Three Questions on Democracy, Obama, and War

On the occasion of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, November 2008.

1. My first question is: what is the real (as opposed to the imaginary, ideological) function of the state?

A hundred and sixty years ago Marx observed that in a capitalist economy the executive of the state functions as a committee to co-ordinate the common interests of the owners of corporations. Today, when the activities of governments favour more the interests of a global corporate class than the national interests of their own citizens, that observation of the German philosopher and economist is not less but more true than it was in 1848.

Capitol Corporate globalization, free trade, and financial deregulation have transferred production to low-wage areas and allowed the paper economy of the international financial sector to enrich the global élite at the expense of everyone else. These processes are co-ordinated by governments' secretly negotiating trade and financial agreements (which are then presented to their populations as a fait accompli) in the sole interest of corporations, which more often than not have no attachment to any particular nation state. The formula of French political philosopher Alain Joxe, which summarizes this reality by inverting the terms of the dominant ideological discourse, is apt: corporations have sovereignty, states have interests.

In such circumstances wars are no longer what they had been for millennia, namely armed conflicts between states, or to cite the cliché of Clausewitz, "politics by other means". Even the 2003 invasion of Iraq was so asymmetrical that it was not in any classical sense a war between states.

One way of understanding contemporary wars is to view them as avatars of a confrontation between the global corporate war industry (which is integrated into other sectors, including the media) and elements of the poorest and most vulnerable populations on the planet. An illustration of this is the rental by Canadian forces in Afghanistan of helicopters from a Russian corporation, complete with certain pilots who had already fought this war during the Soviet invasion and occupation of the 1980s. The Russian corporation is now paid to assist Canadian high-tech assaults against the indigent peasant "insurgents" resisting the more recent foreign invasion, occupation, aerial bombing, and artillery shelling of their lands from 2001. Ironically, in the 1980s the Afghan "insurgents" resisting the Soviet occupation were funded and armed by the United States.

Of course this is only one very small example of the extraordinary payouts to corporations of all types that keep the war in Afghanistan going: not just the aerospace, land vehicle, transport, and weapons industries, but a whole range of war profiteers from coffee shop chains to "contractor" firms supplying mercenary soldiers. Thus the 18 to 28 billion dollars being spent by the Canadian government on the Afghan war is a form of financial transfer or welfare from the middle classes of Canada to the owners of all these firms involved in the war industry.

Barack Obama Barack Obama is in no position to challenge this sovereignty of the corporations, as he has already shown (supporting the transfer of over a trillion dollars of tax revenue to the owners of banks and other large corporations, for example), and his activity is not therefore motivated by the common good of all or a majority of Americans.

2. My second question: is the process by which the leaders and members of this subordinate state structure (i.e., politicians) are selected, namely the electoral process, equivalent to democracy?

Democracy means government by the people. An example of democracy might be the functioning of a university department, where members of the department collectively make the decisions on courses, textbooks, and other matters that affect them. One can imagine such a system of democratic decision-making organized in other sectors, for the production and distribution of goods and services, and for the management of education, health care, justice, diplomacy, etc. But casting a ballot every four or five years isn't it!

When a generally uninformed, or more precisely, misinformed, electorate casts votes in a sort of opinion poll that could be different if held a week later, for well-financed candidates who often have spent weeks or months uttering some combination of lies, insults, and meaningless platitudes (such as Obama's oft-repeated promise for "change", which as his cabinet appointments of people like George Bush's defence secretary Robert Gates show, is anything but!), this is not giving political power to the people, but just the opposite: taking it away from them. The ballot box actually disenfranchises the citizen, functioning as a mechanism by which the citizen surrenders political power to the elected candidates and their party, who can then claim to have a "mandate" from the electorate to do whatever they choose, however much that may be against the interests of the majority of the population and the common good (secretly negotiated free trade agreements, expeditionary wars, deregulation, subsidies for large corporations, tax reductions for the wealthy, etc.)

3. My third question is a variant of the second one. Does an electoral mandate give moral legitimacy to the organizing of mass killing (as in the war in Afghanistan, where NATO forces have killed many thousands of civilians)?

Should people who organize such killings, even if this is part of a collective psychopathology, be out on the streets, let alone in public office? One of the most successful elections in history took place in Germany on November 12, 1933, when with a participation rate of 96%, no less than 93.5% of the electorate endorsed the policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi list of candidates for the German parliament. Did this plebiscite render the anti-semitic policies of the German government in any way acceptable? In the case of the American electoral process, I cannot see how Obama's plans to intensify the war of occupation in Afghanistan can be met with anything other than unequivocal moral condemnation. On this point I refer the reader to French philosopher Alain Badiou's observation that no human activity other than elections is judged solely on the basis of a formal procedure rather than what it actually produces (a situation that gives rise to the absurd but frequently heard slogan that it doesn't matter whom you vote for, as long as you vote).

James MacLean

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