Monday, December 22, 2008

What's a Few More Deaths for the Revolution?

Larry Hamelin, husband of The Apostate, has a post making the type of old, old-school leftist argument that I haven't heard in awhile. Here's the gist:
There's an important sense in which Barack Obama is actually worse than John McCain. Obviously, Obama is not an explicitly theocratic fucktard like McCain; Obama is a bright guy, and I'm sure he means well, but he knows precisely what the capitalist imperialist system demands of him, and he was supported by capitalist elite because they know he will deliver. Obama is a palliative, not a cure. A palliative is just fine when it relieves suffering while one is curing the underlying disease. But a palliative is actively bad when it removes the motivation of pain for curing the underlying condition while it worsens. And that is precisely what the Obama administration aims to do.

A McCain administration would have given tremendous impetus for progressives to actually organize. "Let's make the patient sicker," says Dr. House, "so we can diagnose the disease and cure it before it kills the patient." An Obama administration just masks the symptoms and has visibly and provably sucked the oxygen from the mainstream progressive movement.

As far as I know, this is the primary reason why someone sufficiently "on the left" (i.e., actually socialist or Marxist -- so not me) would decline to vote Democratic even granting that they might be -- on face -- marginally better than the GOP.

This really didn't sit well with me, and for a few days I couldn't put my finger on it as to why. At first, I assumed it was simply a function of the fact that I'm not that far to the left such that I only vote Democratic as "the lesser of two evils". There are plenty of issues in which I'd prefer the Democratic Party be significantly more liberal, but there are other issues where I think the policies on their platform right now will lead to actual, positive good things for millions of Americans (not to mention the rest of the world). I'm clearly not as far left as Mr. Hamelin, and so of course his argument wouldn't seem compelling.

But it was still nagging at me, and I think I've finally nailed down my problem. When phrased in abstract terms like "palliative care", perhaps Mr. Hamelin's argument might be convincing. But what such abstractions mask is that when you let the body politic grow sicker, people actually die. This isn't a side issue, it's what Mr. Hamelin is counting on: he wants enough people to die so that the underclass finally gets fed up and launches the revolution. Such calls, you might notice, are far easier to make when your own life isn't on the line.

When the head of the American Communist party was asked if President Roosevelt's New Deal policies had carried out the communist party agenda, the leader responded: "yeah, on a stretcher." He was making a similar observation to Mr. Hamelin: that by reducing the abject misery and desperation of the Great Depression -- by putting millions of Americans back to work, by getting Social Security established, by funding aid for the needy -- President Roosevelt dissipated would otherwise could been a revolutionary build-up in the American working class. But it'd be selfish bordering on obscene to say that we should have opposed Roosevelt's efforts, for the simple reason that the lives of the poor are not rightly pawns in our political fantasies.

And yes, this is the state of the Democratic Party today. Are they as liberal as I (much less Mr. Hamelin) would like? No. But they'll probably get S-CHIP funding passed, and that means millions of children who otherwise would lack health care will be able to see a doctor. And lack of access to basic medical care gets kids killed. You can talk until you're blue in the face about how S-CHIP won't solve the structural conditions that lead to unequal access to medical care: and you'd be right! But to say that even one child should have to die in the (speculative!) hope that it might aid the broader revolutionary goal is sickening. Barack Obama may not be as strong on choice as many would prefer. But he does mean that Roe v. Wade is likely safe for another generation. And were that not the case, in a world where Roe was overturned, women would die. Women died when President Bush enforced the "global gag order" on abortion alternatives. Women die when the safest abortion practices are outlawed. And for some people, that's the point.

Let's take one more example. Over break I'm trying to finish Waiting for Gautreaux, a book about efforts to remedy public housing segregation in the Chicago region. The litigators in Gautreaux were pushing for "scattered-site" public housing: basically, instead of concentrating all the Black public housing tenants in concentrated centers of urban poverty, scatter public housing sites all over the Chicago area, integrating a few impoverished tenants each in all the various working- and middle-class communities around Chicago (wealthier neighborhoods were excluded because HUD rules prohibit spending too much on public housing, and land in wealthy communities is outside their price range. Also, the wealthier the community in which public housing tenants reside, the more resentment bubbles up in working and middle-class communities angry that the poor get to live in communities that they themselves can't afford).

