In Defence of the Lesser Evil

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Yesterday, on his blog ‘Idiot Joy Showland’, my good friend Sam Kriss, who is younger and more famous than me but doesn’t have a PhD, posted a piece entitled ‘Learning to live after Bernie Sanders’. Here, Sam attempts to put into perspective what Bernie’s loss to Hillary might really mean for the left. Key take-home point: over the course of the campaign, the left mistakenly built the possibility of a Sanders presidency up into an end in-itself, but Sanders never really stood for the real aims of the left – in large part because taking control of the state as it presently exists is antithetical to these goals. So the left shouldn’t feel defeated by Hillary beating Bernie, because we should never have really cared anyway. We should continue to strive, instead, for the complete abolition of presently-existing conditions.

Fine: the idea of having a ‘good’ president of the United States is utopian, and moreover: it’s not even all that appealing a utopia (it’s the utopia of the fucking West Wing, for God’s sake). If we’re going to be utopian, let’s push that utopian instinct as far as we possibly can. Let’s strive for six impossible things before breakfast! But bound up in Sam’s argument here is a critique of the idea of ‘voting for the lesser evil’. And this is something that I really want to take issue with.

Nowadays, we can’t seem to avoid the lesser evil, our housemate democracy’s irritating boyfriend who monopolises all the kitchen space and manages to get a puddle of his piss somehow behind the toilet bowl. It’s there in the EU referendum, where we have to vote for neoliberalism as faceless technocratic bureaucracy in a most likely vain attempt to stop everyone’s weird dads from voting for neoliberalism as racist banter and total financial collapse. It’s there in Hillary vs. Trump, where America will have to vote for a meglomaniac war criminal in a most likely vain attempt to stop everyone’s angry dads from voting for a turd-eating rodeo clown who thinks he is a successful property developer. And, of course, there are elements of it in voting for Bernie Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyn – “tiny diminished evils,” as Sam suggests, but nevertheless, in their ultimate alignment to our present political system, still somehow in complicity with what is evil and bad, against the right and good.

In the piece, Sam’s line on the lesser evil is as follows: there’s no point in voting for the lesser evil over the greater evil, because – precisely as evil – they are the same.

“Of course one of them is better than the other; you can even pull out your utilitarian calculator and work out which one it is – but these are not fungible quantities, but endlessly different, and therefore the same… Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton. It’s not nice, it never is, but you vote for the lesser of two evils, refining the selection process again and again until you find something good. Except you never will; there’s a sameness beyond magnitude. This is where the evil comes from: quantification, ethics as a series of numbers, human life as a data-point. The least bad option, which represents the systematisation of evil, is always worse than the worst.”

But of course, as Sam surely realises, those two things are precisely not the same: ten million deaths really is worse than two million; Trump’s racist violence really is worse than Hillary trying to engage millenials with memes. If you had the chance to prevent eight million deaths, wouldn’t you do that? Even if it meant sullying yourself with the brutely quantitative logic of evil itself?

This claim is, of course, so obvious that it must surely be point-missing: it does not speak to what Sam really means. Sam’s point is really that voting for the lesser evil can’t be considered a political goal as such: politics has to take place outside of the nexus of the state, it must always strive not just for the sake of the eight million, but also for the leftover two.

“Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you. But the task isn’t to stop this or that person from becoming President, but to find the President itself, that lifeless shambling thing with so many bodies, and put something pointy through its heart.”

Again, this is, to a certain extent, all fine, good, and ideologically correct. Capitalism is a vampire and we need to destroy it utterly, not just put a reverse-vampire in charge of the castle. But let’s face it: Sam’s understanding of the role that radical political activists play here, in relation to our vampiric ‘President’, seems a little one-sided. For the President is not just a lifeless shambling thing that happens to exist elsewhere, that is killing millions in the abstract, that we must – as radical heroes – enter the castle to kill, on behalf of others, the terrified villagers who are not us. We’re already in the castle, we were born there, and we are, each of us, the terrified villagers ourselves. The President is looking for us, each of us personally – he (or she – yasss queen), wants to kill us, exactly us as individuals, ruin our lives, crush our hopes and dreams, drink our blood, eat our bones.

We are not, for the most part, heroic revolutionaries camped out in the jungle, battling with heart and with cunning against the generalissimo’s militias. We are brittle and weak individual human beings struggling against poverty, against mental illness, against structural violence, against our poor physical health. Struggling to find, against all odds, a real life, meaning, and a home. We are diseased rabbits running in fear from the poacher. Given the choice, wouldn’t such rabbits prefer to be chased by the poacher with the bad leg, whose gun frequently jams, and whose kindly daughter has been known to take in the most wretched amongst the rabbits and nurse them back to health? Would such rabbits really sack off the chance to avoid being chased by the robot poacher with an assault rifle – if they could – declaring that it was really, in truth, all the same, since they are still running terrified from something?

Leaving the EU will mean a large number of my friends and colleagues will lose the right to be here, it will give succor to racists and xenophobes, it will trigger a recession which, if it is anything like all the other recent recessions, will ultimately be used by those in power to seize more of it for themselves. A vote for Hillary is a vote for presently-existing conditions, horribly unsatisfactory and impossibly unjust; but a vote for Trump is a vote for things as they presently exist if only they could be imagined to be worse. Ed Miliband was a lesser of two evils if ever there was one, the cartoon spokesperson for late-period New Labour’s distinctive brand of demented, cloth-eared idiocy; but if he was now in charge instead of Cameron, things would definitely seem less hopeless. For precarious people, it means a lot, feeling relatively more healthy and secure, knowing that of the various predators that might have enslaved you, the cuddliest one ultimately won. It might not be a goal worthy of the name, sure – it might not feel radical and good: but in a world which has already crippled us simply for existing, this is what voting for the lesser evil can mean. A leg up, for those who need it most – or at least not the willful conflagration of the ladder.

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