Against incrementalism

Published online 10 July 2011.

At times I see the posts of a number of people here on this blog who argue that “incrementalism” is the way to go.  Incrementalism is, as I have noted before, one of the pillars of progressive ideology — but the widespread belief in its charms means that it deserves a diary post of its own.

Incrementalism is the belief that “real change” will be made as an accumulation of small, incremental changes to the existing society.  The idea behind incrementalism appears to be that the “good things” we’re all doing can somehow “add up” to some sort of “better world” envisioned by the incrementalists.

This idea, itself, is supported by the idea that society is generally headed in a positive direction and that the main task of political action is to minimize the hindrances (known on this blog as “Republicans” but also at times as “Blue Dogs”) to that generally positive direction in which society is ostensibly headed.

Incrementalism is also a primary foundation of belief of the “more practical than thou” crowd here at Kos, as evidenced by comments like this one.  It thus shares the ideological blindnesses common to this crowd.  The general idea behind incrementalism, then, is that society does not need to “thrash out” its general direction; much less does it need any sort of revolution in thinking which would change that general direction.

Let’s start with this premise: incrementalism is the belief that “real change” will be made as an accumulation of small, incremental changes to the existing society.  The idea behind incrementalism appears to be that the “good things” we’re all doing can somehow “add up” to some sort of “better world” envisioned by the incrementalists.

I think that such a premise appears problematic when we examine in all seriousness what it means to do a “good thing.”  Charity, for instance, is a good thing.  Charity is probably the most significant good thing I do — every week I collect the leftovers from the local farmer’s market in my pickup truck, and trundle them over to the local food bank.  Even Republicans believe in charity.  We can end hunger through food charity, I suppose — if a lot of people were to do it; more effective as a remedy for hunger under the current system is the food stamp program, in which the government gives the needy vouchers to buy food.  From this piece:

More than 44.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits in March, an 11 percent increase from one year ago and nearly 61 percent higher than the same time four years ago.

Government, then, is now the most efficient charitable donor — I know of no private charity which can give to 44.5 million people.  What we usually mean by charity, though, is private charity, those small amounts of wealth granted by the rich to the poor out of the kindness of their hearts (or maybe for tax deductions or something).

The problem with charity as an “incremental” solution to the problem of poverty is that, if charity is to be motivated by an appeal to poverty (see, e.g. “Save The Children” television advertising), then that appeal would itself dry up if charity were to become so extensive as to solve the poverty problem altogether.

Thus charity has a function under our current system — it makes rich people feel good while alleviating (but not ending) poverty.  “Incremental” charity is only going to go so far because there are only so many rich people; moreover, appealing to rich people for charity often means that one has to appeal to their sense of power.  Sometimes, then, there are strings attached to charity, attached by the rich people themselves out of a sense of their own egomania as charitable donors — one can see, for instance, what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done to education out of a sense of charity.

Poverty, however, is not the only possible motive for charitable giving.  Theoretically, at least, there could be a society in which charity was done out of selflessness, and in which charity was the economic basis of society.  In our cultural context, that would be a society based upon Christian communism, based largely upon Christian communism, as spelled out in Acts 4: 32-35:

32And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.

34Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,

35And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Or perhaps a society based on giving could be achieved through a society which was unified through organizations such as Food Not Bombs.  Such a society, however, would in the end not be our society.  Its charity would not be incrementalist charity.  Our society is based, economically at least, upon the principle of capital accumulation, in which the owners of society get richer by appropriating the added value contributed to our civilization by the work of working people.  Incrementalist charity, as a genre of “good deed,” attempts to MITIGATE the harm done to society’s members by the system of capital accumulation.

A society based on giving would be a society that would attempt to do away with capital accumulation; its charity would be revolutionary charity, conducted between people who intend to build a new society.  Everyone would be both donor and recipient and we would all live off of each others’ charity.  I could endorse that.

Another example of “good deed,” one near and dear to Kos’s heart, would be that of “electing more and better Democrats.”  At this point I think that the political affiliations of our politicians are unimportant; what we need, it could be argued are better politicians, politicians which would enact better laws.

There appear to be limitations, however, on how far this strategy can be taken in the era of Citizens United.  We can get Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, and a few more, but not many more.  Better politicians and better laws are dependent upon campaign financing.  Hierarchical human societies like ours have what is called “hegemony,” which are the organizing principles behind the rule of one group or several groups of people over the society as a whole.  The thinking behind “hegemony” was largely developed by the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci:

By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an ‘organising principle’ that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it becomes part of what is generally called ‘common sense’ so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. [Boggs 1976 p39]

Dictionary definitions of hegemony typically refer to a “system of values, attitudes, beliefs, and morality,” but there is in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks a number of discussions about social institutions, as sites for the production of values, attitudes, beliefs, and morality.  Gramsci himself discussed the state, the churches, schools, factories, the media, and political parties.  Also noteworthy are legal institutions and institutions of social welfare.  The acquisition and dissemination of consciousness typically goes through these institutions.

