For all their differences and disputes, there is apparently one thing Barack Obama and John McCain agree upon wholeheartedly. The ultimate reason for their candidacy, for their desire to become US president, the most powerful political position in the world, is the opportunity to serve the American people. And what an interesting service they perform! Both candidates assure the voters that despite the very different kinds of services they might need or want - whether as a worker, welfare mother, plumber or financial magnate - all their problems boil down to the question of economic growth and national security for the nation. Just how these aims are supposed to be a service to the people is a puzzle, because the candidates know very well that their first and last order of business is to ensure that the people are the ones doing the serving; that they perform the services the national interest demands of them.
For most people, this means working for the profit of others; enriching those who have a sum of money and try to make more out of it. This relationship of exploitation that the state guarantees is also the source from which it draws the means for financing all the instruments of violence so necessary to provide national security, that other vital component of the American way of life. For most citizens, this means accepting that on the one hand, their labor - indeed, as much of it as possible - is essential for the constant increase of the monetary wealth upon which the national interest thrives. On the other hand, they have to accept the fact that their livelihood is a cost burden for the capitalists responsible for this very operation. The consequences are familiar: their service to the nation and to private wealth is full of daily sacrifices that take their toll, but are to be accepted as the inevitable costs of freedom.
But no matter how discontent the citizens may be with everything that they experience as a socially organized burden on their interests, the hardships of working life, and all the demands imposed on them by the private and public powers-that-be -- all too many say: "but at least we have a choice." America can proudly point to a handful of institutions designed and established for just this purpose. The disagreeable truth that discontent is apparently a rather ubiquitous phenomenon in a capitalist democracy is nothing next to the good fortune of having such a rich variety of ways to express it - free speech and the right of assembly, a free press, and above all the right to vote. No citizen is compelled to suffer his fate in silence; he is not only free to speak his mind, but periodically to choose who is in charge! The vote - a nationwide forum for deliberation, the golden moment in which the people have the floor and the rulers are forced to heed their call.
However, a sober look at the vote itself gives good reason to doubt the benefits of this core democratic event. In order for any citizen to express his discontent in an acceptable democratic manner, he has to perform a handful of translations that deserve some mention. First, he has to translate his discontent at the hands of those who responsibly execute the national interest into discontent at the latter's failure to pursue that interest properly. Then he can choose a new set of rulers. His second feat of translation consists in boiling down his objections, explanations and perhaps even counter-proposals into a rather monosyllabic utterance: a mark on a piece of paper or computer screen, next to the name of the party or candidate of his choice. Finally, therefore, he has to take his rejection of this or that policy or state of affairs and turn it into an affirmation of the person or party of his choice. What started as discontent with the results of the deeds of those in power thus ends as a vote of confidence in new wielders of power, or maybe even the old ones.
So for those whose service to the nation gives them little to smile about, the vote proves to be a thoroughly useless instrument. But this doesn't mean that the vote itself is useless. On the contrary, if the vote serves to take discontent of all kinds and turn it into a yes to this or that ruler, if the power of the voter consists in immediately handing over that power, then the vote is most useful for those that ultimately wield it. The truth about the ballot, therefore, is as straightforward as it is unpleasant: a blank check for state power, an unrestricted license to pursue the national interest.
For the victims of this national interest, it makes no sense to accept all this and debate about whom to entrust the power they have to obey anyway, but to find out why the national interest always makes them discontent.