Two Terrible Strategies

[I posted this to facebook years ago - February 5, 2017 to be exact.  It seems relevant again.  See below for an update.]

Let’s talk strategy, because the left sucks at strategy.

In particular, let’s look at asymmetrical political strategy, when your opponent has way more power than you.

This applies to Berniecrats dealing with establishment Democrats. It may also apply to the radical left dealing with Berniecrats, though it’s debatable how much power Berniecrats actually have.*

The essence of political strategy is leverage.

The first thing to realize is that, although your opponent has more power than you, that doesn’t mean that you are powerless. The immediate goal is to figure out what kind of power you do have, and then think about how you can leverage that power to get to a stronger position.
Having leverage and using it: this is how you take over.

Let’s start with: Two Terrible Strategies.

Terrible Strategy #1: Simply join your opponent. Give up; sell out; recognize they are more powerful, let them decide the terms of the contest, and then give in without a fight. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Do whatever they say, in the hopes that you can “change them from the inside”.

Why is this a terrible strategy? Because you are giving them absolutely no reason to listen to you. You thereby give up whatever power you did have, and at the same time lose their respect. You will change nothing from the inside. You have already lost.

Terrible Strategy #2: Quit the game. Declare that you will never, under any circumstances, work with or deal with your opponent. It’s not that you object to what they do, or what policies they enact, or any specific position on any issue. You object to them because They Are Bad. You simply hate their stupid face. You reasoned out a system of political categorization, a bunch of boxes to stick people into, and those people go into the Bad Box (or one of the Bad Boxes; you probably have several). Declare this loudly, randomly, to everyone.

This is a terrible strategy for exactly the same reason. If there is no move your opponent can make that will affect your opponent’s position relative to yours in any way, then, again, there is no reason for them to listen to you, to negotiate with you, or even to acknowledge your existence. You have thereby lost all of your leverage. You gave up all your power without a fight.


  1. * = In 2017, I thought it was debatable how much power the Berniecrats had. Now, in 2020, I think it's clear that Berniecrats have a huge amount of power, if they know how to use it - and are willing. For a while, Bernie Sanders was - against all predictions - the frontrunner of the race for the nomination. His constituency represents a solid 30% of registered Democrats, and probably more independents. That's more than a socialist politician has been able to achieve in a century.

    So how does the above apply in 2020?

    The two terrible strategies today have become two camps within the "progressive left," each with their own representative celebrity pundits. Noam Chomsky (whom I deeply respect and revere) has become the face of the first terrible strategy, somewhat hyperbolically comparing anyone who does not support Biden to the KPD which refused to support the SPD to prevent the rise of Hitler. Of course we could waste our time pointing out all of the ways that the comparison doesn't work; whether or not this is even an accurate reading of history is a whole nother question which I won't get into right now.

    In the other corner, we have the gang from Chapo Trap House (of whom I'm a fan and regular listener), who say that they will instantly lose all respect for anyone who supports Biden. Of course this makes the whole question a somewhat childish emotional issue, a matter of personal friendship rather than militant strategy. It's perhaps ironic that this strain of persuasion, which grew up in opposition to "identity politics," has become its own identity, with its own emotional, romantic loyalties rather than cold political calculation.

    I repeat, I like and respect both of these factions. It's just that the strategies they are giving voice to today are dumb, more the result of kneejerk prejudices and reactions to trauma than carefully worked out tactical plans.

    My point here is not that we should try to find some kind of "happy medium" between these extremist positions, though of course there is a vast range of possible positions between them. Instead, my point is that both of these positions are, in actual practical consequence, the same as each other, for two reasons.

    First, because they both amount to giving up.

    Second, because their analysis is very similar, and amounts to very little analysis at all. I don't want a position between them. I want a position completely outside of them. For neither are really strategies; they are both moral commandments. That is to say that they are both idealisms; neither are materialist. Both are determined by ahistoric, a priori principles, rather than by the particularities and contours of the immediate material conditions of the present situation and the surprising opportunities it can create. Both are absolute, but we should be striving for the conditional.

    To get concrete: instead of saying to Biden and the Democratic establishment either "We will never support you, no matter what" or "We will always support you, no matter what," if we want to flex our muscles, we should indicate that we might be willing to support Biden and the Democrats, if and only if they concede to a list of specific demands. If not, they are shit out of luck.

    Which demands, exactly? Well, I'm not going to spell it out for you. Start thinking about what these demands should be. We need to be crystal clear about what these demands are among ourselves before we present them to the establishment. I've got some in mind; you probably have a slightly different list. So let's hash it out. Write what you think they should be here in the comments, if you like.


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