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Structure v. Character

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LGM commenter JEC:

You know, for somebody who likes to lecture others on the Realities of Power ™, Campos can be touchingly naive sometimes. So let’s review: Kevin McCarthy and Linsday Graham are politicians. They have two jobs. Job #1 is Do Not Lose the Next Election. Job #2 is Maximize My Personal Power and Influence. And expecting politicians to behave unlike politicians (or indeed as anti-politicians, bold truth-tellers and moral pillars) is precisely the sort of romanticism that leads people to vote for third parties (*ptooey*). It’s not about their character flaws; it’s about power.

One of the great strengths of left-side political discourse is that we’re much better at structuralism than the other guys. We get that a system can produce racist outcomes even if no single individual inside it is subjectively motivated by race-hatred. We get that social life is dominated by systems and structures, and that, if bad things are happing at large scales, we need to re-evaluate and change the systems responsible.

Which is why I get annoyed with “character based” narratives of Trumpism and its discontents.

Prosecuting Donald Trump isn’t hard or complicated because Merrick Garland is of weak moral fiber. Prosecuting Donald Trump is hard and complicated because (a) our criminal justice system makes it both hard and complicated to prosecute anyone with the resources to mount a concerted defense; and (b) our constitutional system includes a presidency which is much more akin to an elected monarch than to a prime minister, and our legal system inherits traditions which make criminally prosecuting a king nearly unthinkable.

And the lesson of the near-complete collapse of the GOP into Trumpism isn’t, “Wow, those guys sure lack moral fiber.” It’s, “Oh my god, a bunch of proven experts at getting elected in gerrymandered red districts and in red states agree almost unanimously that to oppose Trumpism is electoral suicide.” Which is, IMHO, much, much worse.

I largely agree with this comment, but I’m also very interested in the limits of this sort of structural analysis. While the Individual Character approach to history and social analysis, so beloved of everyone from David Brooks to David McCullough, is without doubt full of wild overstatements in regard to the power of individual agency, and equally wild underestimates regarding the significance of structural as opposed to individual factors, structural analysis also has its limits.

I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell’s essay on Dickens:

It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s ‘as good is from evil’. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’ — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.

If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charted street’ than in three-quarters of Socialist literature. Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds. . . .

The common man is still living in the mental world of Dickens, but nearly every modern intellectual has gone over to some or other form of totalitarianism. From the Marxist or Fascist point of view, nearly all that Dickens stands for can be written off as ‘bourgeois morality’. But in moral outlook no one could be more ‘bourgeois’ than the English working classes. The ordinary people in the Western countries have never entered, mentally, into the world of ‘realism’ and power-politics. They may do so before long, in which case Dickens will be as out of date as the cab-horse. But in his own age and ours he has been popular chiefly because he was able to express in a comic, simplified and therefore memorable form the native decency of the common man. And it is important that from this point of view people of very different types can be described as ‘common’. In a country like England, in spite of its class-structure, there does exist a certain cultural unity. All through the Christian ages, and especially since the French Revolution, the Western world has been haunted by the idea of freedom and equality; it is only an idea, but it has penetrated to all ranks of society. The most atrocious injustices, cruelties, lies, snobberies exist everywhere, but there are not many people who can regard these things with the same indifference as, say, a Roman slave-owner. Even the millionaire suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton. Nearly everyone, whatever his actual conduct may be, responds emotionally to the idea of human brotherhood. Dickens voiced a code which was and on the whole still is believed in, even by people who violate it. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he could be both read by working people (a thing that has happened to no other novelist of his stature) and buried in Westminster Abbey.

That passage is 80 years old , but it is in many ways more relevant today than it was a couple of decades ago, given the revival of fascism, which to my mind at least needs to be understood in terms of both structural social factors and as a matter of individual character, or the lack of it.

For example, clearly Trump and Trumpism both need to be understood in structural terms. But it is also true that understanding them solely is such terms is incomplete and inaccurate. A critique that leaves out the extent to which Trump and Trumpists are, to coin a phrase, deplorable as a matter of moral agency misses something just as critical. Analyzing Trump and Trumpists in purely structural terms reduces them to an unfortunate natural phenomenon — the sociological equivalent of a hurricane.

Similarly, while it’s very true that Merrick Garland is heavily constrained by structural factors, it’s not true that it makes no difference who the AG is when it comes to bringing Trump and his cronies to justice.

So by all means, we need structural critique, and more of it. But just as Dickens’s in some ways naive but still essential moral critique of Victorian society illustrates, structural criticism will always only be part of the story.

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