WASHINGTON - MAY 11:  U.S. President Barack Ob...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Good vs Perfect

I have been interested for years in the debate about how we should pursue a better world.  Do we settle for compromises?  Do we stick to our guns and demand more from others?  I constantly come across pithy little axioms that help me only to then come across one that concludes differently.  My favorite so far is “do not hold the good hostage to the perfect.”  Sadly though, it is usually accompanied by some nonesense such as, “our health care system is the best in the world.”  1. Debateable.  2. Tell that to someone who is un(der)insured.  3.  Even if it is, it can be better.

I’ve made it no secret that I think Obama has shirked from what he really wants, campaigned on, and from what we deserve.  But do I then support the reform that will come out of Congress?  Do I refuse to support it, a la the sans papier, as a minor tinker that merely placates true anger?

Case for the Perfect

What is even more ironic is that ‘moderates’ who practice what they like to call ‘pragmatism’ lend credibility to the genocidal enterprise, and in doing so they contribute to very ‘inevitability’ of genocide, which they then decry as the very reason for the need for pragmatism. Sometimes you will hear the bit about ‘losing the middle class’ by abandoning some supposed middle road. This is curious, since one would be lucky to have half the population turn out for an election in a place like America, where half the population is already alienated from the entire political system. This is not surprising when you consider that they are being offered choices in evil. The choice is between genocide and genocide, and the wide spread alienation is a symptom of the very ‘inevitability’ of systems of genocide which pragmatic moderates help to cement into place by lending credibility to the system by functioning as ‘moderate critics’ and thus normalizing genocidal systems.  (Lifton and Markusen 1990)

This argument is initially compelling to me, but it misunderstands apathy.  If apathy was created by moderation and by choices among only immoral poles then how was apathy originally caused?  Lifton and Markusen’s account is totalizing and incomplete.

The example some refer to is slavery, but that analogy breaks down.  A person can choose not to be a slaveholder and can try to change laws allowing slave holding, even if that change is merely a reform and not an abolition.  Abolition should be the goal, and that pressure should never let up, but if it is not achievable then some restrictions can be better than none.  Accepting a reform, a step in the right direction, does not necessarily have to detract from theultimate goal, especialy when it does improve material conditions for some.  It does seem a fine line to walk, and maybe it is too fine a line.  But that remains a question for the particular struggle.  Clearly, health insurance reform pales in comparison to the magnitude of slave trade.

Case for The Good

The best answer I have seen so far to the “moderation as genocide” argument is in the end of the Elbaum book.  It’s a lenghty passage but given its reliance on past experience and not just abstract speculation as well as the centrality of apathy and pragmatism it seems appropriate and necessary to include the whole argument:

But this entire framework (shared – though with different post-1917 icons – by pro-Soviet commnism and Trotskyism) is fatally flawed.  The conditions of economic , political and social life are so marked by constant change – and the history of popular and revolutionary movements is simply too complex – for there to be one pure tradition embodying all essential truths.  A great deal can be learned from previous left experience, and identification with the history of the revolutionary movement can be a great source of strength.  The contributions of Marx and Lenin still shed light on the workings of capitalism and the process of social change.  They stand out for their breadth of vision and insistence on linking theory, practical work, and organization-building in an internationalist prject.  But it is an unwarranted leap from there to belief in a single and true Marxist-Leninist doctrine with an unbroken revolutionary pedigree from 1848 to present.

This nevertheless was the mindset of the New Communist Movement, and it had profound and negative consequences.  Even when activists learned through bitter experience that a particular system of orthodoxy was fundamentally flawed, impulses to break with dogmatism and explore new theoretical terrain were overwhelmed by the push to find another orthodoxy.  From one angle the history of the movement boils down to a series of such shifts, with each juncture seeing a previously dominant group fall by the wayside and a new organization rise to proclaim that at last the true path had been found.  From the early 1970s to the 1980s this process was repeated again and again – each time with more fallout.  By the late 1980s too little energy or confidence was left for another cycle.

Additionally, this theory-as-orthodoxy mindest prevented the New Communist Movement from making any new and significant intellectual contribution to the left’s understanding of US society.  In cotnrast to nearly every other 1970s/early 1980s US left tendency, the New Communist Movement produced almost nothing in the way of original studies illuminating new features of US social and economic development or hidden chapters of US history.  A few thoughtful works were produced by “independent” Marxist-Leninists or individuals associated with some of the movement’s atypical groups (the Democratic Workers party, Sojourner Truth Organization, and Line of March).  But the publishing houses of the main New Communist organizations issued almost nothing that remains of value to serious left researchers and scholars.

The movement’s narrow conception of revolutionary theory also contributed mightily to its descent into the sect-buildng trap.  For a sect, allegiance to past doctrine takes priority over engaging with current reality.  Doing battle with heresy takes precedence over finding common ground with others.  Control over affiliated “mass organizations” is equated with leading popular movements.  Most of the largest groups avoided the worst manifestations of sectarianism for at least a few years.  But even the most broad-minded ultimately succumbed to the lure of such a mechanical and miniaturized version of Leninism.

