30 October 2006

The Material Infrastructure of Political Change

Over at State Street, Lynn makes the following observation familiar to many of us on the "left":
An interesting discussion at I Cite has focused issues with the upcoming election for me.

The upcoming election is a conundrum for me. I am one of the people who would like to see the Democratic Party move leftward rather than remain Bush Cult Lite. I do not see that happening. I do not predict any change should the Democrats win Congress this time around.

Note: I am always tempted to substitute conservative for Bush Cult, but accuracy dictates otherwise. Old style conservatives are beginning to recognize that the Bush Cult has replaced their ideology with crony capitalism and crony Christianity. If you are not in the Bush Cult, then you are a leftist of some sort. Welcome to the club William F. Buckley.

Democratic politicians belong to an opportunist party. Whatever the current political climate dictates as prudent political message becomes the prevailing ideological message for them. All too often, they succumb to communicating Bush Cult Lite messages. Those messages have helped lead us to the Iraq debacle and other fine messes.

There are no alternative third party candidates for whom I can vote. Does compromising one’s vote completely compromise one’s ideals? I just do not know.
I've been obsessing over this a good deal lately and right now I just don't think there's any other option, but to hold our nose and vote Democrat. However, I do think the left needs to do more work with material infrastructure in years to come. In recent years democratic political theorists have come to see the issue as one of messaging or how messages are conveyed. Hence we get theorists such as Lakoff and others telling us that we need to frame our messages correctly to change the political temperament.

While there's something to this, I've increasingly come to feel that the issue is far more material than all of this. I confess, I admire the Christian right. This is not because I admire what they believe-- I think it's lunacy --but because I admire how they've managed to transform the country in the last 30 years, taking beliefs that were once seen as laughable and marginal and transforming them into mainstream beliefs. This is what I mean by "materiality". It wasn't that the Christian right produced a highly marketable message (though they became increasingly savvy with packaging over time), but because they waged a prolonged and concerted struggle to take over the channels of communication. They began with the churches. It didn't matter if everyone in evangelical congregations agreed with them. If they could convince five people out of a hundred, these five people would also convince friends and family members and they would eventually be able to build their own congregations. As they drew in money from these newly formed congregations, they were able to build bigger and more impressive churches, that would draw people in by offering non-political services such as classes on how to invest money, child care, yoga classes, dances, and so on, providing a sanctuary from the alienation of contemporary life under capital. Gradually they were able to raise enough money to organize mass mailings to targeted democraphics and to start walking campaigns going from door to door. Again, they weren't always successful, but if they could persuade five people out of a hundred they would also gain additional followers from family and friends who were also persuaded. Eventually they were able to amass enough money to start their own radio stations and make substantial contributions to politicians. This in turn placed leverage on newspapers and news-stations to report these points of view. Next thing you know, 30 years later, views that were once laughable are now acceptable and mainstream.

I think this sort of organized movement and slow conquest of the channels of communication is what is lacking on the left. Again and again I hear stories about people who volunteer with the DNC to make calls and cavas neighborhoods, only to never be called. Moreover, the left offers nothing comparable to the social services of the churches, giving people a sanctuary from the alienations of contemporary life under capital. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, it doesn't matter much whether or not it makes a sound. If a political group has a platform and it is never communicated beyond the confines of the inside members of that political group, then it might as well not exist. The blogosphere has already gone a long way towards overcoming this problem with blogs such as Americablog, Dailykos, MyDD, and so on. They've been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for political candidates, thus forcing politicians to take their interests seriously. Moreover, they've been able to organize massive letter writing campaigns to news organizations, forcing these organizations to report on stories that would not otherwise be reported, thereby disseminating this political platform further throughout the population. Even if these campaigns have not always been victories, the very act of getting certain stories and issues reported is itself a victory as it forces the opposition to take these stories and issues into account and respond to them.

However, these democratic blogs are largely "right-wing" political platforms, not because they endorse an ultra-conservative ideology such as one might find over at Freerepublic, but because genuine emancipatory politics revolving around issues such as labor and the environment are almost entirely absent from these blogs. That is, democrats in the United States are themselves conservatives... They just happen to be more palatable and less dangerous conservatives than those among the Republicans. If political change is to take place in this country, there needs to be some organized activity getting the message out to the public. This requires contending with the channels of communication and not simply attending to the frames within which messages are conveyed. If the Christian Right can take a fringe interpretation of Christianity and make it a mainstream point of view in the space of 30 years, there's no reason that the same cannot be done with a properly organized-- and dare I say missionary --progressive political platform.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

As you write,

If the Christian Right can take a fringe interpretation of Christianity and make it a mainstream point of view in the space of 30 years, there's no reason that the same cannot be done with a properly organized-- and dare I say missionary --progressive political platform.

