November 04, 2012

Against Voting: "As long as we live, we shall have to live together with ourselves"

Allow me first to offer my very deep gratitude to those who responded to my plea for help. My November rent is paid, along with the other basic first-of-the-month bills. Thanks to your generosity, I even have a small financial cushion. I briefly hoped I might have enough to pay a single visit to a doctor, to have a few things checked and pick up a prescription or two. But I don't have enough to do that. I like to hang on to a small cushion as long as I can, primarily in the awful event of a cat crisis. (Especially after Wendy's dreadful final months a year ago, a cat crisis of any severity falls into the category of things I desperately hope don't happen for years to come.) As all responsible parents know, the kids come first, always. For all your support: thank you, thank you very much indeed.

I will be continuing the "Paths of Resistance" essays; there are a number of issues I have long wanted to address, and that's the place to do it. At this point, I prefer to wait for the outcome of the election -- not because it will change my analysis in any fundamental way (it won't, regardless of who wins), but only for the reason that the particulars of the election results might alter the emphasis of my analysis in some minor respects. Since we're so close to the election, better to wait for whatever additional information it might provide. And it's very likely that the results, and even more significantly the commentary about them, will shed further light on issues that are now somewhat obscured. I also need to wait until at least later this coming week to continue that series because I feel very awful physically. I'm hoping I will rebound ever so slightly over the next several days.

As part of the "Paths of Resistance" series, I plan to offer an argument against third-party voting for president. Part of the argument is complex; it relies on a particular view of where we are historically, and what history, together with political theory and analysis, tells us about where we are likely to go. That is a difficult argument to explain, and I simply don't feel up to it at the moment. But there is also a simpler argument against third-party voting. In the (probably unlikely) event that the argument might change someone's mind before voting on Tuesday, here it is. This argument, too, could be presented in lengthier form; this is a very condensed version.

Whenever we choose to take part in a collective enterprise of any kind, we necessarily grant that enterprise legitimacy. Our participation says: I support this activity, and I view it as a worthy one. This is true of enterprises both large and small; it is true of citizenship of a country (in the case of adults), just as it is true of membership in an intimate social group that meets each Thursday night for dinner. Analysis of the grant of legitimacy with regard to large undertakings -- and for political purposes, citizenship of a country is probably the most significant example -- is very complex; I defer consideration of those questions, including how a person can severely restrict his grant of legitimacy, to the continuation of the "Paths of Resistance" articles.

The grant of legitimacy entails at least two aspects: the grant extends to the details of the undertaking, that is, the mechanics by which the undertaking is executed (for example, making the dinner reservation, notifying the members of the location for that week, etc.), and it also extends to the general purposes of the activity (the pleasure of the company of one's friends, in the case of the dinner group).

We can see the operation of the grant in these two respects in the case of an enterprise that most people would reject. If a person were approached about joining a criminal organization -- and for our purposes here, let us assume that the question of joining is a genuinely free one, not subject to coercion or threats -- we hope he would decline. If he understands that the criminal organization regularly brutalizes innocent people, sometimes even murdering them, steals, and so on, he would say (we hope): I do not support this activity, and I do not view it as worthy. I reject both the means by which these criminals function and the ends to which they are devoted.

In the following, I am speaking of elections for national office -- not for president alone, but also for senators and representatives. (I myself think the argument applies to elections of any kind in the United States today. I also note that local elections are often the most corrupt.) We must always keep in mind one of what I informally call Silber's Iron Laws:
Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.
I identified this Law in an article published in, God help me, February 2008; the miserably unhappy but entirely accurate title was: "Most of You Will Eat Shit Until the Day You Die."

In that piece from what seems a lifetime ago, immediately after stating this Law, I wrote:
Yes, yes: there are a handful of exceptions. That's so some of you can continue to prattle about the virtues of "participatory democracy." That's so you don't notice that the ruling elites don't give a damn what you think, except for brief periods surrounding elections -- when they'll tell you what you want to hear, even though history, including yesterday's history, proves they don't mean a single damned word of it. And please note that the two or three exceptions are not those individuals championed by these same liberals and progressives: note how the leading progressive bloggers themselves led the marginalization of Dennis Kucinich.

I'll be blunt, even rude: You can call it Republican shit. You can call it Democratic shit. You can call it progressive shit. It's still shit. It's still murder, and torture, and criminal war, and a growing surveillance state. If you vote for the Democratic or the Republican candidate for president -- and if you vote for almost any of the candidates for national office -- you're voting for murder. You're voting for torture. You're voting for criminal war. You're voting for the growing surveillance state.

Is that what you choose to do? Is that what you choose to support? Is it?
This coming Tuesday, the answer -- from perhaps as many as 140 or even 150 million Americans -- will be: Yes! That is what we choose to support!

On top of the endless horrors that were fully apparent to anyone who was paying attention and who was honest about what he saw more than four years ago, we are now confronted by the abysmal, sickening, bloody spectacle of two candidates for president who herald the glories of a systematic, carefully organized, thorough, routine program dedicated to the murder of innocent human beings. It's not a secret: they are proud of it, and the murder program is repeatedly described in detail in the nation's leading newspapers.

