Friday, February 09, 2007

Dictatorship of the Bourgeois: Universal Sufferage and Secret Balloting

(WARNING: while seeming to be a theoretical post, this is important, ending with an earnest question.)

If not through a violent coup de taut, how do dictators come to power?
Voting. Hitler!

How do seemingly mediocre or blatantly partisan politicians come to power?
Voting. Louis Bonaparte! (Although he probably didn’t come to mind).

While initially seen as the surest means of a fair and equal democracy, has voting turned against (or been turned against) the masses? Has the process of voting becomes a veil of something more sinister (or perhaps a mere banality)?

Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani, agreeing with Marx, says Yes.

Universal suffrage is, of course, the “system wherein people of all classes participate in the elections” (Transcritique, 151). Now certainly this seems like a great idea because universal suffrage opens the door for every single person to have a stake in her/his future through participation in national politics (i.e. through choosing a representative to hold forth their views). Along with this, the mechanism of secret ballots secures the voter from intimidation and retribution allowing the voter to voter her mind without fearing the consequence. In fact, it is universal suffrage and the secret ballot that distinguished what Marx calls ‘bourgeois parliament’ from the previous representative systems in feudal and monarchist governments.

But as Karatani says, “But this is not all—at the same time, and inversely, in this system, all individuals are, for the first time, separated in principle from all class relations and relations of production…Hiding who votes who for from, secret voting liberates people from their relations; at the same time, however, it erases the traces of their relations” (151, italics added for emphasis). The secret ballot also short circuits responsibility of the elected (representatives) from the electors (represented) such that the elected can think and behave as if everyone (i.e. no one) elected them (and is this not true of Bush recently).

Also this mechanism (voting in general) effectively erases class relations and relations of domination by “temporarily ‘reducing’ people into ‘free and equal individuals’…In elections, the freedom of individuals is guaranteed, but this exists only at the moment that the hierarchical relations in the real relations of production are suspended” (152). So in a sense, the freedom and equality promised by democracy is only actualized when the hierarchy and inequality of their daily relationships are suspended/bracketed. In other words democracy only comes into existence during elections and ends after elections (again b/c the representatives are severed from the electors and keep company with the bureaucrats). We are free and equal only one day a year, the day we pretend that there are no other relationships of importance! Oh, the wonderful fiction!

Karatani's conclusion is that universal suffrage and elections are “an elaborate ritual to give a public consensus to what has already been determined by the state apparati (military and bureaucracy)” (152).

…On the State
Now I don’t bring this all up to merely say that voting is irrelevant and unnecessary (although at times I think that), but to point out that elections are oriented toward the State, i.e. State-Power. But this is not the only arena of power.

Civil Society is an equal site of power and resistance. A possible objection to Karatani is that people all over the world have been denied the right to vote and have fought in order to vote (especially African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement). But I would point out that radical movements precisely began in the civil arena, hence the name “Civil Rights”, and typically end with reception of the vote. But this is generally more an uneasy truce than a true victory. The Civil Rights Movement never did effectively take over the Democratic Party, and African Americans have yet to by represented in relations to their population. Being given the ‘right to vote’ in many cases is the right to be distracted from doing what you were doing (changing concrete, civil society) and offered the chance to begin something else (the improbable task of changing State politics).

So, in short, might not the Church be wiser abstaining from the mechanism (voting) by which the “dictatorship of the bourgeois” functions (a mechanism to which both the religious right and left cling), and instead creatively partner with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e. the exploited/resisting side of globalization) via means of civil actions and innovative protests, through on the ground associations?

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