Sunday, October 25, 2020

Behind the politics of lesser evilism

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Swing states in the 2020 election

By Alex Steiner

Note: This is a continuation of the discussion that began in the previous essay by Frank Brenner, Backing Biden betrays socialist policies, See the comments in that essay for the context of this discussion.

I think Frank Brenner and Jim Creegan have provided an excellent response to Mitchel Cohen’s and Walter Daum’s support for a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate in the 2020 Presidential election, namely Joe Biden. I don’t think I can add too much to what they have already written.  What I would like to do is explore the general form of the “lesser evil” argument and expose its inner fallacies.

Those arguments change every four years in their outward expression, but their inner structure always remains the same. When you boil them down to their essence they go something like this:

“I would love to support a genuine alternative to the two-party duopoly that dominates politics in the United States. If this were an ordinary election, I would happily cast my vote for a third party socialist candidate running independent of the Democrats.  But this election is different. We are living in a special moment that requires that we vote for a Democrat while holding our nose.  (The holding our nose metaphor seems to be required in all these explanations.) We will go about doing our organizational work despite voting for a Democrat whom we loathe, knowing that this organizational work is what is really important.”

This is the basic template of the argument. Before getting to the details, I would like to put it into its philosophical and historical context.

The force of the argument is based on the premises of a utilitarian world outlook. What characterizes all utilitarian arguments is the engagement of a cold calculus of benefits versus risks. Moral and political imperatives beyond the immediate considerations of what action maximizes ones odds for survival in a Hobbesian world are considered irrelevant.  On the face of it, such arguments are quite compelling. It seems that the only way to challenge them is to dispute whether in fact a particular course of action does result in a greater benefit, or if not a benefit then at least a lesser evil, than another course of action. Those kind of details can be legitimately debated it seems, but there is no challenge to the basic premises of the debate, that one must always chose that course of action which results in the most benefit – or least evil – given the circumstances. [1]

What the cold calculus of a risk vs benefit assessment characteristic of utilitarianism misses is that human beings and human values are not quantifiable. It is not like projecting the value of an investment. A notorious example of what can go wrong when decisions are made purely on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis is the case of the Ford Pinto. Ford’s engineers discovered a design flaw in the Pinto of potentially lethal consequences. A cost-benefit analysis prepared by Ford concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaws. The upshot was that approximately 500 people died as a result of Ford’s failure to ameliorate the problem. While the consequences of the cost- benefit analysis were particularly horrendous in this case, cost-benefit type planning is not the exception but the norm in the business world. It’s “what comes naturally” in capitalist society where all considerations for how we should live are subordinated to the need for profit. And its applies to all manner of human behavior beyond the strictly economic.

The “lesser evil” argument in politics is not so different than any other kind of a cost-benefit analysis. One justifies a course of action that is undesirable because the alternatives are considered worse. When we trace this argument back to its philosophical and historical context, we are in a better position to understand the hidden premises that lay beneath the surface. When we do that the argument is no longer as compelling as it initially appeared to be. 

In the present instance, we can see that in addition to challenging the validity of the judgment itself, that in fact a vote for Biden really is a “lesser evil”, as if that is obvious, it is also possible to challenge the basic premises of the risks vs. benefits logic of the argument. In the case of the 2020 elections, we are not dealing with ethical considerations that try to quantify the value of a human life, but with social and political considerations that hold vast implications for those on the left wishing to see a fundamental transformation of society.  How do you quantify class consciousness? And what price is paid in the coin of your political credibility when you advocate a vote for a candidate you admit is terrible?

In the argument justifying a vote for the “lesser evil” candidate, what changes every four years is the identification of what is “special” or “exceptional” in the current election that requires that the left “hold their noses” and get behind the current anti-socialist Democratic candidate. Often one finds references to Hitler or Nazism thrown into the discussion as a way to stop any further consideration of the issues and drum up a panic reaction. That is certainly the case in Mitchel Cohen’s argument. Daum on the other hand provides a somewhat more nuanced take and admits that a Trump victory would not be “game over”.  But then he goes on to say,

“…it would be a huge setback and, yes, it would embolden the fascists. So why not do everything we can to prevent that, including holding our noses and voting for the rotten Biden?”

Daum’s criteria then for caving into the pressure to vote for a Democrat is not quite the absolute evil of Cohen’s vision of a fascist America the day after the election, but a regime that would be a “huge setback”.  

Cohen seeks to discredit Brenner’s argument by claiming, falsely, that Brenner sees no difference between a Trump regime and a Biden regime.  This is in fact a common accusation of those defending “lesser evilism”.  Daum on the other hand agrees that Brenner sees a difference but claims therefore that Brenner contradicts himself by opposing a vote for Biden while acknowledging that a Trump Administration poses a huge danger of increasing authoritarianism.