Potentially, all of these institutions are places where consciousness can be “bought.”  The state can itself promote “the economy” as owned and operated by the wealthy; schools and churches can influence thought, inculcate values, and buy policy, factory owners can spread ideology among their workers, the media can “slant” your news, the political parties can “slant” your political aspirations, and so forth.  So the power of money is involved in hegemony.  In our society, money is possessed in great quantities by a few people, and in spare change by the vast majority.  The wealthy, then, have a degree of hegemonic control of our society, and if there are good people within it who rise to power now and then, they exist in the margins.

There are also knowledge and managerial elites, who have some control over the production and dissemination of knowledge in our society.  As Kees van der Pijl describes these people, they serve two masters: 1) society at large, which will be affected by their decisions, and 2) financial or legislative elites, who often control the foundation or government money that pays them.  How society is managed at any time depends, then, upon the balance of forces which influence the production of managerial knowledge.  So there is a system, and the system works in a certain way.

My point is this — as long as we operate within the parameters set by the existing system, assuming that political problems are to be solved merely by “electing more and better Democrats,” hunger is to be alleviated by charity, and so on, and that there is nothing to be done beyond this — the existing system will determine our conditions.  “Incremental change” will at best mitigate the disasters that the existing system tends to produce.

As a radical, I believe that we ought to be using every power available to us, toward the end of liberation from the system.  At some point, if we can create success, we should be capable of radical, and wholesale, changes in the ways we live, for the sake of a better society and a less destructive relationship to life on planet Earth.

In changing hegemonic control over society, in taking control over political processes or in starting worthwhile political or innovative charitable organizations, we can change one institution at a time, incrementally; but this is not always an incrementalist strategy as regards its ultimate goals.  Changing hegemony is what Gramsci called the “war of position,” the culture war for control of the institutions which influence consciousness.  There is also, however, what Gramsci called the “war of movement,” the revolution itself, in which old institutions must make way for new ones.  Now, the idea of the “war of position” is not always even leftist — for instance you can see it adopted more or less in crude fashion by Rush Limbaugh in his book “See, I Told You So.”  But Gramsci intended the war of position as the preparation for a revolutionary change.

Revolution is typically portrayed in books and on television as a violent affair, much as the Jacobin revolutions in France and in Russia were violent affairs.  (There is also the use of the term “revolution” as a loose metaphor, e.g. the Reagan Revolution, or “revolution” as used to advertise products.  These usages are not germane to the argument placed here.)  There is nothing necessary about violence in revolution, as nonviolent revolutions are certainly possible.  (The state may respond to a nonviolent revolution with violence — but that is another matter entirely.)  There is also something about violent revolutions that disqualified them as revolutions — in seizing power by violent means revolutionaries tend to reproduce or even amplify the violence of the old regimes which they claim to replace.

The sort of revolution which would make a difference would change the purpose of the state.  A revolutionary state would facilitate communal wealth rather than guarding the excesses of the super-rich few.  A revolutionary state would be dedicated to peace rather than through the perpetuation of war.  A revolutionary state would facilitate ecosystem stability rather than corporate profit.  And so on.  Probably the best hope for this sort of revolution is what is called “21st century socialism.”

A revolution, then, would offer a fundamental change of direction in the way things are headed.  Such a use of the word “revolution” would depend more generally upon what was being done with power than merely upon who was exercising it.

Generally, however, government is dedicated to war and capitalism because of how it is structured.  It’s going to take a lot more to change it than electing a politician or two with a (D) next to their names.  I don’t think the incrementalists realize the difficulty of the road ahead.

Let’s take a look, now, at an important problem faced by society today, in light of the incrementalist position: global warming.

Generally speaking, the problem of global warming is that of “carbon burning,” and the difficulties faced by world society in its desire to stop “carbon burning” are tremendous.  Oil, coal, and natural gas are the essential ingredients of our society’s energy consumption.  The incrementalist solution to the problem of “carbon burning” as such is the promotion of “alternative energy,” solar and wind and nuclear power and so on.

The problem with “alternative energy” strategies, generally, is that “alternative energy” will merely supplement, rather than replacing, carbon burning under the current economic system.  Often, then, advocates of the incremental approach will recommend a steady increase in the price of carbon-based energy sources, through government taxes on their burning.  Such strategies are also likely to fail because the “health” of a capitalist economy is based upon the overall cheapness of its energy sources.

Let’s say we adopt a mass conservation strategy as an attempt to cut down on carbon burning.  If enough of us agree to bicycle instead of driving to work (or something like that), maybe the price of gasoline will go down (in response to the absence of a “demand push”) enough to make it affordable for others to burn some carbon of their own.  Problem not solved.

Effective abrupt climate change strategy needs to focus upon production — if you don’t want to burn carbon, don’t produce it.  What would be a game-changer for the fight against global warming in that regard would be an international treaty to phase out oil and coal production.  Such a strategy would be non-incrementalist — either there is such a treaty, and the nations of the world agree to limit oil and coal production, or there isn’t.

In conclusion, incrementalism depends upon the piling up of good deeds in a civilization that can confidently proclaim that it is heading in the right direction.  Our civilization can’t do that.  If we want to change that, we can’t rely merely upon incremental change — we will at some point need to enact a reversal of the incremental changes we don’t like, and bring about something for our civilization that is fundamentally different in emphasis than what we have now.


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