Otto von Bismarck – who unified Germany in the 19th century – said “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best.”
As we approach Election Day, most of my friends seem to have embraced the wisdom of Bismarck. Very few of us supported Joe Biden in the primary (I voted for Elizabeth Warren), but Biden is the Democratic nominee. Biden is possible and attainable. He won’t fix all our problems, but he’ll make a far better President than Trump.
A few are still holding out. Some are clinging to ideological purity – Biden doesn’t share their position on this issue or that so they don’t want to vote for him – as though Trump is more likely to deliver what they want. A few claim there’s no difference between Biden and Trump. I can’t comprehend the amount of naivety or willful ignorance it must take to think that.
But some are just fine with a Trump win. Not because they like Trump but because they think four more years of him will make things so bad that people will finally revolt and destroy capitalism and create an anarcho-communist society or some similar utopia.
I learned a new word a short while back: accelerationism. It’s the idea that rather than trying to reform the system and make incremental progress, it’s better to accelerate the system’s “inevitable” demise. The term originated with Marxist thinkers, but in recent years it’s been adopted by white supremacists and others on the far right.
Whether from the left or from the right, I find accelerationism to be intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant.
Accelerationism is apocalyptic thinking
The attraction of accelerationism is the wishful thinking that if we can just blow everything up, a perfect society will emerge from the ashes. This is a form of apocalyptic thinking.
An apocalypse is not a great destruction – the word means “revealing.” The important part isn’t what happens, it’s what comes afterwards. Some apocalyptic prophecies say that after the revealing everything will be perfect. Others say we’ll all be dead. Either way our problems will be over and we won’t have to worry about them anymore – we won’t have to build a better world ourselves.
Some apocalyptic thinking is obvious. Many fundamentalist Christians support Israel and their violent policies toward the Palestinians, but not out of any love for Jewish people or even a respect for the Jewish religion. Rather, they believe that a strong nation of Israel located in Palestine is required for Jesus to return to Earth and end the world.
Leftist accelerationists believe that if we make things bad enough – if we allow people to be hurt enough – the common people will rise up in revolution, or at least they’ll finally elect a real socialist as President. Right wing accelerationists believe that if we make things bad enough – if we hurt people enough – white people will rise up and put other people in their place. Whether that place is “somewhere else” or “in the ground” depends on which white supremacist you talk to.
To be clear, these two “utopias” are not even remotely morally equivalent. I would gladly vote for a democratic socialist, and I find the idea of a classless society intriguing, though ultimately unworkable given human nature. A society based on racial purity and segregation is simply evil.
But apocalyptic prophecies have a 3500-year track record of being wrong every single time, and the accelerationist versions of them are no different. They are dreams of something that will not happen.
What – and who – are you willing to sacrifice?
So you want Trump to win so things get so bad people are finally willing to embrace revolution? Who are you willing to sacrifice to get your revolution?
It looks like Trump is going to get another Supreme Court pick so Roe v. Wade can be overturned – shall we give him Stephen Breyer’s seat too? Shall we allow him to continue gutting environmental regulations and denying climate change? Continue encouraging and enabling the “very fine people” who drive cars into protesters?
And let’s say things got so bad there actually was a revolution. Revolutions are violent things – how many people are you willing to kill? We joke (or perhaps, fantasize) about guillotines, but do you really want another Reign of Terror? Are you sure we can manage to kill only those who deserve to be killed?
Want to accelerate the demise of industrial society so we can create some eco-primitive future? That’s a death sentence for people who are dependent on insulin and other drugs to keep them alive. People talk about everyone returning to subsistence farming. I’m 58 with a bad back – I don’t like my life expectancy under those circumstances.
Who are you willing to sacrifice in the name of revolution?
Triggering events spark change, not revolution
Police have been shooting black people at a disproportionate rate for many years. But there was something about the murder of George Floyd that got the attention of people who had been ignoring it all their lives. The hard work of changing police policies, training, and practices is still in front of us, but at least we’re finally having the conversation.
The fact is that the vast majority of people – including those who are oppressed – do not want revolution. They just want to be able to live their lives in peace – and stop being oppressed. It’s easy to talk about revolution. But people revolt violently when they feel like they have no alternative – and the vast majority of us have alternatives, even if they’re less than ideal.
Burning it all down is easy – building it back up is hard
If you want me to help you burn it all down, you’re going to have to show me your plan for building something better in the aftermath. No one ever has a plan for that – just an assumption that whatever replaces it has to be better than what we have now. History says that not only is the aftermath of burning it all down rarely better for ordinary people, it’s often worse. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
So much of what accelerationists of all stripes dream about are simply fantasies with no substance to them.
Embracing the art of the possible
Revolution almost certainly isn’t going to happen and even if it did it wouldn’t bring what most of us want. So let’s embrace what’s possible instead.
Let’s elect a President – and a Congress, and state and local officials – who will move the country in the direction we want. It won’t be as far as we want or as fast as we want, but it will be in the right direction. Take what we can get today, then work for more later.
Let’s keep the pressure on them to reform the police and our criminal justice system. Let’s stop building prisons and embrace restorative justice.
Let’s elect people who respect science. Donald Trump is not responsible for Covid-19, but he is absolutely responsible for the weak response to it that has resulted in 200,000 American deaths. If any reasonable person had been President that number would be considerably lower.
Let’s elect people who understand that climate change is real and that human activity is making it worse. And then let’s support them when they make political moves to reduce its impact, even though that won’t be as far as some of us think necessary and also much farther than others would prefer.
Let’s keep fighting to treat refugees and immigrants with dignity and compassion, to respect people of all religions and of no religion, and to insure that human rights and civil rights include everyone.
These aren’t the only issues. Whatever issues are important to you, I encourage you to vote for candidates who will lead the country in a positive direction – not further down the wrong direction.
Democracy is messy and it requires work
Democracy only works when we do. It’s not enough to vote for a progressive President once every four years. We have to vote in every election, and then engage with our elected officials on a regular basis.
And perhaps more importantly, we have to build the kind of society we want on the ground, with our friends and neighbors, without waiting on government to do it for us.
I know – most of us just want to vote and then go back to living our lives the way we want to live them. But there is always someone trying to take advantage of others, using either the power of government or the power of wealth or both. Someone has to keep them in check… that someone can only be us.
Most of us intuitively understand this. That’s why we’re voting for Biden, even though we’d rather be voting for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or one of the other 20 or so candidates who ran for the Democratic nomination.
But if you think that four more years of Trump will finally bring the kind of cataclysmic change you’re hoping for, I urge you to abandon accelerationism and its apocalyptic thinking.
Instead, embrace the art of the possible and the attainable, and help us move in a better direction.