A Crude and Simplifying Metaphor

Russell Arben Fox replies in comments to my rant on the politics of good-enough with a very appropriate challenge: isn’t that project itself something that calls for extraordinarily difficult and challenging kinds of tactical and strategic work, mobilizing and mass action and making coalitions? Doesn’t that mean that you can’t just opt-out of those always-difficult conversations about praxis?

Completely right. In another conversation and another forum, that might well involve the rolling up of sleeves and the commencing of a discussion of David Harvey, Giovanni Arrighi, Emmanuel Wallerstein, Giorgio Agamben, Hardt & Negri, etc. Just because I feel like I’ve done my time in those conversations and feel their diminishing returns doesn’t mean they aren’t apropros to the situation. Or it might involve other kinds of focused conversations about texts, tactics, actually-existing social situations, and so on.

But let me propose instead a metaphor that I find more congenial for understanding the architecture of the political moment.

Let’s say you’re a player for a perpetually losing sports team in a league where there’s two or three teams that always dominate the competition year after year. Everyone but the die-hard fans have deserted you. Some of your former fans have just given up watching the sport altogether, some watch the winning teams diffidently from afar.

It’s a familiar scenario from a zillion sports films and even occasionally resembles the real-life narratives that emerge out of sports and games.

As a member of the always-losing team, you have a few explanatory options, which then suggest a few possible ways to act:

1) Your team always loses because it has a losing attitude, lacks spirit, has given up. What you need is to believe in yourselves again, will your way to victory, commit your heart and soul to it. In left politics, this is pretty much the story that the populist, big-tent mobilizer tells. All the team needs is for everyone to pitch in, stop acting like losers, call upon their willpower, and stop sniping at each other. In both sports stories and progressive politics, the villains in this version are the rivals on your team who just can’t stop tearing each other down. In sports stories, eventually the rivals achieve mutual respect and the underdogs go on to win the championship.

2) Your team always loses because you’ve got some slackers and burnouts on your roster that you can’t replace or get rid of, and maybe also some sell-outs who just play for the money and don’t care about winning. In political mobilizing, this is pretty much the narrative that generates leftward hatred of liberals: liberals become the alibi or explanation for why left organizing isn’t succeeding, because there are people on the team dragging it down. Equally, it is the narrative that sustains liberal efforts to be taken seriously by what they perceive to be the arbiters of consensus: that liberal politics would succeed if only it could shake off the taint of a leftist past, its dead weights. In this kind of sports story, the only way that the underdogs manage to win is if they get rid of their dead weight through trades, firings, or managerial tongue-lashings that finally awake the competitive spirit in the slackers and sell-outs and convert them. The focus in this kind of story is always on the bad apples: they’re the only thing that’s keeping the team from winning.

3) Your team always loses because you have no money and the winning teams have all the money in the world. They can buy top players, top equipment, the best facilities, and you have to play with holes in your shoes, cast-off players, and one outdoor shower that only has cold water. This kind of story can go a couple of ways in a sports film. Your team can end the story still being losers, but you can be loveable and the other team hateful. The audience is with you, you’re the moral victor because you play hard and really want it. You’re the winner in everything but the playing field, and maybe therefore make the playing field irrelevant. Or this can quickly become an entry to story #1: you can overcome massive disadvantages in resources with the right alignment of spirit. Two other ways to tell the story: as a version of Moneyball. You get a new manager or owner who leverages resources in an entirely new way and suddenly your team has enough money to compete. The owner finds a new revenue stream. The owner of your team wins a bet with the fatcat owners of the winners. The manager finds a loophole in the recruiting rules. The owner develops a better, more efficient way to scout players to compose a winner roster. The final way to spin the story: you get a ringer. You’re still underpaid, underresourced, but for some reason the greatest player in the game takes a shine to your team and dedicates himself to your cause forever and ever. Maybe she’s a humble kid from your hometown. Maybe he isn’t motivated by money but instead by a competitive challenge. Maybe she really likes the loveable losers on your team. However it happens, the greatest player in the game is with you and is so much better than anything the winning teams have that you’re the world champions.

In left politics, this last is pretty much the story of “if we can just get that demographic/constituency/social class on our team, we’ll win”. This becomes a narrative of persuasion: what will get that player on the team? And a story of in-fighting when team members become convinced that there’s one manager or player who is keeping the greatest player from joining the roster. “Latinos would be with us if only you’d be more culturally conservative and respectful of religion!” “Workers would be with us if only you’d be more pro-union!” “Middle managers would be with us if only you’d stop talking like a socialist!” In the Moneyball version, it’s the story that activists like to tell wherein if only they’d organize in some novel way, move money around in a new fashion, network better, they’d leverage limited resources into politically powerful forms that could challenge dominant interests. And the loveable losers who win off the field is certainly a favorite of both leftists and liberals (who then often accuse each other of being the unloveable jerks who are costing them the adoration of the fans.)

4) Your team always loses because the other team cheats, manipulates the rules, has the league administration in its back pocket, has an owner who is stupid and/or hates the team, or is otherwise the victim of malicious conspiracy. Something about your team provokes the powers-that-be in the league to deliberately sabotage you: maybe your fans or your hometown is the object of ethnic or class hatred. Maybe your owner is a naive idiot who gets outmaneuvered by slick operators who own the winning teams. Maybe there’s a vendetta towards specific players on your team. In sports movies like this, sometimes the losers stay losers, and the story is essentially a tragedy or an expose. Sometimes your team finds a way to be so good, so full of spirit, that they manage to win even with all the deck stacked against them. Sometimes the losers find a way to cheat even more effectively than the cheaters, to con the con men. Sometimes the victimized team finds an outside power or white knight that brings justice to the sport. In politics, this is a classic left-liberal schism point. The liberals go to look for an outside power or white knight, because they’re heavily invested in the legitimacy of the game itself. The left wants to find a way to cheat more effectively than the cheaters: if it’s a corrupt game, don’t be a chump and play fair. The populist wants to find enough spirit in a unified team to win even against the fixed odds.

5) Your team usually loses for some combination of the above reasons but a sudden opportunity presents itself because the winners have fucked up badly or have a serious problem of their own making. Maybe they’ve got a new owner who is an idiot or a vulgarian who makes terrible trades or demoralizes the players. Maybe their equivalent of Murderers’ Row all got injured and will be out until next season. Maybe a crony of the owner has taken over as the incompetent but unfireable manager. If your team can only get its act together for just this one season, you can win the big game, and if you win the big game, you can get a better TV contract and have more pride and get the fans back in the seats, success will rise from success. In left politics, this is pretty much what bloggish or party-meeting debating and bickering is all about: are we at a conjuncture where the dominant interests have left themselves vulnerable because of a tactical miscalculation? Is this at last the final crisis of capitalist accumulation where mobilization can succeed? Has something changed so that this year will really be the year to win?

6) Your team loses even though you could win just because you’re missing that tipping point, that one distinction, and it just takes an imaginative player or coach coming along and finding that magic little extra thing that’s a part of the game itself. Maybe you find a new play that’s legal but no one has ever tried before and make it the cornerstone of your offense. You get a smart guy to redesign the racket or bat or shoes or helmets in a way that’s legal but that no one else believes will work until suddenly there you are in the championship and everyone else is trying to discover the secret, too late. In left politics, this is pretty much the Wikileaks-supporter or digerati’s argument: that there’s some novel technosocial possibility out there that will change the game forever, and for whatever reason, only the loser teams are positioned to make use of it. The leftist skeptic points out that the powers-that-be will just rule the new tactic illegal, that it’s not powerful enough to make the difference by itself, or that next season everyone will have a bigger racket or have learned out to steal bases and you’ll probably just lose again once that happens.

7) Everyone involved in the game, including the fans, comes to the simultaneous recognition that perpetually uneven competition is boring, and that boring sports don’t survive, and works together to change the rules, structure and nature of competition so that the game itself is fairer and more compelling. Next season, the perpetual losers have a real chance because collective rationality has won out and made the game better for everybody. Or maybe alternatively, a stern authoritarian commissioner manages through force of will to impose such a reform on the unwilling winners, meeting with general popular approval and the renewed loyalty of audiences, to the point that even the owners of the winners concede that reform was necessary. In left-liberal politics, this is pretty much the neoliberal’s dream, that the game can be saved because isn’t obvious that a more competitive, more rationally-designed game is better for everyone? Equally, this is the story that the left is profoundly certain can never happen, that even what look like reforms to the rules or structure of the game will end up being subverted by the teams that already dominate the league, or are intended just to bamboozle audiences into believing that the game is fair.

8 ) Almost everybody decides that bear-baiting, cock-fighting, stickball, polo, marbles or whatever was a stupid, bad, materially obsolete or immoral game in the first place and it becomes a subcultural or underground thing taking place at the social margins, even it still exists at all. So the story is just about nostalgic regret for the past we’ve lost or triumphant whiggishness about the past we overcame. Your losing team is either history or you play in obscure places and illegal gatherings for a small if fervant audience. This is not particularly a story that left or liberal interests like to tell about themselves, but it’s sometimes the story that gets told about them.

9) The losing team just quits because the game itself is so loathsome, stupid, irrelevant, dirty or dangerous that there’s no point to ever trying to win. Maybe if they can they do their best to destroy the game itself in one last moment. Think Rollerball, The Running Man or The Hunger Games for examples. Certainly there are left-liberal contexts where this is the preferred story: stop playing the game of politics in any form, even mass action or mobilization, just withdraw and build separate communities, let the whole thing fall apart by itself.

Note a key thing: in none of these stories does the opposing always-winning team matter at all except as a dramatic device, as inevitable antagonists. About the only time that their agency enters the picture at all is in stories of cheating (when it is taken for granted that they will, because they’re just that way), in stories when they’ve made a terrible miscalculation and opened an opportunity, or in the rare stories of consensus reform where everyone acts together to save the game. Most of the time the drama of the story rests with the usually-losing team: will they find spirit? Will they get rid of their dead weight? Will they find a ringer? Will they manage to cheat even better than the cheaters? Will they recognize the hidden potential of base-stealing or of a graphite racket? And so it is in left-liberal arguments: most of the time, the main point of agreement is that somehow progressives themselves are responsible for their own losses, and that there is something, some story, some turn, that will provide a way out.


