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Sunday, April 29, 2012


In response to my post "Why Do I Work For Obama?" "English Jerk" wrote a long and very thoughtful comment.  Rather than respond to it in the Comments section, I have decided to write a separate post addressing each of the three points he [?] makes.  To obviate the necessity of switching back and forth between this post and the comment, I will reproduce the relevant portions as I go along.

After an opening remark, EJ asks three questions.  Here is the first one:

"1) What if Candidate X is better on, say, unions than Candidate Y, but is worse on foreign policy? As an option 2 guy who is in the process of organizing a union, that issue has immediate practical consequences for my political activities. But do I really want better labor laws in the US at the cost of millions of people exterminated abroad? For that matter, do I want better labor laws in the US at the cost of the US government supporting the violent suppression of unions in Colombia (where a few hundred labor organizers are murdered every year)? In other words, it seems to me that, in order to make this assessment, we'd have to determine in some detail what a candidate is likely to do (which is no easy matter) and then to find some way to compare (or even quantify?) his various evils so that we can determine whether it's a net gain to have X rather than Y in office. In Obama's case, of course, we could at least look at his past record and assume he'll continue in the same vein. So I'd like to see what it would look like if we really try to balance out all the good and bad things he's done and see where the scales fall. To put this another way: many of your arguments hang on an evaluation of Obama's specific policies, and I'd like to hear more about your views on those details."
EJ is completely correct in his description of the problem we all face when called upon to choose between two candidates, or even among three or more, each of whom in all likelihood embraces some policies and actions we approve of and some we do not approve of.  EJ is also correct that we are obligated to consider the long term and indirect consequences of these policies as well as the direct, short term consequences.  There is simply no way around this dilemma, given the nature of American politics.  A parliamentary system might offer the opportunity to vote for a party, however small, whose platform very closely approximates one's own convictions, but we do not have a parliamentary system.  Indeed, this is one of the many reasons, as I explain in In Defense of Anarchism, why the state is not, and cannot be, de jure legitimate.

As I hope is clear, there are many issues on which I disagree with Obama -- America's imperial foreign policy and America's capitalist economy, both of which he embraces, to name the most obvious and important of them.  For me, the relevant question is not whether I agree with him on these crucial matters, but what the alternatives are.  Today's Republican Party offers a worse version of American Imperialism and a worse version of American capitalism.  Of virtually all the choices facing America in 2008, when Obama first ran, there was only one -- albeit a very important one -- on which Obama proposed to move in exactly the wrong direction, from my point of view, namely his espousal of an escalation in Afghanistan.  With regard to every other important issue -- LGBT rights, health care reform, regulation of financial markets, tax reform, the environment, immigration reform, and so forth, Obama proposed to move in what I consider the right direction.  What is more, on every single issue, including Afghanistan, Obama's positions were better than those of his opponent.  So the decision to support him was, for me, a no-brainer.  I was convinced that the world would be better, or at least less bad, with him as President than with McCain as President.  And as things have turned out, I think that judgment was correct.

Four years have gone by, and once again I am faced with a choice between supporting Obama, supporting [as it turns out] Romney, or sitting out the election.  Once again, the choice is, for me, a no-brainer.  If you accept my argument that someone in my position is morally obligated to do what he can to advance the better of the available alternatives, then it is easy to see how I have concluded that I ought to support Obama.  And if I ought to support him, then I ought to work for him.  That is what "support" entails, at least for me.

Now, I confess that I did not anticipate just how bad the Republican Party would become in these past four years.  The full-scale assault on women's health is horrific.  The endless enrichment of the rich is appalling.  The punitive, racist attack on Hispanics is unconscionable.  This is no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower, Rockefeller, or even Nixon.  Anyone who cannot see the difference between them and Obama just is not looking.
Here is EJ's second question:  [By the way, every time I wrote "EJ" I think for a moment that I am talking about E. J. Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post.  I apologize to English Jerk for that.]

"2) What if capitalism is more adaptable than Marx supposed precisely because of these "progressive" strands in government, so that encouraging them actually prevents radical change? I know this line of thinking can be harnessed to the "making things worse until they get better" strategy, but it doesn't have to be. We might, for example, opt for direct action that helps people in our communities while pointedly avoiding any participation with state-corporate entities. If all participation in government makes capitalism stronger, then we'd need to find other avenues of political action—and, in light of the infinite capacities of humans, I think there are always infinitely many such avenues."

