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  • Alexis Tsipras, opposition leader and head of the leftist Syriza party which is leading in the polls in the January elections.

    Alexis Tsipras, opposition leader and head of the leftist Syriza party which is leading in the polls in the January elections. | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 January 2015
For those who universally doubt elections, could any evidence reverse that opinion?

Many of the most militant advocates of social change reject elections as worthless diversions from more important pursuits. They say all candidate's promises are lies and, even if they were honestly intended, the rigors of office and narrowness of electoral focus guarantee they would fade. Vesting even limited mental energy in electoral hopes risks a slippery slope toward vesting all hope in officials in turn suffocating movement prospects.

These are valid issues. Electoral gains often are imaginary. Hopes for candidates often do reduce support for activity that could propel positive policy. On the other side, however, sometimes a particular candidate – due to the constituency that has sway over him or her, or even due to the candidate's own inclinations – would be significantly better in office than his or her opponent.

But what about the larger picture? Can we imagine elections being strategically paramount?

Many endeavors in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc. are largely electoral. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are highly progressive in their origins, membership, and leadership. Each could soon be running for and winning electoral victory at the highest state level.

Will such an outlay of effort by Greeks and Spaniards be more socially valuable than devoting the same energies to non electoral activism (supposing those energies could be aroused for the other activities)?

For those who universally doubt elections, could any evidence reverse that opinion?

Not long ago I published an article with 17 questions for a left candidate. I had in mind Alexis Tsipras in Greece, but one could put similar questions to Pablo Iglesias in Spain, or Katya Kipping in Germany, or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, or Evo Morales in Bolivia - and even, I guess, to Bernie Sanders in the U.S.

Would any answers cause a critic to think, okay, this is an electoral campaign I will aggressively support precisely because I desire fundamental change?

Here is a possible public interview with fantasized answers where the interviewee is presumed to be a candidate for highest office with a very real prospect of winning. Would reading this for real make you a hard-working supporter?

1. Do parties like yours, whatever choices they may make, however sincere and committed they may be, due to struggling for influence inside existing states and electoral systems, make gains but also simultaneously weaken mass popular movements? Do they inevitably preserve existing relations rather than generate new societies?

If a party has its attention only on taking office, I agree that it is highly likely that it will succumb to system-preserving pressures. If such a party wins compromise in the name of comfortably navigating existing relations will likely predominate. The point is, institutions are powerful, as are old mindsets, and if we prioritize only elections, views will mellow and devolve toward the familiar.

Even so, and albeit risky, I still think winning elections and developing political organization are essential for new ideas and achievements. Storming the Palace breaks palace windows, yes, but not palace backbone. When the military responds, if backbone breaks, it will more likely be that of civility and reason. The solution is not no parties. It is really good ones where the aim of a good party is to have the population, and particularly those who are weak and disenfranchised, develop and manifest its will. A worthy party facilitates public voice emerging. It assists its implementation.

So I agree that a party whose agenda is to recruit from popular uprisings and movements and channel their energies to party dictates or even just to polling needs will in the end bolster existing relations. But I also think a party that aids popular movements while listening to them, learning from them, and responding positively to their demands, can win new relations.

If my party and I fail in listening and aiding, then our winning elections becomes a way station to dissolution. We won't know what to seek. We won't have the support to implement change. However, if we succeed in listening, learning, and amassing support for change, then winning elections and access to resources, outreach, and policy options becomes a way station to the population actually making history.

2. What are your immediate priorities for dealing with the on-going crises in your country? How does your immediate approach foreshadow fundamental change?

We suffer numerous urgent crises and multiple areas of chronic social failure. Short and middle term, we want to dramatically raise the minimum wage, enact far better universal health care, withdraw support from militarism, enrich schooling and housing in poor communities, exact massive tax reform, and positively address issues of immigration, sexism, and other social problems. As one example, we demand 40 hours pay for 30 hours work, but also that this applies only to households currently earning less than $150,000 a year. For households earning more that that, we demand 30 hours work, yes, but with pay reduced in accord. More, the plan requires massive job training as well.

