The politics of resentment II

The discourse on democratic sovereignty has been rendered unintelligible by a series of false ideologies in the name of which the dereliction of political agency continues to mourn its own downfall. This is particularly the case with the left: even as it rejects the war ideology according to which there is only democracy or tyranny (friend or enemy, us against them), it fails to understand that rather than being the degraded form of monarchy, tyranny is properly the obverse of democracy—tyranny is a democracy that, as Nietzsche said, has lost its will (this too is the lesson of the only passage in Tocqueville that anyone bothers to read).

Liberalism has seemed to function by way of a non-sublatable contradiction: immanent to the operation of politics is a critique of that politics. But this structure maintains itself only objectively, which is to say that what fails to fall under criticism is nothing other than the fact that liberalism is predicated on objective criticism. But the limit of such criticism is its own failure; in other words, what cannot in principle fall under objective criticism is the failure of criticism. This failure manifests, however, as an ideology that masquerades as discourse when, in actuality, we witness the failure of discourse. The anti-dialectical character of liberalism makes it profoundly insensitive to the fact that when democracy fails the answer cannot be “more democracy”. When we insist on playing by the rules, we cannot at the same time object to them as we run to the umpire to cry foul.

The reaction from the left, in the general spirit of the court’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205), has been as incessantly exaggerated and “ominous” as the very language disparaged by the dissenting opinion. The decision spells the “end of democracy” by virtue of “silencing the average American citizen”. Quite apart from whether this might not be a blessing in disguise* or whether our fears have either already or will come to pass, it is not enough for those of us on the left to remain content with broad ideological protestations in the name of the phantasmagoric “average citizen” that, at best, serves as a sign for the real political subject.

*One is hard pressed to justify arguing for the notion that the flight attendant who forced an emergency landing of a plane because she thought a Jewish teenager’s prayer was a terrorist attack is competent to have a share in self-governance.

The decision turned on the question of free speech. Having rejected certain narrower grounds for the specific case of Citizens United, the court found that what was at stake was a constitutional question concerning the restriction of political speech. In essence, the majority opinion upheld two broad precedents: that the government 1) may not impose prior restraint on speech and 2) may not make a priori distinctions among speakers to serve its own interests (whatever they may be, whether we might agree with these interests or not) in the electoral process. On page twenty-four of the majority decision, they assert that “the Government may not … deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration” and that the very notion of speech presupposes that it is the voters who have the final say insofar as it is they who are addressed (see page forty-four). In other words, because what is at stake are limits to independent expenditures as opposed to direct contributions, the court declined to assert the government’s role in ruling the electoral field on the basis of the fact that the function of the latter is to constitute the former. The “undue influence” supposedly wielded by corporations is influence over the electorate.

Of course, the dissenting opinion noted that there are other forms of corruption besides quid pro quo arrangements, but as the majority opinion notes, “that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are [ipso facto] corrupt”. Aside from corruption, the argument from antidistortion relies on the dual thesis that 1) corporations exert disproportionate influence over natural persons and, therefore, 2) the government has an interest in leveling the field. Regarding (1), the majority opinion holds that this situation is non-unique to corporations and, if upheld, the government would be authorized to ban or regulate speech on grounds of association. This leads, of course, to consequences desirable by neither side: included in this prohibition are the media, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so on (see pages twenty and twenty-one of the majority opinion). Neither, the majority continues, does the First Amendment depend on the speaker’s (financial) ability (or lack thereof) to speak.

In response, the dissent argues that corporations are categorically distinct from natural persons (for example, corporations do not vote) and that corporations speak by proxy (page seventy-seven of the dissenting opinion). Even if this distinction holds, we still need to face (2) above.

Which, the majority opinion asks, is the greater evil: the effect of corporate expenditures on the electoral process or the intrusion of the government on free speech? Both sides essentially concede that the question at hand involves the ability of the government to place restrictions on speech (keeping in mind that more is at stake than simply capping the dollar amount on independent expenditures and that regulatory injunctions are functionally a chilling of speech), which it may do only in specific cases of government interest. We return, then, to the question of whether the government can take an interest in the electoral process.

The majority opinion opted for the former option: “courts, too, are bound by the First Amendment” (page nine of the majority opinion) and must refrain from deciding over which means of communication are to be preferred over others and that the rapid changes in technology “counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers” (for example, it is now well-known that the Obama campaign’s mobilization of online resources (e.g., social networking) was important for its victory, and that this is not only a medium that falls outside the monopoly of corporate power but also completely under the same First Amendment protections to which the majority opinion appeals). In other words, it is precisely in the name of constitutional democracy that the government must decline interest in the electoral process, even if its intervention would be in the service of that process.

If, then, it is in the name of constitutional democracy that non-corporations should protest against the power of corporations, it cannot be under the name of constitutional democracy. The left is then faced with two options: the political option is to develop new strategies; the metapolitical option is to re-consider what we think of as a political subject and to cease believing that the political subject is either equivalent or reducible to the natural person. Just as the majority opinion argues that all speakers are economically determined, so too even the natural person is a political subject by virtue of associations and mediations—the objection to corporations is simply non-unique.


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