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Débat politique et social

Our texts in English

Publié par Les déserteurs actifs in Our texts in English

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Given the justified disrepute of the “political establishment”, all sorts of magic remedies are being concocted to turn our political institutions into a virtuous democratic system. These include sortition, candidates who are “pure spokespeople” for a community of enlightened citizens, primaries among Left-wing candidates, counting non-voters, elimination of old politicians and their replacement by younger ones more in phase with the new global society, a new constitution, etc.

These solutions are essentially illusory, naïve, or in some cases cunning, and they conceal a far less enticing fact :  the present representative democracy is impossible to reform.

Whatever candidate is selected, from any of the “historic” parties, we can be sure that if she is elected she will do the opposite of what she promised. As for the others, the small parties and miscellaneous candidates, the new, attractive “modern-looking” miracle solutions, all they can do is comfort a falsely democratic system by partaking of a comedy and an imposture. It is not by having open primaries, for example, as the Socialist Party considers doing, that they will make the profoundly bonapartist presidential institution truly democratic. In France, there is no real counter-power to the president’s power, especially since a constitutional reform reduced the term from seven to five years, thus practically eliminating the risk of the president having to “cohabit” with an opposition government.

But today, the non-democratic – in fact, anti-democratic – nature of the power system in the developed countries is the outcome of far deeper causes than any vitiated institutional schemes. Actually, the functioning of representative democracy is radically perverted : the president, and more generally the elected officers in the national government, act less than ever as representatives mandated by their electors; they are the agents of capitalism (big business, banks, and their bureaucratic extensions), as may be seen by the so-called “reforms” promulgated by one government after the other. For one thing, the very principle of representative democracy – that is, of representation – is definitely an alienation of the “sovereign will of the people”; its role of cog in the machine, a transmission belt for the orders of capitalism, is of its very essence. But representative democracy was born of a compromise, written in the blood of the 19th-century revolutions, between the dictates of capitalism and the deep-seated aspirations of the working classes to control their life and their collective destiny. The possessors and managers of capital maintained control of the relations of production and exchange, and kept most of the wealth, while the proletarians-per-citizens won some rights restricting how arbitrary capitalism could be, along with a portion (which they had to defend constantly) of the wealth they themselves had produced, the responsibility for maintaining civil and social peace, conscription (what the French call the tribute of blood), and a largely formal political “sovereignty”… Today, capitalism seems to find those institutions cumbersome, and deems the “sovereignty of the people” parasitic, even when kept in tight rein by the system of representative “democracy”…

The Greek crisis made the end of that compromise self-evident, and theatrically so. The characters played their roles openly: the managers of capitalism their fathomless scorn for “popular sovereignty” and the representatives of the latter their inconsistency, since they ended up acting as if they were intimately persuaded that their democratic legitimacy was insignificant…

We’ve had enough of talk about how capitalism and liberal democracy – universal suffrage plus “human rights” – are genetically inseparable. The counter-examples abound, starting with China. But we need not go so far away : when France, the Netherlands and Ireland voted “the wrong way” [on the European treaty] their votes weren’t respected. And when “security” is involved, police power is reinforced and our liberties suffer.

We have the impression that this loss of consistency of our so-called democratic institutions rubs off on the individuals who people them, producing intellectual and ethical inconsistency. The level of debates between the potential Republican candidates for the presidency of the most powerful country in the world makes you shudder…

In France the situation isn’t quite that bad, but still, what mediocrity ! With such enormous problems and impending crises, we hear empty rhetoric, cunning stupidity. So what’s the use of “primaries” if they are to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea, between one insignificant scheming politician and another, man or woman.

The present dead end gives us a good opportunity to call the whole existing political – or anti-political – system into question. What we need isn’t to launch “primaries”, or some other ritual rain-dance, but a campaign to boycott the presidential election so as to delegitimize the present structure of power. But if we want to make popular sovereignty meaningful again, then to boycott can’t simply mean not voting, or turning in a blank ballot, it has to produce positive democratic action, such as groups of boycotters getting together to conduct an active “campaign”, but also to talk – not about who to choose to be in power instead of us, but about the kinds of political and social change that would give every one of us the wherewithal for a decent life and a grasp on our collective future.



