The Fallacy of Social Engineering (or Cheerleading for Utopia)
Many years ago, I was having a conversation with my friend, Barbara Zelter, and I was explaining in very broad strokes the teleology of Marxism — a society in which self-organization around justice becomes so habitual that the state “withers away.” I was fresh out of the Army and just beginning to do politics, so I kind of wanted to believe that this was possible. I could conjure the story in my mind, so it seemed possible. Barbara threw cold water on that by replying, “Sounds magical, but not possible.”
She had been doing politics for as long as I had been in the Army, and her experience told her — as it would tell me by and by — that what you might easily imagine about people’s political behavior is wrong around 101 percent of the time; and most people are most likely to do what they have been habituated to do instead of what you like to imagine they will do. A phrase that had been in my vocabulary gradually disappeared, dissolved in the relentless flow of political experience:
“If we can just . . .”
“If we can just get ten people to tell ten other people” . . . that sort of thing. What I learned, which I knew from the Army, but had set aside out of naïve optimism and rage, was that as soon as you say “if,” you have admitted that you have not one whit of actual control over that which you are imagining. As it turned out, just getting ten people in the same room together could take weeks of spending and working . . . for 1/32,500,000th of the US population, whose main question at the end of the meeting was typically, “What can we do now?”
Twenty-four years passed, and I’ve seen exactly one real shift in American political tectonics . . . 2016 and the Sanders campaign, combined with the election of the Mindless-Degenerate-in-Chief to the White House. All the political defaults began to fail at once.
This was not accomplished by leftist ideologues (I was one) passing out their predictable and pedantic literature at repetitious mass demonstrations. It was not “accomplished” at all, but emerged as a manifestation of an historical process (Marx got that right). Late capitalism’s accretion of insults, hardships, setbacks, and chronic anxiety hit some invisible threshold that only found its visible expression in the surprises of the 2016 US elections.
The self-styled vanguards, all 1,000 people spread across 3.8 million square miles, reacted in the ways to which they were habituated after years of marginalization (much of it self-imposed), by trying to linguistically capture, domesticate, and train the newly-emerging organic left pole of American politics . . . mostly by telling the tens of millions of people energized by the Sanders campaign how they were doing it wrong, even though they had accomplished what the sectarians had claimed they wanted and failed at repeatedly — forming a genuine mass movement to the left of both established political parties.
The exception to this was a sleepy leftist organization called Democratic Socialists of America, which had the good sense to embrace this mass movement as well as treat the Democratic Party more like a difficult terrain that it would have to traverse (agree) instead of a leper colony to be avoided at all costs (disagree).
In the wake of the Sanders campaign, which may be renewed soon, DSA grew to an organization that now boasts more than 50,000 members. They were also smart enough to realize — perhaps without articulating it this way — that trying to become a “party” like the Democrats or a “party” like the lefty-mini-parties that promote token ideologues as candidates everyone knows will never be elected, accomplishes jack.
DSA can’t be like the Democratic Party, because they simply haven’t the institutional scale, assets, and established power of that party; and the latter mini-parties are about as threatening to real power as a gnat — sometimes they roar like lions, but they are still gnats. DSA now has real potential, provided it matches its actions to its scale until we are more well-consolidated.
I myself am a member of DSA, and I joined the Democratic Party last year to help get Dana Nessel past the neoliberals to become the only defense attorney I know of to become a state Attorney General. I’ll be going to the convention this month to push the party further left. And I’m debating plenty of Democrats, because between now and 2020, the main national political struggle is between the Democratic neoliberals and the emergent left.
Many alumni of the grouplet-left have come into DSA as well, some who don’t share my deep skepticism about vanguardism and fantasy civil wars, and so there are many tendencies within the organization, and I suspect, having seen all this before, that some are there to colonize it for their own grouplets (some do have cult characteristics), or even more destructively, to play out the old rule-or-ruin tactics that many ethically-illiterate lefties have employed in the sectarian past. Hopefully, we’ll continue to isolate these bad faith actors.
I wish I’d been younger than 59 (eight years ago) when I first read Michel de Certeau’s remarks about revolutionism — with which I agree 100 percent now, based on cruel experience.
“Revolution itself, that ‘modern’ idea,” says De Certeau, “represents the scriptural project at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past, to write itself by itself (that is, to produce itself as its own system) and to produce a new history (refaire l’histoire) on the model of what it fabricates (and this will be ‘progress’). It is necessary only for this ambition to multiply scriptural operations in economic, administrative, or political areas in order for the project to be realized.”
I bring this common-sense observation to the fore here, because it points to another form of magical thinking that is common among my sisters and brothers on the left: the idea that we can “build socialism.”
I’m not talking down at anyone; I cherished these magical thoughts myself at one time, until experience beat me like a rented mule. I know it’s a metaphor, but metaphors reflect epistemes, and epistemes contain convictions . . . often wrong. We elders owe our meager experience to the generations that follow us. You can do with it as you will.
I’ve already seen a half dozen missives, mini-manifestos, and grandiose strategy outlines (usually by men, by the way, and most often from young men) that explain how an unidentified “we” will “build” something called “socialism.” As if societies, communities, networks, and families were parts of a building, and as if persons — that thing the left sometimes seem oblivious to apart from economics — will simply and happily occupy our new building.
There are three major flaws in this idea. It reflects a failure to incorporate social self-organization into our thinking, especially on a scale like the United States. It likewise it reflects a failure to apprehend non-linear dynamics — unpredictability in complex systems. And it takes no account of the dynamics of personhood and “getting by,” or what De Certeau called bricolage.
Self-organization is systemic inertia created by millions of micro-actions and exchanges that are determined by dependencies, the limitations of choice by the built and semiotic environment, and habituation. On a scale like the United States, minor aberrations and rebellions are simply absorbed. If my vanguard magically assumed power tomorrow, they would be faced with the fact that everyone is going to do exactly as they did the day before, using systems that have not only been established but synchronized over time with all other systems, and administered and managed by hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and service people . . . the disruption of any part of potentially creates ramifications that spread out through these imbricated systems and subsystems with unpredictable consequences, creating new problems.
This is unpredictability in complex systems. A lot of systems thinking going on here, but the main point is that people have the problematic ability to do things that make changes without the concomitant ability to predict what those changes will themselves cause. More hard experience . . . the medics call it iatrogeneisis, when the visit to the doctor or hospital causes you to get worse instead of better . . . the cure can end up creating bigger problems than the disease. This is one reason why top-down social engineering is generally a colossal failure.
Finally, we come to the anthropology of bricolage. In what ways are actual persons — whole persons, not some economic reduction of them — doing things that will not show up in social system models or statistics? Everyday people doing everyday life are not strategic beings, but tactical ones. They cheat, cut corners, hack, do things “off the books,” work deals outside the hegemonic economy.
“Sly as a fox and twice as quick,” wrote De Certeau, “there are many ways of ‘making do’.”
So long as we rely exclusively on systems-thinking and disregard the actual person, we are blind to over half of reality. There is a ton more study that needs to be done on this, but many raised politically in the Marxist tradition are loathe to engage with anything that hasn’t been covered in the canon . . . a kind of totalizing and almost religious fealty to Marx that Marx himself would have rejected out of hand.
The illusion that social systems — an already heavily reified category — are subject to fantasies of “socialism by decree” is not only mistaken, it is dangerous, especially in large scale societies, as we have seen in the Soviet Union and China. The Soviet Union collapsed, and China transformed itself into a capitalist powerhouse. And the body counts were high. This didn’t happen because they did it wrong, but because they tried to do far too much far too fast on too great a scale (Yes, I understand capitalist encirclement!). These were “scriptural projects at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past, to write itself by itself.”
These projects only got off the ground because both societies had been utterly destabilized by World Wars, followed by bloody civil wars. The idea that this could even be reproduced in today’s US is preposterous, and yet I have heard more than one “revolutionary” express the belief that “revolutionary civil war” is a prerequisite for said revolution. I once subscribed to this nonsense myself . . . men go a bit deeper into the most martial fantasies, and war was all I knew.
To say “We will build socialism” is to claim a “we” that does not exist (“If we can just . . .”) to “build” something that is so much more than mere materials and more complex by many orders of magnitude than a building, and for which we haven’t even settled on a shared definition. If some set of circumstances in the future is to exist that might resemble our fantasies of socialism, it will be arrived at not through fiat and not through top-down social engineering (an notion breathing pure hubris and pregnant with violence), but by taking one careful step after another, stopping at each juncture, as per the precautionary principle, to assess what is evolving from the last decisions “we” took . . . with every step measured not against some model, but by whether or not what we are doing is actually reducing suffering, facilitating people’s creativity, and repairing the damage.
And that presupposes taking political power. So we begin thankfully to narrow our focus.
What do we do? (a) Spend the next 40 months trying to replace as many neoliberal Democrats as possible with viable contestants from their left. (b) Stop, look, listen, then assess the next step. There will be changes we won’t anticipate.