In the circus of bourgeois politics in our two-party electoral system, we often hear a concept fetishized to the highest heavens. The term “bi-partisanship” is a quality of political actors that often surfaces in elections, political disputes and in legislation. The notion that political opportunism, willingness to abandon one’s stated principles at the drop of a hat when other interests are deemed to be more “capital,” is essential to the functioning of a democratic society, is a consistent theme in popular political discourse. It has come into focus even more in political discourse as the United States approaches default.
Both sides of the bourgeois political process have come out attacking the other for not being able to compromise and agree to the other’s plan. Barack Obama, in his address to the nation this past Monday, has gone as far as saying “Compromise is not a dirty word.”
While the bourgeoisie continue to duke it out however, and despite whatever compromise they pull out at the last minute, a question must be asked: when the political parties of the bourgeoisie come together to make a compromise within the realm of their politics, to what ends does it serve? While the expected answer of such actors would be “for the American people, of course!” the reality is that any such “compromise” in capitalism is a compromise made to protect the power of its ruling class.
The History of “Compromise”
During Obama’s latest attempt to bring about compromise in Washington in regards to the political dead-lock over the debt ceiling, he offers the following flowery words about the nature of compromise generally:
“America, after all, has always been a grand experiment in compromise. As a democracy made up of every race and religion, where every belief and point of view is welcomed, we have put to the test time and again the proposition at the heart of our founding: that out of many, we are one. We have engaged in fierce and passionate debates about the issues of the day, but from slavery to war, from civil liberties to questions of economic justice, we have tried to live by the words that Jefferson once wrote: ‘Every man cannot have his way in all things…Without this mutual disposition, we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.’”
One can see Barack Obama waving the banner of “compromise” in one hand and American flag in the other, framing his efforts in the context of some metaphysical, eternal and righteous pursuit of “democracy” as the bourgeoisie understands it. Yet in comparing these lofty ideals to objective history, however, Barack Obama makes a point antithetical to the notion that compromise is the surest means to democratic society:
“History is scattered with the stories of those who held fast to rigid ideologies and refused to listen to those who disagreed. But those are not the Americans we remember. We remember the Americans who put country above self, and set personal grievances aside for the greater good. We remember the Americans who held this country together during its most difficult hours; who put aside pride and party to form a more perfect union.”
Think, for a moment, how Obama’s general statement about how “those who held fast to rigid ideologies” “are not the Americans we remember” and “we remember the Americans who put country above self” helps explain how bourgeois history accounts for the actions of the radical abolitionists, militant blacks and all others who struggled ruthlessly against exploitation and oppression when they didn’t do so for solely nationalist reasons.
Think of how those heroes of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movements that are remembered aren’t the John Browns and Fred Hamptons, who were willing to kill and die, rather than compromise with power, in their battle for liberation, but those who championed lines aimed at preserving the rule of the bourgeoisie, lines of threadbare national chauvinism and collaboration with power. It is compromisers, collaborators and champions of capital that are remembered, since their efforts fell in line with the cause of capital.
The Essence of Compromise: Finding Common Ground in Common Class Interests
The reason for the bourgeoisie’s selective historical memory is the same reason that in their politics they fetishize those who collaborate over those who hold out against the political tides. Radicals, “extremists” and anyone who argues against the current order and refuses to compromise on such beliefs are condemned no matter what beliefs they hold. They are not assessed based on the validity of their jealously guarded principles; rather fascists, militant anti-war protesters, environmentalists and others are labeled with the same “extremist” stamp. Even those who bend on most issues, yet stick to one or two ideals in their political maneuvering consistently, can be thus labeled.
The way that an “extremist” can be distinguished from any other “impassioned” political actor is in how their ideas and positions relate to the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Let us consider the role of the radical anti-abolitionist activists in the prelude to the American Civil War. Before the war, these figures were seen as being a dangerous, unpredictable and divisive element within politics. Rather than allowing the factions within the bourgeoisie to negotiate whether slavery was in their best interests or not, these trouble-makers threatened the property rights of a demographic who controlled a large stake in the American economy, had a large stake in electoral politics and needed to be defeated in the realm of electoral politics. It was only when the slave states threatened the union itself that there was any excuse for the use of force to end slavery, and some of the abolitionist figures themselves could be rehabilitated for bourgeois uses.
When political actors, no matter their ideology or political orientation, threaten the broader power relations, they must be marginalized by bourgeois political expression. The only way that radical ideas (like the notion that people shouldn’t own one another based on the color of their skin, for instance) can granted legitimacy in bourgeois politics is if the alternative is the destruction of that very system. The apartheid that existed in the American south following the Civil War was allowed to persist until it resulted in armed, militant resistance to institutionalized racism by organized black activists. While the focus of the bourgeoisie’s historical recollection centers around non-violent activists, evidence shows that the state was forced to buckle under the threat of violent insurrection, from the Black Panthers to the riots following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
It was in the wake of revolutionary violence and legitimate threats to bourgeois power that the ruling class was forced to compromise. This is true of every historical struggle that has led to positive reforms benefiting the working class, from the movement of workers to organized themselves into unions, to the movement for an end to slavery and open segregation, to the abolition of child labor and any number of oppressive frameworks that have been curbed within the political process.
