'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 7) 

Somebody gets it:

Thus, if you're committed to human emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization, Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.

Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can move their operations to other places, they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Economic power is not relinquished without a fight. And even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists, they will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get the limits and regulations repealed. Witness the slicing and dicing of the regulatory apparatus put in place in the 1930s over the period from 1973-present. It took a while, but their incessant pressure and efforts eventually paid off.

It is also crucial to point out here that the struggle to reconfigure economic power via electoral institutions never occurs on a level, fair playing field. This struggle always occurs within a social formation already organized around concentrations of class power. Moreover, even when a progressive left-wing government is elected, it runs up against the entrenched extra-electoral power of capitalists. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.

Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.

Multinational corporations in Chile such as the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) set to work quickly to fight against Allende, and they weren't interested in trying to win the battle over electoral terms (a battle, the company's owners realized, they'd have little way of winning in the face of a broad popular mandate for Allende's policies). We now know from memos circulated amongst elites in ITT and the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company that their goals were to "“to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Allende". Also- their influence convinced the US and related institutions like the World Bank to impose an economic blockade on Chile to help the destabilization effort.

The point of this is that all of these efforts were effective against a democratically-elected representative government precisely because of the concentrations of economic power under capitalism. Admittedly, "dictatorship" somewhat overstates the case, but the Allende case makes the point that this stranglehold on productive, economic power by a small class must be challenged for democracy to be possible.

Faced with this problem, Obama has responded by turning his economic policy over to Wall Street, his foreign policy over to the Pentagon and his health care program to pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. Confronted with the same challenge in Venezuela, Chavez persuaded the populace to change the constitution and distributed the benefits of the country's oil wealth throughout the society, provoking an unsuccessful 2002 coup and a 2004 recall referendum. Evo Morales has pursued a similar approach in Bolivia. Chavez has won numerous elections in Venezuela with substantial pluralities (all greater than the margin of Obama's 2008 victory), and Morales recently won reelection with a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Both rose to power with the assistance of social movements that challenged the existing political structure by giving expression to the grievances of marginalized people.

Chavez and Morales are, it seems, bent upon proving Trotsky wrong (and, by extension, his nemesis, Kautsky, the turn of the century German Social Democrat who advocated socialism by recourse to parliamentary democracy, correct), while Obama, consistent with Trotsky's analysis, but contrary to his intention, has adopted a strategy of pragmatic accommodation with the dominance of capital within the US political system. LIke DeGaulle, both Chavez and Morales will eventually confront the dilemma of their succession, and the survival of a political movement reliant upon charismatic leadership, no matter how long they delay it. Conversely, just as Obama has carried out a seamless transition of many of the policies of the Bush presidency into his own, so will his successor. While, unlike Chavez and Morales, there is a limit upon how many terms Obama can serve, there are no such limits upon the capital friendly policies that have characterized his presidency to date.

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