Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Slavery is optional: Filing Cabinets and Consciousness


Something we learn about in the study and practice of Buddhism is the nature of consciousness: how it shapes what we believe about ourselves and the world. Another lesson about consciousness is that it is shaped, not only by our own conditioning but also by social conditioning. The very aperture through which we understand ourselves and our world is shaped initially by family, by the company we keep, and by the society where we mature and live.

This has political implications, and indeed the hierarchy of power in a society depends on the consciousness of those who are governed. Democracy, while a beautiful idea, requires a certain consciousness across the body politic. For a republic such as ours to respond to the needs of the governed, and to promote equality and meaningful freedom for all her people, to serve and enhance the general welfare in an egalitarian manner, requires participation.

Government is not our problem, as complex a beast as it is. Here in my office, there is a filing cabinet I bought for seven bucks from my neighbor. It has four drawers. Depending on how I organize this filing cabinet, it can help me conduct family and personal business efficiently; or it can become a morass, a black hole where my important papers are lost forever. Do I blame the filing cabinet? Throw it away and vow never to use a filing cabinet again? Clearly, the responsibility is my own.

No, government is not our problem. Our politics is a problem. Specifically, the way we do politics in the U.S. There is good news, however: while it is a difficult task to reform our political system, it is easier to do that than to modify our institutions or amend the constitution. There really is no need to tolerate a politics that is so unresponsive to the needs of our people.

If you are one of those who has said, "A pox on both their houses," threw up your hands, stopped paying attention to politics or the news, gave up on the process, and maybe even stopped participating -- please know that this is the intended outcome of a deliberate strategy.

In "Goodbye to All That," a former Republican Congressional staffer by the name of Mike Lofgren writes a searing critique not just of the current Republican Party, but the two-party rule that shackles United States politics. It is a system entirely dominated by two national political parties that are heavily financed by, and thus under the influence of, corporate interests and wealthy contributors. This lock has been made stronger now that corporations can make unlimited political contributions.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).


The most important choice before us people -- indeed, a choice that is overdue -- is not which millionaire candidate to vote for among the two national parties. It is time to stop buying into the manufactured cynicism and contribute a little bit more to the civic health of our communities and our nation. There is simply no good reason for our submission to a destructive politics. There is no reason to allow a political system to go unchallenged, retreating to what individualist battlements we can muster, and scorn any effort to demand a politics that advances our welfare.

From Michael Parenti:

Having discerned that "American democracy" as professed by establishment opinion makers is something of a sham, some people incorrectly dismiss the democratic rights won by popular forces as being of little account. But these democratic rights and the organized strength of democratic forces are, at present, all we have to keep reactionary rulers from imposing a dictatorial final solution, a draconian rule to secure the unlimited dominance of capital over labor. Marx anticipated that class struggle would being the overthrow of capitalism. Short of that, class struggle constrains and alters the capitalist state, so that the government itself, or portions of it, become a contested arena.

This is a matter of overthrowing a certain false consciousness (a subject on which Parenti has written much) and implementing measures with the express purpose of contesting the power arrangements that are wrecking what progress has been made here in this "beacon of democracy" and "shining city on a hill" on behalf of people who must work in order to survive.

Such reforms might include:

  • Implementing instant-runoff voting, also known as "ranked voting," a system that is inexpensive and allows more parties to participate meaningfully in competitive elections.
  • Public, rather than private, financing of elections, to curb the anticompetitive financial power of corporations and super-rich investors. Public financing should include the so-called "minor parties" and independent candidates.
  • Proportional representation rather than "winner take all" systems. This allows other parties to win some seats in Congress and in state legislatures. It also strengthens the power of the voter. This also suggests serious reform, or the elimination, of the electoral college. (The latter, however, requires a constitutional amendment, and thus difficult to achieve.)
  • No tolerance for voting laws designed to intimidate or harass certain demographics of voters. "Voter I.D." laws should be reviewed and modified as necessary so that eligible and registered voters can cast a proper ballot even if they do not possess a driver's license. (For instance, in New Mexico, a voter has several alternatives to showing an I.D., such as confirming their address.)
  • As much as we approve of saving paper use here in the Burning House, paper ballots serve a necessary function for verification of vote counts, and need to be preserved.
  • Nonpartisan oversight of electoral process by a public commission. Part of their charge would be to assure access to polling places in rural and impoverished areas.

These things are achievable. Even the amendment is achievable, albeit more difficult. It requires effort and determination, what we assume is meant by the phrase "political will."

It is as self-evident as suggesting to a person who is drowning that they try putting their arms and legs to use before they die, depriving their family and their community of their life.

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