The mistake both Cohen and Daum make is to think that once one acknowledges a different outcome between a Trump or a Biden Administration, that there are no grounds for opposing a vote for a “lesser evil” candidate.  But one cay say that in every single election since the American Republic was founded there is always the possibility of a different outcome. It has never been the case and never will be the case that the outcome of an election “makes no difference”.  If one follows this logic then one has to conclude that in past elections, when Daum and his organization, the League for a Revolutionary Party, (LRP) opposed voting for a Democrat, that they must have been working under the illusion that whoever won the election “made no difference.”  I have no doubt that some of the LRP’s political opponents who favored a vote for Al Gore, or John Kerry, or Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton in past elections must have levelled the accusation against the LRP that they were “blind to the differences” between a right wing Republican Administration and a centrist Democratic one.  So why is the LRP now supporting a vote for Biden in 2020 when they opposed a vote for Kerry in 2004? Was not the election of George Bush in 2004 a “setback” when compared to the possibility of a Kerry victory? One can anticipate the answer: A second Trump election victory in 2020 would be “a lot more” of a setback than the Bush victory in 2004.  I have no doubt that is true. One can expect a very sharp turn to authoritarian forms of rule in a second Trump Administration, as a recent article in Jacobin makes clear. [2]  Trump’s open encouragement of fascist plots to assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginia and the state murder of an anti-fascist activist in Oregon indicate a qualitative transformation of class relations away from even the vestiges of bourgeois democracy. But does that fact automatically lead to the conclusion that we must – for the 2020 election – abandon our socialist principles and vote for Biden?

There are higher political principles involved in the 2020 election just as there were higher ethical principles involved in the Ford Pinto case.  Some of those higher political principles were spelled out in Brenner’s article:

“The position of revolutionary socialists should be that the Democrats are not the saviours of democracy but the enablers of the would-be dictator. A call to vote for Biden would obscure this critical point. In the fight to save democracy, we need to insist that only mass working class action can make this happen. That fight doesn't stop on Nov. 3, it only enters a new phase. But if socialists have already come out for a vote for Biden, then we bear responsibility for having promoted illusions we would now be trying to resist.”

The struggle over those principles does not mean that we are oblivious to the consequences of our actions and are instead captives of some Platonic ideal that has no relation to the class struggle in the real world.  No, it simply signifies that we are thinking of consequences in the long term as well as the immediate situation. And the long term political consequences of socialists calling for a vote for Biden would be disastrous.

Finally, even if one restricts judgment to just the immediate situation , it is not at all clear who is the lesser evil in the 2020 election. Chris Hedges has convincingly argued that if the measure of who is worse were the number of bodies buried by the state, Biden has a lot to answer for. He was largely responsible for the 1994 crime bill which resulted in the mass incarceration of millions, largely people of color.  He voted in favor of the Iraq War. And when he was Vice-President during the Obama Administration, he supported the use of drone strikes to assassinate American citizens. It is true that a second Trump Administration would give more power to extra-judicial forces spreading terror against American citizens, but a Biden Administration would strengthen the national security state who would unleash its own forms of terror against perceived enemies both at home and abroad.  Supporting either camp, no matter the caveats, should be considered beyond the pale if one takes ones socialist principles seriously.

Daum tries to justify his position by citing precedents in the Marxist tradition for supporting bourgeois parties under certain conditions. His argument here is not very convincing. Let’s just say that the examples Daum cites, supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany against Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws or supporting the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia against the Tsarist Black Hundreds have little  relevance today. The corporate Democrats represented by Biden in no way constitute a wing of the liberal bourgeoisie opposed to authoritarianism.  They are simply a wing of the bourgeoisie, in fact the predominant section of the bourgeoisie, who have tactical differences with Trump and the Republicans.  They stand for a more aggressive military policy against Russia while Trump is on a trajectory for a confrontation with Iran and China.

There have been in recent years attempts to build a progressive faction in the Democratic Party, most notably the movement inspired by Bernie Sanders candidacy. Now that those progressive, left-leaning forces have been abandoned by Sanders, doesn’t it make sense for revolutionary socialists to encourage a break from the Democratic Party and begin the process of building a socialist party independent of and opposed to the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats? That cannot be done if one supports a vote for Biden.

Does this mean that it is not possible within the Marxist tradition, to ever under any circumstances, support a vote for a bourgeois party?  It is not necessary to delve into such hypotheticals. Suffice it to say that this is a general principle that is more relevant than ever in the period of the  decline of capitalism on the world stage, not an abstract moral imperative. Nor is a discussion of this general principle a justification for supporting this bourgeois candidate in this election. All the attempts to do that claim that we are in an exceptional situation that impel us to set aside this principle. But why is this “exceptional situation” so much more “exceptional” than other “exceptional” situations? If we extend that argument to its logical conclusion, we can say that every election of the past few decades presented an “exceptional” situation. It seems that the time is never right to openly campaign for a socialist candidate against the Republicans and the Democrats.

