Sunday, August 14, 2011

Winning and losing and winning

An observation sparked by the Wisconsin recalls: Not everything comes down to being either total victory or abject defeat. There are, as it were, way stations en route from the latter to the former.

That would seem to be so obvious as to be utterly banal, and yet based on a number of the reactions I've seen over the past few days, it's still something that has to be pointed out, because at some point we have to recognize and embrace that "utterly banal" observation in a way all too many of us have not. The alternative, ultimately, is cynicism and despair.

To put this in the immediate context, the first thing to say is that Wisconsin was, quite obviously, not an outright victory for the more liberal wing of Wisconsin politics: The hope had been for a net gain of three seats, thereby giving control of the state Senate to the Democrats as a means to create a bulwark against the further ambitions of Governor Walkalloveryou and his reactionary allies. They got two. However, even as they came up short, the practical, political, fact remains that the Wisconsin Senate had been split 19-14 in favor of the right wing and now it's 17-16 - which means it now takes only one GOPper to be sufficiently spooked by what they have seen and are seeing to throw a roadblock in front of Gov. Walkalloveryou's plans.

In fact, there is a further, potentially important, point to be made: One of those 17 GOPpers voted against the bill to strip away collective bargaining rights and has been, according to John Nichols at The Nation, a moderate on education and labor issues - so there could be an effective, a working, 17-16 pro-labor, pro-education majority in the Senate. (This, obviously, assumes that the Dems being recalled will both win their elections, which I do predict.)

That won't undo what's been done (that would require passing new legislation and overcoming the inevitable veto) but it can, again, block any further advances by the right wing.

Partly because of that, it's been easy for some to overplay the significance of the result, as Nichols clearly does. He not only makes the valid point about the possibility of a working "anti-the-worst-excesses-of-the-reactionaries" majority in the state Senate, he goes on about how all these recalls were in staunchly GOPper districts, some of which had been Republican-held for over a century, and all but says it was a remarkable achievement and proof of The Solidarity Of The People that the recalls occurred at all.

Which would be a little more convincing as an argument if he hadn't been on MSNBC the day before the balloting, openly raising the possibility of a net gain of four seats.

Greg Sargent also goes with the too-amazing-for-words view:
Wisconsin Dems and labor ... reminded us that it’s possible to build a grass roots movement by effectively utilizing the sort of unabashed and bare-knuckled class-based populism that makes many of today’s national Dems queasy.
Which, again, would be more persuasive if it weren't for published reports - which I can't find now to provide links, dammit - that the Dems in those races were "downplaying" and "de-emphasizing" their pro-labor stances for fear of, you got it, "alienating moderates."

The problem with trying to label failing to achieve your goal as actually a smashing victory is that a lot of people simply won't buy it and there are only so many times that high hopes can be dashed, only so many times that you can fall short, particularly if that is combined with after-the-fact insistence that the goals were unrealistic in the first place, before people get discouraged and cynical about campaigns and come to think there is no point in hoping (and therefore working at change) at all. (To cite an immediate example: Just how deflated will a lot of folks feel if one of the two Dems being recalled on Tuesday loses?)

Even so, overplaying the results still may well be preferable to the alternative, which was to turn the result into a crushing loss that only proves the hopelessness of our situation. That attitude was generally summed up in the assertion that the results were a mere and pointless "moral victory."

Truth be told, only in the world of the already psychologically defeated would picking up two seats in a 33-member legislative body be regarded as only a "moral" victory. (Just consider: If the same result had been achieved in a regular legislative election, would it then be regarded as pointless?) Rather, the outcome was, in fact, a good example of what I have called a "successful loss," one in which you do not actually win but you do make progress. Because, no, this was not, by its own terms, an outright victory - but it did represent a gain, a measurable gain, against the forces of reaction. Even if that gain is only to slow the advance of the enemy, it is still a gain. Even if that gain is only to make the enemy more vulnerable while it remains in at least nominal control, it is still a gain.

I suppose I have to make it clear here that I am addressing this in the context of the situation at hand. I do not think that "more and better Democrats" is or can be the goal on anything other than a short-term, reality-of-the-moment tactical basis, that it can be anything more than one of those way stations on the path from defeat to actual victory, an actual victory meaning - and I have said this before in different ways - a society of justice, a full justice: economic, social, and political. A justice that rejects the ascendency of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. If you want that in a condensed form, try victory being democratic socialism attained through nonviolent revolution.

Which, in a way, brings me to the final thing I wanted to address here, which is that the moaning about mere "moral victories" was often enough tied to some form of the dismissive claim that "moral victories don't build movements," that they are mere feelgood events that accomplish nothing except to ease the agony of defeat even as they, in the words of one, "strengthen the enemy's ability to consolidate its power."

"Moral victories don't build movements?" Bullshit! Moral victories are the only thing that ever has. No movement starts out winning - it takes years, even decades, of "moral victories" (that is, again, "successful losses") to build winning movements.

Let's not forget that the recent advances of the right wing do not start from some hypothetical pure zero baseline; rather it is a drive to undo what it took those on the left several decades to build, build over active and often enough violent opposition. The New Deal legacy that so many of us are focused on defending did not appear with FDR, it was the outgrowth of agitation and organization extending back well before 1900 (efforts often lead by socialists). And even after that, civil rights laws, anti-poverty programs, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental programs, all of that and much more took another 30 to 40 years of work just to get as far as we have, and we are still short of our goals another couple of decades beyond that.

On the other side, the current power of the right did not appear out of nothing and nowhere but rather out of decades of effort, effort which at times seemed to many to be utterly pointless, even ridiculous, because it was so extreme, so "out of the mainstream." At times it looked so bad - such as after the 1964 Goldwater debacle (which supposedly put a permanent end to the political power of the right wing of the right wing; we can see how well that worked out) and again after the disaster of the 1974 post-Watergate Congressional elections - there was serious talk about if the Republican Party itself could survive.

Of course movements are built on moral victories, on successful losses, on incremental gains that sometimes appear as small as "a shift in the wind." As Margaret Mead is supposed to have said, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."*

What's more - and this is a good reason why the Democratic Party, devoted to short-term election victories rather than advancing principles, cannot be the vehicle for actual progressive change on anything more than an ad hoc basis - movements are not built by, as far too many would have it, "appealing to as wide a populace as possible." Instead, they are built by aggressive advocacy for what you believe in, by arguing for your convictions, and doing it without backing down or up. You don't build movements by joining the mainstream, you build them by moving the mainstream closer to where you are. The essence of political change lies in shifting the consensus, that is, not by appealing to as many as possible but by convincing as many as possible.

I won't take the time or space here to go into my own approach to activism in general and to electoral politics in particular, but if you're curious you might try this on the power of the individual in protest or this on constructing a "counter-narrative" on the theme of "Justice, Compassion, Community" or this on "Why should I ever vote for someone?" or this on the role of independent and third parties or the link at "successful losses" above.

And as for the general issue of "moral victories," even though I now wish I had been more explicit in saying what I was writing about was the whole scope of activism, not limited to electoral politics and especially not to DemParty politics, I think you might want to read my post "On the duty of defiance."

*While commonly attributed to Mead, the statement appears nowhere in any of her published works. However, her family has said they believe the quote to be authentic because it accurately reflected her views and they figure it was probably said during a Q&A after a speech or in some unrecorded interview.

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