Anonymous, writing last month in response to a talk I gave on ‘money in politics’, criticized my dismissal of campaign finance reform as a worthwhile reform campaign. While he agrees that the radical-democratic program I and the Red Party defend is a good thing in the abstract, he argues that campaign finance reform is the necessary first step to any kind of mass left-wing political project and should be promoted at basically any cost. Not only is this argument unsound on its own terms, but it rests on some faulty assumptions about the nature of working class politics – and, frankly, an insulting paternalism toward the American people in general.
First, some clarity about what campaign finance reform is. It usually refers to a proposed Constitutional amendment promoted by groups like Move to Amend and supported by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (the latter hypocritically.) The amendment would overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which dramatically increased large corporations’ freedom to sponsor candidates for office – think SuperPACs. It also covers proposals for public finance matching (like the Fair Elections Now Act) and greater disclosure of campaign donors. Of course, we should fight to weaken the capitalists’ ability to buy elections outright. But to discard the objective need for the radical extension of democracy as key to our practice in favor of ‘campaign finance’ salvation is both tactically mistaken (because the methods used to obtain it will fail) and a misunderstanding of how the ruling class rules.
The comrade’s first argument is that the influence of the bourgeois media is so strong that it makes mass support for socialist politics impossible – that it is “to the level of brainwashing.” Of course, the capitalist class does hold a tremendous ideological sway via the power of its full-time army of paid persuaders: journalists and pundits, preachers and filmmakers, et cetera. The ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. But to despair over “brainwashing” is to dismiss out of hand the majority’s ability to think and act in its own interests. It’s more an admission of ignorance toward history’s lessons than it is a material reality.
Consciousness changes, and the class struggle continues: see the St. Louis Commune of 1877, the Seattle General Strike of 1919, the powerful Socialist and Communist-led struggles of the 1930s, the Black & Women’s Liberation movements… Or more recently, look at the reawakening of open class struggle (albeit at an elemental level) with Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter. Kshama Sawant, in her re-election campaign for the Seattle City Council earlier this year, won her seat despite the combined opposition of the Democratic and Republican parties for her opponent. Clearly, reactionary prejudices and attitudes can be countered. Pointing to capital’s ideological hegemony is actually a compelling argument to build a powerful working class alternative media, not self-censor in an attempt to pander to our opponents.
His second argument is that “the inability of the people to affect change stems from the loss of their leverage. They have lost their first form of leverage in the vote, due in part to the wealthy using their monetary leverage to influence the process.” We would gain this leverage back by “getting the vote to mean something again,” which will force open “a crack in the foundation of the system that will let future victories happen,” though the battle “will last a long, long time.”
Now, I can appreciate the sense of patience here. At least the comrade is trying to work out some kind of long-term strategy, as opposed to the spontaneism and r-r-revolutionary action fetishism so common on the left. But our problem is not that the proletariat “cannot keep up with the bourgeoisie in disposable income per capita.” The working class’s power (potential or realized) is not in how much money individual workers can scrape together and donate to this or that election campaign, but in its separation from the means of production, its ability to withdraw its labor, and its collective / global character. These are what make the proletariat the revolutionary class of today.
No kind of single issue campaign will be able to build this desired “leverage.” Campaign finance reform is another attempt at finding a silver bullet, one more in a long line of illusory quick-fixes peddled by U.S. populists for over a century. In earlier periods we’ve had nearly identical reforms actually passed into law, including the Tillman Act of 1907 (which prohibited corporate donations in federal elections) and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (which created the FEC.) Incidentally, the Constitutional amendment championed by Move to Amend would actually weaken the working class in a significant way if passed, since it draws an equal sign between corporate and union campaign contributions!
At any rate, fostering a cross-class alliance around the silver bullet du jour will only end in tears. No lasting organization and no serious reforms to show for our trouble. Much better to build on a stronger foundation. A working class party of systemic opposition, or a Communist Party, lacks the appeal of being a quick fix. But only by building a mass (but for the time being, minority) party on a Marxist program can we extract real concessions from capital, let alone serve the goal of socialism and general human liberation.