on US Elections (by way of Iran), Capitalism, World, & Everything Else in Between

I had to think long and hard about why voting for Hillary Clinton was a sound political strategy. As a “non-resident alien” – as Americans call foreigners – I do not get to vote or choose a side in this difficult election, but as a member of the Iranian political opposition in diaspora I have dealt with the difficulty of voting between the representatives of an irreparable regime (within the political-electoral framework dictated by that very regime). I would even call myself a seasoned and battle-tested warrior of the so-called “choice between the lesser of two evils” war (as if thinking outside binaries and about the concrete is not available to us). And before you go on to think that a comparative framework does not apply to this situation, I have to say that this framework structures the very nature and historicity of the electoral battles we wage nowadays – as citizens of liberal democracies – all around the world and against our representative democracies, i.e. the establishment. Of course the Iranian regime is not a “liberal” or “representative democracy” by any democratic measures, but the particular features of the roadmap to the offices of power are quite similar in structure:

  • A primary process – the “primaries” in the US and the Council of the Guardians in Iran – ensures that only the names of establishment candidates ultimately find their way to the ballot. This initial process weeds out all other candidates without the backing of state/party/capital. The case of Bernie Sanders is testament to another obvious feature of the process: even the media spotlight works to manufacture the popular consent and mandate of the primary process.
  • There is of course the other structural sieve: the two party system, which, much like the Iranian division between the Conservatives and the Reformists, ensures that only the candidates from the establishment parties can really run for the “primaries” in the first place. And much like Iran, the 30-40% of undecided/independent voters are made too painfully aware (by the media) of having to choose between one of the only two candidates that will ultimately be allowed to share the stage and spotlight after the primaries and before the election day.
  • The case of Barack Obama’s presidency also demonstrates the role of the political/capital establishment in deciding the limits to the powers of elected officials: much like the fate of many canny Iranian politicians with popular mandates, even a savvy politician from Chicago’s cutthroat political scene was made ‘lame’ and powerless (in a constitutional democracy). Aside from other important factors, it is too naive to not attribute the resistance of the status quo (against Obama) to a collective political will against giving the highest office of the state to a ‘black man.’ The resistance does not aim to prove so much that a black man cannot run a ‘white country’ as it seeks to showcase the futility of choosing a person of colour (in light of this extreme resistance) for such a job in the future. The “black man” is “put back in his place,” once again.

The point of this comparison is therefore not that the Iranian and the US voters share the same political landscape and problems, but that the electorate’s dilemmas regarding the very nature and structure of voting (and the options on the ballot) are fundamentally the one and the same – and lead to the production of the same symptomatics of nihilism, narcissism and pragmatism in the voter. (On to these symptoms, after the prelude, by way of an interlude).

Having voted for two reformist presidential candidates (ever since I could vote), I was extremely cynical about the prospects of voting for another candidate after my vote was “stolen” in the aftermath of the political coup of 2009 (and the subsequent crackdown on the Green Revolution). Four years later, in 2013, I sincerely did not believe that the establishment would allow – after a bloody coup – even a mild, safe revisionist like Rouhani to occupy the president’s office. Of course, it turned out that I was wrong, because Rouhani did go on to win in a landslide (but for reasons made apparent only later, namely the revelation of the secret negotiations between Iran and the US in Oman six months prior to the elections in Oman, with the promise to renew the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear project over which Rouhani himself had previously resided as the chief negotiator). But in 2015 I was once again against the prospect of voting for the reformist candidates campaigning for the Iranian house of representatives. And not because of their highly conservative resume (all the true reformists were already weeded out during the primaries), but mainly because I was convinced that this election cycle was a last historical opportunity for Iranians to take another firm democratic stance (after the events of 2009) and make alternative electoral-political demands to the ones articulated by the regime (i.e. it was a make or break moment after the unclear deal: the choice was between extracting a political alternative from the establishment by way of the empowered Rouhani front, or to let the establishment get its trusted candidates into the office, consolidate its domestic and foreign policy, and get stronger and meaner by way of the West’s irreversible economical and strategic investments in Iran that would also blunt the human rights rhetoric against the regime because of the irreversibility of these very investments). Almost two years later, and in light of the recent turn of events against all democratic demands in Iran (and the meaningful silence of the West), I believe that I was right, but not entirely right: at any rate, there were no viable political alternatives to the options tabled by the status quo.

I hope this historical interlude bursts the last bubbles of “irreducible differences” between the political choices faced by Iranians and Americans. Like the regime in Iran, the American political establishment is strong, savvy, consolidated, organized and rich, not to mention that it owns all the means of production (of both capital and consent). So I understand that after the Obama presidency the possiblity of radical change by way of both HRC and Donald Trump seems impossible, because it is. But my advice to my American friends has been similar to my the one I give my Iranian friends in Iran: “show up to the election centre on election day, vote for Hillary, and don’t even think it over on the way home, or hope that anything changes. The main battle is to be fought elsewhere and throughout the next four years.” That is, refuse to “choose,” refuse to choose the “ballot” itself. Then go ahead and make a choice without object cathexis. 

