George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.
Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months. First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy. There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery. The machine grinds on relentlessly.
Second comes the primary debate on the left. At what level should the effort for change takes place. Is electoral politics any use at all? Could we actually vote into office a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)? It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés). The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point. Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change. Obstruction is the order of the day.
So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.
The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change. Two things intrude here. The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire. Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons. So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric. We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.
The second problem is violence. With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence. In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent. Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical. Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters. Non-violence is the winning strategy.
But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing. Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence. Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically. But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically. (Contrast to King’s children campaign.) I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless. We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people. The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices. (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.) When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope. There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.
Eschewing violence has much going for it. Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking. King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders. The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality. The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.
Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory. It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it? And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.
Do I have anything constructive to offer? Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck. But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties. The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful. True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame. Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.
And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.