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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Off Topic: On Politics

I don't think I'm going to be able to work in a connection to photography here, this is just a mass of material I've been thinking about for a long time, all brought to a head by a recent Supreme Court decision here in the USA, and the reaction to it. But this essay isn't really about that either, it's about politics considered more broadly. I'm going to write in a tone that suggests everything I say is factual, but you should treat it all cum grano salis and keep in mind that, really, it's all just opinions and speculations.

The USA has two political parties, essentially. My observations and experiences with them, as well as a fair bit of reading, over the years have brought me around to a pretty specific conclusion about political parties in general. They are complex bureaucratic apparatuses which are almost entirely concerned with their own operation.

What I mean is that Democrats spend essentially 100% of their time on Being Party Members, and almost nothing on anything else. I'm sure they make sandwiches and play with their children and so on, but their professional lives are concerned exclusively with serving and operating the machine of the Democratic Party. Ditto, I think, Republicans and Conservatives, Liberals, Labour, and so on. In hindsight, I think this is inevitable. If the effort of "getting on" in the party is ever less than 100% of what a normal human can do, the party will evolve new procedures, subcommittees, forms, and caucuses, to consume the excess energy.

The result of this is that essentially all the "statecraft" (by which I mean, roughly, the cunning shenanigans part of "getting on" in any sort of bureaucratic apparatus) is consumed internally. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the latter seem to save a little for actual governing, which is why they come out ahead disproportionately often in matters of actually operating a nation, despite their slight disadvantage at the polls.

It isn't that the Democrats are lazy, or polite, or stupid. It's that they're busy. They'd love to get up to some procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the government apparatus, but they're too busy running procedural shenanigans to accrue power in the Democratic Party to really get around to it.

Set this theory of bureaucratic apparatus aside for now. I can recommend Systemantics if you're interested in where these things come from, but to my eye this is kind of what Flusser was talking about as well, and certainly Orwell, Huxley, and Conrad spend a lot of effort on this sort of thinking.

The other branch of my thinking is this: we don't, functionally, have much in the way of free will. Even if we stipulate that the universe is not a great clockwork, with all outcomes predetermined, even if we stipulate that which we feel: that we have the capacity for free will, we don't functionally have much free will.

Almost everything that we say, think, believe, or do, is predetermined by our social situation, out context, our lives up to this moment. We believe, mainly, pretty much whatever our friends believe. This is in part because we become friends with like-minded people, and in part because we steal our ideas from our friends. It's a symbiotic, feedback, kinda deal. But that doesn't make it less true.

The AIs that write text are not so very different from us. They're just predicting the next most-likely word based on whatever the situation is. That's pretty much what we do, most of the time. Original thinking, original ideas, original acts, are insanely rare and very difficult. In the light of the recent Supreme Court decision, the social media out-roar, the street protests, the whole routine, is 100% predictable. Almost literally nobody is doing anything beyond acting out their predetermined role in response to an event which we've known in broad strokes was coming for years, and have known in detail was coming for weeks.

We are all of us, almost all the time, just dopey robots enacting our predetermined role as set by the social structures that surround and encapsulate us.

If we ruthlessly mash these two ideas together, what do we get?

Politicians and other party apparatchiks are people too. They are also more or less mindless drones acting out appointed roles, within a bureaucratic apparatus that is almost exclusively concerned with its own internal operations. Unlike, say, a corporation, a political party has essentially no constraints on bureaucratic excess, it is essentially a pure bureaucracy that does nothing except operate and expand itself.

I think it's useful to consider that what appears to be ideology, what appears to be a political posture vis-a-vis actual governing, is in fact at best a secondary set of stuff. A political party needs, as part of its bureaucratic operations, some sort of "policy ideas" but what those ideas are is largely irrelevant. So the party that is notionally more conservative tends to be tough on crime, anti-immigration, and so on these days, but those policy ideas are pretty much just drawn out of a hat and are subject to change. When they change, of course, nobody will remember that it was ever any other way, see Orwell. This is part and parcel of the bureaucratic machine.

It is a mistake to think that Priti Patel hates immigrants. Priti Patel is fully occupied with her role as a party apparatchik, Priti Patel doesn't think about immigrants at all. She has no opinion, and isn't interested. She enacts the bureaucracy's notional goals with respect to immigrants which are (checks notes) "we're against them" because she is a party apparatchik, and a very successful one at that.

While it's certainly possible that Priti Patel hates immigrants, is greedy and mean, and craves power, that is not what drives her policy moves. She is enacting her predetermined role within the bureaucracy, and at the moment that role is to oppose immigration.

A party's platform is essentially the same as the set of beliefs you and your friends share, and for pretty much the same reason. It's an incoherent set of ideas that have emerged from the collective mindset of the social group. It isn't based on anything, there is no rational argument for any of it, and it's remarkably fluid. A party needs a set of things to "be about" because the bureaucracy demands that there be sound bites and white papers come election time, but the party isn't actually about anything except itself.

This is why the Democrats are not going to abolish the filibuster and pack the Supreme Court and pass a law codifying abortion rights. It's because they don't care. Not because they're evil, or stupid, or notably incompetent, but because they're much too busy being Democrats. You can't get into the House of Representatives (the easiest win in US national politics) unless you've already committed yourself fully to being a party apparatchik. The bureaucracy of the party will, generally, prevent any mavericks from winning, so it's all apparatchiks all the way down. They will hew to the party line when speaking in public, but their actual job is being a Democrat (or a Republican) and in the USA that means their actual job is in fact fundraising for their next election.

These bureaucracies, in the USA, run on fundraising. They are, to first order and I think second and third as well, fundraising machines. As an elected official your job is to raise money to pay the consultants and staff which will labor ceaselessly to ensure your already-assured election (but if you don't pay them, the party won't endorse you, and the endorsed candidate will win the safe seat — for the British readers, the US system is essentially all pocket boroughs in a uniquely US style.) The goal of every bureaucracy is, when you peel away the bullshit, to expand itself, and in general that translates seamlessly to enlarging its own budget.

I am all but certain that the mechanics of fundraising are accompanied by myriad similar bureaucratic devices that must be successfully operated in order to maintain position in the system. I don't know what they are, but I do know how bureaucracies work.

For whatever reasons, it does appear that the conservative parties in Western Liberal Democracies seem to be saving up a little bit of their juice to actually effect change in the nations the aspire to rule. Perhaps it's as simple as being in a Western Liberal Democracy. Perhaps being perceived as the underdog constrains their bureaucratic excess slightly, in the same way the profit motive constrains a corporation. They feel it necessary, somehow, to save some energy to actually push forward on whatever random collection of items they're currently using as their "policy objectives." I don't really understand it.

The impotence of what appears to be the ideologically dominant parties, though, is obvious. They're entirely focused on their internal affairs, and simply can't be bothered to govern. That's what we have the government bureaucracy for, after all. (see: "Yes, Minister")

Be all this as it may, or may not, be, media certainly shows up in here somewhere. One of the operations of the party bureaucracies is the production of media, ostensibly to inform and/or shape the unwashed. For the most part, in the USA, the aim is less to inform and more to fundraise.

Photography probably shows up in here somewhere, but I told you from the outset that I was extremely unlikely to draw that line, and I'm not going to even attempt it here.


  1. I'm not American. I read a story once about how Obama spent many hours in a week on the phone fundraising while he was president, not just during the campaign(s). I would have hoped that he had better things to do. I've heard it referred to as an election "industry". I see this as a bad thing.

    1. American politics have been becalmed in a pool of toxic sludge since forever. I bailed after the *re* -election of Reagan, when I realized it wasn't a one-off. Almost everything I feared would happen next has almost come to pass since. Civil war and worse beckon. This isn't a particular failure of Americans, it is the fate of all empires. The fault may be in our [human] genes, an organizing principle of human societies: greed trumps life. As for Obama, he did well to survive the experience.

  2. I've recently been re-watching "The West Wing". It's amazing how naively sentimental it now seems about the US political process, having not so long ago appeared (at least to a Brit) quite clear-eyed and at times even cynical. How things have changed... Try watching the "Special Episode" at the end of Series 3 without either laughing or weeping...

