Yesterday, we ran a post by Bill McKibben on leadership in social change movements. McKibben argued for a “small l” leader model versus a “big L” leader, which readers debated. Some argued that the Leader model was really code for “Great Man” that was a less viable approach than it once was due to assassinations. Others were struck by the emphasis on distributed leadership, which is an obvious analogy to modern computer and communications networks, and how political commentators to frame their ideas of social order in terms of the technology of the day. Some pointed out that the idea of minimal oversight and control of communities was a long-stading Utopian line of thought, often espoused by people who wound up implementing the exact opposite.
However, I was particularly struck by Dan Kervick’s remark, which came late in the thread:
Others have already touched on this, but I think McKibben’s piece focuses too much on the question of whether or not it is important to have the single charismatic leader, and not enough on equally important questions about whether or not it is important to have organization, long-term plans and a grand political strategy. The picture I get from reading McKibben and many others is of a movement that consists in the spontaneous generation of organized resistance here and there to some of the projects of the powerful. The movement is successful in that instance if the project is thwarted, and fails if the project is carried through.
But resistance is what you have to do when you don’t have political power yourself. Isn’t there any left remaining out there that actually wants to achieve political power? It doesn’t seem so. Rather, it seems to me the contemporary left prefers to be powerless and prefers to be permanently on the side of the rebels and resistors, opportunistically throwing monkey wrenches into the inexorable progress of some alien Leviathan.
That can certainly be a useful orientation. But in some way it is not very ambitious. On the one hand there is a great deal of admirable energy and sweat going into such a movement, and there will be some successes here and there. But on the other hand the orientation of the permanent resistor defines itself by a kind of long-term surrender to the inexorable control by The Powers That Be. There is something fearful and weak in this attitude, an unhealthy embrace of outlook of the subordinated peasant.
“Resiliency” and “adaptability” are nice buzz words. I hear them all the time in the corporate world.
Andrew Watts concurred:
The contemporary left believes that achieving power would taint their moral purity. They would rather be powerless, ineffectual, and pure rather than achieve their goals. What they don’t understand is that every endeavor is tainted by human imperfection. This is one of the reasons why they’ve made so little difference over the last few decades.
Now there are readers who can legitimately disagree with the idea that the left does not want power, simply because the the “the left” in the US has become so debased and meaningless as to be considered in many quarters to include Obama and the mainstream Democratic party, which from a policy standpoint, is solidly center-right except on some social issues. The folks in the political-industrial complex who drape themselves in the “left” brand when it suits them most certainly want influence and all the goodies that go with it.
“Progressive” is in danger of becoming similarly debased, but we’ll use it to mean “progressive” in the traditional sense, as opposed to the MSNBC meaning of “the new improved corporate left”. And I regularly hear comments from Beltway insiders that are consistent with what Kervick and Watts say. For instance, one colleague says simply, “Progressives don’t want to govern.” He’s occasionally found issues where he can collaborate with the right, and finds working with them refreshing. Why? They are serious, they want to get things done, they don’t mess around. This can-do attitude is apparently sorely wanting on his side of the aisle.
Richard Kline, in a 2011 post, Progressively Losing, gave a longer-form overview of why progressives have had so little impact:
The first key point is that the tradition of progressive dissent is integrally a religious one. The goal isn’t usually power but ‘truth;’ that those in the right stand up for what is right, and those in the wrong repent. The City on the Hill and all that, but that is the intrinsic value. This is a tradition of ideas, many of them good, many of them implemented—by others, a point to which I’ll return. Coming forward to a recent and then present American context, consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as progressive:
Universal, secular education
End to child labor
Female legal equality
Consider as well notable progressives who have held executive or even power positions in national governance. I struggle to name one. Progressives largely worked in voluntary organizations and reform societies outside of the notoriously corrupt political parties of America. (It is interesting and relevant to note that as a society we recapitulate that endemic historical venality once again c. 2011.)
