A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).

Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.

To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)

The liberal and social democratic reforms of the New Deal and its counterparts in other developed countries were incremental changes. But they weren’t presented as mere technocratic adjustments to social and economic mechanisms. FDR’s New Deal and Four Freedoms, the Beveridge Report, the Swedish Folkhemmet, Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill”, Michael Savage in New Zealand, all presented their reforms in the context of a broader vision that could inspire mass support.

Combining day-to-day advocacy of immediately feasible reforms with mobilization for a broader vision of a better world implies some constraints. Most obviously, the kind of vision I’m talking about needs to be realistic rather than utopian. As I said in my post on Hope, the goals

ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.

On the other hand, the kinds of incremental change we should be looking for must be informed by these goals.

An example, one of the few topics where Obama has maintained the rhetoric of hope that inspired support in his campaign is his advocacy of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Obviously, this can’t be achieved at a stroke, and it may never be fully achievable. Nevertheless, (as I plan to argue in more detail soon) we seem more likely to make incremental steps away from the precipice on which we are standing if we have such an ultimate goal in mind than if we think in terms of adjustments to a balance that depends, in the end, on mutually assured destruction.

Conversely, articulating a goal like this (as compared, say, to non-proliferation) implies the need for much sharper questioning of the positions of the long-established nuclear powers. Are essentially frivolous considerations of national pride sufficient to justify Britain and France in maintaining a capacity for genocidal war? Assuming the perceived need for a strategic deterrent is going to persist for some time, can the US and Russia justify keeping tactical nuclear weapons. And so on.

Similar points can be made about the other goals I suggested in my ‘Hope’ post as well as those put forward by commenters and other bloggers. A moral imperative to end extreme poverty in the world seems more likely to overcome parochial tightfistedness than a desire to promote economic growth in less developed countries. But it also implies different policies, with more focus on action that will directly meet human needs for better health, education and nutrition, and less on large-scale development projects, which might be better left to the market sector.

I’ll repeat the endings of my previous posts. Writing this kind of thing, I can sense the feeling that it’s naive/utopian/pointless. But I think it’s precisely this kind of feeling, hammered into us by years of retreat that we need to overcome. And I’m keen for better ideas and analyses than what I’ve offered. So, comments please.

120 thoughts on “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

  1. What always amuses me about libertarian apologists is how identical their tactics are to the communist apologists of old. Deny, deny, deny, relabel the evidence as suits the circumstance, disown, disown, disown, even their own when that also suits. The twists and turns and mental gymnastics required and displayed to support the unsupportable and to believe the unbelievable simply staggerring to watch. Given that communist apologists seem to have long ago lost their breath, good to see libertarian apologists have bravely filled the void. Yes, that much needed gap has quickly been filled!

  2. Freelander,

    You would like living in Iceland.

    Iceland is a welfare state with the government accounting for around 47% of GDP in 2004. There is a base income tax rate of 38 percent and a GST with a normal rate of 24.5 per cent. The social security tax is 5.73%. There is a wealth tax rate, applied to assets above about US$61,000 of 0.6% and with a 0.25% surtax on net wealth above approximately US$81,800. Inheritance and gift taxes range from 11% to 15%.

    Added to this is lots of regulations captured by special interests.

    As a good left winger, you would join the Left as knee-jerk defenders of the regulatory status quo, and the Left has NEVER seen an anti-competitive regulation or a subsidy that they did not like. I sure too that you fully support the generous deposit insurance that the Icelandic government gave to its politically well-connected banks?

  3. @Jim Rose

    Great how facts change as needed for the typical libertarian.

    The year you mention was but one year before various libertarian dignitaries declared that Iceland was the poster child demonstrating the success of libertarian policies which had been implemented by their government since the early 1990’s. Of course, shortly after, it all went pear shape so libertarians like you have to engage in some radical rewriting of history.

    So like a communist apologist! And I used to enjoy laughing at them.

    If you insist on making things up, there is little point in debating you seriously, although, please excuse me and others if we choose to laugh at your silly assertions from time to time and otherwise enjoy a bit of humour at your expense.

    Also clear is that you have never been involved in serious research or you wouldn’t call examples which certainly are not ‘natural experiments’ by that name. I imagine that you are just one of those policy advisors, full of rhetoric and polemics, but otherwise innumerate.

