It’s Blackout Day. A lot of sites are dark, to protest SOPA and PIPA (a.k.a. PROTECT-IP), the two worst revisions to US copyright law since the original DMCA. They’re irreparably terrible, and should absolutely be discarded, and I say that as a copyright holder who has seen her music pirated in front of her very eyes. I support Blackout Day.
But I am not going dark. I am Solarbird, the Lightbringer, so instead, I will talk about where we are, where such a blatantly unconstituional corporate power grab can be so close to passage, and how we got here.
The US is an authoritarian police state. If you’re not of a sufficiently suspect class, and you keep out of unapproved politics, it’s not a particularly oppressive police state, but it is one nonetheless. No country with torture and extrajudicial imprisonment and execution can be called anything else.
SOPA and PIPA trigger reactions because they expand the suspect class pool. They bring the surveillance state Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have created more obviously closer to home.
Unlike many, I have not been disappointed by Mr. Obama in this. He has lived down to my expectations, which is why I did not and will not vote for him. He is of his class – the American political class – and they are quite united on the need for a police state, with restricted speech, restricted political rights, omnipresent surveillance, and the ability to disappear a few hundred people if it’s necessary for national security, by which one of course means looking bad or having to admit a mistake.
They’re also quite united on doing whatever their corporate donors ask. Where there is disagreement within those donors, or where the donors don’t really care, the popular voice can matter; some of these areas of disagreement are very important to me personally. But where there isn’t disagreement, the popular voice doesn’t matter at all, except insofar as is necessary to keep up the pretence of representation.
There is some disagreement amongst those donors; this is why the SOPA/PIPA fight can be won.
This is where we are; exploiting frissions between corporate and polite-state blocs, trying to keep the last daylight visible. This, in turn, is because when push comes to shove, all that matters is power. This is true in any empire; other things matter only after matters of power have been settled.
This should be obvious, but most Americans pretend it’s not true. That pretence is part of the problem.
Sure, Democrats and Republicans compete for seats – there are matters of prestige, of money, and of individual allocation of power to be settled. All of these are important to any empire’s political class. And there are still elections – highly restricted ones, but elections nonetheless, constrained and limited via money, gatekeeping, and the endless repetition of critical memes such as, “the other side is worse,” “third parties can never win,” “a vote for a loser is a wasted vote,” and “this election is the Most Important Election Ever, you can’t let Them Win.”
All these memes are appeals to tribalism. They all shut down reason and rational thought in preference for the Tribe. They’re needed to keep you playing the game. They’re used to keep you from changing anything.
And as such, their active propagation illustrates the one critical weakness left in this system: that all-but-titular vote. It is exploitable, but not in the way you assume. I will illustrate, with a story from another empire.
Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, the USSR held elections on a regular schedule. The Communist Party always reported getting 98% or 99% of the vote, and everyone outside the Soviet sphere laughed – who else can you vote for? – but they didn’t understand how Soviet elections worked.
The Party would nominate candidates. The Proletariat would go vote “Yes” or “No” on their local candidate. It was very easy to vote “yes” – there was a queue, you got checked off, you got some vodka and snacks. It was more difficult to vote “no” – you had to get out of the queue, go to another table. It took more time. It was visible. I don’t know whether you got snacks.
And most elections, even before the late reforms, some local party unit somewhere would nominate some apparatchik so disliked, so repulsive, so unacceptable that the people would vote no, and that nominee would lose. It was a humiliation. The party would nominate someone else, someone less bad, who would win. And the local party would be shifted, and the loser’s career would be over.
Which brings us to the single most important lesson, and the only lever of influence you have over either major party:
Pick the party closer to you and cost them power and money by costing them elections.
Travesties such as SOPA and PIPA shouldn’t even be politically possible. Neither should most of the major changes in government of the US from the last decade. Any victory against these initiatives are temporary at best, as long as the current framework remains unchallenged.
And to that end, money and power are the only things that really count. Deprive someone you “should” support of either one or the other, in a meaningful and trackable way. Demonstrate your willingness and ability to do that, and you will get a response. It will be angry. But it will be a response.
