Monty Python’s Life of Brian, seen as primarily a satire about religion, also mocks the British left. Brian joins a group called “Peoples Front of Judea (PFJ),” dedicated to overthrowing the Roman Empire. But their biggest enemies are other similar groups – splitters, as they call him – the Judean Peoples Front, etc. The PFJ mostly make speeches and condemn Roman rule. When they do act – as in one scene to kidnap Pontius Pilate’s wife – they end up fighting with another group with a similar plan, leading bored Roman soldiers to arrest all of them.
Simply: the divided left in the UK at that time were so concerned with speeches and visions, and fighting each other over ideological purity, that they failed in any practical effort to get something done. Even when they have a chance to save Brian from Crucifixion they choose not to, as his death will have symbolic value for the cause.
One problem the British left had was what I call the theorist class – left wing intellectuals whose analysis of society leads to a theory of exploitation and capitalist dominance which are structural characteristics of the system, defining politics across the political spectrum.
These theories are not inaccurate. They show institutional and structural racism, a capitalist economy that is so skewed towards protecting and enhancing the interests of the wealthy that it veers wildly from the free market paradise defenders of the market describe. Mundane politics – that is traditional elections, and contests between establishment parties – are impotent in bringing true structural change. What is needed is a kind of revolution, usually put forth as social movements that will persuade, organize and then advance a political cause that will question the foundations of the existing system and restructure them to combat oppression and exploitation.
A trendy way to talk about the structural advantages built into the system around race and economics is to discuss “privilege.” Those who talk about privilege are really referencing theories on social structure, which have been around for a long time.
Again, these theories are strong and well supported. Society is structured along lines of institutionalized and embedded racism, economic advantage, and structural barriers limiting much of the population. The structure rigs the game, if you will, and assures that political action from the establishment poses no serious threat to the system.
This logic leads the theorist class to another conclusion: it is pointless to give any support to the establishment left as a true alternative to the right. They may talk about the poor, they may condemn racism, but deep down their policies and actions reinforce the system. Worse, they create the illusion they want to bring about fundamental change when their policies are really designed to simply uphold existing injustices.
Social structures as such are difficult to change. Yet they do change. Politics can matter. The biggest error the theorist class makes is in how they assess practical politics through their theoretical lens. By defining the “establishment” as being wedded to the system, politicians on the establishment left are dismissed as “corporatist tools” too wedded to big money and power.
But social theory has limits. Social structures do exist, but humans also have agency. This is an old dilemma in the social sciences – what role does agency play vis-a-vis social structures? Structures constrain, privilege, and limit agents (people), but people can still act and transform social structures. Indeed, compare the US now to the past. Blacks were slaves, women couldn’t vote and were unwelcome in the work place. Over time those things were rejected, even as institutionalized racism and sexism remain strong in many facets. These changes are real – the fact an openly gay man can be a serious Presidential contender is a sign of very recent social change.
The problem I have with the theorist class is not that their theories are wrong – they are rather accurate. Rather, their belief that change is impossible without some kind of social upheaval or transformation is misguided. Change happens, it just happens slowly. Moreover, establishment Democrats are real humans with beliefs, values and often a strong desire to fight for social justice. Dismissing them all as corporate shills commits the error of labeling. When humans are labeled, it often leads to a caricatured definition of those defined by the label, hiding the complex reality of each individual. Dismissing all “establishment” folk with a label creates the illusion that they are incapable of trying to promote meaningful change.
So the theorist class dons a self-righteous attitude that only they understand the need for radical change, with establishment politics as the enemy. They are fighting the noble fight, understanding what should be obvious, but somehow gets ignored by the public. The job is to start a movement of people who see the need for change, and then upend the oppressive and discriminatory structures that created embedded injustice.
Yet that almost always fails. When actual revolutions occur, the results are usually disappointing. The fact is that social structures flow not just from those with power, but also how people think. That changes only slowly – but it does change. Rather than demanding radical upheaval, it’s possible to work within the system for little victories, trying to slowly transform society and chip away at injustices. That means joining the practical political battle without demonizing or dismissing those more willing to work within the system, or who are not bold enough in demanding radical change.
That’s not satisfying. When one has a sense of what ought to be, it’s very difficult accepting what “is,” if what “is” falls short of the ideal. But rejecting the possible to pursue the ideal can lead to a loss of both. Rather than gradual change, refusal to engage practically can lead to political results that simply enhance existing social structures. By dismissing the “establishment” with a label, the chance for little victories and small steps to a more just future is denied. In short, theory can enlighten and explain, but in and of itself it does not provide a guide for action. Politics remains the art of the possible.