On Standing Rock and the Ballot Box
October 31, 2016
After 18 months, the U.S. Presidential election is just a week away and, with one notable exception, we at PCI have remained largely silent on it. That’s not because we deem it unimportant or are worried about upsetting readers on one side or another (or both) of the political divide, but because it’s frankly hard to find anything new or constructive to add—something that doesn’t just feed the antipathy or apathy that dominates the political climate. And that’s because, by any objective measure, this election is bone-achingly, mind-numbingly depressing. Who among us is excited to vote for one of the candidates on the presidential ballot, rather than voting against another? If “none of the above” or “I wish I had another candidate to support” were on the ballot, what percentage of the electorate would check that box?
In Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, Dmitry Orlov compared the U.S. electoral system to that of the former Soviet Union (where he was born and whose collapse he personally witnessed) in this way:
The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power. The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. In either case, there is, or was, a single governing elite, but in the United States it organizes itself into opposing teams to make its stranglehold on power seem more sportsmanlike. It is certainly more sporting to have two capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little token of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos… It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote.
I find his characterization too dismissive of meaningful differences between the Democratic and Republican parties or, in the case of this particular campaign, the two candidates as individuals. But Orlov touches on something that I believe is true—namely, that the narrowing of the U.S. political landscape down to a battle between two teams fighting over fairly limited ground creates conditions where no truly radical or systemic changes can take place. Systemic change is not only needed but is unavoidable, sliding as we are to the edge of an abyss caused by the confluence of climate change, energy constraints, the end of growth, inequity and racism, the influence of corporations and the military, overpopulation, and ecological collapse. And yet the U.S. presidential campaign is dominated by controversies about email servers, walls that will never get built, misogynistic comments, and which candidate is less trustworthy—valid concerns in their own way, but frankly of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.
In the Collapse of Complex Societies, anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter details how advanced civilizations of the past responded to crises of their own making by doubling down on the complexity that got them into the mess in the first place, thus ensuring their own collapse. One might see a parallel to how our political institutions are responding to the crises we face– by doubling down on the divisiveness, short-term thinking, and the financing of the corporate oligarchy that helped get us where we are.
All this is not meant to dismiss the importance of voting or the very real consequences of who is elected as the 45th President of the United States. But I think it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the outcome of this election is unlikely to address the existential crises we face. Though it may sound like a cliché, real change rests on our shoulders as citizens, community members, and even as consumers. Voting is not the beginning and end of our responsibilities.
In this, it may be instructive and even inspirational to look towards the actions of the Standing Rock Sioux and their #NoDAPL supporters who are literally putting their bodies on the line to protect their land, health, and sovereignty. Blocking one pipeline won’t by itself solve climate change, resource depletion, or a history of political and economic exploitation and inequality. But the example empowers us to think about what we can do in our own lives to help stop the rapacious machine of destruction and instead plant the seeds of regenerative culture—and then to actually go out and do it.
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