(ed. originally published September 25, 2013 – here!)
“To start: I’m bemused by my own inclusion on this panel. I don’t see myself as having any special access to information that isn’t available to all of us here today.
I don’t have a lot of personal experience in electoral politics. As you may have seen in my brief bio, the last time I voted was during the first season of American Idol and even then, I was phoning it in…
[pause for riotous laughter]
Being a non-voter isn’t much of a distinction, of course – only 12% of registered voters here in Los Angeles voted for our new mayor – Eric Garcetti. I’d like you to join me in thinking about that for a moment:
We live in a city where 88% of those REGISTERED TO VOTE didn’t vote for the city’s leader. In fact, the overwhelming majority – including the undocumented, people with felony convictions and others denied participation – aren’t even included in that figure.
Reform-minded people believe this is an indication that we need better voter recruitment. But as I sit on this panel with three passionate advocates for social and ecological justice who have clearly devoted considerable time to that very project, I don’t see the tangible fruits of their labor. In fact, the level of environmental degradation during their lifetimes has worsened.
In fact, despite their tremendous efforts, for the first time since the Pliocine (2.6-5 million years ago), CO2 levels have now reached 400 ppm. I’m pretty sure this might be significant.
So what am I doing here? Why am I on this panel and what can I contribute to the dialogue we’re having today?
My original plan today was to demonstrate precisely how futile I think the electoral process is.
So, when I first accepted this token, anarchist position up here, I began scheming with my comrades about how to use this conference – and my privileged position on this very panel – to draw an elaborate analogy to the electoral process itself. The point would be to emphasize how the urgency of the issues today prove electoral politics are insufficient.
You see – right now – I am functioning as a representative – much the same way representative government allegedly functions in the United States today.
So as your representative on this panel – I now clearly wield a certain amount of power. I can say whatever I want right now.
See? I just screamed “elephants,” apropos of nothing. That’s the kind of power I’m talking about. I’m controlling the dialogue.
And now I could talk about elephants for the rest of my time if I want in much the same way our elected representatives use feints and sleight-of-hand to distract us with topics like “debt ceilings” or “chemical weapons in Syria” and whatnot.
And let’s be honest: if this were a government post and not just a panel at a conference in Culver City, much like our elected representatives, the things I say and do would far more likely reflect the interests of the people the 12% who elected me and those who fill my coffers and ensure my re-election than those of the fine people we have assembled here today.
That being the case, in the performance I planned with my comrades to present to you today , I was just going to sit here in complete silence for my allotted fifteen minutes.
Yes – I was thinking of going full Andy Kaufman.
And I’d just sit here. I wouldn’t say anything to you. At all. We’d just wallow in an uncomfortable silence together. That was my plan, anyway.
I guess now I should confess something: this is my first panel. In fact, at this rate, it seems like it very well be my last. Knowing that – I have a lot of courage to shake up things up. I also have no understanding of how this kind of thing works. One of my comrades – who actually has participated in this panel-type of thing before – was pessimistic about my ability to hold this space for a full fifteen minutes without speaking. She relayed her concerns to me:
“The emcee or moderator will interject pretty quickly if you sit silently and you’ll just end up forfeiting your time,” she warned me.
I still wasn’t discouraged. I figured I could then use that as part of the act – to say, “look, the moderator is the person with the real power. That’s the person with the money! Just like our politicians!” Or to echo the oversimplification of “occupy,” that 1 person represents the so-called 1% actually running things. I could incorporate that into my presentation to great effect, I thought.
“Well, what if people in the audience leave?” She then asked.
“That’d be great, too,” I laughed. “I could shout out that leaving a panel, much like divesting from a sham election that gives power to wholly-owned, silver-spoon-fed neoliberal shill like Garcetti – that finding a better way to spend our time – is exactly what we SHOULD be doing!”
My comrade relented. It seemed I wasn’t going to be dissuaded by her reasonable points. So she instead joined in helping me plan this subversion. As most of my comrades are sex workers and other academics, the rest seemed enthusiastic about my inclination to shake it up.
I thought such a performance here would aptly demonstrate just how wasteful electoral politics – especially in this time of crisis and environmental catastrophe – has proven itself over the years. Sure, maybe some of you would think I was a clown – but some of you might agree we have to DO something besides pull a lever and wait for power to concede to our pipsqueak-sized, electoral ‘demand’ of incremental, ecological reform. Because even when we do win in that venue, we are rewarded with such pyrrhic victories as the Kyoto Protocol, which was never even ratified by the largest polluter on the planet – the United States. Domestically, we get the EPA, an agency that has been systematically defanged since its very inception in 1970.
Some of us call ourselves “revolutionaries,” my question is – what is revolutionary about waiting forty more years and engaging in an electoral war of attrition just to maintain the modest safeguards we achieved in 1970? The motto of this very conference is “System change, not climate change,” right?
I hold in my hands a book very few of you may recognize. I myself stumbled upon it in the vault above the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles.
The book is called “Beyond Repair: The Ecology of Capitalism” by a Marxist-Leninist named Barry Weisberg. It was published in 1971.
I’d like to read a few passages from Weisberg:
“The present environmental destruction is increasingly the product of a structure of economic and political power that consolidates and sustains itself through the systematic destruction of the human species and the physical world.”
“We completely fail to grasp the magnitude of death perpetrated by the American colossus.”
“As always, America has made out of a social crisis yet another commodity.”
“The restoration of natural balance depends today upon the destruction of that social order and the birth of a new poetry of human relations.”
Remember: these sage words were written in 1971. That’s eight years BC, or “before Craig” as I like to call it. And yet they seem just as applicable in 2013 as they should have been then.
Now let me be clear: I’m not against voting. If you want to vote, I’m certainly not going to stop you.
For me, however, electoral politics are merely an arrow in the environmentalist’s quiver. But I hope I’ve made it clear that I personally consider that arrow to be one of the least effective, low-impact weapons available in our arsenal. And while the empire reinforces its armored tanks and extends its array of fortified pipelines that no arrow yet has pierced, we’re still talking about how to sharpen those arrows.
If my good friends here want to vote, I’m not going to try to stop them. I’m not going to tell them or any of you how to spend your time. I can only tell you how I’m going to spend my time. And it isn’t in a voting booth, or going door-to-door on a GOTV campaign, or trying to find the representative who finally won’t succumb to the Siren-song of finance capital.
Going back for a moment to the 12% who voted for Mayor Garcetti, I want to remind you all that only 3% of the colonial population here fought in the so-called Revolutionary War. Only 10% actively supported the uprising against the British Empire.
So the question I wish to pose is this: would you rather spend your limited time on this limited planet while it hurtles toward mass displacements and widespread famine trying to get to maybe 13% of registered, Los Angeles voters to elect a representative who might instead talk only about elephants or would you rather spend that time trying to convince a mere 3% of the population that there is no other choice but to smash capitalism altogether?
To re-appropriate the language of the capitalists, in a cost-benefit analysis, for me, the answer seems obvious.