As the electoral spectacle kicks into full gear and forces itself into every sector of American political discourse, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most celebrated dissident intellectuals, continues his longstanding tradition of reminding us that the looming apocalypse must be delayed by any means necessary, which really means voting for the certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Chomsky is always at his most visible during election season, which may lead people who have read his important contributions to media criticism to wonder why. It’s certainly not because he has anything new to offer. His recent interview with progressive outlet Truthout is all too familiar. Here are his closing comments:
With all its flaws, America is still a very free and open society, by comparative standards. Elections surely matter. It would, in my opinion, be an utter disaster for the country, the world and future generations if any of the viable Republican candidates were to reach the White House, and if they continue to control Congress. Consideration of the overwhelmingly important questions we discussed earlier suffices to reach that conclusion, and it’s not all. For such reasons as those I alluded to earlier, American democracy, always limited, has been drifting substantially toward plutocracy. But these tendencies are not graven in stone. We enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom and rights left to us by predecessors who did not give up, often under far harsher conditions than we face now. And it provides ample opportunities for work that is badly needed, in many ways, in direct activism and pressures in support of significant policy choices, in building viable and effective community organizations, revitalizing the labor movement, and also in the political arena, from school boards to state legislatures and much more.
There’s a lot of Chomsky doctrine packed in there that I think is worth looking at closely, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the idea that “elections surely mater.”
The kind of lesser-evil advocacy Chomsky tirelessly promotes during this stage of the election has now become standardized on the left. With so many others spitting the same line, his relentless commitment seems like a waste of time at first glance. But this kind of advocacy is a core function of the celebrity left: Use the language of dissidence to sell compliance. Clearly the vast majority of “progressive” platforms love this content, and have found in Chomsky a most useful orator of their fundamentally compromised politics.
There’s simply no one more effective at delivering this message to the margins than Chomsky, perhaps because he presents himself as some kind of exception to the limits other permissible voices must internalize in order to receive and maintain their platforms. I think his unique aptitude and commitment to this kind of advocacy contributes a great deal to his unprecedented status as the preeminent American radical for decades now.
Still, there are always seeds of dissent. But those of us who have trouble swallowing this shit are told to grow up and look at what’s at stake. And because this farce is in rare form these days, we’re told that this is all the more reason to take it seriously. The more mind-numbingly stupid and reactionary things get, the more crucial it is for us to accept the spectacle’s most fundamental premise: A complete rejection of bourgeois politics will not be tolerated.
As Chomsky has often said, those who refuse to exercise their right to vote (at least in swing states) are in practice moving us all closer to the self-destructive cataclysm we dangerously flirted with in the 20th century. It would be an “utter disaster” if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, as opposed to Hillary Clinton. Some people will of course point to Trump’s open fascism throughout the campaign to support this contention, but their assumptions about his rhetoric translating into actual material differences is pure speculation. In fact, the history of the American empire shows a remarkable consistency in the behavior of the state, regardless of which faction of the business party happens to be in power.
While I’ll concede Trump’s campaign of incitement serves the purpose of further terrorizing already marginalized communities, which is certainly no trivial matter, I also think it has been very efficient at delivering some important propaganda messages, most significantly that his fascist politics are a one-off, in no way connected to existing ruling class ideology and structure. During a Q and A session from last year, Chomsky said that he agreed with political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, calling Trump and the rest of the viable Republican candidates “a radical insurgency.”
Instead of expanding on this myself, I’ll direct you to the eloquent analysis of twitter user @cordeliers in response to the cancellation of Trump’s rally in Chicago this past Friday and the flood of opinions it generated on social media. For clarity, I’ll quote his threaded tweets in order:
Evidently Twitter’s soft left now embraces the same idea of fascism that is retailed by the bourgeoisie – that it is not a manifestation of capitalism in crisis, engineered and controlled by the ruling class, but a phenomenon somehow *outside of* capitalism that arises magically via a serendipitous conjunction of reactionaries with a charismatic supervillain. This view of fascism lets the ruling class – to which both Trump and Hillary belong – entirely off the hook. HRC’s State Dept set in motion an actual Nazi coup in Ukraine, which she enthusiastically endorsed. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist.” HRC giggled at the horrifically brutal murder of Gaddafi. She threatened to nuke 75 million Iranians. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist.” Here’s Hillary in a lovefest with plainly fascist Narendra Modi. Yet “at least she’s not the fascist one.”
Absolutely we must confront fascism. What I am rejecting is an expedient election-year definition of fascism that includes Trump but not HRC
I also believe the kind of anti-fascist actions we’ve been seeing lately are crucially important, and I’d like to encourage as much of it as possible. However, where it’s currently being directed, and where it isn’t, should tell us something about how this kind of messaging is being received deep into the margins.
