Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Politics of "Enthusiasm"

If you ask people swept up in the desperate scramble to keep Democrats from losing seats, the most important thing that needs to change right now is "enthusiasm". If you ask the Democrat politicians themselves, "enthusiasm" levels are the only thing that needs changing.

No, we don't need a change in the basic structure of society. We don't need to change the political trajectory of this country. We don't need a break with the more or less continuous set of neoliberal policies running through the presidencies of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-W-Obama. No, it turns out that we don't need to change anything whatsoever about the system itself. Everything is as it should be in the contemporary USA.

The only thing that needs to change is people's levels of enthusiasm.

This is, quite obviously, the position of the Democrats and those who apologize for them. But surely any reflective person must ask here: what kind of politics underwrites this injunction to "be happy" and get pumped to vote for Democrat politicians? It seems to me that there are two important components to the political ideas underwriting the fuss about enthusiasm.

The first is the idea that "the problem is not the system, it's you". This is an idea that has become firmly entrenched in social and political life in the United States over the last 40 years. This is the ideology of "personal responsibility": for any large-scale social problem whatsoever that may afflict you (e.g. wide-scale layoffs, economic turmoil, wage repression, etc.), we can safely say that it is not really a social problem at all. It is merely an individual level problem that has to do with you (e.g. you didn't work hard enough, you didn't try hard enough to get a job, you aren't talented enough to get hired, etc.). This is not a "conservative" idea in the sense that it is only accepted among hard-right think tanks like the Cato Institute: this is part of the basic fabric of mainstream political life in the US and it is a set of ideas firmly shared by both of the major parties.

Here's how this idea applies to all the fuss about "enthusiasm". You might have thought that politicians only deserve the support of their constituents to the extent that they share and attempt to implement political goals that their constituents endorse. In other words, you might have thought that representatives of the people should be held accountable based on what they do (or don't do) in office. But, as Obama is fond of telling us these days, this is dead wrong. It doesn't matter what they do in office. That is beside the point. The job of the supporters of the Democrats isn't to make demands on them whatsoever: their job is to be "enthusiastic" no matter what they do.

In other words, the problem isn't that Obama and the Democrats haven't done anything remotely progressive. The problem has nothing to with the Democratic Party at all: the problem is all with the damned voters. Why aren't they more enthusiastic? What's their fucking problem anyway? How dare they not be prepared to re-elect tepid Democrat incumbents with a smile on their face?

What to do? One solution has emerged already. Why not use the funny-men on the picture-box to get them to turn out? If "enthusiasm" can't be restored by actually giving people something concrete to be enthusiastic about, why not trot out the comedians to get them prepared to do what their better judgment tells them isn't worth a damn?

The second component is even less plausible than the first. It is the idea that the only "realistic" thing we can do is to resign ourselves to the way things are. If we feel righteous indignation at a society that forces austerity onto working people in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression amidst fabulous wealth and profits for the few... we're simply not being realistic. If we think that our deeply irrational and unjust for-profit healthcare system, far and away inferior to the systems of comparable advanced capitalist nations, ought to be changed... well you're just a dumb utopian.

"Politics", these boneheads will tell us, is supposed to be the "art of the possible". But who decides what is possible and what is not? Deciding where to draw the line is an extremely delicate political move. And what's possible in part depends on what people think they are capable of doing at any one time. If people are led to think that they can't do something that it is in their power to do, this is a sense in which they are oppressed. For instance, the belief that we must either vote for the Democrats or the Republicans reinforces the idea that our only means of political agency are to accept the terms of this choice and operate within its parameters. But that belief itself demobilizes people, resigns them to existing states of affairs, and convinces them that they couldn't possibly ask for mer. And when that belief is widely held enough, it becomes self-fulfilling... the belief itself actually circumscribes the realm of possible actions that could take place. Radical politics thus begins when circumstances and experiences of various sorts shatter that belief: be they active struggle, political argument, historical shifts, or otherwise.

A quick glance around the world, and at our own history, shows how utterly false this restrictive, oppressive injunction to "be realistic" is. What is said to be "utopian" in the US is commonplace in other parts of the world. And what is said to be "utopian" today was, in many cases, an inspiring and widespread phenomenon throughout our own history (e.g. the struggles for the 8hr day; the sit-down strikes that erupted in the 1930s; the movement in the 50s and 60s to push for racial justice and an end to Jim Crow, etc. ). Thus this demand for "realism" shows itself for what it is, a demand that we resign ourselves to the way things are (even though history and other national contexts show us that they could be different). This "realism" is the worst sort of cynicism and political apathy possible.

As those in power are well aware, convincing people that the set of "realistic" possibilities is a small one is a fantastic way of keeping them docile. And once you've done the work of cementing that view their mind, the only question becomes: how do we make them happy and cheerful about accepting things as they are? How do we force them out of the disillusionment and alienation that it's natural to feel in the face of an inconsequential choice between conservative party A and conservative party B? That is the meaning of the present obsession with enthusiasm.

No comments: