Inside-trackers versus rabble-rousers

by Michael Smith

(Originally posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' Internet mailing list.)

At 10:52 AM 7/25/97 -0400, Jon Orcutt wrote:
>recent comments here [....]
>posed a sterile dichotomy between "incrementalism" and "protest."

Speaking as one of the sterile-dichotomizers, allow me to elaborate.

"Incrementalism" isn't a tactic, like "protest"; it's an ideology, or at any rate a strategy. The two things don't exist on the same plane. In its fullest, most noxious form, incrementalism disallows and suppresses protest in favor of an "inside baseball" strategy of working the bureaucracy, writing letters to thoroughly unimpressed politicos, etc. Talk about sterile! We have examples close to hand of the ineffectuality of this approach (combined with the very surprising arrogance and self-regard of many of its practitioners, who seem to consider themselves important because they enjoy some steerage-class variety of "access").

This is not to say that incremental improvements are a bad thing -- except bike lanes, which are at best debatable. Nor is it even to say that the "inside baseball" track is useless or even dispensable. Jon's basic idea, that both street action and working the system are needed, is certainly correct. However, it is so clearly correct that nobody would disagree with it; certainly my fellow Dichotomists and I had no intention of denying a self-evident truth. It was the "ism" that we had in our sights.

You see, the perennial risk of the inside track is that the people working it come to identify with the real insiders. At this point all is lost. The cause comes to be identified with the process, and begins a slow but ineluctable disappearing act, in which only the Cheshire Cat grin of the organizational letterhead is left behind. This is the point at which we can speak of incrementalism, the ideology.

The only way to keep the inside-trackers from succumbing to this slow degenerative disease, is to be sure they're joined at the hip to some noisy, disreputable rabble-rousers. This connection must be sufficiently tight to put any acceptance by the bureaucrats and the politicoes out of reach.

I would suggest that there is a lesson in this for Transportation Alternatives, in particular. If that fine organization wants to avoid a very bad case of politicosclerosis incrementalis (in English, "creeping wonkery"), it needs to re-establish contact with its base and with its historic source of strength.

Anybody remember the legend of Antaeus? Did he make the cut into the Disney version of Hercules? He was a son of Gaia, as I recall, and every time you threw him to the ground, he got up stronger than before. Antaeus should be the patron saint of all activist organizations.

His fate, by the way, provides a sobering lesson; Hercules just held him up in the air until he weakened enough to be dispatched. In the same way, activist organizations can spend too much time in the sweet-smelling air that wafts through the corridors of power, and awaken from their dreams of access to find themselves a mere plaything, tossed to and fro in the hands of the enemy.

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