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Monday, February 08, 2016

Is It Really "Anti-Establishment" To Fight So Hard To Lead An Establishment?

If being anti-establishment means being opposed to corruption or unaccountable abusive plutocratic power, well that is one thing, but if being anti-establishment means being opposed to institutions as such then that is quite another thing, surely. If Sanders means by "anti-establishment" the former, then he and Clinton are actually both anti-establishment, since both are proposing reforms to limit corruption and undermine plutocratic power, just with different regulatory measures and in different degrees. These are differences that people of good faith can productively disagree about, but these differences do not justify the sweeping distinctions and denunciations too many Sanders supporters seem to be fond of making.

If instead Sanders means by "anti-establishment" the latter, then Sanders is expressing skepticism about organizations themselves. Now, it is a familiar critique that whatever an organization is brought into existence to do in the way of work, once it exists a layer of incumbent politics will emerge to maintain that organization in existence potentially at odds with its original purpose. This inherent conservatism of organizations demands vigilance to say the least from anyone of progressive sentiments, not least because even while that tug of incumbency freights all organizations, organizations remain not only necessary to accomplish progressive ends but also to maintain these accomplishments.

These are the sort of ambivalences that may have lead Bernie Sanders to declare Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign and the super-delegates of the Democratic Party are all parts of an establishment he opposes even while obviously he is not opposing the actual missions of any of these organizations and recognizes the reactionary and plutocratic forces against which these organizations have been struggling throughout their existence. The blanket dismissals Sanders sometimes levels at such fighting organizations symptomize a deep tension in the appealingly straightforward anti-plutocratic critique Sanders is propounding and the rather glibly sweeping solutions, if that is what we are calling them, he is proposing. It is, of course, useful to make the point that a politics of incumbency may bedevil even progressive organizations when they are not transparent and accountable, but to the extent that presidential politics is partisan politics and partisan politics is ineradicably organized it is a little bizarre to mount too ferocious an attack on a party establishment you are seeking to lead on the way to become President of the most powerful military-industrial establishment in the history of humankind.

I am a fan of Occupy and have always considered "it" (Occupy is really an umbrella term for a teeming ramifying complex of resistances and campaigns and viewpoints) both a fierce petitioning of public grievance and a beautiful expression of public happiness. Beyond that, Occupy was a great rhetorical success, changing the terms of the politically possible. I have said all this even as I have also worried over some of the avowedly anarchist adherents of Occupy for their spontaneism, and have wished Occupiers were more doctrinally committed to sustainable and scalable forms of progressive change... But the Sanders campaign, which in some key respects seems a subcultural sequel to Occupy, seems to me to lack the clarity of even the anarcho-occupiers at their worst. Occupy changed the public conversation and in so doing altered the co-ordinates within which the possible and the important are articulated. This is the second presidential campaign shaped by issues formulated by Occupy, and now even more by the Moral Mondays and BlackLivesMatter resistance that succeeded and supplanted Occupy, and far more effectively already in my view. Occupy may have left our movements and organizations to push for the progressive change they demand on terms they define themselves but in a discursive terrain transformed by Occupy's energies and illuminations. But a Presidential campaign is actually taking up tools, it is actually mobilizing organizations, it is actually assuming a position within an institutional terrain. You cannot pretend to be above the fray as you are reaching for the reins.

Bernie tells his supporters half the time that they are the Revolution simply for supporting him -- a claim as absurd as the pretense of many successful ad campaigns that buying a brand of soda or the latest handheld device is a revolution. The other half of the time he tells them he can accomplish none of his lofty ambitions unless there is a revolution in this country -- a claim which leaves one to wonder, if his campaign is not that revolution, then why he isn't devoting his energies to organizing the revolution he says we need instead? If the organizations of the establishment are the problem, is he seeking to lead them then only to command them to leap off a cliff? Not that they would, but were they to do so, what would happen then? And if none of that happens, if he seeks instead to work within the established/establishment terrain, why are we supposed to think he would be better at working with the figures and organizations he disdains than those who are explicitly committed to working within those terms to make change already? And if he miraculously managed that trick of working within those terms he always condemns, and amongst partisans who seem to disdain him even when they sympathize with his message, then why wouldn't all his supporters rightly denounce him as a traitor the moment he succeeded on those despised terms anyway?

