Morton has a post up today making the sort of argument that literally makes me twitch and want to smash things. This is precisely the sort of reactionary argument that was the object of critique in my last two posts. He writes,
Doesn’t the case against incrementalism, when it comes to things like global warming, amount to a version of what Graham Harman calls overmining, in the domain of ethics and politics?
Just as refusing to see the big picture is a form of undermining: “There are only individuals and collective decisions are ipso facto false.”
…so a kind of cynicism is enabled by the left: “Since no one person’s action will solve global warming, better to do nothing, or at most await the revolution to come.”
Vegetarians, Prius owners and solar power enthusiasts (I check all those boxes) often encounter this sort of logic.
The trouble is, left cynicism maps perfectly onto GOP do-nothing-ism and Gaian defeatism (Gaia will replace us…like a defective component).
Nothing happens. Result? Global warming continues apace.
The OOO argument for irreductionism (both under- and over- mining) is highly congruent with ecological awareness.
Well no, this is not what arguments against incrementalism are about Tim. The first thing to note is that Tim here reinforces reactionary rightwing frames by attacking activists and progressives and painting them as identical to conservatives. Way uncool. But that doesn’t get to the fundamental point.
I see incrementalism in a very different way than Tim sees it. Incrementalism as it functions in conservative American democratic circles isn’t remotely like the empowering position he describes. Nor is activism the cynical position he describes. Indeed, the activists believe current structures of power are contingent and can be changed. Incrementalism is not an empowering position, but a disempowering position. It is a position that defends the status quo and refuses to do anything rather than taking the steps he describes in his post. Incrementalism says “Americans, elected officials, and corporations would not accept such and such a proposal if you made it”– and here’s the crucially important part –“so therefore we shouldn’t even propose it.”. The incrementalist says that we should only ever propose what people are ready for and should never push for anything stronger. They then give a lecture about maturity, immaturity, and “reality”. “You stupid women, don’t you realize this is a male dominated culture, that government entirely consists of men, and that people just aren’t ready for equality? Don’t you realize that by fighting for these things and not compromising, you’re just putting people off and undermining your own chances of success? You need to be mature and recognize what reality is and compromise!” That’s incrementalism. Of course, the incrementalist never recognizes that people won’t be brought around without the actions of those “unreasonable”, “immature” activists that refuse to compromise, “recognize reality”, or “simmer down”.
The entire rhetoric of incrementalism as it’s functioned in the last couple years has consisted in slapping those down that are proposing stronger interventions and measures. It’s argument has continuously been “people aren’t ready, so quit your bitching!” The whole problem with this line of argument is that it ignores the difference that simply putting things on the table can make in rendering real change possible by making it conceivable. Conservatives have understood this for decades. They publicly articulate extreme positions understanding that today they will not ne able to enact these things. Yet by putting these things on the table publicly they both seed the social imaginary and define the position from which negotiations take place. That is how incremental change takes place: not by adopting a rhetoric or political practice of incrementalism, not by making incrementalism an aim, goal, or virtue, but by taking up a position publicly, without compromise, and rendering it imaginable and even obvious for the public over time. I wrote about this years ago in this article. A rhetoric and political practice of incrementalism, by contrast, disempowers by foreclosing the social production of alternative possibilities.
The real problem is not left cynicism (apart from a few classical Marxists I’ve never encountered this, quite the contrary), but rather “pragmatic realist” defeatism such as Tim is advocating (at least in his political theory) that pre-emptively holds that “x is not possible therefore it shouldn’t even be articulated.” This forgets that we do have agency, that rhetoric makes a difference, and that articulating things makes a difference in both practice and in what is possible (cf. Ranciere’s account of the partitions of the sensible).
I suspect that Tim doesn’t really mean what he seems to be saying based on what he writes, but am perplexed by his habit of activist-punching (especially coming from an environmentalist) and his attachment to institutional power rather than adopting the role of the environmemtal gadfly that makes institutional power uncomfortable and pushes it kicking and screaming to take environmental action. Does he really think that elected figures, whose pockets are lined by the money of big industry that stands to lose massively from these changes, who rely on this money to get re-elected, who live in fear of the negative advertising made possible by Citizen’s United are going to pursue the policy changes required with respect to environmental issues? This is his environmental politics? Believing politicians will do it of their own accord so long as those damned activists don’t say mean things to them (on twitter he’s implied that activists and progressives are just racists and often remarked that they’re doing the work of republicans) and get in the way? So let me get this straight. The activists constantly putting pressure on elected officials are the problem with environmental politics and the winning strategy is to just sit back and let politicians handle things. This stuff can’t be made up. And he’s the one lecturing about inactivity! I’m sorry to be so harsh to my friend, but after a couple years of witnessing this activist punching I just can’t shut up about this.
No, these changes will only occur if the public scares the daylights out of elected officials. Who’s the realist here? What he says about driving priuses and vegetarianism is exactly the opposite of what the new weinie democratic incrementalists are advocating. Tim, I take it, is saying these are things we ought to defend and that can make a difference even though there’s far from a readiness to advocate these things among the public. He’s saying that strongly defending and advocating can make a difference. The weinie incrementalist, by contrast, says the public at large is not ready for these things, so we shouldn’t even defend or articulate these positions as doing so will further entrench opposition. In terms of Plato’s arguments in Crito, the wienie incrementalist, afraid of his own shadow, says we should let the rabble determine what we defend and pursue (“Socrates, if you don’t escape aren’t you worried that the people will think…”). That is a recipe for never changing anything. Pursuing and fighting for big changes does not engender “passivist cynicism” but is the engine that motivates activists and that produces incremental change. It’s also the moral compass that captures the imagination of the public and that leads them to pressure politicians. Yet in incrementalist world we should have opposed civil rights or interracial marraige because a lot of people just weren’t ready for it. In incrementalist world, it’s the people demanding equality or pointing out the immorality and injustice of these things that are the problem. As I remarked in my last post, change is generally incremental, but that doesn’t mean you adopt incrementalism as a rhetoric, political practice, virtue, or philosophy. If there’s any overmining or undermining here it lies in the incrementalist reducing the field of the possible to the prejudices of the rabble. Those struggles for racial equality, gender equality, or economic justice would have never accomplished anything (nor motivated people to do anything) had they adopted this sad, pathetic, disempowering, offensive political philosophy… A political philosophy premised on the uninspiring notion of procedure that paternalistically believes daddy knows best (elected officials) and that also has a profoundly mistaken understanding of how historical change takes place. Hint: not through procedural governance which is always the icing on the cake that lags after the real political work done by the activists. It was by believing that their actions could make a difference, that public prejudices and reigning power are not omnipotent, that they are unjust and immoral and by fearlessly stating this even against those in government that you identify with, that they were able to accomplish anything at all and that they were able to get out of the bed in the morning to try and do anything. There’s never an excuse for activist punching.