Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Stupor Tuesday

One subscriber to the Left Business Observer listserve opines today:
C'mon everybody in the U.S. Go out and vote. For Obama, of course. Then keep doing whatever you're doing to advance socialism in the world.
But if Patrick Martin is right, voting for Obama is a step backward for a socialist movement; he describes the corporate-driven Obama campaign as a preemptive attack against such a movement. Even if Obama or his real supporters don't cast it that way, the long-term effects of the corporate support is tantamount to a buyout.
The Obama campaign is not the vehicle of a leftward movement in the United States—as proclaimed by liberal groups such as MoveOn.org and publications like
The Nation. It is a preemptive attack by the ruling class against such a movement. Its function is to delude the American people and divert their growing opposition to war, economic crisis and attacks on democratic rights back into the dead-end of the Democratic Party.
So how about it, my friends (like ECram) who consider themselves socialists but are voting for Obama?

--Is it because, in this instance, the symbolic overwhelms the materiality of politics?
--Is it because the struggle for welfare capitalism IS a progressive cause, and is part of the overall struggle for socialism?
--Is it because you are afraid of a McCain or Romney presidency?
--All of the above? Am I missing something more nuanced?

And in the meantime, everyone think counterfactually with me for a moment: Imagine under what conditions a 40 year-old black steelworker could be a major party candidate for President...


Emily said...

it took me a very long time to finally decide that i wanted to support obama. it was a difficult decision that i still feel not so happy about. i looked at the gop candidates. i thought about who had the best chance of beating them. then i looked at the dems. i still feel haunted by what happened in 2000 and 2004 and i see what might happen if mccain were to win. for me, i inevitably had to sever myself from my politics and make decision within the constraints that are on the table in this election. i am a socialist without a soul. :)

matt said...


I would never describe you as soul-less. In fact some would argue that _I_ am the socialist without a soul for suggesting that incremental differences, improvements in people's lives, "don't matter" (a charge Trond Jacobsen has repeatedly made against me). This is a debate to be had, obviously, but your position is more defensible than you suggest.

Also, isn't it really a question of the totality of your politics? If your vote really doesn't matter (and there are structural and process-oriented reasons to think it doesn't), then that argument works both ways; both as a critique of electoral politics AND "terminal defense" against the charge that voting for Obama will "make things worse" or "delay the revolution." One could vote for Obama AND support and participate in a variety of socialist causes (check out the Militant's calendar if you're anywhere near a city where they do Militant Labor Forums. Those are still awesome experiences).

In the end, my full consideration of politics and my own identity will bring me to make a different choice than you. But part of me understands your choice very well.

Renegade Eye said...

Read this before deciding to support Obama.

It still is true, that the Democratic and Republican Parties, are two sides of the same coin.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

I have never felt you are soul-less, socialist or otherwise. I've seen you in action far too many times to hold that view.

And I wasn't really interested in the political rationale against seizing incremental improvements. You know that I know both sides of this debate quite well, having, for example, built an entire debate career premised on the notion that incrementalism is bad.

What I want is to hear the line of argument you would use when confronted with the single mom of two working minimum wage at the Filene's who sews on the side to get enough to put food on her table. Every month is a struggle to balance food, rent, gas, heat, clothes, school supplies. She often loses that struggle, especially when she has to take her oldest to the clinic

You see, on account of her family’s class position, they live down the street from the incinerator and the kid already has asthma. The younger one is probably not far behind.

If Clinton or Obama are elected, her chances of getting some kind of health care for her kids goes up - maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the chances are increased over the status quo and over McCain and over increasing by one the vote total for some miniscule party.

So, she's walking her kids back from the clinic one day and sees you and your sign saying "Don't be suckered by the Democrats".

She asks: "So if I go for you revolution, how long is the wait before I get health care for my kids"?

What is your answer? That’s what I have been asking and have yet to receive a credible reply.

