On the “more practical than thou” crowd

Published online 3 July 2011.

Practicality isn’t enough — one needs to have vision.

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Welcome to Sanctimonious Sunday, a collaborative series published by members of the following groups: The Amateur Left, Team DFH and Frustrati.  Feel free to get your sanctimonious on.  It’s welcome here.

One thing that set me off about this was this comment in this rec-listed diary:

Being committed to lofty ideals and curiously unfazed by reality seems the primary job of the Leftie Left.  So far it doesn’t seem to be working to anyone’s advantage, but I say never quit doing the things that haven’t worked in the past – someday there will be a tear in the space/time continuum and success will be yours!

This is of course a supporting argument for the “you have to support Obama” pitch,  made from the perspective of “ultra-realism.”  Again:

I’m loaded with lofty ideals, but somehow ended up with a leavening of pragmatism.  I’d rather have a beginning to build on than a purist defeat to take pride in.

What is striking, then, about I Love OCD’s diary (besides that it is well-written), is the “more practical than thou” attitude which it typifies.  Those who don’t share in this attitude are of course the sanctimonious “Leftie Left,” the purists, the people who would rather challenge Obama from the left than work with him as a “community organizer.”  Toward this end, readers of the diary received a lesson in community organizing:

I saw in Barack Obama someone with a genuine vision for the future of this country, and I believe that vision grew out of his experiences as a community organizer – he’s been where few of us have been, talking to people few of us have met, seeing things we’d like not to know about.  He’s learned that you can’t revile slumlords and expect them to work with you on improving living conditions – you might despise them in your secret heart, but you put your feelings away, and get what you can from them to improve the lives of desperate people.  (Comes in handy when working with Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan.)You learn that incremental sometimes gets you there faster.

You learn that most people aren’t evil, they’re just self-involved and thus insensitive.

You learn that raging doesn’t result in success.  You learn to plan, to collect information, to find out what people really want and really need, and you find ways to make that happen.

Fine stuff, and all very practical, until you start to question what counts as a “genuine vision for the future of this country.”  I mean no disrespect for practicality, mind you, and I do often wish the “Leftie Left” would phrase its arguments more specifically in practical terms than it currently does.  However, the rest of this diary will examine the matter of vision, its absence from American politics, and what the general state of blindness as regards our future does to arguments of “more practical than thou.”

I have to say, in parenthesis here, that by no serious measure can President Barack Obama be called a “failure,” and that in this I agree with “I Love OCD.’  Obama is the leader of the most successful core nation in the history of the capitalist system, the US, and the capitalist system is the most successful system of political economy in the history of world society.

The real question about success, though, is one of “success at what?”  The trajectory of the capitalist system at present, as Kees van der Pijl suggests, is “suicidal.”  The most obvious outcome of the capitalist system’s rush to a bad end at this point in history is the current austerity trend — Federal spending cuts during a recession, the fire sale over at Greece, and so on.  Obama hasn’t really shown a lot of opposition to the Shock Doctrine as promoted by elites and Republicans.

The whole policy complex, of capitalism and of governments which exist largely to maintain the profit rate (aka “the economy”) seems to me to be a byproduct of a system in which the demand for profit greatly exceeds the global growth rate — profit hovering between 10% and 15% yearly, global growth down to about 2% annually (averaged over each decade) now.  Predatory economic activities must fill the gap; under the current dispensation the rest of the human race must get poorer so that the rich can get richer.  David Harvey refers to this, the era of the past thirty years, as motivated by “accumulation by dispossession,” or plunder.

It’s hard to say that being a successful President under such a system is a good thing.  Is the system reputable?

If you’re asking, this phenomenon of the system’s decline, neoliberalism, is the current phase of the capitalist system in its growth — and in light of this, the prescription promoted by our ultra-realist diarist seems rather out-of-touch:

The Obama administration and some of it’s corporate friends are building a manufacturing sector, right under the noses of the Republicans, that will most likely be the salvation of our economy.  They’re empowering small businesses in innumerable small ways,  because that’s the backbone of our economy.  They’re working with businesses and community colleges to train people to fill 3 million unfilled manufacturing jobs.

