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
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.