Yassamine Mather condemns the farce of the UK general election
A few weeks before the disputed presidential elections in Iran, an Iranian singer, Ebi, produced a song called Tasmim (‘decision’), suggesting the choice offered to the Iranian people was in fact no choice at all. The video for it, available on YouTube, uses a graphic metaphor. It ends with an image of two glass bowls: one has live worms in it, the other live cockroaches.
Iranians are used to choosing between ‘bad’ and ‘worst’, yet most believe that such limited choices only exist in their own country. They share with the rest of the ‘third world’ illusions about parliamentary democracy in the west. They hold an unhealthy fetish regarding universal suffrage and the capability of parliaments in the ‘first world’ to deliver freedom and equality. Regular doses of propaganda dished out by western media, whose impartiality is summed up by their support for global capital’s status quo, have made sure they are unaware that for a growing section of the population, especially amongst the poor and the underclass in Britain, France, Germany, the US … state elections do conjure up the image of a choice between worms, cockroaches and other creepy animals.
In Iran it is the Guardian Council that decides who can be ‘elected’ to high office, in accordance with their allegiance to Shia Islam, keeping in mind the strength of their financial backers. In Britain the selection of those who can be elected to govern is far more complicated and subtle. Here, the current state form of bourgeois parliamentary capitalism is regulated by the electoral commission and its outcome depends almost entirely on the manipulations of the ‘mercenary media’, all serving the interests of capital, defending its wars and its borders.
Since September 11 2001, western European countries and the United States have pursued wars in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the name of this kind of parliamentary system of governance. Its superiority is paraded as one of the main justifications for wars – both external, against the peoples of the ‘third world’, but also internal, in the attacks on the civil liberties of immigrants and the poor. Yet in the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, the UK, the electoral process holds no emancipatory programme; it excludes any dissent – the choice will be between the bad and the worse – and a sizeable percentage of those eligible to vote will not do so.
If we add to this the effects of the continued saga of MPs’ expenses, the efforts of the cynical and yet manipulating media and a servile intelligentsia, we begin to understand why the young show little interest in the election, why so many voters remained undecided until polling day and why television appearances, gaffs and sound bites played such a crucial role in dramatically altering the level of support for the main parties.
On election night the media proclaimed: “The nation has decided.” Nothing can be further from the truth. The 2010 election showed disorientation on a national scale at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and war. In reality, in the words of Marxist philosopher Alan Badiou, what happens in such elections is that “Preferences will be duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will.”
In confronting the inevitable despair that will follow, the left should consider some of its own mistakes in the way it intervened and what could have been done to transform what was a state procedure (seismograph recording) into a political process: collective action aiming for a new outcome – one that is currently repressed by the dominant order.
Wars for democracy
For the United States and its allies, the world vision of ‘democracy’ is increasingly defined by war and the exclusion of others. To quote Badiou again, “The maintenance of the existing order with its gigantic disparities has an irreducible military component: the duality of the worlds of rich and poor can only be sustained by force. This creates a particular dialectic of war and fear. Our governments explain that they are waging war abroad in order to protect us from it at home.”
Yet the left in the anti-war movement limited its intervention in the current UK elections to the usual demands of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and an end to interventions in Iraq, Iran … It never picked up on a more essential concept: our duty to prevent future military interventions and the export of a particular product – ‘western-style parliamentary freedom’ – by invasion, occupation, use of imprisonment and torture. For the sake of democracy in the UK as well as the countries of the periphery we have a duty to present a critique of this type of freedom that masquerades as democracy: parliamentarian capitalism.
The main aim of the current electoral process, a state procedure, is to maintain illusions in the capitalist ‘order’ – a system that disenfranchises ordinary citizens and therefore in the current context plays a conservative role. To participate in such elections is to support the status quo – unless one uses the opportunity to challenge the process itself. The patronising attitude of western ‘democracies’ towards the third world helped the US and European governments, from Blair to Merkel to Sarkozy, to portray their ‘parliamentary system’ as the ultimate form of ‘democracy’, a model to be copied – or imposed – worldwide. Throughout the last few weeks, the British left’s interventions in these elections, consciously or inadvertently, propelled the same illusions about the supremacy of the western ‘parliamentary’ system.
