Back in 2000, when I was a graduate student at Arkansas State University, I served as a co-chair for the Green Party of Craighead County. Most of our number were university folk dissatisfied with the strain of Clintonian neoliberalism that had been the order of the past eight years, though we had a few people from out in the county angered by wanton crop dusting and other environmental degradations — and the local politicians who refused to listen to their concerns. We were just a small group of people who met irregularly to plan how we were going to get Ralph Nader elected president of the United States, and the more Democrats complained about Nader siphoning votes and threatening to throw the election to Texas dimwit George W. Bush, the more righteous we felt for confronting the two-party duopoly head-on.
It’s 20 years later, and as Benedict says in “Much Ado About Nothing”: “Gallants, I am not as I have been.”
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Because today I am no longer convinced that my political choices should serve, first and foremost, to assuage my own conscience. Because today I realize that even incremental progress is nonetheless progress and can pave the way for greater changes unrealizable and even unimaginable right now. Because today I recognize a truth written by British author Rebecca West in her 1958 book, “The Court and the Castle”: “We are members of an imperfect society, and when we cooperate with it, we are committed to imperfection, because we are all imperfect beings and cannot conceive a perfect thought or act.”
My affiliation with the Green Party was an attempt to avoid this commitment to imperfection, to rank myself among the perfect, those who could see beyond the lies and disappointment of “politics as usual.” And we knew that Ralph Nader would never be president, but in many ways, his inevitable loss sanctified us even more. Made us lazy saints in a fallen world.
It’s 2020, easily a more important election year than 2000, for this year will determine whether or not our democracy, such as it is, even survives. And so I find myself even more worried about this general leftist content with failure, worried that it will manifest itself again and leave Donald Trump to reign supreme for another four years of demented filth. With the stakes so high right now, we must ask the question: Why is the left so often happy to lose?
I believe that the main reason relates to denial — namely, a denial of the relationship between violence and reason. You see, classical social contract theorists like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, the state arises from a decision, based upon reason, by people in the violent struggle of “all against all” to put aside their mutual enmity. In so doing, they create the state, which they invest with the monopoly of legitimate violence. People can no longer take vengeance upon their neighbors but must, instead, call the authorities to determine who is right and who wrong. Only the violence of the state is legitimate.
By this theory, reason or rationality must precede the creation of the state. However, according to philosopher Paul Dumouchel, it is violence that creates the state and makes possible the faculty of reason. As he explains in “The Barren Sacrifice: An Essay on Political Violence,” “The difference between reason and violence, on which we would like to base the unanimous agreement of members of society, does not precede the action that establishes the political order, but flows from it. Reason, conceived of as violence’s Other, depends on there being a monopoly of legitimate violence. If there is no such monopoly, the difference that defines Reason also fades away.”
In other words, until the state is established, reason cannot exist, because in the Hobbesian war of “all against all,” such reason as one possesses will demand the continuation of the struggle so long as one has a chance of ending out on top. Reason can only take hold once someone possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence and puts a stop to the universal struggle.
And this is the lesson for folks on the left, who often imagine that we can reason with our ideological opponents. How much energy do we put into books and pamphlets and websites? How much time do we spend fact-checking conservative claims with the hopes that we can get the adherents of Trump and Limbaugh and Hannity to recognize some semblance of a shared reality that we all inhabit? But progress has not been made manifest through such progressive evangelism. Debates about the role of the state have not changed society — instead, society has been changed through the assumption of power. With power, one can then set the standards by which individuals and society itself will be judged.
Many on the left have it backward. But why? Actually, it’s for a very selfish reason. Folks on the left deny the relationship between power and progress in order to maintain a sense of their own innocence, to avoid, as Rebecca West put it, committing themselves to imperfection.
This theme came up in an earlier book by Rebecca West, namely her renowned Yugoslavia travelogue, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” published in 1940-1941. The title references two incidents in the book that illuminate, for her, the politics of those who have allegedly committed themselves to progress. The first incident occurs at a place called the Sheep’s Field in Macedonia, where West witnesses an ancient rite in which black lambs are ritually offered for sacrifice upon a large rock for purposes of curing female infertility. Although she describes the rite as “purely shameful” and “a huge and dirty lie,” she finds it nonetheless familiar: “I knew this rock well. I have lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought if founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price for any good thing.”
