Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-2005, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Freedom on the March, Revolution by Ballot
America Bestows Free Elections on the World

1. Free elections: a supreme democratic good

Freedom, which according to George W. Bush is a gift that God has given to all of mankind, is realized in free, equal and secret elections. These are what separate humane rule from tyranny. According to the American messenger of God’s gift, no people shall be deprived of the privilege of free elections. No society or culture is so backward or aberrant as to be ignorant of the glory of free elections, and no people is to be regarded as unripe for the right to vote. In fact, he maintains that it would be typical Western racism to believe that we who are privileged with the freedom to vote are the only ones worthy of this universal achievement of mankind, the only ones who deserve, desire and can treasure this act of liberty.

Where George W. is right, he’s right. There really isn’t anything easier than drawing an X on a piece of paper and choosing among two or more alternatives. Voting booths can be set up even in places where there is neither a functioning state power nor a civil society, where there is nothing but hunger and misery. Even people who don’t have a clue about what a nation or a raison d’état is, who have no idea about politics in general, can be confronted with a choice between two or more alternatives — just like here at home. Even those who can neither read nor write can be given pictograms or animal symbols that stand for specific persons or parties among which they may choose freely. Indeed, people of all races and cultures are capable of carrying out this act of freedom — and apparently they don’t mind doing so at all. At any rate, the offer to cast a vote and prefer one’s own preferred alternative hardly ever gets turned down, whenever it actually is made. Governed peoples of all nations are all too pleased to hear that their vote counts for something.

But someone has to tell them that in the first place. Someone has to make them this magnificent offer and set the range of alternatives among which these free beings are to realize their freedom, if they are to be free at all. The liberty experienced in free elections thus presupposes a fundamental division of mankind: a very small portion (the leaders) calls the other portion (the common people) to the polls and determines with the programs and candidates up for election everything that matters beforehand. You can only vote for what they have put up for election. One result of every election, therefore, is certain from the start, regardless of how the vote count eventually turns out: the authority holding the election is confirmed. It is in elections that voters approve of the fact that they have nothing to question and nothing to decide apart from the questions and alternatives up for election. By voting, citizens come out in favor of the offices over which an elite few compete, and consequently in favor of the entire public order managed by these offices, as well as of this elite itself. All this takes place without any of it needing to be put up for debate in any way, to say nothing of it needing to be discussed, carefully deliberated and approved by those entitled to vote. Voters needn’t be aware at all that their votes in fact perform this feat — it’s enough that they pick one of the choices demanded of them. They needn’t trouble themselves over why and to what end a stable and thoroughly organized ruling power is needed, along with positions of power and elitist officials. Besides, going into all that would just be a nuisance. If they ever did pose themselves this question, they wouldn’t end up warming up to one alternative and choosing it over another.

What is most important about elections, therefore, is what does not get put up for election, but which is accepted implicitly in the act of voting. By voting, citizens give their tacit consent to nothing less than the entire system of political rule imposed on them — the ruling power’s apparatus, the tasks to which it dedicates itself, the functions it performs, the nation’s “cause,” and the fact that leaders are needed to take care of everything that citizens experience as a socially organized burden on their interests: the restriction of their every material liberty, the hardships of working life, and all the demands imposed on them by the private and public powers-that-be. When voting, they accept all this as the most natural thing in the world — but that’s not all: the decision that is explicitly demanded of the voters is whom to entrust the power they have to obey anyway and whose existence is not up for debate. By turning voters into notional trustees of state rule, elections turn them into unconditional advocates of the power exercised over them. In the interest of state rule, they are permitted to examine critically the various candidates for the offices in question, and this is exactly what they ought to do. In this sense state rule is the criterion according to which candidates must prove themselves and demonstrate their skills and abilities. This isn’t to say that the reality of state rule is what constitutes the criterion according to which citizens determine their preferences, rather an ideal image of state power. According to this ideal, the establishment and maintenance of the nation and the laws of democratic society, as well as the exercise of state power over this society, are mere courtesies provided to the people for living their life under “given circumstances,” while state power itself appears as a protective authority over “our” national “way of life” at home and abroad.

This utterly false and inverted conception of political power forms the premise for all judgments made by the voters as to how candidates apply and promise to apply the power their offices vest in them. They give their full critical attention to the success that candidates vow to achieve and can actually demonstrate in their correspondingly rose-colored activity — and for this reason, well-schooled democrats also examine a candidate’s success in putting his activity in a rosy light. It is this kind of criticism to which losing candidates fall victim. The political elite as a whole, however, which takes precisely this path into office, doesn’t have much problem standing up to this kind of inspection, since the criteria that voters measure them by are the very same according to which they themselves seek to demonstrate their suitability for office, namely by holding on tight to the power their office vests in them, applying it in such a manner that it doesn’t get damaged, but instead grows, and thriving along with the growth of this power. They seek to establish themselves against all challengers and ultimately as unchallengeable ruling personalities, all the while cutting a good figure in the eyes of the voters; they aim to become as one with the power vested in them, so that the office and their name become interchangeable… Free elections provoke voters — subjects of state power — to criticize this power in the most definitively anti-critical way, both with regard to state rule itself as well as to the candidates’ lust for power.