Peace and love, Trond

Michael said...

As a self-identified socialist, I am voting for Hillary purely for two substantive issues: health care and space.

The nuances of the two health care plans have been debated elsewhere, but basically Krugman is right in his critique of Obama's healthcare plan and its failure to measure up to the realities of rational actors.

Space is the other issue. As a research scientist, I cannot support a candidate who would cut research related activity. I am also a strong believer in exploration of the lunar surface, Mars, and the asteroid belt for economic and national benefits. Obama's education is funded by cutting NASA funding. As such, my vote is a vote against bad health care and cutting space-related funding. If Obama wins the democratic nomination, I will revert to voting third party.

matt said...


I think the reason I've always hesitated (while sincerely intending to) answer your question is that it is either idiotically simple, or impossibly complicated, and neither approach satisfies the competing truths at stake.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that you have always spun this at least slightly as a matter of my material situation being BETTER than the poor people I am judging, but for 90% of my life my material situation has absolutely blown; I was without health insurance for the majority of my adult life, sans vehicle or property of any kind even during the first several years of my teaching position at UW, and Andrea and will probably never exceed the solid median income of U.S. families (unless I fulfil the American dream of exploiting my writing or musical talents, which I understand is also a function of relative privilege). I say this not to flash my "I'm poor" credentials, but to emphasize the difficulty of these kinds of discussions. Did being poor force me to compromise my principles? F***ng of course it did. That, in a sense, is the whole problem.

It is obvious that immediate improvements in one's material situation, garnered through reforms, are good in themselves, plus they buy people space and time for their political development. The behavior of the "lumpenproletariat" testifies to their political bankruptcy, precisely because their material deprivation guts their political consciousness. And from any kind of angle of human decency, it's ridiculous to say "let someone starve or go without medical care in order to FORCE them to become revolutionaries." By all means, as I have repeatedly said on this blog, I UNDERSTAND the choices people make to vote for liberal democrats.

On the other hand: At what point is this kind of political gun-holding the functional equivalent of "Nazi number one will perpetuate the Nazi genocide machine. Nazi number two will perpetuate the Nazi genocide machine but will give us free health care."? At what point is this a kind of extortion by liberal democrats? Doesn't it ultimately justify anything and everything, as long as they do ONE MORE THING to help poor people than their opponents? Where is the possibility of the "progression" of progressive politics in this vision?

And perhaps at least as important: How often are these promises of health care, withdraw from Iraq, civil rights enforcement, etc. actually fulfilled by the candidates who promise them? What, aside from the rhetoric and promises, makes you think they will be fulfilled at all? Obama and Clinton aren't just grudgingly accepting corporate donations; they embrace corporatism itself. Obama and Clinton aren't just reluctantly acknowleding the need to be "realist" in the foreign policy realm; they are embracing neoconservative advisors. Ms. Clinton's husband made the most sweeping cuts in welfare in history (a policy that made millions of Trond's single mothers worse off than they were under the Reagan administration). So doesn't that undercut the entire premise of this forced choice?

The permutation is for the single mom to vote for Clinton or Obama AND do other kinds of oppositional politics, such as speaking out against the war, marching in demand of UNIVERSAL, SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE and not some progressive-sounding, coercive facimile, reading about capitalism and participating in conversations about revolutionary perspectives and politics, etc. I know many people who can do this for a while, particularly when they are students, but their mixture of progressive democratic and revolutionary politics gives way to safe refuge in the Democratic Party (most of the time...) after they get jobs--in academics, law, retail, manufacturing, government, and so on. The single mother probably has even less space to do so. But at the permutation is at least conceptually possible, and may provide an answer. Many Social Justice organizations already engage in this type of politics, but most of them are bought out by liberal democrats and churches, and their radicalism melts away the close they get to the centers of power, like wax-held wings flying closer to the sun.