The second half of the book’s title references the recitation of a poem, for West and her fellow travelers, about the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, in which Prince Lazar of Serbia faced off against Sultan Murad of the Ottoman Empire. The poem can be seen as offering a salvific interpretation for Lazar’s loss at the battle, for in it, the prophet Elijah takes the form of “a grey bird, a falcon” to offer him a choice: He can either saddle his horses, drive out the Turks, and thereby gain an earthly kingdom, or he can gain a heavenly kingdom, if he but have all of his troops given the Eucharist on the morning of the battle, though it will mean the obliteration of the Serbian army. In the end, the prince chooses the heavenly kingdom and marches to his doom.
West responds to this poem with perhaps even more horror than the ritual sacrifice of lambs, writing that Lazar had “saved his soul, and there followed five hundred years when no man on these plains, nor anywhere else in Europe for hundreds of miles in any direction, was allowed to keep his soul. He should have chosen damnation for their sake. … I do not believe that any man can procure his salvation by refusing to save millions of people from miserable slavery.” In fact, the poem puts her in mind of the various meetings she had attended for those who “care for freedom and the well-being of others,” during which the speakers “use all accents of sincerity and sweetness, and they continuously praise virtue; but they never speak as if power would be theirs tomorrow and they would use it for virtuous action. … They want to be right, not to do right. They feel no obligation to be part of the main tide of life, and if that meant any degree of pollution they would prefer to divert themselves from it and form a standing pool of purity. In fact, they want to receive the Eucharist, be beaten by the Turks, and then go to heaven.”
In other words, a belief that goodness must suffer in order to achieve a greater value, a belief in the power of that blood-crusted rock, combined with a desire to avoid the taint of bloodying one’s own hands, leads many on the left to take on the role of the lamb rather than the role of the priest, even when doing so betrays all those people for whom we are allegedly fighting, the people whose lives would be better if we but took seriously the necessity of achieving and using power for the ends of virtue. “And I had sinned in the same way, I and my kind, the liberals of Western Europe,” writes West. “We had regarded ourselves as far holier than our tory opponents because we had exchanged the role of priest for the role of lamb, and therefore we forgot that we were not performing the chief moral obligation of humanity, which is to protect the works of love.”
I often encounter this meeting of the lamb and the falcon in discussions about the current state of American politics. Every fall, I teach a course for the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service titled “Power, Privilege, and Oppression” (I did not devise the title, fan of alliteration though I am). This last semester, as we were surveying the political function of racism, one of my students asked: “Do you think that maybe the election of Donald Trump was a good thing, given that it revealed to us what the real nature of America?” Now, despite academia’s manufactured reputation as a bastion of liberal indoctrination, I do try to steer our conversations in a way that challenges all viewpoints, for I despise a shallow liberalism as much as I do a shallow conservatism, and so I did not share my full response to this question, which would have been:
The triumph of evil is never a good thing. Do you rank it as worthwhile that millions of Americans might lose their health care, that refugees are being hoarded into concentration camps, that the infrastructure of mutual care inaugurated by the New Deal is undone — all so that you can learn a lesson about the “real nature” of America? There are many people who could have provided that lesson to you, free of charge, without any attached risk of undermining our democratic institutions. After all, Native, African, Latino and Asian Americans, as well as women and LGTBQ Americans, and the homeless and poor, have all long been aware of this country’s foundational racism, this culture’s foundational sexism and misogyny, this nation’s blindspot to matters of poverty and class. Even under presidents who at least attempted to be decent individuals, these groups have suffered, have found themselves in the positions of being the scapegoats whose sacrifice helps to solidify the ruling class’s hold on the reins of power. You did not need Donald Trump holding court in the White House to learn this lesson about America — you could have read a book or simply talked to your neighbors. And the fact that you believe his election might have a redemptive quality, at least for you personally, fills me with dread, for what is to say that, given this one dose of redemption in 2016, you might not be happy to accept another in 2020, especially since this would further cement your position as someone elevated above the nastiness and greed that drives the right. This world and those who inhabit it do not require your personal enlightenment. They do require your commitment to freedom and fairness. They do not require your sacrifice. They require your willingness to assume positions of responsibility for the benefit of others.
Politics is about a commitment to imperfection because imperfect deeds are all that we can muster in our complex world, but imperfectly good deeds are better than the perfectly evil policies of Donald Trump and his slavish followers. Leftist politics are rife with Christ figures ready to spin their temporal losses into spiritual victories. But now is no time for martyrs. Now, instead, is the time for a Constantine, someone willing to assume a position of power and turn belief into actual policy. In hoc signo vinces.