Taking politics seriously: Looking beyond the election and beyond elections
By Robert Jensen
with Pat Youngblood
Published in Common Dreams · October, 2008
We have nothing against voting. We plan to vote in the upcoming election. Some of our best friends are voters.
But we also believe that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the most important political moment in our lives comes in the voting booth. Instead, people should take politics seriously, which means asking considerably more of ourselves than the typical fixation with electoral politics.
First, we won’t be coy about this election. Each of us voted for Obama in the Texas primary and will vote for him in November. We are leftists who are consistently disgusted by the center-right political positions of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and we have no illusions that Obama is secretly more progressive than his statements in public and choice of advisers indicate. But there is slightly more than a dime’s worth of policy differences between Obama and McCain, and those differences are important in this election. The reckless quality of the McCain campaign and its policy proposals are scary, as is the cult of ignorance that has grown up around Palin.
Just as important, the people of this white-supremacist nation have a chance to vote for an African-American candidate. Four decades after the end of formal apartheid in the United States, in the context of ongoing overt and covert racism that is normalized in many sectors of society, there’s a possibility that a black person might be elected president. Even though Obama doesn’t claim the radical roots of the anti-apartheid struggles of recent U.S. history, the symbolic value of this election is not a trivial consideration. This isn’t tokenism, but a sign of real progress, albeit limited.
But even though we make that argument, we will vote knowing that the outcome of the election is not all that important, for a simple reason: The multiple crises facing this country, and the world, cannot be adequately addressed within the conventional political, economic, or social systems. This is reflected in the fact that neither candidate is even acknowledging the crises. The conventional political wisdom — Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative — is deeply rooted in the denial of the severity of these crises and hostility to acknowledging the need for radical change. Such a politics of delusion won’t generate solutions but instead will lead us to the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, the brick wall — pick your preferred metaphor, but when the chickens of denial come home to roost, it’s never pretty.
These crises are not difficult to identify; the evidence is all around us.
Economics: We aren’t facing a temporary downturn caused by this particular burst bubble but instead are moving into a new phase in the permanent decline of a system that has never met the human needs of most people and never will. It is long past the time to recognize the urgent need to start imagining and building an economics based on production and distribution for real human needs, rejecting the corrosive greed that underlies not only the obscene profits hoarded by the few but also the orgiastic consumption pursued by the many. We can’t know whether McCain or Obama recognizes these things, but it’s clear that both candidates — along with their parties and the interests they represent — are not interested in facing these realities.
Empire: The way in which First-World nations have pursued global empires over the past 500 years to grab for themselves a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth has never been morally justifiable. The recent phase of U.S. domination in that project is particularly offensive, given U.S. political leaders’ cynical rhetoric about democracy. But whatever one’s evaluation of the ideology behind the U.S. attempt to run the world through violence and coercion, the project is falling apart. The invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not just moral failures but pragmatic disasters. While McCain and Obama have slightly different strategies for dealing with these disasters, neither is willing to face the depravity of the imperial endeavor and neither argues for abandoning the imperial project.
Ecology: It’s no longer helpful to speak about “environmental issues,” as if we face discrete problems that have clear solutions. Without major changes to the way humans live, we face the collapse of the ecosystem’s ability to sustain human life as we know it. Every basic indicator of the health of the ecosystem is cause for concern — inadequate and dwindling supplies of clean water, chemical contamination in every part of the life cycle, continuing topsoil loss, toxic waste build-up, species loss and reduced biodiversity, and climate change. Unless one adopts an irrational technological fundamentalism — the faith-based assumption that new gadgets will magically rescue us — this means we have to downsize and scale back our lives dramatically, learning to live with less. Yet conventional politicians continue to promise to deliver a lifestyle that constitutes a form of collective planetary suicide.
So, we live in a predatory corporate capitalist economy in a world structured by the profound injustice produced by an imperial system that is steadily drawing down the ecological capital of the planet. The domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of this world is rooted in the ideologies of male domination and white domination. This belief in the inevitability of hierarchy grows out of thousands of years of patriarchy, reinforced by hundreds of years of white supremacy. Any meaningful progressive politics also must address not just the worst behaviors that come out of these systems — the overt sexism and racism that continue to plague society — but also the underlying worldview that normalizes inequality. Yes, Obama is black, and McCain selected a female running mate, but neither candidate ever speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy.
There are two common responses to the analysis offered here. The first is to condemn it as crazy, which is the response of the majority of Americans. The second, from people who don’t find such claims crazy and share the basic analysis, is that we have to be realistic and tone down our arguments, precisely because most Americans won’t take seriously anyone who speaks so radically.
But if being realistic has something to do with facing reality, then arguments for radical change are the most realistic. When problems are the predictable consequence of existing systems and no solutions are plausible within them, then arguing for continued capitulation to those systems isn’t realistic. It’s literally insane.
We live in a country that is, in fact, growing increasingly insane. Fashioning a strategy for political organizing in such a country, and shaping rhetoric to advance that organizing, is indeed difficult. But it must start with a realistic description of the problems we face, a realistic evaluation of the nature of the systems that gave rise to those problems, and a realistic assessment of the degree of change necessary to imagine solutions.
Taking politics seriously in the United States today means recognizing the limits of electoral politics. Voting matters, but it’s not the most important act in our political lives. Traditional grassroots political organizing to advance progressive policies on issues is more important. And even more crucial today is the long-term project of preparing for the dramatically different world that is on the horizon — a world in which an already unconscionable inequality will have expanded; a world with less energy to deal with the ecological collapse; a world in which existing institutions likely will prove useless in helping us restructure our lives; a world in which we will need to reclaim and develop basic skills for sustaining ourselves and our communities.
These challenges are daunting but also exciting, presenting us with tasks for which the energy and creativity of every one of us will be needed. Can we find a way to talk about that excitement which could encourage others to explore these ideas? Can we develop projects to put those ideas into action, even if only on a small scale? When we have tried to articulate this worldview in plain language in recent political lectures and discussions, we have found that a growing number of people not only will listen but are hungry for such honesty.
We don’t pretend that number is large right now — certainly not a majority, and not anywhere near the number needed for a mass movement — but one wouldn’t expect that in this affluent society in which many people are still insulated from the worst consequences of these systems. But that’s changing. As more and more people, from many sectors of society, face these realities, they join the search for a community in which to confront this together. Our political work should focus on connecting with people on common ground, articulating a realistically radical analysis, and working from there to construct a just and sustainable society.
So, we will vote on Nov. 4, without hesitation. But more importantly, on Nov. 5 we will be realistic and continue talking about the radical change necessary to build a different world.