My post, "Why Do I Work for Obama?" and the follow-up have triggered a substantial series of interesting, lengthy responses, for which I thank all of you. I am going to say a few more things and then move on.
Note, first, that I titled the original post "Why Do I Work for Obama?," not "Why Should You Work for Obama?" It was not my purpose to try to persuade people to do what I do. Indeed, the whole point of my comparison of social change to an avalanche was that there are endlessly many different ways of being political, and all of them are needed. So long as you are working on the left, not on the right, I salute and celebrate your efforts. You may be staffing a free food center in your neighborhood, or taking part in an Occupy protest, or handing out petitions for the recall of Governor Walker, or volunteering for an environmental organization, or donating money to a progressive candidate somewhere in America -- or even doing data entry for the Obama campaign.
Two things seem to me to be clear: First, all of these actions are praiseworthy; and Second, it will make virtually no measurable difference if you personally stop doing them. This second point needs a bit of elaborating. This is a world of seven billion people. The United States alone has more than three hundred million. Progressive social change [or regressive social change, for that matter] requires the actions of vast numbers of people. One might imagine that there are certain special individuals whose actions, all by themselves, have major consequences, such as an American president, or a politically active billionaire, or a Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks. But that, I think, is a mistake. These seemingly special individuals derive their power from the beliefs, support, and acquiescence of millions of others. As Marx remarks in that wonderful footnote in Chapter One of Capital, "One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the other hand, imagine that they are subjects because he is king." This truth is depressing because it means that no matter what you do, you alone will make scarcely any difference at all. That is why I emphasized the importance of choosing a form of political action that you enjoy. Lord knows, you won't keep at it decade after decade because of the enormous impact you alone are having on anything at all.
Even local action, by and large, requires the efforts of enough people so that any one shirker or no-show will not make a great deal of difference. You have to go pretty local for it to be otherwise. My wife and I once got ourselves elected as Jackson delegates to the Massachusetts state Democratic Party convention from the tiny town of Pelham. We accomplished this political machination by getting two friends to ride with us to the meeting. The four of us constituted an absolute majority of those present, and Susie and I were swept into office. That is just about the only time in my entire life that I can say my actions personally made any sort of noticeable political difference.
So, I do not want to argue with anyone at all who is identifiably rolling down the same side of the hill as I am. If voting gives you heartburn but working with the homeless makes you feel good about yourself, so be it. Just so long as you are doing something that helps those who need help and advances in some way progressive policies. There is a long history on the left, as in Christianity and Islam, of sectarian squabbles between groups only minutely different from one another -- what Freud famously called, in another context, the "narcissism of small differences." I have been opposed to that sort of in-fighting all my life. That is why I said political action is not like brain surgery. One slip of the knife can kill the patient. But nothing much hinges on my adopting this variation of Marxian economics rather than that one.
I hope that everyone reading this has found, or will find, some way of being politically active that contributes something, however insignificant, to the advancement of progressive principles and goals. The only thing that is really unacceptable, in my view, is to mount an excoriating critique of everything, and then use that as an excuse for doing -- nothing.