I am not arguing that universal suffrage and the electoral-democratic system is repressive, but that the current electoral process in Europe and the US is “incorporated into a state form, that of capitalo-parliamentarianism, appropriate for the maintenance of the established order, and consequently serves a conservative function. This creates a further feeling of powerlessness: if ordinary citizens have no handle on state decision-making save the vote, it is hard to see what way forward there could be for an emancipatory politics.”
The main task of the left is to expose the shortcomings of this procedure and propose “emancipatory” alternative forms of intervention in order to combat the “feeling of powerlessness” and alienation.
Elections and the media
From the onset the British parliamentary elections of 2010 were an apolitical process. None of the main contenders claimed to have any convictions; there was no politics, no aim of challenging the existing order; there was little conviction in the slogans and programmes put forward. As for the organisations and electoral alliances of the left, they watered down their election platforms to such an extent that one could see little enthusiasm or conviction amongst their candidates.
However, what turned this apolitical tragedy into a farce were the so-called ‘leaders’ debates’, heralded as the ultimate form of democratic examination. They were part of a Murdoch initiative to widen the size of his media empire, dismantle the BBC, reduce the influence of other terrestrial broadcast services and increase the political influence of particular sections of North Atlantic finance capital. The aim was clear: let us make sure there are no dissenting voices in the west when the next war starts; let us silence the liberal media’s whinging about ‘collateral damage’ and civil liberties. Three middle aged men of mediocre intelligence and limited vision, coached by ‘media advisers’ (some former employees of the said Murdoch!), played the equivalent of a talent show in front of a television audience, while ‘media pundits’ interpreted their ‘body language’, their eye contact with camera, the colour of their shirt and ties and their hand gestures … as if any of that mattered.
The three men and the media agreed that lower taxes are good for everyone, the poor as well as the rich; everyone employed by the public sector is paid far too much; privatisation reduces costs to manufacturers, providers of services and customers; the unemployed or those getting sick benefit are thieves; MPs fiddling a few thousand pounds are small villains, but capitalists laundering billion of pounds in tax havens are heroes, especially if they are donors to one of the main parties; it is good for everyone that the base line for inheritance tax should be set at £1 million. No-one challenged the veracity of such statements, and politicians of all the main parties duly conformed to defend them.
When it came to the economy and immigration, the difference between the three main parties was once more so negligible that here again what mattered was style, not content. Irrespective of what they say in their manifestos, all the main parties are committed to a stringent economic policy (cuts in public spending, increases in VAT, etc). As for immigration and foreign workers, the three main parties, including Labour, competed with each other about who has the toughest anti-migrant policies and who will save this island from ‘foreigners’ (here some sections of the left – in particular the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party in England and Wales in No2EU) have not done much better in the past.
The left cannot win on the issue of migration through half-hearted statements. Marxists should link it to the question of war. We should highlight poverty and destitution in the countries of the periphery to explain the relationship between colonialism, imperialism, wars, refugees and migration. In response to bigoted, racist statements by politicians and the media the call for no borders, for one world, should have been raised, as opposed to the conservative statements of sections of the British left, implying rights only for immigrants who are already here. Of course, it is important to stand for a united Europe, but we should also campaign against everything that divides the rich capitalist centre from the poor and devastated periphery.
Here one is reminded of what Althusser called the “ideological state apparatus” (parties, civil service, trade unions, the media), whose formulation and mobilisation of collective sentiments was all-important. The media, almost unanimously, declared what should be the ‘popular’ position on issues such as war and immigration; the masses are to be educated through a ‘declaration of facts’.
An example to follow?
