Cutting through the bullshit.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Dismal allies

Ordinarily, I have a lot of time for Rebecca Solinit. The stuff I've read about people organising in the context of disaster is inspiring. E.g.
Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property, less concerned with the long-term questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and security, than just about anyone not in such situations imagines possible.
In this piece, she excoriates what is, I think, fundamentally a straw man - those who presume 'the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development'. She probably has a point when it comes to the kind of rhetoric most usefully deployed in discussion with liberals and other reformists. She is probably right if what she's saying is that these are among those we need to break from their lethargy and involve in actual movements. If all we have to say to the liberals is how wrong they are, as I confess I'm inclined to do, it may not help to mobilise them.

But she points to an advance or two in American society and conflates the actual movements that brought them about with electoral politics. She trots out the old saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good, but what she's really talking about, as is usually the case, is that slight, contingent improvement is actually the enemy of fundamental change, or even significant improvement. Her metaphor - 'every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic' - is not only grotesque, but a gross exaggeration. I'll refrain from trying to come up with a more accurate metaphor.

Ultimately, the issue is not which of the two principal candidates will do the least harm, much less which will do the most good. It is which will open the greatest opportunities to organise. Howard Zinn was right when he typed the oft-quoted (but unsourced) aphorism, 'What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but "who is sitting in" -- and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.' Or, in much the same vein, 'Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.' And Rebecca Solnit knows that as well as anybody.

There is a traditional conceit on the left that it is only when Labor is in office that their supporters can observe and experience their sellouts and attacks, which can lead them to break to the left. If that applies to the Democrats, you'd expect those who supported Obama so enthusiastically in 2008 to have moved left by now. In fact, many of those who anticipated hope and change have somehow not noticed what Obama has done to them, or made excuses for his 'failure to achieve his objectives', as if his objectives were theirs. Most have been demoralised.

Another view is that a marginally more right wing government is likely to attack workers more vigorously and arouse a more determined fightback, particularly as the Tories, the Liberals, the Republicans don't bother trying to don the camouflage of a workers' party. This raises the ultimately unanswerable question, 'What is the last straw?' How much will we tolerate before we pull our fingers out and organise a fightback?

Yet another factor is which government will leave the most space for organisation by tolerating dissent and so forth. I don't think anybody anticipated that Obama would be the one to set new records for victimising whistleblowers or to organise the nationwide crackdown on Occupy. But there you go. We can only speculate about how draconian a Romney regime would be. Much less how people would respond.

The received wisdom is that in the primitive and undemocratic US first past the post electoral system, a vote for a candidate to the left of the Democrats is a gift to the Republicans. There are still people going around blaming Nader for the election Bush stole with the connivance of the Supreme Court in 2000. Gore, of course, would never have invaded Iraq, they allege, as if 'would never have' is some kind of evidence. Perhaps he wouldn't have invaded Afghanistan? Perhaps 9/11 would never have happened? Or perhaps 9/11 was just a convenient pretext for adventures long in the planning that had more to do with control of petroleum supplies and pipeline routes than with Islamist terrorism? Perhaps there were more powerful forces at work than Al Gore could or would have been able to resist, even if he had been that way inclined?

At the end of the day, then, we don't really know whether a Romney administration is more or less likely to propel Americans onto the streets than another four years of Obama. I couldn't entirely rule out the possibility that the Occupy Wall Street movement, the fightback in Wisconsin, or the Chicago teachers' strike might not have happened under a Republican president. But in terms of November's election, I think a respectable showing for a third party candidate would be the best outcome. If four or five percent of American voters were prepared to abjure the received wisdom and endure their liberal mates' censure to vote for the Greens candidates, it would be a clear sign of a break from the two party lesser evil orthodoxy and perhaps even from electoralism itself. Beyond that, it might even enhance our confidence to get out there and fight on the streets, on the campuses and in the workplaces.


  1. 'So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing.'

    As if on cue, The Jewish National Fund informs me 'Israel is changing the world - for the better. Through hard work and determination, this young, desert nation is a global leader in renewable energy, agricultural innovation, and medical breakthroughs that improve quality of life all over the world. This is the conversation that the world must have about Israel. The time has come to show the world how Israel makes the world a better place.'

    And that doesn't require any automatic assertions about colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, house demolitions, torture, bombing, drone strikes....or does it?

  2. The people who polemicise against third party candidates in the US (or, at least, the polemicists I've seen) miss a very important issue. This is that, because voting is voluntary, someone who votes for the third party might very well have abstained if there had only been a choice of two. Given the very high rate of abstention in the US, this is far from an academic issue.

    To refute the Democratic critics of third party candidates is not, however, the same thing as endorsing a vote for any given third party, or even third parties in general. If our objective is to overthrow capitalism and establish a society where the workers are in control (a point upon which I believe Ernie & I are in agreement), it needs to be established that getting a substantial vote for the third party will actually contribute to that process.

    For the third party and it electoral campaign to be a contributor to the process of building a working class movement that can overthrow capitalism, that party has to draw a clear class line in its electoral propaganda. It needs to say "We're workers/socialists/communists/whatever and we're against capitalism. The other two parties are capitalists and having either in power is against our interests." This is not a sufficient criterion, because there is the problem of electoralism to overcome (and which I doubt can be overcome in the context of an electoral campaign), but this criterion is necessary. Judged on this basis, supporting Green candidates, in the US or in Australia, would not be a constructive activity. It might be a marginal improvement in the terrain of capitalist politics if the Greens took votes off people to their Right, but it would be a great distraction (at best) if socialists build that electoral machine rather than building the labour movement.

  3. Sorry, Abim, it's so seldom I get any comments that it never occurs to me to check if any are awaiting moderation until I actually post something. Mea culpa.

    Your point is perfectly valid and under more propitious circumstances, I'd probably make it myself. In this election, however, there were no credible socialist candidates and the only one on my ballot paper was Peta Lindsay of the apparently Stalinist Party for Socialism and Liberation, who scored a whopping 7,588 votes nationally, 0.006% of votes cast (

    I was way too optimistic about the Greens, as even with my endorsement, Jill Stein ranked 4th with an embarrassing 0.35% (431 719 votes), about a third of the libertarian's. Still, I think a more creditable showing had the potential to send a salutary message to the ruling class and start to drive a wedge into the rampant lesser evilism that prevails among what passes for the left in the old country.

    We don't differ at all on the centrality of building the labour movement and that what that means is recruiting the mass of workers and empowering the rank and file, rather than the bloated US union bureaucracy. But building the union movement and advocating a vote for a third party candidate are not mutually exclusive activities and if pursued intelligently could actually reinforce each other. Certainly I'd see anything that separates the unions from their slavish devotion to the Democrats as an advance worth pursuing.