Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Democrats and Defeatism

Given the stimulus package, and probably-pending insurance reform and upcoming financial regulations Obama and the Democratic Congress have accomplished more in the first year of an Administration than we've seen in generations, certainly since LBJ.

I think it is safe to say that these accomplishments fail to address the deeper structural and ethical problems of our nation in ways that are literally catastrophic to our national future and are also unequal to the demands of our historical moment in ways that imperil the survival of democratizing civilization and even the biosphere of which we are all a part. But I also think it is frankly stupid to presume that the reason these accomplishments fail to be equal to our problems is because Democrats in general either stealthily prefer this result or lack the "willpower" to do the right thing.

Movement Republicanism is at this point a literally insane force, appealing to and whomping up the insanity of its Base, and Republicans are presently monolithically obstructing the sensible efforts of Democrats elected to change this country's direction (and in ways that would better reflect the center-left to outright social-democratic policy preferences consistently attested to by majorities of Americans since the Nixon Administration in fact, but never once reflected in our governance), a monolithicism and discipline that reflects more than anything else their absolutely realistic awareness of their defensive minority status in an ever more secular diverse precarious nation.

Given this obstructionism it is simply the case that any legislation that makes it to the President's desk for his signature has to find its way first through the meat grinder to sixty votes in the Senate, despite the fact that a non-negligible number of the sixty Senators who caucus with the Democrats are partially or mildly devoted to the social or cultural or corporate-military agenda of the Movement Republican obstructionists.

These facts cannot be wished away. Too many who chirp about a circumvention of these facts through budget reconciliation or through an abolition of the filibuster seem unaware of the actual demands and limitations of such efforts of circumvention, and too many who bemoan the President's "hands-off" approach seem unaware of the extent to which Administration figures have indeed been intimately involved in these legislative processes or seem to desire their President to behave in ways that undermine the Separation of Powers (something Obama has been too prone to rather than resistant of, if you ask me, and which we should hardly be encouraging).

I do indeed think Democrats should return to healthcare next year and seriously consider using budget reconciliation to force through more robust mechanisms for the policing of the new regulations against worst practices of for-profit insurers and more robust cost containment through a public option in some form. I think this should be offered up as a matter of nibbling around the edges of the new status quo created by passage of insurance reform rather than a re-visitation of reform as such, some kind of "second bite of the apple." One bite of that apple was enough to show that it was already biting off more than we can chew.

Also, I do indeed think that Democrats should contemplate another revision of the filibuster to ameliorate the mischief of modern partisan obstructionism, although my understanding is that this cannot happen until the 112th Congress convenes in 2011, assuming Democrats retain their majority, else it would take fully 67 votes to push through (at a time when 60 votes are scarcely possible). Again, it seems to me that this should be proposed as technocratic tinkering rather than as some sort of revolutionary action. Senator Harkin has a nice proposal along these lines he's been floating. I am in no denial as to the fact that any such move will be repudiated in the most histrionic imaginable terms by Republicans in any case, but the point is that when the Teabaggers blow their crazytown wad over and over again this produces the effect of self-marginalization unless the left enables it to do more by treating it more seriously than it deserves -- the point is not to ignore it, but to ridicule it.

But, come what may, neither of these worthy efforts should be regarded as anything even remotely like a magic bullet rendering the enraged and demoralized left more adequate to the actual power of corporatist militarist and patriarchal forces obstructing and debasing our political process in this moment. They simply aren't, and there is nothing the least bit radical about pouting and stamping one's feet at such realities.

I think the sausage-making around jobs, climate-change, financial regulation, collective bargaining rights, military escalation, lgbt rights among many other things are going to deal a series of flabbergasting disappointments to the widely shared and eminently sensible hopes of the liberals on whose enthusiasm Democrats depend for their elections.

It is a real worry -- especially given the traditional skew toward base-voters in mid-term elections -- that this state of affairs is indeed likely to result in a state of affairs in which Democrats who want to do what they are elected to do, and indeed are struggling to do so but cannot because the most conservative Democrats in the caucus have been empowered by monolithic Republican obstructionism, will likely be punished by the relinquishment of support they need by those they have disappointed, in ways that always only further disempower the already disappointed by facilitating the election of more of the very Republicans who are the key authors of the present debacle.

