The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

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DEC 16-JAN 17 Issue
Field Notes


“In the model country of the democratic swindle this election time is full of contingencies that may give the logic of events ... a quite unexpected smack in the face.”

—Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, September 7, 1864.

Editor's Note

by Paul Mattick

Hopefully, the end of the electoral circus, while leaving behind a huge elephant turd offensive to any sensible person, will otherwise clear the air for political thought. Despite the window on the exhaustion and ineptitude of the American ruling class opened by the mediocrity and mendacity of both candidates,1 the tedium of exposure to these people, day after day, finally became mind-fogging. The whole apparatus of news, “debates,” expert analyses, campaign rallies, seemed designed to force on those unable to ignore it such ideas as that Clinton represented “competence” and “experience,” thanks to her participation in the disastrous policies of recent administrations and her readiness to deal death mindlessly to the enemies of America, or that political morality was represented by the denunciation of Trump’s sexism by fellow Republicans happy to fight Planned Parenthood and cut the food stamps keeping millions of women and children from starvation.

Despite the evident differences between the candidates, thoughtful voters of both parties faced the same problem. As one wrote plaintively to the New York Times on October 26, expressing sympathy for Republicans unable to vote for their candidate, “Hillary Clinton’s allegiance to Wall Street, her hawkish stance on war, and other unacceptable personal and political flaws make it almost impossible for us” to vote for her. “What do we do? Third parties are out of the question. Staying home is equally impossible ... What a lousy situation American voters are caught in, when performing one’s civic duty becomes a nightmare.” The post-election state of affairs turns out to be an even worse nightmare, one from which there will be no escape, unless the sleep of civic duty is truly shaken off.

“What happened to America’s progressive era?” New York Times economics writer Eduardo Porter whined. In case you thought he was talking about the 1930s, it turns out that the era Porter had in mind began eight years ago, when voters elected a president “with the most liberal policy platform since the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson.” Yet, mysteriously, “the next administration will face rampant inequality and persistent poverty, decaying infrastructure, and mediocre and segregated public education. It will have to deal with one of the most expensive, least effective health care systems in the industrialized world. And one way or another, it will have to address climate change.” Porter believes that the main opposition to the Democrats stems from white racism. There’s certainly lots of racism in the United States but it was the same country—even, apparently, the same white male voters—that elected and reelected Barack Obama. Surely the failure of the “liberal policy platform” to improve most people’s lives in any material way has something to do with the decision of half of those who still believe in voting (an estimated 55% of those eligible) to give the other party a try.

More light is shed on what seems a nearly impenetrable mystery to bien pensant Times writers and readers by the successful prediction of the election’s outcome by Allen Lichtman, professor of history at American University in Washington. His analysis of 150 years of American presidential elections produced an algorithm: thirteen yes/no statements about the incumbent party, which with six or more “no”s is apparently bound to lose. The Democrats having racked up at leastsix “no” answers, Lichtman forecast a Trump victory seven weeks ago.2 His only caveat was that the peculiarities of Trump, “a candidate who spent his life enriching himself at the expense of others” and “a serial fabricator,” might, in the face of historical precedent, throw the election to Clinton. Perhaps this is just the Professor’s inability to grasp Trump’s appeal, but it is quite possible that Clinton’s loss was due, despite appearances, not to Trump but to the failures of the Democrats in power, and that any Republican would have won. Interestingly, one of the negatives fell on “The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero,” which suggests that if Bernie Sanders had been the candidate, the weight of the numbers might well have swung the other way, giving him the victory. The anti-Sanders machinations of the Clintons and the DNC, if Lichtman’s analysis is correct, cost the Democrats the election.

Well, that’s their problem. Now we have lots more of our own. The halfhearted environmental measures introduced in the waning days of the Obama presidency will no doubt be swept away along with other pesky regulations. More reactionary Supreme Court justices will continue the business-friendly work of the current court and possibly eliminate the few reproductive-health rights not already eroded by state law and vigilantism in much of the country. Even if Trump, as pledged, revives Reagan’s embrace of Keynesianism, it’s doubtful that deficit-fueled road and rocket building will do much to offset the ongoing decline of working-class working and living conditions. Will all this, and more, finally galvanize Americans to actively resist the downward spiral to which the 1% is consigning them?

The real problem, after all, is not the dishonesty or bad intentions of the candidates, the one’s lack of preparation for the job or the other’s all too perfect preparation for it. The problem is the job. The state is an institution—to speak of a mechanism would be to give it too much credit for coherence—for managing the well-being of a society whose continued existence demands that the well-being of its members be systematically ignored. The fact that national governments are no longer able to manage the forces operating in a worldwide system of capital accumulation means that there is less excuse than ever for humanity to abandon its fate to those who make government their area of business activity.

There is what one can only call a psychopathic aspect to the desire to be a political “leader”—there is something wrong with people eager to take on the task of making life-or-death decisions for thousands and millions of their fellow beings. This is easier to see in the case of an apparent nutball like Trump, but it’s just as true for the intelligent, affable guy in the job today, thoughtfully blocking one pipeline while letting another one proceed on its destructive way; haggling over the numbers of families cut off from food or medicine; providing and fueling the planes bombing hospitals, schools, and homes in Yemen; blocking legal attempts to outlaw torture; picking this or that enemy, together with his family or neighbors, for remote destruction; wasting the days of schoolchildren with the idea of education as a path to “success;” picking the place or time where the lack of safe drinking water is treated as a problem; sending refugees (two million to date—the number Trump has vowed to match) back to misery and death.

But the politicians’ pathology depends for its possibility on ours: our willingness to let some select fraction of the ruling class not only speak but act for us. The forces of destruction these people are dedicated to keeping in operation are working very quickly now, as glaciers melt, sea levels rise, life forms face extinction, and deserts and floods promise death for millions of humans along with them. And the purported benefit for which these costs are being paid—“economic growth”—is not even forthcoming. The bad dream of electoral politics has loosened its grip for the time being. But the deeper, darker nightmare, in which we toss and turn in the conviction that there is no way that we can govern ourselves and together deal with the chaos and destruction the existing society wreaks upon us, still holds us fast.


  1. See my Editor’s Note in the September 2016 Field Notes, “The Withering of the State.”
  2. See his interview in the Washington Post on September 23, 2016, online at

The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 16-JAN 17

All Issues