So both parties get their due from the holy human right of free elections, which unite the collective of the ruled with the power that rules over them. And because, as the American president puts it so poignantly, “no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave” (Bush, second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005), free elections determine who is to occupy the position of “master” and spare obedient subjects the humiliation of being slaves. Those who are permitted to vote are free in the sense that they don’t obey an authority to which they haven’t given their consent; an elected authority is also free in the sense that it doesn’t found its power over its citizens merely on force, but also on their consent. Elected rulers can reject any interference from their citizens in state affairs by referring to the fact that, after all, they have been elected fair and square. A government empowered in an appropriately democratic manner has an unrestricted right: when it is in power, it is not only justified in ignoring the interests of the minority that either voted for the losing candidate or not at all, but also the interests of the “victorious” majority of voters. It discharges its duties in executing the interests of the “common good” and curtailing the “merely particular” interests of its voters. Statesmen appreciate the service that free elections perform and make sure to thank the voters not only for having voted them into office, but for having voted at all and thereby consenting to a further legislative term of keeping their mouths shut. The people’s vote is thus the state’s instrument in securing its own legitimacy, stability and freedom of action.

Elections function best where they’re at home: in capitalist democracies

The gift that God has bequeathed — not so much to the peoples as to the states of the world — has been distributed very unevenly among its recipients. Otherwise some of these states wouldn’t be able to pose as political-cultural paradigms and pass the gift of democracy onto the modern non-democratic barbarians who are to pursue their happiness in true democratic fashion. It’s no accident that this particular export item originates from the so-called “stable democracies” of the North, for it is only in these countries that elections proceed in an orderly fashion; only here does the vote count reestablish the political state of peace that is put into question periodically, calculatingly and temporarily at election time. This stability is due to the fact that so much is regulated so firmly in these countries that there is even freedom for alternatives concerning the who and how of state power, without this power itself nor the manner of its exercise being put into question. This is because here the law rules independent of the electorate’s decision. It dictates how the citizens are to pursue their interests; by systematically empowering and restricting the citizens in this way, it ensures domestic peace and the functional interaction of all antagonistic and competing interests in society. Even state power itself is divided functionally into separate executive, legislative and judicial powers, i.e., organized as a coordinated system of self-empowerment that entrusts the various bearers of state power with fixed and prescribed tasks within a framework of quasi-objective state aims, and that transforms these officeholders into basically interchangeable public servants. So nothing gets out of control when various parties compete for the highest state offices and invite the voters to settle their skirmish. Here, candidates battle over who can manage state affairs better. Rival parties don’t compete over what the nation’s aims and the criteria of national success should be; the latter instead form the agreed-upon premise of all their debates.

It is the most successful amongst the societies based on capitalist exploitation, of all places, that have achieved such well-organized and stable communities. These societies are founded on force and state rule, for it is state power alone that establishes and secures the power of private property over the means of production, thereby excluding the large majority of its subjects from possessing these means. The law thereby places the majority of citizens at the mercy of the owners of the means of production, consigning and confining them to the role of hard-working cost factors for the latter’s profit maximization. Yet the state has reinforced their pitiful role as servants under the command and for the benefit of capitalist enrichment with a comprehensive set of rights (which in no way modify the economic quality of this role), thus making it into a respectable source of income endowed with legally protected entitlements and obligations — a source that in this sense stands on an equal legal footing with the wealthy and exploiting class’s source of income. Both proletarians and factory lords are to deal with each other on a contractual basis and to keep to the letter of the contracts they conclude with each other — the content of which is labor that is profitable for capital, of course. The state has assigned wage-laborers’ interests in a secure livelihood with short hours and comfortable working conditions (interests that, as soon as they are asserted, are nothing but a nuisance to capitalist society) their proper place in the community — at the very bottom. This place is what the state then protects. Provided that the working class puts its trust in this protection, it is basically ripe for voting for the power that has made them dependent on wages in the first place. Of course, they must then take another step and process their inevitable disappointment correctly by sorting their permanent discontent into two parts. On the one hand, they must content themselves with the fact that nothing can be done to improve their situation, since that’s “just the way it is” and everyone’s got to make a living; on the other hand, they’ve been conceded the right to complain about hardships that really needn’t be, about being discriminated against unjustly, and to accuse governing politicians of having failed to fulfill the real task with which they have been entrusted as rulers. This is how wageworkers, in the name of the ruling power that has imposed these unpleasant living circumstances on them, become critics of their rulers, who treat them in a manner appropriate to their social status. If they don’t end up going too far with their grudges, but mostly demonstrate their understanding for the inevitable and limit their political discontent to a vote for the party they take to be the lesser evil, i.e., if they remain as passive as is demanded of them, then the state can depend on them and democracy is stable.

