Beggars' Banquet

Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter,
His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray-suited grafters,
A choice of cancer or polio.
—The Rolling Stones

Three suffragists casting votes in New York City, 1917. Original caption: "Calm about it. At Fifty-sixth and Lexington Avenue, the women voters showed no ignorance or trepidation, but cast their ballots in a businesslike way that bespoke study of suffrage." National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress).

Quite often these days I’m stopped on the street by a young person with a clipboard who asks me if I want to help defeat George W. Bush (never, understandably, whether I want to vote for John F. Kerry). When I answer, as I always do, that "I am for the violent overthrow of the United States government and therefore not a big voter," I get a blank stare. No one ever tries to argue the point; I guess the idea just doesn’t compute.

This inability to imagine something beyond the standard menu of unpalatable options shapes even the most radical statement to appear in mainstream culture in recent memory, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: None of the many pieces I’ve read by reviewers and pundits, whether they thought the film was as terrific as I did or not, made anything of its ambivalence about electoral politics; perhaps Moore’s helplessness in the face of the political system’s inadequacy is so unexceptional that it is simply not noticed. Both the film and Moore in person have made clear their wish to see Bush voted out of office in November. But Fahrenheit 9/11 also shows how unlikely such a change would be to alter the social reality it exposes so effectively. The tale of the Republican theft of the presidency that opens the film climaxes in the powerful scene in which not a single senator, including the most liberal of Democrats, is willing to support the protest of the nonwhite members of the House of Representatives, preferring to lose the election for their party than to line up with the disenfranchised black voters of Florida. Instead we see Tom Daschle explaining the need to support the President, now that the Supreme Court has chosen him. This lesson is underlined by the other feature of the movie that went unmentioned: its description of the war on Iraq as only the latest episode in what Moore borrows Orwell’s words to call the permanent war of the wealthy against the working class. Maybe this thought was just too unusual to be noticed.

The Kerry campaign seems to have gone out of its way to justify Moore’s darkest thoughts. Perhaps it was to be expected that the first presidential candidate who is a self-proclaimed war criminal (though today he prefers not to remind us of his truthful testimony of thirty years ago) would structure the nominating convention around the theme of his readiness for battle. Kerry has gone so far as to insist that he would have voted for war against Iraq even if he’d known (as no doubt he did—after all, I did, along with most of the world) the facts about those WMD. Adopting the policy of pre-emptive attack, the Democratic alternative stresses only a different strategy for the defense of American national interests. On the domestic front, to the victims of the permanent war—the "middle class," as politicians always call them—the Democrats offer optimism, hope, and an insistence that "we must do better," but not a word as to how this is to be accomplished.

But everyone knows all this, including no doubt the young man who last asked me to vote for Kerry. It still seems to him, and many others, important to get rid of Bush. Bush did, after all, start a war for "no good reason." And it is true that on issues like worker safety and environmental degradation he is worse than recent Democrats, while his dependence on right-wing Christian votes leads him to oppose women’s reproductive rights and gay and lesbian civil rights. Those Supreme Court vacancies do indeed loom, likely to be filled by whoever is president during the next few years. Don’t we have to vote him out?

I’m reminded of the last time I was urged to vote with this degree of urgency. In 1964 Noam Chomsky himself told me I had to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson—if Goldwater won, he felt sure, there would be an escalation of the war in Vietnam. (That was the year SDSers chanted, "Part of the way with LBJ!") To bring this up may seem like a cheap shot, but I think there’s an important lesson here. And this is what it is:

It’s no longer true, as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century—when it divided anarchists in Spain before and during the Civil War and communists in Germany after the revolution of 1919—that electoralism is an important question for left-wing politics. For one thing, no one really believes, as many once did, that elections can bring radical change. Socialism and Communism have long been as dead in the democracies of the "West" as in the no-longer-really-existing socialisms of the "East." In fact, in the U.S. (and the trend is in this direction abroad) most people don’t believe in elections at all—remember, only about 40% of the electorate bothers to turn out for presidential contests and the voting percentage for legislative contests is much lower. Voting is largely a middle- to upper-income habit, an expression of the belief of that part of the population that does better than the majority that they have something at stake in the system and that they have some influence over it.

