The capitalist propaganda barrage that accompanies each electoral circus always promotes the democratic mystification, the capitalist political swindle that tries to convince the working class that its participation in choosing the particular politician who will formally preside over the capitalist class dictatorship for the next few years means that it is free. While it is fashionable this year for journalists, politicians, pundits, professors, and clergymen to proclaim that this is the most important election in a generation or in our lifetime, one must note that similar claims were made in many previous elections. From the perspective of the democratic mystification, there is no such thing as an 'unimportant' election.
This year the media blitz is awesome. The war in Iraq, national security, terrorism, civil liberties, chronic unemployment, medical care, social security, abortion, gay marriage, the environment - are all invoked as hot button issues, the better to get people interested in voting.
But despite the hoopla, like all elections in the period of capitalist decadence, this election is not really about the clash of alternative policies advocated by different factions of the bourgeoisie, but about manipulation and mystification. Certainly there are differences within the bourgeoisie but these disputes are confined primarily to tactical questions on how best to implement a shared strategic outlook internationally and domestically. No matter who wins the election, the US will continue a policy of austerity at home (making the working class pay for the brunt of the economic crisis) and military intervention abroad (making the working class risk the lives of its young men and women to protect US imperialist interests). The style in which these policies are implemented may differ slightly, but the end result - austerity and war - will be the same.
Strategic political imperatives for the capitalist class
On the level of political strategy, the ruling class this year has two primary political imperatives:
1) It needs to revive and repair the credibility of the democratic mystification which suffered a heavy blow in the debacle of the 2000 election.
2) It needs to adjust the capitalist political division of labor between the major political parties, making sure that the team formally in power is best suited to carry out the strategic requirements necessary to defend effectively the needs of the ruling class in the period ahead. These needs include a) the implementation of the ruling class's agreed-upon imperialist strategy designed to block the rise of any rival superpower in Europe or Asia, and b) the continued implementation of austerity, attacking the standard of living of the proletariat, making it bear the brunt of capitalism's global economic crisis.
Restoring the democratic mystification
Readers are of course well aware that in 2000 the outcome of the US election wasn't resolved for 36 days - determined only by a controversial Supreme Court decision, decided along narrowly divided partisan political lines, which deeply eroded political confidence in the court and the Bush presidency. For the first time in the modern era, the candidate who lost the popular vote won the presidency by gaining a majority in the antiquated Electoral College, based on the chaotic mess in Florida, the state controlled by George Bush's brother (Governor Jeb Bush). The whole thing was more reminiscent of what one would expect of a third world banana republic rather than the most powerful democracy in the world. The 2000 debacle was a reflection of the effects of social decomposition on the ruling class electoral process, which has made it increasingly difficult for the bourgeoisie to control its own sham electoral circus. In fact, the political strategy of the bourgeoisie in 2000, which was to keep the Democrats in office actually worked. Gore received 500,000 more votes in the popular balloting. His loss by 500 votes in Florida was attributable to a variety of miscues, ranging from confusing ballots, disenfranchisement of voters who typically voted for Democratic candidates (African Americans), and outright fraud. Once the recount process began, the capitalist politicians lost all sense of self-control and propriety. Each side adopted an irrational attitude to win at any cost, with no-holds barred squabbling. This loss of ruling class discipline and decorum stood in sharp contrast to the more mature and responsible comportment of Richard Nixon in 1960, for example, when he decided not to initiate a court challenge against Kennedy's election due to voting fraud in Chicago. Nixon understood better his role in the electoral circus and put the interests of the nation above his own partisan desires to win the White House.
This year the bourgeoisie needs to restore confidence in elections. To do so, it needs a decisive victory at the polls in order to avoid any repeat of the ugliness of four years ago. The media has been very successful in spreading propaganda about the importance of each citizen's vote - the idea that every vote counts is crucial in getting as many people as possible to participate in the electoral sham. To keep the pressure on for people to go to the polls, the media incessantly portrays the contest as too close to call, even though their public opinion survey results make no sense. Beginning with the first debate, the polls showed that Kerry had gained ground and that 'momentum' was with the Democrats, yet suddenly all the polls show Bush is slightly ahead. At the same time, the Bush campaign has gotten increasingly desperate in its tactics, a clear indication that they don't think they're winning. The propaganda about the supposed dead heat keeps the tension alive and serves the purpose of making sure that no one loses interest in the race, assuring that as many people as possible actually come out to vote. The campaign has been incredibly effective. In the battleground state of Iowa, the media reports that every eligible voter has been registered to vote. In Ohio, another swing state, the campaign has been so successful that there are an estimated 120,000 more people registered to vote than are eligible - either some people have registered more than once or the ghosts of citizens past are lining up to vote.
