From Politicking to Politics

Abandon all hope, ye who work within the system

Last week, governor Deval Patrick hosted a fantastically well-attended rally for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. There, speaking to a crowd on Boston Common bearing banners of catchy words like “Change,” “Hope,” and (even) “Movement,” Obama tried to prove his anti-establishment credentials by pledging to put an end to the “game-playing in Washington.” Four days later, ten thousand gathered at the same location in a national day of anti-war activity. In place of cute campaign slogans and rhetorical flourishes about “moral character” and “political backbone,” the speakers denounced Democrats and Republicans alike for complicity in an imperial occupation. Candid, heterogeneous speech replaced the official, recycled prose of four days before. At free speech tables following the march, students coordinated coalitions and outlined visions. Whereas the first rally demonstrated the hollowness of the representative ideal, the second embodied the kind of conception of democracy we urgently need.

The contrast between campaign politics and grassroots organizing is particularly instructive in highlighting the follies of working within the system in order to change society. The conventional defense of this tactic rests upon its pragmatism: Based on the idea that positions of power enable the powerful to affect policy in substantive, lasting ways, the argument is that good people can rule in good ways. A willing and intelligent leader, we are told, can rescue us from all that currently ails us more immediately and more dramatically than would otherwise be possible. When, in his now-famous speech in 2004, Obama extolled John Kerry’s capacity to lead the country out of “long political darkness,” he made a claim about the potential of power that coincides very obviously with this conception of social change.

Often, the opposition to this tactic—a system-internal approach, let’s call it—is cast by conservatives and liberals as irrational and impractical; leftists are pilloried for prematurely rejecting all things that bear the mark of “the Man.” However, the radical critique of system-internal social change depends on a much more sophisticated argument than its detractors realize. According to the egalitarian, democratic principles that ground genuinely leftist projects, the type of political venture embodied by Obama and his ilk is dreadfully misguided.

Because it relies on the logic of representation, the system-internal strategy endorses a conception of power that ultimately stultifies those it originally sought to serve. It expects the newly-empowered to represent their constituents’ interests completely. Against this, we must assert that the disconnect between power and the people—intrinsic to representative government—cannot be bridged permanently by the good will, intellect, or charm of the powerful. Instead, these managers of political change end up drowning in their own privileges. Because the seat of power is segregated from the general life of the society (phone-calls and letters to Senators do not change this fact) and because the people do not participate directly in decision-making, pathologies and prejudices internal to the operation of power invariably emerge.

History is replete with examples of this dynamic: Consider Kwame Nkrumah’s fall from grace in post-colonial Ghana. Prior to decolonization, Nkrumah wrote prolifically and incisively on the perversities of imperialism in Africa. Yet, once in power, confronted by threats to the privilege that he had been elected into, Nkrumah moved to protect his position by repressing autonomous politics, once even telling agitating workers that their “former role of struggling against capitalists [was] obsolete.”

Thus, regardless of the impressive credentials of those aspiring to power, the commitment to utilizing the privileges of the system to push a progressive agenda consistently decays into a lamentable conservatism. Far from being challenged, the system typically emerges unscathed, while the agents charged with its transformation find themselves transformed. At Harvard, this became particularly clear in my sophomore year, when some progressive comrades joined various Finals Clubs with the (admittedly only half-hearted) intention of working on them from within. Needless to say, despite the intervening years, the clubs remain unaffected, still all-too-prominent examples of unnecessary, self-important exclusivity.

Instead of entrusting the task of social change to an especially charismatic individual then, we must emphasize the necessarily collective character of any progressive project. Our goal being the radical reworking of the system along more directly democratic lines, it makes minimal sense to suspend those principles temporarily in order to implement them ultimately. Audre Lorde’s frequently quoted reflections on working within power express the same truth: Regardless of who wields them, masters’ tools inevitably build masters’ houses.

What this should mean, for well-intentioned progressives everywhere, is the repudiation of politicking. Instead of doting on the charisma of a particular presidential candidate, we need to find our inspiration in the histories of struggle that have won the palatability of the world we live in: Everything from the 8-hour day to the right of minorities to vote has been won on the streets, not at the ballot box. All interested in substantively challenging the contemporary world order should forget about phone-banking for Obama, or flyering for Hilary: The better world that is in birth will not be planned for us by men and women in snazzy suits.

Adaner Usmani ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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