Perhaps we need to examine the dynamics of mass psychology behind the rationalizations of a vote for Biden. Unquestionably there is an element of fear of the consequences of a second Trump  Administration. I don’t discount the material basis of that fear, but fear is hardly a sufficient basis for making political decisions. There is also the pressure felt by many rank and file activists to participate in the Sanders movement despite Sanders’ personal betrayal of this movement. Paying attention to these currents in mass psychology help us make sense of the sudden political turn we see among diverse groups of radicals and Marxists who had previously held out against the pressure to accommodate to the Democrats. The about-face of long time radicals is not unrelated to the 180 degree turn of the LRP, which in 2016 denounced a vote for Clinton while in 2020 calls for a vote for Biden.  This about-face on the part of long-standing opponents of the status quo was anticipated in the most dramatic fashion by the sudden dissolution of the International Socialist Organization last year. These are all related symptoms of the same phenomenon.

Finally I want to comment on one aspect of this election that I find particularly troubling. There has been a public campaign orchestrated by some of the advocates of “lesser evil” politics in the 2020 election to pressure the Green Party candidate for President, Howie Hawkins, to stand down lest he damage Biden’s chances of winning in the swing states.  This campaign has gone so far as to bombard Mr. Hawkins with letters from his former teachers asking him to reconsider his candidacy for President. I find this campaign thoroughly reprehensible. While I have political differences with Mr. Hawkins and the Green Party, I would have thought his teachers would be proud of him for taking such a courageous stand in the face of near universal condemnation from others on the left, even if they disagree with it.  Instead they berate him and urge him to stand down. They should be ashamed of themselves!


[1] The prototype of this argument is the tale of the survivors in a lifeboat facing death by starvation.  They debate what must be done in order to survive and come to the realization the only possibility of survival is to murder the weakest member of the crew and eat his remains. In jurisprudence the this is called the argument of necessity.  This tale is often discussed in the abstract in a class on Ethics, but in fact it is based on a real event that was tried in the British courts in 1884, The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. ( ). In that case the judges ruled that necessity did not justify murder. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Backing Biden betrays socialist politics

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By Frank Brenner


Recently on twitter I came across an anguished plea: “I thought I would cut my arm off before ever writing this, but please folks we have to vote for Biden.” This guy considers himself a radical, hence his anguish. And he’s far from being alone. In this election year where the whole world seems to be spinning out of control, one small but notable feature is radicals who are, politically speaking, willing to cut their arm off. This includes some alumni of Sixties radicalism, people who have held on to an allegiance to revolutionary ideals through the long political twilight of neoliberalism, often at significant cost to themselves. They refused to follow the examples of many in the Sixties generation who renounced their youthful radicalism for lucrative careers in academia, media and the professions. But all those decades of not caving in to the pressures of the political mainstream no longer apply because this election is different.


I’m not going to single anyone out here for criticism but I do think it’s worth responding in a general sense to the ‘amputee’ arguments. And then I’ll add a comment or two about what I think this development means.


The basic argument is that the immediate consequences of a second Trump term would be so devastating that there isn't any other choice open to socialists except lining up behind Biden. 


My objections:


1. Those who are committed to a fundamental change in society, Marxists, above all, have never based our politics on immediate consequences. We base them on the objective interests of the working class. This doesn't mean that we don't engage with immediate consequences, but we always do so from the standpoint of whether such an engagement advances or holds back those objective interests.


2. If immediate consequences determine politics, then there is no escaping the trap of lesser evil-ism, that perennial curse of leftist politics in America. The argument that the 2020 election is an exception is a dodge. The same argument was made in 2016 and it will be made in 2024, 2028 ad infinitum. Every election from now on will be 'exceptional': all the arguments that apply now – above all, the threat to democracy posed by Trump and the Republicans - will continue to apply indefinitely. If we support Biden this time, the logic of that choice means abandoning any hope for an independent socialist politics of the working class for the foreseeable future. 


(This kind of logic brings to mind a remark by Ed Broadbent, who decades ago was a leader of the NDP, Canada’s social democratic party. He was once asked during an election campaign why it was that his party was losing votes, including from working class voters, even though there was a recession going on, and he replied, "Recessions are bad times for socialists." In the 2020 election it would seem that political crises are also "bad times for socialists." By this logic the only good time to be a socialist would be when capitalism is prospering and its politics are stable ... but then you might as well junk socialism entirely!)


3. Further to the argument that this year's election is exceptional: what if it is so because a Trump coup would mean no more elections or blatantly rigged ones? In which case socialists would try to promote mass political resistance within the working class. How would that goal be served by having called for a vote for Biden? On the contrary, it would promote the dangerous illusion that the only credible resistance to Trump is from the Democratic Party. Eugene Debs’s old line has never been more apt: if you choose the lesser evil, what you end up with is evil.


