The retiring mayor, Dr. Robert “Buggsy” Barnard, had been broadcasting vicious radio warnings for the previous 48 hours, raving about long prison terms for vote-fraud and threatening violent harassment by “phalanxes of poll watchers” for any strange or freaky-looking scum who might dare to show up at the polls. We checked the laws and found that Barnard’s radio warnings were a violation of the “voter intimidation” statutes, so I called the District Attorney and tried to have the mayor arrested at once … but the D.A. said “Leave me out of it; police your own elections.” Which we did, with finely-organized teams of poll-watchers: two inside each polling place at all times, with six more just outside in vans or trucks full of beef, coffee, propaganda, check lists and bound xerox copies of all Colorado voting laws. The idea was to keep massive assistance available, at all times, to our point men inside the official voting places. And the reasoning behind this rather heavy public act–which jolted a lot of people who wouldn’t have voted for Edwards anyway–was our concern that the mayor and his cops would create some kind of ugly scene, early on, and rattle the underground grapevine with fear-rumors that would scare off a lot of our voters. Most of our people were fearful of any kind of legal hassle at the polls, regardless of their rights. So it seemed important that we should make it very clear, from the start, that we knew the laws and we weren’t going to tolerate any harassment of our people. None.
In 1970, the “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thomspon made a bid for the sheriff seat in Aspen, Colorado, running on the “freak power” ticket. He detailed the campaign in an article, ‘The Battle of Aspen,’ from which the above quotation was excerpted.
Thompson’s campaign could be a model for effective political action today. American politics has become this ritualized spectacle that barely engages with the actual world we find ourselves living in. Everyone knows this, but what to do about it? The lesson from the Battle of Aspen is that a campaign that counter-intuitively postpones a “direct engagement” with systemic flaws sometimes has more of a fighting chance than one that accepts the framework and vocabulary of the system. What is needed is a political project that keeps a safe distance from the socio-political-economic machine and engages with it only by looking askance. Thompson’s campaign remained a joke up until the point where it was a handful of votes short of becoming reality. It was only in their disappointment that Thompson and his campaign staff realized what stakes had been there all along.
What we find in Thompson’s campaign is a glorious refusal to buy into the mystique of power, that unfathomable X that makes a politician worthy of rule and an average citizen unworthy. Calling the bluff of power exposes its shameful secret – power and authority cannot differentiate themselves from the appearance of power and authority. Behind the official insignias, suits, ties and elaborate rituals, all of which project an authoritative image, our politicians are in fact just miserable, pathetic, finite human beings – like ourselves. Thompson went in swearing the entire time that it was all a big joke – all his propositions were preposterous send-ups – ”tearing up the streets with jackhammer and sodding them immediately”; “legalization of all drugs and a stocks in place for anyone who attempts to sell the drug for money,” yet the jokes told a greater truth than any solemn and straightforward campaign promise. Had Thompson forsworn the sarcastic platforms and compromised, smuggling in his radical agenda only when it was guaranteed not to raise any eyebrows, his campaign would never have gotten off the ground. The lesson is that the battle is already lost when we modify our behavior for those in power. When we don’t, when we articulate our concerns and beliefs in exactly the form they appear to us, power is at a loss and must resort to exceedingly desperate measures, as evinced by Dr. “Buggsy” Barnard who resorted to issuing vicious threats to quell the uprising of freak power. And Thompson’s political proposals, though amplified for hyperbolic effect, nonetheless contained a grain of reality. If the people had wanted it, they could have made it happen. What this shows is that another world is indeed possible, but the main obstacle to its realization is not something external, but that which in ourselves keeps us enthralled to rules of the old world.
The prevailing logic today is the conspiratorial one. Even if your average person doesn’t believe in the Illuminati, they still subscribe to the belief in a forbiddingly complex governmental structure and hierarchy, rife with nepotism and corruption, that prevents entry to all but the chosen few – the ruling elites. The consequence of this is the widespread adoption of a political position that isn’t actually a political position. It is apolitical, a throwing up of the hands and giving up on politics altogether. We can discern this is in a number of forms – from Bill Gates’s eschewal of politics in favor of direct humanitarian aid, to the Spanish Indignados’ rejection of political parties in favor of direct assistance to people who need homes, jobs, etc. While this position is celebrated as a political breakthrough, it actually masks the deep cynicism that is the underlying problem. In the case of refugees and humanitarian aid, it does no good to pour money into providing aid for refugees without addressing the underlying political struggle that is producing the refugees. The position represented by Bill Gates and others represents a cynical belief in the futility of attempting any large-scale systemic reform; the best one can do is settle for the least-bad option, passing out bandaids and care packages in the wake of the destruction caused by the Neoliberal/Capitalist machine.
The alternative to the conspiratorial position is the apocalyptic one. I remember talking to a friend about movies and he told me, with a distinctly provocatory inflection, that he was “pretty much only into post-apoc stuff these days.” Where there is no Left, no political will, “post-apoc” becomes the default pseudo-radical position. The position is basically says that rather than doing the slow work of trying to reform and reshape the system, it is much more efficient and effective to wait for existing institutions to drive themselves to annihilation and then start from a blank slate. One can detect the pervasiveness of this pseudo-radical position in the popularity of zombies in film and TV, which cannot but be read as some sort of obscene drill for a future post-apoc scenario. The popularity of a show like The Walking Dead is a reflection of the widespread acceptance that society’s only political horizon is biopolitics – the non-ideological managing of bodies, resources, and so on. The zombie is a stand-in for the neighbor – in a world with no large-scale political organizing, a world with no future, every other subject becomes, beneath their neighborly exterior, a potential adversary in some future scenario where life is reduced to a desperate struggle for resources.
How does one who would rather not see the world reduced to such abject hopelessness combat such a position? Does it not go, in its complete willingness to sacrifice all that we hold dear, much further than any radical solution that still works within the system? The problems here are twofold. The first problem is that the catastrophe won’t come. Therefore, such a position amounts to a new form of Christian eschatology, awaiting some “judgement day” wherein one will be vindicated for one’s quiet, calm resignation and non-interference in the inexorable path of the world. The second is that the catastrophe will come, but it will not be experienced as such. Instead, it will be the realm of trauma – what will be revealed is not the tabula rasa of a new world, but the senselessness and ultimate meaninglessness of pain and suffering. All this is just to say that the pose of post-apocalypticism doesn’t amount to anything more than an abdication, a disavowal of the actual world we’re thrown into.
Hence, we should re-position apocalyptic cynicism not as wisdom but as the position most dominated by ideology. Cynicism is not the reconciliatory position of someone whose idealism has been battered by the slings and arrows of life and thus accepts that the only possible triumph is in acceptance of a bitter outcome. To the contrary, it is a position of intellectual laziness, underwritten solely by the illusion of the status quo’s harmonious and smooth functioning – once that fragile equilibirum is shattered by the real of history, the cynic’s position is unveiled as simple ideological hegemony masquerading as naturalized common sense.
This is why Hunter S. Thompson’s mayoral campaign, and other similar “impossible” ventures, such as afrobeat star and pot-smoking eccentric Fela Kuti’s 1979 bid for the Nigerian presidency, are so surprising – because there is no accounting for them within the economy of cynical ideology. Therein resides also the importance of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (fka Bradley Manning). The Snowden leaks didn’t really provide us with any new information – we knew our governments were monitoring us with the cooperation of communications companies. But bringing it out into the open in such a conspicuous way forces governments to at least act their part – no longer will the carnivalesque parade of political gossip suffice. They are compelled to abandon the cynical position and pursue increasingly censorious and severe measures – the flimsy pretext for the extradition of Julian Assange or the transparent smear campaign against Snowden come to mind. This forces governments and media to end the charade of a cynical, ideological detachment from politics and the real stakes become visible.
What these examples share, and what the cynical and paranoiac positions miss, is the anarchistic core of society, or as the great Catholic satirist G. K. Chesterton put it, “Morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.” The mystery of these impossible ventures is that in spite of their impossibility they nonetheless acquire a little piece of reality – they do make a difference.
So today, when we’re faced with a failing political machine paired with a labrynthine bureaucratic apparatus, a situation so desperate that it’s become commonplace to sell out your integrity for a bit of change, where false, tasteless solutions are paraded before us, perhaps the solution is to “out-freak” the competition. Even if it ends in failure, it will still lead as an example and pave a path to a more just and sane society. Here, failure is not the danger. The danger is not doing anything and merely accepting the (false) set of possibilities presented by the anonymous socio-political machine. The conspiracy today is not some fabled esoteric organization, it’s the one named by Yeats – how “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”