Thursday, November 04, 2004

Making the case against pragmatism 

There's an interesting article up at the Voice of the Turtle website at the moment, which is an appeal for intellectual honesty from those on the left who, every election season, hope for the Democrats - the least worst evil - and pine away about what might have been when a Republican president is in power. "Has the left been body-snatched by the pod people from planet Democrat?", Dan Peyser asks, and goes on to say

"It is sickening to watch the left behave as though it actually had something at stake in this race. The Democratic and Republican parties do not represent different class interests, merely the different interests of the same class."

Now, I know a lot of people criticise the sort of position Peyser puts forward as being ridiculously idealistic. Many argue, and I've been among them in the past, that what we need is pragmatism in our ideals. Seek out what benefits we can while we wait for the right time for real changes. But that right time will never come if we do this. I've recently been arguing quite a lot with people I know in the gay rights movement who think that gay marriage is a really good thing as an end, who don't realise that getting bourgeois marriage rights will simply lose us a large number of relatively un-revolutionary queers who'd otherwise have to put their lot in with the radical camp. We actually gain strength from people being pissed on for longer.

Similarly, if we had Kerry in power at Christmas we'd lose a lot of the impetus that protest movements have gained in the past four years. I don't think any of these protest movements are unqualifiedly good, and many of them (mostly of the ilk that link Iraq to Palestine at every possible opportunity) are downright harmful, but at least people are angry now. That anger just might bring something really good with it sometime in the next few years.

I do think that Kerry would have made a difference in some areas, and I get very annoyed with the vaguely apathetic resignation which was around everywhere yesterday, which said 'oh, he wouldn't have changed anything'. Well, actually, he would. Maybe not in the environment, or economically, and I don't think the differences in foreign policy would have done much other than salvage relations with those Western states who'd have come crawling back as lackeys to America at some point anyway. I really don't think the threat of terrorism would have greatly changed. But I was arguing with those that said it diddn't matter at all, that if you care about medical research, a woman's right to choose or the basic principle of homosexual equality, then it matters quite a lot that Kerry lost.

Now I'm not so sure. Yes, these things are real differences between Kerry and Bush. But they don't really matter, when Kerry's commitment to abortion rights and a state's right to determine its policy on gay marriage is solely based on backwards ideas of negative freedom. What we need are people who put forward the right views actively; what we need is real, fundamental change.

Conveniently, Jerry Cohen (of History, Labour and Freedom fame) was criticising in a lecture today those on the left who worry that the rich are, say, 7.5 times richer than the poor now instead of 5 times, as if reducing the numbers should be our primary concern. And it really is the case that far too many of us buy into this marginalism, this gradualism, in discussing the things we care about. Because after all we're not in favour of Kerry, we don't really want gay marriage in itself and having the rich man buying salmon instead of caviar compared to the poor person's hamburger really won't make much difference in the end. What we need is to embrace that intellectual honesty Peyser demands, and to make always and everywhere the case for real radical change.

Bentham has a nice line here to finish. In a book on 'fallacies' conservatives have used to protest progressive reforms he makes arguments against many things, including gradualism, and envisions a future in which anyone uttering these fallacies will be greeted not with acceptance "but with voices in scores, crying aloud 'Stale! Stale! Fallacy of Authority! Fallacy of Distrust!"

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