On Tuesday, as many as 140 or 150 million Americans will declare their support for the candidates and their murder program.

Ah, but you're going to vote for a candidate who denounces the murder program in every respect. She or he vows to stop it. In this manner, you will declare that you do not support these evils. You will thus be registering your opposition to them.

But to do that, you must vote -- and you must vote in the system as it exists right now. Your vote therefore registers much more than opposition to the murder program (as well as to whatever else you condemn). Your vote means that you regard the system itself -- the system as it exists today -- as legitimate. If you did not regard it as legitimate in at least some narrow respect, if you thought the system was fundamentally illegitimate, you would have as little to do with it as possible. You certainly would not willingly participate in what is regarded as the holiest of sacraments of our illusory "democracy."

To cast a vote even for a third-party candidate for president carries a further meaning. In some form, it signifies that you regard registering your dissent in this manner as meaningful, and even effective. Many advocates of third-party voting speak of building alternatives over the long-term, of strengthening the habit of dissent, and similar ideas. But there are many ways to do all of that without voting. I thought this was especially true since, as so many have told us again and again (and often the same people), the internet has changed everything! I've never made a secret of how idiotic I consider such claims (identical claims are made regularly with every significant technological advance; they are never true in the manner asserted) -- and now it appears that even many of those who heralded the internet revolution insist we must all go back to basics. Walk to your local polling station and cast your ballot; paper is preferred.

I am desolate to report that I well understand that history is a subject never to be consulted on any point whatsoever. Nonetheless, I dare to suggest that the forging of resistance and revolutionary movements long predated the internet, and even electricity. I realize some will find it disconcerting in the extreme, but cries of resistance such as "I am Spartacus!" were, in fact, not Twitter messages. I note that you are aghast, and that you have gone pale with shock.

But for those who wish to build a resistance movement, the internet is unquestionably a wonderful tool. Use it! And use in-person meetings, going door-to-door, and every other means of communication available.

To vote at all for national office in the system as it exists today means that you regard such a vote as meaningful in some manner. If you vote to register your dissent, and even your denunciation, of the current system, it also means that you regard the current system as capable of being reformed. Is it? I remind you that the State has repeatedly proclaimed that it possesses absolute power, the power of life and death over every human being now alive (as detailed in Parts II and III of "Accomplices to Murder"). The State doesn't merely proclaim that it possesses -- and executes (a horrifically apt word) -- absolute power: it builds a massive, all-encompassing surveillance and police State to buttress its proclamation. Within a decade, it may well be that such moments of genuine privacy as remain to you will be as the most precious of gems, to be enjoyed in rare, stolen moments, away (you fervently hope) from the State's always prying, innumerable eyes and ears.

Against that, certain advocates of third-party voting urge us to register our dissent by voting, so as to build the resistance movement long-term. The long-term is precisely what the State is determined to destroy, except on such terms as it will permit. Moreover, is there a single example in history of a State that has claimed absolute power, and that has built a massive surveillance and police State to realize its aims, that has voluntarily relinquished such power? Such States do eventually vanish -- and in this sense, it is merciful indeed that nothing lasts forever -- but they vanish as the result of a cataclysm of some kind. It need not be violent revolution; it might be complete financial collapse, a series of natural catastrophes, war, and the like, or some combination of these factors. But they don't vanish because they voluntarily choose to dissolve their despotic rule.

My writing here, and numerous essays on these subjects, should make clear that I hardly consider these issues unimportant. Yet there is a far deeper and, to me, far more meaningful way in which all the talk concerning the "practicalities" and "strategies" of voting (even for a third-party candidate) is completely irrelevant. In the end, what concerns me -- and, I submit, what ought to concern everyone who takes the time to consider such questions -- has nothing at all to do with building an effective resistance, as vital as that is at certain moments. (And I've provided lots of suggestions on the "practical" questions: see here and here for lengthy discussions. Not a single blogger with a sizable readership has ever discussed even one of those suggestions. Not a single blogger. The problem is very simple: most resisters and "dissenters" will resist and dissent only in those ways encouraged and permitted by the ruling class -- that is, in those ways that accomplish next to nothing.)

I plan to discuss the following in further detail in the "Paths of Resistance" series. This is a preview of coming attractions, if you will. I've excerpted one particular essay by Hannah Arendt before, most importantly in "The Honor of Being Human: Why Do You Support?" Arendt's essay is titled, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," and it appears in Responsibility and Judgment. ("The Honor of Being Human" explains why I consider Arendt's observations of special significance given what I term "The Imminent, but Not-Yet, Not-Quite Dictatorship" that is the nature of the system that rules us at present.)