Don’t do it by voting for the other major party; that’s idiotic, as well as futile. That’s staying in the political class’s game. Similarly, don’t do it by not voting at all; that allows you to be discounted as “apathetic.” And finally, don’t do it by expecting the small party or independent for which you vote to win; the system as it stands is far too rigged against such outliers. Taking that party to victory isn’t even the goal; your goal is to deny victory to your “own team,” and to make sure they know you did it.
If you lack substantial money, it’s the only lever you have. I will illustrate, again, by example:
Mr. Obama was going to let Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell float along until his expected second term. All of the groundwork had been laid; the apologies and excuses had been set up; absolutely no meaningful work on ending DADT had been done; party operatives were all about ‘the midterms are Too Important, we have to wait ’till it’s safe’ line. People were already touting the ‘let’s wait and win in 2012, then repeal’ line.
And queers said NO, FUCK YOU and shut off the money spigot, all at once, major donors included. The Democratic Party machine recoiled and went into full spin mode, trying all of the usual intimidations and arguments, and they, at long last, fell on deaf ears. Even with stooges like the Human Rights Campaign, which is no mean feat.
And when that happened, when the big-money GBLT people said, no, fuck you, we meant it – only then did the administration actually start planning the repeal. Only then.
They also cut back on the vicious fundamentalist-sourced rhetoric and arguments they’d been using in defences of DADT and DOMA in court. That was nice.
It still took losing a court case to make the DADT repeal happen. But the fight got a lot shorter, and the court cases a lot quicker, and also importantly, they were prepared.
This is winning. Cost them money, make not appeasing you risk them their power, and you get a response. It will first be rage, then it may just be accommodation.
A second example, even more relevant:
The American left had a tremendous opportunity in 2000. Mr. Nader won close to three percent of the vote, and absolutely cost Mr. Gore the election. The Democratic party establishment frothed with rage.
The American left could have taken this opportunity. It could have collectively said:
Fuck right we did. We fucking cost you the election. We have that power, and we used it. Now appease us, or we’ll do it again.
And mean it, because that is how you play power politics. The opportunity was right there. Appease us, or die.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the American left ran screaming back home, flagellating themselves for their sins, piteously crying, ‘We’ll be good! We swear, we’ll never leave and never ever ever be bad ever again!’ It was pathetic. And they were scolded and contritely made their apologies and occasionally get reminded of the “Nader betrayal,” to help keep them in line, and nothing they want matters.
And why all that Party rage? Simple: because the left had created a window of opportunity, and that window had to be closed. They demonstrated power, costing the Democratic wing of the political class both power and money; and that shit had to be put the fuck down.
And it was. They threw it away.
This is called losing.
Variations of this cycle have been on wash-rinse-repeat since the 1980s, with the left somehow thinking it’ll be different this time. It never is.
That’s how we have Members of Congress talking about how the Internet is great, but there’s intellectual property to protect, and corporate IP rights holders need to be able to shut you down just like that – and the Great Firewall of China shows just how it can be done.
That’s how we already have people being extradited from other countries for linking to things, and other people going to jail for making YouTube videos.
That’s how we now we have a Democratic Chief Executive who can order anyone, anywhere, tried in various degrees of show trial with secret evidence to reach a prearranged verdict, or not tried at all.
That’s how the Executive can order anyone jailed forever, or just outright executed, in secret, without so much as a hearing.
That’s how members of the political class have become above the law, answerable to no one.
That’s how losing the right to a trial can have useful idiots of the left dismissing it as a “fringe issue,” as the neoconservative worshippers of power cheer on Mr. Obama’s embrace-and-extend of Mr. Bush’s “unitary executive.”
It’s all part of the same context. It’s all part of the same theme. It’s all how the window of acceptable politics has been shoved this far to the authoritarian right, and become this normalised, with everyone in the Democratic tribe spending another endless election year rationalising it all away, telling themselves – and anyone who dares disagree – that this election is just Too Critical, and It Can Wait, and Other Issues are Just More Important…
…all as the Republic burns.
It’s Blackout Day. Things are pretty damned dark. What’re you gonna do about it?