Saturday, April 11, 2020

To Be of Use

I'm surprised I haven't quoted this exchange from Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad before:
'A witch doesn't know the meaning of the word “failure”, Gytha.'

They shot up into the clear air again. The horizon was a line of golden light as the slow dawn of the Disc sped across the land, bulldozing the suburbs of the night.

'Esme?' said Nanny Ogg, after a while.


'It means “lack of success”.'

They flew in chilly silence for several seconds.

'I was speaking wossname. Figuratively,' said Granny.

'Oh. Well. You should of said.'
It came irresistibly to my mind when I listened to some remarks by Noam Chomsky in conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:

Here's the relevant part:
Suppose Biden is elected. I would anticipate it would be essentially a continuation of Obama - nothing very great, but at least not, uh, totally destructive, and opportunities for an organized public to change what is being done, to impose pressures. 

It's common to say now that the Sanders campaign failed  I think that's a mistake.  I think it was an extraordinary success, it completely shifted the arena of debate and discussion.  Issues that were unthinkable a couple of years ago are now right in the middle of attention.  The, uh, worst crime he committed in the eyes of the establishment is not the policies he's proposing, but the fact he was able to inspire popular movements, which had already been developing: Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or many others, and turn them into an activist movement which doesn't just show up every couple of years to push a lever and then go home, but applies constant pressure, constant activism, and so on.  That could affect a Biden Administration.
I love Chomsky, but once again I disagree with him.  He's moving the goalposts in a way that I don't think many progressives would accept from anyone else.  (Many on the left, of course, deride him as a collaborationist meliorist, which in many respects he is, but that's only surprising if you ever believed he was a revolutionary.)

Sanders's campaign in 2016 was even more of a long shot than it was this time, and it did succeed in pushing certain issues into mainstream debate that had been easy to dismiss before.  But this time the goal was to win the nomination and put Bernie Sanders into the White House, and this the campaign failed to do.  Claiming that winning the primaries and the general election was not the aim, that changing the acceptable realm of discussion is the important thing, is at best an attempt to rouse the troops with inspiring oratory - and Chomsky has never been good at doing that.  That's not an accusation, or even a criticism: he has always been proud of his lack of charisma, and mobilizing emotion has never been his role.  In this case, though, it just leaves the bareness of his claim naked to the critical eye.

I can sympathize with the desolation a lot of Sanders's supporters and volunteers, especially the younger ones, must be feeling as a result of his suspension of the campaign.  Maybe you can't invest so much energy into a movement without building up false hopes in yourself.  There have been a lot of recriminations, such as an accusation that Barack Obama somehow pressured Sanders into suspending his campaign, with the implication that Sanders sold out to the Man.  As far as I know, that's nuts, but who knows?  If not for the coronavirus pandemic, which blocked the on-the-ground door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning Sanders relied upon, I suppose he would have fought to the end.  But "if" and a dollar will get you on the bus.  As it is, I presume that he recognized that even if he could continue such campaigning, it would put his volunteers at risk, which he wasn't going to do; and it wasn't an option anyhow.  Biden, you'll recall, had no compunction about making voters line up to vote for him in Wisconsin, though he changed his mind three days after that debacle.

Yes, the campaign failed in its primary task, and I won't play with words to make it seem otherwise. (I think Chomsky indulged there in the kind of obfuscation he'd deride in mainstream thinkers.)  But Chomsky is correct that the movement isn't over, and to that extent he's right.  Sanders is keeping his name on the ballot in states whose primaries haven't happened yet, pushing for voting by mail.  The more delegates he wins, the more clout he'll have at the convention, and that matters. It might translate into influence within the party if by some miracle Biden wins in November, and that's important too.

Sanders's movement can also, as Chomsky says, put pressure on governments, especially if Biden wins, but possibly even if he doesn't.  It's certainly time to pay more attention to the down-ticket races Clinton and Obama neglected to use the money for their own narcissistic purposes.  The astroturf organization Obama built in 2008 and then downgraded largely defanged social movements that could have put more pressure on him.  He didn't succeed entirely, and he was very displeased when activists held his feet to the fire.  He also tried to crush, with considerable success, the movements that rose up anyway, independent of his control.  Sanders has always worked with his base to put pressure on the political process, and I expect he'll continue to do that.  I've already contributed happily to the donation process he set up for other organizations through his campaign structure.  If his followers drop him, they're the ones who are failing the people.  Again, I sympathize with them, but if they really believe the movement is about Us rather than Me, I hope they'll pull themselves together.

One thing I haven't seen among Sanders's fans is any consideration of what he must feel, and characteristically he doesn't seem to have made a big deal of his own disappointment, which must be very great.  Maybe I've just missed it, but I see a lot of Sanders people online, and I'm surprised that his fans haven't had much to say in sympathy for his loss or his courage in pushing forward.  He's still a Senator with work to do in one of the greatest crises this country has ever faced -- very possibly the greatest -- and he's still doing his work.  Which brings to mind another literary reference, by another left-wing Jew, Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use":
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.