Sorry to be caught blogging again, not to mention riding this hobby horse once more, but I'd like to use up my monthly allotment of diacriticals to recommend this article by Slavoj Žižek at the London Review of Books (via). It's a discussion of the relationship between the Party and the government using a couple of famous Communist examples (he is reviewing a book called The Party, by Allen Lane), dwelling on the carefully held democratic fiction (as he calls it), especially prevalent in China, that the entities are separate, that the central role of the Communists remains the country's biggest open secret. Since you may have problems with the LRB link (it has made my computer implode five or six times now, although I can see the article on my Blackberry), here are some pull-quotes and paraphrases:
"One consequence of the [Chinese Communist] Party’s need to maintain hegemony is its close monitoring and regulation of the way Chinese history is presented, especially that of the last two centuries. [...] When history is used for the purposes of legitimation, it cannot support any substantial self-critique.[...]"
"The government and other state organs, ‘which ostensibly behave much as they do in many countries’, are centre stage: the Ministry of Finance proposes the budget, courts deliver verdicts, universities teach and award degrees, priests lead rituals. So, on the one hand, we have the legal system, the government, the elected national assembly, the judiciary, the rule of law etc. But on the other [...] we have the Party, which is omnipresent but always in the background [...] The Party committees (known as ‘leading small groups’) which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing it, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions."
"The irony is that the Party itself, its complex workings hidden from public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of corruption. The inner circle, comprising top Party and state functionaries as well as chiefs of industry, communicate via an exclusive phone network, the ‘Red Machine’ – possessing one of its unlisted numbers is a clear sign of one’s status. A vice-minister tells McGregor that ‘more than half of the calls he received on his “red machine” were requests for favours from senior Party officials, along the lines of: “Can you give my son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or good friend and so on, a job?”’"
"This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power."
Žižek doesn't go to the next step here, to relate it to western democracies, and I want to be careful myself with those sorts of extrapolations. Obviously the U.S. is not China: we have no formal Party in place to secretly pull strings and direct both the government and economy. Whatever networks inform these things here are more de facto affairs, composed of, I think, the integrated total of individual or corporate acts of opportunism, as mild as padding a bonus or hiring your son-in-law, or as nasty as Dick Cheney's energy task force. The existence of a class on this continent that is both more capable and less encumbered by legal constraints than the rest of the citizenry might similarly appear to be a more free-form and emergent, an outgrowth of our establishment of separate legal classifications for businesses, investments, and property. There has been justification for this—companies do different things than citizens do, and there are advantages to forming groups of similar or competing interests which will naturally behave differently than individuals—and it's inevitable that any social institution will coalesce around its own jargon. But you know, all this was true of Communism too, and of the perceived need for Communism. In the U.S., there are limits to business success without moving into, employing, and acting within that loose network. It's not the same as The Party, but I see each manifestation as something consistent with a general human organizational behavior under the parameters of modern times (which doesn't get less boring the more I write about it). Whether the U.S. version has been based on egalitarian first-principles—which is one of our democratic fictions—or whether it's been designed from the get-go to enable an American-style class distinction is an open question. Personally, I don't think those aims have proved mutually exclusive.
It should probably also be noted that we have a different history of what those democratic fictions belie. Rarely has the United States approached Communist levels of murder and disappearance of political dissenters, and speech here remains relatively free, among other things—I'm happy that writing my conscience is unlikely to get me jailed. But that's not to say that everything is just awesome. [To point out the more obvious cracks in our democratic fiction, we shutter up the underclass at a rate six or seven times that of China, while looking the other way at a finance apparatus whose collective effect has been to claim jus primae noctis on our savings and assets as a condition of managing them, and we also hesitate to acknowledge this loose internal network that would rather avoid paying workers (or paying benefits for workers or other citizens) even while they want them to buy stuff (and let the people at large pick up the tab for punishing the deprivations of the destitute, among other externalities). We're also the most recent major power to cultivate a slave class, and we've rounded up and penned the indiginous people we didn't roll over or outright butcher. To say nothing of 200 years of dubious foreign adventures. No saints, us.] I don't want to sound too radical in this post, but let's admit we have our own brand of governing lies and undiscussed licenses. The tendency to avoid any substantial self-critique is what I am calling out as the similar thing.
I am sick of weaseling that a flawed democracy is better than anything else. The flaws suck. What gets me is that if there are any objective historians several hundred years from now, the social conditions of current empires will look obvious, or at least the will not be argued about too much: overextended military, insufficient domestic economy, costly maintenance of various forms of class segregation, and, probably, a wind-down of readily available fossil fuel energy. But when we're living in it, it's hard to see (I mean, how isn't seven and a half percent of the population in jail what oppression looks like?) and the discussion on those stark and universal terms isn't taken very seriously among people who would be criticized under them. To make a metaphor, we constantly bitch about the weather, and obsess over the mapped fronts and the three-day forecasts, when so many of the problems are really associated with the political climate. We can judge easily across geography too, calling out, as a hilarious example, the corruption of leaders who take money from other people than us. But looking at corruption at home? So much of the anger seems to miss its target, or even when it's pointed the right way, the target is too well-protected for it to matter. We can't easily believe how thoroughly we fail ourselves. We have too much invested in our own mythology here too.
(Title stolen from a William Gibson novel.)