Feb 03 2010
This is the second in a small series of diaries on strategy. In the first one I attempted to explain why strategy is so important. That diary was inspired by a diary from thereisnospoon, entitled: “No One Is Going To Save You Fools”. I am looking at a different piece of the equation than thereisnospoon, but the underlying idea is similar. If you want to advance a progressive/populist agenda, it should be apparent that no one is going to do it for you. You must do the heavy lifting yourself and thereisnospoon brings one tool to the table. I bring a different one – strategy.
I then gave an example of what I consider to be an ineffective strategy – one that should resonate with many on this site. I’ll call the strategy the “throw the bums out” strategy. The public frequently uses it when the politicians fail to deliver on their promises. It is non-partisan; both sides use it. The assumption is that we have “bad” politicians in office who listen to special interests over their constituents and if we just replace them with “good” politicians, everything will be OK. This assumption arises from a common cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error. This bias shows a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behavior and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on the behavior of others. Systems studies have shown time and time again that if you have a system that constantly results in undesirable behavior on the part of participants in the system, the most common reaction is to replace the participants. And this action rarely if ever is effective if there are strong incentives and disincentives built into the system which reward the undesirable behavior and discourage the desirable behavior. You must instead find leverage points to alter the structure of the system. So a “throw the bums out” strategy by itself is ineffective.
If you choose an ineffective strategy, you can find yourself expending considerable effort and making little progress. Hit the appropriate leverage points and minimal effort can produce surprising results. This is why strategy is so important. That was my objective with the first diary.
In this diary, I’m going to elaborate on the different types of thinking skills that are useful in strategy. The reductionist, analytical thinking skills emphasized in academia will only go so far in strategy. You will need to add new ways of thinking to your arsenal. I’ve already mentioned systems thinking. I’m going to concentrate here on dialectical thinking, since it is very pertinent to political strategy in particular. I should also point out that there is little consensus on what a dialectic is or what dialectical thinking entails. That may frustrate readers who decide to investigate this further. I tend to favor the work of Michael Basseches, if that is any help. A good article that introduces his work was published in Integral Review:
I’m going to jump right into an example, because if I start discussing esoteric concepts first you will likely find it boring or fail to see how it connects to politics. Ed Kilgore in the New Republic was discussing ideological differences:
To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.
Glenn Greenwald elaborated on Kilgore’s remarks in a column on health care in Salon:
Whether you call it “a government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government,” it's the same thing: a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense. Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s.
I assert that most people will think along the lines of Kilgore and believe that a “government takeover of the private sector” or a “private sector takeover of government” are two different things – polar opposites and you can’t have both. I assert that Greenwald understands you can have both and he is absolutely correct. The synthesis is a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities. This is an example of dialectical thinking. You may have heard of Hegel and the three-valued model ascribed to him called the Hegelian dialectic or Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. This is a perfect example, which I will elaborate on shortly. The figure below is from the Gestalt School psychologists who investigated perception using visual illusions. It is called the Rubin Illusion. This illusion shows a white vase against a black background. The contours of the vase create silhouettes of faces.
We have a post on our blog that discusses this illusion:
The Rubin Illusion also demonstrates a dialectic – in the sense of a juxtaposition of opposing elements where the two sustain and transform one another. The two are mutually constitutive in a continual process of interaction. Without the vase one would not be able to see the two faces and without the two faces one would not be able to see the vase. For purposes of this discussion, we will use this very narrow definition of a dialectic.
Michael Basseches in his writing on dialectical thinking defines a dialectic as a developmental transformation, which occurs via constitutive and interactive relationships. He doesn’t use the Rubin Illusion, but I think that figure is a great way to drive home the concept. If you use this narrow definition of a dialectic, you will find examples of this everywhere. So, how can this be used in strategy? From our blog post:
The phenomenon of a dialectic can be used strategically. A particularly devious stratagem is where you wish to advance an extremely unpopular agenda. The majority of people would oppose the agenda. The stratagem involves creating a false dichotomy instead. Let’s call the desired agenda C, which the majority would reject. The people are presented with the choice between A or B, which appear to the misinformed as opposites, but which are in fact dialectically related. People alternate between choosing A and B, which actually advances the agenda C that most people would prefer to avoid in the first place.
