Capitalist ‘Death-Drive,’ California-style

First installment: Votive Offerings

Neil Larsen nalarsen@ucdavis.edu

With the bloody debacle in Iraq driving the Bush regime to levels of imperial ruthlessness and corruption worthy of the emperor Nero, the combined sense of outrage, despair, and unreality evoked by political life in the US seems to have reached its limit. But now California takes us well past even this point by electing Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. The political post-mortems –assuming, that is, we aren’t all already dead or have had our bodies snatched by some cyber-pod electro-genetically hatched in Hollywood or Silicon Valley–continue to toll forth, but this much is known: ‘Arnold’ vanquished his nearest competitor by more than a million votes, and the vote to recall standing governor Gray Davis triumphed by a margin of 10.6%. Voter turnout was high. This means that registered Democrats (a sizeable majority in the state), as well as a traditionally pro-Democratic voting block comprised by women and gays and lesbians, as well as Blacks and Latinos, ‘crossed over’ to vote for Schwarzenegger in huge numbers. Even unionized labor, probably the most organized, traditionally Democratic voting bloc in the state, spurned the instructions of its union bosses and offered up 51% of its votes to Republican gubernatiorial candidates Schwarzenegger and McClintock, who made no secret of their anti-union views.

Last minute revelations about Schwarzenegger’s sexual aggressions and Nazi leanings proved entirely ineffectual and, some have speculated, may even have strengthened his appeal(1). Evidently, Schwarzenegger’s ‘groping’ harvested the libidinal ‘choice’ of more voters than could be recruited on the basis of moral outrage. Or, more likely still, id simply vanquished superego from within the psyche of the typical, individual voting ego as s/he approached the peepshow-like sanctuary of the voting booth. It was either, at this point in the psycho-drama, grope with or be groped by a humorless post-modern Quijote/Sancho Panza mutant–pale and cadaverous Davis joined at the electoral spine to Cruz Bustamante’s fake-bracero pudginess: think of them groping ‘your’ wife or daughter!–or go with the candidate who, naked in his armor, kept the fantasy free of the incumbency of the real.

Voting, after all, is itself a kind of groping–the kind one does in the dark, here the blind and irrational darkness, officially non-existent, that stretches between the subjective exercise of bourgeois right and the objective will of the ‘people,’ embodied in the state. Somewhere deep down, we all sense that once we elect them, our ‘representatives’ obey a will that is neither ours nor theirs, nor even, in the last analysis, the will of those with the money who bought them and presented us with them as ‘choices.’ This is the ‘will,’ abstract and subject-less, of the market; ‘election’ as a form of buying and selling; the ‘will’ of money itself–not just those who have it–of the money-form as the “power which brings together impossibilities and forces contradictions to embrace”(2); the ‘will’ of capital in its self-reproducing drive to turn labor power into ever more capital. Thus aware, even if only dimly, neither the practical indeterminacy of rational self-interest nor the abstract, disembodied moral imperatives of gender equality are a match for the fantasy body, so certain and palpable in its violent and ‘groping’ connection with others, and which we need only vote for in order to will into political reality.

And so what if Schwarzenegger admired Hitler, or invited the Nazi turned UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to his wedding with the Kennedy gene pool? The fascist horrors of more than half a century ago have, at least in the US, become so abstract; have been so repeatedly re-narrativized in ways that make them historically incomprehensible; are already so devalued semantically(3) when equivalent horrors are routinely visited upon countries such as Iraq in the name of democracy and even ‘anti-fascism’ that they too effectively enter mass consciousness as a kind of cultural free radical, able to bond with almost anything within the ether of mass psychology.

As global capital continues to grind itself into a catastrophic and likely terminal crisis, the skill of living, even in a place like California, with almost daily reports of today’s “world civil wars” and serialized, post-Fordist genocides inexorably breaks the ethical reference of the signifiers of absolute evil. Schwarzenegger might just as well have expressed admiration for Darth Vader or Winston Churchill or Wlad the Impaler and the effect on the salto mortale of voting would have been the same. (Stalin, or the prophet Muhammad would have been another story.) The Hitler anecdote only proves that ‘Arnold’ is also a fantasist, a chance for real solidarity and commensurate humanity for voters whose fetishized votes have been so completely drained of political content that only a fantasy election itself can drag most of them to the polls.

