Pro-Democracy and the Ethics of Refusal

Political corruption is generally considered personal gain at the expense of public responsibility. If the elections of 2000 and 2004 have revealed anything, it is that the forms of corruption in the US have become more profound than ever, and touch on every aspect of our existence—economic, political, structural, informational, as well as financial and moral. Much of it is not new; it has been around long enough for us to get used to it. But its depth of penetration and impunity are greater than ever before.

Forms of Corruption

Let’s start with the elections. Elections could be considered the core procedure of democracy. But this would already a corruption of democratic concept, a reduction of democracy to a formality. Nevertheless, when elections themselves become fraudulent, the entire system loses legitimacy.

In both elections, thousands of registered voters across the country were dropped from the rolls without authorization. Thousands more were prevented from voting by gratuitous obstructions: police roadblocks, police and political intimidation, an insufficiency of voting machines, unannounced polling-place relocations, etc.  Aimed mostly at people of color and others deemed likely to vote Democrat, these were “old style” procedures reminiscent of Jim Crow. But a new style accompanies the computerized voting machines. This voting machinery is controlled by partisan (pro-Republican) companies, and uses proprietary software owned by Republicans. It has been shown to be tamperable by hacking;1  and auxiliary software has been written that is undetectable, changing vote tallies from inside the program (cf. Clint Curtis2). Proprietary software is by definition devoid of transparency, and when used in electoral procedure, blocks accountability or recourse. In the past, the use of this machinery has produced Republican victories in several Democratic areas (e.g. Nebraska). In 2004, in some counties, it produced tallies for Bush that exceeded the total voter registration.This meta-corrupt acceptance of anti-democratic procedures as if they were mere blips or aberrations in legitimate aspects of democracy signifies a deep discernible corruption in the entire electoral process. The Republican Party has shown itself to be irredeemably corrupt in employing unscrupulous tactics, from Watergate to the mass disenfranchisement in Florida 2000 to the promotion of unaccountability in voting procedures. The Democratic party has shown itself to be similarly corrupt by selling out those who try to vote for it, by refusing to fight for its popular constituencies in Congress, by accepting their disenfranchisement, and by offering no alternative to the policies on war, debt, and the destruction of education, health care, or social services.
And the left and progressive movements showed themselves to be corrupt in jumping on the “Anybody but Bush” idea, collapsing political discourse to a man named Kerry, who himself closed the political space down to nothing. They thereby abrogated their responsibility to the people to offer an alternative to the corruption of the two-party system, to open the political spectrum widely so that alternative political thinking would have a place to grow and cohere in evolving movements. The ABB debacle constituted a form of violence against political thought, a complicity with the corruption of the two-party system whose effect was to valorize that corruption. Its meta-corruption was to claim ethical propriety for itself while betraying public responsibility in the name of pragmatics.
Add to this the everyday stuff: lobbying, fundraising that substitutes itself for popularity or political program; third-party efforts rendered futile by the lesser-of-two-evils paradigm (wherein the very motivation for organizing a third party becomes a rationale for not voting for it). These are all well known. Less recognized, the reduction of democracy to representationism produces a culture of “horsetrading” in legislatures, in which legislators trade support for projects aimed principally at re-election. This happens because real representation is impossible in single-member winner-take-all districts. A single representative cannot represent the people of a district who have competing and contradictory class, cultural, ideological, identity, and community interests. The representatives are left to represent party interests, or go to the highest bidder. This structure of representation constitutes a form of general disenfranchisement, as well as the particular disenfranchisement of the defeated party in each case.

To be honest and transparent, tallying procedures have to be open to public access and public accountability. The privatization of voting procedures is a corruption of public political process. Yet somehow, both parties decided to consider it valid procedure. This constitutes a form of meta-corruption, an acceptance and valorization of an underlying corruption.

In 2000, the Democratic party revealed its own special corruption. In Florida, over 100,000 voters were disenfranchised by the arbitrary actions of the Republican-controlled state election commission (Greg Palast). Though the NAACP held hearings which amassed over 10,000 affadavits from people prevented from voting, the Democratic party refused to press the case (a revote actually being possible under Florida law), and accepted the outcome (their loss). When black congressional representatives sought to challenge Florida’s electoral college vote, not a single Democratic senator would co-sign for them. Gore ruled them out of order at the very moment they were trying to put him in the White House. In the Democratic campaign of 2004, events occurred like a puppet show; Kucinich was declared unelectable, Dean was replaced by Kerry, and Kerry conceded the election while reports of challengeable irregularities poured in. In other words, the Democratic party twice sold out everyone who tried to vote for it.

