Today I got a packet in the post with copies of the new issue of Public Culture. I’d almost forgotten that I have a short essay in it called “Why I Occupy.” It’s actually not on the website yet. It was written back in January and I expected that it would feel badly outdated. There are some references to May Day that seem that way but the core of the piece is about democracy and elections, making it oddly timely.
After some personal contextualization, I argue:
In the space that has opened up between the disappointment engendered by “Obama” and the emergence of Occupy has come a widespread, realization that no election of a single candidate or party is likely to change the neo-liberal consensus, let alone transform capitalism. Hard on the heels of this commonplace (in certain left circles at least) came the opportunity and responsibility to try and do something about it.
What I mean here is that “Obama” does not stand for the person of the president himself, and his failings or successes, but the fundamental concept of a representative democracy functioning primarily via the occasional selection of a “great man” in the style of Carlyle (or the even more occasional selection of a great woman).
Of course, we can say that the Republicans chose to block Obama at all points. In most parliamentary democracies that wouldn’t be surprising: the opposition is supposed to oppose. What can’t happen here is a debate about neo-liberal capitalism. We are only allowed to hear about “government,” big or small. In this non-debate it becomes perfectly possible for a candidate like Romney to reverse his position repeatedly and still seem “serious,” not just because of the weakness of the US media (though that is real), but because the policy difference is not dramatic.
After all, neither candidate has taken a serious new policy position for the election. Obama will carry on muddling through, already signaling “concessions” to Republicans on the fiscal cliff. Romney will give tax cuts to the rich. Obama will appoint Supreme Court justices who probably won’t overturn Roe v. Wade. Romney will appoint those who probably will.
The drama comes in questions of culture and identity. By performing functionally in the first “debate,” Romney gained authority with those who wanted to act out a desire for heteronormative white masculinity. They call it “being a real man.” In those people longing for a reassertion of (white) American dominance, no policy position is as important as being allowed to express this sense of hierarchy.
After Colin Powell (himself let it be said something close to a war criminal in 2003) endorsed Obama, Republican John Sununu retorted that it was because both men are African American. Powell’s chief-of-staff pointed out the obvious:
My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that’s despicable.
Such comments won’t swing a single vote because it’s been an open secret for years. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the “end of Reconstruction” effect that a Romney victory would have, even if it later seems like the last hurrah of the white majority, before the demographic rise of a diverse majority.
Win or lose, I suspect that the Romney campaign has succeeded in creating a new wave of white male rage. And here’s the difference–Romney will have to give them things, whether on reproductive rights, or science education, or affirmative action that will make things notably worse. He will do so gladly in exchange for the continued rule of neo-liberal oligarchy.
But what of democracy? In the Public Culture essay I wrote about the perceived crisis in democracy:
For a thinker like Jacques Rancière, there would be no contradiction here. Rather than call this “post-democracy,” Rancière has argued that the Platonic “hatred of democracy” has always continued to apply to Western society. That is to say, in the fashion of Bruno Latour, we have never been democratic.
There are two component parts to democracy: the demos, the people, and kratein, to rule. Who are the people? The Romney view is that they are corporations and those that serve them, which would appall Plato and latter-day Platonists like Carlyle alike. There’s no sense left of aristocracy, the rule of the best. It’s palpably oligarchy that dominates, the rule of the few, those who have power but no authority.
The demos as all the people has never ruled. It has never even been allowed to speak. That’s what the 99% meme was all about: not that we are all identical, except in this one regard, we have never been allowed to have a part. Occupy tried to democratize democracy. It perhaps underestimated the forces of racialized and gendered domination that continue to classify and separate the people. It’s still not over.