Economic Crisis and Political Alienation

On September 15, 2009, New York City’s 3.2 million registered Democrats were eligible to vote in their Primary election.  Only 11 percent of them voted.  Excepting the mayoralty — virtually conceded to Michael Bloomberg, a nominal Republican and real billionaire — all important city posts were being decided since New Yorkers vote overwhelmingly Democratic.  These include New York City Council seats, the controller, and the public advocate.  The Council has real power over city life.  The controller manages $82 billion in city workers’ pension assets and is the official bookkeeper for New York’s annual $60 billion budget.  The public advocate is the key official charged with keeping the rest of urban government even minimally honest (and also replaces a mayor who becomes incapacitated).  In the September 29, 2009 runoff election for comptroller and public advocate, only 7 per cent of registered Democrats voted.

These elected city officials significantly fund and shape public education, police and fire departments, public transportation and health conditions, and so on.  Mass alienation from governance and politics has reached remarkable levels in a city inundated with media attention to these issues.  Moreover, New York City has some good-quality and also some genuinely diverse media; serious coverage and real criticism have at least some outlets.  They are less ignored, repressed, or marginalized than in so many US cities and towns.

Why do 95 per cent of New Yorkers reject even the minimal political engagement of the voting process?  Long-standing structural obstacles to mass political participation are part of the problem (small, closed elites run the parties and select most candidates, proportional representation is absent, etc.).  Yet those obstacles are likely less not more exclusionary than in the past; they leave some space for intervention from below.  Moreover, today’s economic crisis teaches laid-off workers, foreclosed ex-home-owners, bankrupt businesses, and all those now seriously threatened with these disasters how much they need state assistance.  Yet not only their participation but even their interest in government tumbles.

The city’s tabloid press criticizes its readers for a “Who cares?” attitude and screams at them to “get your butts to the polls.”  Otherwise, it says, liberals will be disproportionately numerous among those few who vote.

Useful insight has again eluded the tabloids.  The problem is hardly “who cares?”  The question is rather “why bother?”  Among the relevant answers, consider that, after all, the differences among the major candidates and between the two major parties are small.  The candidates’ stated positions, when they articulate any, do not constrain them after they get elected.  Government help for average people seems constantly pinched and inadequate, while government attentiveness to the needs of the rich and powerful seems constantly obvious and indulgent.  During elections, candidates’ promises to provide high-quality, needed public services and lower taxes are designed and promoted by highly paid consultants for maximum media exposure.  Once elected, the promises turn into pretenses staged by the same media consultants now on the government’s payroll.  Taxpayers fund “their” government’s manipulation and deception of them, and they know it.

Because no credible opposition or alternative to politics as usual has emerged for fifty years and because empty promises and pretenses have displaced real change, the mass of people are voting by their absence against the sorts of elections this society offers.  Formerly interested and engaged voters are burnt out.  Those who never voted or stopped years ago find nothing to change their behavior.  Whatever momentary hopes occasional candidates like Obama may raise, they evaporate once it becomes clear that no real alternative politics is underway.  While the economic crisis simultaneously underscores everyone’s need for more and better government help, it also exposes how politics as usual precludes that from happening.  Financial corporations get massive, costly bailouts while public services “must” be cut because “the government lacks enough money to preserve, let alone expand them.”

Since the 1970s, real wages stagnated while workers’ productivity kept rising, providing employers with rising profits.  They used those profits to remake US politics ever more to their liking.  Flat wages drove US workers’ families to send more family members out to do more hours of paid labor.  The lost time, exhaustion, and stress undermined working families’ participation in politics.  Flat wages also led to massive worker borrowing and thus rising debt anxiety.  Holding together family and finances became ever more difficult; it absorbed what time and energy remained after work.  Politics became ever more irrelevant and remote from workers’ real lives.  It disappeared as an activity and resurfaced instead as spectacles made for TV couch potatoes.

In contrast, the employers’ record post-1970s profits financed both costly TV campaigns by candidates and the endless lobbying of elected officials.  Corporations made direct outlays for these purposes.  Their top managers and major shareholders, major beneficiaries of rising corporate profits, did likewise.  As the playing field of production, wages, and profits tilted ever more against workers and for employers, managers, and shareholders, so the political game shifted likewise.  Eventually even the expensively promoted TV spectacles of “political events” began losing their worker audiences.  Perhaps we will look back on the 2008 presidential campaign as a last gasp of a dying system of political spectacles.  Perhaps New York City’s extremely low voter turnout represents the bursting of a political bubble alongside the economy’s bursting real estate and credit bubbles.

One political lesson of this situation is clear.  No existing political party or grouping speaks for and to this deeply alienated political majority.  Something new and different might overcome that majority’s deep and well-founded suspicions of politics.  To do so, a new political project would have to dare to make clear its fundamental difference from and opposition to politics as usual and to the basic economic and social conditions that produced that politics in the decades since the 1970s.

Richard D. Wolff is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York.   He is the author of New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006) among many other publications.  Check out Richard D. Wolff’s documentary film on the current economic crisis, Capitalism Hits the Fan, at  Visit Wolff’s Web site at, and order a copy of his new book Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It.