Adjusting the division of labor
Because of the proletariat's continuing difficulties in breaking free of the disorientation that has characterized the reflux in class consciousness since the collapse of the Russian bloc, the bourgeoisie has considerable flexibility in deciding whether to put its left team (Democrats) or right team (Republicans) in power. In times of intense class struggle, the bourgeoisie often prefers to keep the left in opposition, as a means of controlling and derailing working class discontent. But today this is not a necessity - the left is equally capable of implementing austerity, beefing up the repressive apparatus, and waging imperialist war without jeopardizing its ability to control the working class. The Clinton administration demonstrated that amply.
The central consideration for the bourgeoisie today in the US, as it has been for more than a decade now, is not how to contain the class struggle, but rather the defense of its imperialist interests in a drastically changed international arena in the post-cold war period.
While there is a general agreement within the dominant factions of the American capitalist class on the strategic goal of maintaining US imperialist hegemony and preventing the emergence of any new imperialist rival, there are significant controversies over the tactical implementation of that strategy. Most notably this dispute has focused on the war in Iraq for the past year. In the winter of 2003, the ruling class was united on invading Iraq as a reminder of American supremacy aimed at potential rivals, as a reinforcement of direct American military presence in a strategically important zone of imperialist competition, and as a means to put pressure on Europe by establishing a growing American control of Mideast oil supplies. As the ICC has said on numerous occasions, this strategy was doomed to failure because in the phase of capitalist decomposition the dominant characteristic is the tendency for each nation state to play its own card on the inter-imperialist terrain, which results inevitably in growing chaos on the international level. In this period, every venture that US imperialism undertakes ultimately aggravates the very circumstances that it aimed to combat, increasing rather than decreasing the level of chaos in the world and the challenges to US hegemony.
The divergences on Iraq within the American bourgeoisie emerged only after the abject failure of the Iraq invasion. There are today three positions within the American ruling class on Iraq: 1) the situation is going well, and the US needs only to stay the course, a position defended by the Bush administration, and one that seems to contradict blatantly the reality on the ground; 2) the situation is a mess, and the US should withdraw immediately - an extreme position defended by a few elements on the left and others on the right; 3) the situation is a mess, and the US must find a way to minimize the damage of the Iraq quagmire in order to be able to respond effectively to new challenges to its hegemony, a position increasingly defended by the dominant factions of the ruling class.
The utter failure of the Bush administration's propaganda justifications for the Iraq invasion raised concern for the ruling class not because they were lies (the bourgeoisie, left or right, is united on the necessity to lie), but because their exposure has made it increasingly difficult to prepare popular acceptance for future military adventures, particularly within the proletariat. Bush's ineptness squandered the considerable political capital gained from the 9/11 attacks, which had given the bourgeoisie an opportunity to use patriotism to manipulate the population at large. But now patriotism has once again become increasingly identified with the political right, as Kerry noted in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party Convention when he promised to reclaim patriotism for the left as well.
As we pointed out in Internationalism 131, the controversy over Bush's unilateralism versus Kerry's alleged multilateralism "is a gross distortion. Ever since World War II, US imperialism has always acted unilaterally in the defense of its imperialist interests as a superpower�As the head of the bloc, the US was easily able to oblige its subordinates in the bloc to go along with their decisions�" While Kerry proposes to be more patient in pressuring European powers to go along with American imperialist military operations, he is committed to the same doctrine of taking unilateral action, not allowing any foreign power or authority (i.e., the UN) dictate American policy and, as he pointed out in the October presidential debates, he is committed to Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive military action - in fact he insists that the doctrine of pre-emptive strike is a longstanding American policy orientation.
Kerry's election coincides with the interests of the bourgeoisie
This year it has been especially difficult for the bourgeoisie to reach a consensus on the preferred division of labor. In part this reflects the same effects of decomposition that made 2000 such a shambles. It is clear, however, that the election of John Kerry will best serve the needs of the bourgeoisie in the immediate period ahead. As we have pointed out previously in Internationalism, Kerry is not an anti-war candidate. He promises to be more sensitive to how he takes the US into war, to win in Iraq, to expand the American military, to increase the size of American Special Forces units, and modernize weapons systems. This is not the political program of a dove. Kerry's program coincides with the view of a growing majority within the bourgeoisie that recognizes the seriousness of the mess in Iraq. The Bush administration's refusal to face reality increasingly makes Bush's continuance in office untenable. From the bourgeoisie's perspective, Kerry offers the possibility of being able to convince the population to accept further military excursions in the future, in contrast to Bush's loss of credibility.
