What exactly do I mean by the phrase: “The Tone of Our Oppression” ; and what do I mean when I say: “Labour/Conservative; Democrat/Republican - whoever wins, we lose...but we always lose more with the Right”?
Indeed: just what the hell is a self-proclaimed “anarchist” doing worrying about party politics anyway – if all politicians are “the same”, and real freedom won’t come until we do away with the state and form self-governing autonomous collectives in some unreachable fantasy utopia, then why get worked up about what these interchangeable corporate quislings are doing in the real world? Whether we are ruled from the right, or from the left, are we not ultimately being ruled by puppets beholden to powerful elite interests instead of the will of the people – why does it matter which particular puppet is in control?
Well, the short answer is that, as well as being, at heart, an anarchist, I am also a realist. As far as I am aware, we do not yet live in the anarcho-utopia that I yearn for; we live in the real world, and in the real world, these things matter. In fact, they matter a lot.
When I first got into radical politics – a fifteen year old punk rocker with some Dead Kennedys records and a Noam Chomsky book or two – I subscribed to the age old philosophy that all teenage radicals embrace at one point or another: all politicians are the same. Right or left, blue or red; they’re all bought and paid for by the rich and powerful and the choice is an illusion.
“A one party state masquerading as a two party state”, as Dead Kennedys front-man, Jello Biafra, used to say. Or, as the old Bill Hicks routine went: “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs…I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking…hey, wait a minute – there’s one guy holding up both puppets!”
On the one hand of course – on a fundamental level – this is absolutely true. The historical record is quite clear, certainly in Britain and the United States: whilst differences in ruling party do lead to superficial differences in policy, on the fundamental areas of economy and foreign policy, there is broad consensus and continuity between all mainstream political parties that hasn’t changed significantly since at least the end of the second world war.
On the other hand though – can we really write off the importance of these superficial differences if they are the only differences that we have?
Now, I am not saying this as a complete rejection of the idea of third party alternatives (or even no party alternatives!)…but what I am saying, is that, whilst there are no viable third parties that truly represent the people’s interests and have a genuine chance of winning an election, these minimal differences between the two ruling parties (Labour/Conservative; Democrat/Republican) are literally the only area in which we have some sort of democratic control.
Importantly, these minor differences on paper, don’t become so minor when one considers the real-world ramifications of those differences – capitalism may remain the dominant economic system; illegal and unjust wars may continue to be fought around the world; human rights might continue to come only second to the rights of businesses to make profit, BUT…if voting for one party over the other means that even 1% of the population might get slightly better healthcare, slightly better benefits, slightly better schools, slightly better jobs, slightly better pensions, slightly better opportunities; if voting for one party over the other means that it will be just that little bit harder for them to wage unjustified wars, make society-destroying deals with big business, and throw innocent people in jail…then, well, isn’t even that minimal sliver of difference worth fighting for?
Although real, meaningful difference is only an illusion, the existence of these perceived differences between largely similar parties can actually mean more than we think – the perception can sometimes become the – almost – reality.
Ultimately, in a democracy, our elected representatives must answer to the voters – even if they do so via spin and propaganda in a manipulative corporate press – and so the image that they project regarding their policies and ideas – even if they are lies – can become an important tool of accountability and change.
If, as is true of most mainstream parties on the right, you unashamedly run for political office on a platform of war, cuts in public spending, anti-immigration, pro-“family values”, and strong law and order, then there is nothing the public can say when you do exactly what you said you would do: wage war, strip benefits, dehumanize foreigners, ban gay marriage and let police beat up protesters, etc.
However, if, as is true of most mainstream parties on the left, you run for political office under a liberal platform of promoting worker’s rights, using diplomacy instead of force, maintaining a strong welfare state and curbing the abuses of excessive authority, then you have a much harder job ahead of you when it comes to justifying your inevitable kowtowing to corporate and elite power interests.
When the wars get declared, the jobs start leaving the country, the benefits get cut, the asylum seekers get turned away, the gays still get refused their marriages and the police turn nasty, a left-wing government is a much more accountable and responsive government than a right-wing one, because there is a clear discrepancy between word and deed – this is not what you told us you would do – that even the most jaded voter becomes aware of.