A most relevant point is that these are value-driven policies. Notably absent are economic policies. I wouldn’t say that progressives are disinterested in economic well-being, but employment and money are never what has driven them. A right-living society, self-improvement, and justice: these are progressive goals. Recall again that many of them were already bourgeois; that most of historical notice had significant education; that their organizational backbone was women of such background. These conditions apply as much now as ever. Some progressives, many of them women, were radicalized by their experience of social work among the abused poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consider Beatrice Potter Webb or Upton Sinclair. Some progressives will fight if backed into a corner; many won’t even then, as there is a strong value placed on pacifism in this socio-community. Think John Woolman and Dorothy Day.
Reviewing the summary above, it will be evident that progressives are ill-equipped by objective and inclination both to succeed in bare-knuckle political strife. One could say unflatteringly that the goal of ‘progressives’ in activism is to raise their personal karma by standing up for what is right. “Sinners repent,” is the substance of their message, and their best dream would be to have those in the wrong do just that, to embrace progressive issues and implement them. More cynically, one wonders whether progressives would be entirely pleased if all of their reforms were implemented, leaving nothing to inveigh against.
Progressives are at their best educating, advocating, and validating those in need well apart from the fray. There are few cases that readily come to mind where progressives have implemented any contested policy on their own initiative without others of different goals involved. Somebody else has to carry the can for their water to get drawn.
And who has carried the can for progressives? Kline contends it has been radicals, who came from different social backgrounds and have different priorities:
The origins of Anglo-American radicalism are far less tidy to summarize…‘Poor or oppressed communities’: these are the fuel for radicalism, and one finds them far more in Continental Europe than in England. Serfdom was far more advanced there than it ever was in Medieval Britain or Scandinavia (for complex local reasons). Furthermore, social and economic radicalism often only catalyzed in the presence of communal cum national revolts against subjugation…
The key point is that the tradition of radical activism is integrally an economic one, and secondarily one of social justice. It was pursued by those both poor and ‘out castes,’ who often had communal solidarity as their only asset. It was resisted by force, and thus pursued by those inured to force who understood that power was necessary to victory, and that defeat entailed destitution, imprisonment, and being cut down by live fire from those acting under color of authority with impunity. This was a tradition of demands, many of them quite pragmatic. Few were wholly implemented, but the struggle to gain them forced the door open for narrower reforms, often implemented by the powers that be to de-fuse as much as diffuse radical agitation. Consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as radical:
Call off the cops (and thugs)
Eight hour day and work place safety
Right to organize
Anti-discrimination in housing and hiring
Public educational scholarships
Tax the rich
Anti-trust and anti-corporate
While few radicals have made it into public executive positions either, they are numerous in politics, especially at the local level where communal ties can predominate. Radicals have always worked in organized groups—‘societies,’ unions, and parties—which have been a multiplier for their demands.
Critically, these are grievance-driven policies. One could say that the goal of radicals is to force an end to exploitation, particularly economic exploitation since most radicals come from those on the bitter end of such equations. As such, many of them have specific remedies or end states. Notably absent are ‘moral uplift,’ better society objectives other than in the abstract sense. Further, since so much of radicalism is communally based it has often been difficult for radicals to form inter-communal alliances.
Secondarily, since the goals are highly specific to individual groups, factionalism is endemic. Radicals have disproportionately been drawn from the poor, and from minority communities; groups who have had little to lose, and for whom even small gains loom large, especially economic ones. These have been disproportionately non-Anglo American, many of whom brought their radicalism with them from prior experiences in Europe, though occasionally their message has radicalized contemporary indigenés, for example ‘Big Bill’ Haywood or John Reed (or Chris Hedges). Radicals have always had to ‘struggle,’ not least since they have consistently been assaulted by other factions and the state: militancy was their real party card. If this wasn’t necessarily violent, it was confrontational, as in boycotts and occupations (sit-downs). While radical women have always been visible, the backbone of radicals always was minority community men. Think Joe Hill and Sam Gompers.
Look carefully at those two lists of goals. What is striking about the second is that these demands of poor immigrants of the early 20th century are rapidly become high priorities for the increasingly downtrodden middle class (to the extent we can still pretend to have one; a big news from the end of last week is that the US now has the greatest income inequality of any advanced economy).
