Resistance and Radicalism

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“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”

fork in road

What is resistance?

Ask five different resistors, as the joke goes, and you’ll get six different answers. In other words, it’s a open question.

Politics resembles religion: both are based on belief, espouse morals, prescribe behavior, and tend to group people into tribes suspicious of outsiders and prone to uncritical devotion to charismatic true believers.

But religion is ultimately personal, whereas politics is communal. Religious belief isn’t reliant on evidence, doesn’t demand agreement or even action, and expects to be validated in another plane of existence. But politics is quite different. Politics generally demands cooperative agreement and effort, and political policies are judged, in the end, by results. Put another way, while one’s relation with God isn’t subject to measurement against any benchmark, political beliefs are: they are either verifiably effective, or they aren’t.

At least so it appears to most people. Unfortunately, for others the notion of efficacy smacks unpleasantly of subjecting their beliefs to approval by others, which exposes them to corruption. Instead, they seek a form of ideological truth and purity that demands adherence regardless of whether it ever results in action, let alone efficacy. Like religious belief, there is no need for real-world validation, because these truths are thought to be self-evidently correct. This kind of simplicity and purity is very appealing, particularly for those without much of a material stake in the outcome or with little exposure to the consequences of politics.

That distinction between those who expect that political beliefs are fundamentally utilitarian and those who think of them as ideals not subject to confirmation largely describes the split between resistance groups like Indivisible and other more uncompromising radical entities. The split between these two views also seems to follow demographics: older activists view their mission in terms of its effectiveness; younger activists care more about correctness and conformity.

The result is two conflicting perceptions of what resistance ought to be. The utilitarian view accepts that our current political system is, while imperfect, still our only available tool to wield against Trump and the GOP; they are willing to work the Democratic Party as the one nationally recognized political machine that can take seats from Republicans in significant numbers; they accept that pressure on elected representatives of either party can work to advance their goals, and will share action with other groups with differing priorities if doing so is effective. The purists, on the other hand, see the entire political structure as broken, corrupted by privilege and capitalist incentives, and incapable not merely of resisting Trump but of bringing about any meaningful social change. They don’t believe that working with other groups less radical -- in particular, the Democrats -- has any value, and that merely “liberal” groups are similarly to be rejected. If the political spectrum of the left ranges from moderate to liberal to progressive to radical, the radical wing won’t reach further to the center than progressive, and may in some cases dismiss even that position as too willing to accept the status quo. They are most likely to see institutions such as the police as, not simply corrupted selectively by bias and brutality, but illegitimate and irredeemable enforcers of societal oppression. Liberals on the other hand, and to a lesser degree progressives, are willing to believe that our systems are fixable or at worst can be restructured to overcome their failings. In sum, liberals and progressives accept that their policies can be effective to measurably improve society; radicals believe the system can’t be saved, but must be replaced, using confrontation and crisis. When two notions of resistance are so different, it’s no surprise that shared effort is scarce.

We at Palm Beach Indivisibles don’t presume to speak for the entire left, or for all liberals -- or even for all Indivisible groups. We can only position ourselves and our actions in our own community somewhere on the spectrum of the left and try to avoid being dragged left into confrontation or right into acceptance of the status quo. Despite the range of anger and sense of urgency within our own group, we value pressure rather than confrontation, effectiveness rather than ideological purity, cooperation rather than distrust. Resistance to us doesn’t require revolution, but it won’t settle for cosmetic change. It requires effective opposition and measurable advances. It may even require us to back politicians we might, in a less stressful time, not choose to consider. We’ll take our friends where we can find them. Our hope is, over time, that everyone on the left comes to see resistance, and later, rebuilding, as best achieved together.


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