Incrementalism and the trajectory of history

Published online 24 February 2009.

I am writing this diary to try to stimulate some form of debate here about where my readers think capitalist history is going.  I’m mostly motivated to write against a particular version of historical change which seems to have a lot of followers here on “incrementalism.”  Incrementalism is the belief that lasting social change is to be achieved in “baby steps,” incremental changes in the way we live.  Here I will argue that “incrementalism” couldn’t be less appropriate to the historical trajectory of the present day.

“How long?  Not long.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

So how do you view the future?

Do you see that with a few “baby steps” toward a better world we will all be able to see a brighter day in a century or two?

If this is where you’re at, then perhaps you believe in “incrementalism.”  The other term for “incrementalism” in the political arena, the one given space in Wikipedia, is “gradualism.”

At any rate, incrementalism was not King’s faith.  Accomplishing a new society, for King, required that the movement to slip into a different gear.

Generally, moreover “incrementalism” is inappropriate to the dilemmas of the present day, because it contributes to the political ineffectuality of those who call themselves “progressives.”  Now, if you all believe in “incrementalism” as a sort of religion, well, I have no intention of interfering with your First Amendment freedom to adopt the religion of your choice.  But, generally, “incrementalism” adopts the wrong lessons from history.  Here’s why:

  1.  The current trajectory of capitalist history is toward a progressively more environmentally destructive, more corrosive, and more authoritarian version of capitalism, toward the eventual build-up of systemic crises (of which the current financial crisis is only the first).  “Incrementalism” will not stop this trajectory, much in the same way that slowing down a little bit will not stop your car from hitting a wall.

a) It’s fairly obvious, in fact, why things are going to happen this way: as “clean” resources for profit do not in the least satisfy the entire system’s need for profit-making activity, dirty profit-making must expand.  Stan Cox’s book Sick Planet reveals a wide variety of economic sectors which depend for their lifeblood upon fraudulent sales pitches and destructive practices.

b) One must also consider the realities of resource exploitation in this regard.  As all of the relatively clean resources are harvested, new resources must be found in less clean deposits.  This is observably true, for instance, of mining operations, and especially dramatic in the case of  energy development, in which the insufficiency of cheap oil has gotten energy industries into the doubtful business of harvesting tar sands.  The same is true of labor: as corporations travel further afield in search of cheap labor, the quality of labor services can be expected to suffer, as well as the quality of life in the working class.  Practically everybody I know is either overworked or underemployed.  As life is likely to get incrementally worse, incrementalism is lame against these circumstances.

c) As for authoritarian government, as the owners of the capitalist world become increasingly desperate to cut costs, they will wish to employ a working class who will work for nothing, and who will not complain while their elected officials give away the state’s share of the economy to financial interests and other profit-mongers.  Wanting such a compliant public is one thing; actually getting real people to do all this is another.  Thus the incrementalist fight against authoritarianism has been, over the past three decades, fighting an undertow which is more powerful than it is.  The civil rights trajectory which led from the relative civil liberties of the late 1960s and 1970s to the Bush violations of the 2000s was conditioned by a trend in neoliberal, corporate consolidation of power (and, for that matter, of a Republican “Southern strategy” for electing politicians) which the incrementalists could not stop.

  1.  There are structural reasons why the trends in 1) are part of a trajectory of capitalist development.  Part and parcel of being an incrementalist is the inability to take “baby steps” to change life on Earth, without reference to this trajectory.

a) The current version of capitalism as practiced across the globe, neoliberal capitalism, is characterized by an excess of capital resources in comparison to the actual opportunities for profit which exist in the world.  This situation has been in force since the downturns of the 1970s, and it gets more and more extreme as the capitalists continually seek profitable outlets for their capital.

b) As capitalist growth must validate itself through real increases in the quantity of goods and services available for purchase, increased exploitation of the labor force and of the natural world must occur.  Increases in efficiency, the pet project of the ecologically-minded, can offset the destructive nature of individual capitalist projects, in the way in which individual wind farms lead to less ruination than individual coal mines.  However, when we look at the world system as a whole, we can see that exploitative and malignant business must continue expand in order to maintain the entire system’s rate of profit.  The problem is that capitalist business depends upon the pandering after effective demand, demand backed by money, calculable by multiplying the number of paying customers by the price of each item.  Business under such a regime must, then, look for ways to separate people from their money, and money is highly concentrated in a world of 1,125 billionaires and a bottom half of humanity which makes less than $2.50/day.  Thus, as money becomes more and more concentrated with continued profits, the ongoing attempt to separate it from its possessors becomes less and less relevant to the securing of actual human needs.

  1.  I am constantly told by incrementalists “not to make the perfect the enemy of the good-enough.”  This criticism misses the mark: I’m not a purist.  Rather, I am interested in a world in which the human race actually takes care of its basic needs while focusing its most vital energies upon the preservation of ecosystem resilience.  Radicalism is not a matter of perfection, but of changing direction.

