My comments on the paradoxes of US populist conservatism were made just before the US election (LRB, 4 November). The result, it seems to me, poses the basic paradox of democracy itself. In The History of the VKP(b), Stalin (who ghost-wrote the book) describes the outcome of the voting at a party congress in the late 1920s: ‘With a large majority, the delegates unanimously approved the resolution proposed by the Central Committee.’ If the vote was unanimous, where then did the minority disappear? Far from demonstrating some perverse totalitarian twist, this anecdote lays bare the nature of democracy. It is based on a short-circuit between majority and the totality: the majority accounts for everyone and the winner takes all, even if his majority is merely a couple of hundred votes among millions.
‘Democracy’ is not merely the ‘power of, by and for the people’; it is not the salient feature of democracy that the will and interests (the two do not automatically coincide) of the large majority determine state decisions. Democracy – in the way the term is used today – means that, whatever electoral manipulation takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were, despite appearances, effectively ‘democratic’: in spite of obvious electoral manipulation, and of the absurdity of the fact that a couple of hundred votes in Florida decided who would be president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. When, in the weeks of uncertainty after the election, Bill Clinton said, ‘The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said,’ the remark should have been taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don’t know the ‘true’ result – and maybe this is because there was no substantial ‘message’ behind the result. Those old enough to recall the attempts of ‘democratic socialists’ to oppose to the miseries of ‘really-existing socialism’ a vision of authentic socialism will know that such attempts deserve the standard Hegelian response: the failure of reality to live up to its notion bears witness to the inherent weakness of the notion. Why should the same not hold for democracy? Isn’t it all too simple to oppose to ‘really-existing’ liberal capitalo-democracy a more true ‘radical’ democracy?
This is not to say, however, that Bush’s victory was just an accident or a mistake, the result of fraud and manipulation. Hegel wrote apropos of Napoleon that it was only after his second defeat, at Waterloo, that it became clear to him that his defeat was the expression of a deeper historical shift. The same goes for Bush: he had to win twice in order for liberals to perceive that we are entering a new era.
And, in this respect, thinking leftists should be glad that Bush won. It’s better this way because the contours of the confrontations to come will be drawn in a much clearer way. Had Kerry won, it would have been a historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division; he didn’t have a global vision that presented a viable alternative to Bush’s. Besides, Bush’s victory is paradoxically better for the economic prospects of both Europe and Latin America: in order to win the support of the trade unions, Kerry had promised more protectionist measures.
However, the main advantage has to do with international politics. If Kerry had won, liberals would have had to face up to the consequences of the Iraq war, and the Bush camp would have been able to ascribe to them the results of its own catastrophic decisions. In 1979, in her essay ‘Dictators and Double Standards’, Jeanne Kirkpatrick elaborated the distinction between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes which served as the justification for the US policy of collaborating with rightist dictators while attempting to destabilise Communist regimes: authoritarian dictators are pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent to ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big idea. In contrast, totalitarian leaders are selfless ideological fanatics who are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals. Authoritarian rulers react rationally and predictably to material and military threats – they can be dealt with. Totalitarian leaders are much more dangerous and have to be confronted directly. The irony is that this distinction perfectly encapsulates what went wrong with the US occupation of Iraq: Saddam was a corrupt authoritarian dictator guided by brutal pragmatic considerations. The US intervention has generated a much more uncompromising, ‘fundamentalist’ opposition which rejects pragmatic compromises.
Bush’s victory will dispel any illusions there may have been about the solidarity of interests among developed countries; it will also give new impetus to the painful but necessary process of building new alliances such as the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. It is a journalistic cliché to praise ‘postmodern’, dynamic US capitalism at the expense of old Europe’s regulatory illusions. However, Europe is now going much further than the US towards constituting itself as a properly ‘postmodern’ unity in which there is room for everyone, independent of geography or culture, including Cyprus and Turkey.
No reason to despair, then. Even if today the prospects look dark, we should remember one of the great Bushisms: ‘The future will be better tomorrow.’
Colin Kidd, along with the liberal American press, scratches his head wondering why working-class people don’t understand they’re working class and just vote Democrat (LRB, 4 November). The answer is that, on some key issues, the Democratic Party is anti-working class. Affirmative action, an immovable plank in the Democratic platform, is perhaps the most racially divisive policy in America today: by preferring African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, it inadvertently punishes the white working class, as well as less well-off immigrants from other ethnic groups.
