The link that exists, in principle, between democracy and an end to class domination has long been understood by socialists. In earlier times—from Plato to James Madison—it was also quite frankly acknowledged by the upholders of privilege. Only since the mid-19th century has the meaning of democracy been narrowed, in the minds of many, to accommodate constitutional arrangements compatible with the rule of capital. Throughout the period of the US–Soviet rivalry, “democracy” became, in fact, virtually a euphemism for such rule. The consequent exaltation of democracy mandated—even in a country that, like the US, lacked a major working-class party to represent the interests of the majority—a certain official respect for at least the procedural guarantees associated with the electoral process. Where these were violated, as in the Southern states vis-a`-vis African Americans, the government could be embarrassed by pressure from below and from abroad into sponsoring a Civil Rights act. While none of this prevented capital from defining (through money, media, and/or repressive measures) the broad parameters of partisan politics, there remained a general confidence that, within those limits, the voting process was sacrosanct.
US politics have now entered a new epoch. Democracy, even in its limited sense, now is under siege. Several interrelated developments are at work here. First, with the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, Washington’s empire-builders have ceased to reckon with any external obstacle to pursuing their global agenda. The 9/11 attacks on the US, far from restraining their drive to domination, prompted them to endow it with religious trappings, as a crusade against “evil.” The militarist policies thus unleashed are imposing sacrifices and controls that in time will far outstrip popular acceptance. Along with this global dimension has come, second, an unabashed thrust toward privatization in every sphere. This implies an attack on the very principle of accountability; it also results in policies that cannot fail to hurt the majority both in a direct economic sense and in terms of lost environmental protection and social services. More pecifically, in relation to our present focus, it has meant that even aspects of the electoral process—such as the checking of voter-rolls, the processing of voter-registrations, and the counting of votes—are in some instances entrusted to private companies. The third major development has been computer technology. Given the existing balance of forces, which resists the notion of public-interest regulation, the way is left open for sophisticated programs (or hackers) to manipulate electoral outcomes without leaving a trace. The possibility of such interference serves as backup for a fourth factor, the diffusion via right-wing religious and media networks of a culture of bigotry (most recently targeting gay marriage) which persuades a significant portion of the working class to vote against its own economic interests in support of militarist and imperialist priorities. Fifth, in strategic districts that are viewed as impervious to such blandishments (notably, African American constituencies in Florida in 2000, and in Ohio as well as Florida in 2004), the authorities increasingly resort to blatant obstruction of the voting process itself. Sixth, an ever more complicit opposition party, having largely renounced its legacy of progressive social programs, not only endorses the main lines of official policy, but passively submits to its own victimization by electoral dirty tricks. Finally, the judicial coup d’e´tat of 2000 and the post-9/11 legalization of arbitrary arrest and detention signal a shrinking of the space for authentically dissident political activity.
Of course, a brief itemization such as this can only hint at the full scope of the mechanisms involved. The point, however, is that structural or mechanical factors interact with ideological or cultural factors to produce an engineered outcome. The two sets of factors cannot be considered in isolation from one another. The right-wing constituency in the US, driven by one or another species of bigotry, is more easily mobilizable than is the constituency of the dispossessed. For the latter, an extraordinary sense of urgency is needed to overcome its habitual marginalization. Given the state-by-state framework within which presidential outcomes (and hence campaign strategies) are determined, such a sense of urgency—and the related grassroots organizing efforts—could only arise, speaking of 2004, in the relatively few large states in which the outcome was seen as uncertain. In the remaining states, the usual “rational” disincentives to poor people’s voting—mainly, the perception that their votes could make little difference—remained unaffected.1 For those attracted to the right-wing agenda, by contrast, the vote is less a practical act than it is an affirmation of faith. They need little inducement to vote their beliefs, whereas for the marginalized sectors (given the two-party duopoly) this is not a tangible option. Those who need progressive policies are thus initially discouraged and weakened by the Electoral College system; then, when they respond to the rare channels of opportunity that the system appears to leave open to them (by means of exceptional and massive mobilization in key “swing states”), the full weight of state power is marshaled to beat them back.2
A terrible dialectic thus operates to stifle democratic expression. Even granting the ideological feebleness of the Democrats’ challenge, those who see it as offering a glimmer of hope are squeezed from both directions. On the one hand, their greatest energies are channeled into geographically specific constituencies where they can be overwhelmed by targeted obstruction; on the other hand, in the rest of the country, they confront a situation that, given the basically unsympathetic posture of both major parties, offers them no compelling reason to view the vote as anything but a perfunctory gesture. In this sense, the Republican majority of the US popular vote, based as it is on the systematic disenfranchisement of likely Democratic voters, is very far from constituting a democratic mandate.
