Cholera vs. Plague: The Lesser Evil Calculus

24397320205_bffeb97d49_bWhen Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate for the 2002 French Presidential election, unexpectedly finished in third place in the initial round of voting – behind the Gaullist conservative Jacques Chirac (first) and the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen (second) – progressive and leftwing voters in France were presented with a stark choice: should they support Chirac in the run-off or should they abstain from voting at all and risk a (still unlikely) victory for the Front National. Characterising the decision as a choice between ‘cholera and plague’, most progressives took the first option, often demonstrating their unhappiness by turning up to vote in rubber gloves and nose-pegs. One group of activists even set up a symbolic shower in a Paris square and invited Chirac voters to pass through it after voting.

Fourteen years later, the conflict between political pragmatism and political principle is as relevant as it ever was. With rightwing demagogues on the march in Europe (Le Pen’s superior genes go marching on in the shape of his youngest daughter, Marine), a situation may soon arise where progressive voters have to choose between, say, a Jobbik or a Danish People’s Party on the one hand and some milquetoast neoliberal or smooth-talking Tory on the other. In the UK, Labour Party members are warned that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming leadership election is sure to mean another Conservative government; vote for the more electable (i.e. centrist) candidate, they are told, lest the Tories have their evil way. And then of course there’s Hillary and The Donald – a cholera-or-plague choice if ever there was one. Having run Clinton close in the primaries and set out an agenda for change far to the left of the Democratic candidate, the Sandernistas are faced with a dilemma. Should they sink their differences with the Clintonoids? Or should they stay pure and risk a Trump win?

Thus the lesser evil calculus – the proposition that one must choose the candidate most likely to win who will do the least harm – continues to exert its pull. ‘Vote for me,’ says the ‘cholera’ candidate, ‘not because I have good policies but because I’m not the other guy, and the other guy, well, just look at him! You wouldn’t want that on your conscience, now would you?’ The pitch is as old as politics itself and a constant source of frustration to those who see the need for more than just piecemeal change. It is an appeal to fear, and a brake on real progress. ‘Don’t waste your vote on a principle,’ say the cholerites; ‘Don’t risk a bout of plague.’

There are a number of arguments that can and should be made against this kind of political blackmail. For one thing it leads to apathy and resignation; the lesser evil is still evil, after all, so in agreeing to support the cholera candidate one is sanctioning a view of politics as an essentially tragic and futile process – a deeply conservative sentiment. Moreover, and because progressives appear to be especially prone to the lesser evil calculus, liberal and leftwing parties focus much of their energy on accommodating voters who, in other circumstances, would tend to vote for conservative parties. They move to the right, in other words, with the result that radicals who accept the lesser evil calculus become the authors of their own marginalisation. Finally, and carrying on from that, it’s invariably the status quo that benefits, with the result that the ‘evils’ between which voters are asked to choose become greater (as opposed to ‘lesser’) over time. Take Trump. To the extent that his rise to political prominence is a response to the vertiginous collapse of working and middleclass wages in the US, it was the ‘lesser evil’of one Bill Clinton who must take a sizeable chunk of the blame. In deregulating the financial sector at the same time that he made war on welfare, he helped create the toxic swamp in which malformed fish like The Donald swim.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that Clinton’s most savage critic was also a fierce critic of the lesser evil calculus. Christopher Hitchens wrote a number of articles on what he once called ‘democratic centrism’ and was invariably and unwaveringly critical of the phenomenon. His most comprehensive attack on it was published in Dissent in 1996 under the title ‘Against Lesser Evilism’. It begins:

‘Whenever A and B are in opposition to each other,’ wrote George Orwell in 1945, in ‘Through a Glass, Rosily,’ ‘anyone who attacks or criticizes A is accused of aiding and abetting B.’ He added: ‘It is a tempting manoeuvre, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest.’ Orwell lived and wrote in a period when the pressure on intellectuals to ‘take sides’ was ostensibly much more palpable than it is now, and when with that pressure came a surreptitious invitation to moral blackmail: the element that tells thinking people that the less adventurous the use they make of their ratiocinative capacity, the better. When the big decision has already been taken, what need of paltry misgivings? Who desires to be called a wavering intellectual dilettante when grand enterprises are on foot, and when the engine of destiny has gone to all the trouble of revving itself up?

This is well put, but the choice of Orwell as an authority is not without its problems. For Orwell, surely, would not have agreed with the point Hitchens makes a little later in the essay, that ‘if the lesser evil argument is not an axiom, it is nothing’. Repelled as he was by intellectual bullying of the kind favoured by the Stalinist left, he was nevertheless convinced of the need to defeat Nazism and its analogues, and expended much effort attempting to convince others that as hellish as life was under the British Empire it was liable to be even worse under the Axis. A principled pragmatism was Orwell’s default stance. ‘War is evil, and it is sometimes the lesser evil’, he wrote in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War’. ‘Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.’ (Smelly diseases like plague, presumably …)

What Orwell is referring to in ‘Through a Glass, Rosily’ is not the lesser evil calculus per se but the tendency of some commentators to accuse others of giving ‘ammunition to the enemy’. Orwell’s principal target, in other words, is intellectual dishonesty – the willing suspension of one’s critical faculties and the encouragement of such a suspension in others – and not the practical business of politics, with its necessary compromises. Arguably this was Hitchens’ main beef, too; but he often wrote as if ‘lesser evilism’ and principled politics could not coexist, accusing its practitioners of conceding ‘up front’ all the points that really matter. Lesser evilism ‘commits us in advance to underwrite those who have an objective quite different from our own, and methods entirely different’.