I'm afraid that won't happen any time soon. The last spurt of missionary zeal from the Democratic left was the civil rights movement of the 60's.

The Democratic Party has always been hesitant to fight down-and-dirty politics and has also been uncomfortable with blatantly using religion. The far Right has understood to harness the immense power of RESSENTIMENT while the Democrats have been plagued by DECADENCE, believing wrongly that politics is intellectual Socratic dialogue. It is not.

From his time in Texas politics onwards Karl Rove has not only been a masterful organizer but he has also known that people vote with their gut. And he knows that you attack your opponent's strong points (cf. the Swift-Boat ads against Kerry, who forgot the most important lesson from Clinton's campaign in 1992 and its rapid-response team in the War Room with Carville leading the charge).

Intellectuals have rarely, if ever, been good politicians, and they are impossible in the trenches.

The only hope I see for the Democratic Party is any over-reaching by the GOP plus a general fatigue with the same old faces and a longing for new ones.

There is no missionary progressive political platform for the Democrats to rally people around. Alarmist apocalyptic "the world is coming to an end" through global warming, gay marriage, the minimum wage, AIDS, African poverty, the first female (or black) president etc. are not issues that grab you by the throat and send you off to vote.

The national mood WILL swing away from the Christian Right eventually, but I fear not through any actions from the Left.

FOX News is already losing viewers, and the GOP will lose seats next Tuesday, and a majority of Republican voters are against the war in Iraq, but rumor has it that Karl Rove and friends prefer a Democratic Congress which they can then run AGAINST (as the Establishment) in 2008.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but politics is emotional and vulgar. We ought to have learned that lesson long ago.

Orla Schantz

October 31, 2006 7:07 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

No disagreement here... I wasn't suggesting that this would come out of the democrats.

October 31, 2006 7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Levi, but where is this mobilization of the Left going to come from?

There are many organizations with one-issue agendas around, but none of them with any significant national following.

No effective grass-root get-out-the-vote forces.

Nothing ruthless enough to match the Right, even if it is losing steam. The Left can't even run a national talk-radio station.

This leftist rising will never just emerge.

Depressing, but true.

Orla Schantz

October 31, 2006 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

Orla, this is precisely what I'm talking about: "but where is this mobilization of the Left going to come from? There are many organizations with one-issue agendas around, but none of them with any significant national following. No effective grass-root get-out-the-vote forces. Nothing ruthless enough to match the Right, even if it is losing steam. The Left can't even run a national talk-radio station."

It's a no brainer that this is the problem. It is not a problem of messaging, it is not a problem of effective frames or better rhetorical gestures, it is a problem resulting from the absence of any movement. That is what this post is about: how does one form or produce a movement? Similarly, a strong fundamentalist movement did not exist in the United States 30 years ago, but lo and behold, it came into existence. Likewise, Christianity did not exist as a robust movement prior to the activism of Paul and those whom Paul managed to turn to his cause. Similarly, how is a leftist political movement to be formed in the United States? What sorts of activities, seductions, institutions, etc., are necessary to bring such an entity into being?

Thus, when you write: "This leftist rising will never just emerge. Depressing, but true." I respond, yes you are technically correct. Something that is largely non-existent cannot arise. However, I disagree with your absolutism here as the whole point is to make something exist and to raise the question of how something is made to exist. It has existed in the past and can come to exisst again. Of course, the emergence of any existence always looks improbable from the standpoint of situations where something doesn't exist.

October 31, 2006 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

Thanks for your comment about this vital issue. I really hope you are right when you write,

I disagree with your absolutism here as the whole point is to make something exist and to raise the question of how something is made to exist. It has existed in the past and can come to exist again.

But Levi, can we - in some form - bridge the gap between dirty reality and philosophy and integrate Deleuze's concept of repetition and difference. I need your help and erudition here.

Deleuze himself managed to be politically active in the streets, so to speak, and make some kind of combination or dialectics between the world of politics and academe.

Or was this just possible in his leftist Vincennes university environment and the French political uprising in the heyday of '68?

All the best,

Orla Schantz

October 31, 2006 10:00 AM  

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