Compromise in capitalism is the art of balancing the ambitions and desires of political actors (largely influenced by their ability to be re-elected and retain political power through benefiting various special interests) with the overall viability of the capitalist system and the preservation of its inherent power relations. This results in bourgeois politicians agreeing on more things than they disagree on, since they owe a higher loyalty to the bourgeoisie and their nation-state.
The Tangled Webs they Weave: from Nixon’s Socialized Medicine to Clinton’s War on Blacks
We are taught that the current participants in our political system, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, represent two distinct visions of how our society is to move forward. We are taught that the central dividing line in politics, between the extremes of left and right, run between these two parties. Therefore, for those who don’t hold “extremist” perspectives, the political opinions of the vast majority of people in this country can be accounted for by one of the two parties. If one holds more progressive views, they can vote for a Democratic candidate, who will champion such views in the public arena, and if they are more conservative and traditionalist, a Republican will adequately channel such ideas into their actions in Washington.
It seems so simple and easy, allowing for broad political representation and expression, when one suspends disbelief and lends credence to this model. Yet the reality is that these political parties have more in common than they let on, allowing political actors to waver in their political actions while paying homage to the larger systems of power. In advancing a broader bourgeois political or economic goal, bourgeois politicos often perform actions and take stances which would seem at odds with their purported party ideology.
Examples of political opportunism which defies the logic of the two-party, two-ideology presumption are numerous. Take, for instance, President Bill Clinton, who was jokingly hailed by some as the “first black president” while attacking welfare and backing the 3-strikes laws which have lead to the incarceration of large segments of the black community. Consider how Barack Obama’s “socialist” health-care plan was first put forward by Nixon, implemented by the conservative Mitt Romney, yet is currently being treated as if it was authored by Vladimir Lenin. One doesn’t even need to mention the fact that this current president, who was elected on an anti-war platform, has ensured military support for the rebel forces in Libya as they butcher blacks and continues to carry on the imperialist occupations he was elected to stop.
United they Monopolize, Divided they Collapse
In bourgeois politics, every election cycle brings into power political actors who go against their stated ideologies and positions for the advancement of the overall system. Conservatives show a “liberal” streak, and liberals implement policies that would make the late Ronald Reagan blush. The reason for this political pragmatism is simple, obvious, celebrated — yet misunderstood — in public political discourse.
To quote Lincoln, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet this begs the question: for whom does this house stand?
Does it stand for the voter, who has their positions pigeonholed and their demands ignored for a pragmatism, ultimately serving interests more highly valued than themselves? Does it stand for the incarcerated, the exploited, the undocumented and the oppressed, whose interests are in direct contradiction to the interests most influential in the funding of candidates and hold the largest sway in the realm of ideas? Does it stand for the opponents of imperialist wars, who have their candidates say one thing and do the other?
The answer is simply no. The bourgeois electoral system within capitalism represents one class interest exclusively: that of the bourgeoisie. It is their property which grants them the wealth, the sway and the esteem which their ideas hold in the public realm. When compromise takes place in Washington, it is ultimately a compromise that protects their class interests. If some legislation holds a higher negative consequence for the bourgeoisie’s power than positive, it is doomed to failure.
Conclusion: Loyal Opposition is not Resistance
It remains to be seen whether the parties will come to a compromise on the debt ceiling in time to avoid default. Until then, we are likely to hear from the bourgeois media and punditry calls for compromise and an end to “childishness.” Nationalism will be further cited as a reason to bring the parties together for negotiation. While this circus continues to drone on until and beyond the “zero hour” this August 2nd, while the lively-hoods of working people are targeted for cuts by Republican and Democrat alike in the back-rooms of Washington D.C.’s political theater, one should keep in mind the common goals and aspirations of the politicians and interests at the negotiation table. This interest is not in the interests of workers, for an improvement in their condition of life or stake within political life, for their advancement and power in society.
In fact, the interest being jealously guarded by political actors is precisely the opposite. It is in the interests of the mutual exploiters of the American working class that compromise is made. In understanding this, we must also understand that the only means of truly having the interests of workers taken into account in our political process requires a hegemony of the working class over that process. We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived by the nationalist sentimentality which demands that workers stand side-by-side with their exploiters, sacrificing for a common end that doesn’t exist. Rather, we must take this opportunity to stand against the opportunist political actors and embedded class interests which have given rise to the present economic crisis.
It is not the time to “compromise” with the bourgeoisie for a better life for working people. For those concerned with liberation, with an end to the exploitation and alienation inherent in capitalism, “compromise” is a bad word.