Yet a transcendent form of ethical corruption characterized the election of 2004. Despite ample warnings about potential computer fraudulence, all political parties, major and alternate, proceeded with the long and sometimes arduous nomination process (including signature-gathering by smaller parties) as if it had the same validity as always. They all simply ignored their own inability to guarantee that the election would be transparent and honest. To field or support candidates without that guarantee constitutes both denial and complicity with possible corruption. The election becomes an empty formality—especially when the warnings prove correct. And no one called for a re-vote, the only honorable rectification of what happened.
Many people think that a “paper trail,” or accompanying paper ballot, would provide the required transparency. But that is another example of meta-corruption. A paper receipt is useless since it provides recourse only for discernible irregularities. If the occurrence of fraud or irregularity remains indiscernible, because hidden within the operation of the (proprietary) software, then a demonstrable need to consult the paper receipts for recount will not present itself. Only discernible irregularities can be used to call for a recount. Furthermore, the databases the computers generated for their tallies have remained inaccessible to recount campaigns.3 The “paper trail” idea abjectly valorizes a surface phenomenon (recountability) in order to leave uncontested a deep-seated contamination. It marks a refusal to think and act ethically.1

In essence, the two-party system as a whole is inherently corrupt. It constitutes a political hiatus between the government and the people. Constituencies no longer have any structural connection to governance. And the recent campaigns have revealed this system to be a mode of thought-control. Yet the system creates an integument of meta-corruption around itself that proclaims its underlying corruptions—representationism, the substitution of voting for democracy, its structural disconnect—to be virtues. In that sense, the greatest ethical derogation lies in the blindness of calling yet again for realigning the Democratic Party, as if 50 years of adverse experience were insufficient.

Media, Privatization, Corporate Personhood, and “American Ideals

The corporate media does not simply function as a propaganda institution, it serves to corrupt information itself. Many of the ways it does this have been well analyzed (FAIR). Events are presented as form without content (a demonstration will be reported without mentioning its thinking, purposes, or why people had to take to the streets). Opinion polls are formal; the pollster determines their content through the poll’s terms. Polls thus serve to make opinion rather than reflect it. The editorialization of alleged news stories constitutes a form of thought-control; it introduces canonical assumptions into the story that the reader must accept in order to follow the story’s logic or trajectory. With respect to government, the media tends to limit itself to regurgitating statements and press releases without investigation or fact verification—what John Pilger calls a “one-way moral mirror.” It becomes a machine for betraying journalism to governance and to a corporate perspective. The media thus advances government and corporate interests (privatization and profitability).

When the media substitutes lies (by omission and commission) for reportage, it becomes the way the government and corporate interests create what gets called information. The growing list of “most censored stories” is the measure of this. Yet the media remains free of the charge of corruption because governmental corruption becomes indiscernible when its partisan interest is itself the standard of comparison.

The media corruption of information is irredeemable because it renders responsible democratic decision-making impossible, and the hiatus between people and government unbridgeable. The media’s corporate structure would have to be dismantled before it could engage in journalism again. The ultimate derogation in the face of this is to still think that one can use the corporate media in the interests of popular movements or justice.

Privatization is an abrogation of all governmental responsibility toward its citizens, and toward others. The term means the sale or seizure of public assets by private interests; thus, it steals the legacy of the people as a whole, disparaging their social and infrastructural needs. The repeal of rent control laws, the deregulation of public utilities, the licensing of corporate healthcare institutions like HMOs, and the patenting of knowledge and life forms, are all examples. Privatization has become an international activity by US finance, through the World Bank and the IMF. When water was privatized in Bolivia, the price of water rose beyond the means of the majority of the people, and they started to die. When unregulated real estate speculation and the lifting of rent controls allowed gross inflation of real estate values, rents rose beyond the means of entire communities; a massive homeless population was created, and homeless people started to die.

Privatization, as a form of corruption, is irredeemable, since it reflects a priority of private property rights over human rights or needs. This priority is the oldest form of corruption that we have inherited from this nation’s past. It is also the basis on which corporations have been given personhood (an idea which originated in the 1820s). The effect of corporate “citizenship” is the marginalization of real humans. Inverting the fact that corporations are produced by legislatures, which regulate chartering, funding, and licensing, corporation personhood enables the control of those legislatures, giving corporations a higher level of citizenship than humans. Government not only accepts its powerlessness to protect the people from corporate despoliation (such as the energy crisis in California) or the defeat of universal health care, but it thereby adopts the stance that real humans are irrelevant. Corporate personhood becomes a destruction, rather than simply a corruption, of the concept of citizenship.

