The Increment

“We have to do something. Anything is better than nothing.”

A standard topos in political rhetoric that to me usually signals desperation. Let’s get started! Let’s not think too much! What, are you happy with the status quo?

It’s not just favored among some progressive activists. Development experts love it. Neoconservative advocates of war against Iraq loved it. It’s a salesman’s move. “You gotta have one of these, why not this one?”

Contrast it with the Hippocratic Oath, though. “First, do no harm.” Plainly in some circumstances nothing is better than anything.

But surely in many cases an eternal nothing is unbearable. So the real question is how the small something that we’re being asked to do right now pays off, justifies itself, becomes something more than just the doing-something-so-as-not-nothing. This is the increment. Politics as compounding interest, a small investment of effort today that draws other investments to itself and becomes an unstoppable force tomorrow.

This is where I either get sold or walk away with my wallet closed. One thing that keeps my wallet closed is when the seller acts as if it’s an insult to ask what the next increments are and where this is all going. “It’s unfair to ask for a master plan! It’s unfair to demand a map to Utopia! We don’t know what’s going to come next. We’re not in charge of what comes next. When did you get so horribly teleological? All political projects ever started as increments, no one ever has been a master planner who knows exactly where the tipping point is.”

Fair enough responses. Anyone with aspirations to act politically is not required to produce a road map to the ultimate outcome of their actions. Political action is not solitary, and so by definition is not under the control of any individual actor. It’s true that many important journeys in social transformation began as single steps. Or even as missteps. Transformation is almost by definition an emergent outcome that follows from many simultaneous activities pursued independently, including many that at the time seemed to have nothing to do with seeking some instrumental end. I completely buy Robert Darnton’s argument in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, for example, which posits that the French state was de-legitimized in part not because of the deliberate intent of the authors (or audiences) of those best-sellers, but because bit by bit the content of each eroded the legitimacy of the ancien regime and bit by bit the state undercut itself trying to stop the books from circulating.

And yet. Sometimes it’s high-end theory, like Negri and Hardt at the end of Empire, saying “Here comes the Multitude! Who knows what will happen when they take over, but it’s bound to be better than Empire!” As prediction, this is ok, but as a politics that asks its reader to endorse or participate in particular incremental actions that somehow are all Multitude-favoring, not so much. As Gopal Balakrishnan has observed, the Multitude in Empire are analogized to the early Christians of Rome, a sign of the eventual unmanageability of the Pax Romana. If one is an early Christian–or acting as the Multitude–you have intrinsic motivations for doing what you do. You don’t need to be sold on the increment, or even to care about Empire or Rome at all except inasmuch as it poses a threat to your life or your activities. The only person sold by an incremental logic of action here is a citizen of Empire, who can choose either to be pleased and bemused by its gangrenous rotting away or can try to hold back the tides, usually by killing even more Christians or making life even more miserable for the Multitude.

In a way, it’s the same as pre-Revolutionary print culture: the increments that produce change are the increments of cultural and social practice rather than conscious political work with instrumental aims. This is an old dilemma for any body of political theory that believes in the possibility of systematic progress towards a coherently better world. It’s not at all clear that the people and actions that get you there are always the people and actions that mean to get you there. Intentional projects of comprehensive transformation tend to do best when moments of striking disjuncture manifest. If there are increments that get you to those moments, they’re usually not what you expect.

Sometimes it’s just particular political campaigns. Divest from fossil fuels! Sanction Israel! Interrupt white people at brunch! Make a hashtag!

Sometimes when you ask about the logic of the increment, you get a pretty good sales pitch. Many advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israeli government policy can concretely describe what the plausible next steps might be–the next sanctions, the next moves. More impotantly, they can point to considerable evidence that the possibility of incremental growth in the movement actually worries the hell out of Israeli politicians and is concretely affecting their actions. It certainly worries the hell out of supporters of the Israeli government, who dump vitriol in industrial-grade amounts on anyone who appears to contemplate joining BDS. You might question the unintended or negative consequences of these incremental steps (I know I do) but there’s a demonstrated coherency to the game plan.

Sometimes you don’t get a sales pitch. It’s none of your business, it’s reactionary to even ask the question, it’s an assertion of privilege, something’s got to be done and what have you been doing that’s better? Sometimes you get a sales pitch and it’s all about will and not about intellect: everybody has to believe in fairies or Tinkerbell will die. The increments sometimes make no sense. This leads to that leads to what? And what? And then? Why? Or perhaps most frustrating of all, each increment features its own underlying and incommensurable theories about why things happen in the world: in this step, people are motivated by self-interest; in the next step, people are motivated by basic decency; in the next step, people are motivated by fear of punishment. Every increment can’t have its own social theory. That’s when you know that the only purpose is the action itself, not the thing it’s trying to accomplish.

I think that’s what worries me most about the increment. Not that we’re asked to think of politics (or any other project) in such a fashion, because as some level it’s a necessary kind of compartmentalization for any big undertaking. It’s when the steps themselves exhibit a kind of magical thinking that claim that they can only be properly discussed and evaluated after they’ve been taken, and when each increment has a kind of isolated and infinite justification. Do this and if it doesn’t work, do it more strongly and if it doesn’t work do it more strongly still. Where there is no possible test of failure or inadequacy. Walk one step at a time thataway, and fear no cliffs or mountains. You don’t have to have a master plan for the end destination but you do have to have a specific idea of the journey you’re on. Is this a reconaissance? A quick, efficient jaunt to a known destination? A voyage to the spot on the map that’s marked “Here Be Monsters”?

(One part of a series: Grasping the Nettle)

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3 Responses to The Increment

  1. jfruh says:

    I never read Empire, but they don’t try to claim that Christianity undid the Roman Empire, do they? Because that’s … that’s not true at all. If anything, the Roman elite managed to capture and assimilate Christianity. The Roman Empire persevered for 150 years in the West after becoming officially Christian, and more than 1,000 years in the East.

    (Sorry, a small point of fact, but it irritates!)

  2. Doug says:

    I’m doing a lot of work right now near medical research, and a phrase that’s common there is “mechanism of action.” How does the compound do what it appears to do?

    In politics, there are increments here and increments there, but people proposing them should at least have an idea of what the mechanism of action is or could be. How does the proposed action lead toward the desired state? What’s the mechanism of action?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    They don’t really, not exactly–and at least some of that is Balalkrishnan’s interpretation of their argument. But they do take Rome and Empire as being very similar, that globalization today has “changed the rules” of the world system sufficiently that it is the only fact that matters–in the same way, they argue, that in the Mediterranean, Rome was the fact that shaped all other facts even for non-Romans.

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