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The Pathology of the Electorate

It's painful to submit to our bosses; it's even more stupid to choose them!
It's that time again. Every other year we go through this same ritual. Every other year, the energies and passions of thousands of good, compasionate and thoughtful people are funneled into a farcical ceremony that will rearrange the boots that rest upon the napes of our necks. Doctor Wilhelm Reich, after escaping the German National Socialist regime, had the courage to ask a very simple question. "Why do people desire their own oppression?" Unfortunately, he never found an answer, and we've never gotten one, either. But all we have to do is watch the wheels on the campaign trail roll and it is clear enough to see HOW people desire their own oppression. They do it by throwing themselves at the feet of those who would tread more lightly upon themselves and more brutally upon their enemies. If you listen closely, you can hear the thwapping of floggers on the backs of the electorate emanating from polling booths across the country. The gut-wrenching drama of an election hanging in the balance of a few pregnant chads is nothing compared to the millions upon millions of bowed heads, dangling egos and crushed dignities decorated with those insipid "I voted!" stickers on election day. Rarely, unfortunately, is this perverse, sadomasochistic ritual questioned. Don't get me wrong—I have no problem with bondage-play and SM. The problem is that in electoral politics, we have no safe words. Immediate recall by referendum would be a step in the right direction.

Santa Cruz, of course, is not immune to this dysfunction. Take, for instance the "No on P" campaign. As austere as the position of the promoters of Measure P is, it is nothing compared to the idiocy of this "Protect Our City!" rhetoric. Nowhere is the prostrate position of even the most radical progressives of Santa Cruz more evident than in this campaign. The real message of this No on P rhetoric is "Please retain the status quo bureacratic infrastructure. We lack the imagination and genuine sense of community and solidarity necessary to provide for ourselves and one another without it. Without the police, Santa Cruz would turn to a murderous bloodbath and even my own toothbrush would become fair game to my covetous neighbors. Without social services, we progressive folk would have to take it upon OURSELVES to care for the homeless, the victims of sexual abuse, the hungry, the displaced, the depressed, the mentally ill and the unemployable, and without the government to sequester that kind of work into specialized, over-worked and under-paid professions, we would become cruel and resentful creatures. God save the tax base!" All of this is probably true, but let's call a spade a spade. A "no" vote on P is not the principled stand of a progressive idealist. It is the vote of a cynic who senses his alienation from her own community and who fears the result when local government ceases to be able to fund projects to mitigate that alienation.

Then we have the Mark Primack campaign. Recently, a letter from Kimberly Carter, the founder of Above the Line, was circulated in support of Primack. The crux of the letter? "'Be the change' we want to see by voting for Mark Primack." Just when I though the Santa Cruz electorate couldn't possibly get any more dissociated.... Suddenly, the entirety of our capacity to change the course of history, the totality of the collective skills, knowledge, experience and resources we have at our disposal to create and even to BE the positive change we want to see in Santa Cruz--all of this has been distilled into a 30-minute-long ritual having little-to-nothing to do with our daily lives, with an end result of several more years living in the illusion that someone else knows better than we do how to run our lives and sustain our community. Again, to translate the mesage of this campaign statement, it goes something like this: "Be the change we want to see by deprioritizing your power to make change in your daily life with people you know and trust. Instead, rely on the witness of people you don't know to make decisions about who will dictate policy and action on myriad issues in your area, largely without any accountability." Yeah, that's real empowering. As writen on the walls in Paris in 1968, "It's painful to submit to our bosses; it's even more stupid to choose them!"

I for one, hold a more optimistic vision of what humans can accomplish together through voluntary cooperation in the absence of coercive force. Government is but a poor approximation--an ossified representation--of the power of people working in concert to care for themselves and one another. Government is a crutch for people too disconnected from and distrustful of one another to take collective action without getting at each other's throats. We can do much better than "less evil", but only if we can envision something beyond the "necessary evil" of representative government and take it upon ourselves to build a participatory alternative to the electoral system.

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The Limits of Electoral Politics


Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of "government":

(1) Unrestricted freedom
(2) Direct democracy
(3) Delegate democracy
(4) Representative democracy
(5) Overt minority dictatorship

The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a facade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). . . .

In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected officials. The candidates' stated policies are limited to a few vague generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their actual decisions on hundreds of issues -- apart from the feeble threat of changing one's vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in "democratic" regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don't even know who they are. . . .

In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on others to act for them, distracting them from more significant possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil.

Even in the rare case when a "radical" politician has a realistic chance of winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few "progressive" measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.

As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, "It's painful to submit to our bosses; it's even more stupid to choose them!"

[Excerpts from "The Joy of Revolution." To see the complete text, click .]



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