Is This Tyranny?

How losing the right to vote changed my understanding of America

Feisal G. Mohamed
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

A funny thing happened in 2008: I lost the right to vote. Having been a non-resident of Canada for five years, I could no longer cast an absentee ballot. And not being a citizen of the United States, I could not, still cannot, vote where I live. So there it is. I am, in the eyes of the world’s elections agencies, an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere.

Being shut out of the central rite of democratic life is an odd feeling at first. You get a bit resentful watching the news and seeing a smiling villager from a place without electricity flashing a purple index finger. “Show-­off,” you grumble to yourself. But you get used to it. You think a little more about the stuff of citizenship, and what it really means to fashion a life of civic engagement. The farcical nature of elections, the technicolor circus of it all, starts to come into very clear focus, and feels a lot like a distraction from the aim of achieving a democratic society. An election is a pageant whereby a ruling class gains an aura of legitimacy. It is much more a coronation than a summoning of popular will. Imagine for a moment if nobody voted and everyone joined a union. The powers that be would shit their pants.

During this particular quadrennial festival of democracy-­like activity, one is left to wonder if the nation has turned a corner. Is the American republic now a democratic tyranny? That may seem a harsh assessment, but it is hard not to think so given an enormously time-­consuming impeachment trial that everyone knew would lead nowhere at all, with one party sticking up for its President and the other sticking up for its presidential candidate.

Reports are rapidly spreading that COVID-19 testing has been intentionally slowed by President Trump, in the fear that a large number of confirmed cases would harm his reelection bid; the reports, which are well-documented, are readily believable because we all already know that the lives of individuals are held cheap and the ambitions of elected officials dear. As is so often the case, Trump’s ugliness is the ugliness of American life laid bare.

During the high-­octane wheel-­spinnery of impeachment, Congress began half-­heartedly tinkering with a bill placing modest limits on the pharmaceutical industry’s price-­gouging of patients with diabetes, moving with leaden steps while people die because they cannot afford a present-­day version of a drug first patented in 1923, when the patent was sold for a dollar by researchers committed to making their life-­saving discovery widely available. At this writing, both the Senate and the House versions of the Insulin Price Reduction Act are stuck in committee. One wonders if these bills will make it out alive.

Political philosophers typically describe tyranny as a corrupt version of monarchy, and anarchy as a corrupt version of democracy. So “democratic tyranny” may be apt for our moment but is also a strange beast, both in terms of this nation’s history and of history more generally. The contrast between the impeachment and the insulin bill might help us see its defining anatomical features. In a democratic tyranny, both official parties are beholden to powerful elites and have little regard for the public interest. The democratic promise of representatives faithfully serving citizens, who are then authors of the laws they are obliged to obey, is a sham, highjacked by the priorities of two parties seeking power above all else. The comedy of the old joke darkens a few shades: no matter who you vote for, the government wins the election. Voters aligned with both parties seem increasingly to realize this, and, most conspicuously at the level of presidential candidates, have grown skeptical of those groomed and favored by party elites. But like all iterations of celebrity culture, the presidency matters only so much: watching as a person with no vote to cast, the shouty televised debates with their Tweetable moments look a lot like a reality television series, Keeping Up with the Candidates. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who actually speak a language of public interest, have, predictably, been voted off the island, in favor of a toothy cipher of a candidate with a long and storied career of timeserving, and the party’s foundation, its nameless functionaries, and its congresspeople, and senators, and governors, reliably work toward self-­perpetuation and self-enrichment.

Imagine for a moment if nobody voted and everyone joined a union. The powers that be would shit their pants.