Here is an excerpt from the essay that I haven't offered before. It concerns the "lesser evil" argument. Because this argument comes up with such damnable frequency, I think it's well worth our time to consider what Arendt said about it. In analyzing what had transpired in Nazi Germany, Arendt writes (the highlights are mine):
For what had started in the initial stages with politically neutral people who were not Nazis but cooperated with them, happened in the last stages with the party members and even with the elite formations of the SS: there were very few people even in the Third Reich who wholeheartedly agreed with the late crimes of the regime and a great number who were perfectly willing to commit them nevertheless. And now every single one of them, wherever he stood and whatever he did, claims that those who, under one pretext or another, had retired into private life had chosen the easy, the irresponsible way out. Unless, of course, they had used their private station as a cover for active opposition—a choice which can be easily dismissed since it is obviously not everybody's business to be a saint or a hero. But personal or moral responsibility is everybody's business and there, it is argued, it was more “responsible” to stay on the job no matter under what conditions or with what consequences. In their moral justification, the argument of the lesser evil has played a prominent role. If you are confronted with two evils, thus the argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Those who denounce the moral fallacy of this argument are usually accused of a germ-proof moralism which is alien to political circumstances, of being unwilling to dirty their hands ....

Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil. Since the evil of the Third Reich finally was so monstrous that by no stretch of the imagination could it be called a “lesser evil,” one might have assumed that this time the argument would have collapsed once and for all, which surprisingly is not the case. Moreover, if we look at the techniques of totalitarian government, it is obvious that the argument of “the lesser evil”— far from being raised only from the outside by those who do not belong to the ruling elite—is one of the mechanisms built into the machinery of terror and criminality. Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such. To give but one among many examples: the extermination of Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached where nothing worse could possibly have happened. The fact that in this last stage the argument was not abandoned and survives even today when its fallacy has become so glaringly obvious—in the discussion of the Hochhuth play we heard again that a protest from the Vatican in whatever form would only have made things worse!—is surprising enough. We see here how unwilling the human mind is to face realities which in one way or another contradict totally its framework of reference. Unfortunately, it seems to be much easier to condition human behavior and to make people conduct themselves in the most unexpected and outrageous manner, than it is to persuade anybody to learn from experience, as the saying goes; that is, to start thinking and judging instead of applying categories and formulas which are deeply ingrained in our mind, but whose basis of experience has long been forgotten and whose plausibility resides in their intellectual consistency rather than in their adequacy to actual events.
I offer two brief notes about this passage. With regard to those who insist that it is more "responsible" to "stay on the job no matter under what conditions," recall that this was exactly the argument offered by the German quoted in Part III of "Accomplices to Murder." The choice to "stay on the job," rather than rejecting the evil altogether, was one he came to profoundly regret. In his view, and on this point I fully agree, it was his decision to "stay on the job," to be "responsible" -- a decision made by many tens of thousands of additional Germans, as well -- that made the later horrors possible.

And it is worth emphasizing how entirely correct Arendt was to observe that even when it is obvious that "nothing worse could possibly have happened," the "lesser evil" argument still continues to be used. There is no evil so immense that it causes proponents of this vile argument to abandon it. For a recent example, watch this commentary beginning at the point indicated. Those remarks by Sam Seder are loathsome in a manner beyond describing; I shall have more to say about his remarks in a future article.

The following is what I consider absolutely critical in Arendt's essay. Here, she addresses the question: "in what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?" And this is her answer (again, the highlights are mine):
The answer to the ... question is relatively simple: the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they disposed of a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience. On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way—as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all. Hence, they also chose to die when they were forced to participate. To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command “Thou shalt not kill,” but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer—themselves. The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking. This kind of thinking, though at the root of all philosophical thought, is not technical and does not concern theoretical problems. The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.
That is the ultimate source of all resistance: the certain knowledge that, "whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves." It is the source of the power to say, No:
History provides us with stories of individual heroism from which we draw courage. We wonder: why did Hans and Sophie Scholl fight against the immense evil of the Nazi regime, even when they knew their actions would very likely lead to their deaths, as they did in fact? In our own time, we wonder: why does Ehren Watada refuse to participate in acts that he regards as evil, even when he knows the penalty for his refusal may be exceptionally severe? From what source does he derive his strength, and why is he willing to pay such a terrible price? As I noted in an earlier part of the series, On Torture:
But above all else, there is one fact that appears forever invisible to both Krauthammer and Sullivan, and one kind of individual who does not exist for them.

When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

It is the person who says, "No," whom we must seek to understand. It is not melodramatic or engaging in overstatement to say that he or she is our salvation.
To return to what may now seem comparatively mundane, the question of voting for national office, even if only for a third-party candidate: It is not simply that one grants legitimacy to the overall system by doing so, although that is true and horrifyingly bad in itself. Perhaps more important is this: all advocates of third-party voting acknowledge its futility. Their candidate is not going to win. They know that.

But let's identify the further meaning of such a vote. They also know that either Obama or Romney will win. That is: a man who enthusiastically embraces the State's murder program -- a program that systematically, regularly, routinely murders innocent human beings, anywhere in the world, for any reason the State chooses -- and who similarly embraces the surveillance and police State, together with endless death campaigns abroad as well as a growing system of oppression and brutalization at home -- will win the presidency. By participating in the election at all, you grant legitimacy to the process that will make one of these two men president. You thereby grant legitimacy to the system itself, to the State, and to all those actions you know with absolute certainty the State will take in the future.

That is what your vote means, even if you vote for a third-party candidate. Perhaps you can do that, and still continue to live together with yourself.

I cannot -- and I will not.