U.S. intelligence is reporting that China will support Biden, Russia will support Trump and Iran would support polarization. The press immediately resurrected the campaign that presented Russian help as decisive in the Republican’ s triumph as well as his courtly battles with the intelligence services. But there is also a fundamental question: the unspoken conviction that the elections can be manipulated from outside by intoxication campaigns. But… is it true? And if it is so… what are they and what have elections turned into?
The Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory undoubtedly upset a significant part of the European and American bourgeoisie. The results broke the political consensus built since the nineties and opened a general period of crisis in the political machineries. The first reaction, still in the logic of the electoral campaign, was one of discredit and attack. Trump was going to be short-lived because his victory had been, to say the least, immoral and, hopefully, illegal. From the Russian help scandal, they moved on to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The discourse: the new ultra-segmented advertising systems allow a party – or a foreign power – to flood the voters with misleading advertising and fake news by hitting them with the most sensitive material in order to increase the tension and encourage them either not to vote or to abstain.
In continental Europe there was no lack of those who signed up and tried to create a discourse about Russian interference, such as the newspaper El País. But in the end, although it is clear that Russia is watering on account of its budget quite a few groups – both stalinists and ultra-right-wingers – in virtually the whole continent, it was impossible to think that such aid would have been decisive or fundamental at some point. The fact Russian bots amplified the Catalan independentists on twitter, as the newspaper busily tried to prove for months, hardly had any real political transcendence and not even the most fanatical dared to say that the independence process was a Russian product or owed anything to the Russian troll farms.
Another line of argument, extended mainly among the left, tried to establish that Anglo-Saxon countries would be a particular case due to a so-called low average education and the extent of functional illiteracy among the American working class. The truth: the levels of functional illiteracy among adults in the USA are hardly different than those in Europe, and if we take as a reference the PISA reading comprehension tests, American young people obtain better results than those in most EU countries.
And to top off the confusion, it turns out that ultra-segmented advertising has not only not been banned but has become an additional part of the electoral campaign arsenal that all teams of all parties boast about. So… what if the problem is something else?
What are elections?
The election is a ‘opinion’ survey in which a majority of adults are called upon to participate as ‘citizens’ in order to convey who they think – from a list of parties or individual candidates – should run the state administration. The important words are state and opinion. Because opinion in today’s capitalism is an industry and not a small or under-capitalized one. In fact it is a regulated, monopolistic industry, with large capital investments and dependent on state aid. During the last sixty years the state guaranteed the profitability of its main media: television and radio, restricting the number of TV channels through licenses. Newspapers did not need to be ‘protected’ by licenses because, needing particularly expensive machinery – the presses – and expensive distribution channels, they could only be started up and maintained by large capital funds.
The monopolistic nature of the opinion industry allowed for a certain regulation of political advertising, designed above all to avoid excessive spending by institutional parties, as well as the progressive restrictions of legal campaign times. But the issue was not there. The point is that the same institution which asked the opinion – the state dedicated to looking after national capital – was the one which, in reality, held the monopoly on the means to create opinion. No one ever expected election propaganda to decide many votes. Instead, everyone looked to the news and the ideological messages underneath the fiction series. There were no big debates.
The crisis, Internet and the petty bourgeois revolts
Since the 1990s, a technological and media landscape has gradually taken shape which has called into question the foundations of the old post-war equilibrium. On the one hand, the extension of the Internet and mobile phones made it tremendously cheaper to create information channels and networks of activists. On the other hand, the development of local administrations with their own bureaucracies in Great Britain, Spain, Belgium… even in France, had for the first time made it possible for the regional petty bourgeoisie to create quasi-national imaginaries to their liking in relevant portions of historically centralized countries. The state and big capital were gradually eroded – though by no means finished – in their monopoly on opinion. What’s more, with the birth of international television channels since the 1990s, the imperialist conflict also crept into the media space: AlJazeera, HispanTV or TeleSur became true incubators of alternative media systems.
And when, from 2007, the development of the crisis boosted the mobilizations of the petty bourgeoisie all over the world, for the first time in a long time those movements were not easily integrated or recoverable as support to the official alternatives: the systemic, institutional parties that were in opposition. The angry petty bourgeoisie was building its own expressions. The Greek or Spanish bipartisanship, dwindled, the Italian parties of the Berlusconi era reconfigured themselves and rebalanced, French socialism and stalinism disappeared electorally. In Germany, the far right reappeared as a national force for the first time since the end of the last world war.
Some dissident factions of the central bourgeoisies, eager to reconfigure the imperialist map, such as the British brexiters or the American trumpists saw the opportunity opening up before their eyes. Petty bourgeois revolts could be redirected but not on the old discourses and structures. There were the examples of Hungary or Poland, even Greece and Spain. For that you had to take a popular discourse, you could create a people by adding up mutually conflicting but equally reticent revolts to the ruling class… as long as it didn’t involve the whole ruling class. This is how the speeches against the elite started, the discourses underlying Trump and Johnson, Tsipras and Churches, the AfD and Die Linke.
And the new politics, the populist moment arrived, gaining the government where the political apparatus was already devastated and the bourgeoisie needed someone to rebuild it (Greece) but above all where those unruly factions of the ruling class itself had dared to ride the petty bourgeois revolt and shape it: USA, Britain, Brazil.
Those electoral victories also meant a deep crisis in the role of the established media. They were the ones who had really lost the elections. Those who had not been able to shape opinion enough for it to come out the way it always did. Of course it had not been that bad: in the end, Brexit or Trump responded to the needs of another part of the state bourgeoisie and national capital. But the dominance of the media apparatus since the postwar period had been so total that the New York Times and CNN, Folha de Sao Paulo, the BBC and The Guardian could not help but be frustrated. Everything was unexpected and dangerous for them. But not because there had been more than enough signs, nor because there were going to be, as they came, ruthless attacks on pensions and salaries – which seemed to them, as always, to be very an extremely good thing – but because they had really internalized that their monopolistic role in the opinion industry meant a real monopoly on opinions that could win elections. Again: nothing dramatic for the ruling class, although traumatic no doubt for an industry that felt less and less valuable.
Can the Russian services prevent Trump’s defeat or can the Chinese secure it?
Since then, the petty bourgeois revolt has taken on new forms in some places and has become entrenched in others. In the United States, the democrats have known how to stir up those expressions and factions of the petty bourgeoisie that were closest to them, with a view to the November presidential elections. No, it is practically impossible that the services, Russian, Chinese or Iranian, would be able to manipulate so much opinion as to condition the electoral result. American opinion is practically the exclusive product of the American opinion industry. And that will continue to be the case this autumn.