The voters aren’t, however, left alone to interpret their discontent in this way. Political parties that compete for and get voted into positions of power form the political will of the so-called democratic sovereign: the people. In going up against their rivals for the confidence of the voters, they constantly ask some quite unreasonable things of the latter. They demand that the electorate make a distinction between state rule as a nonpartisan necessity of social life and the personnel in charge: there are the bad ones, who they should send packing, and the good ones, who are capable of executing these oh-so-beneficial necessities correctly, and who for this reason must be voted into office. Electioneering candidates seize on every actual or potential feeling of discontent among the people and translate it into frustration with failures and errors made by those in power , thereby corroborating this interpretation of their discontent completely. They portray the voters’ economic and existential problems — which are absolutely inevitable given the capitalist system and their economic position in it — as resulting from avoidable errors on the part of a government that is “incapable of running the country properly,” while presenting themselves as “competent” statesmen who might not do everything differently, but definitely better. While the opposition criticizes the way the government does harm to all kinds of interests as evidence of poor political craftsmanship, the incumbents insist that in the face of “globalization,” their “hands are tied” and the opposition couldn’t act any differently — besides, those in the opposition don’t have any workable “plans” anyway and can afford to be so ignorant, since they don’t carry the “burden of responsibility” shouldered so bravely by those “at the wheel.” In the end, by informing the people of which sacrifices and hardships would not be necessary under their respective command, adversarial candidates define together which sacrifices are definitely necessary — for the homeland, for the economy and for jobs. That’s why these necessities can’t possibly be suspected of being the expression of an interest that is harmful to the masses and asserted by the force of the state.

This democratic feat of presenting the electorate with alternatives in order that it affirm that it has none attains its very essence when rival candidates present themselves as persons who can deliver strong leadership and only wish to distinguish themselves from their rivals by the skillful display of their personal leadership qualities. When voters answer the question that these big shots ask of them, namely “Who is the best for our country?”, they freely acknowledge with their ballot that they need leaders and have no problem with having rulers dictate the conditions of their existence. Nor do they show any interest in discerning the criteria and the objectives according to which politicians make such decisions. In this sense, in its consummate form, the freedom created by elections does indeed have certain cultural prerequisites: it demands a willingness on the part of the voters to be impressed by displays of strong leadership and affability, by staged debates and rejoicing party members, by catchy slogans and all the fuss carried out for their sake. It demands the ability to make a comparative appraisal of the rival chieftains’ boasting and bragging, and to find these prominent personages themselves “somehow impressive.” This freedom demands that voters be so idiotic as to make judgments of taste concerning the personal qualities of political rulers — whether they do so as cheering flag wavers or on the basis of a “personal impression,” as armchair image consultants, or as know-it-alls who prefer to judge the persuasiveness and believability of candidates according to how well they come across. The pluralist public sphere that characterizes functioning democracies justly distributes its disparaging and/or deferential assessments on the most diverse levels and for every set of standards, thus educating the public for the competent and critical enjoyment to be had in a partisan cult of personality, in the presentation of which it itself is fervidly involved.

Despite all that, governing democrats don’t rely on this harmony between the ruling power and its base. By letting the voters evaluate the performance of the state’s agents, democrats withdraw the state itself from such an assessment. By exposing the states’ personnel to the risk of being rejected by the people, they spare the state itself the discontent of those harmed by its rule, as well as the risk of being dependent on the people’s consent. Yet despite all this, ruling democrats still have some misgivings as to the benefits of allowing the rabble so much influence on state authority — both with regard to its potential effects on the appropriate exercise of necessary state power and to the necessary freedom of the ruling personnel. Somehow even the democratic division between an unchallenged raison d’état and its executors, who get exposed to the nagging of the masses and the danger of getting voted out of office, strikes democratic bearers of responsibility as being a bit dubious.

  • Whenever there’s an election on or several in the course of a year, professional democrats express their concerns about the course of state affairs. Government lags and necessary decisions go unmade because politicians are compelled to keep the goodwill of their constituencies in mind, preventing them from executing their power with the appropriate resoluteness. The exercise of power suffers due to the rivalry among candidates for office, and because of the fact that their competition gets settled by the governed, who according to the judgment of competent democrats are the most incompetent figure in the whole country.
  • Moreover, the ballot-casting rabble spoils the nations’ political mores. In a grotesque inversion of the actual relation between voters and candidates, the organizers of the democratic personality cult hold the addressee of all the embarrassing nonsense they throw at it to be accountable for these same idiocies. This is why election campaigns, the political education process for the holiest act of democracy, the process by which the political will of the people is formed, enjoy the poorest of reputations. The facts and information cited and given by politicians during election campaigns aren’t to be fully trusted; after all, the competing VIPs are on the campaign trail and must therefore beguile the masses. Promises are as necessary as they are unreliable, because the democratic sovereign needs to be deceived if it is to make the appropriate decision — of course, it can’t be a case of deception in the true sense of the term if the opposing party denounces it at once, though blunders will always be made here and there.
  • This is why the democratic kingdom of liberty doesn’t stick to complaining about the impossibility of explaining politics to the subjects while simultaneously having to gain their favor. As the authority that puts on elections, a constitutional state takes precautions in order to keep the mostly incalculable and constantly calculated mood of the voters from screwing anything up: it determines the conditions under which parties are permitted and forbidden, and sets the constitutional limits within which voters are to make their choice. Its laws regulate the mode of voting — majority voting system or proportional representation — and establish, for example, a “5% clause” that keeps minorities out of parliament. The state’s agencies supervise the electoral process and the ballot count, and reserve the right to settle any disputes that may arise. Major parties that campaign against each other cooperate with one another in getting themselves the money necessary for modern advertisement campaigns approved in the national budget, while excluding the more minor competitors from these funds and from access to the mainstream media, through which they might reach the people. For it has become an undisputed fact in stable democracies that electoral success is mainly a question of who can spend the most on advertising. Nor does it contradict democracy if participation in the voting process is made conditional upon one’s ripeness as a citizen, which is proved by one’s success in enduring a laborious and often oppressively organized voter registration process. This is one way of restricting the politically unstable lower classes’ right to vote — which in the mature democracies of the 21st century, however, is no longer of any particular concern. But there does remain another method for doing so, which is why a trick that once served in the heartland of democracy to prevent blacks and other subhumans from any chance of achieving undesired election victories is far from extinction:
  • The deliberate rearrangement of electoral districts for the purpose of preventing undesired election results — “gerrymandering,” as it is called in America — has been developed to perfection in the most modern two-party systems in order to secure one party’s victory for the long term. This practice betrays just how much democratic politicians suffer from the general rule that gives this mode of state rule its all-important seal of quality, namely that they as rulers are merely divisibly conjoined with the power they wield. Their identity with a portion of state power gets revoked after a lost election. After all, they make every effort to grow into their share of political power, and not just to do any old job — especially when they talk in this way. They want to represent the cause of the nation most personally — better and more definitively than all others, especially all other parties. Democratic politicians in particular regard election losses as bordering on coups and acts of treason. At any rate, such losses are most definitely unjust.
  • That’s why it’s only fitting that they do everything in their power — as long as they have it — to prevent the disaster of electoral defeat. It’s quite common for them to destroy their opponents morally and criminalize them with the aid of scandals exposed and exhibited by investigating state agencies. They spy on their competitors with forbidden means in order to thwart their election strategies. Campaign volunteers “organize” voting in rest homes or double voting. They hustle a bit in the ballot count, etc.…