So in a nutshell: I think poor people should vote for immediate gains and demand larger ones, but should also do everything possible to understand the reasons why those immediate gains they voted for (a) didn't happen, (b) happened at the expense of some other marginalized community, often outside of the U.S., (c) resulted in making things look better than they actually are.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

President Clinton was bad for poor people and Senators Clinton and Obama are corporate candidates and warmongers? I did not know that.

Please allow me to ramble as I have been painting today at our new apartment in Hamtramck.

I am well aware of your only recent and marginal affluence and so I am not trying to dump guilt or whatever it is that you seem sensitive about. Sorry if it sounded that way. I was making the obvious point, one I am sure you appreciate, that it is easier as the recently and marginally more affluent academic to issue calls to man the barricades as part of a permutation than it is for the hypothetical single mom. You make the same point. But this is true not just for reasons of relative economic privilege, but because you are much less likely to be fired or worse in making that case. Struggle has brought both a measure of material privilege and a special variant of freedom of political action.

I guess part of the problem, and again, I am not trying to come across as all high and mighty, is that I think back to when I was growing up and my mom worked 12 hour days and went to school at nights, with no support from my father or her poorer than poor family, and an indifferent government.

Exactly when was she supposed to fight for the revolution? Is it fair to add on another hour to her day when she is exhausted so she can participate in a Das Kapital reading group? And if it is fair, is it realistic? Particularly in the absence of evidence, or at least mixed evidence, that this is a moment conducive to the large-scale transformations you loudly proclaim. With a son she was responsible for, was she supposed to risk being arrested or assassinated? There is a gun at her head but it is not clear that acting otherwise is the correct choice.

I feel I can anticipate some of the responses you would make, but this hyperbolic case strikes me as significantly less unreasonable than your Nazi analogy, which I find beyond offensive and hardly germane. Given that we live in a death machine global civilization run by soulless plutocrats, how does saying "don't let them hold that health care gun to your head" help? We both embrace the permutation to some extent, so not sure why you feel this slippery slope argument holds much water. It is the type of reality most of humanity has lived, and died, with in most places for a long time. Don't want to starve? Rent yourself. What to educate your kids? Your option is our propaganda mill. And so on.

Her decision is not only ‘understandable’, a reasonable nuance on your part, but correct, given the context in which she found herself. Correct is quite a bit too strong, but you get my point. ‘Understand’ sounds condescending, at least to my jaded ears.

We -humanity - will change the current reality but running around saying “I ‘understand’ your support for liberal Democrats, but don’t you know they are holding a gun to your head?” doesn’t get us very far, most of the time, based on my experience trying. Perhaps you are a far superior communicator and organizer.

And then there is the fact that health care is a pretty soft gun. And by creating new constituencies and new demands on “the system”, expands the terrain for meaningful leftist action far more than passing out flyers and marching up and down the street. Not all reforms are quiescent and not all work as intended in terms of releasing pressure. Demand, achieve, lock in, ratchet up to the next rung. That is sometimes the appropriate arena for political action and organizing on top of voting rather than the specific permutation you propose. Bush and Wall Street would like nothing more than to privatize Social Security, but look what happens when they try.

A compromised universal health care plan is the next rung and is more achievable now as well as more valuable than just about any other reform. It is a stepping stone, the first of many to be sure, toward socializing one-sixth of the economy. Without boring you with the details, given the political environment and the composition this Congress, a win for Obama or Clinton, as far as we can predict anything, will produce some relatively significant progress on health care where a win for McCain forecloses that prospect, however large. Voting as if this is not true hurts the cause. Channeling our limited political energies into paths that do not directly leverage this likely fleeting moment may not be optimal. A disadvantage to your permutation.

You say things got worse after Reagan under Clinton. I just checked and that’s true! And they would have been worse still with Bush the Elder (though I argued your case in 1992 and 1996 voting for socialists and in 2000 for Nader in Vermont, attended the rallies, faced down the cops with billy clubs, engaged in the political vandalism and subterfuge, and so on).

