Axis 2: What is changeable?
This is the second post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.
In my last post I argued that the first dimension we need to assess when thinking about political action is What is Important? The next essential dimension is What is changeable?
No matter its importance, political action toward a thing that is not changeable is futile. Of course, this too is not a binary. It’s probable better to talk about the relative difficulty of change rather than a simple yes/no. It is important to see the difference between low hanging fruit and high hanging fruit, between things that will require tremendous resources and those that won’t, between things that can be accomplished relatively quickly and those that will take years to achieve. It’s also important not to conflate difficult to do with impossible to do.
That said, how difficult a thing will be to change is itself difficult to know. One of the more frustrating things for me in politics in the certainty with which this question is treated. Indeed, one reason I would argue it’s important to make bold demands is to test the limits of what is possible. Guessing wrong in a conservative direction means not achieving what is possible. Better to try and fail to win something. Many Democrats treat the possibility of trying and not achieving something as disastrous, but it is not clear why. Indeed, if during your efforts you build power, that power can be used to take another run at what you sought, or it can be used to go after something else. Those failure fearers act as though there is a very limited store of political activity that if used on things that aren’t achieved is wasted. But as I have argued before, there is tremendous slack in the political system. There are no doubt some limits on political activity, but it’s unlikely we are in any danger of hitting them. (Surely some people have hit or even surpassed that point as individuals, but that’s a separate question.)
So far I have been discussing political difficulty. But we should also attend to policy difficulty. It should be noted at the outset that it is exceedingly common for those who oppose trying to solve a problem to insist that it isn’t solvable. Albert Hirschman called this the rhetoric of futility, and it has a long pedigree. But that shouldn’t lead us to make the opposite mistake, to assume that, if the political barriers can be overcome, then anything is possible. For example, it is a common refrain that the policies the U.S. implemented after World War II could, if enacted again, lead to the same sorts of outcomes. That period saw a Great Convergence where economic inequality was far more limited than today. But those outcomes depended on more than just those policies–the structure of the world economy, the destruction of the productive capacities of Europe, the economic growth that was possible in the wake of the Great Depression, etc. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to have less inequality than today, but whether we can achieve similar reductions as in that earlier period while leaving capitalism in place is a separate question. In addition, whether any set of policies can permanently reduce inequality without challenging the power of the capitalist class is a separate question. My sense is that he answer to both of these questions is no, but the only real way to know is to try.
A related difficulty is looking to other countries when asking what is possible from a policy perspective. Pointing to countries that have achieved things that commentators in the United States insist are not possible is proof that those people are wrong. This is important. But countries don’t exist in a vacuum, and their relative position in the world do place different limits on different countries. This also means there may be things that are possible in the United States that aren’t possible elsewhere. Again, these are empirical questions that to some extend require action to answer.
Assuming we have determined that a thing is important, and further that it is changeable, we still aren’t done. Next we need to ask what we have leverage over.