Is more manufacturing really going to do anything for American workers when there’s a great speedup going on throughout the productive sector?  And is more manufacturing really going to do anything when the Chinese (and others) already have current effective demand well-saturated with consumer product sales?  It’s hard for me to see how Obama is going to change neoliberalism “by incremental means” if most of what he’s doing is appeasing the neoliberals.

Even more egregious is government inaction on abrupt climate change.  Progressives have to wonder: do they even care?  Industrial society, guided by an expanding capitalist system, has already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to do extensive damage to Earth’s ecosystems.  Estimates of the damage this will do typically lowball it because nobody has really taken a full accounting of the damage we humans have done to our mother Earth.  The most-in-the-know scientist in this regard is James Hansen, who recommends that planet Earth have its atmospheric carbon dioxide reduced (somehow) to 350 parts per million, which is where things stood in 1989.  How are we going to do this, and who is really asking?

Is the current political system going to do anything about abrupt climate change?  More likely, the current political system will struggle more mightily to keep oil cheap than anything else.  What’s needed, of course, is an international treaty to “keep the grease in the ground” — phase out oil and coal production — and this will require that we humans progressively cut off the capitalist system’s “life-blood” merely in order to mitigate damage to Earth’s ecosystems.

People tell me this isn’t a practical proposal.  It will never happen, they say.  I suppose that kissing our butts goodbye is eminently practical by this same standard.  Slavoj Zizek had something meaningful to say about this sort of “practical” attitude back in 1999:

Today, on the contrary, we can easily imagine the extinction of human life, of the human race, or the end of the life on earth, but it is impossible to imagine a much more modest change of the social system — as if, even if the whole life on earth disappears, capitalism will somehow remain intact. Again, it’s possible to imagine the end of the world; it’s not possible to imagine the end of capitalism.

So this is how I look at the “more practical than thou” crowd.  They need to examine where “practicality” is taking them, and us, instead of trying to one-up us in whatever attitudes of “practical” tomfoolery we might have.

This same wisdom goes for the few socialists in America today.  Back in November of 2009 I wrote a diary called “Fundamental Flaws in Progressive Ideology” which details, among other things, why I’m not a progressive.  You can read the piece yourself — I still think its points are good.  So, lo and behold, last month (!) this diary was examined by socialist blogger Bob Morris, author of “Politics in the Zeros,” who offers two criticisms of my position.  I will be brief, as (unfortunately) Morris does not represent some great crowd of people.  First off, Morris says:

But what he calls a flaw in ideology is more a flaw in execution, a flaw of will.

What I call a flaw in ideology is in fact a flaw in ideology.  Progressives like the idea of compromise, and dream of a return to the heyday of capitalism, which was an era of compromise in which, as attributed to John F. Kennedy, one could still believe that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  If some of them complain of Obama’s policies, this is because they think that Obama is too compromised.  The problem with progressivism, though, is that it isn’t really clear on how bad capitalism is for planet Earth, nor of what would come after capitalism’s collapse.  Thus progressivism seems unlikely to prevent disaster.  It’s an ideological problem.

Here’s Morris’ other criticism:

But you can’t really live outside the system. Hippies tried that, and found you can’t drop out completely. Plus, the system will intrude upon such modes of exchange. Thus the answer has to include politics and confronting / changing the existing system. That means getting into the battlefield. There is no alternative.

Too bad Morris won’t argue for TRYING to live outside of the system as a form of resistance to the system.  I love the quote of Thatcher, too.  Yeah, there is no alternative.  Socialist culture must be cut from one and only one mold, or no mold at all.

In conclusion, people of all ideological stripes can be members of the “more practical than thou” crowd.  It’s easy to join!  To reduce politics to a practical problem, cut out the part of it that depends upon authentic dialogue and ideas and new thinking, and reduce the art of practical politics to a few slogans, backed up by one’s favorite tactics.

Above all, if one wants to be part of the “more practical than thou” crowd, never, EVER ask this John Lennon question:

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