October 1, 2004

Stick A Fork In the Road

When I talk with people about contemporary Zimbabwe, they usually have two questions. The first is what I make of the contemporary situation—whereupon I lay out my argument that the international perception that the crisis is primarily about white farmers and government land seizures is a profound misunderstanding of the problem that essentially falls for the Mugabe government’s diversionary tactics.

The second is what I think can be done about it, either by outsiders or Zimbabweans themselves.

The answer I have to that is, “Not much”. I don’t seem to be the only one with that answer. Pius Ncube, the courageous Zimbabwean archbishop who has emerged as one of the outspoken critics of the Mugabe regime, has said much the same thing, that outsiders and Zimbabweans alike are both oddly powerless in the face of misrule and disaster. The popular discontent in Zimbabwe runs deep, particularly in urban areas, but the governing party brutalizes active or vocal dissenters and uses food aid and other public institutions to rein in everyone else. Under those conditions, it’s wise and fair not to expect too much from popular opposition. People do what they can, and often, what they must, but the state has many tools at its disposal and few if any scruples about their use.

Observers have speculated for years that change might come from within the governing party rather than from outside of it, that younger members of the party might mount a challenge in recognition that it is better to take over the ship and right its course than sink with it. The senior figures in the party will fight that to the end, of course: any break in the current autocracy spells disaster for their personal survival. A new reformist regime, even one originating from inside the governing party, is eventually going to have to clean house in order to move forward and reforge a connection to the nation.

This is one of the big reasons why few kleptocrats do what you’d think a rational person might do after plundering their nation, which is to just pack up and leave once they’ve swelled their Swiss bank accounts to sufficient size. Wouldn’t you rather live in obscure comfort abroad than hold onto power and have to run desperately one step ahead of the eventual palace coup or revolutionary uprising? But Mugabe couldn’t quit even if he wanted to: the older party hacks and generals around him wouldn’t allow it. They’re truly a collective interest, a sort of “mini-class”. When he goes, they probably go too.

The young and ambitious members of the governing party might want to save the government from itself and satisfy their own ambitions in one go, and have wanted that for some time. There was a moment where everyone thought articulate, intelligent, courageous Eddison Zvobgo would manage to force Mugabe out of the leadership, for example. But now Zvobgo is dead (after having survived a probable assassination attempt in 1996) and Mugabe is still there, a mummified despot determined to preside over the ruins he made. You can prophesize the coming of a Gorbachev or de Klerk, but I think you’ll always be surprised when he actually shows up. Even if there’s a coup within a party, there’s no guarantee of a real reformer seizing the reins. Sometimes all you get is a younger autocrat.

What Zimbabwe now is, it shall be for many years to come, even after Mugabe is put six feet under. But what is now is, it did not have to become: the men in power chose this future for all the wrong reasons. They did not have to. The fact that most postcolonial states in Africa have tended towards the same gruesome political fate is a parallel conjuncture, not a structural inevitability.

The distinction between those two things is on my mind all the time both as a social scientist and as a concerned citizen deeply worried about the political direction of my own nation. Which is the 2004 election? Conjuncture or structure? When I see the numbers of people who appear ready to vote for George Bush, I’m forced increasingly to think the latter, that there is some social formation that has cohered around the figure of Bush that is effectively immobile and unpersuadable. A vote which is profoundly integrated into and expressive of fundamental social antagonisms between large constituencies in the United States, more a kind of "fuck you" to groups of Americans you hate than a "I think, though I'm open to thinking otherwise, that this is the right thing to do" kind of choice.

I agree that there’s a kind of short-term rationality involved when social conservatives vote for George Bush—even when they vote for someone as unambiguously ill-suited for public office as Alan Keyes. Those men really do represent the primary interests of that constituency. I think there’s a long-term irrationality about that choice, because as I’ve said in this space before, to bid for control of the state to impose a cultural and social revolution on a large plurality opposed to it is at the least counterproductive and at the worst apocalyptically self-destructive. But I understand it.

I still don’t understand fully the other part of the solidly pro-Bush constituency that I encounter online and in everyday life. It’s not so much irrational as arational in my reading. I don’t understand where it’s coming from in social terms--it seems rather heterogenous and distributed--or whether it is in fact a structurally immobile, deeply fixed political posture whose terms draw from something prior to and unaffected by conjunctural political thought or experience. It doesn't seem economically or politically self-interested to me in the way that Thomas Frank argues it is (I have been thinking a lot about Frank lately, but Michael Berube has said most of what I might say, and far better than I could). Maybe most of Kerry's voters are the same way: using their vote as a communicative act, expressing deep-rooted social identities in antagonism to others, rather than as a reasoned, affirmative choice.

I don’t really know if there’s much of anybody making what I would call a choice this November, voting one way while conceivably holding out the possibility of voting another under some other circumstance. I hear from the non-religious Bush voters that they don’t like or trust John Kerry, but it’s not clear to me that they would like or trust anyone but Bush in 2004, perhaps not even Republicans at the fringes of the party consensus like John McCain or Colin Powell. I begin to think that their feelings about Kerry come from someplace that precedes conscious thought, from the sources and wellsprings of their own social identity and self-perception.

Is there a fork in the road here? There was a fork in the road in Zimbabwe that its ruling elites chose around 1986 or so. Today there are no forks in the road: just the pain of diminishment and loss, a train track through a long, dark tunnel with only the dimmest prospects of a far light at the end to hope for and not yet see.

I think there was a fork in the road in the United States (and the world) on September 12, 2001, a choice within the Bush Administration and the Congress. There was a choice. The choice was made, and now it forecloses many other choices. Is there another fork now? Increasingly I think not. I've often been on the losing side of votes or decision-making processes, whether it's for President of the United States or on an academic committee. In strong communities and nations, where the process of voting is perceived to be fair, and where everyone perceives they have at least a chance to win, e.g., that the outcome is potentially mobile depending on some process of open-ended discovery (of evidence, of facts, of arguments), even losers accept the result and bind themselves more strongly to the institution or community in the process. In a political contest where the results feel structurally predestined, where there is no mobility or movement possible, disaffection and alienation from the process and the larger institutions is the least of the bad outcomes that can follow.

Whether John Kerry or George Bush wins, they may win on the strength of votes which are given to them regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, on the strength of a kind of voting which is ultimately horribly weak. A vote which is cast from who each of us is, and against what we each think we are not. A vote which divides the house against itself rather than resolves out the will of a united nation.