The Learned Helplessness of Parliamentarianism (And Where To Escape)

I feel that it is a bit early, but TikTok liberals are already going to bat for Uncle Joe ahead of the 2024 United States presidential election. The refrain that has caught the most attention so far is “what is your plan?”

What warrants criticism here, along with the demand that an average citizen come to a conversation prepared with a comprehensive national political plan, is the implication that supporting the Democratic Party is in and of itself a plan.

The Political Illusion

L’Illusion politique, published in 1965, sees Jacques Ellul describe the fundamental errors with relying on government to address problems in a technological society.

Politics in the first place has been relegated to play a marginal role in decision making. Today’s political decisions are largely necessary or more often ephemeral. Necessary meaning that they are arrived at through rare, unprecedented events that force a decision (think a declaration of war, or surrender), or ephemeral in the sense of the politics of current events; fast-paced and ever-changing and characterized by shallow responses to the happenings of the day (i.e. supporting the current thing). The actual exercise of the power of government is carried out not by politicians themselves, but by technicians who make up the bureaucratic machinery of government, and principally by the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. The actual work of governance is ultimately autonomous, and happens without regard for the actions of politicians.

The citizen’s control over the choice of politicians serves no purpose because our genuine political problem is this particular state structure.

— Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion.

Ellul (and others, notably Giovanni Sartori) describe the role of politician as simply endorsing decisions prepared for them by technicians, attributing this to the weight and complexity of governmental administration. The politician is themself an expert of sorts, though not of governance; politicians are experts in securing and retaining political positions. It is in this way that shambling corpses like Dianne Feinstein, Mitch McConnell, or the two octogenarians likely to vie for the U.S. presidency in 2024, are still able to perform the duties of their office. It is the source of apologia that calls it absurd to expect lawmakers to read bills before casting their votes.

Finally, in Ellul’s view nothing of moral value - no justice - can be attained through politics. This stands in contradiction to the views people participating in politics espouse, which give the impression that all human problems can be solved if the state governs justly. But in politics there is but one value; effectiveness.

In fact, in a technological world of implacable competition efficiency has become the sole criterion of a government’s legitimacy. And how could one make a different choice as long as the challenge, levelled at us by someone who selects the route toward efficiency, cannot be met except by taking the same road?

— Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion.

In U.S. politics this can be seen through the ongoing tacit support of the two-party system. A vote for a third-party candidate that aligns with your values would be a “waste” because only the two major parties are competitive. Your vote only carries value if it can be said to have been effective.

Ellul uses the term “politized” to describe those who hold the view characteristic of TikTok liberals and The Website Formerly Known as Twitter conservatives that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, all problems are political and can only be solved through political participation. In a striking passage, Ellul describes a trend of expanding state power that rings true to this day, particularly in the context of post-9/11 America.

The more an individual has become politized, the more he will see and think about all problems as political problems, the more importance will he attach to political action, and consider it the only possible course and, by his attitude, endow that course with a maximum of power and effectiveness. At the same time, the more politized he is, the more will he be focused on and oriented toward that basic political force and form: the state. The more he takes recourse to the state, the more power he gives it. For him the only problem is: who will control the state? Will it be his party? All will then be perfect. Will it be another party? Then things will be bad. But he never thinks of reducing the state itself - on the contrary. All he thinks of is to replace the incumbents. No minority wants to reduce the state’s power. The last fifty years have shown that each minority attaining power increases the state’s power in order to prevent its defeated opponents from using the same means it used to gain power. At each step, state power is increased. The people under the spell of politics seek less and less to control the state; politizing everything, they consider it normal that the state should constantly expand its area of action and use ever more instruments of power. This is legitimate in their eyes, as they believe that all will be solved by political action.

— Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion.

Planning for De-Politization

Parliamentarianism as a plan for action is pure delusion. There is no sense in participation in a technological society’s illusory world of politics; the die is cast. The politicians themselves do not have a plan; the scope and complexity of state power precludes that possibility.

At this point the advice handed down to us from those committed to playing politics is likely that we should “grow up”. Here, to, Ellul offers a response:

Men have reached a high degree of political maturity without participating in a state organism or attaining a high living standard, as for example the Bantus of the sixteenth century, the French anarcho-syndicalists, the Ukrainians in the nineteenth century, the Irish, and the Spanish anarchists. Rather, it seems that the more organized the state becomes, the more its institutions become streamlined and its economy planned, the more it becomes necessary to eliminate the politically mature citizen who is independent and thoughtful and acts on his own. Actually, he is asked to demonstrate another political maturity, i.e., participation and allegiance; and, at best, he is granted some right to political resistance within limits

— Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion.

What never receives enough attention in our time of highly politized discourse is the possibility that a plan for political action could or should exist and function separately from the state. That the goal may in fact be to circumvent and ultimately reduce state power. That there is a form of political maturity that does not presuppose participation and allegiance to some political party, or limits political resistance to the ballot box.

It is from here that Jacques Ellul describes a solution he dubs “de-politization”. Not to become apolitical, but to shift focus and create the conditions for truly democratic behavior.

We are therefore in the presence of the following dilemma: either we must continue to believe that the road to solving our problems is the traditional road of politics, with all sorts of constitutional reforms and “revolutions” of the Right and the Left - and I have already tried to demonstrate that all that no longer has any significance, but merely represents shadow boxing - or we turn away from the illusory debate, and admit, for example, that “public liberties” are but “resistances,” admit that for man “to exist is to resist,” and that, far from committing oneself to calculating the course of history, it is important above all never to permit oneself to ask the state to help us. This means that we must try to create positions in which we reject and struggle with the state, not in order to modify some element of the regime or force it to make some decision, but, much more fundamentally, in order to permit the emergence of social, political, intellectual, or artistic bodies, associations, interest groups, or economic or Christian groups totally independent of the state, yet capable of opposing it, able to reject its pressures as well as its controls, and even its gifts. These organizations must be completely independent, not only materially but also intellectually and morally, i.e., able to deny that the nation is the supreme value and that the state is the incarnation of the nation. The idea should be opposed that because a group is inside a nation, it is therefore, above all, national, and that the state, representing the nation, can therefore control it and dictate to it… What is needed is groups capable of extreme diversification of the entire society’s fundamental tendencies, capable of escaping our unitary structure and of presenting themselves not as negations of the state - which would be absurd - but as something else, not under the state’s tutelage but equally important, as solid and valuable as the state.

— Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion.

In other words, a genuine political plan consists of direct action and mutual aid.

Means and Ends

The historian Zoe Baker has produced an astounding account of the thought and actions of politically mature individuals in her work Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States. Those interested in the creation and enactment of a political plan should study the development of the thought and practice of anarchism. No other political movement better understands the unity of means and ends. No other political practice is as deliberate in its opposition to the powers of the state and capital.

And in conclusion, with regards to liberals and their demands for a plan in lieu of our vote, I leave them with a quote from the HBO series Succession: “I love you, but you are not serious people.”