[OPE] Political strategies of the American Left

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Fri Aug 22 2008 - 15:23:00 EDT

I'm very optimistic about the possibility of a progressive politics in the US, there are more progressive people in the US now than there ever were before, and the current situation is exceptionally favourable for people pursuing alternatives, since the whole basis for consumerist opulence based on financial speculation is unravelling. In addition, there are tremendous new opportunities for communicating a new political message very fast to a very large audience. 

It is just that for a progressive politics - I think - you probably have to look mainly outside the traditional Left, because (1) typically they just spread gloom and doom, (2) tell you what isn't possible to achieve given the "objective situation" and (3) uphold an ideology which attracts the wrong personalities. 

In essence, they confuse success with failure, and failure with success, which makes it impossible to learn systematically how you can achieve success, to the point where you provide real leadership and really change things. All you get is musings about what went wrong, but they're mystified about it. In other words, you have to work with people who don't share conservative preconceptions, i.e. with people who don't pretend to know everything about the political spectrum and its various permutations, and can freely develop their own thinking unhindered by orthodoxies. You need people who are discovery-oriented, rather than heavily judgemental people who make learning impossible. 

A Leftist will for instance look at somebody like David Horowitz, and then moralize about what an awful turncoat he was, just as a priest sermonizes about the devil in many guises. Or he will talk derisively about that terrible liberal Krugman.  But a thinker considers something else: how could e.g. a human being with a personality like David Horowitz be attracted to the Left, and then drift into all sorts of dour conservative propaganda? How does Paul Krugman persuade? And he investigates. Or, he will look at an activist who was exceptionally successful, and he will ask, what exactly did he do that made him so successful, and what can be learnt from that? What qualities did he or she have?

An empirical exercise like that, if conscientiously pursued, rather than with all sorts of jeering and sneering, i.e. which looks at what is actually behind all the jeering and sneering and the mystique, can reveal a lot about the formation of subjectivities in a particular historical environment. This already provides clues about where to look and where not to look, if what you want to do is to assemble a bunch of people to achieve progressive political change. 

So anyway the simple insight I can offer from my lifetime is: don't work with people who tell you about everything you cannot do. Work with people who are like you, and who tell you what you can do, who open op new possibilities, who egg you on to encourage achievement, who help you to enjoy life more, to draw conclusions so that you go from success to success, rather than from failure to failure. 

Personally I have quite a few failures and made plenty mistakes, but that was because I did the wrong things with the wrong people. The greatest difficulty I might have, is admitting this was the case, while holding on to my constructive intention nevertheless. I might be able to comfort myself with the idea that it was "not my fault" under the circumstances, but this does not improve things one iota. All I really can do is try and change my own thinking or approach, and try something else. If this doesn't work, then something else might work, and basically you have to do what it takes. But if you consider that you don't want to do particular things on principle, you can hardly expect to get the results which in fact require that you do those things. The other aspect is, that even if everything seems to go terribly wrong, you can still learn lots of useful things, since all the negatives sharpen up what a constructive alternative would look like, and in fact broaden the field of opportunities and possibilities if you care to look.

But anyway from experience now I am really convinced that one of the main things that goes wrong in learning processes is that, for whatever reason or emotion, people pretend that a failure was a success, and a success was a failure, making a rational understanding of means and ends impossible. Well, there may not be any such thing as an honest politican, but there is such a thing as a principled politician, and he doesn't go around blaring that failures were successes, and successes were failures, rather he encourages an accurate and useful evaluation of all that, using the available resources. There may not be any magic formula for success either, but point is you will never have success, insofar as you confuse success and failure, and lack an adequate framework for evaluating that. Scholars are often better equipped to assist this process, since they have more freedom to inquire dispassionately into what is really happening, without having to provide arguments and evidence for a prefabricated conclusion. 

In the end of course, the only "authority" there is, is the authority of experience -  experience which is conscientiously and critically assimilated, resulting in conclusions which nobody who respects the truth can deny. But if experience tells you only what you cannot do and what is impossible, then you are processing experience in the wrong way. At best, you become an authority on what is impossible, a skeptic. That's all it is, and it was already known among the pre-Socratic and classical Greek philosophers.

If you think that what I've said is not relevant, consider that in American culture it's all about relentless competition where there are "winners and losers" - either they're cooperating to compete, or they are competing to cooperate, or cooperation and competition are pitted against each other, but whatever the case, there are winners and losers, and if it's not clear, they get terribly anxious. "Are you winning"? That's the question. All this makes the assessment of success and failure highly important. At the most basic level, you might end up thinking you are a loser when in reality you are a winner, or you might pretend to be a winner although really you are a loser, and here the strengths and weaknesses in your own character matter a great deal. In fact, of course, most times we have some wins and some losses, just as in the Olympic Games. But why adopt a framework for evaluation in which you are constantly the loser, and others are the winners, if you have a choice? If e.g. I'm a discus thrower, I'm not going to compete in the swimming, because I'm unlikely to win, and anyway swimming is not my thing, discus throwing is.

Karl Popper thought he was very profound when he said, that the idea was to "live with as few illusions as possible". He was bent on demolishing illusions, scientific or otherwise, inventing a "methodological falsificationism". Of course - aside from the fact that scientists in reality search mainly for positive knowledge you can use - there are are zillions of illusions, so you're never finished, and it's an unfinished quest that can never finish. I don't think that is truly profound, because I think (with Marx) the important thing is to understand what produces the illusions in the first place. Don Quixote chased windmills, but here in Holland people don't do that, other than in the media or the the privacy of their own home. Once you step outside the whole framework which produces the phantoms, then really there are few illusions left, you can see it for what it is, and get on with it. Usually, the biggest difficulty is taking that step, i.e. to free yourself from the entanglements of illusions and the whole battle against them, as much as you can. It's really as simple as the difference between people who say to you "there should be equality", and people who really help you to "get equal".


- "You're a winner, Charlie Brown" - Charles Monroe Schulz.



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