Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Making it better by making it worse

Instapundit links to a post that refers to something called the "Washington Monument strategy" -- quoting from the original post by Veronique de Rugy:
This refers to the bureaucratic practice of threatening to close down the most popular and vital programs in response to prospective budget cuts; it gets its name from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which always threatens it will have to close the Washington Monument if its budget is cut.
Which is actually kind of funny, and doesn't say much about making anything better except in the sense that keeping bureaucratic budgets intact is axiomatically better for bureaucracies. But it brings to mind a theme from my radical lefty days when arguments used to rage over whether one should work to change "the System" from within, or work to subvert it from without. For the latter side, the worry was that "working within" ran the risk of actually improving things, but -- because we're still in the System -- such "improvement" would, axiomatically, be illusory for real Revolutionaries (which, from time to time, people liked to imagine themselves to be). The logic, in any case, was that things had to get worse before the otherwise complacent (not to say bovine) masses could be sufficiently roused to support -- or at least not get in the way of -- real change, i.e., revolution. (See also this Alinsky quote.)  Given that logic, it was a very short step to wonder why one needed to wait for the collapse -- why not actively hurry it along, especially since it's inevitable anyway?

Well, that was then, this is now. Lately, it's true, something called the "Cloward-Piven" strategy has been talked about -- this refers to a paper written by a couple of academics back in the 60's (of course) which suggested trying to overload the welfare bureaucracy of the time in order to cause its collapse, which in turn would force an improvement in the lot of the poor (?!). This seems at once both so fiendish and so loony that it's been taken up by the right as the strategy behind a vast left-wing conspiracy, so to speak. Which may be no more plausible than Hilary's vast right wing version was a while back, but conspiracy theories, after all, are not only fun, they're strangely soothing to the partisan soul.

Nevertheless, it's curious to see that old radical lefty -- or maybe just radical -- logic reappearing, however resuscitated, because, once you grant the premise, the logic does have a certain force to it, no? If the System -- whatever that may be -- is itself the problem then working to "improve" it will only sustain it, which is futile at best, pernicious at worst. And if the System must and will go pop eventually, why be passive about it -- why not actively worsen it rather than pointlessly trying to make it better?

As is often the case, though, the logic evaporates once you examine the premises. One is that evil resides in the abstract "System", not in the concrete effects of the System, so that no amount of amelioration of effects could ever fix the underlying problem, thereby turning actual social/political issues into idealized abstractions that only another Ideal -- Revolution -- could address. The other, more significant one, was that only we self-styled radicals and wannabe Revolutionaries actually know what is good for people, who otherwise are always being lulled by piecemeal reforms -- the post-Enlightenment arrogance of Reason (see the Theme) carried to an almost psychopathic degree.

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