Monday, March 13, 2017

Reform Blues or Demand the Impossible

Left wing activists are constantly reminded not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. That we must struggle for real material gains for real people as we work to overturn the system. But is it also possible that the "good" can preempt the possibility of the better?

Anyone who has worked in the world of social justice activism recognizes the tone of those who characterize radical goals and ideals as "utopian". Hillary Clinton's attacks on Bernie Sanders were emblematic: I can accomplish things in the real world (smirk), through a pragmatic approach to what is actually possible. At its most punishing, those who attempt to transcend the fundamental finitude and limitations of our situation are dutifully reminded of the Soviet Gulag as the end of history.

I will argue that in certain circumstances, working within the system for incremental, intermediate gains is worse than doing nothing at all. When we bestow legitimacy on the system, we undermine our own arguments and dissipate our energy. When we compromise at the outset by accepting the "rules" we are signalling weakness which the wolves can smell a mile off. Only when demands press against the "limits" of what is possible does the illusion of absolute hegemony shatter. To relay the urgency of crisis those demands must stretch what is possible.

The conscious prohibition on wanting what you desire has a long history, long enough for the prohibition to become internalized (the unconscious relation between want and desire we will leave for another time) This is the Serpents offer whose acceptance dooms us as "fallen" for eternity. It is the reason Icarus crashed to his death. The admonishment not to over-reach, to stay within prescribed limits, to tame "ambitious desire" is also a legacy of our Puritan past and imbues us with all that debilitating anxiety which keeps psychoanalysts and pharmacists in business.

Beyond merely wanting what you desire, difficult as this is, we must also act. But this is where it gets tricky. Rebecca Solnit would have us believe every act extends "hope" in some form, that every act of resistance is a success if viewed from a certain perspective. This is New Age bullshit, obvious on its face. If everything was such a success (anti-war protests, Occupy, Arab Spring, Standing Rock) why is the left in such a psychotic frenzy of hand-wringing and spontaneous, useless "opposition"?

If you rush into some Action Against Something, using the same old organizing playbook, using Hope in place of strategic planning, then end up getting your ass kicked- it matters. You demonstrate weakness, embolden you enemies and deflate your allies. You engender cynicism. We only have so many shots at this. Better get it right.

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