I believe that partisan politics are indispensable but also that they are radically inadequate. I believe movement politics on the ground educate, agitate, organize and so push compromised partisan politics to legislate solutions to shared problems. I think both political registers make the substance of change, but that neither manages to do so alone, at least not for long. It seems to me naive to disdain partisan politics for the purity of movement politics -- but I can certainly understand the impulse, the distaste with compromise, the exhaustion of struggle against inertia and ignorance, the heartbreak of witness to avoidable suffering. And it seems to me cynical to disdain the transformative force of movement politics for partisan skirmishing -- but, once again, I can certainly understand the impulse, the thrill of visibility, the compelling contest, the challenge of real-time praxis, the immediate feedback, the palpable rush of victories however few. People who lodge their political investment in either register can do work indispensable to progress, but so too they can lose sight of the reality of progress either by ascending to an Olympian height of moral or aesthetic beauty that they never connect to real change on the ground or by embedding so deeply into the terms of present limits that they come to resist real change in history.

All of these are very familiar quandaries, and I am saying nothing new in all this but only repeating truths that need repeating because they are hard lessons everyone would rather forget and so we often do. In politics you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. I am not sure I am saying much more than that when it comes to it. But the Sanders campaign seems to me an especially confused and chimeric being -- ascending to the heights... but in the form of the usual spinning and skirmishing in the depths of campaigning muck, promising revolution... not by eschewing the partisan but through the pretense that the partisan is revolutionary, disdaining institutions... while at once scrambling to rule them. I think a lot of people who know the world needs more change than a Presidential campaign could ever provide have decided to indulge in the romance of a Presidential campaign anyway, and I know that people who could be agitating and organizing against banks that still hold their money and police that still do violence in their names are instead fighting with people online over a Presidential nominee. No doubt this is easier and more enjoyable than the alternatives, which are after all quite terrible, and heartbreaking, and exhausting. But I don't know that people should seem so very pleased with themselves for making such choices as they often appear to be, to be honest.

I also have a preferred candidate in the present contest, as all my readers know by now, the ones who are still reading me at any rate, but I am supporting a widely respected, brilliant, capable individual, connected to the partisan and organizational apparatus she would wield as President to make such change as the Constitutional executive may do in our system of government, confronted with the actually-existing realities of our day. I think what many decry as Hillary Clinton's deceptions and hypocrisies reflect instead the realities of a lifetime fighting for progressive causes in a scrum of diverse stakeholders and in the midst of intense forces that require contingent alliances, ugly compromises, and tactical retreats on the way to slow-arriving, fragile, imperfect, hard-won achievements. I think it is comparatively easy to seem progressively pure when you govern a postage stamp of a state with a homogeneous population already more liberal in conviction than the average. I think Hillary Clinton is a lifelong participant in partisan politics because she found herself in the belly of the beast, partnered with an ambitious husband, and then realized once she had arrived there that she had a talent to make progress through partisan politics herself, and so there she has remained. Not everybody has the stomach, the patience, the determination to endure such efforts and I honor those who do, even if I share in the distaste for the process that most other non-participants in that arena like me are likely to do. I can tell you one thing, I do not expect a Revolution from the Presidency and I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton will not disappoint me in that expectation. As far as it goes, that seems about right to me. If you think that is because you are more knowledgeable, righteous, honorable, or committed than I am -- well, live it up.