How did a great swathe of Americans sit back and let these hard-gotten gains be rescinded? While there are no doubt many causes, let me posit a few. One was that the middle class chose not to identify much with radical goals. The whole point of being middle class was to leave all of that behind, not just the poverty but the opposition to authority. Another was that it seemed inconceivable, at least for the post-war and Boomer generations, that these economics rights would be withdrawn. As we wrote in 2011:
Dial the clock back to the Eisenhower era. The highest marginal income tax rate was 91%. Ike, a Republican, was firmly of the view that New Deal programs were a permanent feature of the political landscape. From a 1954 letter to his brother Ed:
Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental function….But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Why policies that Eisenhower deemed inconceivable and reckless became mainstream? Let’s list some of the major causes. First is that unions were brought firmly into the Democratic party fold and kept playing nice even as the Dems repeatedly sold them out (my union-member brother refuses to vote Democrat for that reason). Second is that the Democrats discredited interventionist economic policies by failing to demand that taxes be increased when the US was running large fiscal deficits in the later 1960s when unemployment was already low (the result of simultaneously trying to fund the Cold War, the War in Vietnam, the war on poverty, and the space program; Johnson did not want to increase taxes to fund the unpopular Vietnam war). Mainstream Keynesians destroyed any remaining credibility by relying on the Phillips curve, that you couldn’t have high inflation and high unemployment at the same time (meaning a recession would pretty much stamp out inflation).*
The resulting stagflation of the 1970s helped legitimate Chicago School “free market” thinking (which was aggressively promoted by well-funded right wing think tanks eager to roll back the 1960s expansion of social programs). Third was the continued erosion in the Clinton era, when the fall of the USSR (eliminating the need to placate the far left) and the embrace of Rubinomics meant the Democrats had effectively abandoned traditional leftist economic policies (for instance, the “end of welfare as we know it”). I’m sure readers can add to this list.
To vary the old Yankee cliche, I’m not sure how you get there from here. As Kervick, Watts, and Kline argue, progressives simply don’t have the stomach for political trench warfare. They’ll write letters, sign petitions, man soup kitchens, but their appetite for bare knuckle confrontations is limited. And that was before our surveillance state and increasingly militarized police increased the riskiness of demonstrations. But even though the fallen middle class should come to recognize that its only recourse may be more radical strategies, that stance is so at odds with good American bourgeois identities that I’m not sure many are prepared to take that plunge.
So that takes us full circle to McKibben’s post, on leadership. I’d hazard that he’s wrong, that the only thing that might rouse downtrodden formerly-middle-class-in-denial Americans from their stupor is in fact the sort of charismatic leader he renounces as anachronistic and outré, say 21st century Huey Long or Jean Jaurès (or less ill-starred, David Lloyd George). The sort of distributed leadership that has become fashionable of late is well suited for local action or loosely coordinated movements. But the entrenched elites will require a visible show of force for them to cede any ground. That means key figures need to serve as lenses to concentrate the energy of ordinary citizens who no longer have outlets for their grievances.
* Note that this was a simplification of the Phillips curve, but as John Quiggin pointed out:
In an influential article, Samuelson and Solow estimated a Phillips curve for the United States, and drew the conclusion that society faced a trade-off between unemployment and inflation. That is, society could choose between lower inflation and higher unemployment or lower unemployment and higher inflation. Although the article qualified this point with reference to possible effects on inflationary expectations, this qualification tended to get lost in discussion of the policy implications of the Phillips curve.
The trade-off between unemployment and inflation was spelt out in successive editions of Samuelson’s textbook, simply entitled Economics, which dominated the market from its initial publication in 1948 until the mid-1970s. Given a menu of choices involving different rates of unemployment and inflation, it seemed obvious enough that, since unemployment was the greater evil, a moderate increase in inflation could be socially beneficial…
The general assumption among Keynesians in the 1960s was that there was a trade-off that could be exploited.