A contribution to the critique of politics, Part 1

Fathima‘s written a post that revolves around the rally against poverty that was organized on September 26. The post questions the politics of rallies — featuring a conversation Fathima and I had some nights ago — but also brings up broader issues of political action and social change. The comments are also interesting to read, and that’s where I’d like to begin responding. Starting from the particular might help me build up to some of the broader themes I’d like to address.

Speaking against the efficacy of rallies as a tool for political change, Adnan says:

The way to bring about change it (sic) to really choose good people for government that will indeed bring about change. Don’t vote for anyone you don’t trust with your cat and plants.

Fathima responds:

have you seen the choices? Tory vs McGuinty. i wouldn’t trust them with my flipflops.

But let’s say we do have good choices. Let’s say that the NDP will probably win, and that we actually would trust these individuals with our cats, plants, flip flops, and whatever else. Does this preclude the NDP’s taking measures that are seen as being destructive and regressive? No, not at all. This is because — regardless of how nice they are — politicians have to conform to the constraints imposed upon them by objective, structural forces.

For instance, in 1991 the NDP was elected to the government of Ontario in the midst of the worst recession since the depression of the 1930s. This period saw the start of the increase of tuition fees, the cutting of social services and regressive handling of labour laws. The NDP government did not want to be saddled with a crippling deficit, and did everything it could to limit it. Let’s take an example that’s more recent, when the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty were elected in 2003, they inherited a deficit (of, they said, 5.6 billion dollars). The government’s priority was to bring that deficit under control and this involved the neglect of social services (that had been decimated under the Progressive Conservative governments), the further increase of tuition fees, and the imposition of a “health premium” that targeted working families the most. All this while millions of dollars of subsidies were provided to automobile manufacturers because their sales were slipping, but they nevertheless ended up getting rid of thousands of jobs and throwing people out on the streets. Even the Canadian Auto Workers union was all for the subsidies to the automobile manufacturers knowing full well that jobs would be cut anyway. Why? Because of the structural constraints of “the economy.”

The problem, to put it in another way, is that it doesn’t matter who you elect because these people still have to dance to the tune of neoliberal ideology that sees the expansion of markets and free trade as the method of producing greater wealth. (A model that ignores the incredibly inequality of the distribution of wealth.) It’s all about the prevailing economic model and whatever seems to be the right thing to do under that. We can’t raise taxes on corporations because they’ll relocate to the United States! We can’t raise the minimum wage because that’ll make employers get rid of employees! We can’t lower tuition fees because that’ll constrain the choices of universities! What about the billion dollar surpluses that the federal government keeps ringing in? Ever since the days of Paul Martin as finance minister, these surpluses have gone to reducing Canada’s national debt. Why? To make the economy more competitive. Whatever that means.

What we have here is a system where the particular class interests of the elite are projected as the generalized interests of all. And thus, everyone jumps through the same hoops. How they jump through them is a matter of some leeway, but they still have to jump through the same hoops.

Change the system!

Okay. This is the slogan of those promoting the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system in favour of the already existing FPTP (First Past the Post) system. I agree that MMP will increase choices. I will even say that the resulting shift in the balance of forces may result in better policies — more or less — for the working-class and the poor. It might have the exact opposite effect with fascists holding the balance of power. Shiny. But in any case, the overarching structure has not changed. We have the exact same institutions, the same bureaucracy, the same kinds of people (mainly rich people, or people with rich benefactors, or both) in the same positions that stifle our reality everyday. Fantastic.

I think it was Rousseau who pointed out that those in representative democracies only really practice democracy once every few years (when they go to the polls), the rest of the time living like slaves. But really, what sort of democracy are you practicing when a few parties (i.e., from two to five) have formed an oligopoly on power? Alas, it seems that voting is not the answer to our problems. Rather, so-called representative democracy is the problem to our solution.

So then what?

I ask, if you’ve been reading this eagerly (which I really doubt), for some patience. The next part to this is coming soon, and you can always keep me honest by criticizing this piece and reminding me that the next one is due.

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5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Adnan. said,

    October 11, 2007 @ 10:26 pm

    I just read the first and last paragraph of this post and I just can’t wait for the next part.

    I hope it’s a summary of this part.

  2. 2

    fathima said,

    October 12, 2007 @ 12:23 am

    “… regardless of how nice they are — politicians have to conform to the constraints imposed upon them by objective, structural forces.”
    yes. this is true. but i’m going to wait to read the rest of your pieces, before saying more, because i don’t honestly see how i can move on beyond that point. i can’t visualise for myself a system that doesn’t degenerate into the same problems of representation. unless we move away entirely from the concept of ‘parties’ and such. but i don’t see how that’s feasible in an urban context, with cities overflowing with people. i can see how it might work for individuals to speak for themselves in smaller communities – but in cities?
    but maybe you are going to suggest something else.

    “Rather, so-called representative democracy is the problem to our solution.”
    so, wait, was the solution that representative democracy has problematised?

  3. 3

    Sean said,

    October 13, 2007 @ 12:29 am

    I can’t remember if we’ve discussed this before, but my biggest problem with the OCAP protest (and that form of struggle in general) is that it only challenges the system within the rules of the structure itself. I don’t think such forms of protest speak the language of the oligarchs. We need to find innovative and effective methods of challenging the system–we must learn to inconvenience those in power. We need to let them know that we speak their language, and that we are able to conceptualize of a world in which they occupy a radically different position. And not just economically. That’s about as far as my thinking goes. I’ve been thinking a bit about the potential for radical pedagogy in the education of children. Laying the pyschological foundation for the conceptualization and realization of alternative modes of existence. I’ve heard some interesting things from people who know much more than I do.

    I look forward to your next post and any thoughts on what I’ve written.

  4. 4

    noaman said,

    October 13, 2007 @ 1:58 am

    I’m getting there, Sean, take a crack at Part 2 and I hope that it begins to get in the direction of your concerns.

  5. 5

    nomes » A contribution to the critique of politics, Part 2 said,

    October 13, 2007 @ 2:07 am

    [...] we need, really, is fundamental, structural change. Earlier (in Part 1), I mentioned how many people see that massive wealth is produced in this capitalist society [...]

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