Archive for January 2008
So, Mike Huckabee wants to get rid of the IRS and repeal the 16th Amendment, which allows the federal government to collect income taxes. He is a proponent of what’s called FairTax, a variety of tax ideas typically billed as a “consumption tax.” I have to admit there is a simple, almost tempting elegance to it: we get rid of all federal level taxation, and replace it with a federal sales tax of about 23%. On top of this, families (depending on household composition) up to the poverty level essentially get all their money back over the course of the year; instead of a once-a-year refund-check, they get a monthly prebate. Supposedly this makes the tax progressive and not regressive, in that the assumption is that people who make more money aren’t necessarily spending as much of it (they save it or, I guess, invest it), and therefore aren’t getting taxed for it as much. They still get that prebate (again, varying with household composition), though since they are assumably consuming more than this minimum, they are not getting all their taxes back. Another way of putting it is, the tax does not “punish” people for just getting by at or below the poverty level, so they get their income supplemented with the prebate checks to offset the sales taxes; those above this threshold, if they are spending much more than it, are really the ones carrying the tax burden, though it only gets higher as one makes more money. Another way still of putting this is with something of an example I’ll borrow from wikipedia:
For example, a family of four (a couple with two children) earning about $25,000 and spending this on taxable goods and services, would consume 100% of their income. A higher income family of four making about $100,000, spending $75,000, and saving $25,000, would consume only 75% of their income on taxable goods and services. When presented with an estimated effective tax rate, the low-income family above would pay a tax rate of 0% on the 100% of consumption and the higher income family would pay a tax rate of 15% on the 75% of consumption (with the other 25% taxed at a later point in time). A person spending at the poverty level would have an effective tax rate of 0%, whereas someone spending at four times the poverty level would have an effective tax rate of 17.2%.
At the top of the list made by Americans for Fair Taxation in support of the FairTax is that it “enables workers to keep their entire paycheck.” This is achieved, at least in part though probably mostly, because the FairTax movement involves repealing the 16th Amendment—eliminating Income Taxes and the IRS in general. It is a supply-side economic move masked as a demand-side, as the most widely made purchase is left out of this picture while at the same time remaining the central element: human labor.
It bears a more than striking resemblance to a Lacanian objet (petit) a, or when we put it to work (Jodi Dean reminded me of this), a Zizekian obscene supplement. The FairTax says it wants workers to get their fair compensation for their work, and that the real boon in this is their increased spending power, though it is the implicit transaction between employer and worker, paradoxically with regards to human labour, that is left out of this plan’s scope. In other words, human labour qua spending power is liberated while at the same time never brought into question.
It just makes no sense to tout this elimination of income taxes as an achievement, when it would just as easily could be achieved by taxing employers for buying their workers’ labour. In a way, this is how income taxes work now, though they really target the tax-paying worker and not the employer like they should. Effectively, taxing employers and not employees for working would be taxing employer profits (perhaps into practical non-existence) and turning them around for social ends. In other words, FairTax tries to have the populist appeal of Socialism without the economic model to realize it.
It’s at once surprising and not that neoliberals have not jumped on this more, though I think it ultimately is because how closely it takes them to Socialism. It is a very short though profound logical leap to say, “If we are going to tax the consumption of all these goods and services on the part of consumers, why not producers too, who consume human time and energy for money?” It is as if that thought were an object-cause of Capitalist desire: they must approach it all the time in order to manage all the while stoking the fires of Capitalist growth, but ever realizing it would amount to the completion of the Capitalist telos: the blowing out of that flame and the end of Capitalism itself.
Another connection I should make to Zizek concerns what is to be done. It seems clear that not very many Democrats, practically none really, actually oppose Dennis Kucinich for his stance on issues as such. None of the front-runners have said anything like this as far as I know anyway. Likewise, most reproaches to Kucinich from voters involves a one-pony show that amounts to: he has great ideas but can’t win. Like the proper approach to the German’s acceptance of the figure of the Jew in my last post, we cannot take the basic fact of the ideological constellation (in this case the idea that only the front-runners can possibly win the election) for granted when we try to understand how it constrains us and how to change that. The question we must ask here is not “why can’t he win?” but “what does it mean for you or anyone else to say that he can’t win?” The distinction here will have a similar effect as with the German and the Jew: the claim that Kucinich can’t win has nothing to do with Kucinich, or the election even! It has everything to do with what I listed in my last post, though to put it succinctly again: it has to do with a fear of democratic politics, and the implicit freedom and responsibility that go along with it.