The author, Alexander Polikoff, was also the lead attorney on the case, and he gives a very sober assessment of the results of several decades of litigation. Most of the book covers the period after Polikoff won the original 1969 court ruling holding that Chicago had, indeed, practiced segregation. Over and over again, local politics, community opposition, White rioting and violence, and city and federal bureaucracy intervened to prevent scattered-site housing from ever actually taking root. By the time the book was published in 2006, only a few thousand families had successfully relocated away from the blighted urban core -- a mere fraction of the original class of 20,000, much less the total number of Black families crowded together in hyper-segregated Chicago slums.

From a structural standpoint, Gautreaux was a resounding failure. Originally designed to crack "American apartheid" once and for all, it ended up barely making a dent in the segregated structure of Chicago's residential community. But for the families who did manage to make it out, Gautreaux was a wonderful thing. Not every Gautreaux family was a success story, of course. But most studies showed that Gautreaux families were more successful, had higher quality of life, and were just plain happier than their peers who remained inside the city. And the difference was most noticeable for the children who -- despite often starting significantly their peers in higher-quality suburban schools -- managed to make up incredible deficits and post exceptional educational records far surpassing their brethren elsewhere. This is perhaps why each year far more families try to make it into the Gautreaux program than there are slots available.

You could argue that Polikoff and his team of attorneys were merely relieving the pain in the inner cities, but not addressing its source. There still is the problem of crushing, grinding poverty and hyper-segregation in America's inner cities, and Gautreaux is unlikely to solve it. Perhaps the children inside the high-rise urban projects are more likely to revolt. But that's precisely because they're more likely to die along the way -- and the fewer Gautreaux's we have, the more that will be killed. When this fact is viewed as a feature rather than a bug, leftism becomes nothing more than a self-indulgent obscenity.

Two different children were interviewed by two different journalists around the same time in the Chicago area. One was a Gautreaux kid, the other, a resident of one of inner-city Chicago's most notorious projects. Both were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The Gautreaux child hadn't decided yet: "construction worker, architect, or anesthesiologist" were his top choices.

And the other girl, the one skipping rope outside her urban high-rise?

"I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."


Anonymous said...

You aren't saying anything I wasn't saying in the post you trackbacked this to. And Larry gets it - he and I have this conversation often. I fall slightly to the right of that argument and he falls slightly to the left of it. And we both see both sides.

It can't be denied that his point is valid, and even, perhaps, more accurate even if you take into account the "but people are dying!" argument.

Consider this: The longer we in the US rely on palliatives, the more people die around the world through the continuation of American imperialist goals (which are continued under Democrats as much as under Republicans).

So a revolutionary could truthfully make the argument that through your support of palliative measures at home, actual people are dying abroad.

The only choice is: short term for us but not for them, or long term for all of us?

I'm not saying it's easy, but your smug self-assurance isn't warranted any more than that of the heartless revolutionaries you're deriding.

(If that is sounding harsh, sorry - I'm simply not mincing words, I'm not actually upset; I talk this way with Larry too.)

David Schraub said...

I don't buy it. Sorry, but I don't. For people around the world, too, more people die in GOP admins than in Democratic ones. Women die due to the global gag rule. That's a GOP initiative. Even if you're skeptical that Obama will get us out of Iraq (a skepticism I don't share), it's pretty clear he wouldn't have gotten us into it (and won't get us into the next): that saves lives.

The point is, once you accept that Democrats are even incrementally superior to Republicans (and I think they're well more than that), the marginal cost of not supporting them comes in the form of graveyards. Particularly when the proposed alternative is a speculative revolution that you a) can't guarantee will happen, b) can't guarantee will succeed, c) can't guarantee will have the type of politics you want (a point you made in your follow up post about the distinct lack of feminism in many of these movements) and d) is dependent on making the already wretched even more miserable, I don't find the argument even remotely compelling -- indeed I find it extraordinarily disturbing and the product of those lucky enough to be insulated from its costs.

Anonymous said...