If they do not explain themselves, therefore, then the people who’s votes they want will begin to look elsewhere; either to their right-wing opponents (as is depressingly happening right now in the UK), or to a much more extreme party of the left.
If one truly believes that all politicians – left or right – work in the interests of power and business, instead of the interests of their citizens, then one must also understand the importance to elite power of there being a safe but viable mainstream left-wing, in whom the people can believe. If there isn’t, then those citizens with left-leaning tendencies might be inclined to seek (or form) genuinely radical left-wing parties instead. Ones who won’t give in to corporate power; ones who won’t sell their supporters out.
Watered-down leftist parties like the Democrats in the US, and Labour in the UK, are vital, therefore, for the continued success of the oppressive state system, because they provide an acceptable and futile outlet for popular frustration and anger that might otherwise organize and revolt; as a result, although these left-wing parties will always be a disappointment to the truly radical left, they have an inherent limitation on their treachery that the right-wing parties do not: the mainstream left need the people to maintain their belief in them; they need the people to be convinced that they really do support the workers and represent a better way.
As such, they are much more likely to – and have a proven track record of – throwing the public a bone. Higher wages, higher employment, better benefits, tolerance of diversity and more funding for public services; these things usually tend to occur much more regularly under a “left-wing” government than they do with governments on the right. One need only look to the past thirty years for examples of this – neither Labour under Blair and Brown, nor the Democrats under Clinton or Obama have been perfect; far from it. But in each case – even as rampant neoliberal capitalism continued to rape the world and horrific and unjust wars were waged – it is hard to deny that there were more jobs, more benefits, better public services, an inclusivity of women, homosexuality, people of different ethnicities, religions, abilities and disabilities, etc, and a much less gung-ho, “kill ‘em all”, rhetoric than there was under the right-wing years of Thatcher, Major, Reagan and the Bushes.
Although this truism sadly works both ways (although it is arguably harder for an ostensibly “left-wing” government to cut benefits, wage illegal wars, etc, because of their campaign promises and the expectations of the voters, there is also a dangerous corollary of presumed trust that they won’t do these things, which allows them – as with the ongoing war on terror; or the Clintonoids and NAFTA, etc – to often get away with murder), the important thing to remember is that, outside of the “big picture” issues on which their polices do not differ from their counterparts on the right, on domestic policy and social issues – the “superficial” differences – the left will always have much more pressure and expectation to improve the lives of the majority, than the right, who promise us nothing.
Hence, whilst we might never change the fact of our oppression under the current capitalist system, by merely replacing one set of puppets with another, we absolutely can change the tone of our oppression: by constantly making sure that only the lesser of two evils ever gets control of our lives.
By voting for the left – even if that left is ultimately watered down and endlessly disappointing – we limit the parameters of what passes as acceptable politics in the country, and give a clear and powerful message to the elites: we will not stand for the unbridled cruelties of the right!
Choosing the lesser of two evils might make your stomach churn, and it might well still be evil"; but when two evil choices are the only choices you’ve got, doesn’t it make sense to do everything in your power to make sure you choose the evil that will cause the least harm?
Of course, hand in hand with this sickening compromise comes fighting for the changes you really want to see – creating the conditions within society – through activism, demonstration and protest – whereby the betrayals of the mainstream left are no longer acceptable; conditions where fighting imperialist wars and putting profits before people are seen for the true evil that they are.
But until we get there, I think it is important to remember that to dismiss all politicians as “the same” just because – on every major issue – they all lie and screw us over, is to blind oneself to the importance of their differences: the tone of our oppression that we choose.
I would love to live in an anarchist utopia – self-governed; peaceful; a truly authentic democracy…
But while that just remains a faraway dream, I would much rather live in Britain under Labour than Britain under the Conservatives; or America under Obama than America under Bush.
With a general election coming up here in the UK – and a very real possibility that the Tories will win – and a fledgling Democratic Administration in the US being drowned in the din of Republican fear-mongering, I hope to use this blog to show how these little differences still matter, even when you believe all politicians are the same.