Elections and Ruling Class Strategy
The electoral circus is clearly at the heart of the political strategy of the bourgeoisie in the current period. Revolutionaries differ from the bourgeois media pundits because our concern is not to make electoral predictions or succumb to immediatist and empiricist temptations in dissecting the minutiae of the day-to-day evolution of the electoral circus, but to understand the historic role of elections for the bourgeoisie and the strategic interests at stake for the ruling class.
Historical Perspective on Electoralism in the Workers' Movement
In the period of capitalist ascendance, when capitalism was still historically progressive, in the sense that it was capable of materially advancing the forces of production, the proletarian revolution was not yet on the historical agenda. As pointed out in the ICC's Platform, "in a period when the revolution was not yet on the agenda and when the proletariat could wrest reforms from within the system, participation in parliament allowed the class to use it to press for reforms, to use electoral campaigns as a means for propaganda and agitation for the proletarian programme, and to use parliament as a tribune for denouncing the ignominy of bourgeois politics."
However these social and political characteristics changed drastically with the onset of decadence around the time of World War I. The possibility of wresting durable social reforms from the capitalist system no longer existed, and the orientation of the workers movement toward electoralism and parliamentarism was fundamentally altered. At its Second Congress, the Communist International asserted that "the centre of gravity of political life has now been completely and finally removed beyond the confines of parliament." In decadence, the determination of political policy switched definitively into the hands of the executive branch, the permanent bureaucracy in particular, which rules in the global interest of the national capital. Each capitalist state became locked in a permanent, deadly competition with rival imperialisms as the complete division of the world market created the conditions in which economic expansion was possible only at the expense of rival powers, ultimately through world imperialist war. Despite the ideological campaigns and slogans used to mobilize popular support, the First and Second World Wars were fought in essence to re-divide the world market.
With the disappearance of the historical circumstances that made elections relevant to the workers movement, parliamentarism inevitably became an instrument of political mystification, an ideological swindle perpetuating the democratic myth and obscuring the true nature of the capitalist class dictatorship and fostering the illusion that working people can participate in the determination of governmental policies. On this level, the electoral circus represents the grand ideological maneuver of the bourgeoisie. For the greater part of the past century the American bourgeoisie has been particularly adept in controlling presidential campaigns to put in place political teams that would be capable of implementing its strategic orientations and promote the credibility of the electoral circus. The party in power in the White House was generally determined by carefully orchestrated media manipulation of the electoral process to generate the desired outcomes. Political discipline within the ruling class under which the major parties and their candidates could be relied upon to accept the division of labor determined by the dominant fractions within the ruling class further guaranteed the smooth working of the democratic mystification. Thus for example in 1960, when Kennedy achieved a narrow electoral victory over Nixon through voter fraud by the Daley political machine in Chicago, Nixon chose not to file a legal challenge to the election, but displayed his adherence to bourgeois political discipline by accepting the results in the interests of national unity.
The factors at play in determining the desired left-right political division of labor at the level of the national state may vary depending upon prevailing domestic or international circumstances. For example, when it is necessary for the bourgeoisie to initiate a new round of austerity attacks against the proletariat, it is often useful to put the right in power and the left in opposition. When it is necessary to derail a rising tide of class struggle, it may be useful to put the left in power. On the other hand, in 1992 when George W. Bush displayed ineffectiveness in responding to the imperialist challenges confronting the US after the collapse of the post World War II imperialist bloc system, the bourgeoisie opted to limit him to one term in office. Perot's third party candidacy that siphoned off votes from Bush, facilitated Clinton's victory with only 48 percent of the popular vote.
The Impact of Social Decomposition on the Electoral Circus
Since the collapse of the postwar bipolar imperialist bloc system in 1989, the US bourgeoisie has experienced increasing difficulty in effectively controlling the electoral charade. One of the central characteristics of capitalist decomposition is the rise of the tendency of "each for himself," a losing sight of more global perspectives, and a breakdown of political discipline within the bourgeoisie itself. In the presidential elections in particular this has been characterized by a trend toward "a win at any cost" mentality, a thirst for power at the expense of the long term interests of the ruling class. The 2000 electoral debacle was a glaring example of this loss of control. The ruthlessness of the Bush campaign in stealing an election in which it lost the popular vote and had to rely on the corrupt machinations of Jeb Bush's machine in highjacking the Florida vote count demonstrated the degree to which "each for himself" had put in question the capacity of the ruling class to control the political apparatus. This malfunctioning of the bourgeoisie political process led to a situation in which the Bush administration's inept imperialist policy blunders proved disastrous for the US, squandering the political capital/moral authority acquired on the international level in the aftermath of the of 9/11 and the gains made in securing working class acquiescence in rallying behind the state for war. This isolated US imperialism internationally, undermined military preparedness to respond to challenges to US hegemony in other theaters, and destroyed popular support for war, especially in the working class.
This continuing political disarray of the bourgeoisie contributed to a situation in 2004 in which the dominant fractions of the bourgeoisie delayed so long in deciding on its desired political division of labor that despite the best efforts of the media to skew its coverage to favor Kerry and of the permanent bureaucracy in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence community to undermine Bush's reelection possibilities with a steady flow of embarrassing and scandalous revelations, the bourgeoisie failed yet again to achieve its desired results. The 2006 midterm Congressional elections, which produced Democratic majorities in both Houses momentarily revived the electoral mystification as a means to bring about change. But the failure of the Democrats to force significant alterations in imperialist policy quickly produced a new round of popular political disenchantment.