  4. @Jim Rose

    I assume that 47% tax take will ensure that all citizens wear the crisis equally and many will suffer a lot less than otherwise.

    Equity + democracy = taxation.

  5. Freelander,

    You should not be so easily taken in by what other people say. Especially if you otherwise are distrustful of what that particular source usually has to say.

    Judge by results and actions! The results of the ballot box matters too because otherwise social democratic change has no democratic legitimacy.

    Almost one-half of GDP is accounted for by the Icelandic government. It has high income tax rate, GST through the roof, wealth taxes, and death duties. That would your definition of paradise or close to it?

    Would you like to be more specific about what I made up?

    You should be more apologetic about your own errors. You tried to side-step the moral imperatives arising from the Armenian genocide by saying in on April 28, at 14.20 in post 26 in the Anzac Day thread that “What happened to the Armenians which wasn’t really known until later, that is after the war.” Do you still maintain that this claim of yours is true?

    The 106th U.S congress in its joint resolution of the Armenian genocide found that
    • “On May 24, 1915, the Allied Powers, England, France, and Russia, jointly issued a statement explicitly charging for the first time ever another government of committing `a crime against humanity’” and
    • “The Armenian Genocide and these domestic judicial failures are documented with overwhelming evidence in the national archives of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, the Vatican and many other countries, and this vast body of evidence attests to the same facts, the same events, and the same consequences.”

    Any member of the Left who is on the wrong side of history when it comes to the genocide should be drummed out of the regiment!

  6. @Jim Rose

    The Armenian Genocide stuff is usually associated wiht the Liberal Party.

    Apparently the same people are not so concerned about the worse genocide of the Japanese in Nanjing, and then even worse when the Americans killed 100,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I am not sure why this is the case, but is it possible that Americans can kill Japanese, and Japanese can kill Chinese, and this is not queried by those liberals concerned about genocide.

    Is there a liberal party site that raises the same concerns over American genocide as over Armenian genocide?

    What is the difference?

  7. @Jim Rose

    So if a country is being run by libertarians and the libertarian aristocracy say it is the poster child for what can be achieved with libertarian policies, when it all goes bung, suddenly it wasn’t libertarian at all? Well if you believe that then to you libertarian policies can never fail, because when they do, as they always do, you just say well, we thought they were libertarian policies and we tried to make them libertarian policies, but, by god, we was wrong! Obviously, they weren’t libertarian policies at all, because we know libertarian policies inevitably result in Nirvana!

    Well, as you seem to like Popper, that would mean that libertarian policies cannot possibly be tested to see if they are any good.

    That truly is magic. And we are amused (if not a little amazed). That too is a communist apologist way of arguing. Well it was true communism, because if it was, it would have turned out great!

  8. Sorry… Well it wasn’t true communism, because if it was, it would have turned out great!

  9. Chris,

    “The Armenian Genocide stuff is usually associated” with the struggles of Armenia people. You seem indifferent to their struggle.

    The Armenia people have done well in recent years to bring the Armenia genocide more to the public mind. Twenty national Parliaments have passed resolutions to condemn the Armenia genocide.

    Article 230 of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres required the Ottoman Empire to “hand over to the Allied Powers the persons whose surrender may be required by the latter as being responsible for the massacres committed during the continuance of the state of war on territory which formed part of the Ottoman Empire on August 1, 1914.”

    Various Ottoman politicians, generals, and intellectuals were transferred to Malta where they were held for some three years while searches were made of archives in Constantinople, London, Paris and Washington to investigate their actions. The Inter-allied tribunal attempt demanded by the Treaty of Sèvres never solidified and the detainees were eventually returned to Turkey in exchange for British citizens held by Kemalist Turkey.

  10. Freelander,

    Would you like to be more specific about what I have made up? I have been rather specific about one hell of a factual error by you about the Armenia genocide.

    As to the later efforts of the Allies to hold war crimes trials in the 1920s, if only the Anzacs had marched on to take Constantinople. As the occupying power, those war crimes trials would have been held as promised. These trials would have set an excellent precedent for world war two.

    Imagine, the Anzacs at the very founding the of great ideal of punishing genocide. Would that be worth fighting for?

  11. @Jim Rose

    1) You will have to explain your comment that I seem indifferent to their struggle. I am not.

    2) You also have a simple question: is it possible that Americans can kill Japanese, and Japanese can kill Chinese, without raising similar concerns?