Those who recognize in such a statement familiar excoriations of supporters of Third Party candidates are right to do so. Those who support Greens or socialists and hence facilitate the election of Republican feudalists and theocrats are wrong to imagine that those of us who denigrate their choices do so because we disagree with or disapprove of the point that Third Party advocates make, namely that both the Democratic and Republican parties are so beholden to corporate-military interests and values that neither of them as they are presently constituted can function as forces toward genuinely sustainable consensual planetary multiculture. For me, this demands that we struggle to get more and better Democrats in office, primarying Democrats (whatever the prerogatives of incumbency) whose aspirations and voting records are to the right of their districts, and putting up candidates in hopelessly right-leaning districts to facilitate the progressive education of those districts through the campaign process.

Let me just point out as a quick aside, by the way, that both in my writing and my teaching (hundreds of students at Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute can attest to this) I advocate the implementation of a universal non-means-tested basic guaranteed income and universal single-payer healthcare, universal access to public education, and considerable curtailments of current intellectual property rights regimes, which makes me close to a socialist (whatever my disagreements with many of the views of many who so identify), and that I also advocate, just as vociferously, for the subsidization of permaculture farming practices and decentralized renewable energy provision via solar rooftops and windmill co-ops, which makes me close to a radical Green, and that I was trained in nonviolence by the King Center when I was a member of Queer Nation Atlanta and I advocate the democratization of current actually-existing unaccountable neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarist world governance through a strengthening of the WC, ICC, UNESCO, WHO, ILO, a redirection of the missions of the WB and IMF to reflect concerns about social injustice, sustainability and destabilizing and precarizing neoliberal financialization and enclosures of cultural and genomic commons, as well as the introduction of a popularly elected assembly to supplement or replace the United Nations General Assembly, all of which makes me possibly the biggest dirty fucking hippy (or DFH as digby and atrios pithily abbreviate the phrase) you would ever care to meet. So do please think twice before you simply assume I am a stealth corporatist or have drunk the Friedman kool-aid or am an uncritical Obamabot (although I may of course still be simply mistaken -- and if so I welcome arguments, especially arguments to the point, which are rare -- or possibly simply a hypocrite, although a hypocrite, I hope you will grant me, as Woody Allen once quipped, "for the left").

Given the actually-existing structural marginalization of third parties in the institutional landscape of American partisan politics it seems to me that those who advocate a more democratizing viewpoint than either party is currently advocating (which seems to me as palpably true as it is palpably false to peddle facile equivalency theses about the parties as do too many) must either struggle to reshape the best of those parties in the image of their own values or, if they truly believe in the necessity of a greener or more socialist third party, fight first to alter the institutional landscape in which third parties function politically (through campaigns for instant runoff voting, real campaign finance reform, or what have you). Those who advocate more radical third party interventions without concern to the actual structural realities in which interventions make their play seem to me to mistake as radicalism what amount to narcissistic temper tantrums indifferent to actual outcomes, just as those who decry fine elected Democrats (not to mention American's Senator, the fabulous Bernie Sanders) as traitors to Democratic principle, who deserve to be punished as such, without concern to the actual structural realities with which which such Democrats are contending seem to me to be rash, ill-informed, and too apt to cut off their noses to spite their faces, however righteous and well-meaning they may be in general.

Hence, I tend strongly to agree with BooMan (as I often have done through the various healthcare reform debates this year) when he criticizes the tactical mis-steps and energy-dividing histrionics of what he is calling the Anti-Corporatist Movement, despite the fact that I identify pretty closely with much of what self-identified "Ant-Corporatists" say is wrong with the currently prevailing catastrophically environmentally unsustainable, brutally precarizing, fraudulently financialized, disgustingly militarized world-system. When BooMan takes pains to say he doesn't mean to use the phrase Anti-Corporatist Movement "pejoratively" I think this is belied a bit by his actual analysis, especially when he declares the difference between anti-corporatists and, say, pragmatists as primarily "temperamental" in nature.

And I do think this tends rather to undermine the effectiveness of his larger crucial point, which is, if I am understanding him aright: that not only can one be a pragmatist while sympathizing or even, I suppose, identifying with the aspirations and analyses of the Anti-Corporatist Movement, but that frankly one must be a pragmatist in order actually to manage to re-write our world in something like the image of the aspirations and analyses of the Anti-Corporatist Movement.