And they do, within rather narrow limits. Since the parties, like all consumer products, must differentiate themselves, one is more frankly pro-business, with God and "traditional marriage" stuck in for the yokels, the other more sympathetic to a kinder, gentler capitalism, with more money for teachers and social workers. Without influence from the particular cabal that was able to persuade Bush II to attack Iraq, Gore is unlikely to have been more eager to unseat Saddam Hussein than Bush I was. On the other hand, he might have devastated Afghanistan more thoroughly than the Republican regime did (this seems at any rate to be the emerging liberal consensus on what should have been done to "fight terrorism"). As things are, Kerry no more than Bush will pull American troops out of Iraq before they are driven out. Neither party is even going to raise the possibility of ceasing support for Israel’s war of attrition against the Palestinians, the one policy change that would actually constitute a serious response to political Islam. Domestically, neither is going to institute national health care or mandate a general increase in wages, vacation time, or job security.

This is not because they are mean, though they certainly are, or because they just haven’t been persuaded yet by The Nation’s columnists and contributors. As any newspaper reader can see, the degradation of working-class life, the dismantling of the welfare state, and military interference around the world are not even peculiar to the United States, much less to politicians in particular parties. They are general trends, expressing structural necessities of contemporary capitalism, to which all nations must submit; hence the sight of the Socialist government in Germany or the Workers Party government in Brazil promoting wage- and welfare-cutting "economic reforms" alongside Chirac in France, Putin in Russia, and the welfare-reforming Clinton and hospital-closing Bush in the U.S.A.

This doesn’t make reproductive rights or the preservation of old-growth forests less important. So those people who conceive of themselves as having a voice in such things will, as they say, hold their noses and vote for their causes. As the point was put, over and over, by Howard Dean in his debate with Ralph Nader, "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Behind this slogan is, of course, the assumption that the perfect, or even the much better, is impossible. And indeed it is true that Nader cannot possibly win, that American democracy rules out anything other than the two poles of the one big party. Beyond this, the basic thought is: we can’t do better than this. We’re stuck with the social system as it is; so all we can do is to try to improve it or at least keep it from getting worse.

So let’s ask: how has this strategy worked out? Since 1964, while I’ve been urged to vote in the name of realistic improvements, not impossible radical change, things have gotten worse and worse. The average wage has fallen steadily; fewer people have access to medical care; the environment has been so damaged that global warming is now a reality, not a distant danger, while water supplies are poisoned around the world and species are disappearing at frightening rates; nuclear weapons have proliferated; war has been continuous in one place or another; Africa has been devastated by disease and war; Latin America lurches between stagnation and crisis; a rising tide of politicized religion—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—fights with real success against the legacy of the Enlightenment. Voting may do no harm, but it’s not, as the politicians like to say, getting the job done.

The history of the last hundred years, in fact, shows clearly that so long as politics is imagined in electoral terms, we can expect nothing but more of the same—further deterioration of the life chances of the human race.

What else is there to do? If the Kerry campaigner would ask me seriously what I mean, what would I say? Well, we already know that voting for Kerry won’t end the war; he’s told us so himself. If that’s what people want, we would have to demonstrate not once or twice a year but every day, in the hundreds of thousands, just for starters. We’d have to stop going to work or school as usual. We’d have to break with the social norms of which half-hearted voting is just a minor part. We’d have to take our own slogans seriously: if the issue really is one of "blood for oil," we have to remember that oil is a pretty big deal, a matter of billions of dollars and crucial national economic and political interests. It took a general strike in 1936, with the threat of civil war, for French workers to win the month of paid vacation New York Times writers are always complaining about. It would have taken another one, and in Germany as well as France, to stop World War II.

It’s true: such thoughts are unrealistic. Realism, of course, means accepting the world as it is, being run into the ground by corporations served by the wretched politicians between whom we are asked to choose. The alternative is to refuse to let the lousy be the enemy of something better.


Paul Mattick

PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.