The Political Goals of the Current Electoral Circus
There are two fundamental political objectives for American the dominant fractions of the American capitalist class in the coming presidential election:
a rectification of the Bush administration's disastrous imperialist policies in order to significantly restore American authority on the international level,
a total refurbishment of the democratic mystification, which has taken a terrible beating since the year 2000.
Rectification of Imperialist Policy.
The bourgeoisie has already made great strides in setting the stage for a full scale redressment of the catastrophic implementation of imperialist policy by the Bush administration. With virtually all of the neo-cons driven from the administration and the forced resignation of their close ally, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney is essentially the only hardcore hawk remaining in the inner circles of the administration. The permanent bureaucracy in the State Department, Defense Department, and the CIA, which represents the continuity of American imperialist policy through both Democratic and Republican administrations since the collapse of Russian imperialism in 1989, is increasingly exerting its influence in Washington. The neutralization of the Cheney-inspired campaign to stir up yet another preventative war, this time against Iran, is testimony to the power of this permanent bureaucracy. Career foreign service officials opposed the war plans as yet another irrational policy that would further isolate US imperialism on the international level. Military leaders were painfully aware that American forces are already stretched way too thin to sustain a third front in yet another theatre. And the intelligence bureaucracy, sick and tired of having its intelligence gathering manipulated and twisted by Cheney and the neo-cons with disastrous consequences, gave the administration's bellicose Iran policy the kiss of death by releasing its National Intelligence Estimate findings that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program over three years ago, thus eliminating the rationale of the Bush administration's bellicose policy.
This sets the stage for an even more far reaching realignment of imperialist policy. Whoever wins the White House in November, the struggle of the dominant fraction of the bourgeoisie to pursue a more sophisticated, more "multilateral" imperialist policy, that will lessen American imperialism's growing isolation and reestablish its authority on the international level seems to be making significant headway. Even McCain, who supported Bush's ‘troop surge" last year and still defends the invasion of Iraq, is committed to more multilateral policies and a longer term vision of imperialist military planning.
Refurbishing the Democratic Mystification.
Initially it seemed that the 2006 election constituted a reinvigoration of an electoral mystification that had been badly tarnished by both the stolen presidential election of 2000 and the failure of the American ruling class to accomplish its belated 2004 consensus on the need to elect John Kerry president. By contrast, the 2006 election which put the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, was portrayed in the capitalist media and by prominent politicians in both major parties, as an expression of the political will of the American people for an end to the war in Iraq, for a change in political direction at the national level. Politicians and political pundits alike threw around phrases like "a swing in the political pendulum," and a "tremendous blow to the Republican party," and there was growing acceptance of the notion that the Republicans were destined to take up the role of political opposition in the future political division of labor. For a while it truly seemed like the sorely eroded public confidence in the electoral process had been restored. But this proved to be short lived as the failure of the Democrats to overcome the Bush administration's continued resistance to end the war in Iraq revived skepticism about the effectiveness of electoralism as a means of expressing the "popular will." Public opinion polls showed the approval ratings of both Bush and Congress hovering at record low levels, approaching 29%. The electorate was just as fed up with the Democrats as they were with the Republicans.
The bourgeoisie desperately needs the 2008 election to revive its central ideological swindle. Having squandered the fruit of its 2006 election so quickly and given the persistent difficulty of the bourgeoisie's dominant fractions to control the electoral process in the context of worsening social decomposition, it is not clear whether the ruling class will be successful in reinvigorating the democratic mystification. Having started out riding a tidal wave of opposition to the war in Iraq, the remaining Democratic presidential candidates now openly acknowledge that an early troop withdrawal is impossible and predict that troops will have to remain in Iraq for quite some time. Even Obama, the most "anti-war" of the candidates, promises a "responsible," "orderly" withdrawal that might take two years or more to complete.
In recent weeks we have once again seen the impact of decomposition on the election, the same win at any cost ruthlessness that characterized the stolen election of 2000, in Hillary Clinton's destructive "Tonya Harding" strategy which puts at risk the bourgeoisie's capacity to regain control over the electoral process. While it is not our concern to predict the election results, it is clear that the bourgeoisie could live with the any of the three remaining candidates, particularly in regard to imperialist policy. However in regard to resuscitation of the electoral mystification, Obama best serves the interests of the bourgeoisie. His charismatic, but largely vacuous, appeals for change have triggered a rarely seen enthusiasm among young generations of voters, who have been largely apathetic to the bourgeoisie political process, drawing them into electoral politics in large numbers for the first time in many years. This is a tremendous plus for the bourgeoisie and has led to unprecedented numbers of voters participating in the primaries and caucuses this winter. Bourgeois political pundits have promoted the Obama phenomenon as "a social movement," that has tapped the wellsprings of "hope" and a desire for change. To the contrary, what we are witnessing is not a social movement, but an extremely successful ideological campaign, reviving the electoral mystification.
Like everything the bourgeoisie does to address its problems in the period of decomposition, the Obama candidacy ultimately risks aggravating the very problems that it's designed to redress. If he fails to gain the nomination or if he gains the nomination and loses the general election, disillusionment sets in with millions of young people. If he gains the nomination and wins the election, it will be impossible for him to deliver any significant change, which would also give rise to widespread disillusionment.
In the months ahead, as the electoral circus gears up even more, it will be critical for revolutionaries to expose this ideological swindle for what it is, and to stress the need for the working class to defend its interests on its own terrain, at the point of production and in the streets. - J. Grevin 04/13/2008