To return to the first paragraph of this post, I said that "the stimulus package, and probably-pending insurance reform and upcoming financial regulations Obama and the Democratic Congress have accomplished more in the first year of an Administration than we've seen in generations, certainly since LBJ." I think the people with whose radical democratizing and permaculture politics I most closely identify myself likely really saw red reading that, reading such statements often makes the people with whose politics I most personally sympathize want to tear their hair out. I fully understand that and I understand the reasons why this is so.

I realize that there are some who want to say that what Obama and the Democrats have accomplished is something wonderful, something adequate to "the fierce urgency of now" as the man said. And of course given the actual problems of climate catastrophe, corporate catastrophe, military catastrophe we face those who think this painfully-accomplished something we will have wrought is also enough are simply straightforwardly wrong to think so or to say so.

But it also really is true that something is not nothing, even when that something is nothing like enough. It is wrong to pretend that something is nothing when what you want is something more, because in declaring something to be nothing you disempower the very forces on whom you must most rely to work your way to something more.

I realize that there are good reasons to fear that the heartbreaking process of incremental reform may be unequal to the demands of unfolding catastrophe, but unless you are advocating the violent overthrow of the system the limitations of which frustrate the educational, agitational, organizational work through which humans must strive to be equal to our shared problems then you are conceding that we do such politics as we can with the system we have rather than the system we might wish for, and this demands in turn that we assume the responsibility actually to work through that system rather than indulging in delusive, distracting, deranging wish-fulfillment fantasies involving third parties which cannot be going concerns in our actual reality or involving the punishment of Conservadems whose votes are nonetheless still needed to accomplish anything given the monolithic obstructionism of crass crazytown Republicans.

In an earlier post I wrote:
Like many a good pragmatist, I think it is enormously important to remember that the perfect can be the mortal enemy of the good. Like many a fine idealist, I think it is no less important to recognize that pragmatists who assert the previous can in their fixation on what seems possible, lose sight of the good in ways that undermine their grasp of the actually possible. I think both insights are indispensable and I don't think there are any criteria on hand to assure us which is the more relevant perspective in any generally useful sort of way, and so that one must remain rather self-critical and attentive and persistent in the face of inevitable frustrations, come what may. All of this seems to me simply a straightforward matter of intelligence.

I do think the "perfect as enemy of the good" chestnut has been trotted out so many times at this point to defend crap that it may be time to roast it on an open fire, but it really does name an indispensable insight for a genuinely political point of view (and I mean real politics, not moralizing or performance art mistaken for politics). The problem is, of course, that too many who grasp the indispensability of the point fail to grasp the equal indispensability of the second point that "in their fixation on what seems possible, [pragmatists can] lose sight of the good in ways that undermine their grasp of the actually possible." Rather than denigrate the Anti-Corporatist Movement it seems to me we should embrace it as a regulative ideal that truly and actively informs our pragmatism, keeps us vigilant for opportunities to shift the terms that presently seem to delimit the practically possible, but without becoming a standard against which all pragmatic outcomes are found wanting so that successes are experienced as defeats and hence inculcate a defeatism which renders the possibilities for success ever more remote, quite contrary to purpose.

A simple way to put this point is that the Latest Left -- the left that has been and continues to be shaped by emerging peer-to-peer forms of real-time criticism, distributed organizing, aggregated fund-raising, and so on -- as it matures from its inaugural formation in opposition to the Bush Administration and Movement Republicanism to reformation in assuming responsibility for actual governance in a diverse stakeholder society suffused with corporate-militarist institutions and discourses -- must learn better to distinguish short-term and long-term goals, or to distinguish tactics and strategy.

One of the ways that one ensures that learning to make such distinctions does not facilitate the assimilation of the revolutionary democratizing promise of these peer to peer formations to the counter-revolutionary forces of incumbency (the usual domestication of the revolutionary by the professional which Arendt writes so well about) is to demand that tactical accomplishments be celebrated always only as stepping stones toward strategic outcomes rather than as ends in themselves. Among other things this demands that we respect the aspirations and analyses of Anti-Corporatist Anti-Militarist and Green Movements rather than denigrating them, but that our respect for these aspirations and analyses not exact as it cost the denial of tactical realities or the denigration of tactical accomplishments.

