Politics is a Zero Sum Game: On Winning and Losing
As an enthusiastic participant in the Occupy Movement I recognized, like many others, that it was time to act and “do something.” Here was a movement that, however inarticulately spoke the language of class struggle and questioned the way wealth and power in society was distributed. Yet I could never really hide a certain level frustration with what we were doing at Occupy. Despite the exciting exchange of ideas and the feeling of being a part of something important, the potential energy of Occupy never acquired adequate forms of organization with a set goal. Although Occupy has long since ended, the problems of a organization and the goal remain with the wider left.
One of the major problems with many protests is that they are seen as symbolic ways to fight back or to express our moral outrage. Whether it is marching or demonstrating in regards to the latest war, corporate abuse, etc we go out in the streets, march with banners and then go home – convinced that we have “fought back.” My problem is not at all with the need for marches, demonstrations and the like, not at all. I have a problem with the framing of our politics as solely or only about fighting back. Too often, the defense or the act of fighting back just devolves into a ritualistic treadmill of activism, attending protests, demonstrations in a state of hyper-activity which in many cases doesn't change anything but comes off as us proclaiming our moral outrage and "fighting the good fight". Although there is a nobility about this, I am not here to fight the good fight – I am fighting to win.
We can not just be out in the streets to resist the next assault or abuse by the system, however necessary that is. Ultimately we have to do more than be AGAINST this or that abuse, but we to know what we are fighting FOR, an alternative, a proclamation of a new TRUTH that leads beyond this system. And knowing what you are FOR means more than attending protests, marches and demonstrations. It means we have to be thinking seriously, sincerely and without illusion about what we want and how to get there. For if you really want to win, you have to want the means.
Take the example of Occupy, initially it was a wonderful carnival of liberation, but it could not stay that way if it wanted to be for the 99% and a different type of social order. Indeed, it is a sad fact that one of the things that kept people away from Occupy is that the movement renounced the idea of victory or even developing a goal. Too much of the movement became patting on the back or just having fun, rather than getting down the necessary work for social change that had to be undertaken. As Slavoj Zizek warned in his speech to Occupy Wall Street back in October 2011, “Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism?”
And for any protest or social movement, if you renounce victory or an end goal it is very hard to get participants or potential ones to take it seriously after a certain point. And if the movement has no end goal, it at worst causes you and your allies to lose enthusiasm for effecting wider social change, while at worst the protest devolves into making a symbolic gesture of moral outrage. And if you are not seriously thinking through the question of winning, if you accept in advance that you can't succeed, then you will never prevail.
What we should be developing is not a politics of just fighting back or of expressing moral outrage, but rather something much more basic: winning and losing. Now it may be objected that putting the focus on “winning” can lead to all sorts of opportunistic maneuvers or dead ends – such as limiting our ambitions to all sorts of immediate and piecemeal reforms or supporting the “lesser evil” of the Democratic Party.
While, part of developing a politics of winning and losing means that we need to be clear if the means actually lead the end desired, again we need to know what we are FOR. We know that more than a century of left-wing involvement in the Democratic Party has not stopped one war or one bailout or brought us one step closer to a society free of capitalism. And while many piecemeal reforms are certainly desirable and should be supported (such as the Fight for $15), many reforms can actually help maintain the legitimacy of the ruling class or perhaps alleviate or adjust some of the worst abuses of how wealth and power is distributed in society.
But if we want to win, if we have a goal that we are FOR, then we know that the only way to overcome a system as merciless as capitalism is through focused revolutionary change. That means we need to start paying careful attention to strategy and building toward our goal. If you accept a different horizon, one that sees victory as a possibility, then previously insurmountable mountains can be climbed, new opportunities and challenges reveal themselves. The “impossible” becomes possible. We have to always be keeping in mind questions such as: how do we use our victories? How do we see the links in the chain that lead to the goal? How do we really build and take the initiative in a great struggle toward a society beyond capitalism?
I think that many leftists have forgotten that we are playing to win. Too often, the left is more hung up on a litany of 'sins' that our movement has to apologize for or bemoaning how bad things are. Instead, let us develop a political horizon that proclaims loudly and proudly that not only is capitalism the problem, but that communism is the solution. Let us recognize that politics is a zero sum game: we want to win and we want the capitalists to lose. And to that end, we should be thinking seriously about the means needed, the strategies of how to get there, the types of organizations that can mobilize that energy to the desired goal.
Doug Enaa Greene is an independent communist historian living in the greater Boston area. He has been published in Socialism and Democracy, LINKS International Journal for Socialist Renewal, MRZine, Kasama, Counterpunch, Socialist Viewpoint and Greenleft Weekly. He was active in Occupy Boston and is a volunteer at the Center for Marxist Education in Cambridge. He is currently working on a book on the French Communist Louis-Auguste Blanqui.