It's a sad time.
They are neither nothing nor everything. It's a puerile liberal fantasy that they constitute genuine decisions for us by us. Yet within narrow bounds, we get to choose -- criminally narrow bounds that mean elections cannot touch the things that mean life or death, more suffering or less suffering, for many, but can make small but real changes that mean life or death, more suffering or less suffering, for others. We get a certain level of influence over certain narrow aspects of how our opponent functions. It would be politically foolish and morally dubious to ignore that.
In the U.S., the choice is between a neoliberal (at least one who isn't made of cardboard this time) and a complete maniac -- not good and evil, but not quite tweedledum and tweedledee. It may not matter in exactly the way the hype machine claims that he's the first African American nominee for a major party, perhaps the first African American president, a single generation after the fall of Jim Crow, but it matters. To lots of people, it matters, and it should. A modest drop in people who lack health care, management of empire that might (might) result in a small decrease in body count, small efforts to safeguard the ability some (some) women in the U.S. currently have to get an abortion when they need one, small but non-trivial efforts to reduce some kinds of poverty for some people, a few of the intrusions by the national security state (but only a few) rolled back, maybe even small reductions in the barriers workers' face in organizing. I doubt all of those will happen, but I suspect a few will if Obama is elected. Small in comparison to the scale of the problems? Sure. Real impacts on real lives despite that? Yup. And because of that, it matters. At the same time, empire will roll on undisturbed, the bodies of poor and working-class people of colour in the so-called third world will be sacrificed on the alter of capitalism, poverty will continue to increase morbidity and mortality in the global north as well, workers and communities will continue to have little control over our work and the economy, sexual violence will continue to be endemic, and white supremacy and patriarchy will continue to be fundamental organizing principles of our lives, even if Obama wins. And that matters too. A lot. (For an analysis with this shape, if somewhat different language, listen to the first two items in this edition of Uprising Radio -- the first is a dissection of Obama's acceptance speech by Ethel Long-Scott, Executive Director of the Women’s Economic Agenda Project, (WEAP), and editorial board member of the Black Commentator, and the second is a commentary by Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report.)
And as for Canada -- well, presuming it happens, it will score a bit less on the drama-o-meter. Minority government status has kept Harper from excessive rampage, memories of the dubious charms of straight-up neoliberalism are still quite fresh so the coat of greenish paint slathered on by Dion cannot disguise what is on offer, and Layton -- well, I'm not someone who has ever harboured illusions about the NDP, but even within my modest expectations I am not impressed. Though that's probably how I'll vote. But the same logic applies. Just to take one example, the difference between having and not having national, socialized daycare makes a real difference to real people's real lives. But even trading Harper's band of buffoons for a Liberal minority supported by the NDP -- generally the most progressive combination you can find in Canadian electoral politics, even if it never lasts long -- will never in a million years derail this pattern (paying particular attention to the items lower down on the list) if that's the only source of change.
So I'm not saying don't vote. I'm not saying don't care about who wins. I'm not even saying don't intervene in the election somehow, though generally I don't beyond voting.
What I am saying is that we all need to take a good, long, critical look at our words and our other actions and figure out what external cues they respond to. We need to ask, "What organizes my political life?"
Does your political imagination, your sense of the necessary, the target of your desire for a better world, and the process by which you make decisions for acting politically (including through speaking and writing) on a daily basis begin from the totality of the problems that face us, the experiences of those hit hardest by them, and a desire to figure out how to address them in their entirety? Or do they begin from the framing of the problems in the mainstream media, the narrow window of change that is imagineable in electoral politics, and/or the changes that can be made through paid work at social services funded by state or para-state sources?
We need to be able to have constructive conversations about the uses and limits of different tactical choices, but that's not what I'm after here -- either alternative in that last paragraph could include work in electoral politics or agencies as part of the course of action to which you feel called. The question is one of imagination, of what shapes the horizon of your vision, the reference points that guide your actions.
For instance, in considering the problem of empire, you could have a vigorous debate about whether the change of management represented by Obama is a distraction, irrelevant, a small but important step in positive directions, or some other formulation. But if you go along with so much of the left-liberal anti-war movement in the U.S. and declare him the answer, then you are asking the wrong question. Your politics are not being organized by starting from the problems, they are being organized by regimes of ruling.
Or if you are considering poverty, you could have an important debate about how critical allies within social services and the agency sector can be part of political projects aimed at ending poverty -- by sharing information, gaining access to resources, finding ways to unerase the voices of people living in poverty, and so on -- and whatever the limits of such alliance might be. But if your entire political imagination on the subject is organized around using and winning more funding for social services and the agency sector, your politics are not being organized by starting from the problems (and you especially are ignoring how intrusive, controlling, and oppressive many people living in poverty experience even the more sympathetic agencies to be), they are being organized by regimes of ruling.
Because that's what they are at least partly about: ruling. The dominant media, electoral politics, and the agency sector -- the three things that are most likely to bound the imaginations of self-styled 'progressives' -- are integrated into relations which rule us in practical, material, demonstrable ways. Especially the last two take our energy for change, our desire for a better world, and they channel them in particular ways. Which, I hasten to reiterate, doesn't mean I'm taking some puritanical "don't let them taint you" position. I know good people who do good, important work in those areas. But work within those contexts is all the more effective if it is done with a critical consciousness that is not purely defined by them. At best these are terrains for struggle. But so many people -- so many bloggers -- seem to think that the channels of activity that were granted by elites in response to past struggles, in part as hard-won concessions and in part as attempts to co-opt, are all we need or even all that are reasonably possible.
It is in lowering our expectations, closing off our sense of possibility, making us believe that this is it, that so much of our potential to make the world better is stolen from us. Or, as I tend to see it in my more depressive moments, how so much of that potential is simply surrendered by so many of us.