An here I am not talking to the puritans and the narcissists that are too beautiful or ‘political’ to vote, because they are craving a reality check (and they will get one, with or without DT!). They need a reality check, not because they deny existing alternatives without being engaged in the production of other alternatives, but primarily because they cannot produce a real-political critique of the existing real-political alternatives in the first place. I have lived among Americans long enough to know that this it is a politicized, and not a political, nation.

Rather, here I am talking to the politically active, the real-politically informed, and to the non-bourgeoise, non-first-world members of all classes, races, genders and languages that must have learned something from the shock of their British counterparts after the Brexit vote. Liberal values like democracy, re-presentation and “being great” can appear as eternal and ahistorical – even outdated and unproductive privileges, god forbid – after a nation has inhabited their spaces for long enough that it begins to forget that they were procured, in the first place, by way of long, violent civil and suffrage rights movements in the face of the continuum of the statue quo. To deny the very minimal political space required for reformation as such is to deny the construction of the very grounds that make revolutions possible in the first place. To quote a recent interview with Judith Butler, one can possibly from a political organization against Hillary, but Trump will make that very process very hard or impossible. And here we are are not dealing with a case like Iran’s, where with the right doses of foreign pressure and political instability on the inside can potentiality transform a collective no-vote into a civil disobedience movement.

Americans live in the heart of their bloody empire, and Hillary is a Master in her own house – there should be no illusions about that. But it is equally naive to call Trump only a strongman – and not a fascist – and not just because the “strongman” Erdogan of the democratic Turkey of yesterday is the same Erdogan of today’s Islamo-fascist Turkey. That would only establish a false historical parallelism. What we are dealing with in the case of Trump is a concentrated exploitation of the growing lack of faith (all around the world) in Western liberal values (of democracy and free market capitalism) and its structural counterparts in the State – a lack of faith that stems from the heart of the empire itself. This changing metaphysical landscape heralds nothing short of an impending epistemic shift – that only the naive and the mystical like Slavoj Zizek would deem a moment of Turning. A welcome possiblity under other circumstances, such a shift could in fact also spell a potentially disastrous fall into a radically different mode and network of relations between capitalism and the State – possibly under a different name – simply because there are no established political alternatives on the ground and in theory presently. “Waking up” is not enough.

The facade of today’s politics and economy does not tell the entire truth after all: the TPP or TTIP are not anchors of globalizations, but of consolidations of economical-political blocks against the savvy state-run capitalism and billion-strong consumer markets of China and India. For first-world capital to survive this climate of change it must consolidate its working and middle class on the inside in the face of the growing class divides, and labour and environmental violations, which will be imposed on these classes by way of the very same treaties. And the first and foremost threat to any political regime is internal instability inside its borders, and this is where phenomena like Brexit take shape, where labour and environmental laws are clandestinely undercut and signed into new regional treaties, all in the name of the nation and the people. This is where ideology enters to suture the divides: fascisms, nationalisms and racisms, growing in bunches all around the world, in countries affected in one way or another by these treaties, if you have been following the news. And ideology enters where politics leaves: the Donald Trump Drama is not just a show to attract votes and bigots, and it does not merely discredit Hillary by pandering to conspiracies and falsities: it is the very spectacle in which the dwindling faith in a representative democracy is destroyed in favour of the entrance of the strongman. This is the ultimate trick of the sovereign; the site of the very production of sovereignty: politics as a staging of whims and rage (when all the deals are getting done through the backdoor), so much so that the political and the ahistorical and the “practical” blur into one another, in the figure of the sovereign. For a new capitalism to manage a new world oder, it needs a PR firm that manages – and not addresses – public perceptions, whimsies, and practical demands – and Donald Trump is just the apprentice for the job.

I will not get into making distinctions on Trump’s lack of grasp on foreign policy, which only translates into a war-machine run by a Dick Cheneyesque hybrid monster of Mike Pence and the GOP lobbies, all behind the scenes. Not that this whitewashes Hillary’s foreign policy, and not just because of her track record. Bernie Sanders, the sweetheart of the political narcissists, only dismissed one agenda from his “Political Revolution”: droning the Middle East. As for inside, the comments on the latinos, muslims, women…are enough of a distinction between the production of discourses by the two candidates. But I have space only to mention something other than the entirely blasé, or silly arguments about the constitutional hold and power of liberal “checks and balances.”

Presently, and after the initial pooh-poohing act for the news media, the political establishment and the GOP have all came out in their support for Trump. And even if they lose, they have achieved nothing short of eroding Hillary’s popular and democratic mandate for the next couple of years (at least), ensuring that she will be met by full resistance in the house and the senate every time, on the way to another toxic election cycle in four years when they the GOP fronts a more ‘sane’ candidate. It is also part of putting ‘the woman’ back into ‘her place.’ This election cycle must therefore be viewed as part of an ongoing process of change in both the domestic and foreign policy of the US establishment, and it is only imperative to survive the strongman today to fight the crook tomorrow.