If Kerry's campaign appeared to falter during the summer after the Democratic Convention, it was because he did not clearly assert a critique of the Bush administration on the war, implausibly insisting he would have still supported the invasion of Iraq even if he known that all the reasons justifying the invasion were wrong. He was criticized for this inconsistency in the editorial pages of the New York Times for example. It was only after Kerry's speech at New York University in September in which he changed position and embraced the view that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time that his support within the bourgeoisie began to solidify. Already at the convention in July, a dozen retired admirals and generals had endorsed him, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. In September, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the chair of the Foreign Relations committee, openly criticized the Bush administration for incompetence in Iraq. Another Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel, the second ranking Republican on the same committee, also lashed out at Bush's handling of Iraq. And even, Republican Sen. John McCain, while still avowing support for Bush's candidacy, also criticized the administration for not leveling with the nation on Iraq. When leading Republicans openly attack their own candidate on the central foreign policy issue of the day just five weeks before the presidential election, it gives a real glimpse of the thinking of the bourgeoisie. The Democrats of course quickly took out a full page campaign in major newspapers featuring photographs of these leading Republicans and excerpts from their anti-Bush statements.
The media quickly followed suit, its coverage shifting on balance to support of the Kerry candidacy, as could be seen in the coverage of the debates and their aftermath, which portrayed Kerry as the winner. At the same time, an ABC News policy memo surfaced, which argued that while both candidates were distorting and stretching the truth in their campaign speeches and political commercials, Kerry's distortion tended to involve only peripheral issues, but Bush's dealt with issues at the heart of the campaign. The memo instructed ABC journalists to highlight these gross distortions in their coverage. One media commentator even noted a shift in coverage by the pro-Bush media controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp - Fox News and New York Post.
Decomposition makes it difficult to control the electoral circus
If 2000 demonstrated one thing, it was that the even in the US, the most powerful and sophisticated state capitalist regime in the world, decomposition means that the ruling class has an increasing difficulty to control the outcome of its own electoral circus. The win-at-any-cost attitude that was so devastating in 2000 has not been expunged. While capitalism has always been characterized by official dishonesty, the rampant increase in corruption, cronyism, and outright greed has escalated in the last four years, to a degree that represents an erosion of state capitalism's role in safeguarding the interests of the national capital at the expense of this or that sector of the capitalist class. Blatant efforts to steal votes and distort the election are reported in the media everyday. These include incredible stories like a company hired by the Republicans in Washington state to register voters on street corners, which then threw out all the registration cards for those who registered as Democrats, the casting of absentee ballots by nursing home owners for elderly alzheimer patients, the Republican party's attempt to block blacks from voting on election day, and the Democratic party's lining up of 10,000 volunteer lawyers to launch legal challenges across the country on election day. This scenario of vicious scheming and conspiring does not reflect a mature state capitalist bourgeoisie but rather a decomposing bourgeoisie that has reverted to the more primitive political gangsterism of bygone eras. In this sense, while the election of John Kerry best coincides with the political strategy and needs of the American ruling class at this conjuncture, there is no guarantee that the bourgeoisie can actually deliver this result.
If victory again goes to a candidate who loses the popular vote, it will be an even more serious blow to the democratic mystification, undermining any talk about the 'will of the people' in democratic America, and will lead to divisive fights over amending the Constitution and challenges to the validity of the winner's authority. If Bush wins, political divisions will continue to be exacerbated, opposition to the war in Iraq will not only become more difficult to contain, but it will be even more difficult to mobilize support for future military operations abroad, which will be necessary to respond to continuing challenges. The economic crisis will worsen, giving impetus to a further revival of class struggle.
On the other hand, if Kerry wins, the honeymoon will be exceedingly short. His promised attempts to revive multilateralism are doomed. Whatever the diplomatic clumsiness of the Bush administration, the situation the US faces internationally is not a crisis of the Bush administration, but a crisis of US imperialism. It may be more difficult initially for the French and the Germans to say 'no' to Kerry, but their imperialist interests are still in fundamental contradiction to those of the US, and there is no way that Kerry can be successful in the long run. On the domestic level, Kerry's promises to fund all manner of domestic spending programs by rolling back Bush's tax cuts on the top 2 percent of American income-earners are also doomed to failure. Austerity is caused by capitalism's global economic crisis, not by the greed of the wealthy friends of George Bush. For the working class, the 2004 election is truly a no-win situation. The only defense for the workers is the class struggle, not the ballot box.
JG, October 25, 2004.