Centrism, Capitalism and Civil Rights

Every election, centrists within the Democratic Party rhetorically position themselves as the only sensible option for the Democratic primary, the “alternative” being to open wide the door for tyranny and extend a warm and blissfully naive welcome.

And so every election, fearing this narrative, Democrats readily compromise their values and dash their hopes of a better tomorrow, instead opting for the “sensible” choice—the centrist—i.e., the palatable halfway point between the oppressive and the oppressed.

My generation has always been told by centrists that we necessarily must compromise between freedom and tyranny; that we necessarily must compromise between economic mobility and structural poverty; that we necessarily must compromise between human dignity and indignation.

It has always been: compromise, compromise, compromise—the notion change must happen incrementally and not instantaneously. In our case, it has always seemed to be *two* steps forward and *one* step back, rather than vice-versa. It would appear we’re trapped in a something of a political simulation of Zeno’s paradox.

This particular simulation being one in which the object of “progress”—that is, progressive ideology realized—always seems to be just over the horizon, when in reality it lies infinitely far ahead (and thus unobtainable): the path itself is virtually but a straight line, albeit one infinitely divisible; and the centrist—infinitely the divider.

“Two steps forward, one step back” ensures we never, ever reach our destination—we never quite get to the “Mountain Top”—yet the illusion is that it’s ever just over the next hill. And so, believing with all our heart “the arch of the moral universe to be long but ultimately bending toward justice,” we will forever press on—infinitely—until one day we finally realize the system really is rigged.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself cautioned against centrists—for him, the “white moderate”—the one who calls for sensible ‘order’ in lieu of justice. Writing from his cell within that infamous Birmingham jail, King wrote:

   “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:

   ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.

   “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King spoke toward matters of race. But also, Dr. King more than anybody understood that the struggle of Black America was bound inextricably to—meaning it therefore could not be disentangled from and viewed in separation of—the US capitalist system.

Today, it is presumed the Democratic Party still bears the torch for the Civil Rights Movement and indeed for all of social justice in the US—but does it still, truly? Or have the centrist and the moderate so thoroughly corrupted it that it’s become just another tool to keep the system going: a system within a system working to sustain the absence of tension—a ‘negative peace’—rather than maintain the presence of justice—a ‘positive peace’? Honestly, we needn’t even think very hard to know the answer to this question. The answer is all around us as we observe the inevitable conclusion of late-stage capitalism with a world on fire with disease. Capitalism corrupts just as surely as power itself, for what then is the accumulation of capital if not the accumulation power?

I respect John Lewis from the bottom of my heart and I always will. But it’s possible that after being on the frontlines for so long, and at times necessarily working in cohort with centrists, that he’s forgotten they, too, in Dr. King’s own words, are enemies of progress.

3 Replies to “Centrism, Capitalism and Civil Rights”

  1. First off, thanks for your online presence during COVID 19. That it takes a variety of forms is a life saver while being sheltered in place w/o a home gym.
    This is a good piece on how money and power are allocated in America which also explains the tensions/conflicts that have played out in 2016 and 2020 inside the Democratic Party.
    It’s in Biden’s hands what he proposes if he wants to win because he needs every Sanders voter, volunteer and donor to have a shot of defeating Trump. “Not being Trump” by itself won’t be sufficient to win. Clinton tried that.
    Nor will hollow promises of “change” that worked in 2008.

  2. Thanks for your comment. Too often “moderation” and “compromise” mean slothful inaction and acceptance of things as they are. Dr. King was right to say so in his “Letter.”

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