The corporate hunger for resources and markets has already destroyed most local subsistence economies, internationally and domestically. Through contracts, tax structures, privatization, and mobility, corporations become funnels that pour the wealth and resources of the people into the pockets of the rich, leaving the people, the source of that wealth, impoverished. In the US, the disparity between rich and poor is the highest it has ever been in modern history. But corporate hunger for resources is insatiable. Unless the corporate structure itself is abolished, it will destroy the planet.

Finally, the ideals of liberty and national sovereignty, taught in all civics classes, have been totally corrupted by US foreign policy. Under its unilaterality and assumptions of impunity, millions have died. Entire societies have been disrupted by US structural adjustment programs and war. The invasion of Iraq, proclaimed to be for democratizing Iraq, makes democracy impossible by destroying Iraqi sovereignty. If democracy means a people’s control of their own destiny, they have to be sovereign in that destiny to control it, which military occupation annuls. The domestic version of this foreign policy is the prison-industrial complex, the massive incarceration of people, mostly of color, for victimless crimes. It constitutes police control of neighborhoods through juridical kidnapping. These forms of corruption are irredeemable insofar as the destruction and death of peoples and communities—by war, starvation, police rule, and mass incarceration—is irreversible.

Meta-corruption is the hypocrisy of corrupt officials proclaiming themselves to be acting in the public interest. It is the rhetoric that sees and accepts the underlying corruption as a virtue. When the media and the government valorize themselves, and render their corruption a non-issue, it is a corruption beyond measure, because it insists on judgment by their own standards. Meta-corruption can be seen and opposed only from outside its system.

The Ethics of Refusal

In the face of this corruption, and the betrayals of responsibility to the people that it both represents and incarnates, we have to start from the beginning, at square one. “Square one” cannot mean proposing more stringent or desparate programs for realigning or reforming traditional institutions. All reformist proposals must already have acquiesced to meta-corruption in order to simply see reform as possible. The old third-party strategy, which says, “we are faced with elections, so we might as well learn to use them,” remains in the miasma of futility and misdirection. The McGovern campaign of 1972 eviscerated (and almost destroyed) the anti-war movement; and the ABB campaign has blinded the anti-corporate movements (and buttressed corporate control) through the same misdirection.
Neither can “square one” mean more proposals for transforming relations of production, like socialism. All such transformative proposals still rely on a concept of power that is not only meta-corrupting in itself, but has been rendered corrupt by the entire political tradition in question here. It is not sufficient to say that this corruption is an evil of capitalism. Any proposal for transformation must provide access to a counter-ethics first, because without that, opposition to power must take refuge in the terms of power, affirming power’s values, and ending by valorizing those given terms in the same way they are valorized under capitalism. While such proposals think they are aiming at revolutionizing power itself, they are being reformist at the level of meta-corruption.

A counter-ethics cannot emerge at the level of power as such, because, as a counter-ethics, it would either reveal power to still be corrupt, or render the concept of power incomprehensible as power, because couched in terms of democracy and ethics. In the face of this inversion (at the level of meta-corruption), proposals for transformative relations of production remain empty.  This does not mean that socialism is not a valid means of reorganizing social production; it does mean that it is contingent upon restructuring the ethical possibilities of this society first.
The culture of corruption cannot be contested in its own terms without being strengthened. It is meta-corrupt to attempt to expose each lie, to demand each truth, to reveal each element of corruption in the system’s institutional functioning. To do so is already to assume an underlying legitimacy, authority and honesty, to grant credence or credibility to institutions that have forfeited it. It provides renewed legitimacy to those who have already abrogated it.

In a system in which humans have been rendered secondary or irrelevant, a different ethics, which refuses the system of corruption as a system, a social structure–rather than simply  pointing out the empirical appearance of corruption in government or political events–must ground our thinking. Neither political program nor organizational strategies, to the extent they continue to address themselves to this system as valid, are relevant to such a necessity. The terms of the two-party system, the corporate media, the system of representationism, and the congressional culture of “horsetrading” must be refused. That means that realigning the Democratic Party, trying to use the corporate media to get a democratic message out, organizing third parties as alternates to the two major parties in electoral processes, using electoral campaigns themselves, writing to Congress, demonstrating to make demands on the government, are all modes of simply addressing the government, and telling it and the corporate structure that we are firmly in place within their political culture of corruption. A counter-ethics can only be an ethics of refusal.