The first thing I must say in response to this point is that political action for change is not like brain surgery, where the slightest wrong move can bring disaster.  It is more like an avalanche, with rocks, trees, pebbles, bushes, and debris all rolling down a hillside.  Only a few of us in such a situation are boulders -- Martin Luther King, say, or maybe Noam Chomsky.  The rest of us are pebbles and bits of tree bark.  The important thing is to be rolling down the right hill.  To put the same point another way, political action is like exercising:  you will only stick with it, year after year, if you can find some form of it that you actually enjoy.  There are lots and lots of things that need doing -- circulating petitions, organizing street protests, carrying signs, writing letters, raising money, giving money, running guns [maybe].  They all need to be done if we are to see real change.  Now, I, for one, hate to march in street protests, but I like to raise money.  So by and large I do not turn out for street protests, but I do raise money.  Even when it comes to raising money, I cannot raise money for all the good causes in the world, or even in America, so I make choices, hoping that others will cover the bases I am leaving uncovered.  The important thing is to find something you enjoy doing, so that in bad decades as well as in good ones, you will keep at it.  I was lucky enough to live through the Sixties [which actually mostly happened in the Seventies, but never mind.]   I have also lived through the Eighties, Nineties, and Oughts, which were pretty bad.  That's life.  You have to just soldier on.
Now, with regard to EJ's second point, I don't actually believe the story about how you make things worse by "cooperating" with the world, by trying to engage with it.  That is not why revolutionary change does or does not happen, but that is another story.  I agree entirely with the thrust of EJ's point.  If you are more comfortable with local action, then commit your energies to local action, not because of some speculative theory but just because, of all the options available to you, that is the one you are comfortable with.  If you like it, you will keep doing it year in and year out, and that is what matters.  As far as I am concerned, you and I will be rolling down the same side of the hill.

Finally, here is EJ's third point"

"3) What if it turns out to be necessarily impossible to determine what political outcomes these particular circumstances make possible? We would, in that case, lack information that is crucial to the kinds of moral deliberations you describe. Marx seems sometimes to have thought that a given situation was fairly deterministically related to what could come next, but Hegel (on my reading, anyway) thought that contingency itself was necessary, which makes all real situations deeply unpredictable. My thinking is that it might be better to devote our energies to local action, since we are more likely to have sufficient grasp of the local situation to make a good guess about what that situation calls for. The energy would thus be better spent locally. And I know that the act of voting by itself doesn't require much energy, if all one does it to pull a crank in a curtained booth; but surely if one engages in the careful research and deliberation required to reach morally justifiable conclusions (and even more so if one actually advocates for the candidate, as one should of one really wants the candidate to win), then voting actually is going to take quite a lot of energy. I'm still not convinced that the energy wouldn't be better spent elsewhere."

It is in fact impossible as a general thing to " determine what political outcomes these particular circumstances make possible?" but I think it takes almost no energy to figure out that Obama and the Democrats are a more progressive option than Romney and the Republicans.  I don't think that conclusion should cost you more than a New York minute's worth of deliberation.  So decide to vote Democratic, go back to your local action, and on Election Day take thirty minutes to vote.  Any local action worth doing will be easier with a Democratic government than with a Republican government.  If you have doubts about that, ask the folks in Wisconsin!

If you have doubts even about this brief summary judgment concerning the relative merits of the Democrats and the Republicans, let me suggest that you carry out the following thought experiment:

Imagine that America had a political system in which the party that wins control of the House, Senate, and White House gets to rule without any opposition whatsoever from the other party.  So, if the Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House, then the Democratic Senators and Representatives simply evaporate, leaving the Republicans with 100% in both houses.  And the same of course for the Democrats.  It would still require majorities to pass legislation, and 60% of the Senators to impose cloture and end a filibuster.  Now, in this fanciful situation, what sorts of legislation do you suppose would be passed and signed into law?  I suggest that if the Democrats were in power, you would see legislation that moved dramatically to the left, because the opposition would only come from relatively more conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" [there being no Republicans in either chamber, in this thought experiment.]  The legislation passed if the Republicans were in power would be horrendous -- the end of Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, any sort of regulation of business, the outlawing of abortion, and possibly even of contraception, and so forth.

The point of this thought experiment is to make it easier for you to grasp just how different the two parties are.  I think you can do all the complex moral reasoning about this that you need to do while waiting for the light to change at an intersection.


Morbid Symptoms said...

This is almost right, but not quite. Perhaps a few clarifications will help.