The point is, we seek not only the immediate aims, but in each case on going gains after that. We see each component of our efforts as beneficial for its immediate impact, yes, of course, but also because we will fight for and enact them in ways that build desire and means for winning still more later.

For us, a campaign needs to emerge from listening to people's concerns, needs, and desires. It should not only advance those, but ensure that popular desires become steadily clearer, and that means to implement the desires become steadily stronger.

My party and I are far from perfect at all this. We are learning. But this is the aim.

3. Who opposes your polices? Who is more or less neutral? Who supports them? Why?

Current society is a giant cauldron of struggle. Not everyone even knows they are in a battle, but everyone is because current institutions guarantee that people contend for benefits. You get more, I get less. I get more, you get less. And the "you" and the "I" who contend in this manner are most often those who own society and rule it, and then the relatively comfortable and empowered, and finally the horribly disenfranchised and often threadbare. However, these are not the only fault lines where typically one side wins and another loses. Sometimes it is directly personal such as in individual market exchanges. Sometimes it is a matter of gender, sexuality, or cultural communities, that has one group disadvantaged relative to another. Sometimes it is just pushy authoritarian or corrupt officials hurting those below.

So, it may sound abstract, but the real answer is, I think, that those who identify with the empowered and wealthy constituencies in any part of life tend to see our party as a threat and even an enemy. Those who instead respect and support people who are disempowered and poor, and who want to see power and income and other hurtful differentials reduced and even eliminated so that all people benefit from the gains others experience rather than so many people suffering so that a few others benefit, see the party as an ally.

As to why specifically some people oppose and some support our programs, sometimes it is straight forward greed from above versus hunger for better circumstances or conditions from below. The "haves" want to retain what they have. The "have nots" want more.

Other times, however, those on top are mostly defending not their bank balances, or mansions, I think, but their identities. They spent a lifetime with a certain mindset and behaviors and they resist entertaining that all that has been wrong. On the other side, while desires from below are sometimes only material, I think more often they also or even mainly seek dignity and respect. My party is aware of the material logic, but also prioritizes new consciousness and habits.

4. What is your long term goal for the economy? Broadly speaking, what changes in property, means of allocation, and the organization of workplaces including the division of labor and workplace decision making do you favor for the future?

This question is hard for me, and I hope for all party members, for a reason that might not be self evident. I am a person, like you and all others. So, I have my own opinions. On the other hand, I belong to a political party that itself has collective responsibilities.

The second party related aspect returns us to your first question. My party's paramount organizational goal must be to help develop a voice for the population, and to help them implement it. So my economic goal, as Prime Minister, say, should we win that office, would be to assist the public to understand economy and to have confidence in its economic desires, and to then help it win what it desires.

But I need to realize that there is no reason to think the overall goals of the public will automatically correspond precisely to my own overall goals. However, in office I have to, and I should, abide the former.

That said, I don't think my role is to be passive. I should also express my own views and I should hope that my views gain major support.

So, I personally don't believe private individuals should own the tools and resources of production. Owning a shirt, vehicle, or household computer, is one thing – and is fine, of course. But owning a factory or resources is another thing, and is not fine. An economy ought to benefit the whole population, not private owners. It should be overseen and directed by the whole population not private owners or any other narrow group.

Similarly I think how we determine who gets what and who does what dramatically affects the decisions we will come up with and whether people will have appropriate influence. To have some central authorities decide allocation has some benefits, but they come at the expense of building authoritarianism as well as inequity into daily life. I reject that. But a market economy retains horrible inequity and only replaces command with competition which itself perverts people's motivations, distorts valuations, annihilates solidarity, sacrifices ecology, etc. So I reject that too. I think allocation should be accomplished by popular, participatory, collective negotiation of what is produced, who does it, and who receives it, in light of people being able to assess full personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits of contending options.