This is the most successful strategy you can employ when you wish to advance an agenda that will be almost uniformly opposed. No amount of sophisticated messaging will work. If you attempt to push the agenda directly, out will come the torches and pitchforks. You must advance the agenda via stealth and in such an indirect way that most people will not realize what you are up to.
If you have an agenda that is opposed by some, but not an overwhelming majority, an incremental strategy will often suffice. I recall a few diaries on this site regarding the Overton Window. The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator, Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. You can use this concept to create an incremental strategy. This results in a fairly straight-line trajectory, however, and if your opponents are sophisticated strategists they will instantly figure out what you are up to and place roadblocks in your path. For those advocating same-sex marriage, for example, an incremental approach beginning with domestic partnerships and moving to civil unions and then full marriage rights could have had merit – unless your opponents catch on and pass constitutional amendments banning not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions. That in fact, is exactly what happened.
Back to the original example. Greenwald notes the incestuous relationship between big government and big business:
In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists. Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state's armed forces. Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded. Our laws are written not by elected representatives but, literally, by the largest and richest corporations. At the level of the most concentrated power, large corporate interests and government actions are basically inseparable.
I assert that big government really needs big business and big business profits from big government. It is like the Rubin Illusion. Without the vase one would not be able to see the two faces and without the two faces one would not be able to see the vase. The book NEOLIBERALISM: A Critical Reader has a chapter entitled “Neoliberal Globalisation: Imperialism without Empires?” by Hugo Radice. The author states:
Straight away, there is an apparent contradiction. Neoliberalism is supposedly all about regulating economic life by means of free markets, with a minimal role for the state; imperialism is traditionally about the exercise of power by one state over other states, through political and military means. So how can the two be reconciled?
They can be reconciled because they are dialectically related. Adopt this perspective and suddenly many things that initially don’t make sense now make perfect sense. Greenwald notes the almost universal opposition to corporatism on both the left and the right. As someone who has both progressive and conservative friends, I see first hand overwhelming opposition to corporatism.
As I've noted before, this growing opposition to corporatism — to the virtually absolute domination of our political process by large corporations — is one of the many issues that transcend the trite left/right drama endlessly used as a distraction. The anger among both the left and right towards the bank bailout, and towards lobbyist influence in general, illustrates that.
I know many on the left that believe that government with strong regulations will provide a check on corporate power. The assumption is that the regulations will be applied fairly across the board. If there are loopholes in the regulations that can be exploited exclusively by big business or if the costs to comply with the regulations can be borne easier by big business due to economy of scale, then big business can profit from heavy regulations through elimination and consolidation of smaller players. There are numerous examples of key corporate figures moving from corporate positions to positions within the very regulatory agencies that monitor the corporations they worked at. Big business can then become even bigger and have even greater influence on government, advancing the corporatist agenda.
So on the surface, it may appear that strong government regulation of business vs. deregulation and free-market policies are polar opposites. I assert that both can reinforce corporatism if done right. And the establishment is very good at doing it right. This is a perfect example of this amazing strategy in action. The electorate on both the left and the right almost uniformly oppose corporatism. If the establishment directly pushes this agenda, out will come the torches and pitchforks. However, if the agenda is carefully split between two paths that appear polar opposites, but are in fact dialectically related, then it is irrelevant which path is followed. The agenda advances. The public picks path A – they lose. The agenda advances. The public picks path B – they lose. The agenda advances. They always lose and big government/big business always win. Since most people do not understand the concept of dialectic nor do they think dialectically, they fully expect that if you flip back and forth between path A and path B you will get a middle of the road result. But you don’t – and that is why the strategy works so well.