I get it that it is devilish hard to hold all these things together in one's head and one's heart at the same time, and that people are wonderfully emotional and error-prone in ways that render all of us all too apt to make mistakes in judgment connecting our histories with our hopes, where we are with where we want to go. But nobody really expects democratization to be easy, so I see no point in pretending otherwise.


RadicalCoolDude said...

Carrico: Given this obstructionism it is simply the case that any legislation that makes it to the President's desk for his signature has to find its way first through the meat grinder to sixty votes in the Senate, despite the fact that a non-negligible number of the sixty Senators who caucus with the Democrats are partially or mildly devoted to the social or cultural or corporate-military agenda of the Movement Republican obstructionists.

In light of this obstacle, do you think the stimulus package, the auto bailouts, and the bank bailouts weren't big opportunities Obama blew to fashion a "Green New Deal" as Naomi Klein recently argued?

Dale Carrico said...

I prefer to argue with people who are actually arguing with me, and I think it's wrong to just post a link and let it speak for you (this isn't the first time you have done this here, by the way). The only reason that this is a conversation at all is because I am not following your own example and just spitting out a link back at you. Can you imagine how exciting that would be? Just spitting links at one another endlessly? Would you still be able to pretend to yourself this gesture constitutes some kind of substantive engagement with my argument -- or even with the arguments to which you link? I will quote a few points in the Klein piece to which you pointed me (who knows if these are the parts you actually have in mind inasmuch as you refrain from making even the minimal effort of quoting what you take to be key passages, let alone contextualizing them, intervening in them, or what have you), but before I do so let me point out that I consider Naomi Klein one of the most important critical thinkers alive today, that I have read all of her books more than once, and that I teach her in many of my classes so I certainly don't want to give an impression that you are "siding with" Naomi Klein and I am "siding against" her just because you post a blind link on the assumption that this is relevant in some way you don't really elaborate on.

Dale Carrico said...

Klein writes: There's plenty of blame to go around, but there was one country that possessed unique power to change the game. It didn't use it.

I think this goes without saying, but saying it does undermine somewhat the fixation of blame on Obama later in her piece.

If Barack Obama had come to Copenhagen with a transformative and inspiring commitment to getting the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, all the other major emitters would have stepped up.

Nonsense: China is a major emitter and obstructed US efforts, half-assed though they were.

I understand all the arguments about not promising what he can't deliver, about the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, about the art of the possible. But spare me the lecture about how little power poor Obama has.

Those who point out the fact that literally monolithic Republican obstructionism (this is not a figure of speech, look at the voting record: it shows historically unprecedented obstructionism on the part of Republicans, who are publicly on record as planning to run on Democratic incompetence produced precisely through their obstructionism) has empowered the most conservative Democrats in the caucus -- each of whom has veto power under current circumstances -- to the detriment of the change mandate that elected them is the farthest thing from whining about "how little power poor Obama has" and to imply otherwise is dishonest, irresponsible, and unhelpful.

When Obama came to office he had a free hand and a blank check to design a spending package to stimulate the economy.

This is flabbergastingly false. A blank check? A free hand? It is true that in the past a losing party would have given a president elected so conspicuously on a mandate for change a little more wiggle room than they have given Obama. But that is simply not the world we are living in.

There are very few U.S. Presidents who have squandered as many once-in-a-generation opportunities as Barack Obama. More than anyone else, the Copenhagen failure belongs to him.

Obama's politics are to my right, and I think he campaigned as more of a "centrist" than I can endorse, but pinning the failure of Copenhagen on him, or describing him as squandering opportunities seems to me surreally misguided.

To the extent that what we want is more progressive policies we would do well to pin the blame squarely where it belongs -- on Republicans. That way we have some hope of electing more, and better, Democrats. Blaming Democrats rather than creating conditions in which more, and better, Democrats are elected is to facilitate the election of Republicans who are at this point struggling to re-write America in the image of an authoritarian theocracy couple to a corporate-military feudalism which imagines the rich and the righteous will survive catastrophe either behind high walls or through being Raptured up by muscular white-racist war-monger baby Jesus.