#ShouldnabeenBernie

My favourite living philosopher is Slavoj Zizek, who I first encountered at NZIFF a few years ago in the film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Since then I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, all of which are challenging and controversial in their own way. My favourite is probably In Defence of Lost Causes, which is a fascinating retro-defence of Totalitarianism. It’s thought-provoking stuff, if a little densely written, but you don’t need to agree with something to find it fascinating. Zizek, like me, like you, like everyone except the 46M eligible voters who didn’t vote, expressed an opinion about the US election:

He probably has a theory on why Hilary Clinton didn’t win too, but I haven’t seen it or read it yet. His latest book, Disparities was only released a few months ago so it may be a while before I can read his substantive argument on the cluster-fuck that was, still is, 2016. But plenty of other opinions are available, and I think they’re coalescing around an argument that had a lot of currency during the Primary Season – that Clinton was unelectable due to unpopularity. Some versions of this view point to her neoliberal economics, some to her secrecy, some to misogyny, some to her personal wealth – and the kicker “entitlement”, or Zizek’s version, that she’s an avatar of the current broken system. There’s a hashtag summing up the whole thing: #ShouldabeenBernie. But let’s not go crazy with this – Bernie is your basic New Deal Democrat whose political position would have been completely orthodox for a Democrat 50 years ago. He’s primarily an earlier incarnation of the same damned scenario we have now.

The trick with trying to elect someone like Trump is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – though as Zizek says in Defence of Lost Causes, let’s not lose sight of how the bathwater got dirty in the first place! I personally don’t think any of these arguments against Clinton as a candidate really bear substantial scrutiny. To me they all seem a bit like an intellectual game being played after the fact, and I think that while each individual point can be supported and substantiated and is not on the face of it without merit, any kind of attack on Clinton as a candidate is myopic. For one thing, it’s essentially the statement being made by virtually every left-wing party in the English speaking world for about the last 8 years. The UK couldn’t love Gordon Brown, and then picked the wrong Miliband, and we’re now rehearsing Jeremy Corbyn’s inevitable defeat by pre-failing him. In NZ we had Phil Goff deemed inadequate, then David Cunliffe, and I think we’re similarly priming ourselves for Andrew Little to be less of a populist than John Key. What I’m saying is that they all should have been Justin Trudeau.

It’s not helped by the tendency we’ve been seeing since Clinton & Blair were in charge for the Left to spend as much political capital fighting within itself as fighting the opposition. The UK Labour Party is the poster-child for this, with two unsuccessful attempts to oust their current leader, because he’s “unelectable” in the minds of the MPs. The recalcitrance of the rank and file MP becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you don’t tend to see that kind of disobedience on the Right. Look at the way the Tea Party policies became mainstream as soon as their candidates started winning elections. Lots of commentators have jumped on late-comers to the party as political opportunists, but another way of thinking about this is elected officials responding to the obvious sentiments of their constituents and castigating any kind of responsiveness from elected officials seems counter-productive at best. Don’t like Tea Party policies – do take that up with the Tea Party voters. Once they believe something else, they’ll vote for something else. Ignoring them would seem to lead to the Trumps of the world.

The less braindead commentators I’m reading have a few better ideas, but for me the biggest and most important one is that the Left has stopped articulating a positive statement for the future – we’ve become the mirror image of the Right. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Labour campaign in NZ two years ago, which was “we won’t enact National’s major policy”. That was the message on all billboards, ads, interviews. They demonised the economic plank of the ruling party, but didn’t offer an alternative – the billboards should have said just the opposite, that they were going to build or buy new state assets to ensure the continuing provision of core services and to force true price competition in some areas where the private sector in NZ is still frankly taking the mickey with their unofficially collaborative pricing. We all knew tonnes about Trump’s crazy wall – unbuildable, unaffordable, impractical for its stated purpose – but what policy of Bernie Sanders’ can you name?

I think there is an even more fundamental driver in play than that – the balance between individuals and society. The US in particular has long been predicated on a hyper-individualist ideology and that’s been the traditional area of strength for republicans. What I think we’re seeing now is a large-scale reversal of that ideological position, where certain blocks of voters are consciously constructing new identities for themselves. If you’re a rust belt worker, you don’t want to belong to a Union per se, you want the whole society you’re operating in to be looking out for the interests of your whole class. Some sectors are still protected in that way – think about the massive subsidies for corn farmers. You don’t need to belong to a corn farmer’s union as such because your class of people are powerful – and the rust belt has just similarly staked out the perimeter of such an identity. Democratic party policies targeting the working poor and the middle class are still fundamentally geared around the idea of those people as individuals, whereas “make America Great Again” acknowledges them in aggregate. If you wonder why Wall Street is so hated, isn’t this a plausible reason – the banks were explicitly treated collectively. “Too Big To Fail” is a statement about a category and the members of that category are protected via their membership.

I don’t think there are easy answers, but we need to ask bigger questions than we’re doing right now. Arguing that the US Democratic Party should have put up Bernie Sanders instead of Hilary Clinton in order to win the election ignores large-scale driving forces motivating millions and millions of voters. The Left everywhere in the English-speaking world has become trapped in the primacy of the individual even at the moment when I think the Right is recognising the importance of treating the masses as exactly that. We have prioritised individual freedom of identity, movement, belief, etc, ahead of the needs of society as a whole without acknowledging that and without understanding what it means. We need to return to a critical evaluation of society-as-such, perhaps by re-engaging with the fundamental prescriptions of Marx viz-a-viz “workers of the world unite“. I don’t propose for a minute that we abandon our cultural progress, or revert to state-controlled central production – these are equally disastrous to anything capitalism produces, albeit in different ways. But we need to understand how the primacy of the individual propagates through the structures of society as a whole.

Think of it this way – we always decry the ancient greek “democracy” as being not truly inclusive, inasmuch as only propertied white men had the vote (see those natural-feeling scare quotes?). That betrays our emphasis on individuals. If we replace the individual as the primary unit of society with the oikos, the family unit, then the property-owning male loses his status as purely privileged and becomes the representative of 5-20 other people, the world’s smallest constituency. In our modern parliamentary democracies, a few hundred people directly participate in the mechanisms of day-to-day power in the way the direct democrats of Athens did and represent thousands or tends of thousands and in the US congressional districts Congressmen are changed about as often as the heads of households in Athens – tell me which is really the most representative democracy?

Clinton, Sanders – I doubt it made a difference. Would I have followed Zizek’s prescription for revolutionary change prompted by electing Trump? Hell no – I’m not that brave. But since it went down the way it did, we need to stop scapegoating whichever specific piñata we put up against the rolling trend of economic history and look properly at what we think society should be and how we get there. Only once we understand what we want, and what its real costs are, can we formulate a compelling articulation of that vision to start winning again. So ditch your hashtag, ditch your obsession with individual leaders altogether. Not #ShouldabeenBernie: #ShouldnabeenBernie, #Shouldabeenadifferentparadigm. Not pithy, I know – but at least I think it’s the right idea.

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