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Pragmatism and Principles in Political Strategies

The choice to engage in political activism has parallels with other forms of activity. Some people join the armed forces, the police or clergy with a similar objective of good intentions. Invariably the end-story of such choices are starkly similar. Either the individuals are 'eaten' by the system and become indistinguishable from the very people they sort to replace, or they become bitterly disillusioned about the prospects of reforming such systems and institutions.

How does one succeed in implementing social and political change without succumbing to either of these dead-ends? The problem can be expressed quite simply; all political parties espouse noble principles which are considered expendable for the purposes of attaining power. However, power is actually required to provide a practical implementation of particular principles. For social reform activists, this obviously presents a major problem of which there are several alternative strategies. They are outlined here with extreme brevity, and with a combined strategy acting as a conclusion.


Strategy #1: Non-participation

This is seriously promoted as a political strategy by some anarchist and postmodernist social reformers. Starting from the assumptions that all political and economic systems are not just empirically (from experience) but rationally (from concepts) corrupt, then delegitimisation of the system can be achieved by mass non-participation and a general rejection of its laws etc.

On a personal level, such a strategy may seem quite appealing. One only has to associate with others that share similar moral and ethical principles whilst political and economic life can reach a degree of desired simplicity. This strategy does have enormous short-term benefits, and indeed is recommended for private life in general for the sake of mental balance.

However, it does have profound "externalities" in terms of political costs. To extract one from as a participant of the decision making process ensures that such political decisions are made by others who do not share the same principles. With the increasing mediation of normal life by instrumental technology and administrative systems, non-participation is not only unteneneble, it is also possible to suggest that it is irresponsible.


'Those who do not participate in politics are doomed to be governed by their inferiors'
(Plato)


Strategy #2: Extraparliamentary Activism

Extraparliamentary activism is advocated by a wide range of organizations, from special-interest pressure groups to would-be revolutionaries. From one side, the system is considered fundamentally sound and as such targeted attempts of reform are considered the appropriate strategy whilst the 'real business' of the organization can be carried out. One the other extreme, the system is considered fundamentally flawed, however the resources that it controlled are considered to be an enviable prize.

In general, the strategy of extraparliamentary activism is generally sound. It is protected from the main problem of total non-participation as there is still influence over political decision makers. However, as a total strategy it is a poor allocation of personal and political resources. Extraparliamentary activism is an exhausting activity if attempts are made to sustain it over a lengthy period of time. Further, extraparliamentary activists must meet and form alliances with decision-makers if they actually desire to see some of their ideas implemented. Finally, some extraparliamentary activists, particularly those of the more 'revolutionary' persuasion with a disdain for attempting to influence popular opinion, may do great harm through attempts to 'generate' circumstances that are neither desired, nor effective in achieving a particular change.


Strategy #3: Parliamentary Reformism

Parliamentary reformism is a blanket term that includes those who attempt to influence decision makers through direct contact, lobbying, and participation in mainstream parties. Among many activists, there is a deep-seated suspicion against this sort of activity as either being a insidious corrupting influence that isolates one from 'the people' and a waste of resources as one engages in the various clever (and not-so-clever) back room details that characterize factional politics.

There is more than an element of truth to these claims because by itself parliamentary reformism is indeed very susceptible to the influence of systematic politics with principles being consistently traded for greater entrenchment in the political mainstream. Whilst undoubtably the political mainstream is 'inside the tent', so to speak, the best protection against their various offering is consistent and constant contact with the extraparliamentary activists. This certainly is the great lesson of the Viet Nam war protests and exemplified by the late Dr. Jim Cairns who debated the issue both within the Australian Labor Party whilst at the same time addressing some 600 meetings between 1964 and 1966, becoming chair of the Viet Nam Moratorium Committee and leading a protest march of 100,000 through the streets of Melbourne in 1970.


Strategy #4: Systematic Politics

Whilst this article is written for the social reformer in mind, it is acutely important that a very sober and dispassionate view of what orthodox politics is about when analysed from a systematic point of view. Note that systematic politics is not necessarily mainstream politics, as many politicians are surprisingly still influenced by particular codes of ethics and values derived from outside the political system. From a systems-theory point of view however, this a 'corruption' of 'alien' influences. Take a deep breath, and enter the world of systems theory.

Politics is the skill of gaining institutional power. It is independent of any moral, legal (or aesthetic) expressions. Unethical conduct, lies and even breaking laws (local, state or international) are all part of systematic political strategies as long as appropriate risk management strategies are implemented. There are no values, only goal-states. Political decisions are made on the basis of seeking to maximise the power gained from a decision and to minimise the negatives.

Lest anyone think otherwise, systematic politics has a profound and important influence on international politics, democratic structures notwithstanding! Indeed, democracy is an unfortunate institutionalised value that systematic politicians have to deal put up with, which they manage to the letter, but certainly not the spirit, of the law. However - and this is important - systematic politics is a reality and social reformers must not only be aware of the reasoning used, but also to be able to confront the reasoning on its own ground.


Strategies for Effective Social Reform

Effective social reform is achieved by placing oneself either in the camp of 'extraparliamentary activism' or 'parliamentary reformism' depending on one's personal predilections and the relative state of awareness of an issue among the public or policians respectively. Again the cautionary points are reiterated here; if you're an 'extraparliamentary activist' you must find influential allies within the political system to actually implement the desired social change. It also provides opportunities to understand what sort of political-decision timetable is likely and to formulate public protest campaigns with a degree of efficiency. If one is a 'parliamentary reformist' then one needs to be in regular contact and alliance with the 'extraparliamentary activists' to ensure that suggested political changes comply with the desires of just protest. As a particular example, one could certainly cite the example of attempts to reform Australia's policies towards East Timor as being a successful example of the union of parliamentary reformism and extraparliamentary activism.

One further issue is raised here, that of argumentation. Extraparliamentary activists must orientate their public appeal towards those who are uncommitted and have adopted a principle of non-participation. In order to be effective public protest must bring numbers and the source of such of such numbers is from those who are not currently involved in public protest. Likewise, parliamentary reformists must orientate their argument in terms of systematic politics within the party room. The potential of loss of political legitimacy, loss of votes (and therefore power), the prospect of disunity and party fragmentation are all negatives that must be raised if particular policy lines contrary to the public will are implemented or expressed as positives if a policy change does occur.

In all cases specific problems should be identified, empirical and rational evidence accumulated, particular causes located, policy alternatives examined, potential allies and opponents identified and campaign strategies developed. In doing so however, it is always worthwhile for the sake of long-term reputation to note specific problems and policy alternatives from universal principles. Otherwise one is not engaging in acts of fundamental social reform, but rather one is merely acting as a sectional and self-interested pressure group. This is the perhaps the greatest test, as universal appeals can be used to cut through both the precarious institutional balance established through years of systematic politics whilst also providing massive appeal to the disillusioned, and those deeply cynical of the prospect of political reform.

To express in conclusion, and by way of example, the universal principles of this author:
a) Individual autonomy and freedom for all self-regarding acts.
b) Mutual informed consent for all intersubjective acts.
c) Democratic control of all public resources.


Lev Lafayette is a doctoral candidate at the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He is the founder of Labor for Refugees and has recently completed a book on the personal and political theories of former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Jim Cairns.

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