    So there are two issues you need to address, lest you appear merely interested in one distant case while ignoring more recent cases (for political purposes).

    I would imagine that the massacre of almost 1,000,000 aborigines in Australia also bears on this issue. Do you commemorate this as well.

    Around 500,000 Indonesians were exterminated in Indonesia (with American assistance) in 1964/65. Do you commemorate this as well.

    Around 1,000,000 Cambodians were exterminated under Pol Pot, and over 3,000 by Pinochet. Do you commemorate these as well?

    What is your basis?

    It is possible to see conspicuous concern over Armenia, as a means of blocking-out Western complicity in more recent genocides, and for sidelining concern over closer genocide in Australia which underlies Australian colonial wealth.

  12. So it would appear that I wasn’t correct. No problem. We all make errors. Some of us admit them and move on. So far you haven’t admitted to one of the many. Anyway, the error is not even pertinent, because the genocide hardly motivated the allies to decide to fight against the Ottoman empire, which is what the issue was. After the war it wasn’t, but well after Australia and New Zealand had entered the war it was and unless you are claiming that they had precognition about it, it had no bearing on their entry. QED

  13. Chris,

    Your indifference is in your statement “The Armenian Genocide stuff is usually associated wiht the Liberal Party.” It belittled to the struggle for the Armenian people.

    Your moral strength is undermined by a functional pacifism.

    How would you stop further atrocities by the Japanese by not defeating them and occupying Japan to end their militarism? The Japanese oligarchy was trying to get out of the war on the best terms possible, including no occupation. Do you have a practical alternative? Without those bombings, there would have been 1 million Japanese troops in China to perpetrate further atrocities. Would you have opposed the request of Jewish leaders to bomb the death camps to save more from been sent there to die?

    Would you have been a conscientious objector to world war two? The rape of Nanking pre-dates the start of that war. As Freelander notes, the persecutionof the Jews moved up to genocide at least arguable before 1939. There is large literature on the topic of exactly when the genocide started.

  14. @Jim Rose

    You seem a bit confused. Why if something is associated with the Liberal Party, it is belittled. The Liberal Party is belittled, not the massacre.

    There is no functional pacifism. You do not have to be a pacifist to oppose genocide and crimes against humanity. So what is the link – in your logic? Everyone should be concerned about the swathe of massacres of civilians – irrespective of the cause. But thanks for the attempted diversion.

    I understand there was an alternative, as it has been suggested that the Japanese were in fact talking to the Russians. It has been argued that America used the bomb to ensure that America was the party Japan sued for peace and not the Russians. But crimes against humanity always have a justification, similar to those you have presented.

    Which American source documant indicates that they dropped the nuclear bombs because of Japanese troops in China. This seems a rationalisation in hindsight.

    I am not sure what you mean about agreeing to bomb people who were sent to die. How does this relate to Armenia, Japan, Indonesia, Chile, Australian indigenous massacres?

    What is your point about Nanking pre-dating the start of the war? How does this relate to concern over Armenia?

    So there seems no basis for any fanaticism over any particular genocide. No massacres have such exceptional circumstances to remove them from concern.

    So, even though you are trying hard not to understand, the question stil is:

    Is it possible to have all these other larger, more recent, massacres without raising similar concerns?

  15. Chris,

    You overrate the Japanese peace feelers. They were discussed in the strategic bombing survey of Japan and the later literature.

    Even after both nuclear bombings, the Japanese power elite were divided about pushing on to the bitter end or a better peace offer including no occupation.

    One reason the Americans kept the Emperor on was to help with an orderly surrender of Japanese forces in China and elsewhere. They did not want rogue forces to set-up to fight on. This was a real risk given the deeply factional nature of Japanese military politics. There was a coup attempt to stop the Japanese surrender. The army minister and other key generals in Tokyo sat on the fence to work out who might be the winning side after what was in the end a failed putsch.

    The functional pacifism is opposing genocide and then opposing everyone one of the methods that will stop it, such as fight a war against a bitter and determined adversary.

    BTW, are you asking whether the communist mass murders in Cambodia are not well known? Are you asking whether the same lack of notoriety also goes for the massacres in Indonesia and East Timor?

  16. @Jim Rose

    Any moral person would expect that peace feelers to be all exhausted, before dropping nuclear genocidal bombs. It is not possible to underestimate the potential these peace feelers had to save lives as this option was pre-empted by the American bombs.