Of course, electoral fraud is forbidden and is ostracized definitively wherever it is uncovered. The lines between legal and illegal tactics are blurry, and the temptation to secure pleasing results by unofficial means is constant and ubiquitous. But in the end and under protest, good democrats nevertheless place electoral procedure above their own rivalry. They don’t want to endanger the people’s reliable yes to the state — a yes that is produced by elections and that all rival parties are after. That’s why a losing candidate will concede defeat — however sulkily and underhandedly — and congratulate the victor for having gained the confidence of the voters. The victor in turn will thank the loser for his willing concession of defeat, show him his respect, declare the division of the people caused by the campaign to be healed and proclaim himself a President or Chancellor for all citizens. In genuinely democratic states, both the winners and the losers acknowledge each other as alternatives of the same thing. They know that the rival party defines the goals and the criteria of national success the same as they do themselves, and that they seek to achieve this success in approximately the same way. Their willingness to politely take their appropriate places in the constitutional order qualifies their harsh campaign rhetoric and makes clear that they obstructed each other in fact only because there isn’t enough room for both of them in the top governmental position. Under these circumstances, the losers of an election can live with their defeat, and the democratic state has reserved an honorable place for them as well: they are to sit in the opposition and content themselves with the share of power and money accorded to them until the next election.

It all works a bit differently elsewhere….

Why elections function a bit differently in dictatorships or “unstable democracies”

In states of this sort, the rulers are fully aware of the service that elections provide for the state, but they are a good deal more skeptical than their first rank democratic colleagues about the risk involved in consulting the will of the people. That a diversity of political parties expresses unity in the national cause is something they don’t want to rely upon. The head of state alone stands for the cause of the nation. It is the bearer of the state’s will; any alternatives constitute objections to the raison d’état itself, threaten to undermine the community and divide the people. In contrast to the democratic principle of a division between a steadfast and objective office of state in which allegedly nobody rules over anybody, and the interchangeable mandate holders vested with limited authority, “autocrats” insist on the indissoluble identity of state and statesman. It is in the leader’s plans and character that the society’s ruling will has its objectivity.

The efforts undertaken in these countries to equate a leader’s authority and personal power with the common good, as well as the suppression of any and all opposition, are not exactly a sign of trust in the stability of state-organized public life — and as a rule this mistrust is wholly justified. If political alternatives to the ruling party or junta are regarded per se as threats to the security of the state, this is because those in power have discerned virulent interests among the people; the former maintain — rightly or not — that to permit and legitimate these interests to a certain extent would be incompatible with what has been defined as the cause of the nation. They neither can nor want to see any constructive contribution in dissenting elements and positions. The latter in turn don’t accept the prevailing definition of what is permitted and forbidden, of what is acknowledged as legitimate and what is excluded; they find no lawful place in a community organized in this way. In countries where this is the case, it would in fact contradict the nation’s prevailing constitution if political pluralism were to be permitted, for here a suppressed party represents the threat of a different state, i.e., an attack on the existing one, and not merely a kind of reshuffling of the ruling personnel which is wholly consistent with the constitution.