Personally, I support affirmative action but it is a more complicated issue than it might appear to non-Americans. The playing field here has never been level, and is built on the backs of succeeding waves of cheap immigrant labour. Descendants and current members of this multi-ethnic working class continue to experience discrimination. To succeed, Democratic leaders and liberal pundits must expand their concept of diversity to include all ethnicities whatever their skin colour.
Saunderstown, Rhode Island
Feeling a bit defensive about living in a blue county in a red state, I have to point out that Elaine Showalter (LRB, 4 November) couldn’t have spent much time in Austin if she somehow avoided bumping into a New York Times, available from a box on all downtown street corners and either sold in or merely left strewn about practically every coffee shop in the city. ‘Big church town sensibility’? Perhaps she mistook for steeples the big red neon peaks of AAA News, a chain selling, in addition to copious varieties of porn, the London Review of Books.
I have much praise for Jacqueline Rose’s essay about suicide bombing, but it perpetuates an unfortunate tendency in the terminology used to describe the bombers (LRB, 4 November). I have no claim to be a scholar of Arabic, or of Islamic theology. I can, however, assert with some confidence that, whether or not individual bombers meet the necessary criteria to be considered a shahid, they should not be described in English by the word ‘martyr’. Martyrdom does not simply mean ‘sacrificing oneself for God’, as Rose uses the term. ‘Martyr’, a Greek word meaning ‘witness’, acquired its present connotations from those saints of the early Christian Church who accepted death at the hands of others as an act of witness to the Christian faith. These deaths were invariably accepted peacefully; to have resisted violently would have denied them the name ‘martyr’.
The martyr’s motivation was faith, and a love of God greater than the fear of death. They died bearing witness, and their deaths were inflicted on them. The suicide bomber, on the other hand, is motivated by anger, or despair, or hatred that is greater than their fear of death; they die that they might kill, and they cause their own death. However justified and righteous their rage, this is clearly not the same thing.
I was sorry to lose Geoffrey Faber from my list of lyric poets (Letters, 18 November). Still, not to worry. I’ve been blue-pencilled by madmen, seriously deranged obsessionists and fiends in human shape before now. When I was writing pulp fiction for a living back in the 1980s, my then agent got me a gig with Jove Books in New York banging out a couple of books for a series about a bunch of kill-crazy mercenaries, aimed at paperback carousels in truckers’ greasy-spoons in the Rust Belt. ‘Lots of sex,’ he said, ‘lots of violence.’ I duly delivered the goods. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the particular editor I was dealing with had moved on and a new one, who clearly considered himself the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins, had taken over, rewriting the book and taking out all the sex, all the violence, and all the cuss-words. Doubtless it was a finer, nobler book, but it wouldn’t have sold beans in Poughkeepsie. The first I knew of all this was when the proofs turned up, followed shortly thereafter by an apoplectic transatlantic phone call from a third editor who had just read the same proofs and was wondering why Jove were paying top dollar for a book that wouldn’t bring a blush to a maiden’s brow. (What he actually said was ‘for a buncha garbage written by Caspar-fuckin’-Milquetoast!’)
George Borrow’s 1873 Dictionary of Romany has: ‘Chavo, s.m. Child, son: pl. chaves. Cheaus is an old French hunting term for the young of a fox.’ The families of Gypsy extraction who live in Thorney Hill use ‘chav’ for a small boy, as in ‘He’s only a chav, Mr Rathbone,’ when I complain that one of the children has taken a bottle of milk off our doorstep. Mind you, they are as likely to use buzzwords as the rest of us.
Thorney Hill, Dorset
As Tom Nairn says, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is a wonderful tune (LRB, 18 November). It was equally wonderful when used for a recruiting song called, I think, ‘The Kentish Fusileer’, which from its words must date from the early 18th century. The chorus goes:
And he sang as he marched through the
streets of bonny Rochester,
‘Who’ll be a sojer for Marlbro’ wi’ me ?
Sojer for Marlbro’! Sojer for Marlbro’!
Who’ll be a sojer for Marlbro’ wi’ me ?’
High Littleton, Somerset