[ADDENDUM: Levi has an interesting post HERE supporting Žižek’s take on Wikileaks. I think his account of Žižek’s view is accurate, I simply disagree with that view. Yes, “we knew the system was corrupt” in approximate terms, but that corruption is not infinite, and the specific forms it takes are often quite stunning. I do think we learned something from Wikileaks, in other words. My worry is that if we take the tack that “we all know the system was completely corrupt and Assange simply had the guts to say it,” then we’re levelling all human behavior onto a single, cynical plane of corruption. In fact, it is possible to distinguish between greater and lesser corruptions, and greater and lesser evils.
I certainly agree with Harman that there are better and worse corruptions and do not have the intention of flattening human behavior. For me the claim that the system is corrupt is not an a priori claim, but a historical claim. Insofar as money has come to be treated as free speech in politics, it has become largely impossible for politicians to do their jobs. To get re-elected they must constantly think about corporate money. The situation got incredibly worse with the Citizens United SCOTUS decision that allowed corporations to spend unlimited monies on political advertising. As a consequence, elected officials have now become severely hampered in what they can do, lest they bring billions of dollars to bear against them, and are forced into a Faustian bargain where they say “this is not what I really believe or wish to do, but at least I can do some good.”. As a consequence, American politics increasingly becomes a choice between coke and pepsi, where you get a significant choice on social issues (and that’s not nothing), but no real choice on economic issues. Or rather, you get a choice between warp speed drives to massive class stratification (republicans) and full impulse speed drives to massive class stratification (democrats). Here it’s worth repeating that economic philosophy is not simply about jobs and wages, but also structures nearly every policy and program. For example, the absence of movement we’re seeing on environmental issues has everything to do with political economy and economic philosophies. Likewise, the educational reforms we’ve seen in recent years are all premised on a particular economic philosophy.
I think I’m particularly sensitive to critiques like Graham’s (and I don’t think Graham himself is suggesting this), because I see his remarks about gradations as leading to a politics of “incrementalism”. In other words, one says that these constraints are “the reality” (bad, defeatist realism), therefore we should only pursue incremental change (again, I don’t think Graham is making this argument). Notice that there’s an is/ought fallacy here. You can’t draw an ought from an is, yet this is exactly what this style of argument purports to do. This line of reasoning, parading under the title of “pragmatism” and “realism”, is exactly the argument we’ve seen coming from both the current administration and Obama’s ardent supporters. In the last three years they’ve never missed an opportunity to attack activists and progressives and have repeatedly bailed whenever activists have been engaged in real struggles (Wisconsin, for example).
The whole problem with this line of “reasoning”, is that it fails to take into account of how incremental change occurs. Change largely is incremental (there are exceptions to this), but this doesn’t mean that one’s politics ought to be premised on incrementalism as a philosophy and practice. I think there’s something of an existential choice that people have always already made (ie, it’s never a conscious choice, but is always already operative in ones very being) to either side with authority or to side with resistance. One either believes that authority (whatever kind it may be) is on our side and is out to do good, or believes that authority is generally corrupt and in need of resistance. I do not believe politicians or elected officials are ever my friend or on my side, regardless of whether they are democratic, republican, Marxist revolutionary, etc. I distrust them all because I distrust all Oedipal formations. But I distrust them for reasons less abstract than that. I think that elected officials exist in a field of powerful forces and interests that render them disinclined to do the right thing (the money issue again).
Now I understand that Graham sees this as illicitly flatening politics, but I believe this view has real consequences for political practice. The person that believes that politicians are disinclined to do the right thing because of the powerful economic interests they have to contend with will also believe that they have to be dragged kicking and screaming through engaged activism that perpetually holds their feet to the fire and makes life uncomfortable for them. The job of the activist is to make politicians fear the people. Right now they fear the corporations. Occassionally they fear us. They need to fear us more. Latour says we’ll never do better than a politician and uses this to lampoon activists. He might very well be right, but he is inconsistent in not noticing that this means activists too must form themselves into forces that politicians must negotiate or translate. The point is not to cede power to landed forces such as corporations and dynasties. The person who believes in authority and that elected officials are motivated by the best interests of the people will believe their work is done when they have voted. The person that believes politicians are buffetted by all sorts of vested interests that make it difficult to do the right thing lest they risk their re-election chances will believe their work never ends and will always proceed with caution with the figures they put in office. To many ardent Obama supporters have read strong criticism of the president as a rejection and abandonment of him (and indeed, some are doing this), when this resistance is a continuation of politics (I believe most on the left will nonetheless vote for this zombie return of Reagan-Nixon because president Perry, Romney, or Bachman is unthinkable, especially with regard to cultural politics).
All things being equal, which side is likely to influence the political process: the side that nods it’s head and talks about how wise and wonderful these political decisions are on the part of the elected official, or the side that makes life difficult for the elected official and perpetually plays the part of the gadfly? My sense is that the first side has no historical existence because the side that merely nods and claps has no influence and therefore makes no difference. By contrast, the side that makes the politician’s job uncomfortable is the side of history because they force the politician to deal with them. Suspicion of power is the condition for change. In this regard, it’s been extremely depressing to see so many ardent Obama supporters step out of politics altogether, endlessly clapping, and adopting the rightwing practice of attacking progressives and activists. What led otherwise intelligent people to adopt rightwing frames against those fight for economic, social, and environmental justice? How did they become obstructionists? In my view, voting is not really a political act at all. It is a necessary act, of course, but it’s not politics. Rather politics is the work that drags officials kicking and screaming and forces them to do what’s right. Again, I don’t think Graham is suggesting anything like this (especially given his reporting on the Egyptian revolution and his reaction to Wisconsin). My remarks here are directed at one of the most depressing political betrayals of my life: the assault on the left and activists by ardent Obama supporters and the administration. The administration’s attacks are understandable (and also a sign that activists are exercising influence;they wouldn’t respond if we weren’t having an impact). The attacks of the supporters, by contrast, are unforgivable. I naively believed Obama could make a difference through his profound oratorical gifts, that he represented a move away from third way politics. I was wrong. He’s further entrenched and legitimized third way neoliberal politics. What’s been truly depressing, however, has been seeing my prior comrades become obstructionists, attacking activists trying to influence power to produce incremental political change. I’m now at a point where I’m at a loss of what to do. I feel powerless and without the ability to effect change, abandoned and without representation. Increasingly I hear Voltaire’s “tend your garden” in my head. If things continue along these lines economically and environmemtally I fear that there will be blood and tremendous suffering.