The Lesser of Two Evils By William Bowles

21 April  2005

It’s a long time since I voted in a British general election, over thirty years in fact. I think the last time I voted, I voted Labour, (against my better judgement) in what amounted to a ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to using our hard-won universal franchise. I won’t make that mistake ever again.

Much play has been made of ‘tactical voting’, especially by the ‘left’ pundits, the argument being as ever, that we have to keep the Tories out. But the ‘good old days’ of a ‘real’ Labour government are long gone (were they ever there in the first place?). In any case, the chances of a Tory victory are almost as slim as a real socialist one, but even if it wasn’t, I still wouldn’t vote Labour and short of some kind of left ‘coup’ in the Labour Party I never, ever will.

So what’s going on with the ‘democratic’ process? Fewer and fewer are voting (2001 was the lowest turnout since the early 20th century). Partly of course it’s to do with the fact that the electorate see no real choices open to them. Second, having been lulled into a life of mindless consumerism and up to their ears in debt, what good is the vote, it don’t pay the bills? Third, and perhaps most important, they simply don’t trust the political process, or bluntly, those who rule. In a word, capitalist ‘democracy’ is unravelling.

But then ‘democracy’ Western-style, is largely an illusion anyway. That we have a ‘change’ of government every few years doesn’t alter the underlying status quo of a state ruled by, well a ruling class. That they have been forced historically to share power to some extent is revealed by the ‘progress’ of Labour governments since 1945, that have moved further to the right with every election until we reached the point in 1997 when all pretence at being even remotely socialist was finally dumped.

The real question for the Left to ask is whether the Labour governments of the past fifty-odd years were ever worth supporting in the first place? And if not, what has the ‘left’ been doing these past decades in supporting (albeit reluctantly) successive Labour governments? Consider that the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach is essentially what the ‘left’ has been doing since the end of WWII, so why has it now become such an issue? This is no idle question as it goes to the very heart of the nature of how best to get rid of capitalism.

The question is answered by the meaning of the slogan itself, the ‘lesser of two evils’, for it recognises that at best, a ‘left’ government under capitalism has already sold its soul to capital and all we on the left have left, are the slogans. Some will argue that a Labour government is preferable to an avowedly rightwing government such as that of Thatcher but this just raises the question of the real role of social democracy.

There are several issues wrapped up in this question, not the least of which is the part played by Labour in bringing about a Thatcherite victory for it’s a fact that every Labour government since WWII has effectively ‘opened the door’ for a shift to the right, for under the guise of ‘socialism’, successive Labour governments have been able to enact policies that would have been difficult for the Tories to pull off. But once the door was opened by Labour, the Tories were able to charge through. The irony of this process is not lost on me, nor on how it exposes the nature of a so-called democratic state with the Tories being finally outflanked by its alleged opposition.

But there are much bigger issues at stake here into which the vote has to be set, for the Thatcher/Reagan victory reflected fundamental changes in the nature of capitalist accumulation brought about in no small part by the failure of ‘actually existing socialism’ to win the war for the hearts and minds of the people. Second, the ‘loss’ of Vietnam and indeed, the relative success of the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s had to be avenged for they presented a real danger to the rule of global capitalist accumulation.

So whilst we in the West squabbled amongst ourselves over such things as the ‘lesser of two evils’, the capitalists were busy mounting a counter-offensive, untroubled by such things as ‘real democracy’, knowing full well that they could count on their domestic populations if not to support them, then at least not to get in the way of ‘doing business’. And without the active collaboration of the Labour Party, it’s doubtful whether in the UK a policy that reversed what gains had been made since WWII would have been possible.

Surely then, this reality has to be held up as a mirror to the ‘Left’, a position that to this day should surely make us think about the events of the past couple of years, especially the ‘Anybody but Bush’ debate, for although the US and the UK are very different animals, there are parallels between the two situations, especially that of a working class divided along national, gender and ‘racial’ lines.

A little bit of history
In 1945 an allegedly socialist government got elected on a wave of post-war and pro-socialist euphoria. It was clear that the Britain of pre-war days was dead, the question was; what kind of socialist government were we going to get?

In those days the Labour Party was just as anti-communist as the Establishment. There was the Cold War and the Labour Party operated a ban on communists/leftists belonging to or even associating with it, yet the CP, except where it ran its own candidates, urged that comrades voted Labour, period. The argument ran that ‘we’ would be able to exert some pressure on a Labour government or at least the progressive Labour MPs thus pushing the Labour government further to the left. Today, we see the result of such thinking.

However, the upshot of the first post-war Labour government was a ‘social contract’ between labour and capital (brokered by the Labour government), so rather than see a complete socialist transformation of society, the Labour government did a ‘deal’ with capital that preserved the bedrock of the capitalist state whilst acceding to some of the demands of labour over nationalisation of the coal, electricity, telecommunications and transportation industries as well as with education, health and of course housing. And in any case, the capitalism of post-war Britain was in a fine mess, and as is almost always the case, when capitalism ceases to function, the state steps in and tries to save its sorry arse, that is, after all, its primary function.

It should also be remembered that post-war Britain was not only broke, it was up to its ears in debt to the US (and still is), a situation that determined in large measure, what the Labour government could and couldn’t do. But the fact still remained that to a large extent, anti-communism determined the Labour government’s post-war policies.

The Left operated nevertheless as if they were all part of the same ‘family’, a very cozy relationship to say the least, even as they campaigned for a ‘real’ socialist alternative. But in the eventuality, this relationship fundamentally shaped the nature of the ‘left’ in Britain and its male, white, ‘labour aristocracy’ history, a history that reflects the fact that the wealth of Britain was built on the exploitation of its colonial subjects and that fundamental elements of a truly socialist alternative were missing from the socialist ‘programme’.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, ‘Caliban and the Witch’ points directly to the elements that are missing and have been for nigh on five hundred years, which is why I find myself returning to it at every turn. And as the contradictions of capitalism sharpen literally by the day, I get the feeling that I live in a society under siege and living on borrowed (or is it stolen?) time.

In part I think this explains why, in spite of our knowledge of the inner workings of the capitalist economy, we have failed to produce a viable alternative, there’s just too much missing from the ‘programme’. For unless we address the fundamental issues of gender, ‘race’ and our relationship to the rest of the planet, talking about Socialism in a country like Britain (or any developed economy), is to put it bluntly, laughable and not a little pathetic.

Cocooned as we are by our reliance on the wealth stolen from the poor and female of the planet, the reality of life for the majority is forever hidden from us. So what does this tell us about the nature of a truly socialist programme?

It points I think, to the fact that the real struggle for our emancipation first has to address the issue of who we are as a species and our relationship to the planet. Only then will we be able to be honest about addressing all the issues that flow from a species divided over what it is.

For as long as we allow ourselves to view humanity as split between male and female, black and white, in short, ‘them and us’ (where the ‘us’ is just code for white, well off males), solutions that only address at most 10% of the planet’s population are worse than useless. In turn, this explains why the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach is pure self-delusion, a delusion that may make us feel better but ultimately it maintains the status quo.

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