An ethic of refusal can be exemplified thus: suppose someone lies to you every day, and he says something today; if you believe what he says today, then you are a total and utter fool. Insofar as the corporate media, the government, and all officials in the two-party system lie to us daily, while suppressing necessary information, there is nothing they say that should be believed (unless proven beyond all doubt, to the satisfaction of every skeptical question, in open public discussion, however long that takes). Insofar as these structures and institutions have shown themselves to be corrupt, there is nothing that they do that should not be considered corrupt, and rejected as invalid or illegitimate. Nothing the government does, domestically or in foreign policy, should be supported unless its reasons are submitted to open discussion and binding referendum.

The ethics of refusal (the refusal, in advance, of everything the government, the corporations, or the media say or do) is square one. It is the first step toward liberation from the assumptions that these corrupt institutions can be realigned. It is the first step toward voiding support for what has impoverished us and rendered us irrelevant. It is the first step toward bringing those institutions to a halt.

The time is long past when we can go to the government or the political parties with demands for information or policy. We have to satisfy those demands for ourselves by creating an alternate political structure with which to do so. This means to replace the ethics of going to the government, and thus granting it credence, with the establishment of a citizenship in autonomy whose job is to pull more and more people away from support for the government. The greatest betrayal of the ABB movement in the last election, in acceding to the meta-corruption of the two-party system, and assisting in shutting down the political space, lay in giving up its independence and autonomy.

Democracy is now the name for an alternate political structure; and a pro-democracy movement is the name for enacting the ethic of refusal. If democracy is based on information, participation, and transparent honesty of political operations, policymaking, and elections, then alternate sources for these must be constructed and supported: alternate media and alternate sources of information; alternate networking of ideas; the construction of local political spaces in which to speak to ourselves, and not to a corrupt system; the use of political space to construct alternate organizations that make policy democratically, and are directed by the people who make it; the construction of health services, education and schooling, and community policing; an ethic of local community attention to crime and trouble that is restorative and not revenge-oriented; the organization of elections that the people sanction though the corrupt power structure does not.

Such an alternate political structure can only ground itself on an ethics of refusal, refusing all attempts of the government to control it. An alternate political culture must refuse to grant recognition or credence to the two-party system, to the structures of governance and information, and to the mythology of meta-corruption that still says those structures have legitimacy.

This does not preclude actions to directly confront the government, or the elite, and try to stop their fraud, their crimes and injustices. The ethic of refusal should not be construed as contradicting or obstructing direct action, nor those for whom direct action is desirable and feasible. But the relation (or non-relation) of direct action to alternate political structures needs to be understood; the relation of complicity between direct action’s focus on power and the terms of institutional power needs to be understood. To contest governance in its own terms will only reaffirm the existence and operation of its power, and embed itself in its institutionity. The ethics of refusal makes its first principle standing outside the corruption of those social institutions; it is the principle of building outside the structures of corruption, and building and building, until the alternative becomes the inside, and the corrupt institutions are the outside.

A pro-democracy movement, in its autonomy, can still insist on existing governments (city and state) fulfilling their responsibility to maintain the infrastructure: roads, buildings, utilities, water, garbage collection, etc. It is a separation between the source of policymaking and the administration of the infrastructure that pro-democracy makes feasible. For centuries, taxes have been paid, while government has focused on meeting corporate and military interests in the name of profitability (remember the public transportation boondoggle). If policy is relocated to the people, democratically, at the level of neighborhoods, cities, agrarian areas, in economic production and for local services, then that is where direction and control of the infrastructure must come from.

This will take a long time to build. It will require dialogue rather than blueprint, between people, between neighborhoods, between towns, building itself through popular discussions and councils. But now is the time to start, when the profundity of the corruption has become so overt that there is nowhere else to turn.


1. Bev Harris, Black Box Voting: Ballot-tampering in the 21st Century  (High Point, NC: Plan Nine Pub., c2003), available on line at

2. Clint Curtis is a programmer (employed in 2000 by NASA contractor Yang Enterprises) who was asked to write a vote-tally changing program by Republican Representative Tom Feeney of Florida (in 2000), and who gave testimony to that effect in House Judicary Committee hearings in Ohio, Dec. 13, 2004. The story did not appear in the corporate press, but made a big splash in the alternate press on line. Cf. Wired News, Dec. 13, 2004 (,2645,66002,00.html).

3. For instance, a recount of votes demanded on Berkeley’s medical marijuana measure, could get no access to the computer’s three databases, though they accounted for 53% of the votes, without paper receipt. Cf.  “Measure R Proponents Contest Vote Recount,” by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, Berkeley Daily Planet, Jan 3, 2005.

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