“Authoritarian” statesmen, however, also regard themselves as being one with their peoples. Just like all those in power, they regard themselves as chief servants of the national community and see the exercise of their power as a way of protecting permitted, good and constructive citizens and their legitimate interests from threats at home and abroad. They also attach great importance to the citizens’ consent and agreement to their rule. To this end, these leaders arrange the acclamation of their rule. If they do this — as is common practice in the modern world of states — by holding elections, then that’s a contradiction indeed. They only permit an appearance of the division that is so essential to democratic elections, the one between the chief leader and the loyalty to his person on the one hand, and the nation’s cause represented by him on the other hand. They seek to get the benefit of free elections — the implicit and therefore absolutely fundamental acknowledgment of the ruling power that itself is not up for election, as well as the incontestable empowerment that the winning candidate can chalk up for himself — without the only method capable of performing this double service. If those in power indeed imitate this method, then the swindle immediately becomes apparent: they stage an electoral alternative that is therefore no alternative at all, and do not permit any real opposition — or if they do, then only under the condition that its powerlessness is obvious from the beginning and demonstrated in the end. The commander-in-chief’s self-portrayal as a leader whom the people willingly follow consequently lacks the thrill of competition, the element of proving one’s worth in campaign bouts, the lure that spurs the democratic illusion that by casting one’s vote as a referee in a party contest, one attains the summit of political freedom, thus eliminating every element of submission. Because the desired result always comes out anyway, the counting of the ballots lacks all excitement. The only thing that doesn’t come out in such elections is the actually desired result: the legitimation of the ruling power through the citizens’ willing act of submission; the effective appearance that the rulers have been commissioned to rule by their pawns; the empowerment of those elected, which only when disputed beforehand turns so unconditional afterwards.

The Demand for Free Elections…

…arises time and again in such countries. In the hope that the incumbent rulers would surely lose, a suppressed or uninfluential oppositional group translates the interests it sees ignored by the ruling party, and because of which it is at loggerheads with the latter, into a call for free and fair elections. On the one hand, this is a rather radical demand, because it wholly denies the legitimacy of the ruling government, i.e., its asserted unity with the people, and because this verdict is a declaration of the intention to overthrow those in power. On the other hand, it is a case of total political hypocrisy, since the argument they put forth for free and fair elections is in no way — except perhaps in the case of a few committed democratic idealists — the reason for their opposition and their objection to the government. The demand for elections always contains a neglected and oppressed interest — an interest that doesn’t find any further mention, but is clothed in the demand for pluralism and a free and fair chance at election for all. A desire to reorient the nation totally — be it in domestic or foreign policy — or to redefine which social interests are legitimate and illegitimate, perhaps in accordance with the dictates of a religious delusion, can lie behind this demand just as easily as the efforts of a tribal group, an “insider,” or an elitist clique that doesn’t see itself accorded an appropriate amount of influence, to gain power in order to get control over the nation’s sources of wealth, without changing anything else in the way the nation runs. Regardless of what their actual motives are, the unsatisfied opposition always reformulates them as a call for what has come to be acknowledged worldwide as the only decent method of state rule. An opposition’s far less honorable — in terms of national loyalty — political cause disappears behind this democratic veil. Any political intentions that such a group may have are summarized in the judgment that the current rulers don’t deserve the obedience of the people because they have disregarded, deceived or betrayed the will of the voters. The reason they give for their rulers’ deceit is always the same — they don’t even need to give any actual argument, possibly a tenable political-economic argument, for their findings, since the logic of their suspicion suffices completely: rulers who don’t consult the will of the people admit that they don’t genuinely represent the common good at all, but simply line their pockets at the expense of the people, enriching themselves and their corrupt cronies while neglecting the public interest. Their ruling apparatus is nothing but a “mafia,” whose sole interest is power and money, and their economic policy is a mere pact with oligarchs.

A similar sort of hypocritical criticism of state power was once the political error of a working class that was ready and willing to rise up and overthrow its rulers in a capitalist state. The parties at the head of the movement reduced the material discontent and agitation for proletarian class struggle to a democratic criticism of the method in which the “bourgeois dictatorship” executed its rule. Initially, their hope was that by achieving a landslide electoral victory, they could carry out the desired social revolution through the use of state power and by means of law. In the end, the sole remaining content and the logical end of their will to change was the desire for democratization. In this way any contradiction to the system inherent in the needs of the working class has been neutralized in democratic fashion; the working class itself has been domesticated politically to its own lasting harm and integrated into the market economy.

Yet nowadays when the call for free election sounds anywhere in the world, it is not a case of a powerful material interest that has sacrificed itself in the demand for democratic fairness. Instead, this call is raised by alternative state rulers looking to take over state power in order to advance their own causes — which are hardly beneficial for the greater majority of the citizens. In order to attain this goal, they seek to mobilize any discontent whatsoever among the likewise poorly treated citizens, and use the methodological demand for a democratically legitimated government as a fitting slogan under which they gather together any and all kinds of unsatisfied needs in their societies. Especially in the state ruins of the former USSR, deposed political careerists have fashioned themselves into would-be heads of state, promising their devotees a “velvet,” “rose,” or “orange” “revolution,” and declaring war on the presiding governments, for which they don’t assert a single harmed material interest from among the mobilized masses. And they don’t need to either, since they know and count on the fact that their efforts to overthrow their governments enjoy the support of powerful foreign sponsors.

2. When the call for free elections sounds from abroad

Even more so than the local patrons of the oppressed, nowadays foreign statesman are the ones voicing a longing for free elections — George W. Bush is but the avant-garde. He has declared his nation guardian of oppressed peoples against their dictators, encouraging internal opposition, promising them material support and real protection against their domestic rulers, who the oppressed are to denounce courageously for the injustice of not having legitimized their rule properly:

“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country…. Fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.” (Bush, second Inaugural Address)

That’s not exactly the kind of old-fashioned foreign policy envisioned (but never actually existing) in international law and the UN Charter. The United States no longer seeks to undermine sovereigns that it can’t stand by attempting to do business with them, control them with both the carrot and the stick, and limit their foreign political activity. It no longer even addresses itself to the will of these regimes, but instead promises bluntly to liberate their subjects. Regime change is thus no longer something that imperialist democracies carry out in secret (such as the CIA in South America); today, they openly proclaim subversion and overthrow to be their explicit objective, and claim to be bringing good to the world. The times are long gone when the Soviet Union was accused of “exporting revolution,” implementing an alleged “Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty for socialist countries,” thereby pursuing the most atrocious acts of imperialism and violating every principle of peaceful international relations. Today, the validity of the “Bush Doctrine,” which declares the nullity of the sovereignty of every state on America’s hit list, is real and undisputed.