4. The position of revolutionary socialists should be that the Democrats are not the saviours of democracy but the enablers of the would-be dictator. A call to vote for Biden would obscure this critical point. In the fight to save democracy, we need to insist that only mass working class action can make this happen. That fight doesn't stop on Nov. 3, it only enters a new phase. But if socialists have already come out for a vote for Biden, then we bear responsibility for having promoted illusions we would now be trying to resist.


5. The same point applies if Biden wins, which is still the most likely outcome. A call to vote for Biden would undercut the credibility of socialists in resisting his administration’s policies, including the many ways it will endanger democracy, whether by sins of omission or commission. Having capitulated once to lesser evil-ism, socialists would indeed be ‘missing an arm’ when it comes to countering conventional political ‘wisdom’ (embraced now by many ex-radicals) that we have to stop dreaming of pie-in-the-sky revolutions and 'get real' by backing Democrats to keep the Republican fascists out.


6. My view is that Trump is not a fascist – yet – but a right-wing authoritarian. He is less in the mould of Hitler or Mussolini, and far more akin to figures like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. This isn’t to downplay the dangers that Trump poses, which are very real, but in a political struggle you need to have a realistic assessment of the enemy you’re facing. It can be just as fatal to overestimate an enemy as to underestimate them. I think labelling Trump a fascist adds nothing to our understanding of Trump but it greatly ratchets up the panic level. There will not be concentration camps on Nov. 4 if Trump wins. Polarization will spike, Bill Barr will have a green light for ever more police state measures, the fascist gangs will feel emboldened. Voter suppression, scapegoating of immigrants, lethal police violence, dismantling of Obamacare and probably Medicare too, maybe a Covid death toll of a million - all this is predictable and would be terrible but it is still not Nazi Germany. And most important of all: it is not the end of the struggle, it's not game over if Trump wins. At best he will win with a minority vote for the second time and if the election gets tossed to the Supreme Court, which Trump has packed with his nominees, his legitimacy as the nation's leader among the 65-75 million people who will have voted against him will be nil. The fight for democracy would spill out of the voting booths and on to the streets. It's precisely because it isn't game over on Nov. 3 that calling for a vote for Biden is so wrong and so damaging to whatever hopes revolutionary socialists have for engaging with such a mass movement.


7. But let's entertain the possibility that it is game over on Nov. 3. Let's say Trump really is a Hitler. Again, how would it help the cause of revolutionary class consciousness to call for a vote for Biden? In this case we can look back to the precedents of the 1930s. In the 1932 presidential election the Social Democrats supported Paul von Hindenburg, the conservative who was running for re-election, in order to 'stop Hitler'. Which sounds similar to the ‘stop Trump’ line of the radicals who are now lining up behind Biden. But this was not Trotsky’s position, he excoriated the Social Democrats for their policy, and I think it’s a fair assumption that he wouldn’t be among the ‘amputees’ if he were alive today.  As I said at the start, Marxists have never based our politics on immediate consequences. That's the way Bolshevism operated, and the Transitional Program is essentially a master class on that kind of engagement. 


We also know how this chapter of European history ended: having provided Hindenburg with millions of their workers' votes, the Social Democrats were repaid for their efforts to ‘save democracy’ by having Hindenburg appoint Hitler as chancellor in January of the following year. 


Nothing that I’ve said here should be news to any of the long-time radicals now lining up behind Biden. They know the pitfalls of lesser evil politics as well as anyone, and yet this isn’t stopping them from capitulating this time around. Why?


I’m speaking here in broad strokes, again without any particular individual in mind, but I think the simple answer to the question is – fear. By this I mean fear of a major disruption in their lives should Trump win re-election. It is of course completely legitimate to fear political repression given police violence in response to the George Floyd protests, but I think the kind of fear I’m talking about goes beyond that. As marginalized as radicals have been for a generation and more, they have still managed to sustain a life on those margins, including a more or less active political engagement. The little one has, the more attached to it one becomes. I’m not thinking here of possessions but rather of expectations. If you’ve grown used to a certain stability in your life, even as narrowly defined as that may be, the prospect of losing it can be terrifying. And a second Trump term very much entails such a prospect. In this sense, the move by radicals to back Biden partakes of a much broader social tendency – all those in the middle classes, and many in the working class too, who are increasingly desperate to ‘get back to normal’.


The desire to ‘get back to normal’ is understandable, but it is also an illusion to think that anything approaching ‘normal’ awaits us after the election regardless of who wins. Those of us who are fighting for a fundamental change in society should steel ourselves against the seductive call of a return to normality. The coming period will present great opportunities for building a mass socialist movement as well as harsh challenges. One thing it will not be is a return to ‘normal’. We must be prepared.