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Forum Post: chomsky on the election of 2008 and democracy

Posted 6 months ago on April 13, 2014, 6:14 p.m. EST by flip (7070)
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noam Chomsky "Of course Obama is nothing but a brand and a bad one at that." ........ For those of you who are interested, there’s very good scholarly work on this by Tom Ferguson at UMass, Boston, what he calls the investment theory of politics, which predicts the — which argues essentially that elections are moments when groups of investors coalesce and invest to control the state, and has quite a substantial predictive success, gives some suggestion as to what’s likely to happen. So that part’s familiar. What the future is, as I say, depends on people like you. The response to the election was interesting and instructive. It kept pretty much to the soaring rhetoric, to borrow the cliché, that was the major theme of the election. The election was described as an extraordinary display of democracy, a miracle that could only happen in America, and on and on. Much more extreme in Europe even than here. There’s some accuracy in that, if we keep to the West. So if we keep to the West, yes, it’s probably true that it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Europe is much more racist than the United States, and you wouldn’t expect anything like that to happen. On the other hand, if we look at the world, it’s not that remarkable.

So, let’s take, say, the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti and Bolivia. In Haiti, there was an election in 1990, which really was an extraordinary display of democracy, much more so than this. In Haiti, there were grassroots movements, popular movements that developed in the slums and in the hills, which nobody was paying any attention to. And they managed, even without any resources, to sweep into power their own candidate, a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That’s a victory for democracy, when popular movements can organize and set programs and pick their candidate and put him into office, which is not what happened here, of course. I mean, Obama did organize a great large number of people and many enthusiastic people, what’s called in the press “Obama’s Army.” But the army is supposed to take instructions, not to implement, to introduce, develop programs and call on its own candidate to implement them. That’s critical. If the army keeps to that condition, nothing much will change. If it, on the other hand, goes the way activists did in the ’60s, a lot could change, one of the choices that has to be made. However — so that’s Haiti. Of course, that didn’t last very long. A couple of months later, there was military coup, a period of terror. I won’t go through the whole record, but up to the present, the traditional torturers of Haiti — France and the United States — have made sure that there won’t be a victory for democracy there. It’s a miserable story, contrary to many illusions.

Take the second poorest country, Bolivia. They had an election in 2005 that’s almost unimaginable in the West, certainly here, anywhere. The person elected into office was indigenous. That’s the most oppressed population in the hemisphere, that is, those who survived. He’s a poor peasant. How did he get in? Well, he got in because there were, again, mass popular movements, which elected their own representative. And they are the source of the programs, which are serious ones. There are real issues, and people know them: control over resources, cultural rights, social justice, and so on. Furthermore, the election was just an event that was a particular stage in a long continuing struggle, a lot before and a lot after. There was day when people pushed the levers, but that’s just an event in ongoing popular struggles, very serious ones. A couple of years ago, there was a major struggle over privatization of water, an effort which would in effect deprive a good part of the population of water to drink. And it was a bitter struggle. A lot of people were killed. But they won it, through international solidarity, in fact, which helped. And it continues. Now that’s a real election. Again, the plans, the programs are being developed, acted on constantly by mass popular movements, which then select their own representative from their own ranks to carry out their programs. And that’s quite different from what happened here.

Actually, what happened here is understood by elite elements. The public relations industry, which runs elections here — quadrennial extravaganzas essentially — makes sure to keep issues in the margins and focus on personalities, character, and so on and so forth. They do that for good reasons. They know — they look at public opinion studies, and they know perfectly well that on a host of major issues both parties are well to the right of the population. That’s one good reason to keep issues off the table. And they recognize the success. So, every year, the advertising industry gives a prize, you know, to the best marketing campaign of the year. This year, Obama won the prize, beat out Apple Company, the best marketing campaign of 2008, which is correct. You know, it’s essentially what happened.

Now, that’s quite different from what happens in a functioning democracy like, say, Bolivia or Haiti, except for the fact that it was crushed. And in the South, it’s not all that uncommon. Notice that each of these cases, there’s a much more extraordinary display of democracy in action than what we’ve seen, important as it was here. And so, the rhetoric, especially in Europe, is correct if we maintain our own narrow racist perspectives and say, yeah, what happens in the South didn’t happen or doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is what we do, and, by our standards, it was extraordinary, a miracle, but not by the standards of a functioning democracy.

In fact, there is a distinction in democratic theory, which does separate, say, the United States from Bolivia or Haiti. The question is, what is a democracy supposed to be? That’s actually a debate that goes back to the Constitutional Convention. But in recent years and the twentieth century, it’s been pretty well articulated by important figures. So at the liberal end, progressive end, the leading public intellectual of the twentieth century was Walter Lippmann, a Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy progressive. And a lot of his work was on a democratic theory, and he was pretty frank about it. He took a position not all that different from James Madison’s. He said that in a democracy, the population has a function. Its function is to be spectators, not participants. He didn’t call it the population. He called it the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. The ignorant and meddlesome outsiders have a function, namely to watch what’s going on and to push a lever every once in a while, then go home. But the participants are us, us privileged, smart guys. Well, that’s one conception of democracy. And, yeah, that’s — essentially we’ve seen an episode of it.

The population very often doesn’t accept this. As I mentioned, in just very recent polls, people overwhelmingly oppose it. But they’re atomized, separated. Many of them feel hopeless, unorganized, and don’t feel they can do anything about it. So they dislike it, you know, but that’s where it ends. In a functioning democracy, like, say, Bolivia or the United States in earlier stages, they did something about it. That’s why we have the New Deal measures, the Great Society measures. In fact, any — just about any step — you know, women’s rights, end of slavery, go back as far as you like — it doesn’t happen as a gift. And it’s not going to happen in the future.

The commentators are pretty well aware of this, although they’re not going to — they don’t put it the way I’m going to. But if you read the press, it does come out. So, take our local newspaper at the liberal end of the spectrum, the Boston Globe

. You probably saw right after the election a front-page story. The lead front-page story was on how Obama developed this wonderful grassroots army, but he doesn’t have any debts, which is supposed to be a good thing. So he’s free to do what he likes, because he has no debts. The normal Democratic constituencies — labor, women, minorities and so on — they didn’t bring him into office. So he owes them nothing.

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