I’d also like to add that in addition to Libya, Ukraine, Iran and India, Clinton’s role in a variety of imperial projects with devastating consequences on the targeted countries can be seen all over the world from Honduras to Haiti to Iraq. All of this “foreign policy experience” has worked to destroy the lives of millions of people, so perhaps take a minute to consider who you’re standing with the next time you try to isolate Trump’s fascism from the rest of his class, while they continue to destroy all existing threats to their hegemony.
Other so-called leftists play their own respective roles in selling the election and disciplining those who refuse to participate. One of the most amusing takes I’ve seen recently was Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick arguing his crew’s support for Bernie Sanders’ hopeless campaign is somehow redeemed by the word “socialism” now being seen as a trusted brand to millennials:
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of thing, after all, selling deeply compromised electoral projects to the left by associating them with socialism is Jacobin’s bread and butter. And to be fair, the idea that we should sell people socialism by identifying the word with an imperialist Democrat is pretty widely accepted by a lot of American “socialists” who see Sanders as a historically exceptional figure. The understanding of power on display here is beyond depressing and unfortunately I think it’s having a real impact. The word “socialism” can now be comfortably used in the mainstream again because it’s being actively defanged. Calling Sanders’ attempts to save capitalism “socialism” is surely a win for power. As is his inevitable endorsement of Clinton, but as always, we need to set aside our ultra-left posture of having any expectations whatsoever, and vote to keep this radical Republican insurgency at bay.
Those of us who warned of the inevitable “failure” of the Sanders campaign are really not all that insightful. The Democratic party is transparently a void that swallows the dissent meant to fuel our movements. All it really takes is a few minutes to look at the consistent history of this charade in order to wise up.
In another case of pompous election year stupidity, here is Pando’s John Dolan, aka The War Nerd, taking a much less creative line, punching down at the pitiable “anti-Sanders Left,” echoed on twitter by his colleague Mark Ames:
The existence of principles that you then chose to follow through on with actions is often confusing to liberals who imagine themselves socialists. It will forever remain a mystery why people committed to anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist politics can’t bring themselves to get behind an imperialist Democrat like Sanders. What can I say, us purity cultists just can’t help but self-marginalize.
There are other figures on the left with something of a platform that have chosen to take a very different approach. The brilliant radical scholar Michael Parenti, who actually has personal ties to Sanders, has decided to withhold his support because of Sanders history of supporting US imperial violence:
Glen Ford of the excellent Black Agenda Report takes an even stronger stand. His focus is primarily on the black community, but what he articulates here is, in my view, the right prescription for all American radicals:
Democratic Party politics kills Black politics. The two cannot coexist. If you want a real Black grassroots movement, you have to fight the Democratic Party, tooth and claw.
Bernie Sanders’ supporters think they can transform the Democratic Party “from below.” They are wrong.
Black people ARE the “below” in America, and we make up a quarter of the Democratic Party. But, Blacks haven’t transformed the Democratic Party by our overwhelming presence. Instead, the Party has transformed us – and overwhelmed our radical politics.
The solution is to throw off the dead weight of that party.
Bernie Sanders, the Democrat, does not represent some kind of turning point in history, although his supporters seem to think so. The turning point in history comes with masses of people in the streets, fighting BOTH Rich Man’s Parties.
Power to the People!
As opposed to these consistently radical voices, the role figures like Chomsky play during election season is spectacle reinforcement. Whether that’s his intention or not doesn’t really matter to me. He’s put forth in the progressive media as the definitive radical with a lifetime of achievement and wisdom, his authority nearly unassailable on a wide range of topics. These interviews seem designed to scold radicals who insist on taking seriously the idea that the election is indeed the farce Chomsky has at times said it is. Ultimately my concern here is less with the act of voting itself than the advocacy that once again forces the spectacle into left spaces that should be fundamentally working to extricate themselves from establishment politics altogether.
I think it’s safe to say the American empire, in all its blood-soaked glory, will carry on its destructive imperatives regardless of which ruling class vetted fascist takes the reins. The lessons of the Obama legacy should clearly demonstrate to those inclined to be swept up in campaign rhetoric that there is no such thing as an exception in the American electoral process. The winner is never an accident or a fluke and is almost always hand-picked by ruling class investors once they decide who will be most capable of leading the empire into its next nightmarish phase.
In the face of all this reactionary pressure, the importance of maintaining actual socialist principles can’t be overstated. The reason why things like lesser-evil advocacy need to be resisted so strongly is because of its pernicious effect on many people’s ability to reject the spectacle and see how their class interests are being sabotaged by people who present themselves as allies of progress. Ceding ourselves to a Democrat that signals towards our politics or public intellectuals who constantly use their platforms to counsel the tactical wisdom of compromise instead of the urgent necessity of revolution will continue to lead us exactly where we are. The sooner we remove these influences and start building something based on our own principles the better.
h/t to @RancidTarzie and former twitter user @CelebrityLeft for helping to edit this post.