Similarly, I want to eliminate workplace structures that impose conditions of domination and subordination so I reject a division of labor that empowers a few and relegates many to merely obeying. My inclinations is to instead work out ways to apportion tasks and training so that all people can participate in deciding the events of their lives. I guess the bottom line is that people should be empowered to affect decisions in proportion as they will be affected by them, which some call collective self management.

5. Political parties typically reflect the interests and aspirations of particular subgroups. Regarding the economy whose interests should you champion? 1. owners/capitalists; 2. managers, professionals; or 3. largely dis-empowered workers of little or no influence and low income?

Since I want to get rid of hierarchies of wealth and power I don't want to preserve the dominance of owners or even of managers and professionals. So it isn't just that I want to change the circumstances of workers who are now largely disenfranchised at the bottom. Instead I want to eliminate all three classes as they now exist. I want all participants in the economy to receive a fair share of output, take up a fair share of responsibilities, and be in position, as well, to have a fair say in collective self management. I want an end to class division and class rule. And I hope that in time the public will want this, too.

6. Suppose we turn to government. If you win national office, what changes in governance would you seek, and why?

Again, I would seek to increase participation, to increase the influence of those currently lacking a say and, concomitantly, to reduce the influence of those who have too much say.

I think the internationally emerging notion of neighborhood, city, and regional assemblies, federated sensibly to address more encompassing concerns, makes sense. Ironically, I think my duty as Prime Minister would be to use the outreach and power afforded me by the office to change things toward officials having less say and the population having more say.

7. How do you see your movement and party avoiding becoming so enmeshed in the implications of electoral and bureaucratic tasks for party members’ consciousness and activities, as to become agents of preservation rather than agents of change?

In a single sentence, we should not take critics as enemies but should see them as sources of insight to learn from and act on.

There is a huge danger that when you win office and are suddenly responsible for all kinds of services that impact people greatly, you will lose track of longer term priorities. The responsibility to not fail today requires that you operate via old structures. Working in that context, however, can mean never challenging it and even beginning to feel proprietary about it, so you start to defend existing relations.

My feeling is the party should pour major energy into extra-governmental activism and prioritize elevating the voice of activists. Instead of a minister of housing or of health being a person sitting in a palace office, like a potentate, what if ministers lived and worked among the people and were subject to their pressures? That would be a valuable step.

Extending that notion, what if there were regular popular binding referenda on policies? And even beyond that, and this would foreshadow a new political system, what if there were assemblies and officials had to report to them, and, as the assembles become informed and confident, even get their permission before taking actions? These would all be steps forward.

None of this, and more, on the road to full participatory democracy for politics, would be easy. Old habits are strong. Old pressures of institutions that cannot be overcome in a day, are persistent and preservationist. We all carry baggage. But, with enough popular energy and pressure, I think we can succeed.

8. Finally, how do you see your party avoiding becoming so concerned with its own persistence as to become defensive, closed to innovation, mechanical, dismissive of criticism, or even repressive?

Same question, I think, as the one above. Maybe this is the short answer. Favor change, not stasis. Hold to that including once in office. Distribute stature and responsibilities respecting people uncovering problems, not hiding them. Listen to and even finance dissent. Rather than sycophants in government positions, welcome anti-elitist critics who seek steadily more popular participation. If at every step in every direction success is understood to be transformation and not preservation, the behaviors you describe will garner no reward but only disdain.

Which Way Now

Of course such an interview as this could and should be much longer, more specific about the country in question, etc. Still, would you, like me, respond to answers that were even just broadly like those above, by offering support? I hope so.

Okay, more problematic, now assume the answers fell well short of what you would be convinced by, but also that the political party involved was the best possibility, and – most crucially – that there was at least plausible reason to think it might evolve toward the preferred answers on encountering systemic resistance to lesser efforts while being pushed by left constituencies to fight back. In that case, would you lend critical support, and try to propel that trajectory? Again, I hope so.

Syriza, Podemos, and others as well, deserve international support as they proceed toward their national elections.

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