A contribution to the critique of politics, Part 2

Some of you may say, “Wait, Noaman, you still haven’t addressed the point Adnan made. What about good people?”

The reality of the political system is that to be able to get elected to begin with, you have to trade off a lot of things — like your integrity, dignity and principles. You trade them off to people in the party, to corporations and businesses that fund your campaign and your party, to the many rich individuals who do the same separately from their corporations, etc. (What about unions? We have seen, and we will see, how many of them end up colluding with the ruling classes. So what about the unions?)

Additionally, many of the people who have the means and opportunity to run for office happen to be from remarkably privileged occupations or backgrounds. I remember, a few years ago, watching Ernie Eves say how he understands the difficult of high tuition fees because his children have to go through university, too. But Eves worked in the private sector making millions of dollars every year. So what on earth is he talking about?

So, to recap a bit, it’s not just the objective structural conditions of the global economic system, the global transnational structures, but also the structure of this representative democracy. Why, for instance, is it based on geographical representation? The Undecided Party of Canada (yes, a satirical site) makes a remarkable and insightful observation:

Rather than proportional representation, or the current first past the post formula based on geographic ridings, we suggest a system of Representation By Income.

Instead of running for the population of a certain locale (after all, physical geography means less and less in these changing times), MP hopefuls would campaign for the right to represent various income brackets. (Some for those below poverty level, some for the 40-50 thousand per year bracket, some for the millionaire’s club.) Naturally, since there are many more Canadians at the lower end of such a scale, they would elect more MPs and receive more representation in Ottawa – which is, of course, a 180-degree reversal of the current situation.

Brilliant. And if any of you are supporters — or campaigners — of MMP, and want to take this proposition on instead, then you have my support all the way.

But, the question still remains, if voting isn’t going to change anything significantly, then what? So what then?

Back to Fathima’s post, where one SK makes an insightful comment:

I have held the position that the only thing that pushes change is, at the end of the day, money.

You can talk,you can write, you can protest, you can rally, you can go light yourself on fire and jump off a cliff. The world doesn’t give a damn. Paint me cynical, jaded, what have you, the only thing that drives change, infact, that really drives _anything_ is money, and its respective exchange.

Perhaps it is because the people who are in the position to actually _make_ the change are generally people who are more concerned about financial risk vs. return. As such, rallies and protests are only as effective as the amount of financial risk it can pose to the challenged party. Once this risk exceeds the expected return from the challenger party, the challenged is forced to acquiesce.

talks, discussions and rallies, are only as useful as the amount of financial damage they can cause.

Yes. And no.

SK is correct in that what motivates any significant change on the parts of the ruling classes is financial damage. When the entire economic and political system is structured upon the maximization of profits for a select few then this should come as no surprise. The idea of financial damage is, broadly speaking, one aspect of the politics of disruption. Financial damage is, fundamentally, what a workers’ strike is all about. The union strikes to cause financial damage to the boss, and the boss concedes to its demands or at the least negotiates. The problem is that a strike cuts both ways: striking workers are not receiving their pay — it takes a lot of fortitude to keep a strike going. The extension of a particular strike to a widespread strike of several workplaces is a general strike. This is how unions achieved such things as the weekend and the eight-hour working day and the minimum wage: by striking, causing significant financial damage to the bosses, and even fighting in the streets with the police — lackeys of the elites.

Lately, many unions (in North America, at least) have really just deteriorated. But, in all fairness, I say this as someone who has been a non-active member of two unions (or, to be more precise, two locals of the same union). The latest, CUPE 3903, is perhaps one of the best unions around — it has negotiated one of the best collective bargaining agreements for TAs, GAs and contract faculty through long and arduous struggles. However, Sam Gindin’s critique of the latest debacle by the United Auto Workers of the United States is certainly very piercing: the UAW was in the position to bring up many issues in a broader context of class struggle — like universal healthcare — but failed to do so. Many commentators have pointed out that too many unions have been incorporated into the very structure I’ve been talking about, losing much of their ability to be radical, disruptive, and transformative forces. That doesn’t mean that the potential has been lost, just that it’s been appropriated by the guardians of “the economy.”

