And Now For Something Completely Different

If I was a book in a library, then I'd finally be free

Kucinich, Choice, Freedom and Lenin in 2008

with 9 comments

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.

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Written by Joe

January 5, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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9 Responses

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  1. I respectfully disagree with you. While I agree with Kucinich on most issues he strikes me as a flake. I am sure you could argue that my perception is the product of media manipulation but I don’t think so. I listed to him and he just sounds goofy – his appearance on Colbert was absurd – his desire for a “department of peace.”

    Politics is not strictly about policy positions (though ofcourse those are important). It is about personalities, emotions, feelings. To vote for Kuncinich is not to step out of the neoliberal deadlock but simply to hand the keys over the worse of two evils.

    Alain

    January 9, 2008 at 8:14 am

  2. I think it’s the inevitability of that last sentence being true, the objective truth of it that you and many others can’t let go of for fear of not being “realistic,” that is the neoliberal deadlock.

    I’ve pointed out that at least a tiny sliver of the problem has to do with our pluralist election method (one tickt, one vote). It begs for people to approach their candidate like they would any other commodity. Most of the problem has to do with our unwillingness to act, or our willingness to act so much that we put a halt to our political efficacy– i.e. Zizek’s “interpassivity.”

    There is an unabashed formal freedom to vote between the top two or three front-runners, but no actual freedom to vote for whomever the hell you want; Following the objective truth as pitched to you through all kinds of media sources (officially “the news” or otherwise) there is no other choice. This is why I see this as a perfect example of Zizek’s “forced choice.” Whether that forces us to choose a candidate of substance or not, the forced quality of this choice already negates anything positive we may find in the candidate as such, because choosing him or her was arrived at through anti-democratic rationale. I don’t think we even come this close to redemption though. No candidate of substance can possibly be the “right choice” of the “forced choice,” because of the nature of how the choice is forced. Hence, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, not because anyone in the media actually makes us do it, because we won’t stop telling ourselves that this is the only way.

    I don’t know where you get that he’s a flake though. As far as his voting record he is the most consistent with what he says, to say nothing of that voting record being consistent with what you admit to be issues with which you agree. His refusal to sell Cleveland’s municipalities back when he was mayor, which resulted in a very isolated fallout from the pissy banks that wanted him to sell, is hardly flakey. In fact, he sacked his political career in the short term not just for what he believed in, but for the people, who later on realized what he did for them. He’s also the candidate who espouses the least “compromise” sorts of rhetoric. I just don’t know how you get flakey out of this? A “Department of Peace” sounds no less weird than a “Department of War,” which is what we had for a hell of a lot longer than our contemporary “Department of Defense.”

    I still feel fully supported in my observation that today we are faced with a forced choice, which threatens us immediately, and not just in an imagined future where the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential race. Like I said in my previous post, what is as stake right here and now is our freedom.

    pdxstudent

    January 9, 2008 at 10:02 am

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful response. And despiite my caustic tone, I respect what Kucinich did as mayor and his voting record in Congress. But that does not make him a good candidate for President or the best vehicle for the message he is delivering. I maintain politics is still about silly things such as likability and sentiment. Eight years ago many voters chose George W Bush because they thought he would be a good guy to have a beer with. And Al Gore was arrogant and condescending.

    And anecdotally I am not alone in feeling their is an intangible “weirdness” to Kucinich. Even if you believe this is a construction of how the media presents him, that still is relavent to his ability to lead – forgetting about his ability to win.

    I have read a fair amount of Zizek and i am familiar with his notion of the “forced choice.” But I maintain that almost any choice, outside of a revolutionary context (the moment of a true act) is forced – circumstance and the socio-economic coordinates will dileneate what is or is not possible.

    And I know Zizek also references Ranciere’s notion of the “distribution of the sensible.” True politics is excercised by those groups that are ignored or excluded by the current police structures. But I would maintain that a vote for Kucinich does nothing to challenge this. And I think it is inaccurate to say the democratic neo-liberals (as you describe Obama, Clinton, Edwards)do not offer a significant improvement to the current situation.

    Thank you for your willingness to engage.