Indeed, at the very moments when the most promising organizations seemed on the vege of breaking out of their sect mentality, they typically became dizzy with their small-scale success and lost sight of the tremndous distance between their intial accomplishments and what it would take to become a historically significant force.  Instead of accepting and grappling with all the complexities that accompany building deep ties to the working class, they retreated to the safe ground of dontrinal purity and of being a big fish in a small pond. (2002, 323-5)

It’s a mouthful but easily the best answer yet to the orthodox positions.  I do not advocate the ad hominem attack of the last sentence but it is a criticism that finds significant traction in popular culture (I am thinking here of Governor Pawlenty, Representative Wilson and conservative pundits who consistently criticize health care reform advocates as being to lazy to understand complexities.)

In any case, Elbaum provides a better accounting of public apathy as well provides historical study of the effects of such orthodoxy.  Those refusing to compromise are never able to achieve gains in material conditions by holding firm to the perfect.  Only those willing to make reforms can effectively improve conditions.  However, if one is forced to stand outside the system then the never-give-in call for change can make the reformers seem more moderate.

As a person who can only hope to influence policymakers I should tell my representatives to push for a single payer knowing and hoping that this makes them more willing to establish  massive bargaining power with insurance companies.  I do not want to accept such a minimal approach to politics because it denies creativity and micro-political maneuvering.  And again, however, that is a risk that need not be necessary.  It’s only a possibility and one that can be countered as long as radicals remain vigilant.


Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air. London: Verso Books.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

In competitive policy debate we have an argument called E-Prime, that we ought not use “to be” and its conjugations because the verb implies a solid static meaning when such rigidity is rarely accurate.  The famous example is, “The runner is a woman,” when discussing some of the former Olympic champions that were revealed to be cheating and/or hermaphroditic.

This argument is not particularly persuasive and is used mainly when there is not a sophisticated negative strategy available.  However, as I age I am come more and more to believe in a variant of the argument.  I tend to dismiss declarative statements as statements of fact and instead see them more as wish-fulfillment.  This is easily seen when people talk among themselves.  I cannot help but cringe a little when someone says, “I have a high threshold for pain” or the classic “Homey don’t play that.”  Homey does play it and wishes he didn’t, hence his enthusiasm for the distancing move.

So when I encounter Che’s famous statement about the revolutionary being “guided by great feelings of love” I have to snort-laugh a little.  Che wants the revolutionary to be guided by love.  Revolutionaries want to be guided by love.  In my experience though, they are not.  Meeting many of the activists that partook in the Battle for St. Paul I believed that many of them were rather disaffected artsy kids that were angry for whatever reason.  This is not to say that those kids are impartial to the sufferings they rallied in support of, but to attribute that concern as the guiding principle is wish fulfillment.  Che’s declaration also serves the classic us/them trope of rhetoric.  If ‘we’ are the ones guided by love then ‘they’ are by definition not guided by love.  Regardless of accuracy this move is moralizing and hence more affective.

Elbaum (89) gives another example of this happening.  When discussing why 1960s radicals were drawn to the communist regimes despite the human rights abuses Elbaum says the evidence of abuses were not considered credible because the sources dismissing the abuses were also the strongest critics of US imperialism.  Much scholarly research is still concerned with the power/failures of persuasion (and evidence) and why people continue to believe something in the face of clear evidence (I contend this is the question central to Marx’ opus).  To me the answer seems obvious: persuasion only works on the choir, affect is what matters most.  The continued neglect of this is an act of wish fulfillment: scholars wish it weren’t so, they wish people could be persuaded.

The failure of debate is probably best treated by popular pundits than by academics.  Arianna Huffington’s most recent book (Right is Wrong) is about this very breakdown in society.  The August recess and the town halls aptly demonstrate this lack as people were vocal about Obama being the next Hitler.  Barney Frank dismissed one of his constituents aptly and appropriately when he said arguing with her would be like debating a kitchen table.  Sadly Frank was only partly correct: debating with anyone and not just her.  I suspect most of us in this community are either atheists or not moved by religious appeals, but there is a certain genius to the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan.  If Obama had couched reform as the right thing to do instead of being about containing costs (a proposition open for debate, obfuscation and fear tactics) then we would be seeing a very different public dialogue right now.  Obama has a good story.  He defeated Hillary and McCain on the back of that story.  But that story has since disappeared and now he is President Wonk.  Even The Shrub understood this.

With this approach to persuasion one then has to ask, one being fond of theory and nuance, “what then of theory and nuance?”  After all, why do distinctions matter if the crowd merely follows the cool kid?  This question also comes into the easy criticism of my theory: what constitutes “cool” and how does it exist beyond the grid of intelligibility?  Clearly, coolness is not exogenous and independent of rhetoric.  Being able to talk about theory, after all, is cool to come people.  I will own this blindspot as this balancing act I am not yet able to account for.  Ultimately though, my question is about how to organize and recruit.

Theory and those discussions are important, but only after someone has been recruited into the choir.  Until then we, as organizers, ought to be concerned with being model  people (not necessarily the same thing as role models).  We need to be people our targets want to be, want to be around, and accepted by.  Once that level of affection is achieved then the theory is important.  So, trying to explain why capitalism is predatory and it is not just a problem of predatory lenders is important but only affection is achieved.  This model leaves many ambiguities and does not help close many of the difficulties of the organizers, after all, when has affection been achieved?  Is this person more receptive and hence more affected by an ability to cite authors?  In short, what motivates this person? The traditional persuasion model is still applicable, but how applicable?  My answer is to listen, not to what she says she wants but how she describes others.  The magic is in the audience’s observations not the audience’s pronouncements.

Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.