(By Stephen Gowans)
Not too many years ago, when protesters were running riot through the streets, disrupting meetings of the WTO, G7, and other international organizations, the Canadian newspaper The National Post served up a flattering and generous portrait of young people who had eschewed the streets as a terrain for political struggle and turned instead to what the newspaper considered the responsible and laudatory path of seeking nomination to run as candidates for the mildly social democratic (but in the newspaper’s view, rabidly leftwing) New Democratic Party. This was a curious turn of events, for the National Post, a newspaper founded by the notoriously rightwing, white-collar criminal, Lord Conrad Black, was as likely in normal times to heap praise on anyone associated with the NDP as George Bush was to sing the praises of Kim Il Sung. But these were not normal times. In retrospect it’s easy to see that the protests, demonstrations, and strikes of the time, would fizzle and die, as the Occupy movement would also fizzle and die years later. Lacking a central organizing idea and concrete vision of where they wanted to go, they were too hobbled by anarchist nonsense to achieve much more than to sell a few more copies of Z Magazine and to create a decent phrase about the 1% making off with all the wealth at the expense of the 99%. But it was clear that the editors of the National Post were worried enough to recommend a path other than the streets to those who burned with the desire for political change. That they should recommend electoral politics was predictable. Young people who plowed their energies into the NDP would soon get bogged down in the harmless, ineffectual, routines of political campaigns, and be kept safely off the streets.
The wealthy are keen on electoral politics—when they go their way, as they often do. Elections in capitalist society can be dominated by money, as can the larger political process. Banks, corporations and major investors lobby politicians, fund political campaigns, bribe legislators with the promise of lucrative post-political jobs, place their representatives in key positions in the state, and shape the ideological environment through their control of the media, creation of think-tanks, hiring of PR firms, and funding of university chairs. Those without wealth can hardly compete, except, in principle, by pooling their resources and hoping to tilt the balance the other way against a formidable foe that controls infinitely more resources. The absence of organization and class consciousness, however, routinely assures this doesn’t happen. Moreover, the electoral arena channels dissent into predictable, controllable paths, keeping it off the streets, where it might become unpredictable and therefore dangerous. Additionally, the sway that corporate, banking and investor groups exercise behind the scenes is masked by the egalitarian spectacle of elections. One person, one vote. What could be more equal?
I was reminded of this after reading the Russell Brand-edited issue of The New Statesman , not because it was in any particular way an endorsement of capitalist democracy, but because, like the National Post, it defined legitimate political change within parameters favorable to the established order. Of course, Brand wasn’t advocating electoral politics as the National Post was. On the contrary, he spoke out against voting in an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, and called for a revolution. But Brand’s New Statesman went further than the National Post. Where the National Post said that those who fight for political change within the established system are admirable, while those who step outside it are not, Brand, as editor, tackled the larger idea of revolution (the only way, he said, he could get interested in politics. ) Mind you, a mass circulation magazine was not about to become a platform to rally the masses to armed insurrection to overthrow the established order. “The revolution,” observed Gil Scott-Heron, “will not be televised.” Nor will it be found in the pages of the New Statesman. Predictably, the outcome of Brand’s editing exercise was the redefining of the entire idea of revolution, or, I should say, the destroying of it altogether, turning it into something vague and difficult to put your finger on, except to say it was good, and true, and safe to bring home to mother. But not at all like what Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il sung were implicated in. According to the luminaries Brand assembled to hold forth on what revolution means, revolution isn’t the transfer of productive property from one group to another –from, say, private owners to workers, or colonial settlers to those they dispossessed, or even owners who reside outside a country to the people within. Instead, it means many things, but not what you thought it did.  Continue reading