The cultural and political syndrome driving this process is a major theme of our “Empire and Metropolis” section below. A guiding concern of the authors is to comprehend the broader legitimation of present-day US imperialism, within which the acrobatic contortions of the electoral process have a clearly assigned, if crucial, place. The larger question takes on its full proportions, however, only when we recognize the enormity of what is being done supposedly in our names by the US occupation forces in Iraq. It would be too easy to feign collective ignorance of their crimes, even though this is part of what the corporate culture tries to instill. A more sinister part of its agenda is to frame those crimes in a manner that will make them, formany people, not only acceptable but laudable and at times even thrilling. To explore the basis on which this is achieved is the principal aim of Walter A. Davis’s article. Juxtaposing the torturers of Abu Ghraib with the deeply moved audiences of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ, Davis seeks out the psyche of post-9/11 “Amerika” and, in so doing, offers an original interpretation of what is in effect fascism, US style. Pierre Mesnard y Mendez then offers a historico-philosophical examination of the concept of terror, weighing state terror against “group terror” over the last four decades, and finally reflecting on the linked futures of terrorism and capitalism. Steve Martinot’s essay relates closely to the above discussion of disenfranchisement, putting it in a historical context going back to the mid- 19th-century US war against Mexico, and focusing closely on the racial politics behind the formation and evolution of the two-party system. E. San Juan Jr.’s discussion of the language question as it affects Filipino immigrants sheds a spotlight on the domestic fallout of imperial relations; viewing forced assimilation as a form of “linguistic terrorism,” he defends the importance of access to one’s native language as a component of self-determination.
The many layers of oppression that sustain imperial relations pose an enormous challenge to any people who would break through them. The history of blocked or crushed attempts testifies to the difficulty of the task. The most promising current break with this system of power is the ongoing political process in Venezuela. The radical populist (“Bolivarian”) government of Hugo Cha´vez represents a major political challenge to US imperialism, on a level with the Cuban revolution of 1959. Unlike Chile’s Popular Unity government (1970–73), Cha´vez has wide support within the armed forces; unlike Nicaragua’s Sandinistas (in power from 1979 to 1990) and Grenada’s New Jewel Movement (1979–83), he governs a country of appreciable size and material wealth; finally, unlike Cuba’s revolutionary government, he was voted into office and indeed has consolidated his position in several electoral tests of strength against the bourgeois opposition. How has this been possible, and where is it leading? Gregory Wilpert, in his lead article, offers an in-depth analysis of what is distinctive about the Bolivarian project, which, after six years in power, has greatly expanded its popular base through progressive social programs, surviving a right-wing coup attempt in the process.
Venezuela’s move to the left is the most advanced of several such projects that have been launched in Latin America in the last few years. We are planning a special issue of Socialism and Democracy to explore the full scope of these developments. Here, we counterpose 4 Socialism and Democracy our focus on Venezuela with Emelio Betances’s study of the conservative Dominican politician Joaqui´n Balaguer, who was at or near the center of power in his country for some seventy years. Betances analyzes the connections and the methods through which Balaguer was able to maintain his position (within a constitutional framework for the latter half of his career), eventually blending a pro-imperialist agenda with a populist image.
In the search for alternatives to capitalist power, the Cuban revolution remains a permanent point of reference. In several previous issues, we have explored its dynamics and its overall situation in some detail, in an effort to counter the effects of US-imposed access-restrictions and highly selective media coverage. Those obstacles to understanding have, as Richard Levins argues, set the framework for what he calls “progressive Cuba-bashing,” by which he means the propensity to condemn Cuba’s repressive measures without having a full awareness and appreciation of the conditions under which they are imposed. These conditions refer partly to the specific hostile activities to which the Cuban government is responding, but also to the larger US agenda that promotes those activities and, finally, to the distinctive features of the revolution which that agenda threatens.
This is the first issue of Socialism and Democracy to be produced under the imprint of Routledge Journals. I would like to thank Richard Delahunty of Taylor & Francis Group for his help in laying the groundwork for this collaboration, which was confirmed at an April 2004 meeting with our editorial board. We look forward to a long and fruitful relationship.
1. The perception of “little difference” needs to be understood in a twofold sense. Fundamental to it is the recognition that both major parties represent the same hostile class interests. A secondary aspect has to do with whether one of the two parties becomes linked, in the minds of potential voters, to organizations in which they see their own interests expressed. The latter dimension can be given added weight by special mobilization efforts.
2. Beyond an array of bureaucratic impositions (e.g., fraudulent purging of voter rolls, disqualification through boundary-changes, insufficient supplies of provisional ballots, etc.), perhaps the most blatant of the racially targeted measures was the systematic undersupply of voting machines in certain precincts (e.g., in Ohio), causing interminable waits at the polls. As if to rub salt into this wound, the police would descend on voters’ parked cars that had outstayed their metered time-allowance. Citizens who could ill afford the resulting fines would then be forced to give up their right to vote (from testimony recorded in Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman, “Hearings on Ohio voting put 2004 election in doubt,” Columbus Free Press, November 18, 2004).