What, then, should we do if we want a candidate of change and integrity while maintaining our freedom to actually choose one? The answer is obvious, though I do not think very satisfying: we should vote for Kucinich anyway. Zizek discusses in an excerpt from his book, “On Belief,” titled “The Leninist Freedom,” the difference between what Lenin called “formal” and “actual” freedom. The former is the freedom to do the things as allowed in a given ideological framework. In the case of my last lengthy blog-post, that is the freedom to vote for any of the neoliberal front-runners. Actual freedom is to be allowed to change the conversation completely, to do what is deemed from within the current ideological framework as “impossible.”
People seem to have some grasp of this distinction too, as a not uncommon complaint I hear and read is that all the front-runners seem the same, so there is little meaning to saying we have a choice among them. No one really goes the extra step to distinguish between this ostensible choice and the truly free choice to say fuck it to what people are saying is “realistic.” The ground-work for this is already in place though too. People also come up with the complaint that the mainstream media is “choosing” the Democratic nominee for them, and that this isn’t right. This directly parallels Zizek’s complaint of Lenin’s threat against the Mensheviks for wanting to critique the Bolsheviks in the midst of the October Revolution.
‘Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’
Today, is it not obvious after the terrifying experience of Really Existing Socialism, where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized, situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves . . . “); second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent 11 objectivism” (the focus on “objective meaning”) is the form of appearance of its opposite, the thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is “objectively” an enemy of the working class).
The argument might as well be the same coming from the Democrats:
you should not criticize the neoliberals; they are the only ones electable. Even then, it’s really down to Clinton and Obama. You’re threatening our chances of beating the Republicans by insisting on these radical Far Left issues, like Universal Healthcare and ending our participation in Capitalist globalization and war. You might as well be a Republican for how, in the name of the Democratic Party and the American people, naively you undermine the process of picking our neoliberal candidate.
The ironic thing about this move is that in accepting it we forget something we all know about human agency: free choice cannot be forcibly coerced. We forget that we actually have an actual choice in the matter, but in profound unison we convince ourselves of the objective truth given to us by the MSM that there really is no choice but the three front-runners, and really only Clinton or Obama at that.
Whether or not there is substance to either Obama or Clinton or Edward’s campaign, I think that the truly patriotic thing to do at the primaries, and of course in November, will be to re-assert our freedom and vote for the impossible candidate most of us Democrats want to be running our country: Dennis Kucinich. So many people are saying that if we can get at least one of the neoliberals in office, then we can at least get an edge-wise in on how our country is ran. What those same neoliberal apologists forget is that if we aren’t able to get an edge-wise in when it came to the elections this year, what makes them think things will be any better once/if the neoliberal administration is in power? They forget that the same formal freedom of the presidential race, in all of its lack of actual freedom, will be the same formal freedom of the new administration, which means the freedom to accept that “there is no choice.”
UPDATE: As I start to review some of the history, we are in a moment right now very much like the climate leading up to the October Revolution (i.e. Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution).
On the one hand, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks became separate factions because, in part, the Mensheviks were interested in collaborating with the conservative Constitutional Democrats and Tsarists, and in that way wanted to try and “pragmatically” appeal to a broad constituency. Something like what many Democrats have called bipartisanship. Lenin felt this compromised too much of the revolutionary project, and felt that the revolution needed to be tighter-knit with its goals and organization. Today, we see the same structure playing itself out: many Democrats, but typically the most prominent ones, want to “work with conservatives” to reach their political aims. While those people who make the most sense (Kucinich and Gravel) don’t play that game. They refuse to water down their campaigns or platforms with corporate or conservative elements, and in that way have been similarly exclusive and unshakeable. Another Marxist take on this would be that the logic of “electability” that drives the support for and the campaign of the three front-runners is the logic of commodities themselves. Kucinich, on the other hand, appeals to the use-value of his plans rather than their ability to fit into everyone’s ideological prejudices. It is this latter spirit that is at the core of democracy, while the former is better for making a buck (and fucking someone else over in the process).