The reason for America’s freedom export is no mystery: the regimes it threatens to topple represent a disturbance to American interests — not because they don’t permit elections, but because of their foreign political claims and activities. Slobodan Milosevic’s and Saddam Hussein’s respective regional ambitions upset American and European control interests in the Balkans, while Georgian President Eduard Schevardnadze and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma became intolerable because of their all-too friendly relations with Russia. Bush openly declares that for the sake of his superpower’s security and freedom of action, he wants a world of compliant governments that take their orientation from Washington. That’s what he calls freedom: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the extension of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one” (ibid.). America is “now” so much the paradigm of political good that its own self-interest coincides most fortunately with its noble mission in the service of liberty. Conversely, the fact that America is pursuing its own interests in spreading liberty to all corners of the world makes its commitment to this good cause all the more believable and reliable. Any ruler that defies America’s interests, insists on its own kind of state rule and its own way of securing its legitimacy, and rejects Bush’s demand for free elections as constituting an “interference in internal affairs,” thereby outs itself as an enemy of America and its own citizens. Rulers like these expose themselves as dictators and deserve nothing better than to be overthrown; to deprive them of their power is to perform a service for the people they oppress.

Wherever the American government finds a kind of nationalism in power that it takes to be an intolerable disturbance to American interests, and therefore a danger for America’s security, it goes on the offensive and concludes publicly that there is obviously something wrong with the nationalism within that country, with the way in which the dominant interests are organized there, and with its whole mode of rule in general. It concludes that the constitution of governments that obstruct American imperialist interests must be flawed fundamentally, namely undemocratic, and must be eliminated. Armed with this condemnation, Bush is going after a world of states whose governments really do see themselves confronted by domestic oppositions (whether at home or in mostly American exile) they can’t get rid of — interests that won’t submit or be brought into line, or the permission of which would call into question parts of or even the whole foundation of the order that these regimes regard as indispensable to their rule; interests that consequently are suppressed violently and whose champions have even begun to transform their aims into the methodological demand for free elections. In one sense, the American government couldn’t care less about what kind of desolate domestic circumstances have given rise to the discontent invoked by the various oppositional groups, nor about the actual substance and objectives of this discontent, inasmuch as it indeed exists. It doesn’t even care about the political aims put forward by the alternative nationalism represented by the excluded oppositional groups now encouraged by George W. Bush to make a bid for power. There is, however, one respect in which America has a decidedly strong interest: it senses a desire within this kind of national opposition to deprive the local rulers of power, and looks for ways to take advantage of it. That’s why one needn’t fear that the great American capitalist power, through an even greater irony of history, might end up acting as protective guardian over the numerous and ubiquitous destitute farmers, exploited mineworkers, pauperized merchants and other victims of worldwide capitalist progress, a progress that takes its toll on a massive scale in many countries, and whose governments react with suppression. Nor is there any danger that the world’s policeman might end up getting enlisted for the interests of discontented separatists and fanatics who have come along seeking to found a new state. The situation in fact is the other way around: the U.S. government subsumes oppositional groups all over the world under its global political discontent with surviving enemies and problem cases; it finds that some of them are useful for its ends and others are not. Wherever possible, America enlists the victims of other states and their would-be powermongers as “fifth columns” in its current imperialist freedom campaign. The United States itself keeps a number of “democratic reformers” up its sleeve who it has recruited from the various ethnic minorities that have landed on America’s shores over the years, and whom Bush has promised careers as “future leaders” of their home countries. The kind of “revolution” that the freedom-bringing world changers in Washington are looking to export definitely doesn’t consist in a social transformation for the purpose of thoroughly bettering miserable living conditions. Their powerful demand for freedom all over the world, which Bush supports with a discreet reference to America’s “influence,” is nothing less and nothing more than a new way of declaring war.

This variant of intervening in the name of liberty, which the Bush administration has already resorted to in Afghanistan and Iraq, is therefore quite fitting:

Freedom Comes on the Backs of Bombs: War for Elections

In this scenario, an oppressed people gets liberated militarily from its undemocratic rulers. The price to be paid for this service includes the death of a good portion of the population, whether intended deliberately or as “collateral damage” caused by the firepower of the jets and tanks of freedom. After all, these people constituted the armed and unarmed human basis of a rogue regime. Not until the old rulers have been eliminated and the conquerors have taken control of the capital do the survivors receive the gift of liberty and the chance to vote. And what is it that they are allowed to vote for? The new state of affairs of course — the authority of the occupying power! Now it is the one that puts on elections, supervises their implementation and — as is appropriate — provides the authoritative interpretation of the results. It bans the former ruling party, devises a provisional national constitution and sets the framework within which desired political forces are permitted to organize themselves and court potential voters. If need be, an occupying power will even define the national collective itself and ask this collective by means of the ballot box if it has any interest in being a national collective at all and founding its own state. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, local authorities commissioned by the United States have called upon the citizens to go to the voting booths and elect a president or parliament for the state installed by the superpower and its accomplices. When they go voting, the demanded yes to the state comes out — regardless of whether these countries’ traditional ethnic and religious communities, whose representatives have just been granted the eligibility to run for office and make use of it, even want to form a common state at all. The voters needn’t side with any political alternatives for governing the nation at all — it’s no problem if they vote for representatives of their respective clans or religious communities, who stand for totally distinct and irreconcilable state projects. “Nation-building” occupiers see these elections as confirming themselves as supreme authority over the country and express their gratitude to the voters for having demonstrated such a strong sense of national duty. For the future they then invoke the majority’s declared approval of the new state power they have installed to rule over the majority as well as the minority.

Before the occupying power worries about what kind of undependable fellows the natives end up electing, it is of utmost importance that they go to the polls at all. In this way an invader intends to give its rule, which is founded only upon the proven superiority of its military force, the form of the rule of law. The very people it has conquered, therefore, are to acknowledge its authority as constituting the new, legitimate state order. They are to empower the predator to rule over its prey, and retroactively commission the former to have carried out a war against their own country. Elections are a test to see if a sufficient portion of the conquered people is (already) ripe for this demand. To ensure this outcome, the occupying force doesn’t so much count on the conquered people’s desire for liberty, a desire it invokes constantly, and it counts only partially on their positive political attitude towards the kind of community it is looking to impose. Instead, it reckons with the positive effects of the chaos it has itself created: war and occupation, suppression and resistance make any kind of normal life impossible — so much so that the maltreated population comes to regard any halfway functional monopoly on the use of force, regardless of who has it, as a positive precondition for being able to survive and live. In the face of such chaos, all these people want is a return to peace…

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the militant enemies of the American occupation also knew that if the masses did indeed vote, then regardless of who they voted for, they would be legitimating the alternatives presented by the occupying force, and with that the occupation itself. They directed their militant activities, therefore, towards preventing orderly elections. And this is why these elections turned into an out and out war over their being held. And indeed, hardly had elections taken place in the halfway controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in which in Iraq nearly 60% of the electorate went to the polls, George W. Bush stepped before the cameras and thumbed his nose at America’s stubborn allies, proclaiming: There you have it! The Afghanis want our guy to be President! The Iraqis want to reconstruct their land under our authority and protection! The elections prove that we did the right thing in going to war and that you in Old Europe are the ones who are isolated!

Of course, the export of democratic electoral freedom from the empire of the free world order into the needy peoples of the world can also function in other, non-military ways.

Regime change in the former Eastern Bloc: Elections as a substitute for war

Yes, it’s possible! And more and more often! In the former Soviet Union, a whole slew of new nations have arisen — and all of them have come to the conclusion that socialism and internationalism were absolute dead-ends and simply not conducive to the greatness of their ethnicities. For the past fifteen years they have demonstrated their commitment to the Western economy and way of life — also, of course, to the system of political freedom. Yet through this act of national liberty, their communities have experienced an epochal downfall and a corresponding rise in the impoverishment of their peoples. These countries are full of people who are dependent on serving the state in order to earn a livelihood and yet aren’t being called upon to serve; there are just as many who are indeed enlisted to perform such work but are not paid. So there is plenty of discontent that can be exploited here. There are also many political leaders who have been fully determined to take advantage of the opportunity to mobilize their own followers in the spirit of this new pluralism, build up rival positions of power and interpret this massive amount of discontent as a political longing for which they — and only they — are the solution. What hasn’t come about in these countries — even after the one or the other electoral shift of governmental power — is a societal constitution that might provide the masses so recently liberated from the support of socialist care with any bearable prospect of making a living and thus with an obligation to accept the new authority as an indispensable force for order. How could this happen, if all the advocates of this newly attained liberty insist that the state relieve itself of its responsibility for the livelihood of its people, and when all those who are able to get access to the inherited resources of wealth can appropriate them privately?

Under circumstances such as these, free elections automatically turn into power struggles over access to remnants of state power and former national wealth, conflicts that further disintegrate the community. Whoever succeeds in these conflicts then goes on to exclude its rivals from participating in any further power struggles, be it for the purpose of securing and building upon its own victory, or just to somehow keep the state from falling apart — which usually amounts to the same thing anyway. Even the most recent victors, however, are hesitant to renounce free elections; after all, these have proved useful as a vehicle for their own ambitions. And they can’t afford to do so anyway, for it is precisely in this regard that they stand under the strictest supervision of the democratic superpowers. The latter always find a reason to protect parties that have been excluded from any further fight for state control. That is why the local rulers diligently stage elections, which unfold accordingly: the incumbent governments do everything to keep the outcome from being determined by the arbitrariness of their discontented voters. So it’s no wonder that it is so easy to uncover the unfairness of such elections. And as soon as leaders of the European Union or the United States becomes displeased with a government in power and resolves to replace it with an opposition from whom they feel they can expect more promising results, they put their wish into action. They revoke the unwished government’s claim to legitimacy gained through its subjects’ assent and push for coups in states whose attempts at self-assertion don’t suit their own imperialist plans. Since Belgrade 2000 — the overthrow of Milosevic — there is even a proper script for such a policy, a policy that the superpowers don’t carry out through secret channels, but instead preach to the whole world.