    Alain

    January 9, 2008 at 11:10 am

  4. Thank you for not being rabid about it, though we obviously don’t agree on every part of this issue.

    I agree with you that any of the Democratic front-runners would be a certain kind of improvement over our present administration. That’s not what’s at state in what I’m arguing, or what I think Zizek is arguing when he asks us to “repeat Lenin.” What I see as being at stake is our capacity to choose in our interests alone, to exercise what Zizek takes from Lenin as “actual Freedom.” I think it is plain to see that the struggle between the neoliberal seduction and someone like Kucinich (or, given my ambivalence about him and his populist message, Edwards; Ron Paul, crazy as he is for his own reasons, is a similar candidate in this regard) is ripe with revolutionary potential.

    We simply would not have the same America we have right now if Dennis Kucinich (or Edwards or Paul even) became elected. I say this not just because of how they’d put their platforms into practice, but because of the change it would already imply has gone on in the hearts and minds of those Americans who voted for him. The more revolutionary change would not be something we wait for to pan out in any of their presidency, but in doing what we are told and taught is the impossible.

    I try not to mix my support of Kucinich with my support of voting for him. Strange as it may sound, I’m trying to argue those are two different things with different arguments to their value. I will say that, however, the appeal Kucinich had for me since first learned about him when I was still in high school was precisely in his weirdness—not in his claim to have seen an unidentified flying object, or in his idea of a “department of peace,” but in the aura of weird about him that had to do with his refusal to submit himself to the practices and discourses of “electability.” In other words, like his refusal to sell Cleveland’s municipalities earned him a bad reputation, a kind of weirdness among politicians. I also agree that this event alone is not why he’d be a good president. That’s why I’m arguing that my support of him is different than my support of voting for him.

    It is not that I expect or want him to lose, though the mainstream media certainly does, but that if we do not face that kind of loss as an electorate then we refuse democratic politics itself. It’s not even that we are letting the mainstream media choose for us, but that we are begging for someone or something else to choose for us. In search of that WE CHOOSE the mainstream media to be the medium through which that choice is delivered to us from the Big Other we want to make all of our decisions. In this respect, I think people are not only afraid of voting FOR THEMSELVES, but that if they do they’ll actually get what they want. When they get a neoliberal who really does nothing to end Capitalist globalization and wars or the gutting of social services, those who voted them in think they have a distance from culpability in this failure, a distance provided by their belief that they were obeying that Big Other’s choice. No, they really voted, and really themselves voted ignorantly.

    Not to drag this out, but I’ll try and re-iterate my point much more succinctly again: the change we really need in America is not around the corner with whoever is president and what they’ll do, but in the very horizon in which we conceive of this choice. Two things I’ll concede before ending this are that:

    (1) our pluralist elections (i.e. one person, one ticket, whoever gets the most wins) are part of the problem. None of the candidates directly offers in their campaign or indirectly in their personal or ideological inclinations an alternative to this, such as (my preference) Instant Runoff Voting or an otherwise Condorcet Method.

    (2) there is still a chance that Obama, Hillary or even Edwards is really playing the system more than we’re led to think, and is using our tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot to get us to vote for who is outwardly a neoliberal candidate, who seems to be the “only one who can win, in order to get into office and make real changes. I’m not holding out on this hope though, in part because I have no reason to but self-satisfying wishful thinking, but also because even if that were the case the basic problem of America wouldn’t be solved and nothing, really, would change.

    pdxstudent

    January 9, 2008 at 11:45 am

  5. I actually largely agree with most of what you have just written. A Kucinich type candidate, who stands outside the neo-liberal agenda would have the potential to create an alternative space, a very different and better America. And I am also in favor or instant runoff voting – I think it would empower people to actiually vote for candidates like Kucinich who are not considered electable.

    But your point (that you take from Zizek) that we are begging for someone or something else to choose for us – I am not sure that I really believe that. Or perhaps, to put it differently, I question whether that tendency in America is really something we choose or is actually constitutive of “political reality”? We make the choice to have the Big Other choose because it is the most obvious thing to do – most Americans are too busy trying to survive, going to work, raising their kids, paying their bills.

    And where I think we ultimately disagree is that I believe any Democrat is more than marginally better than the Republicans. Any of the candidates, if elected, will raise taxes on the wealthy, establish (at a minimum) universal health insurance, appoint judges that respect the rule of law, and secure Social Security. These things seem very important.

    Thanks again for your willingness to discuss these issues. As you say, our very freedom is at stake.

