Mr. Fix-it

Anyone who tells you that an institution or social system is “broken” and that they have a plan to “fix” it is selling you a bridge. The terms “broken” and “fixed” imply a function, so someone who wants you to support their “fix” is asking you to do what’s good for them, without actually telling you what that is. The whole point of politics, in particular, is to reconcile the fact that people want different things, so anyone who says they want to “fix” the government without telling you what they want to fix it for is eliding the entire conversation.

In this interview, Lawrence Lessig makes the common claim that “the government is broken.” Lessig, unlike most people who make these sorts of claims, actually does get into the details of what he’s referring to: the fact that the government’s actions accord with the desires of rich fucks rather than the desires of the general population. He calls out three specific issues as causes: politicians being owned by billionaires via campaign funding, gerrymandering, and the fact that lots of people don’t have a functional right to vote. These are all obviously things that prevent the will of the people from being reflected in the actions of the government.

Lessig is currently running for president for the sole purpose of passing one bill which will supposedly “fix” these issues. What’s odd about this is that, by his own analysis, his plan is impossible. Lessig describes the importance of his bill as follows:

“Look, you want health care reform? You’re not gonna get health care reform until we deal with this issue. You want to deal with the problem of living wage, minimum wage? You’re not gonna get that dealt with until you deal with this issue.”

This is correct, and the reason it’s correct is that which bills get passed is determined by what rick fucks want. Rich fucks make money off of privatized health insurance, so we’re not getting universal heath care. Rich fucks don’t want to pay their workers, so we’re not getting a minimum wage increase. Given this, the critical contradiction is Lessig’s platform is obvious: rich fucks want to be able to control the government through money, so we’re not getting any of Lessig’s proposed reforms.

For some reason, the interviewer doesn’t actually ask how Lessig expects to get his bill passed, but Lessig does provide a sort of half-explanation:

“There’s a tradition the president gets a signature legislation quickly. Obama got stimulus in three weeks. There’s the standard idea of the hundred days.”

So basically he thinks that Congress is just going to do him a favor out of respect for the fact that he got elected. A stimulus is actually the worst possible example to use here, because it’s the kind of thing that rich fucks actually need to have happen for functional reasons. While the current ideological position of the Republican party obligates them to make a show of opposing things like this, they’re things that actually need to get done in order for the money to keep flowing, so they get done. Also, as a comment to the interview points out, Lessig is factually wrong: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed with Yea votes from three Republican senators and zero Republican representatives. This was obviously because Obama, but the point is that Congress has no obligation to be nice to the president.

More importantly, though, if the general principle is that only rich-fuck-approved bills can get passed, why on Earth would rich fucks approve a bill that specifically removes their power to determine which bills get passed? Obviously, they wouldn’t, so the question then becomes: why can’t Lessig figure this out? One possible explanation is that Lessig’s campaign is just a stunt for the purpose of getting the issue out there, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. That is, I’m sure he’s aware that he’s not going to win, but his plan appears to be serious. If it weren’t, there would be no reason for him to muddy the waters by promising to resign after passing his bill. That just raises a bunch of questions that distract from what he’s trying to say. The only reason for him to propose something like that is that he actually thinks it’ll work.

Given that Lessig has a handle on the basic dynamics, the only explanation for his blind spot is that he doesn’t want to draw the unavoidable conclusions of his own analysis. This isn’t just a mistake; the specific reason Lessig is doing what he’s doing is that he does want to believe that the problems he’s diagnosed are things that can be “fixed,” particularly if that fix happens to involve a smart man from Harvard implementing his big idea.

The other thing about the “broken/fixed” paradigm is that calling something “broken” implies that it used to work. Lessig is actually explicit about this:

“Well, 20 years ago exactly, Newt Gingrich became speaker, the first time Republicans took control of the House in 40 years. So every two years, Congress is up for grabs.”

Darn that Newt Gingrich! Seriously, think about what Lessig is claiming here: when he says that the government has been rich-fuck-controlled for the past 20 years, he’s saying that, before 20 years ago, this wasn’t the case. Thus, it’s clear that what Lessig means by “fixed” is merely a return to the years of, for example, Reagan’s presidency, a time when the voice of the people was truly being heard.

America was, of course, founded on the idea that the government ought to be controlled by rich fucks. Not only was that vast majority of the population excluded from voting, but the American system of government was designed precisely to keep the rabble as far away from the actual levers of power as possible. A lot of people get confused about this because of our whole silly middle-school mythology about how the American Revolution was all about common people not wanting to be ruled by a king or whatever, so to be clear: the Revolution was, like most major changes in government, an instance of the second highest class in society rebelling against the highest. It was about a new class of rich fucks (merchants, lawyers, plantation owners) seizing power from the old class of rich fucks (royals), on the basis that the old class was no longer needed and the new class wanted their fucking money (hence “no taxation without representation”).

So, given the historical continuity of rich fucks controlling everything (and by “historical continuity” I mean literally every civilization in history), what is the meaning of recent developments such as Citizens United? Do events such as these represent victories for the ruling class that give them even more power to control society than they already had? The answer may very well be “yes,” but I submit that this is the wrong way to understand the issue. What these events represent is the changing form of rich fuck dominance as a response to changing material conditions.

Basically, the problem rich fucks have right now is that because of all that civil rights nonsense that happened there are actually formal mechanisms in place by which the general populace can (theoretically) advance their own preferences over those of rich fucks. All of the things Lessig calls out are ways of dealing with this problem: Super PACs remove the limit on how much money can matter in an election, gerrymandering makes large numbers of votes meaningless, and obviously indirect disenfranchisement does the same thing. But while getting rid of these things would be nice, it ultimately wouldn’t matter. We’re talking about people who have enough money to do literally whatever they want regardless of the circumstances; things like Super PACs are just the tools they happen to be using at the moment. If this stuff gets outlawed, they’ll come up with something else, and they’ll get it implemented because they have the money to make it happen. When you have the kind of money that we’re talking about here, you don’t just sit on your hands and wait for the government to tell you what you’re allowed to buy with it. You use your money to make the government buyable, and then you buy it. The fundamental problem is that wealth is incompatible with justice.

When Lessig says that democracy is “broken,” he’s assuming that the government is trying to reflect the will of the people, but failing, resulting in things like super PACs and gerrymandering. But in fact, these things are precisely examples of the government working. Given that these things were implemented in the first place, they’re obviously things that the ruling class wanted. The people in power are by definition the ones who could change things like this if they actually wanted to; since they aren’t doing so, it’s obvious that they don’t want to.

Thus, the actual cause of Lessig’s blind spot is that, not only does he want to believe that the situation is “fixable” though “reforms,” but on a more fundamental level, he wants to believe that the American system is basically just and that the swathes of obvious injustice that we all slog through daily are merely the ways in which the system is “broken.” But what’s actually scary about the government isn’t the fact that it’s broken, it’s the fact that it is working as intended.

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