The Art of the Lost Cause

Many people are understandably disappointed, frustrated, or angry when they lose. It’s just not fun to lose, especially in a competitive society. But there are advantages to losing. And losses are as much determined by perspective. Certainly, in more cooperative societies, what may be seen as a loss by outsiders could be taken quite differently by an insider. Western researchers discovered that difference when using games as part of social science studies. Some non-Western people refused win-lose scenarios, at least among members of the community. The individual didn’t lose for everyone gained. I point this out to help shift our thinking.

Recently, the political left in the United States has experienced losses. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton who in turn lost the presidency to Donald Trump. But is this an entirely surprising result and bad outcome? Losses can lead to soul-searching and motivation for change. The Republicans we know now have dominated the political narrative in recent decades, which forced the Democrats to shift far to the right with third way ‘triangulation’. That wasn’t always the case. Republicans went through a period of major losses before being able to reinvent themselves with the southern strategy, Reagan revolution, trickle down voodo economics, the two Santa Claus theory, culture wars, etc.

The Clinton New Democrats were only able to win at all in recent history by sacrificing the political left and, in the process, becoming the new conservative party. So, even when Democrats have been able to win it has been a loss. Consider Obama who turned out to be one of the most neoliberal and neocon presidents in modern history, betraying his every promise: maintaining militarism, refusing to shut down GITMO, passing pro-biz insurance reform, etc. Liberals and leftists would have been better off to have been entirely out of power these past decades, allowing a genuine political left movement to form and so allowing democracy to begin to reassert itself from below. Instead, Democrats have managed to win just enough elections to keep the political left suppressed by co-opting their rhetoric. Democrats have won by forcing the American public to lose.

In the Democratic leadership failing so gloriously, they have been publicly shamed to the point of no redemption. The party is now less popular than the opposition, an amazing feat considering how unpopular is Trump and the GOP at the moment. Yet amidst all of this, Bernie Sanders is more popular than ever, more popular among women than men and more popular among minorities than whites. I never thought Sanders was likely to win and so I wasn’t disappointed. What his campaign did accomplish, as I expected, was to reshape the political narrative and shift the Overton window back toward the political left again. This period of loss will be remembered as a turning point in the future. It was a necessary loss, a reckoning and re-envisioning.

Think about famous lost causes. One that came to mind is that of Jesus and the early Christians. They were a tiny unknown cult in a vast empire filled with hundreds of thousands of similar cults. They were nothing special, of no significance or consequence, such that no one bothered to even take note of them, not even Jewish writers at the time. Then Jesus was killed as a common criminal among other criminals and even that didn’t draw any attention. There is no evidence that the Romans considered Jesus even mildly interesting. After his death, Christianity remained small and splintered into a few communities. It took generations for this cult to grow much at all and finally attract much outside attention.

Early Christians weren’t even important enough to be feared. The persecution stories seem to have been mostly invented by later Christians to make themselves feel more important, as there is no records of any systematic and pervasive persecution. Romans killing a few cultists here and there happened all the time and Christians didn’t stand out as being targeted more than any others. In fact, early Christians were lacking in uniqueness that they were often confused with other groups such as Stoics. By the way, it was the Stoics who were famous at the time for seeking out persecution and so gaining street cred respectability, maybe causing envy among Christians. Even Christian theology was largely borrowed from others, such as natural law also having been taken from the Stoics — related to the idea that a slave can be free in their mind and being, their heart and soul because natural law transcends human law.

Still, this early status of Christians as losers created a powerful narrative that has not only survived but proliferated. Some of that narrative, such as their persecution, was invented. But that is far from unusual — the mythos that develops around lost causes tends to be more invented than not. Still, at the core, the Christians were genuinely pathetic for a couple of centuries. They weren’t a respectable religion in the Roman Empire, until long after Jesus’ death when an emperor decided to use them to shore up his own power. In the waning era of Roman imperialism, I suppose a lost cause theology felt compelling and comforting. It was also a good way to convert other defeated people, as they could be promised victory in heaven. Lost Causes tend to lead to romanticizing of a distant redemption that one day would come. And in the case of Christianity, this would mean that the ultimate sacrificial loser, Jesus himself, would return victorious! Amen! Praise the Lord! Like a Taoist philosopher, Jesus taught that to find oneself was to lose oneself but to lose oneself was to find oneself. This is a loser’s mentality and relates to why some have considered Christianity to be a slaver religion. The lowly are uplifted, at least in words and ideals. But I’d argue there is more to it than seeking comfort by rationalizing suffering, oppression, and defeat.

Winning isn’t always a good thing, at least in the short term. I sometimes wonder if America would be a better place if the American Revolution had been lost. When I compare the United States to Canada, I don’t see any great advantage to American colonists having won. Canada is a much more stable and well-functioning social democracy. And the British Empire ended up enacting sweeping reforms, including abolishing slavery through law long before the US managed to end slavery through bloody conflict. In many ways, Americans were worse off after the revolution than before it. A reactionary backlash took hold as oligarchs co-opted the revolution and turned it into counter-revolution. Through the coup of a Constitutional Convention, the ruling elite seized power of the new government. It was in seeming to win that the average American ended up losing. An overt loss potentially could have been a greater long term victory. In particular for women and blacks, being on the side of the revolutionaries didn’t turn out to be such a great deal. Woman who had gained the vote had it taken away from them again and blacks hoping for freedom were returned to slavery. The emerging radical movement of democratic reform was strangled in the crib.

