Nov 032010

I didn’t start blogging until well after the 2008 US presidential election, so I haven’t got the documentary evidence to prove this, but I was one of the many who said at the time:

‘Well, y’know, Obama… I wish him well, I really do. It would be great if he got the nation back on its feet. Hell, it would be great if he could really do even half the shit he says he’s gonna do. But I’m sorry, this is total fantasy. The president has nothing like that kind of power, and it’s just not going to work.’

The number of people who popped up, then and later, to tell me I misunderstood the structure of my native body politic was staggering.

In fairness, Gary Younge wasn’t one of those. But it seems that Apollo has been startlingly generous toward me and those who shared my views, because Gary Younge is now saying the exact same thing.

Their mistake was to believe that transformational change was something you could impart to a higher power – the president – and then witness on CNN. The problem was not that many set their hopes too high but that rather than claim those hopes as their own they invested them in a single person – Obama – and in an utterly corrupted political culture.

The difference, of course, is that Younge attributes this ‘corrupt political culture’ to something rather different than what I was thinking. His analysis isn’t wrong, by any means, but…

A winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40% of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the war has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond, or through the courts.

…are all of those really such bad things? I mean, bribing candidates electoral financing is a criminal clusterfuck, and gerry-mandering is so endemic its practically become an American trope. No argument from me that those are serious problems—not because they hinder radical change, but because they systematically and deliberately seek to reduce the human right of individual self governance.

But the fact that 40% of the American Senate can filibuster* a bill? There’s kind of a reason for that. It’s so that radical reformers can’t trample over the rights of the minority. I’m not going to say something here along the lines of ‘Surely Younge can’t think that’s a bad thing?’ because that would be a cheap rhetorical device. Of course he thinks that’s a bad thing, provided that minority disagrees with him.

And so we arrive, inevitably, at the ‘oh, poor Obama’ bit. Yes, Younge says the whole sordid business is partly Obama’s fault. Yes, his criticisms of Obama are all actually veiled compliments. Because y’see, President Obama is embedded in a sclerotic system that refuses to let him shine his light.

Strangely, when I make that same argument to my boss, he’s not impressed.

Oh, and P.S. Younge doesn’t forget the obligatory dig at the Tea Party, who while Obama ‘imitated radicalism,’ have managed to snow the American public by ‘affect[ing] anti-corporate populism.’

Blah fucking blah.

Truly, y’all, while it is certainly true that the pressures of work leave little energy for blogging, there is another reason my posting has fallen off: I’m sick to death of this ridiculous charade we all perpetrate on ourselves, that government and politics matter.

My god, the significance and gravitas with which politicians and their apologists invest their every fart, their every random, ‘radical’ idea for making us all better people! And with what lame naivete people lap that shit up.

Recently I was engaged in a debate via email with a good friend of mine, a committed left-winger with a bizarre hard-on for Margaret Thatcher. It was the kind of debate you have over and over with friends of the opposite political persuasion: it’s all been said before, you know you don’t agree, but nevertheless one party or the other believes that somehow, this time, someone’s mind is going to change. Here is what he said (quoted entirely without permission and with punctuation and spelling corrected):

Any political, social or religious value system that doesn’t have at its heart a concept of what a “good person” is and how to help people achieve it is pointless. People can disagree about what being a good person is, or that it’s wrong to coerce people to follow a particular lifestyle, but not to engage in the debate, or to say that you are somehow morally neutral while supporting policies that would totally impoverish millions of people and deny them real freedom of choice in their lives (except to either follow the ethical codes set down for them by the rich or starve) is simply hypocrisy. Also, you are interested in being a “good person,” you just don’t agree with [Monbiot’s] definition of what that is. Only sociopaths have no interest in being a “good person”.

Have you ever heard such tiresome bollocks? Notice, first of all, the conflation of political with religious value systems. From an avowed atheist, that’s an interesting tactic. Second, observe the clear admission that there is no universal concept of what a good person is. Finally, witness the neat tactic of suggesting that, since only sociopaths share my view, and I am clearly not a sociopath, I cannot possibly mean it when I say I have no interest in being a ‘good person.’ (I do wish people had less of a tendency to engage in armchair psychology.)

And finally, see how he assumes that the point of it all is to make people good! All politics, all governance, all ideology, should have this aim! And it is a weighty aim, so all enterprise engaged in pursuing this aim is weighty enterprise, and not the pathetic game-playing of a bunch of meddling control-freaks who honestly, genuinely believe there is a desperate need for the ‘service’ they provide.

Bitch, please.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a libertarian and a historian, because nothing I know of in human history suggests we will ever not have government. At first we lacked it, but then we built it, because there was always some overpowering reason why a couple of dudes had to be in charge of shit. Whether it was coordinating the defence of the village or making sure people didn’t go to hell, there was always some realm of human activity that simply couldn’t be looked after by the voluntary, individual acts of the people concerned.

At least back in the day, those couple of dudes were honest about it: ‘I’m the best fighter, peasant, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll do you.’

Now, the justifications are a lot more spurious. On the one hand, you have the politician, who starts with ‘I’ve consulted and studied and learned and listened, so vote for me,’ then moves to ‘Lots of people voted for me, so STFU,’ and ends with ‘I’ve got the bombs, motherfucker.’ Are any of these legitimate?

On the other hand, you’ve got the Chris Dillows of the world, who know an awful lot of stuff about human behaviour and this bias and that bias and that other bias also, but whose basic argument seems to boil down to ‘Rational action is imperfect, so the role of government is to insulate people from their own and others’ crappy choices.’

Well, you know what? That sucks. If we’re all irrational actors, what hope is there, even if we were governed by philosopher-kings? What’s going to protect me from their irrational actions?

And so, I say to you, my predictions about Obama have come true. This fact brings me little pleasure. Instead it deepens my cynicism. I don’t claim expertise in everything—in almost nothing, truth be told—but at least against all fucking odds I’ve acquired enough wisdom to know the virtue of humility, especially when it comes to telling other people how to live their lives and feeling massively important in doing so.

To all people like Gary Younge, Obama, every politician on earth, and everyone who helps embiggen their heads, I say with Jacopo Belbo, ma gavte la nata. Pull out your corks, you buffoons.

*No, they do not actually have to filibuster. It’s more of a ‘let’s not and say we did’ tactical deployment. A degraded holdover from the Roman Senate, which recognised the right of a speaker to speak until he was finished, and could not sit later than sunset. Cue Cato Uticensis, famous for being able to harangue the house in filibuster from early afternoon until the Senate was obliged to dissolve for the day. If Senators actually still had to do this, I predict we’d see a lot fewer filibusters.