The script goes like this: First of all, you find yourself a suppressed or excluded opposition; if there isn’t any, you build one up yourself. After all, that’s why you grant asylum to a stock of substitute leaders and exiled enemies of other governments in the first place! Then you offer the local discontents, of which you are sure to find plenty, a manner of articulating their interests that transgresses the bounds permitted by the current order, thereby raising an alternative that is intolerable to the local state power. You then equip your creation with far more money and marketing material than the competition could possibly mobilize. More placards, more pop concerts and more TV spots impress the voters — far beyond the pens and balloons these people actually receive. Even the stupidity that is so much a part of free elections is something that their exporters can count on without a second thought in the case of the children and grandchildren of “real existing socialism.” These citizens who were once so well educated by a “protective dictatorship” can’t think of anything better to do with their poverty and misery than to place their hopes on the next ruling figure, whose sole program is summarized in the slogan “westward” — the very cause of their current troubles — and yet at least who is able to prove by his plentiful funds that he’s got potent sponsors in the West.

Second, you intervene and deliver the required evidence of the local state power’s election fraud. Even before the election takes place, you cast doubt on the capability and desire of local state authorities to carry out a fair election. Then you offer to send your own security forces to ensure the fairness of the voting process, the storage and transport of the ballot boxes; you keep experts at the ready who put together voter lists, construct voting systems and monitor the counting of the ballots. The very offer of such assistance discredits the local authority holding the elections — whether it accepts the offer or not. For if the suspected local state power welcomes assistance from abroad, it demonstrates that it is no longer the sole ruling power over the country; but if it turns the offer down, it all but openly concedes attempted electoral fraud. In this case, you donate computers or even whole polling institutes to the opposition, with whose help the latter can put together unofficial voter lists and take postelection polls in order to demonstrate the fraud on election night itself.

Once the ballots are in the box, the third act of the drama begins. You, as the foreign organizer of the overthrow, naturally refuse to acknowledge the official vote count confirming the reigning government’s victory; your diplomats then ensure that it also doesn’t find any international recognition. The freelance professional auxiliaries of this imperialist freedom export play an essential role in this connection: the electoral observers from the European Council, the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Carter Foundation in Atlanta and other NGOs have the honorable task of providing this imperialist penetration with the appearance of objectivity and believability. They are the ones who validate just about every election in disputed and dependent parts of the world. They inspect voter lists, visit voting centers and count ballots, all in order to record the “irregularities” that of course exist — especially in elections that foreign powers have turned into an opportunity to overthrow the government. Such irregularities aren’t very informative in and of themselves, since they occur everywhere anyway — so observers with a resolute point of view are required who evaluate them quantitatively and qualitatively in order to work out a general appraisal of the vote. Unequal access to the media, bribery of tribal elders and washable ink that doesn’t exactly prevent certain activists from voting twice didn’t necessarily invalidate the elections in Afghanistan, in which the West’s man got his approval. The elections may not have been perfect, but they were pretty darn OK given the circumstances in this remote area — and thus totally valid! Similar accusations concerning the obstruction of oppositional parties in other places (e.g., in Belarus, where the anti-Western President, Lukaschenko, was able to organize an overwhelming amount of consent to his rule) render elections wholly undemocratic and therefore invalid. Western supervisors have meanwhile become the ultimate authority over all elections all over the world. Local electoral commissions are given an ear, but stand under the general suspicion of bias and fraudulence. Not until Western inspectors have given their stamp of approval does the election become valid. And they let it be known if and how often elections need to be repeated until an acceptable result emerges. Regimes that don’t apply for the democratic seal of approval or ignore the bad marks given to them from Western electoral inspectors risk disqualification.

In the last act, if “our” opposition has lost according to the official vote count, then it has to refuse to accept the results of the national electoral commission. It takes to the streets with a few thousand activists or more against the fraudulent winners, occupies the capital and parliament, and presents the power in office with an ultimatum: shoot or capitulate. It then ups the ante with the expectation that those in power will once again refute the bad reputation of all dictators by stepping down peacefully — be it because they are indeed serious about their job as a “father of the fatherland” and about preserving domestic peace, or because they don’t want to ruin their relations with the world powers that decide upon the success or failure of their state’s ambitions, or because they have to reckon with the resolve of their opponents’ Western sponsors to use every tool in their arsenal if a dictator doesn’t accept electoral defeat peacefully. Depending upon the circumstances, burdensome “autocrats,” upon reaching “the end of their rope,” get put into a home, put on house arrest or given a show trial.


That’s how the West’s new method of procuring vassal states works. That’s how a “miracle in Kiev” or in Tblisi can come about — or in Kabul and Baghdad and who knows where else. You can read the script and the performance in any newspaper. But all that doesn’t seem to reflect poorly on the imperialist powers that carry out regime changes with or without war, and that mold other states according to their own interests. On the contrary, the fact that an occupying power holds an election and succeeds in pulling off a coup by election seems to wholly justify war, occupation and subversion. After all, the voters have played their role and given their vote in the elections imposed upon them and taken advantage of by these powers. It’s true that these people didn’t need to be forced to do that, and they couldn’t have been forced to do that — so they’ve exercised their freedom. And apparently that’s sufficient to ennoble imperialist occupancy.

© GegenStandpunkt 2007