My own values, at least here on DKos, are well-documented.  I am in favor of ecological discipline, which in its basic form entails a movement to defend a right to live off of the land.  Getting back in touch with nature will mean that we experience our metabolic relationship with the natural world as a matter of working existence.  There must be a situation where (in the words of Saral Sarkar) “the industrial economies must contract, with the aim of reaching a steady state.”  What I am suggesting needs to happen is a matter of priorities, for under capitalism “ecology” and “society” are indeed prized values, but they are only granted priority after the matter of business profit is resolved.  And, no, I am not demanding perfection — just an expansion of the subsistence economy which was destroyed for the sake of corporatism.

The conflict of ideas, then, is not between the perfect and the good-enough, but between the effective and the ineffectual.  My notion of the future is FAR from perfect; rather, the incrementalists are the utopians, for they tend to believe in the utopian notion that they will keep all their material privileges with their continued support of the capitalist system.  We can see with the dismantling of present-day finances, in the US but especially in Europe, how uncertain that is.  We can see in those examples what sort of prop incrementalism stands upon — an incrementalist political position expects a world which only changes incrementally.  We won’t be living in that world in the future.

  1.  The incrementalists are typically afraid of revolution, revolutionary movements, and revolutionary change.  However, revolutions do not deserve to be judged by the exacting standard of whether or not any of them succeeded in bringing utopia onto Earth.  Nor do they deserve denunciation for their violent content: violent upheaval is always a response to conditions; nonviolent revolution the choice of champions.

Instead, as Immanuel Wallerstein points out in his short volume Utopistics, revolutions change the world’s view of itself in substantive ways, granting credibility to ideas of social power in ways which are not “incrementalist.”  Material revolutions are important, then, as conceptual revolutions.  The French Revolution, despite its “failure,” put egalitarian democracy on the table for Europe; the “failed” uprising of 1848 did the same for the concept of socialism.  1917 gave liberatory hopes to the nations of the “periphery,” despite Russia’s descent into Stalinism; the uprisings of 1968 (for Wallerstein at least) shattered the liberal capitalist consensus for the sake of “liberation” without, however, forming a new consensus.

Today, practically all ideas of effective social change are notoriously lacking in credibility, and incrementalism can only promote more of the same.  The idea of a conserver society seems to me to be uniquely suited to the current situation, yet very few people in the world of practical politics are advocating such a thing.  (Although I suppose the Dennis Kucinich campaign, and for that matter the Carter Presidency, came close.)  Instead, practical politics is dominated by neoliberalism, which allied itself with varying species of wingnuttery to create the Republican coalitions of the ’80s, ’90s, and the first half of the ’00s.  Its alternative, occasionally revealing itself in the politics of the Democratic Party, is fractured.  Something still clearly remains of old-fashioned liberal industrialism (or, rather, what remains after the US industrial base migrated to east Asia, Mexico, and South America), eco-capitalism is on the rise, and various interest groups compete to attract “jobs.”  The situation seems remediable — one simply organizes a movement in light of current changes and with hopes of taking advantage of future ones — though not (in the current, rapidly changing situation) by the incrementalists.

  1.  The incrementalists can’t seem to imagine that some sort of “dark age” will be the outcome of their efforts.  Yet, as Chew points out, “dark ages” (for all their trauma) have the effect of “cleaning the slate” of outworn programs of civilization so that new civilizations can take their place.  With respect to our globalized, capitalist civilization Chew writes:

   Market optimism, regionalization, and globalization policies and practices will be pursued until ecological and natural limits are reached.  The “business as usual” approach will be fostered similar to what we witness in the palace-centered kingship economies that percisted at the end of the Late Bronze Age crisis (the second Dark Age (1200-700 BCE, in other words).  No doubt, as the catastrophes continue to mount as effects of global warming compound and recur, more stringent measures will be implemented to maintain economic, social, and political control.

Furthermore, with energy shortages it is very likely that certain places in the world would become more isolated.  By no means should this be seen as negative.  Like the monasteries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, isolation can provide the opportunity for innovations as the predominant or common way of managing socioeconomic and political affairs in the globalized world no longer can be practiced or is an option. (130)

The catch is, of course, that any “dark age” to descend upon this civilization will be broadly traumatic — but one could just as well argue that this is what humanity deserves if all it is willing to propose is small-scale programs for “alternative energy” as ostensible solutions to the problem of abrupt climate change.


Historically, incrementalism is certainly the product of the “crisis of faith” of all of the big, utopian concepts of the 20th century.  The incrementalists doubtless imagine that, because “communism is dead,” capitalism is globally triumphant, and with liberation movements offering only small-scale advances over the realities of the present, they should pursue a world that is only slightly better than the one in which we live today, in efforts centered around “big tent” Presidential campaigns.

With the election of Obama, however, incrementalist politics has gone as far as it can go in the US context.  America and the world are now faced with ecological and economic problems which will require radical solutions.  At some point in the process of interacting with changing conditions, American politics will have to make room for its radicals.  In doing so, however, it will have to protect the civilization’s most important core values: freedom of speech, human access to basic necessities, peace, love, democracy.


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