Is there anything beyond "smug self-assurance" that convinces our apostate that given a certain excessive amount of kicks taken while down, a threshold of abuse forgone, that the American people will say, like a big Rousseauian Twisted Sister cover band, "We're not gonna take it!" ?

Because I'm way unconvinced.

Here are some alternatives (they aren't mutually exclusive):

An increasingly oligarchical and imperialist government amasses further power, but no revolution succeeds because the coercive power of the state reaches a point that is sufficient to crush the puny rebellions of leftist bloggers and people who think Zizek makes good points.

An increasingly oligarchical and imperialist government amasses further power, but no revolution occurs because the sufficiently rich and powerful buy into the new world order and sell out the dispossessed here and in the third world. Media barons, capitalist war profiteers - the usual Injustice League types.

An increasingly oligarchical and imperialist government amasses further power, but no revolution occurs because people are too timid to join a revolutionary movement, they've been indoctrinated into middle-class complacency, besides, they're too afraid and they've been down so long they don't know what up feels like no more.

And so on. The Che schmucks seem convinced that the only possible response to obvious oppression and abuse is revolt. But a very obvious and easy response is fear, hopelessness, complicity and repression. See: Belarus. And y'know, at least a few other places. If all we need is transparent cruelty from the suits n' senators, plus a broad base of pissed-looking people to chase the Frankenstein fucks up the windmill, well, dammit, why the hell has an obviously dictator-y dictator ever stayed in power for more than two minutes?

Here's the sarcasm-free moral, Mr. apostate: When you've got a chance to make things better, even only a little for a few people, you take it. Because you never know when it'll be too late to move in the other direction. Solidarity, comrade, but try not to embarrass yourself.

Anonymous said...

That empirical-historical question aside, I agree with David on his substantive points about both the nature of Republican-v-Democrat policy AND the ethical question of supporting one over the other.

Unknown said...

So what this boils down to is that radical leftists are poor judges of the best routes of alleviating inequality and repression. Which, when you think about it, is unsurprising.

Anonymous said...

It's just the old eggs getting cracked for the sake of the omelet; we've been down this road before. Every time someone tries to convince me that Communism in Russia was an aberration, I see something showing just how little respect the putative American vanguard would have for human life and dignity. I'm just glad the revolution in America is an ivory tower fantasy, without the ability to destroy the lives of the people they "fight for."

Larry Hamelin said...

But what such abstractions mask is that when you let the body politic grow sicker, people actually die. This isn't a side issue, it's what Mr. Hamelin is counting on: he wants enough people to die so that the underclass finally gets fed up and launches the revolution. Such calls, you might notice, are far easier to make when your own life isn't on the line.

You apparent do not understand what palliative means. Are you illiterate or just plain stupid?

David Schraub said...

This is precisely why abstract analogies (in this case, medical ones) are so idiotic and the hobgoblin of small minds with delusions of grandeur.

A palliative "reduces pain without actual curing the underlying cause" of the problem. In this case, the structural conditions creating the suffering/inequality that afflicts the American underclass.

You can take Dr. House's advice in medicine because the structure -- the human body -- is all that matters (and importantly, that one relevant subject is consenting). It would be quite another thing to follow House's mantra in a world where each particular cell was also a morally relevant individual (and, it's worth noting, these individuals are completely absent in your decision calculus except as objects for your machinations. They're not even contributing, much less consenting. Indeed, to the extent they are present, it's as objects of scorn who aren't revolting like they should be. Hence, your prescription: turn misery into torture in the hopes that they see your enlightenment).

In such a world, it does matter when -- by sickening the body -- you kill off individual cells. And conversely, the reduction in pain to the constituent parts of the body politics -- that is, its citizens -- is a qualitative moral good. To say "well, they're sick anyway" or "they'll probably die eventually" doesn't do justice to the unique human dignity of the individual.

"You have to remember," said a priest about an inner city youth, "that for this little boy whom you have met, his life is just as important, to him, as your life is to you. No matter now insufficient or how shabby it may seem to some, it is the only one he has."

--from Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace

Unknown said...

Relieve enough symptoms and the existence of some structural condition isn't much of a problem.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Ralph Nader a proponent of this view?

Unknown said...

He is at least by the transitive property of being a dick.