Later on, the Confederates learned of the power of a lost cause. To such an extent that they have become the poster boys of The Lost Cause, all of American society having been transformed by it. Victory of the United States government, once again, turned out to be far from a clear victory for the oppressed. If Confederates had won or otherwise been allowed to secede, the Confederate government would have been forced to come to terms with the majority black population that existed in the South and they wouldn’t have had the large Northern population to help keep blacks down. It’s possible that some of the worst results could have been avoided: re-enslavement through chain gangs and mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws and Klan terrorism, sundown towns and redlining, etc —  all the ways that racism became further entrenched. After the Civil War, blacks became scattered and would then become a minority. Having lost their position as the Southern majority, they lost most of the leverage they might have had. Instead of weak reforms leading to new forms of oppression, blacks might have been able to have forced a societal transformation within a Confederate government or else to have had a mass exodus in order to secede and create their own separate nation-state. There were many possibilities that became impossible because of Union victory.

Now consider the civil rights movement. The leaders, Martin Luther King in particular, understood the power of a lost cause. They intentionally staged events of getting attacked by police and white mobs, always making sure there were cameras nearby to make it into a national event. It was in losing these confrontations to the greater power of white oppression that they managed to win public support. As a largely Christian movement, the civil rights activists surely had learned from the story of Jesus as a sacrificial loser and his followers as persecuted losers. The real failure of civil rights only came later on when it gained mainstream victories and a corrupt black leadership aligned with white power, such as pushing the racist 1994 Crime Bill which was part of the Democrats becoming the new conservative party. The civil rights movement might have been better able to transform society and change public opinion by having remained a lost cause for a few more generations.

A victory forced can be a victory lost. Gain requires sacrifice, not to be bought cheaply. Success requires risk of failure, putting everything on the line. The greatest losses can come from seeking victory too soon and too easily. Transformative change can only be won by losing what came before. Winning delayed sometimes is progress ensured, slow but steady change. The foundation has to be laid before something can emerge from the ground up. Being brought low is the beginning point, like planting a seed in the soil.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

“Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.”

* * *

Living Differently: On How the Feminist Utopia Is Something You Have to Be Doing Now
by Lynne Segal

Another anthropologist, the anarchist David Graeber, having been involved in protest networks for decades, remains even more certain that participation in moments of direct action and horizontal decision-making bring to life a new and enduring conception of politics, while providing shared hope and meaning in life, even if their critics see in the outcomes of these movements only defeat:

What they don’t understand is that once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is permanent. Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, but Greeks, Spaniards and Tunisians) now have direct experience of self-organization, collective action and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way. While the world’s financial and political elite skate blindly towards the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes and workplaces, organizing rent strikes, seminars and debtor’s assemblies, and in doing so laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic culture … With it has come a revival of the revolutionary imagination that conventional wisdom has long since declared dead.

Discussing what he calls ‘The Democracy Project’, Graeber celebrates forms of political resistance that in his view move well beyond calls for policy reforms, creating instead permanent spaces of opposition to all existing frameworks. For Graeber, one fundamental ground for optimism is that the future is unknowable, and one can live dissident politics in the present, or try to. This is both despite, and also because of, the insistent neo-liberal boast that there can be no alternative to its own historical trajectory: which has become a linear project of endless growth and the amassing of wealth by the few, toil and the struggle for precarious survival for so many.

Furthermore, Graeber points out that historically, although few revolutionaries actually succeeded in taking power themselves, the effects of their actions were often experienced far outside their immediate geographical location. In a similar reflection on unintended consequences, Terry Eagleton suggests that even with the gloomiest of estimates in mind, many aspects of utopic thinking may be not only possible but well- nigh inevitable:

Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired.

Even catastrophism, one might say, has its potentials. […]

It should come as no surprise that most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us, at least partially. However, to confront rather than accept the evils of the present, some utopian spirit is always necessary to embrace the complexity of working, against all odds, to create better futures. A wilful optimism is needed, despite and because of our inevitable blind-spots and inadequacies, both personal and collective.

For many of us, it means trying to live differently in the here and now, knowing that the future will never be a complete break with the present or the past, but hopefully something that may develop out of our most supportive engagements with others. To think otherwise inhibits resistance and confirms the dominant conceit that there is no alternative to the present. Thus, I want to close this chapter repeating the words of the late Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, which seem to have been translated into almost every language on earth, though I cannot track down their source:

Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep moving forward.

Our political dreams can end in disappointment, but are likely, nevertheless, to make us feel more alive, and hence happier, along the way, at least when they help to connect us to and express concern for those around us. Happiness demands nothing less.