Over the last few days, I’ve seen a number of articles exhibiting a troubling sort of paranoia regarding the political situation in the United States. For two noteworthy examples, both of which suggest that the extraordinary public mobilizations against the administration’s egregious violations of migrants’ and refugees’ rights were in some sense orchestrated by or at least to the advantage of the administration, see here and here.
With material of this kind spreading virally, I urge people to be very wary of narratives that imply denial of the possibility of effective political agency among non-dominant groups. Examples include conspiracy theories, just-so stories, and “chess master” narratives that interpret every turn of events and act of resistance as evidence of the enemy’s absolute mastery of political strategy, organization and communications. These are like black holes for practical reasoning.
The situation in the US is complicated and a lot of different actors of varying capacities are involved. My point isn’t that the people in the administration are actually stupid or incompetent (and in any case it’s worth noting that that view can also easily imply that there’s nothing anyone can do about anything). Thinking about how to oppose the enemy commits one to the possibility of effective political agency; denying this possibility, on the other hand — e.g. because the enemy is backed by an all-powerful conspiracy, or they can always see ten moves ahead, or they have the population completely brainwashed — makes opposition unthinkable.
A closely related but somewhat different problem is also created when the denial is only made regarding certain groups, by people from outside those groups. Consider the more modest claim that every act of resistance by African Americans, for example, plays into the hands of the enemy. If there is no effective political agency among African Americans, it must be a waste of time to support their activism, and it’s up to non-African Americans to decide what the interests of African Americans are and how those interests should be pursued. So selective denial of agency both expresses and reproduces racist, paternalistic attitudes and structures within the organized opposition. Being committed to building and sustaining relations of equality between African Americans and non-African Americans commits one to the possibility of African Americans being capable of effective political action; denying this possibility forecloses the possibility of racial equality.
In both cases, people have a preexisting commitment to some particular mix of practice and ideal — the moral imperative to offer some form of opposition to a thoroughly evil government, and to live with others as equals. People rightly have the greatest confidence in the appropriateness of these moral commitments, whereas we can never be so confident in the belief that our enemy is just too tough and smart to beat. The beliefs we properly hold with the greatest confidence commit us to thinking that the enemy can be beaten, so we should proceed under that assumption. This entails that we rationally ought to reject the defeatism implicit in the attribution of practically supernatural mastery over events to the enemy.