Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Harry Potter, Leo Strauss, and Washington

In the last week I have really been noticing and thinking about the impact that a group of people that essentially function as an affinity group can have even when they are in a hierarchical context over which they do not exert direct control.

For example, last Friday I saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban. It was generally better than the first two movies, though I do miss Richard Harris as Dumbledore, but the reason it is relevant to this discussion is that it made me think about my favourite of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For those who don't know, the premise of this series is the existence of a secret subculture of witches and wizards which, in Great Britain, is governed by a secret Ministry of Magic. In Phoenix, the Ministry turns dictatorial and ignores a genuine threat to wizard-kind. This affinity group, the Order of the Phoenix, must both do its bit to deal with the threat that is being ignored, and to subvert the dictatorial inclinations of the Ministry. I found this account of intra-bureaucratic warfare to be quite realistic and gripping, and a good illustration of the point I started this post with.

The second example is an article I came across yesterday on an obscure (at least to me) figure called Leo Strauss. I had a long argument with a friend many years ago because his view of how the world changes focuses on intellectual "progress" as a driving force, whereas I tend to pay more attention to the material world. This article is a frightening illustration of the role that the realm of ideas can play in intervening in politics -- material forces are still central, but it is a bigger role for the abstract than I sometimes acknowledge. I doubt I could adequately summarize it, but this article talks about the intellectual development of Strauss (a truly terrifying reactionary), his cultivation of a group of proteges, and their generally tight affinity (in the sense meant by "affinity group") with one another. The scary part is that a number of them are quite influential in Washington these days. The author points out how peculiar ways of using language that are characteristic of the Straussian school have appeared in the bizarre and perverse ways that language has been twisted in the War on Terror. Unlike Dumbledore and Harry's efforts to resist evil at the Ministry of Magic, this affinity group has had a decidedly negative impact on the world.

The third example is also in Washington, and it appears to be resisting at least the worst excesses of the Bush regime. I'm talking about the intra-bureaucratic warfare that is causing all sorts of horrible truths about torture and the administration's systematic use of it to be leaked, as well as the unprecedentedly open opposition to the administration coming from retired CIA, military, and diplomatic officials -- people who are true believers in the system, but who are getting active to oppose the Bush amplification of some of its worst attributes. This is a rebellion of sorts by people in the middle of the power structure against those currently at the top.

The question that has occurred to me as I have thought about all of these things is, can similar kinds of activity be used for radically liberatory ends?

Unfortnately, I think the opportunities are limited. It is premised on having significant numbers of people who would have affinity with each other and with radical political ideas within existing power structures, which is unlikely. This can happen in a moderate way with a progressive electoral victory. For example, I have heard activists who were drawn into the civil service during the period of social democratic rule in Ontario during the early 1990s complain that failure to effectively wage this kind of struggle -- mostly because progressives have little experience with it -- was one of many factors contributing to the NDP being less effecitve than it could have been. There may be some possibilities at the edges -- without articulating it in quite this way, when I worked for the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton I yearned for this kind of deliberate, politicized cooperation amongst lefties across the agency-sector, though I did very little to try and bring it about -- but I think just by definition, such a thing is unlikely close to the heart of the power structure.

It is also important to note that our opponents are perfectly well aware, probably more so than we are, of the impact that such activities can have on the workings of power. The McCarthy witch hunts were an effort to get people with progressive and radical affinities (both Communist Party members and others who just happened to believe in social justice) out of positions of institutional power. Generally speaking, progressives/radicals do not have the same kind of institutional safety to conduct these activities as the groups outlined in my second and third examples above. And even if you look at the rather rosy example in Order of the Phoenix, that is not about radicals creating a better institutional structure, it is about "good liberals" defending existing hierarchies from "going too far."

Of course, it is important to be pragmatic. The world is a sufficiently complex place that we will always manage to find allies or at least sympathizers inside structures of power, and we have to work with them. We just can't, unlike the far right, base our strategies on this kind of infiltration. And to be honest, we wouldn't want to. The anti-authoritarian left (as amoprhous and ambiguous an entity as that might be) is not interested in co-opting the power structure. We want to transform it.

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