Such radical change as we need will depend on the mass movements we deploy to press our partisan politics with, and also on the election to Congress and to state political offices and to local positions democratically minded people who are interested and capable of solving shared problems and hence contributing their measure to progress in the world. I support Hillary Clinton because I think she will do her part in such work. I support movement politics to the left of Clinton because I have no illusions about what Presidents can accomplish under the best circumstances. I support and supported President Obama on much the same grounds. I think he is the most progressive President since FDR -- and I can salute him for that even while recognizing that this is at once something of an indictment of the unbearable injustice and inertia of American history. I do appreciate that Clinton is not making or implying promises that she could not keep as President. You know, I have also always liked and admired Bernie Sanders. I'll support him and vote for him if he becomes the nominee of the Democratic party, but I do not think he will and if he doesn't I will be glad he doesn't. I think he makes a much better and more competent progressive Senator for Vermont than he would make a President. It is fair to disagree with that assessment, but I do not think that is the disagreement most people are really adjudicating through their championing of Sanders' candidacy. I think working through a philosophical disagreement about the pragmatics of historical change in the face of white-supremacy, patriarchy, plutocracy and pollution by means of a battle over the Democratic party presidential nomination between two utterly idealized celebrity candidates -- one an heroicized caricature the other an anti-heroicized caricature -- is utterly frivolous, deranging of sense, and a waste of energy and resources that would be better devoted elsewhere. Precisely because I take the urgency of radical change so seriously I find the Sanders campaign as the educational, agitational, and heaven help us all, organizational vehicle for such change the most arrant nonsense imaginable.


Elias Altvall said...

The more I read about Sanders the more problematic I find his campaign, i would still most likely vote for him if I were american but I woul do so critically and under no assumption that things would change radically. I mean he and some of his supporters seems to seriously think that scandinavian countries are socialist, which is not the case at all. I have seriously had debates with some of his supporters about the nature of socialism and how welfare capitalism works.

jollyspaniard said...

Interesting point of view and I can't fault it.

I love reading about Sanders but I am just rubber necking from the other side of the Atlantic. He's doing your country a service I think by giving Hilary a good run for her money from the left.

Dale Carrico said...

I agree that it is good that Sanders pushes Hillary from the left. That's where the majority of Americans are (and certainly it is where the solutions to our problems are) and Hillary's rhetoric and ambitions benefit from going there too in the contest. I worry a bit about the vitriol and anti-pragmatism, but ugliness and silliness are simply part of American campaigning, perspective helps -- and I suspect the consequences are better than not. It will be interesting to see how Bernie supporters react to results in states that are more representative of the nation and the party's Base. That will be the test.

Lorraine said...

etting back to the original question: Is It Really "Anti-Establishment" To Fight So Hard To Lead An Establishment?

Of course not, but that's basically an anarchist argument, isn't it? Perhaps it is an argument that can also contribute to a case for welfare statism or something similar. Apparently there's something called "judicial activism." Conservatives are very up in arms against it, which is a good enough reason for me to be for it. Is it reasonable at least to conceive of the possible existence of things such as legislative activism or executive activism? If judicial activism is indeed, as the people who call themselves strict constructionists claim, unconstitutional, then I'd say we're up shit creek if legislative or executive activism must also be excluded from existence.

I don't think anyone seriously believes that any presidential candidate can make good on campaign promises, so I think rather unfair the characterization of Sanders supporters as imagining the office of president coming with some kind of magic wand or royal sceptre. What animates me is this: During my own lifetime (and I think I'm the same age as Dale) the Overton window (if you want to call it that) or range of feasible political outcomes for America, has moved dramatically rightward starting with the Reagan "revolution" in 1980, with no end in sight. I want to believe that during my lifetime there will be a leftward pendulum swing of comparable magnitude. Thinking of Sanders nomination as a competitive liability for the Dem. party may in some cases be an expression of the belief that American public opinion ain't there yet. I can't really live with that, but maybe I can be persuaded to strategize around it. As before there was the "Reagan revolution" there was the "silent majority." But how do we keep our eyes on the prize; the long-term goal of pushing the Democratic party leftward and at least influencing public opinion at large in that direction? I'd like to think that at least between election seasons, moderates are fair game for our wrath, for the same reason as conservatives, at least to the extent that they take the conservative position on any issue.

Lorraine said...

One thing about Human Rights Campaign...from the trans perspective they have been regarded as pro-establishment for a long, long time. And also to some extent by queer identified folk, bi folk, as well as gay and lesbian folk who aren't yuppies and who need fair access to low-skill jobs and fair promotion to semiskilled jobs more than they need to get married. Among the straight folk too, marriage offers little benefit below middle class and glaringly obvious financial disadvantages to those so excluded (or so thoroughly outcompeted) from gainful employment that they are dependent on the so-called safety net.

Plus, they have the same initials as Hillary Rodham Clinton.