We can see this as an entirely predictable consequence of the enormous amount of money at stake in electoral politics. But the inability of the people to gather and effect change points to deeper social and cultural issues. Modern tyrannies are as much about forms of economic order as they are about forms of political order. And the neoliberal economic order that we inhabit seeks to erode thick human relationships, replacing them with transactional ones. For someone like F. A. Hayek, the economist widely deemed a founding father of neoliberalism, it is a very good thing that economic thinking has come to dominate human relationships. All social interaction should work the way contracts do, where two parties pursue their interests, hash out an agreement both can accept, and then abide by its terms. This is a model for wresting cooperation and mutual reliance out of the teeth of modern acquisitiveness and competition. For Hayek the market is devoted not only to the pursuit of capital, but can also stage peaceful and reciprocal action adaptable to many human aims, and as such offers a means of organizing fractious modern societies.

Those are ideas worth taking seriously for half a second. We will soon see that the market is a terrible model for humanity’s social needs. Action may be reciprocal in the market, but we know that the quid pro quo of market exchange is rarely an encounter of equals: the more powerful and wealthy actor, or the one deeming himself to be more powerful and wealthy, will seek to dictate the terms of the agreement. This makes the encounters of the market less about cooperation and mutual benefit than they are about the drive to dominate others, seeking at every turn to wield the kind of power that can then be used to negotiate from a position of advantage.

In the Politics, Aristotle describes the erosion of social bonds as a means by which tyrannies maintain themselves. The “safeguards of tyranny” are “the prohibition of common meals and club-­fellowship and education,” to wit, “the employment of every means that will make people as much as possible unknown to one another (for familiarity increases mutual confidence).” Certainly our knowledge of modern totalitarian states should lead us to the same conclusion. The elaborate network of informants employed by the Stasi, the secret police of the German Democratic Republic, made it impossible to trust anyone, even members of one’s own household. This is no accidental consequence, but, rather, a central aim of tyrannous rule. We all know we are headed for a world where the Stasi’s reams of secret files will be replaced by the constant surveillance of a 5G network, transforming our every move into monetizable, and policeable, data. What will that feel like? Post-­9/11 outrage over government inquiries into public library records will be a very quaint antiquity indeed. This grand instrumentalization of our movements and relationships feels like an excellent means of managing us in a way assuring that resistance never gets off the ground. This country’s most brutal impositions on nonconsenting subjects have always sought to destroy social bonds as a means of stifling potential rebellion, whether in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, which employed an educational regime ripping children from their parents, or under slavery and its nefarious legacy, including present-­day mass incarceration.

True to form, Marx anticipated the ways in which capital would disrupt our core social relationships. Read aright, there is a strong philosophical and political charge to the remark in the Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie “has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” This captures neatly the social harms of capitalist order. Economics are no longer defined by households organizing themselves in a way providing sustenance, but by the demands of the market, with its constant appetite for labor. The pursuit of capital then reshapes concerns both public and private. Now deemed a waste of monetizable labor-­time, the leisured space for contemplation no longer exists in the household or anywhere else, and pursuit of the good is no longer the aim of household management or public partnership, both of which become focused on the advancement of market goals. Or, put differently, Marx already foresaw that capital would inevitably yield such monstrous births as Hayek.

What is the form of social organization that can heal the erosion of human bonds and be a springboard of resistance? The Facebook group? Ha, ha. “Social distancing” has taken on a new meaning in the age of COVID-19. What’s striking is how little it shocks to have more distance, often amounting to more mediation by screens, once the panic of transition settles. Like good little lambs we know already how to bound into our narrow, fenced little pastures with individuals of the same identity group or political affiliation. Or, worse still, we take utterly meaningless associations and raise them to the intensity of an identity group or political affiliation (“I just can’t talk to someone who buys eggs in a Styrofoam carton”). This is a destructive inversion of the twentieth-­century union movement, when people forged a common cause in the teeth of their contempt and animosity toward one another, ethnic or otherwise. I do despair that our economic, political, technological environment renders us all but incapable of difficult solidarities. And that Aristotle had it right when he saw that keeping us all unknown to one another is a means by which tyranny perpetuates itself.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale. Also trained in law, he is the author, most recently, of Sovereignty.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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