*The Bitter Pill of American Democracy, Yet Again [2016]

Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime IV

 In late November 2004, following the election of George W. Bush to a second term of the Presidency of the United States, I published an article in the journal, Economic and Political Weekly, which remains the principal vehicle in India of wide-ranging and often scholarly commentary on social, historical, and political issues.  The article is called, “What the US Electorate Voted For” (Vol 39, no. 37), and shorter versions of it appeared as “The Bitter Pill of ‘American Democracy’” in the Bangladesh Observer (Dhaka; 12 November 2004, p. 4) and as “The Morning After:  The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, Sunday Island (Colombo, Sri Lanka; 14 November 2004).

I take the liberty of reproducing this piece, since on reading it again earlier today I find that the same piece could be published today virtually intact, with only obvious changes—substituting the name of Donald J. Trump for George W. Bush, and so on.  This by no means should be interpreted to mean that just as the US muddled through the years of the Bush Presidency, it will do so through the years of the Trump Presidency. Nor am I trying to suggest that I may have been prescient, though a systematic study of American politics suggests that Trump is not at all an aberration, as Barack Obama would have us believe, but rather the logical outcome of the American political system. This is not the time for complacency.  But it does mean that unless the profoundly systemic evils that characterize the American political system are addressed, we shall lurch from one dangerous buffoon to another, from one ‘democratic despot’ to another.  Speaking at UCLA on November 9th this year, the day after the election, the French philosopher Alain Badiou adverted to ‘democratic fascism’.  In my 2002 book, Empire of Knowledge:  Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press), I wrote about the “democratic totalitarianism of the United States”; and, in the concluding lines of “The Bitter Pill of American Democracy”, in pointing to Bush’s frequent references to the war on terrorism, I said:  “Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.”

Many of those who have studied German’s descent into totalitarianism have long pondered how a country that, in popular parlance, produced Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Kant, Schiller, Goethe and an extraordinarily long list of intellectual and artistic luminaries could embrace the demagoguery, naked militarism, brutal authoritarianism, and eventually the machinery of killing that would characterize the Nazi regime. No one should suppose that the United States, which is well-versed in methods of genocide, is immune to the perils have struck and brought down empires and totalitarian states alike.  The havoc that the US has brought down upon external others—Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians—may one day, which is perhaps not all that distant, be brought down upon many of its own citizens and residents. Donald J. Trump is only the logical outcome, not the culmination, of a process that has long been at work; much that is deplorable may come in his time, but it is certain that much worse will come after his time.

I have placed in bold italics such of my remarks from the previously published piece, which follows, which appear as they could have been written apropos of this election.  Take, for instance, this sentence: “Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspects.”  I submit that if we were to replace Bush with Trump, not a single word of this sentence would have to be altered in order for it be persuasive.

How often will the world have to swallow the bitter pill of American Democracy?  The fetus may be aborted by the ‘morning after’ pill; but if the ‘morning after’ pill has to be taken too often, it will wreck the woman’s body.  The body politic of the American Republic, in particular, is now in an advanced stage of decomposition.



The Morning After:  The Bitter Pill of “American Democracy”

The recently concluded American elections, which have given George W. Bush the victorious verdict that he so vigorously sought, were being touted as the most marvelous demonstration of the success and robustness of American democracy even before the polls had closed in some states.  The lines to vote were reported to be unusually long in many places around the country, the prolific predictions about fraud, voting irregularities, and the unreliability of electronic voting machines largely fell flat, a record number of new voters made their presence felt at the polls, and more Americans cast their vote than at any time since 1968.  The usual platitudes, calling upon all Americans to “unite” after a bitterly “divisive” election campaign, were heard from Senator Kerry in his concession speech, and once again Bush, who poses as an archangel of “compassionate conservatism” when he is not being a cowboy, has promised his opponent’s supporters that he will attempt to win their trust.  Only the future lies ahead of this, as Bush puts it, “amazing country”.

The United States may be “amazing” for reasons quite at odds with those commonly imagined by Bush and the American electorate which so evidently resonates to his schemes for the upliftment of America and, strictly in that order, the rest of the world.  In the state of Oregon, a ballot cannot physically be cast at an electoral booth; it must be mailed to the appropriate authorities beforehand.  Fewer people vote in elections in the US than in almost any other democracy, though no country has done more to peddle the idea, especially to that portion of the world which is resistant to electoral democracy, that voting constitutes the ultimate fulfillment of a person’s political life.  If dictators understood, at least from the American example, that voting absolves people from further political responsibility, one suspects that they would be much less hostile to the vote as an expression of political sentiment.  I vote, therefore I am; man votes, Bush disposes — with some aid from God.  All these must surely constitute grounds for thinking of America as an “amazing country”.