The very fact of the recall election itself–only the second that has ever unseated a governor and no doubt the first ever in US history to unseat so powerful an executive–has not been given the formal examination it deserves. Amidst all the talk of how ‘Arnold’ will address the state budget deficit or what his election means to the Bush campaign for 2004, only a few have noted that, in principle, the campaign to recall Schwarzenegger could-and likely will- become official the day he takes office. Anyone who, like the car-alarm millionaire, California congressman and Gray Davis recall bankroller Daryl Issa, has the money to hire enough signature gatherers could stage another fantasy-election before the new term is out. All it required to get on the recall ballot itself was a few thousand dollars and the signatures, more or less, of your extended family or client list. In California, that is, we witness the materialization of the unspeakable paradox that lies at the heart of the idea of representative democracy: the fact that terms of office are not themselves democratic, and that, taken to its logical extremes, only the perpetual, electron-stream-like flow of the popular ‘will’ through the electoral calculus and a ballot on which every voter, every atom of civil society, has the right to appear, can make up for the latent tyranny–the real ‘Terminator’– of actually taking office. This already has provoked the concern of some keepers of the electoral cult, one of whom, an assistant professor of political science at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was heard recently to remind a National Public Radio interviewer that the Madisonian idea of the Founding Fathers would not have approved the California bacchanale and that, not so long ago, the Senate was chosen by the House of Representatives. Imagine the ‘Madisonian’ hue and cry that would have sounded had moderately left-wing Green Party candidate Peter Camejo won on October 7.

But the ‘Madisonians’ and duly elected war-criminals in Washington have nothing to worry about. Permanent ‘direct democracy,’ under the sway of a global capital whose severe crisis drives it to explode the sovereign will of entire nations, not to mention the suburban druthers of California parents of school children, does not promise to re-integrate politics with grass-roots daily life, as some imagine. It merely perfects, insofar as this is possible, the complete subordination of what is left of bourgeois right to the ‘privatization’ of all things ‘public.’ Not the further development, but the crisis of an over-ripe commodity-form, its degenerating capacity to reproduce itself unless it invades everything, including the ostensibly public, non-commercial sphere of elections, produces the California ‘electoral circus.’

The vote-fetish, that is, converges on the master-fetish itself, that of money, the ‘real abstraction’ that must continuously circulate and make more of itself out of labor power for it to remain money. But, unless they are sold outright, votes, as we all know but cannot quite confess, now buy nothing, exchange for no real equivalent quantum of will or power. The exchange only becomes reciprocal on the mass-cultural plane, the plane of narrative and fantasy. In return for our votes, we get to go to the ‘circus’ for free and watch our overlords, at their own expense, add sensual content and real-life action figures to our private, mental fantasies. (Karl Rove and former California governor Pete Wilson–respectively, the orchestrators of the Bush and Schwarzenegger Gesamtkunstwerken–seem to have grasped at least the practical implications of this economy more accurately than their Democratic counterparts.)

If votes continue, on one level, to translate into money–in the form, say, of pork barrel legislation or the brokering of contracts or state-spending initiatives for local business constituencies–the looming financial ‘market correction’ that threatens both to vaporize bank accounts and all other kinds of ‘paper’ as well as to reveal as fact the rapid fictionalization of huge stocks of capital renders even these exchanges increasingly unreal. The fact that the $87 billion that the Bush regime proposes to spend on Iraqi ‘reconstruction’ would, as has been openly remarked upon in the press, nicely take care of a good portion of the state budget deficits in the US, demonstrates this monetary quandary well enough. 87 billion dollars to fight a (real) war on (fictional) ‘terror’ translates–even as the war makes terror a reality–into an 87 billion dollar increase in the money the US already didn’t have, hence into 87 billion reasons more to sell one’s vote for the price of a having a giant Nazi cyborg watch over your sleep. The form of the recall election itself–the staging of the dialectic whereby ‘direct democracy’ becomes real and at the same time the most perfect manifestation of total social alienation and disempowerment(4) – obeys this crisis-logic perfectly.

1) See recent articles by Mike Davis, James Ridgeway, and Susan Faludi, inter alia.

2) Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992) p.379.

3) Remember that Saddam Hussein, according to the Nazi’s more legitimate heirs, was ‘worse than Hitler.’

4) The Davis recall/Schwarzenegger victory makes for an oddly poignant context in which to review Hegel’s famous remarks on “Absolute Freedom and Terror” in The Phenomenology of Spirit. “Universal freedom,” writes the ‘Madisonian’ Hegel (thinking of the Jacobin terror in France) “… can produce neither a positive work nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the fury of destruction.” For Hegel, of course, “universal freedom” could pertain only to a society made up of commodity-subjects, even if he put his finger on the latter form’s latent contradictoriness.