The ecological problem is a social problem.(1) It is a problem caused by domination : that is clearer than ever now. And it is also clearer than ever that the problem of democracy is raised in crucial, vital terms. Only a society composed of individuals with equal rights and true social equality, and therefore equally responsible, can cope with the ecological crisis, which is both planetary and infinitely diverse in its manifestations – as diverse as human habitats are. That may not be the solution, but in any case it is the requisite for looking for and ultimately finding and implementing the infinite number of solutions required by an infinitely varied ecological crisis.

Neither the so-called democratic governments nor the authoritarian ones have ever attempted to contain the ecological crisis to an extent where it might be countered by enlightened “gardening” attitudes and practices. Capitalist domination of people as well as of nature, with its totalitarian dictates, has prevailed, and continues to prevail everywhere.

The outcome is that, today, all of humankind is faced with an ecological crisis that is both all-encompassing, virtually affecting all aspects of living beings, and global, leaving no part of the world unaffected. It would be ridiculously euphemistic to say that what is at stake is our “environment”. Are we still talking about the “environment” when the fertility of land all over the planet is threatened ? When the air we breathe, the water we drink, much of our food, is poisoned ? And so on. It is no longer the “environment” that is affected, it is us, ourselves. It is no longer a question of being “reasonable” and respectful of “nature”. It is ourselves, the quality of our lives, and even our survival that is at stake. It is our responsibility, it is up to us to take our fate into our own hands.

The solutions presently on the table range from the pathetic to the despicable. The ayatollahs of the market economy are pathetic when they dare to claim that the market is going to solve the problem of global warming. Businesses will invent new technological solutions that will allegedly save us – but will only save their profits – with the usual indifference to the unexpected side effects, ensuring us further catastrophes.

The promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, solemnly proclaimed at the international High Masses such as the Paris conference, are interred or violated as soon as the rumble of PR fades.

Another response that combines the pathetic and the despicable is represented by the people who, viewing themselves as embodying the conscience of humankind, call for a sort of selfless dictatorship enlightened by science. One wonders on what “giant’s shoulders” those heroes would have to climb to impose that “selflessness” on the capitalist forces that rule the world. Not to mention what life would be like for us ordinary people, the dominated underlings, obliged to do what is ecologically virtuous. And therefore irresponsible… which would make the very rationale of the whole enterprise a misconception, illusory.

Because although the ecological crisis can be summarized using global big data, it affects people locally, and in specific ways. That doesn’t mean that the crisis can be solved by innumerable local mending jobs. No, massive decisions affecting the whole planet are unavoidable, such as giving up disastrous sources of energy – coal, oil, etc. , or nuclear power. But those decisions will only be made and effectively applied if human communities create the basis for universal, equal responsibility of all of their members, who are the only ones who are capable of shouldering this massive, many-sided emergency and remedying it. Representative democracy is radically incompatible with that requirement.

Conversely, we now see the outlines of what a direct, egalitarian democratic approach could be, in local struggles against some ecological threats described by Naomi Klein in This changes everything, or in France, in the fight against the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project. In these fights, where local people take things into their own hands, the outcome is widespread, concrete understanding of the situation. Since participation is voluntary, it implies a degree of equality in decision-making as well as in the practical aspects, and a sense of shared responsibility. And last, action – direct action – is generally closely tailored to, and even an organic part, of the goal pursued.

It is in struggles of this sort, the present ones and those that will necessarily crop up in the future, that the demand for true, egalitarian democracy can spread most effectively and concretely. And merge with the pressing demand that we all have direct control of all of social life…


1. As Murray Bookchin, theoretician and militant, constantly asserted and proved throughout his life.



Yesterday thousands of high school students all across the country went on strike and walked out of school to express their indignation and anguish of the election of a president they characterized as a « racist »,  « fascist » bully. Meanwhile, for a week tens of thousands of Americans have been pouring into the streets every day in dozens of cities under the slogan « Not our president ! » (50,000 in New York on Saturday).