Quite to the contrary, these elections furnish the most decisive illustration of the sheer mockery that electoral democracy has become in America. The iconoclastic American thinker, Paul Goodman, observed four decades ago in Compulsory Miseducation that American democracy serves no other purpose than to help citizens distinguish between “indistinguishable candidates”.  Both parties are utterly beholden to the culture of the corporation and what used to be called ‘monied interests’, and both have contributed to bloated military budgets; besides, however short the memory of those who fetishize Democrats as paragons of liberalism, decency, and civility, Democratic administrations have been scarcely reticent in exercising military power to subjugate enemies or ensure American dominance.  The current debacle in the Democratic party owes much to Bill Clinton, though he has been so lionizedthe consummate diplomat, the “comeback kid”, the supposed engine behind the growth of the American economy — that any criticism of him, barring the “moral turpitude” he is said to have displayed when he was caught with his knickers down in the Oval Office, is all but impossible.  Many Democrats instead held Ralph Nader, who understands better than most people the elaborate hoax by means of which one party has been masquerading as two for a very long time, responsible for sprinting votes away from Al Gore in 2000.  This served as one long-lasting excuse to which the Democrats could resort to explain why Gore was unable to prevail at the polls, and also explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to keep him from appearing on ballots in 2004; the other excuse originated in the circumstances under which a tenacious Bush, whose ambition for power is just as ruthless as his ignorance and arrogance are colossal, was able to get his brother Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court to hand over the White House to him.  The dictators who run banana republics were doubtless imbibing a very different meaning from the axiom that America leads the way.

The present elections have blown these excuses, under which the Democrats have been sheltering and smoldering, to smithereens. Bush’s victory margin, by the standards of democracy, is comfortably large.  Nader, the so-called “spoiler” and “traitor”, won a mere few hundred thousand votes, and his presence doubtless even emboldened more Democrats to go to the polls.  If Americans could not much distinguish between Bush and Kerry, and indeed how could they when Kerry, with his promise to “hunt down” the terrorists and wipe them from the face of this earth, sounded entirely like his opponent, the Democrats must ponder how they could have moved so far to the right and thus surrendered what little remains of their tattered identity.  Considering the horrendous record that Bush has compiled in nearly every domain of national life — an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, the occupation of a sovereign nation, the strident embrace of militarism, the reckless disregard for the environment, the shameless pandering to the wealthy, the transformation of a 5-trillion dollar surplus into a 400-billion dollar deficit, the erosion of civil liberties, the insouciant disdain for international treaties and protocols, and much else — one cannot but conclude that the American people have given Bush carte blanche to do more of the same.  One thought of the Butcher of Crawford as the arch executioner, under whose jurisdiction Texas sent more men to the death chamber than any other state, but his appetite for destruction extends even to the English language.  Edmund Burke, with his inspiring mastery over English, indicated Warren Hastings, a proconsul of an earlier generation, with the terrible observation that when Hastings ate, he created a famine; but when Bush opens his mouth, words come out horribly mangled, as unrecognizable as the bodies which litter the streets of Iraq.  Bush’s election means, in stark terms, that the majority of Americans condone the torture and indefinite confinement of suspects, the abrogation of international conventions, the ruthless “pacification” of entire countries, and an indefinite war — of terror, not just on terror — against nameless and numberless suspectsNo extenuating circumstances can be pleaded on behalf of Americans, however much progressive intellectuals might like to think that Americans are fundamentally “good” and merely “misinformed” by the corporate media.

It is no secret that the defeat of George Bush was, from the standpoint of the world, a consummation devoutly to be wished for.  Many well-meaning Americans deride Bush as an “embarrassment”.  Used with reference to him, the word sounds like an encomium.  The best of peoples are embarrassed by their own actions at times, and embarrassment can, at least on occasion, be read in the register of modesty, awkwardness, and innocent virtue.  “Embarrassment” seems wholly inadequate as an expression of the visceral anger and hatred Bush unleashes among some of his detractors.  Those even more critical of Bush are inclined to view him as a liar There is, however, scarcely any politician in the world who does not lie, though one can say of Bush that he almost always lies.  But what if the American electorate understood, as appears to be the case, his lies to be desirable, necessary, and premonitions of truth?  Bush lied to the world about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he lied about the purported imminence of a threat against the United States from Iraq, and he falsely claimed a link between the al-Qaeda network and Iraq.  Yet none of these revelations about the insidious modes in which consent is manufactured made an iota of difference, and Bush charged ahead with insistent reiterations of the same falsehoods.