(1) One must first get rid of the notion of the "efficacious vote". One's individual vote will never have an effect. The possibility that a single vote will ever sway an election, even for local office, in your lifetime is vanishingly small, and even in that case the single vote is within the margin of counting error. So the whole debate about whether to vote for a Democrat or not is beside the point. Even a Floridian's individual vote for Ralph Nader did not deliver the country to Bush (besides, as the NORC recount showed, Gore won Florida). Voting for Obama while in the grip of wishful thinking does not make you responsible for the drone strikes on Pakistan. So vote for Democrats or vote for third parties, or don't vote, but don't fool yourself into thinking that voting is a very important part of your political life.

(2) The differences between the two parties cannot be reduced to the "true preferences" (whatever those might be) of those parties' potential officeholders in abstraction from the social forces that help put them in office, so the thought experiment at the end of this piece is unhelpful. Let us imagine what would happen if the Republican party were to vanish from government. Would those forces that currently fund the Republicans (and, to a large extent, the Democrats as well) simply stand aside while Democrats enacted progressive legislation, impeded only by a rump faction of Blue Dogs? Not bloody likely. (There is no political god but capital and Tom Ferguson is its profit. Oops, prophet.)

(3) The question of working for Obama (or Democrats) is different from the question of voting for Obama (or Democrats).

The choice between the two is often made in these terms (and I can't quite tell if this is Wolff's argument, although in places it seems to be). In the former case, one might claim that one makes an almost unmeasurable contribution (since this is the realm of mass politics), but at least one makes a very small contribution to a project that might succeed. Working at the margins one makes a measurable contribution to a project that has practically no chance of success.

Framed this way, the choice to be made is indeterminate. Or perhaps "do a bit of everything". But this frame misstates the problem, in my view. First, when working for Democrats the problem is not only that one's individual contribution makes no distinguishable difference. One must also face the problem of buyer's regret. This is not the same as the claim that "there is no difference" between the two parties or candidates. It does, however, mean that one must evaluate working for Democrats in view of what Democrats will really do (as a political investment vehicle of certain capitalist fractions) rather than what you hope they will do or what you think Democrats really in their heart of hearts want to do. Second, as Wolff points out with regard to Occupy, some projects that seem to have no reasonable hope of success turn out to be successful in some measure. Hell, I called Occupy a "quasi-fiasco" the day after the original NYC demo. Every time I teach Charles Payne's "I've Got the Light of Freedom" I'm struck by the fact that SNCC had forty organizers in Mississippi. Forty. In Mississippi. What could be more of a hopeless quest than that? In my view, this combination of factors should push one rather decidedly out of an emphasis on supporting one mass political party rather than the other and toward so-called "marginal" politics.

(To be continued - original post exceeded character limit).

Morbid Symptoms said...

(continued from earlier post - original post exceeded character limit).

(4) Finally, the Democratic Party and social movements do not exist in isolation from one another. Democrats sometimes self-consciously draw on the strength of social movements and sometimes attempt to influence the direction of social movements. For Democrats, the optimal social movement is one that can mobilize voters for Democrats while not provoking counter-mobilization on the right. Consequently, Democrats tend to counsel demobilization (outside the electoral sphere) for social movements and try to channel such mobilization as exists toward channels controlled by Democrats. This theme runs all the way from my youth (MFDP 1964, when I was all of six years old) to today (the "99% Spring", an attempt to co-opt Occupy for the Democrats). So, if one is working in social movements, it seems to me that one must be wary of Democrats and tell others in the movement to be similarly wary. Unless, of course, one prefers social movements to be subordinate to the Democratic Party.

On balance, then, it seems to me that "working for Obama" (or "working for Democrats" or "working for Democrats who aren't so bad") should be at best a minor part of one's political life, and at worst is inconsistent (in practice) with the most important kinds of political work.

High Arka said...

What a horrifying, utterly selfish decision--to support someone who murders thousands upon thousands of foreign children, because their domestic policy decisions are a little bit better than the domestic policy decisions that might have been made by other people in office at the time.

Even if those domestic policy decisions are better than what a "Republican" would've done...and they're not...but even accepting that partisan fairy-tale, what a vile, selfish act it is for you to support the ongoing murder of so many children belonging to a different culture. This is unabashed, vulgar selfishness of the worst kind.

You gravely agree that "Arab" children shall be butchered in droves so that "American" children can have unions. You are the worst that humanity has to offer.

English Jerk said...

