Friday Pick: Truth, Justice, & Jheri Curls

By José Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Harvill Secker, 2006
353 pages

In Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago’s satire Seeing (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez), the capital city of an unnamed country holds elections on an unusually rainy day. Turnout is scarce until the downpour subsides in the late afternoon. Then, all at once, nearly everybody decides to cast their ballot. Voters rush the polls as precincts stay open late to account for demand. The deluge of voters is matched by a wave of relief for bureaucrats and party functionaries after hours of worrying nobody will turn up. But a strange thing happens when the counting begins, 70 percent of the ballots are blank. Not negated, not marked with some wiseacre write-in candidate like Rick James – just blank.

This poses a quandary. In the government’s thinking, democracy is a contract between governors and the governed. The former draw legitimacy through an unspoken agreement with the latter: whichever candidate or party gets the most votes during intermittent elections runs things until the next vote. Saramago’s unruly citizens breach these terms. The voters reject the very concept of this contract. They do not merely stay away from the voting booths, for this could be taken for indifference. Their blank ballots are more than just an expression of dissatisfaction with the candidates from which they must choose. The voters dispute the relevance of the election and assert what political theorist Sheldon Wolin called “politicalness” – their desire to influence their common interests and lives.

Like real governments, Saramago’s fictive government believes that voting in elections is the primary means by which citizens should assert politicalness. Such is the myth perpetuated by those who control political parties and bureaucracies, which by design centralize diffuse energies. One obvious utility of concentrating politicalness into periodic votes is that it offers the best possible chance for influencing outcomes while maintaining the illusion of public free will. Occasional votes on pre-determined dates are easier to predict and control than irregular acts of politicalness across a longer time span. The purported contract consummating this idea is a way of co-opting democracy, government of the people, for individual or specialized means. These means, in one guise or another, are almost always commercial in motivation.

Parties, elections and bureaucracies are perversions of politics, not an embodiment of their essence. Parties and the like can serve as channels through which political will is channeled and translated into action, but this long ago ceased to be the case in much of the West, if it ever indeed was. Any conscious person can see a widening gap between popular political will and the issues prioritized by elected officials. As such, this ill-performing system is now stretched to the brink of collapse. In the supposed mature democracies – say most of Europe, and North and South America plus a smattering elsewhere throughout the rest of the globe – existing political parties are for the most part worse than superfluous. They are disruptive. It is not coincidental that these same locales are the most fervent in brandishing the word democracy both as a description of their own system and a means to critique and isolate others. Elections involving mass political parties do not see average citizens exercise power, but rather serve as rituals delivering power to someone else. They are the means by which politicalness is managed, and such abuse is the heart of contemporary political despondency. The result is a crisis of democracy the likes of which has not been seen since the early 20th century. In that incarnation, fascism and totalitarian communism followed, as did the fantasy that a global free market is the final station of historical progress. This pursuit now trumps all other civilizational priorities and has seen higher standards of living subsume better living.

Such statements are hardly revolutionary, and the sentiments are widely held – privately. Any such expression of them in public is immediately met with the old rigmarole that equates criticism of capitalism with hatred of freedom, just as examinations of the contemporary bogus distortion of democracy are likened to sympathy for some tyrannical despot or totalitarianisms of the past. Questioning the direct link between free markets and liberty is at minimum treasonous if not blasphemy. As is observing that present-day capitalism is full of what sociologist Daniel Bell called cultural contradictions, which are the seeds of its own decline. The most obvious of these is the way in which a one-time positive aspect of capitalism (a tendency toward delayed gratification in the form of saving for the future) has morphed into its polar opposite (a propensity for instant gratification with people racing to be the first to replace a year-old iPhone with a new model, just because a new one exists).

The anonymous and mass nature of the blank ballot phenomenon in Seeing short-circuits these canned, but emphatic, reactions. It also makes audible what is already visible. Like a falling tree in an empty forest, the election makes a sound, but not one the government is able to hear. Pensive apparatchiks are incapable of acknowledging, never mind interpreting what voters are saying. The post-election nerves in the corridors of power lead to an atmosphere that Jamesian scholars would call super freaky. The polity in Saramago’s story, as in the present’s professed democracies, encourages elections but not politicalness. Casting ballots stands-in – but must not be the means – for genuine political expression.

A similar dynamic is apparent when one thinks of the reactions to Occupy Wall Street and the comparable international movements. As in Saramago’s novel, pure acts of political expression propagate confusion when most are conditioned against such things. The usual post-Occupy narrative has it that the occupiers failed. What this really means is that they failed to translate into hierarchical organizations with clear leaders who could run as candidates in elections or serve as representatives, with a list of demands in hand, to negotiate with existing officialdom. In other words, establishment expectations fell into two camps (pun intended). The first was the notion that these Occupy phenomena agree to take part in pseudo-political competition – elections – rigged against them. The second was to address occupiers like an unruly union on strike or someone holding a hostage: “Send us your list of demands and we will see what we can do.” The Occupy phenomenon was beset by any number of problems – clean linens among them – but the inability to produce a laundry list of demands was not among its failings. Any attempt to present such demands would have seen authorities dismiss them as unreasonable, and agreeing to such engagement would have undermined the entire ethos of occupying. When the house is on fire it is a trivial matter to talk of changing the curtains or carpet. Entering into such a discussion legitimizes the concept that those lime green herringbone curtains, not the raging inferno on the roof, are the problem.

