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Semiformalishmaybe

Prudence and Radicalism

There's someone I generally respect whom I've gotten to know on G+. A former CMUer (but a few years before my time), a former Netscaper, a former prominent Wikipedian, and nowadays an active commentator on politics. His politics are, as far as I can tell, not nearly as radical-left as mine (I like to joke that I have radical politics reached from mainstream reasoning) in their desired ends, but I'm coming to see and be bothered by the means he's willing to use to reach those ends. Part of this is that they seem knee-jerk/imprudent/not-big-picture-aware enough; this is the bigger criticism, and the smaller part (for me, possibly bigger for my readers) is that it closes the door on something I'm not absolutely committed to but would like to have if possible: democratic change.

His response to the recent political gridlock has been to loudly and repeatedly call for digging out the biggest and most destabilising political tools players might rightly use in our system: avoiding congressional budgeting issues by using reserve powers to mint large-denomination coins that would be used to fund the government until congress passes a budget (or other similar tricks), packing the Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United, lawsuits that would aim to establish a fiduciary duty of corporations to support the Democratic Party because of their stronger economic policy, making it a misdemeanor-with-a-fine to support the Republican party in any way because supporting their policies creates large-scale measurable social harm, and so on.

I think I understand his ends, and while I have a lot of sympathy for them, with one reservationLINK as in-system measures they seem terribly dangerous and foolhardy to me; there is a lot at stake in politics (there always is), but that's true both in the short-term and long-term. Any steps that would deeply destabilise our economic system (as those large-denomination coins would, likely through inflation) or our political system would be available to political foes (available in the sense that the foes would be comfortable using them, the tradition being breached); if liberals pack the court to overturn something, conservatives could pack the court to overturn Roe v Wade (or move to a narrow interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause, and undo over a century of modern law). These are dangerous tools to be kept for only the most dire of circumstances, when we're willing to risk everything, rather than things to use for even serious problems. At least, so long as we're thinking with in-system logic.

I am not entirely committed to in-system logic; as you probably know from my other writings, I hedge between the revolutionary socialists and the democratic socialists (like Bernstein). In practice, this means I theorise (mostly separately) for both, practically focus on the in-system democratic-socialism evolve-it-towards-socialism methods, agitate for both, and were the circumstances right and I thought we had a reasonable shot at winning using out-of-system nondemocratic means (meaning we have sufficient popular support, some means of replacing the current state with a new socialist one, and had both a theory providing for short-term provisional rule, a socialist/market democracy afterwards, and enough commitment/leadership to that theory, I'd be willing to try a revolution instead. If that ever were to happen, I'd think of it as a very conscious, deliberate, serious matter; I'd have to be willing to discard the safeties in our existing system and risk losing all the progress we've made in this system in the usual mess of revolution.

(It is in accepting either slow evolution or revolution towards betterment that I most often find myself rejected/mistrusted by radical activists as well as mainstream political thinkers, almost as much so as thinking about radical changes using reasonably mainstream logic, rather than using radical theory or aiming for mainstream ends)

This is one of the cases where I feel it is reasonable to practically pursue either of two paths, but not step into the ground between; the risk-benefit profile is not in our favour.

A bit more on social buy-in: A big problem with sidestepping capitalist democracy is that even if the system shapes how people think, that remains how they think. Changing how people think about society and each other can happen as legal climates change (attitudes on mixed-race marriages showed remarkable shifts in states that were forced to legalise it in the years immediately after that legal change), but there still is a distance to travel; socialism cannot be imposed without sufficient popular support. More broadly, neither can liberalism; government cannot be present in every (or even most) interaction between people, and the most supportive laws and institutions will be of little help (and be hard to enforce/implement) without some broad (not necessarily 50% broad, but probably at least 20% broad for most things) support. Any socialist revolution without some popular support (or at least neutrality) would be doomed. Any liberal policy enacted with too much popular opposition will likewise probably be doomed (whether by a supreme court, or at the federal level with sufficient local opposition). The point here is that while law may be powerful, both the liberal activist and the socialist activist will need to think about the thoughts of the people as being just as important as the law. Imperfect as our politics is as a way of making good decisions, if it shows strong opposition to an idea, we probably should be making as much effort towards convincing people as towards railing against the system; this is both practical for social democrats/liberals as elections kinda-sorta are based on popular support, and ground-building for radical activists.

In sum, we can't usually charge like a bull directly towards our goals without jettisoning our (provisional or deep) commitment to democracy and opening the door to our opponents doing the same against us. Being intelligent about risk and costs to the methods we advocate/use for our causes will often require us to use moderate methods for even causes we care a lot about.

  1. That reservation being environmental policy, which he actually hasn't talked about and considers less important than the economy; I might be willing to entertain use of such measures if I were convinced that democracy would give us to environmental doom and were I reasonably sure I could manage to actually have an alternate measure work with acceptable consequences; the risk incalcuable harm to present and future generations from broad environmental change is greater than that of a hundred Shoahs.
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