The crowds here are mostly young (with a good sprinkling of old radicals like me) and in majority female. From the first night, we had the feeling that these were not one-off protests, but the beginning of something. By the next day we were chanting things like « We will not let hatred win/This is where the work begins », « ¡Trump escucha/Estamos a la lucha ! » (Listen, Trump/We’re out here fighting !) and « Don’t Mourn, Organize ! » the famous last words of the Wobbly organizer Joe Hill, shot in Utah in1915).

The same defiance was expressed on the very morning after the election by the editorialist of the venerable liberal weekly, The Nation, under the heading « Welcome to the struggle ! » [1]

History will judge this country—our leaders, our media-entertainment complex, ourselves, and our fellow citizens—harshly for electing Donald Trump. But if we withdraw into our private grief and abandon those who, this morning, feel most threatened by the result—Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ Americans, women, inner-city youth—history will never forgive us. Instead, we have to stand up, and fight back. And to realize that we are not without resources, and advantages, and potential leaders, in that fight…It is time to summon everyday massive nonviolent civil disobedience on a scale not seen in this country for decades.

The demonstrators are perfectly justified in shouting « Trump is not our president. » The ballots have not all been counted yet, but it is clear that Hillary Clinton received at least two million more popular votes than Donald Trump, who is « president-elect » to day only by the grace of the reactionary Electoral College, created by the 18th century Federalists to keep « the mob » from taking over by direct voting. In 2000, when Bush II was « elected » by a similar cheat, it was treated as a big scandal. Today, it has been normalized in the media, who don’t interview the four million voters who have already signed a petition demanding that the popular vote be considered definitive.

In any case, the real « winner » of the election was well-justified popular disgust with both candidates. Half the voters abstained, and the minority parties totaled 5%.

Now in their second week, the « Not our president ! » demonstrations were at first largely ignored by the mainstream media, which picked up on Trump’s tweet complaining about  « Professional militants incited by the media. Very unfair ! » Similarly, there was radio silence around the hundreds of incidents of racist and homophobic violence, verbal and physical, coming from the « white power » wing of Trump’s supporters (whom Trump still refuses to disavow). Nor did we hear much from the teachers around the country, who have to contend with terrified children who wonder when they or their parents are going to be deported.

On the contrary, the elites of both of the political parties responsible for this anti-democratic disaster immediately closed ranks. Obama invited Trump to the White House to assure him that « We are now going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed, for if you succeed the country will succeed as well. »  Thanks to Obama, and with both houses and soon the Supreme Court packed with right-wing Republicans, Trump will have no trouble succeeding… Succeeding in criminalizing immigrants, persecuting Muslims, gutting the Affordable Care Act, pulling the U.S. out of international climate agreements, lowering taxes even more for billionaires, trashing the environment, increasing security and surveillance on every level, encouraging police violence against minorities and building more private prisons.

And the Democrats ? The DNC, responsible for the Trump catastrophe, is closing its neo-liberal ranks to keep the Bernie populists out of the leadership. Meanwhile,  Obama is sending clear signals that he will not use the two remaining months of his mandate to follow through on his commitments to lower emissions, lock in progressive treaties, protect immigrants, promote social and racial justice, etc. On the contrary, he is committing himself to prepare a « seamless transition » for Trump, just as he did in 2008 in favor of Bush II, by appointing Bush’s Defense and Treasury secretaries to his cabinet and maintaining his domestic and foreign policies.

Indeed, Obama, who really did have an electoral mandate, has kept none of his promises. Our Democratic Teflon president saved Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, deported two million immigrants (Trump himself is threatening to deport « only » three million), sabotaged the international climate talks, encouraged fracking and huge gas-guzzling cars, supported right-wing coups (Honduras), escalated Bush’s mid-east wars, and initiated new ones (Libya, Yemen[2]) – all of this with almost no protest on the part of labor, the environmental movement, the peace movement, and even the racial justice movement (which focused on local issues).

If there is one positive result of the Trump disaster it is this : his election as at last unchained the popular opposition movements, which after a week of spontaneous protests seems to be getting organized for the long haul. We sure will need it. Stay tuned.

Richard Greeman

New York, N.Y., Nov. 15, 2006