A Brief Election Day Plea

Image Credit:  Michael Hicks

Image Credit: Michael Hicks

Election days in this country often feel like an unkept promise.  Yes, we can vote.  We have that much political liberty left.  But what exactly can we vote for?  

On November 3rd, 2014, a pro-war, pro-surveillance, pro-drug war party had control of the U.S. Senate.

On November 5th, 2014, a pro-war, pro-surveillance, pro-drug war party will have control of the U.S. Senate.

With the exception of the odd state ballot initiative that might actually change something (that is, if the federal government allows it), our votes are cast between alternatives that increasingly resemble each other.  In what sense does our vote have power when our choices are so abysmally constrained?  Despite all the fiery bluster, the parties have drifted towards each other in the Obama Era.  No matter what happens today, there will be no feeling of even modestly revolutionary change, as perhaps was felt after the 2006 midterms.  For us, in 2014, there will be more of the same voices, with a slight re-balancing of who gets to yell louder.

How are civic-minded people to make sense of their power to vote in such a situation?

For an answer, I am turning away from our American “left-right divide”, which seems these days to be more of a tennis net than a wide canyon.  Instead, I want to consider Ivan Illich’s notion of the Institutional Spectrum.

In his infamous book Deschooling Society, Illich entreats us to kick the habit of talking about politics as a game of people who identify as left or right.  Instead, he wants us to consider where our institutions would lie along a left-right plane:

Generally, such a spectrum, moving from left to right, has been used to characterize men and their ideologies, not our social institutions and their styles.  This categorization of men, whether as individuals or in groups, often generates more heat than light.  Weighty objections can be raised against using an ordinary convention in an unusual fashion, but by doing so I hope to shift the terms of the discussion from a sterile to a fertile plane.

To draft this “fertile plane,” Illich proposes that we place our institutions along a spectrum running from “manipulative” at the far right to “convivial” — meaning empowering — on the far left.  However, Illich takes care to warn us against mapping this divide on to our normal political language, stating that “men of the left are not always characterized by their opposition to the manipulative institutions.”

Illich would place much of our modern institutions on the right or manipulative side of the spectrum.  These are characterized by bureaucracy and violence.  Think brutalist architecture.  Illich indicates the archetypal example to be a prison.  These are institutions that run away from their creators and become self-justifying, resource-gobbling behemoths of social control.

On the left or “convivial” side we find libraries, sidewalks, and local markets —  “public utilities.”  These are networks rather than bureaucracies, built around empowerment rather than control.

So what does this have to do with the election?  We are in a point in history where our manipulative institutions are running wild.  We saw above that Illich saw prisons as the best example of a manipulative institution, but if he had been writing today rather than in the 1970’s, I think that he would have chosen the NSA.  With technological advance comes a greater capacity for the control of our lives by technocrats.  And the new threat of unlawful surveillance is simple being added on top of our old and persisting institutional problems, such as incarceration rates that are as racist as they are alarming.  Between the War on Drugs and the War on Privacy, there are lots of battles that need to be fought by people who care about whether their nation’s institutions exist for our empowerment or for our control.

The landscape is changing.  You will find drug warriors, war hawks, and email-snoopers on both sides of the aisle.  But you will also find a blessed few people — like Cory Booker and Rand Paul  —  who are trying to fight back against the mission-creep of our nation’s manipulative institutions.  So here’s my plea:  Don’t vote for a shifting party promise.  Vote for people who have shown they will make real institutional change possible.