    Factions within the Japanese military and society are insufficient justifications of the American bombing.

    There is no functional pacifism in opposing genocide, and you have to fight the same war against all perpetrators.

    I assume by your presentation of complexities within Japanese military and society, plus your claim that one must struggle against enemies, that you support the Americans bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Would you support a war against Pol Pot because of their massacres, but not against the Indonesians because of their massacres?

    So the question still remains, is it possible to be conspicuously concerned about genocide, but only in Armenian history, without raising the same concerns about larger and more recent genocides?

    Is it reasonable to be conspicuously concerned about historical genocide, but where Australians had little involvement, without also being concerned about historical genocide involving Australian settlers in the Kimberly at the same time?

    It seems you support the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? and would therefore advocate a similar response in future circumstances.

  17. Chris,

    You must be a great admirer of John Howard.

    Howard broke the prime directive of Australian defence policy by sending troops into East Timor in 1999 to stop disorder and suppress the pro-Indonesian militias who went on the rampage, murdering hundreds and reducing towns to ruins.

    He did not have to do that.

    The prime directive of Australian defence policy is to not put the Australian Military in a position were shooting could breakout with the Indonesian military. That could start a war.

    There where occasions when Australian and Indonesian soldiers faced each other with guns drawn in 1999 at road blocks, waiting to see who would shoot first at point blank range. Iin one case, two officers had guns to each other’s head. The Australian soldiers knew that they could neither fire first because of the risk of a spiral into war, nor could they yield their ground.

    Violence, public disorder and political opportunism from within the Indonesian military are the only real threats to Australian territorial sovereignty and integrity. That is why avoiding a military conflict with them is the prime directive.

    Howard was willing to risk all in a time of great political instability and internal opportunism in Jakarta. Whitlam was willing to turn a blind eye in 1975 for real politic reasons with much more speed that real politic would have required and an inability to do anything much to change things would have required.

    BTW 1, it was the Left that opposed outside involvement in wars in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s and elsewhere. The Left denied that there would be massacres after the communists took over. How wrong they were. The Left then sapped any capacity to intervene against their new comrades by dismissing the growing evidence of massacres as post-war myth-making and by promoting disarmament, nuclear and otherwise.

    BTW 2: The japanese battle plan ketsu go was founded on the premise that American morale was brittle and could be shattered by heavy losses in the initial invasion. America would then negotiate an end on far more generous terms such as leaving disarmament and demobilisation to Japan, no occupation and delegation to the Japanese government of the punishment of war criminals.
    In World War I, an armistice was opposed by U.S. General Pershing because without marching on to take Berlin, the Germans will not accept that they were beaten, and the Allies would have come back later and do it all over again. Great pre-cognition! The same applies to negotiated terms for Germany and Japan in world war two. would you have pursued peace feelers from Hitler?

    BTW 3: For China alone, in each of the ninety-seven months between July 1937 and August 1945, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 perished, the vast majority of them noncombatants. A Hiroshima and Nagasaki every month at the hands of the Japanese.

  18. Sad, but nevertheless true that in WWI and after there was little concern in that west about Armenians. Certainly so little that their fate has no real bearing on the course of that war. Sure their may have been a formal vote to disapprove here and there. Such convenient posturing happens when you are at war, regardless of whether there is any real level of concern or not.

    Similarly, there was sadly little widespread concern in the west before and for most of WWII about the fate of the disabled, the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, communists, trade union leaders, Jews, Gypsies, or any of the others groups being targeted by the Nazis. Sadder still is that a not insignificant proportion in the west seemed happy that some of their pet hate groups were targeted. Either way, these actions of the Nazis had little if any effect on decisions to enter the war or the conduct of the war. Similarly, the Japanese treatment of the Chinese was of little concern in the west except to the extent that what they were doing was expansionist, and far less acceptable than the expansionist actions of western powers in China, because the Japanese were not European. If you have read many books written pre-WWII you cannot but be struck by the level of racism that was quite common in the west. The attempt to link decisions to enter WWI or WWII to some moral crusade on behalf of existing or potential genocide victims might provide a good and inspiring read, but is sadly pure fiction. WWII was about self preservation. And some dragged their heals not even recognising the clarity of the threat. That WWI was about any good reason at all is highly disputable.

  19. You still haven’t acknowledged your errors concerning the libertarian failures in Iceland.

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