Like Saramago’s blankers, as they come to be called, the occupiers made sounds but few that the system was prepared to hear. Present-day democracy required they be tolerated and humored for a while, alongside plaudits about how free everybody is. Then they were vanquished from public view to avoid further confusion about how politicalness should best be asserted. Fervently supporting Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election is encouraged. Expressing political will without a concrete policy proposal is preposterous. As the philosopher Judith Butler said in addressing occupiers of New York’s Zuccotti Park: “People have asked, ‘So what are the demands all these people are making?’ Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused – or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. And impossible demands, they say, are just not practical.”

A certain kind of practicality, not politics, is what elections are about. In self-styled consolidated democracies elections are about risk aversion. The genuine expression of rights (Wolin emphasizes birthright rather than contractual agreement) is seen as disruptive and destabilizing, thus politics need dilution. The great calamity is that much of the public – through combination of fear-mongering, atrocious media, corporate-party political machines and apathy – is a willing collaborator. Bereft of experience expressing politicalness, the average citizen becomes convinced that politics are complicated and best left to so-called experts. Rather than simply make empirical decisions with basic reasoning, many allow themselves to be convinced that without professionals in charge disaster looms just out of view. Thus, stability becomes the watchword and in the present stability is synonymous with protecting business interests. One cannot roil markets and any inkling that politics might interfere with fluid corporatism mobilizes the opposition of global capital. The reactions to Greek elections in spring 2012, as a party pledging to cease state debt payments proved popular, are among obvious recent examples. Politics are free, so long as they remain within limits imposed by commerce.

Rather than recognizing economics occur within elaborate socio-political environments, environments are adapted to the needs of finance. As Wolin points out, economics appear simultaneously as a genre unto themselves not to be trifled with by politics, and as the means by which politics are defined. Back in Saramago’s world, government officials are not primarily concerned by the result of the elections, but the violation of that fallacious contract. This relationship is meant to be transactional, and blank ballots are the equivalent of the public failing to pay an invoice. In the story, much like those aforementioned Greek elections (or the 2008 Irish referendum rejecting the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty) the solution is to stage the vote again. Don’t like the result? Just keep holding elections until one does. Send another invoice, perhaps the first was lost in the mail. As governments are wont do when confused, during this second round of voting the state security and spying apparatus – let us call them referees – are deployed. The weather is better and voters line up, nary a plot to be found by enterprising intelligence operatives. Polls close and ballot-counting begins. This time 83 percent are blank. Metaphorical trees are falling all around and white-haired men in sensible suits likely to get hurt. The government must respond. Puzzled frosty-follicled fellows decide the best thing to do is abandon the capital and move upper management elsewhere, leaving the ungrateful hoi polloi to go it alone. Without the administrative expertise of the achromatic-maned classes, chaos will surely ensue. Only it doesn’t, at least not without an assist from said chalky-coiffured custodians of democracy, whom after leaving the capital city orchestrate the planting of a small bomb near a transit station. The blast, intended to spook, kills 23 people.

Death is tragic, but this collateral damage would not have occurred but for citizens sabotaging elections, goes the official line. The bomb serves its intended purpose, and a fair amount of capital residents seek to leave the city. But as the government had sought to isolate capital city dissenters from the rest of the country, the army has surrounded the city, letting no one in or out. As a result, cars of aspiring émigrés stack up at checkpoints. The government decides it should let loyal voters – that is anybody who didn’t cast a blank ballot and especially those that voted for the governing party, leave. When all this politicalness passes, there are future elections to think of after all. However, it’s impossible to separate loyalists from insubordinates and the migrants must be turned back. A spurious government radio broadcast implies that looters have begun stealing possessions from the homes the travelers left behind. As the nation watches via live television, would-be refugees turn back and return to their homes. They are greeted in the streets by neighbors, those subversives who stayed behind. TV viewers wait with bated breath. What will come next, a television announcer asks? Surely a massacre by these anarchic savages is about to ensue?

Instead, neighbors help neighbors unload their cars and move possessions back into their homes. The government, now increasingly divided, is certain of one thing. This is a brilliant rebel tactic, no doubt “the brainchild of some Machiavellian mastermind.” This must be the work of some evil genius, for if it is not, if there is no need to fear neighbors near or far, then the very ethos that the governed need to turn power over to a specialized class of governors is thrown into question. In the present, it is notable that people like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are, by necessity, similarly branded masterminds. Before – or in lieu of – digesting the information either exposed, discussion of their respective personalities, psychologies and current living arrangements become more important. The narrative that emerges is something like: “The means and the motivations by which these genius, aggrieved, nihilists with troubled pasts unearthed information was not only calculating and complex, but an ill-conceived anomaly.” If either Assange or Snowden were anything but this, and their actions were interpreted as anything but heretical, others might get ideas. If the perceived menace of shadowy, hard to define enemies cannot be maintained, what and why these governing professionals do what they do is drawn into question. This is to leave too much to chance.

