took forever to endorse the policy. It’s only the courts, who remain relatively loyal to a set of principles, and the people, who fundamentally don’t seem to want all this reactionary policy (but feel powerless to stop it) who can implement anything to the left of center.
But that may be starting to change as the real leftists make an unlikely last gasp to save our democracy from itself. The burdens of austerity and corporate control have been so massive, the shifts in our priorities so rapid and fundamental, that socialists are the only ones left to speak of alternatives. It’s not stunning that veterans of the sixties are often the only ones left to speak for this possibility, since so many Millennials and Xers are too resigned to the status quo to believe that corporate control can be curbed. The old are an unlikely voice for radicalism, but that has not dampened how compelling these voices have been.
Taking control of the traditional left-wing party is, of course, only the beginning. The mechanisms that modern democracies have put in place to thwart a left-wing resurgence are multifarious. Corbyn now heads the Labour Party, but can he win a national election? Surely he seems to be the person who can bring SNP voters that fled Labour last time back into the fold as the possibility of a real shift left becomes feasible. But all the money and traditional corporate-fueled media is solidly against him, so it remains to be seen how it will play out. And Sanders is increasingly taking the lead in the race to functionally head the Democratic Party, but there’s a long way to go. Will this be a replay of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who upset incumbent LBJ and forced him out of the race, only to have the establishment regroup around RFK and HHH as alternatives, then kill off RFK so that Chicago’s convention could be stolen and the party restored to the power elites? Or will the momentum of Bernie be simply too popular, especially as the rise of Trump on the other side speaks to a populist rebellion that finally sees through the garbage of all the corporatist shenanigans above and wants a real change?
It’s an exciting time to look at these things, that much is clear. It may not be the terminal point of politics, but it’s a really exciting crossroads. We could realistically have a 2016 convention season that matters, where one or both of the delegate leaders have the nomination withheld by party elites as the Republican or Democratic establishment simply refuses to choose the person the people have chosen. And then what? Will we have four major candidates for President, including two major-party “choices” who the people have already rejected? Will there be any illusion of democracy after such an election season? Or will the parties go back to actually betting on the people and letting the chips fall where they may? Do corporations and the current complexes have enough of a hold on the pendulum that it cannot swing back naturally as political cycles tend to?
We’ll find out!
But to the extent that you can, you can influence these results. You, if you like the idea of democracy and want to give it another go, can try to be a believer. Don’t be skeptical, don’t give in to the voices saying “unelectable” and that it will never work. Because we get to choose. Or at least we can believe we can choose, and that might make all the difference.