I think that this year could be a lot more important than some people think, because it will be the difference between a compromise with actually changing things (in its own way, not a change at all with how things have been done) and seeing America move in a reasonable direction. Of course, people will look at this comparison to Lenin and the October Revolution as disfavorable, though they usually don’t take the time to remember what they themselves know: the Soviet Communism we all know and hate came as Lenin aged and became less influential, and then especially after he died with Stalin (and even then, not until the mid-1930s). At any rate, there is an opportunity for ground breaking change in our nation, not merely in who is in power or what they are doing but with the very way our (the people’s) freedom functions, and it involves not succumbing to the seductive but backwards “compromise” way of approaching the Democratic party. The Republicans sure as hell don’t when it comes to what’s important to them, which is why Huckabee has rose out of nothing to the winner of Iowa and I expect more elections.
[This started as a comment to an article Arianna Huffington wrote for the Huffington Post, reprinted at Alternet, titled “What Obama’s Iowa Win Means For Everyone.” I know I speak in some generalities, and that there are many people who are not represented when I write “Republicans” or “Democrats,” particularly those people who to a greater or lesser degree may think like I do. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m speaking to media images, but also the discourses I experience on a day to day level in real life conversations and encounters with political rhetoric. I say what I say, because the stakes are too high not to say it. I hope some of you out there who read this will say it too, of course adding some of your own insights. In that regard, I encourage re-posting this and linking it wherever you can. And Now For Something Completely Different.]
The political field is kept narrow, and our political discourse even narrower, because it is dominated by a false fear of a Republican victory later this year. It’s like Hegel says in the introduction to The Phenomenology of Spirit, “Should we not be concerned as to whether this fear of error is not just the error itself? Indeed, this fear takes something—a great deal in fact—for granted as truth, supporting its scruples and inferences on what is itself in need of prior scrutiny to see if it is true … what calls itself fear of error reveals itself rather as fear of the truth” (Paragraph 74).
I think Democrats have to call out their own fear-mongering in the same way that Hegel here calls out philosophers before him for wanting to learn to swim epistemologically before or without getting in the waters of knowledge. We are afraid that our political discourse and efficacy are in danger, and in that fear we give it all up. In this way, it is not unlike when Benjamin Franklin said that those who would give up any of their essential liberties for some security deserve neither of them.
Democrats and Americans as a whole need to grow up, to as Kant put it emerge from their self-imposed immaturity, because in the name of their hallowed self-government they allow themselves to be governed by something that is other than themselves. Unlike what most anarchists, libertarians, minarchists and otherwise small-state proponents think, this something is not the government or even the media; it is an other voice internal to us that we posit out of something like what Hegel calls a fear of truth, or what Freud would have called “super-ego.” It is a fear of democratic politics, a fear of the responsibility implicit in self-government, that drives pluralist elections and “electability.”
In this respect, the Republicans somewhat have gotten things more correct than the Democrats. While you don’t not-hear it with Republicans and so-called conservatives, “electability” is a choice word on the mouths of Democrats and otherwise so-called liberals. Fear is supposed to be the choice word of Republicans, but it isn’t “electability” that they typically fear. They fear things like terrorists, women in power, people who aren’t white and ironically the government. In other words, what they fear are ostensibly real things, things that can be demonstrated to be false, that they can learn in a relatively easy move don’t need to be feared.
The Democrats, however, are afraid more than anything right now of losing the election to the Republicans. They have their assortment of real-world things to fear, like Fascism, Capitalism and identity-related violence. These are not the talking-points of most candidates or voters though.
On the one hand, Republicans are afraid of actual or ostensibly actual things; on the other hand, Democrats are afraid of what is possible. I think that the Republican fear is healthier, because by definition it can be countered with reality and perhaps learned from. Democratic fear is in reality itself, in the very fickleness of how things are, and in this way far unhealthier. What the Democrats fear has nothing to do with reality, and therefore reality cannot be countered with it, cannot be used to learn from their fear.