In the midst of this media frenzy, the rest of the world was supposed to watch and learn. We are told that the ‘expansion of democracy’ resulting from US wars has changed the map of the Middle East: the election of Karzai in Kabul, of Maleki and Alawi in Baghdad are signs of progress, even though it was not pressure from below, but military invasion, that paved the way for it.
The BBC Persian service is giving extensive coverage to the UK elections. The lesson for the ‘third world’ to learn is clear: ‘freedom’ can only be achieved through a parliamentary capitalist system. Right on cue, on the eve of May 1, Iranian ‘reformist’ leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi told Iranian workers: “All your demands would have been answered if we had freedom” – and, of course, by that he did mean the ‘reformist’ Islamist version of bourgeois elections.
For the working class and the revolutionary left the consequences of the elections are in many ways predictable. Even if Labour remains in power, albeit in alliance with Liberal Democrats, it will mark the beginning of another series of setbacks for the working class.
The electoral alliances of the left, including the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, presented a very limited horizon of reforms, all within the confines of the above, and were always unlikely to gain any support beyond the limited milieu of activists and supporters of the organisations involved. Given the apathy of large sections of the population, especially the working class, towards these elections, it is time to question this last sacred cow of bourgeois democracy – not just for the sake of democracy in Britain, but also in pursuing the interests of the working class worldwide.
Elections are a good time to reassert some basic political ideas. The left could have put forward the proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class, maintained in power by corrupt parliamentarians in an economy organised by incompetent economists and bankers, is not the ideal political system. Mike Macnair’s articles in the Weekly Worker have done this brilliantly, but his is a minority voice amongst the British left.
The main problem with the programmes proposed by Tusc, the CPB, Respect, etc is that they start from an analytic agreement of the world as it is today and propose improvements within the existing system. I would argue that a communist intervention must challenge the very existence of our current world order, the existence of two worlds. The Tusc manifesto’s international statement is a remarkable example of the poverty of left’s vision regarding the war: “Bring home all British troops from Afghanistan immediately – no more wars for resources … An independent foreign policy, based on international solidarity – no more being a US poodle, no moves towards a capitalist, militarist United States of Europe, no Lisbon Treaty.” One could deduce from this that capitalist wars are OK as long as they are not for resources or if the British government is not tailing US policy.
At a time when capitalism boasts about a single global economy linking individual companies, banks and state institutions, but the reality is of a world of divided peoples and nations, communists propose the only serious alternative. We must proclaim that all humans belong to same world. That they are not objects or commodities. However different they are in terms of language, dress, religion, food and education, they must have the right to live and work where they wish. After all, at least six million British citizens live and work outside the UK.
The first consequence of such a position is that bombing civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan for the sake of saving lives in London or New York is a stupid idea. The second consequence would be to campaign for a world with no borders. As far as immigration in concerned, there is no halfway house. As soon as you accept the capitalist state’s arguments about immigration, all you can do is talk of ‘more humane’ means of control – and that means making even ‘immigrants already here’ feel unwelcome.
I am not advocating heroism at election times. In my youth and throughout my time in the Fedayeen we were told that heroism was the single most important revolutionary characteristic. However, most what we did was neither courageous nor revolutionary. On the contrary our actions were often expressions of impatience. Being a revolutionary is tougher than being heroic: it requires showing courage and often implies putting forward unpopular, difficult arguments. It is to call for ‘the impossible’ as the only realistic solution.
As far as these elections were concerned, it took courage to denounce the fundamental basis on which the parliamentary system sustains the rule of capital, to call it a sham, to proclaim with no reservations slogans for a different world, a world with no borders, a world with no wars, and to declare that such a world cannot exist as long as there is exploitation of human labour.
That meant calling for the elimination of inequality, an end to the division of labour, the abolition of all inheritance and the supersession of capitalism.
- A Badiou Sarkozy: de quoi est-il le nom? Paris 2008.
- A Badiou, ‘L’hypothèse communiste’ Circonstances Vol 5.