Reformist Political Action as a Diversion, Part One

Over the weekend I saw some sort of Coffee Party event in the DC area featuring Annabel Park and other movement organizers.

I have to say, they seemed like a pretty nice bunch of people.  Of course after this past year, that’s a pretty low bar to clear.  They weren’t taunting people with Parkinson’s Disease, or screaming “nigger” and “faggot,” or generally giving the barking mad impression of someone about to start speaking in tongues and biting the heads off of snakes.

But nice or not, I got the clear impression that they could be best described by one word:  goo-goos.  If there’s one dominant theme in all the remarks by Park and other movement leaders up on that stage, it’s civic engagement and particpation.  One of them–I forget her name–quoted Churchill on democracy:  It’s the worst system except for all the others.  The political process is all we’ve got, she said, so we have to particpate in it and make sure it works as well as possible.  Throughout the meeting, I heard the same general idea restated by many different people:  Government is neither good nor evil, but a tool–and our responsibility is to see that it’s used for good.

The Tea Party folks may believe Obama was born in Kenya, or that he’s secretly a Muslim or a Marxist.  But they have one belief I agree with:  their distrust of government.  That doesn’t mean I endorse the batshittier stuff about black helicopters or white boxcars.  But even on that level, I think it’s safe to say that the boundaries between the kind of creeping bureaucratic authoritarianism we’ve experienced over the past thirty years of assorted wars against drugs and terror, and a full-blown dictatorship, are a lot blurrier than most people assume.

But even stipulating that most people engaged in government policy-making mean well (which is probably true), and leaving aside my moral objections to the initiation of force as a libertarian, I believe that making government the primary vehicle for achieving your ends is a fool’s errand.

One of the people at the Coffee Party event seemed to suggest as much, although I don’t think he fully grasped the implications of what he was saying.  He questioned the Coffee Party movement’s centrism, arguing that–far from simply wanting to split the difference between the “extremes” of left and right–most people in the movement were horrified by the corporate takeover of the political system and were critical of the Democratic leadership from the left.  And he pointed out just what a terrible, uphill struggle it was to participate in government or exert control over it in any meaninful sense without addressing the structural role of corporate power in the political system.  People could put every ounce of effort into electing “progressive” candidates–Obama and Pelosi are probably the most “progressive” president and speaker who will be elected for a generation, and hold the largest majority Democrats will probably hold for that length of time–and they still operate within a framework set by the corporations that fund their campaigns and provide most of the “expert” advice for their staffs in drafting legislation.

I think that guy had in mind a “solution” based on public campaign finance, or something of the sort.   But if he thinks that would end the corporate nature of our political system, he’s sadly mistaken.  I’ll concede it might lead to a form of corporate serfdom that’s a bit more  tolerable for us serfs, like the Western European model of  social democracy.  And given a choice between two forms of statism, I’ll be the first to admit I’d prefer the one that weighs less heavily on my neck.  I’d rather have six week vacations and free healthcare than live under the kind of sweatshop banana republic that people like Dick Armey and Tom Delay have wet dreams about.

But if that friendly left-wing critic of the Coffee Party movement thinks the European model of social democracy is any less corporate or any less capitalist than the Reagan-Thatcher model, he’s–again–sadly mistaken.  Like our American system, the European continental model is a system of power based on collusion between centralized big government and centralized big business.  The faction of organized capital that controls it is a little more enlightened and humane than the one that controls our banana republic, and they’ve got a big more sense when it comes to their long-term interests, but that’s about the only difference.  As I’ve said before, the main difference between the social democratic or New Deal corporate liberal model, and the Reagan-Thatcher model, is that the faction of organized capital that controls the former is like a humane farmer who thinks he’ll get more work out of his animals in the long run from taking good care of them; the faction that controls the latter is like Jones in Animal Farm, thinking it’s more profitable to work them to death and replace them.

But regardless of how humane our masters are, it’s hopeless to believe that political participation will make them any less our masters.  The state, in its essence, is a machine suited to control by insiders, and the coalition of insiders that controls it will always outlast any attempt at outside democratic control in the long run.

Stay tuned.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory