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The Faux Frais of Elections

Lincoln was right, the world will little note nor long remember what we say, and with good reason. Most of the pre-election analysis of this 2016 rabbit hole is tripe ending in confusion and worry.

If I hoped browsing history could produce optimism, I was wrong to look to Karl Marx for comfort. He saw Clinton-Trump before it happened: the 1852 British parliamentary election that pitted rural, conservative, Tory landholders against urban, liberal, Whig bourgeoisie.

On September 4, 1852, Marx published “Corruption at Elections” in The New York Daily Tribune (pdf here: corruption-at-elections-1852-09-04), foretelling the fundamental conceits of the conservative/liberal storyline in the 2016 presidentical selection.

Certainly, this essay did not appear to me in a corporate thought warehouse, but I unearthed it in the estate sale shelves of the Clinton, CT collection of the late writer James R. Mellow – a red cloth bound 1967 imprint entitled “The American Journalism of Marx and Engels.”

Back in 1852, to combat their own Citizens United problem, the British House of Commons passed what Marx called “a Draconian law against bribery, corruption, intimidation and electioneering sharp practices.”

This fiat allowed British authorities to ask a long, stringent list of questions to “petitioners or sitting members” of parliament. Answered under oath, they were asked about “who were their agents, and what communications they held with them. The may be asked and compelled to state, not only what they know, but what they ‘believe, conjecture, and suspect,’ as to money expended wither by themselves or anyone else acting – authorized or not authorized – on their behalf.”

Perjury charges could result. Yet this enactment failed to stop political violence of the Tories, perhaps evidencing the folly of our own attempts at campaign finance reform.

One liberal newspaper reported “We actually hear of soldiers with loaded guns, and bayonets fixed, taking Liberal electors by force, dragging them under their landlord’s eyes to vote against their own conscience.”

And just like we saw the Arizona Republic endorse Clinton over Trump, Marx witnessed London’s conservative paper opining against the Tory thuggery, the “lies, the stratagems, the slanders, which stalk abroad in the daylight, naked and not ashamed.”

These conservative mechanisms to fix elections and bribe politicians were not cheap, but they were the cost of doing business, which Marx labeled the faux frais of capitalism (French for incidental expenses).

The liberal Whigs, looking for a cheaper way to power, sought to compete with the Tories on a moral footing. “[B]ribery adopted a more civilized, more hidden, form,” Marx wrote.

My Facebook feed tells me I am a bad person if I allow Trump to win by casting my ballot for him, or for a minor party option. Worse than quid pro quo, this inverted totalitarian equation has me voting for my own subordination.

Raw power here has dispensed with the pretense of gunpowder to have me vote against my conscience. The predicted spectre of a Trumpian descent to civil chaos has many of us willfully loving Big Sister, or just staying out of it altogether.

We are not the first to see “the apathy of privileged constituencies.” Marx said these non-voters “have outlived themselves” and that “have lost every interest in their own political existence.”

Just as less than half of America will choose for the continuation of an evil corporate capitalism personified by Hillary Clinton, Marx hated that starting in the 1831 election, less than 50 percent of voters in the United Kingdom voted.

He concluded that zombified parliamentary system provided no relief for economic disparities. “The bribery and intimidation practiced by the Tories were, then, merely violent experiments for bringing back to life dying electoral bodies which have become incapable of production, and which can no longer create decisive electoral results and really national parliaments.”

And in the ensuing 150 years, we see a human drama where the landholders never lose their elite status, where the liberal, urban interests are just as corrupt, and people continue to suffer.

Marx’s socialist revolution demanded universal suffrage and near universal participation to usher in a utopian workers paradise. The weakness of his vision grows clearer with every passing decade.

The glorious day of the plebes rising from their fast food toil to vote for candidates who don’t have freezers full of cash will never come. Our republic moves subject to the cycles of our cursed biology.

So, Virginia, there is no escape from Clinton/Kaine and Trump/Pence. Just as in 1852, on January 20, 2017, our United States will have a government “paralytic from the hour of its birth.”

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