Thanks, Dr. Wolff, for the thorough and illuminating response. I do, as you probably expect, still have some reservations, though. Early in your post, you agree that “we are obligated to consider the long term and indirect consequences of [candidates’] policies as well as the direct, short term consequences.” And you agree that “if I ought to support [Obama], then I ought to work for him.” But you also describe the decision to vote for Obama in 2008 as “a no-brainer” and you say that all the deliberation required can be accomplished “while waiting for the light to change at an intersection.” This is hyperbole, surely, but it’s also not true; and it’s important that it’s not true. Suppose, for example, you were just to mentally list all of the individual decisions Obama has made regarding “America's imperial foreign policy and America's capitalist economy” (his bad points) and “LGBT rights, health care reform, regulation of financial markets, tax reform, the environment, immigration reform” (his good points). Just listing those decisions would take quite a while, even without considering any of their specific contents, their subtleties, their consequences. And I know I couldn’t even list every decision Obama has made in connection with, say, the “regulation of financial markets.” How does one find out about such things? One could read the New York Times, but we no doubt agree that corporate newspapers are mainly propaganda vehicles for state-corporate power; so you might find some basic information there, but very little in the way of (vitally important) context, and of course there would be many decisions unmentioned. So to really have any serious grasp of what is going on, you’d need to do research—a lot of research. And if you combine the research, the deliberation, and the advocacy for your preferred candidate, you’re talking about a very large commitment of time and energy. So, unless you want people to vote in a random or uninformed way (which I assume you don’t), it just isn’t true either that the decision is “a no-brainer” or that one can complete it “while waiting for the light to change at an intersection.” If it were so easy, there would be no problem; I could do my direct political work and spend only half an hour every four years on voting for President. But that is not at all true. Taking bourgeois party politics seriously is enormously resource-intensive (in my view, that’s part of its purpose). So there is a real question here about how our resources are best spent.

English Jerk said...

In this forum, of course, I can’t address Obama’s policies exhaustively. Let’s focus just on a couple of cases where I assume our moral intuitions are essentially equivalent (and even here I’m going to make some crude simplifications which I hope you’ll accept for the sake of argument). It seems to me that you’re clearly right that Democrats in general (and Obama in particular) are better about “LGBT rights” in the US, and I assume you’ll also agree that, as Chomsky has noted many times, Democrats in general (and Obama in particular) are worse about Israel. So which is the lesser of the two evils? I care a great deal about LGBT rights (and women’s reproductive rights, the rights of Latinos, and so on) in the US, and have attended my fair share of protests and marches and the like pertaining to those issues. But surely every Palestinian has it worse, under Israeli occupation, than any LGBT person (or woman, or Latino) in the US. However appalling the Republican attacks on those groups are (and the Republican rhetoric is truly repellent), none of the members of those groups are likely to have rockets shot at them from Apache helicopters, to have their homes and schools deliberately demolished by Caterpillar bulldozers, to be shot to death by IDF snipers using M16s, etc. And Israel’s crimes are directly subsidized by the US (Israel is, by a considerable margin, the largest recipient of US foreign aid, most of it military). So it seems to me that, in this example, the scale actually tips against the Democrats, if we accept that the greater evil is the one that involves the most egregious wrongs (not the greatest number of persons wronged).

English Jerk said...

My point here is not actually to assert that overall the Republicans are less evil than the Democrats, or that overall Romney is less evil than Obama. I really don’t know enough to say one way or the other. My point is that maybe this is just the wrong what of framing the issue (and I think I’m ultimately in agreement with “Morbid Symptoms” on this). Maybe it isn’t really “a choice between supporting Obama, supporting [as it turns out] Romney, or sitting out the election.” Maybe the choice is between, on the one hand, researching, deliberating, and campaigning for one political candidate in the hopes that your actions might help them get elected and that, once elected, they will be marginally less awful than the other candidate (mainly on domestic social issues); and, on the other hand, any number of things one might do to concretely and directly affect people in your community. If you organize people in your community (for almost any constructive purpose), then those involved both benefit the community and learn to act collectively; moreover, they learn to do so with relative autonomy, rather than experiencing only dependence on the state-corporate machine. This is why anarchists (in the usual sense, where the term indicates a general, if not absolute, rejection of bourgeois party politics as a tactic) like to talk about “building the new society in the shell of the old.” Bourgeois party politics absorbs a tremendous amount of a person’s time and energy, but usually just leaves people feeling even more helpless to re-make their world. Whereas collective direct action gives people a concrete sense of their power to create and their power to act. You can do both, of course, but you can’t maximize both.