This is overstated. Indeed it is written in such a way that Hitchens threatens to replace the ‘axiom’ of lesser evilism with an axiom of his own, as if the principled and radical thing to do is always to back the candidate or course of action that best reflects one’s own views. Regarding lesser evilism as effectively apolitical, Hitchens sets up in its place a maximalist intransigence.

But there is nothing implicitly radical about rejecting the lesser evil principle, and many are the radicals who have found it expedient, not to say unavoidable. ‘Where it is a struggle against the existing government,’ wrote Karl Marx in Theory of Revolution, ‘we ally ourselves even with our enemies … Now, after the election, we again affirm our old relentless standpoint not only against the government but also against the official opposition.’ Lenin, too, was much exercised by the question of expedient alliances. Noting the Bolsheviks’ reputation for intransigence, he wrote in On Compromises that ‘the task of a truly revolutionary party is not to declare that it is impossible to renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises, when they are unavoidable, to remain true to its principles, to its class, to its revolutionary purpose, to its task of paving the way for revolution and educating the mass of the people for victory in the revolution’. One doesn’t have to be a Leninist, or even a radical, to recognise the force of this argument.

Two questions should occur to the voter (or group of voters) called upon to support a lesser evil candidate. One: How ‘evil’ is the evil to which the lesser evil is supposed to be ‘lesser’? And two: In the event that support is given to that candidate, how can the supporter (or group of supporters) ensure that their own principles are not simply ignored?

The first question is the hardest to answer. In the case of British Labour mentioned above, the greater ‘evil’ is a Tory government wedded to austerity and a broadly neoliberal platform. Assuming that they do think Owen Smith has a better chance than Jeremy Corbyn of beating the Tories in a general election, Labour members will have to choose between the many small improvements that even a centrist Labour government would make in the lives of working people and the prospect of an honourable defeat that could shift the terms of the debate in the long run, perhaps leading to more fundamental change in the future. My sense is that the majority of the members are looking for a new kind of politics, not because they’re nihilistic or having their arms twisted by unscrupulous Trots, but because they know the system is broken and that any attempt to prop it up with a weaker version of conservatism is bound to deepen and prolong the current crisis; they’re aware that a major confrontation is coming and want to pick the time for themselves. They will be accused of being heartless – of treating the poor and the vulnerable as grist to history’s mill. But my sense is that the membership has taken the decision to reject such accusations, coming as they often do from the wing of the party that turned its back on the poor and vulnerable in the first place. Good, then.

In the US the situation is different. There is little doubt that President Trump (just roll that around your tongue for a while) would renege on his promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border (it is laughably easy to imagine the press conference in which he insists he was speaking ‘metaphorically’). Nor, I suspect, would his demagoguery in point of Muslim immigration stand up to constitutional scrutiny. But the fact that he has made such statements at all means that we would be very unwise indeed to treat him as a rational actor. Trump is a buffoon, but buffoons can be dangerous, and the prospect of those stubby little fingers hovering over the red button is just too appalling to contemplate. I’ve had a conversation or two with people who regard the prospect of a Trump presidency as the social and economic emergency the American people will have to go through before they finally come to their senses and embrace the socialist alternative: ‘So much the worse, so much the better’, as the Italian Red Brigades used to say, with characteristic callousness. Clearly, this is sinister horseshit.

Clinton, then, can stake a strong claim to the title of ‘lesser evil’ in this instance. Though there is no guarantee that four years of Trump would be very much worse than four years of Clinton, there are good enough reasons to think that they would be, plus the potential for a major catastrophe if Trump really is as unstable as he sounds. What, then, can Sanders’ supporters do to continue to make their influence felt?

Well, one thing they can do – though it would take some organisation – is to make, say, three or four demands, and make support for the Democrats in the midterm elections dependent on the adoption of (say) two of them. In the event that Clinton would rather look tough than bow to pressure from the Sandernistas, they could call her bluff and abstain from voting, or even vote Republican. That last option may sound extreme, but it would have the advantage of showing the party establishment that the left cannot be taken for granted.

At any rate, the left needs to think very carefully about the balance between strategy and tactics. As the old political duopolies break apart and the political environment diversifies, neither blank cheques nor splendid isolation is going to change the ideological terrain in a way that will allow progressives to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power. Knowing when to don the rubber gloves, and when to take the gloves off, is the key to progress, and to the eventual elimination of both cholera and plague.



First published at 3 Quarks Daily.