But going back to SK’s point, it’s true, rallies and talks and events aren’t really going to do much to make significant impacts on the social conditions. Do we expect that those in power are going to listen to our superior ideas and acquiesce? Marx:

In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.

As Fathima points out, the politics of disruption can work, at least to some degree, in achieving certain goals:

do you really need examples of important disruptive politics? the first one that comes to mind is the the American civil rights movement in the 60s. even the Indian independence movement was about disruption. [...]
and yes, before you say it, the civil rights movement is an ongoing, incomplete struggle. and yes, the birth of India as a nation-state led to millions of deaths.
but those ‘rallies’ achieved their specific goals.

That is the rub.

yes, there were people willing to sit down and talk about negroid rights and there were people willing to talk about the possibility of Bengali babus maybe one day ruling themselves. but the people who were doing the talking were always the ones with the most invested in keeping politics limited to a series of polite talks.

Yes, that’s true. But it’s also true that many of the people who were the most invested in keeping politics limited to a series of polite talks were the ones who actually ended up leading the mass movements and turning India into their little pocketbook instead of a revolutionary and egalitarian society. The British left India when their occupation became too expensive to administer. I’m not saying that, necessarily, the leaders of the mass movements (Gandhi, in particular, comes to mind) were all corrupt and useless — but they were too bourgeois-minded to really look at structural transformation. They saw themselves as the future, and indeed, the future was all about them and their dynasties. It still is, for them. They were nowhere near as prescient (or as I see it, as sincere) as Bhagat Singh, but they’ll appropriate his memory as much as they can.

The point is that even disruption and massive change can still be only skin deep.

So it really does matter how we approach these struggles. We have to make the lives of the ruling class as miserable as they make our lives. Then, and only then, are we going to be able to change the world. But to do so, our process has to be at least a reflection of the world we want. Is it just to replace foreign rulers with local rulers, or to get rid of rulers entirely? Is it to modify distribution a bit here and there to no avail, or to get rid of this exploitative system of production we call capitalism entirely? To quote the students of the May 1968 uprising in France:

Pas de replâtrage, la structure est pourrie.
No replastering, the structure is rotten.

What 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 without seeing its unequal distribution. But, actually, many do see that. What many fail to see entirely is that the distribution is tied to the production. This is inescapable, but I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’d like to return to what SK said, that talks, discussions, rallies, protests are all useless because they don’t achieve anything.

Let us turn to see what these actions can achieve, and how, in the next installment. Part 3 is upcoming.

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7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Sean said,

    October 13, 2007 @ 5:19 pm

    I really like the idea of radically restructuring electoral politics. However, I don’t think Representation by Income goes far enough. It only takes class into consideration. What about gender, what about race? A poor single mother certainly would certainly be more immediately concerned about daycare than a single man of the same income bracket. A white middle-class woman might not have the same urgent interest in challenging institutional discrimination as a woman of the same income level who is a visible minority or transgendered individual. By sticking just to class, we would deny agency to many other important concerns. In thinking about alternative modes of social organization it is imperative that we engage with the **intersections** of class, race, and gender. Dealing with them separately would be completely ineffective.

    I like where our collective thinking is headed. Looking forward to Part 3.

  2. 2

    noaman said,

    October 13, 2007 @ 11:23 pm

    You’re absolutely correct. Thank you for pointing out that it’s not just about class, but that class also intersects and articulates with race and gender and disability in so many ways. This is an important point that cannot be stressed enough. (And I’m sorry for not calling back!)

    I just put out the UPC’s suggestion on electoral reform by class as an illustration of not only how arbitrary the current electoral system is but how discriminatory it is. I think that the entire idea (and actual practice) of electoral politics is sketchy. We’re led to believe that democracy is about delegating responsibility instead of taking it upon ourselves. We’re led to believe that democracy is about the “majority” (whatever that means) rather than acknowledging that, as Marx said, the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

    Looking toward Venezuela, we see some interesting alternatives to simple electoral politics being developed, i.e., the communal councils. This is still in its infancy, but I think it’s worth looking at the idea and the practice of it.