Consequently, more arresting clues to the danger that Bush poses to the world must be located elsewhere.  One did not expect him to act any differently; but that a large chunk of the American population has boldly declared its affinity for him is proof enough that, at the end of the day, many Americans share with Bush his contempt for the world and the view that the United States can never fundamentally deviate from the path of good A very substantial number of Americans have declared that they found Bush to embody “moral values”, presumably the same moral values that they hold sacrosanct.   Bush’s moral vision, as is well-known, extends to clear and unambiguous distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and he is emphatic in his pronounced belief that “those who are not for us, are against us”.  The success of Bush points, in other words, to something much more ominous, namely the sheer inability of Americans to comprehend complexity and retain some degree of moral ambivalence.  The fear that Bush is charged with exploiting, namely the fear of terrorism, is more broadly the fear of the unknown, the fear of ambiguity.  Such exhortations to simplicity and unadorned moral fervor, and clear invocations of authoritarianism, couched as messages to people to entrust themselves into the hands of tried leaders who are hard on crime and terror, have in the past unfailingly furnished the recipe for transition to anti-democratic, even totalitarian, regimes.

Elections in India have consequences mainly for the Indian sub-continent, just as those in Australia largely impact Australia.  But the American elections impact every person in the world, and there are clearly compelling reasons why every adult in the world should be allowed to vote in an American presidential election.  However much every American might balk at this suggestion, it is indisputable, as the striking examples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Iraq so vividly demonstrate, that the United States has never considered sovereignty an inviolable fact of international politics.  We shall, then, have to radically rethink the received notions of the nation-state, sovereignty, democracy, and internationalism.   These elections will widen the gulf between Americans, ensconced in their gigantic Hummers and endlessly adrift in the aisles of Cosco and Walmart, and most of the rest of the “civilized world”.  One nonviolent way of moving the world towards a new conception of ecumenical cosmopolitanism is to allow every adult an involvement in the affairs of a nation that exercises an irrepressible influence on their lives.

Meanwhile, there is no morning after pill to abort the nightmarish results of 2004, and the rest of the world will have to swallow the bitter pill of “American democracy”. 

*Anna Hazare’s Improbable Politics

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible.   If metaphysics addresses that which lies beyond the realm of ordinary experience, and by another reckoning is the underlying reality of social phenomena, politics has always appeared to concern itself with the here and the now.  It is partly for this reason that those, a distinct minority to begin with, who enter politics with the expectation of ‘doing good’ or acting with more than the customary rhetorical gestures in the direction of reform, are dubbed ‘idealistic’. The domain of politics is one where the operative ideas revolve around instrumentality, the advancement of self-interest, and negotiation.  However, with his declared intention of creating a new party to infuse Indian politics, and more generally the public sphere, with a moral sense of responsibility and some notion of accountability, Anna Hazare has opened a different if vaguely defined front in politics.  He may not quite have thrown a monkey wrench into normal politics, but he has given expression to an improbable politics.

Much less than two years ago, Anna Hazare burst onto the Indian political scene from a position of relative obscurity.  This will seem a considerable exaggeration to those who will point to Hazare’s many years of public service in Maharashtra, where he acquired something of a reputation for his efforts to expose corruption, prevent the government from enhancing the production of liquor from food grain, and facilitate the passage by the state of a Freedom of Information Act.  Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that Hazare only won a national following when, in early April 2011, he decided to initiate a satyagraha campaign in an effort to extract from the government a promise for the passage of what he and his followers deemed an iron-clad anti-corruption bill.  Hazare staged, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, an oracular demonstration of how the body might be inserted into the body politic, declaring that ‘I will fast until [the] Jan Lokpal Bill is passed.’

Following countrywide expressions of support for Hazare, the government was moved to issue a notification in the Gazette of India announcing the formation of a joint committee, consisting of ‘five nominee ministers of the Government of India and five nominees of the civil society’, and charged with drafting a bill that would create a climate of opinion indestructibly opposed to corruption and thus conducive to the prosecution of government officials found guilty of trespassing upon their oath of selfless public service.  Thus, on the fifth day of his fast, on April 9th, Hazare relented to demands that he give up his fast.  Four months later, however, as the government appeared to renege on its pledge to secure a strong Jan Lokpal Bill, Hazare again raised the spectre of an indefinite fast.  In scenes highly reminiscent of the cat and mouse game between English suffragettes and the government in the early 20th century, Hazare was taken into custody a mere four hours before he was to begin his fast.  Though he would be given unconditional release within hours, Hazare refused to leave Tihar Jail and commenced a fast that he then took to Ramlila Grounds.  People poured into the Ramlila Grounds, and the show of solidarity appeared to have entirely unnerved the government’s principal functionaries and spokespersons; as an anxious nation watched, the Lok Sabha passed the Jan Lokpal Bill in an emergency sitting of the Indian Parliament.  On August 28th, thirteen days into his fast, Hazare could, as he must then have thought, declare victory.