    Strict limits on campaign spending and lobbying are essential restraints on politics.


    1. Wait, isn't lobbying like 80% of the GNP?

    2. I think you may be confusing "lobbying" with "bags of cash handed to the Heir to the Throne"... (though that may be a story that didn't run in the USA).


    3. I found that episode baffling. Does Charles have any influence on anything? What does he even need with a million pounds? Was it all some insufferable mistake of manners?

    4. Sounded like a sting by Mazher Mahmood (the Fake Sheikh) to me... I doubt Charles even knows what cash looks like, even if his mum's picture is on the back.


    5. Lookit all these nice pictures of me mum! She'll be so pleased! "Look, mum!"

  3. I'm involved in quite a bit of political and community activism. Party's are supposed to be part of movements, and the right succeeds to some degree here. Basically, since they aren't trying to tax the rich, they don't ruffle as many feathers, and get away with a lot more. Bernie tried to make a movement running for president, but was defeated by the old guard conservative Democrats, losing primaries in all the Southern states that would never vote Democratic in the general. The Republicans are afraid of their base, the Democrats despise their base. It really comes down to class politics. The Democrats gave up on unions and class politics in the 70's and 80's and they are now reaping the benefits, losing like crazy despite winning opinion poll after opinion poll with the issues. The Democratic leadership would rather lose than elect someone like Bernie (which is exactly what happened in 2016).

    1. Yes, in a way? My position is that all of this is essentially emergent behavior that is largely divorced from the actual operations of the party, and as such, it's far less coherent and motivated than it appears.

      I spent some little effort trying to get involved with Democratic politics at the local level, and it was a Kafkaesque maze of bureaucratic nonsense, of unelected yahoos nobody had ever heard of who had to be persuaded and/or bought off before you could even put your oar in. It became clear that I would have to spend literally years building internal social capital before I would be allowed to even speak up meaningfully. And this was the local-est of local politics.

      Consider the current situation. We have a lot of outcry for Democrats to simply pass a law to make abortion legal, to cut those dirty Republicans off at the pass! They, we are informed, have a complex, motivated, and coherent plan to control women's bodies and whatnot, which plan we are seeing IN ACTION.

      Which leads the attentive to note: why haven't the Republicans passed a law to make abortion *illegal* in any of the many, many, times they've had the power to do so?

      I don't deny that as individuals a lot of Republicans probably do indeed want to control women's bodies, and all the other things. But there is no plan, not really. The party as a whole doesn't *want* anything, and most of the people in the party don't really *want* anything either.

      It's a bunch of crabs in a sack. The crabs individually want to be on top of the pile of crabs in the sack, and that's about it. The sack rolls around and affects the environment, and it looks kind of like there's a plan, but there isn't. It's all just emergent behavior, loosely related to the motions of the crabs in the bag.

      (obviously this is an imperfect metaphor, and to *some* degree there are plans, etc etc, but I presume the idea if sufficiently clear)

    2. In general, I think the right knows what it wants and acts to achieve that. I saw a remark today, that the Koch brothers are essentially Leninist in their pursuit of power. Democrats tend to be more of a mix of competing interests, much of it tied to the professional classes. In my town, local progressives have taken over the DFL party body, so it actually functions quite well, with little strife. It took several years of putting up with boring meetings to achieve that, but there is a solid left machine in Duluth, electorally.

  4. I don't know how things are in the US, but mostly round the world I see two types of party.
    Firstly there's the Wyle E Coyote mob. Too clever by half for their own or anyone else's good. Then there's the stupid party. Are you old enough to remember the Cisco Kid? A flash dresser but not allowed to touch the white women? Well the stupid party is his sidekick Pancho. Sitting on his horse the wrong way riding into the sunset burping and farting.
    Both parties are internally divided into competing mafia gangs and have their own way of bringing ruin to themselves and their countries.What they do have in common is they are on the whole reef fish. They'll look round to see what everyone else is doing and follow that.

  5. It's not entirely surprising that very low voter turnouts eventually result in governments not doing what people want.