I’m not really endorsing the Republicans as much as I am pointing out the logic both parties (at least now) follow in their approach to politics. Even if it is at odds with it, the Republican logic is grounded in reality; the Democratic logic (of the last 40 years or so, though perhaps longer) has no use for reality, and in this way goes further than being at odds with it. Ironically, another favored phrase of Democrats, especially when someone else or among them starts to talk actually changing things, is that they, in their refusal to commit to change but to compromise, are realistic (or trying to be).
If I haven’t belabored the point too much, what I am saying is that the Republicans have been for the last several decades the party of what Nietzsche would call “active nihilism.” The Democrats, however, have been and most definitely are right now the party of what Nietzsche would call “passive nihilism.” I can really appreciate the distinction now, as well as what Zizek calls “interpassivity.”
Especially in the run-up to this election year, though over the course of the last two presidential terms, the Democrats have been more active than I can remember. It might be due to the growth of media technologies and the internet, but I think it has to do with actual activity too. In all of their frenetic activity, they are striving to do nothing at all politically. This is why Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been the front-runners, and why Arianna Huffington doesn’t know what the fuck she is talking about when she talks up Obama’s win in Iowa. Or perhaps she does–that’s the scary part.
The Republicans, however, cannot pull the same thing off, can’t knowingly shoot themselves in the foot. Rudy Guliani, one of the more centrist candidates, was the expected victor of Iowa (recognition of Huckabee’s rise notwithstanding). While they might not believe in evolution or that women are humans, they sure as hell know how to represent what they believe, which is why Huckabee has come up the way he has. Gulliani doesn’t do that; he tries to appease too many with his centrist leanings. In other words, he’s a Democrat in a Republican suit, and the Republicans know it.
So, I’ll say it again. Democrats use a technique of fear-mongering (that they project onto Republicans) to control the political agency of other Democrats and fellow-travelers. Zizek has a phrase for the illusion of choice that works in Capitalist ideology that I would like to here apply to the specific choice of a Democratic candidate. He calls it a “forced choice,” where there are options from which we are allowed to choose but only one choice we are allowed to make (i.e. the “right” one). I for one am not going to let my choice be forced, much less by a practically psychotic fear. That is why I am going to vote for Dennis Kucinich in the Oregon primaries. I realize many Democrats despise Clinton but favor Obama, and about just as many despise Clinton and Obama but favor Edwards. I think this division exists in order to secure the kind of neoliberal candidate they all represent, though I have a feeling there might but probably is not something different about Edwards. If, while I vote for Kucinich, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards win, and my friends or fellow Democrats complain to me that it was my vote and votes like mine for Kucinich that allowed Clinton or Obama or Edwards to win, I am going to say, “No, it was your vote for [Clinton/Obama/Edwards] that did not allow Kucinich to win.” It is not my responsibility to vote for you, my friend; expecting and insisting on that is anathema to democracy. It shouldn’t be forgotten that not voting for someone else (in the way I just chastised) is at the same time voting for them (in the way you should), because casting your vote is like raising your own personal maxim in Kant’s Categorical Imperative to the level of a universal principle. It’s in this process that we make freedom both possible and actual. I say what I have to say here not because hate Democrats, but because what is at stake RIGHT HERE AND NOW is our freedom, and it is the Democrats who are threatening it.
UPDATE: When I say that the Republican’s form of fear is healthier, I’m not endorsing it. In “The Sublime Object of Ideology,” Zizek makes a point about how ideological figures function in the minds of believers and how we’re to respond to them. He takes the example of the Jew in 1930s Germany.
Our response to all the negative accusations about Jews is not “well, let’s look at the Jews in real life and see whether they match up to this caricature of them – maybe some of it is right.” Our response is to say that this figure of the Jew has nothing to do with Jews, and that comparing it to reality is to already accept a certain amount of validity to it. Zizek goes on to point out that a typical German response to someone pointing out how nice their Jewish neighbor is not to really consider it, but to use it as evidence of what they already believed. They say something like “yes, but that just demonstrates how sinister and sneaky the Jews can be: they won’t even show their true nature!”