Supporters of Anna Hazare celebrate the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar/The Hindu

A year later, Anna Hazare has evidently arrived at a very different assessment of what, if anything, was achieved by his movement –– and what course of action might be followed if everything he stood for is not to come to naught.  In one widespread reading of Indian politics, governance has crumbled if not disappeared; scams follow one another in numbing succession; and the government totters from one fiasco to another.  Such doomsday scenarios –– a few readers might even recall Selig Harrison’s India:  The Most Dangerous Decades (1960), and in like fashion, many predictions about the break-up of India –– have never been far from the minds of commentators on Indian society and politics, but Hazare’s statement announcing the disbanding of Team Anna wisely eschews such pronouncements and dwells instead on the possibility of other alternatives that might rid Indian society of the malaise of corruption.  Writing on his blog in Hindi, Hazare admits:  ‘The government is not ready to enact Jan Lokpal bill.  How long can one keep on fasting time and again?  It’s time to stop fasting and give the nation an alternative.  This demand kept on mounting from the people.  I, too, have come to the awareness that this government is not committed to the eradication of corruption.’  As ‘Team Anna was formed to work for Jan Lokpal’, and relations with the government have been shown to be unproductive, Team Anna has, Hazare wrote, no cause to continue its existence.  Hazare presents the alternative that came to his mind almost as an epiphany:  if good people, possessed of ‘selflessness, moral fiber, [decent] profession, and patriotism’ could be found in numbers to contest elections, would it not be prudent to create a new political party?

Many who were severely critical of Hazare for undermining constitutional politics should, at least in principle, welcome his declared intention of entering into the mainstream of political life, albeit in the role of a senior statesman.  In the hurly-burly of politics, such magnanimity was not to be expected:  as some Congressmen remarked, Hazare’s interest in founding a party suggests that all along he, posing as a fakir (though not half-naked), was only interested in the exercise of power.  There are some who are asking if Hazare can lick the political system, and if there are precedents for such political interventions elsewhere in the world.   The principal political parties are so well entrenched, indeed even drenched in money, that a party comprised of a ragtag group of activists and their sentimental followers seems hardly poised to make even the slightest dent in the brutal landscape of Indian politics.  Party Anna, on this scenario, will merely have replaced Team Anna but will similarly sink into the gargantuan quicksand of Indian politics.  Some will point to the experience of the United States:  though Ralph Nader has contested several presidential elections, several of them as a Green Party candidate, on a platform resolutely critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties as agents of naked capitalism, wholly indebted to corporate honchos for their survival, he has been unable to disturb even remotely the general tenor of American political culture.  No one has been able to question Rader’s own political integrity, but, interestingly, in the only election where his presence might have made a difference to the outcome, an outcome where one would have chosen (as in every other American election) between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, it is the liberals who pounded him for having ‘stolen’ votes from Al Gore and handed the election over to Bush.  The Greens are commonly thought to have been more successful in several European countries, but it is clear that they still operate largely at the margins.  The closest parallel to Hazare is the former head of the Montreal police, Jacques Duchesneau, whose exposures of corruption in Quebec’s political culture catapulted him to public adulation and to a vaunted place in the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) as one of their star candidates.  This new party, however, has yet to contest an election.

The question, however, is not whether Hazare’s proposed political party is likely to succeed, even if success is to be measured not by the usual canons of politics but rather by the fulfillment of the objectives of the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement.  There is a more intriguing question:  how much of politics does Hazare understand at all?  Though many activists will never admit as much, they were angered and disturbed by the thought that a truck driver had been able to galvanize, with comparatively little effort and in lightening quick time, large crowds all prepared to launch India’s ‘Second War of Independence’.  That would seem to suggest that Hazare is not altogether a political novice.  Yet, in most respects, Hazare has shown himself unaware of what may justly be called politics.  In undertaking one fast after another, for example, Hazare betrayed his inability to take the measure of things. In the arts of negotiation, Hazare would certainly find much to learn from the book of Gandhi.  There is, behind all this, a deeper conundrum:  more so than in an autocratic state, genuine dissent is, in our times, impossibly difficult of attainment in a democracy.  Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar illustrated the difficulties of dissent in a democracy –– and such dissent is likely to become even more improbable, now that Hazare has signified his interest in moving closer to a conception of normal politics.  Little did Anna Hazare know that he would become the hunger artist.

(First published as “Improbable Politics”, Times of India, Crest Edition (11 August 2012).