What’s Wrong With Democrats?
Among liberals, progressives, most self-proclaimed ‘leftists’ (there is no other kind in the U.S.), there still seems to be a widespread assumption that politics is, or, more insidiously, should be, a battle of ideas. This may sound odd given a liberal punditocracy at least co-dominated by Markos “it’s all about winning” Moulitsas, but pragmatism, in both politics and philosophy, is just what happens when the ideas fail to convince their advocates. Most have not yet given up the faith. The most common position for the individual progressive is that she or he has solid ideas, but they are just ‘too much’ for the establishment and/or the unenlightened masses to handle. They find that the more they leave these volatile ideas out of their practical politics, out of their speech, and even out of their own heads, the more their power of action increases. Hence the survival of the Democratic Party.
When those further left attack “libs” for ideological bankruptcy, they are only correct about the professional insiders, the obvious sellouts. Going through the roster of liberal blogs, including DailyKos, one can find a full range of views presented and fought over, which usually tend more to the left than the mainstream media would lead one to expect. And lest we forget, Obama watches The Wire, a show that documents the demolition of any last remnants of the American Dream from a different angle every episode. It starts to seem like there is very little ideological consistency among those whose practical politics coincide with the Democrats, and that there must be some reason other than privacy for their many dissenting views to be so inconsequential.
But ideology isn’t simply a philosophy or a set of beliefs. If it doesn’t include behaviors beyond the communication of ideas on safe, open forums, the concept reduces to psychological speculation. And given that now we’ve reached a moment where dissatisfaction with the current economic system (or certain dominant aspects of it, at least) is widespread even among those most privileged by it, the importance of translating discontent and knowledge into something practical can hardly be said to exist only for a tiny elite of those who know, nor can the claim be made that mass ignorance justifies that elite’s privileged detachment.
So it isn’t Obama, or a set of irrational beliefs about him — that he is the messiah, that he will restore democracy, save the planet, etc. — that prevents progressives, liberals, and leftists from forming a viable alternative politics. The usual defense of supporting Obama from people who don’t feel comfortable siding with the future commander-in-chief of an imperial power, is that they don’t ‘really believe’ he’s the messiah, or that he’ll do more than clean up some of the Bush mess while signifying stability and, perhaps, providing an opening for organized movements to achieve something. Despite Zinn and Chomsky’s recent measured endorsements, I find this hope to signal at best (perhaps necessary) wishful thinking and at worst the future co-optation of radical enthusiasm by establishment liberalism. But the idea that the more practical of these concerns, held by the majority of Americans, are inherently ‘counter-revolutionary’ is just so much theoretical purism. Like some others recently, I think the economistic idea that the ‘collapse of the system’ will bring about revolution (and so should be endorsed by bloggers) is pretty much worthless. For many reasons, the biggest of which is that despite all gains and all talk there is no international revolutionary organization to consolidate power once ‘the system’ ‘falls away,’ nor is one likely to magically spring into existence.
I don’t think it’s the case that these Obama myths, as ‘idea-objects’ or ‘real fictions’ (what forces everyone who talks about Obama, including Obama himself, to acknowledge the messiah meme), prevent the discussion of alternatives simply through repetition by the media, regardless of subjective belief. But this take is the closest one to being right, and for that reason the most insidious. It grants a kind of supernatural agency to a symptom. It doesn’t understand why people find fantasy so attractive even when they know it’s fantasy, even when they seem to have nothing to gain by accepting it. Instead it brackets the question, and assists the media machine in the transformation of slogans, images, and anecdotes (i.e. Joe the Plumber) into mysterious fetishes. Acceptance of the mandarin strictures of corporate media-speak can only ground analysis if we assume that most of the people who consume it as spectacle are only capable of submission. Without this assumption there is no fetish, just an infantile public imposed on the masses, of a kind with the fictional structures of credit and debt in which we are enmeshed, or the branded products smothering our means of existence in glittering denials of materiality, all part of a total organization of life we are forced to find ways of contending with.
So there is no reason to take media babble seriously, ‘on its own terms.’ The task instead is to construct and propagate popular slogans, against mass slogans. Popular language, against mass language. Mass language speaks to the gut. It attempts to bind itself to emotional and physiological responses with as little intellectual surplus as possible. When seen through, as these days it usually is, its alibi is that ‘other people’ believe it, a strange, sweaty race only capable of understanding the world through bodily functions and supernatural terror. Popular language speaks to those it knows, while inviting everyone; it is for that reason multiple, the language of people everywhere learning and fighting to work together. Intellectuals are not the only ones forced by experience into a complicated relationship with their ideas and beliefs, it’s just their job to publicize the confusions of their class. The practical question is also theoretical and aesthetic, while being universal — the ideological question is still only talk.