    Alain

    January 9, 2008 at 12:24 pm

  6. “But your point (that you take from Zizek) that we are begging for someone or something else to choose for us – I am not sure that I really believe that. Or perhaps, to put it differently, I question whether that tendency in America is really something we choose or is actually constitutive of ‘political reality’?”

    If this process is constitutive of “political reality,” I would say so only insofar as when Zizek opens his most recent and controversial LRB article stating that “[o]ne of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible.”

    I think it is very clear here that he’s speaking not in his own voice, very much like Hegel is not speaking in his own voice in the first sentence of the Phenomenology when he says, “It is a natural assumption that in philosophy, before we start to deal with its proper subject-matter, viz. the actual cognition of what truly is, one must first of all come to an understanding about cognition, which is regarded as either the instrument to get hold of the Absolute, or as the medium through which one discovers it.”

    The point, of course, is that this is the problematic view to be interrogated and falsified (or, perhaps to better phrase it, learned from). Similarly, I think that saying that “this tendency” is “actually constitutive of ‘political reality'” doesn’t get past the dualism of reality/appearance, and in this way appeals, especially when you qualify it with “actually,” to reality over appearance as if the distinction wasn’t itself already internal to appearances. In this way, there is very little difference between what I’m proposing and what, save for the appeal to what’s “real,” you’re also suggesting.

    The difference lay in that, to borrow some more from Zizek, what you suggest amounts to a concern with some reality behind illusion, whereas what I’m concerned with and am suggesting has to do with the reality in illusion itself. Obviously it is not whether there is some Big Other out there pulling these shots, but rather what it means when we act as if there were (sometimes resorting to shallow arguments about “being realistic” or, worse yet, “electability”), even when we say there is not (i.e. when we say to ourselves or others that we each have a responsibility as democratic individuals to vote what we believe is right).

    So, I think it is both true that Americans, in their tendency to let, if not practically beg some Big Other to make their decision for them, are both choosing it and constituting their political reality.

    It is not enough to say that most Americans are just trying to survive. They are even more in touch with the practical problems that they need their elected representatives to address. As the saying goes, “what is there to loose but this loss?”

    pdxstudent

    January 9, 2008 at 1:09 pm

  7. I don’t really do a good job of supporting what I say in the first paragraph of that last comment. In connecting your suggestion to Zizek’s ostensible claim that Capitalism is indestructible, coupled with the fact that he is speaking for someone else, I am suggesting that this is how things seem, how they effectively are, only insofar as we’re actively choosing it.

    To this end, our political reality and arguably reality in a broader sense, as I end up suggesting, is constituted by our very choices.

    pdxstudent

    January 9, 2008 at 1:23 pm

  8. “I actually largely agree with most of what you have just written. A Kucinich type candidate, who stands outside the neo-liberal agenda would have the potential to create an alternative space, a very different and better America.”

    Also, I’m saying that the most important change wouldn’t necessarily be what Kucinich or a Kucinich-type brings while in office, but in the very Act of voting him in given the present circumstances. The same rationale that implies this change also implies it not happening so long as we try and achieve it with these half-measures. Again, the change isn’t in whether we’re shepherding the Earth, keeping slaves or not, or whatever. Those things can effectively go back and forth. The change is, first of all, where we try and effect change.

    pdxstudent

    January 9, 2008 at 1:29 pm

  9. I definitely get your point that the reality/appearance distinction is itself already internal to appearances. Zizek is on solid Hegelian ground here – if that isn’t an oxymoron. And I agree that from this perspective saying that the Media constitutes the choice is not all that different than we the viewer/citizens are choosing it. But I still think it is essential to recognize, that even within the confines of the neoliberal coordinates, any democrat will provide an opportunity to stop the enslaught on government and the rule of law. I am frustrated that too many on the left trivialize the differences – if John Kerry (someone I voted for but was not excited about)had been elected in 2004, the supreme court would not have overruled the Brown decision because John Roberts and Sam Alito would not be on the court. They have ruled in several other cases limiting the ability of government to regulate the economy or protect the environment. Again, these differences matter.

    What I would say, however, is that you or anyone else has every right to vote for who you want. And I gree with you that the act of voting for someone into office like Kucinich would be an important change. I just think each of us decides for themselves when the moment to attempt the impossible is right. And from my vantage point, this election is not that moment – but any democrat can still implement enough change to make things astronomically better for the country. I suspect you would not agree but that is probably better left for another discussion.

    Take Care.

    Alain

    January 9, 2008 at 2:14 pm


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