Now that I think of it, I think I didn’t go far enough with how I characterized Republican fear. Their fear is the kind of fear the German has of the Jew in the above paragraph. It’s not that we can show them reality and they realize their beliefs are mistaken, but that we can make the over-arching critique that such-and-such has nothing to do with reality. In other words, we still have a language for criticizing it. With what I call Democratic fear, it is beyond even this kind of analysis. I myself was led to not take it far enough, because I position Democratic fear too closely to Republican fear by saying we can critique it on the grounds that it has nothing to do with reality. If this were the case, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem; we’d just call them out on it. However, Democratic fear exceeds even what I call Republican fear in that we don’t even have a language to respond to it.
The way Zizek puts it, what we lack now is a language to speak our unfreedom. It is at this point that thinking and action coincide, because we can’t exactly do the work of critique with (just) our intellects as we can with the Republicans (by just analyzing their beliefs and countering them in the field of thought alone; we just know by the structure of their belief that it is erroneous), but have to incorporate our actions too. That means doing things that we haven’t exactly got all nice and figured out in our heads; it means living here and now in the world as it happens.
UPDATE PART DEUX: Both to extend some of what I said in my first update, but also some of the original post, I’m making the relatively uninteresting claim that Republican ideology is characterized anymore by a distinct Nietzschean Will to Nothingness, whereas the Democrats’ ideology is anymore characterized by the more ambiguous though just the same ominous not-Willing. Here I am thinking of at the very end of The Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche reminds us that the Will to Nothingness remains a Will, which has the redeeming quality of being the same Will that can affirm life just as in the Republican/conservative Will to Nothingness it negates life.
My generous comparison between Republican fear and Democratic Fear should be understood more narrowly in these terms. As it unfolds for me, I’m less impressed by what I saw, but feel more confident in what I should say. The reason there is something worth considering in the way that Republican fear at once energizes and coordinates the collective action of Republicans (for example, to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ron Paul or to bring Mike Huckabee out of the depths of nobodiness to beat all other candidates in the Iowa Caucus, including the former supposed front-runner, Rudy Gulliani) is because it is this same energy and focus that can be brought to the cause of the Democrats and their true-Blue issues. What we have is an over abundance of activity, but not a whole hell of a lot is being done to uphold the unabashed political aims of the Democrats and their fellow Leftists. This over-abundance of activity without anything really happening is exactly what is meant by not-Willing.
This is not an alien idea to many Americans, who are already profoundly Freudian in their readiness to “read into” people’s motives, actions and speech. This not Willing is already in the excuses they give for not voting for any of the so-called unelectables (Kucinich, Gravel, Dodd, etc.). Those deemed electable, however, are those most deeply entrenched in the neoliberal ethos that has grounded the Democrats’ political efficacy to a halt. The typical response to this criticism is that it is unrealistic to vote for any of these other candidates. Perhaps, but only to the extent that our electoral process is itself unrealistic in terms of representing the will of the people. What seems more unrealistic is the very core concern that motivates such hijacking of the voting process to turn it against itself. When we are “forced” to be concerned with something like “electability,” our freedom is given to us on the condition that we don’t really have it at all. It is as if most Democrats were holding a gun to their head and telling people like me that they have no choice.
As I’ve mentioned, this fear of losing the election is a fear of democratic politics, a fear and hatred of actually being free and responsible at the same time. What’s clear about losing the election to the Republicans is that, in actuality, it might not be worse than if any of the front-runners win. In terms of economic justice, environmental protection and civil rights, the front-running Democrats are marginally “better” than their Republican counterparts. By that I mean that Democrats will be held to task to once again take the power away from the Republicans, and will continue to have a framework in which to set-up and execute a political agenda. Of course, since 2006 that precise strategy has proven itself false. The Democrats can only hope that one of the neoliberal candidates gets elected, for the ideological impetus to react to their destructive policies that benefit Capitalist growth and globalization, to say nothing of the degradation of the environment or the living conditions of the lower and middle-class, will be confounded by the fact that they elected them.
Like I have already said, people are already voting against their interests when they vote for those most electable candidate. In the long-run only a Condorcet method will truly relieve us of these problems. That still doesn’t mean we can’t shake off the deeper problem right now by not voting neoliberal and taking a lesson from the Republicans. The responsible vote is the pragmatic vote, though it is not necessarily the most popular vote either. If you are telling yourself otherwise, or worse yet others, you may count yourself among those who hate us for our freedom.