In real life sports and competition, as well as cliched sports movies, teams that have habitually lost do sometimes find a way to win the big game in ways that resemble these narratives or some combination of them. Sometimes they even find a way to become permanent winners. Sometimes also real leagues or entire sports really do reform everything about their game, fail and fade away, or retain commercial viability even though some teams always win and other teams always lose.

So in the end this metaphor informs how I’d reply to Russell’s challenge. How do you get a politics of “good enough” to take hold, which I’d like to think of as a populist or big-tent story–it isn’t just the American elite that clings to the hope of being the boss, grabbing the brass ring, being the top dog, but also much of the American working-class? I think you have to see what the season ahead looks like. When a team that often loses suddenly manages to put together a championship season, it’s often because of the unpredictable alignment of a lot of events and initiatives: the coach with an idea, the owner with a shrewd way of finding affordable talent, the developing star who sticks with the team despite big-money offers, falling ticket sales because of disgust at the cheats or lopsided competition that force league-wide changes, the discovery of a clever tactic that stretches the rules a bit.

Most importantly, team chemistry isn’t something you can force and it isn’t something you can fake, but it clearly is a real thing that can take hold and become self-sustaining at the most unpredictable moments. Some seasons you’re just going to bicker, some seasons cheaters are gonna win and haters are gonna hate, some seasons you really are going to carry some dead weight on your roster while privately believing that you could win the game by yourself if only coach would put you in more often.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Crude and Simplifying Metaphor

  1. Simply awesome, Tim. But hardly a crude metaphor at all; more like a finely detailed and comprehensive one. I love it. Though I’m not sure what the final upshot of the analogy is.

    Tell me if I’m right: you’re basically of a mind that yes, my point was a correct one, and you’ve no quarrel with the Foxes/Farrells/leftists/anti-neoliberals of the world trying to make (and fighting about) our plans…but we really ought to realize that “when a team that often loses suddenly manages to put together a championship season, it’s often because of the unpredictable alignment of a lot of events and initiatives”, and so shouldn’t get too panicked about how all our diverse strategies for turning the left into both ideological and electoral winners are likely to fail. We had our “unpredictable alignment”: it was 2008, it was Obama, it was the Affordable Care Act, which with all their limitations and failures really were a pretty big win for equality. And now, well, we’re back to losing and that’s the way it’s just going to be–that’s what “the season ahead looks like”–until things get unpredictable again. Am I reading you right, or reading too much into it?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s kind of it. Too much sound and fury about how we have to do this or that or seize this moment or get rid of our ideological splitters, etc., presumes that a progressive answer is always available to us, and that a losing season is always our fault. Sometimes you’re just the ’62 Mets and the other guys are the ’27 Yankees. And the ’62 Mets are the precisely one of the best analogies: who would have guessed that the ’69 Mets were only seven years away? And you could in no way, shape or form force by will, insight or deliberate action the ’69 Mets to appear any sooner than they did.

    Issue-driven politics operates at a fairly steady pace: people who working to preserve reproductive rights, insure net neutrality, improve police-community relations, ensure quality public education, and so on need to keep at it as best they can all the time, with as much support as they can mobilize.

    But the big canvas of national and global politics rests on far more subtle kinds of alignments and accidents, and arises out of the messy substance of lived experience and conjunctures of events in ways that are not tractable to the kind of rule-based, structurally-derived, theoretical constructions of political action, change over time and the human subject that both liberals and leftists tend to serve up in their own preferred forms. If you want to know what people and their institutions are going to do next, I think you’d be better off reading novels or watching movies than consulting formal political theory or Beltway prognostications. Theorists and wonks alike might notionally leave some space for contingency in their thinking but not too many seem to take the concept terribly seriously in the way they make demands and complaints to one another.

  3. politicalfootball says:

    I think you go too far in denying agency to the players.

    Note a key thing: in none of these stories does the opposing always-winning team matter at all except as a dramatic device, as inevitable antagonists.

    But (to adopt your metaphor and oversimplify a bit) we all only play for one team, and that team is naturally the focus of our concerns and efforts. The idea that liberals have inevitable antagonists simply reflects reality.

    Too much sound and fury about how we have to do this or that or seize this moment or get rid of our ideological splitters, etc., presumes that a progressive answer is always available to us, and that a losing season is always our fault.

    A lot of apologetics for, say, Obama involve some notion of inevitability. Given the political realities, we are told, Obama approximates the best of all possible presidents. This convenient story will necessarily carry some credibility, given our imperfect knowledge and the genuine possibility that good solutions aren’t available.

    But the other thing about winners is that when the stars line up and the opportunity arises, they are ready to seize that opportunity. Obama himself did this in a remarkable way. It’s a shame he mostly plays for the other team.

Comments are closed.