These seemingly minor distinctions are, I have concluded, not minor. At least not always and not equally so. That is totalistic thinking at its worst. Sometimes the holding action, the tactical retreat, is the best option, affording time to regroup, to stay alive, to allow circumstances to arise (and to be made) that are more propitious for revolutionary action and appeals, whether alone or in the permutation case you suggest. Both parties are united in their commitment to capitalism and war but there are 'marginal' differences in some instances. And every now and then those marginal differences are not so marginal. It is at these cracks where we should insert our splitter and start hammering to widen it further still, to get hopelessly lost in metaphors.

Finally, my experience is that those at the bottom are usually the least confused about the workings of the world, meaning declaring a), b), and c) is perhaps as much about self-edification as revolutionary advice. So I agree with your nutshell but do not think it is a lack of understanding that explains a, b, and c, for the most part, but a combination of a lack of opportunity and in many cases a different tactical read.

matt said...


We share a whole bunch of assumptions and experiences in common in this conversation. Your description of growing up, and your description of what your Mom experienced, was so similar to mine I could simply have cut and paste most of it. I also agree that thsoe at the bottom of the ladder generally have a better grip on political reality than those at the top. I agree that capital's compression of life makes living a revolutionary life next to impossible. I agree that creating new constituencies and struggling successfully for material and legal gains constitutes worthwhile, even vital politics. In short, I agree that "Not all reforms are quiescent and not all work as intended in terms of releasing pressure. Demand, achieve, lock in, ratchet up to the next rung." Understanding the differences between those which are and those which aren't is important, but I endorse the choices of those who channel their energies into those demands.

If you think I sound condescending, I think you are looking for places where I sound condescending. I think that's those jaded ears you mention.

My Nazism analogy was not "beyond offensive." The Clintons have already participated in the machinery of death, and I don't find it in the least bit unreasonable to suppose Obama will--he'll have to. It's not offensive when these people participate in a real system with real, numerical deaths as part of the equation. It's only offensive when you are more obsessed with rhetoric than materiality.

And speaking of rhetoric--I don't have the time this morning to dissect the strange, haunting conclusion to your response, about the "tactical retreat." There's some melancholy behind the word choices there, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

Therefore, the fundamental principle is that no battle, combat, or skirmish is to be fought unless it will be won. There is a malevolent definition that says: The guerrilla fighter is the Jesuit of warfare. By this is indicated a quality of secretiveness, of treachery, of surprise that is obviously an essential element of guerrilla warfare. It is a special kind of Jesuitism, naturally prompted by circumstances, which necessitates acting at certain moments in ways different from the romantic and sporting conceptions with which we are taught to believe war is fought.

War is always a struggle in which each contender tries to annihilate the other. Besides using force, they will have recourse to all possible tricks and stratagems in order to achieve the goal. Military strategy and tactics are a representation by analysis of the objectives of the groups and of the means of achieving these objectives. These means contemplate taking advantage of all the weak points of the enemy. The fighting action of each individual platoon in a large army in a war of positions will present the same characteristics as those of the guerrilla band. It uses secretiveness, treachery, and surprise; and when these are not present, it is because vigilance on the other side prevents surprise. But since the guerrilla band is a division unto itself, and since there are large zones of territory not controlled by the enemy, it is always possible to carry out guerrilla attacks in such a way as to assure surprise; and it is the duty of the guerrilla fighter to do so. Hit and run some call this scornfully, and this is accurate. Hit and run, wait, lie in ambush, again hit and run, and thus repeatedly, without giving any rest to the enemy. There is in all this, it would appear, a negative quality, an attitude of retreat, of avoiding frontal fights. However, this is consequent upon the general strategy of guerrilla warfare, which is the same in its ultimate end as is any warfare: to win, to annihilate the enemy.”


matt said...

"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing conditions."