  3. 3

    alex said,

    October 14, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

    I’ve been following this post from Fathima’s blog and it’s made for some very interesting and enlightening reading.

    While I see where the brackets can be drawn quite clearly with representation by income or gender, it’s difficult for me to imagine the borders for race – would it be white vs. The Coloured? Would voters identify themselves within a certain race or would they be designated by a third party? Similar questions probably exist for representation by gender as well.

    I think what I’m getting is that I can’t see how any electoral system can be determined without a fair amount of discrimination or capriciousness…

  4. 4

    Adnan. said,

    October 14, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

    Okay, I’m politically challanged.

    Can someone please tell me how I can vote for a good person? How we can get good people to run for office?

    Is it money that they need? I’m sure there’s some good folk out there willing to put their money behind other good folk.

    Can someone translate all of this into Adnan dummy talk?

  5. 5

    noaman said,

    October 15, 2007 @ 2:50 am

    Adnan: Your looking for a “good person” or “good people” to participate in electoral politics is basically moot because electoral politics is a faulty premise to begin with. It doesn’t matter how good the people are, the system sucks.

    alex: You’re right, the boundaries for any of those categories is sketchy. Even class is flexible, and people and families can have multiple class positions (e.g., working class students in petty bourgeois families, etc.).

  6. 6

    Faiza said,

    October 15, 2007 @ 9:52 am

    So far, so good. =)
    Looking forward to Part 3.

  7. 7

    fathima said,

    October 16, 2007 @ 11:35 pm

    I’m glad I didn’t reply immediately to this post, because my first reaction to the Representation By Income system was that it seems like an amazing idea. But Sean makes excellent points about the importance of acknowledging the intersections of class, race, and gender – and these are only the points of identity and difference that we recognise as such. As our awareness of identity politics (for lack of a better phrase) grows in breadth and subtlety, we’ll learn to add more qualifiers (educational background, accessibility issues, etc), until it seems to me that the voters (if we’re still operating in a voting system) should get to choose their own groups of identification.
    - But that way anarchy leads. Yes? What I am seeing is something that looks like this:
    The voters create their own ‘parties’ … and the representatives choose the parties they’d want to lead and try and persuade that group to allow them to lead. So the onus would be on the voters to organise themselves into voting blocs – And now I am sitting back and thinking wth, because, in practice, I hate the concept of voting blocs, especially religiously based ones. But these ‘blocs’ would be different and (in theory) people wouldn’t restrict themselves to single-node identity politics.

    The point is that even disruption and massive change can still be only skin deep.

    So you’re saying this is why things somehow never seem to change, even after so-called revolutions? Other people would put that down to the intrinsic corruptability and laziness of humanity and to the inescapable circularity of history. But I take it that’s not your stance.

    We have to make the lives of the ruling class as miserable as they make our lives.

    Hm. This is a binary (‘ruling class’ vs ‘us’) that makes me uncomfortable, because it assumes that we are not members of said ‘ruling class.’ And I think the issue of ruling/notruling is really a comparative one, not a clear cut one of financial status. Being able to work, to get health care, etc – these are our rights as citizens/landed immigrants. Illegal immigrants would argue that those rights make us members of the ‘ruling class.’
    Identification with a entire working class (defined in opposition to a hegemonic ‘ruling class’) seems problematic and slightly romantic to me.

    … it’s true, rallies and talks and events aren’t really going to do much to make significant impacts on the social conditions.

    This is sort of an aside – but I want also to talk about to the ways in which symbols are important. So, leaving aside for a moment the issue of physical action and quantifiable results, I think there is value in the image of resistance – in the purely performative aspect of resistance, in other words.
    I’m not suggesting that you’ve constructed a binary here in which the act precludes the image of resistance, because I don’t think you have. It’s just something that I’m struggling with, particularly because current notions of trendy activism reduce activism to nothing more than a series of symbolic gestures (tshirts, wristbands, walks, concerts).
    So yeah, I’m just putting it out there, because I can’t yet articulate a blurring of boundaries between the resistance that insists on results and the resistance that makes a point.
    But um, yeah, you don’t have to talk about that in this series.

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