What is worth wagering is that when it comes to elections, present-day democratic systems are organized in ways to best contain unpredictability. The act of voting today has much to do with the distinction between positive and negative liberty. Whereas many in the contemporary West are spared direct government coercion and thus possess negative liberty, they at the same time lack the means for fully influencing public life, positive liberty. Isaiah Berlin famously differentiated with two statements: “I am a slave to no man” (negative liberty); and “I am my own master” (positive liberty). Who among today’s voting public feels they express mastery over politics by periodically casting a ballot? Mastery is exercised by those running the institutions mediating elections. The biggest problem is not direct voter intimidation, though this of course exists. It is rather, the myriad subtle interventions in how the public encounters political discussion. No autocratic power limits Americans, for example, to voting only for Republicans or Democrats, but an enormous number of indirect institutional influences make other choices artificially difficult – the vast sums of money spent on campaigns, screening candidates who partake in pre-election debates, which candidates are mentioned in media and so forth. Such is the environment that leads many to conclude voting for an independent, libertarian or environmental candidate is no more likely to produce political results than voting for a deceased jheri-curled funk musician or submitting a blank ballot. As Saramago writes of voting: “Who cares if it is your inalienable right when they tell you it is only to be used in homeopathic doses?”

As touched upon earlier, there are a number of pre-selected rejoinders to inconvenient questions like these. The primary one is to deem such inquiries as conspiratorial, the stuff of crackpots. Questioning whether people are free to vote for the political candidate of their choosing is like questioning the moon landing, the Holocaust or Rick James’ sense of style. To make such claims is to assert that governments and the world are run by a few schemers locked in a smoky room, the response goes. Much in the way Assange and Snowden are necessarily branded off-kilter lone wolves, such sleight-of-hand forces inquisitors onto the defensive. It is also patent nonsense.

Economic-driven politics, at the expense of sensible balance between the two, both spurs and is buttressed by an affiliated ideology approximating religion. It is this, not a few silver-stranded men chomping on stogies, which brought-on the current crisis in democracy. There are guardians of the realm, and they are no doubt the ones that revel most in its spoils, but it is the enforced infallibility of the ideology and the public’s lack of control over what results that has distorted the term democracy beyond all recognition. This has numerous negative consequences, most notably a dearth of positive freedom for most. Once alerted to the less savory aspects of the status quo – needless poverty, greed-driven war, growing gaps in wealth, lack of opportunity for young people, general disillusionment – only sadists would allow it to continue. Thus the need to do whatever is necessary to maintain the fiction that all is well (or at least within reasonably well) and subject to public oversight. This is why politicalness must be managed, for if the false mythology surrounding 21st century capitalism is debunked significant changes are all but guaranteed.

Reprisals for criticizing the existing economic and political reality take a second major form, one that resembles the slights directed at the Occupy movements – in particular that critiques have no value without solutions. As if it were not obvious thus far, the solution is to break the centralized party-dominated, election-centric concept of democracy. It has mutated into a means for some to grease the wheels of a perpetual motion machine from which they benefit most. To say that the critique and a genuine discussion about ways to change it are irrelevant is comparable, to draw a parallel from medicine, to saying a cancerous tumor cannot be removed before guaranteeing the patient will achieve a full recovery. The idea that anybody advocating change today must be able to predict the future ad infinitum is a manifestation of the notion that change portends catastrophe just around the bend. Such fear-mongering is used to discourage full political expression and guarantee stasis. If one actually believes in the concept of democracy, and the present way politics are organized serves to impede rather than aid the expression of politicalness, then it follows something should be done about it. Casting blank ballots may be as good a place as any to start. What comes next comes next.

What first appears a pessimistic almost dystopian vision in Saramago’s Seeing – large majorities of the population so discouraged by their political system that they submit blank ballots rather than vote for a candidate – is actually quite hopeful. Whole swaths of people not only recognize the bankruptcy of their political system, but express indignation to undermine the very means by which that system continues. They clog the gears of the machine as it must first be stopped before it can shift direction. This is the opposite of passivity and the epitome of what Václav Havel once called “the power of the powerless.” Not only does everyone know they are not being offered legitimate choices in the election, everybody knows that everybody else knows too. Knowledge may be potential power, but shared awareness is progress.

Today, elections are among the least effective ways for expressing political rights. To say so is only to note what is obvious but often unspoken. It provokes reaction from shameless cynics who brand such talk as impractical, unrealistic, radical or insane. Responsible citizens are meant to uphold electoral contracts they never agreed to in the first place. Responsible citizens ask only anodyne and pragmatic questions lest they disrupt the vaunted stability we all reputedly seek. Then again, as a leather-pant clad Rick James once said: “I’m really not tailored for responsibility.”

–Benjamin Cunningham