As a student, I briefly had cause to debate with a few members of the Socialist Worker’s Student Society, commonly referred to as SWSS, which was pronounced Swizz, rather than Swiss, for obvious reasons. “Anything new?’, “Just Swiss calling for another rent strike”. See, it would have sounded all wrong.
Anyway, during this short period of undergraduate repartee, I was introduced to the wonderful political trick of transitional demands.
Naturally, I was enthralled. The genius of calling for something that sounded plausible, but was intended never be delivered upon, because the political delivery of such a promise would expose the inherent contradictions of capitalism was, to me, a work of subtle political genius.
Sadly, such calls – for the Nationalisation of the top 100 corporations, for example – have rather fallen out of favour. When the British left is reduced to alternately saluting autocrats and asking nicely for corporations to put a quid on the minimum wage, I miss the old fire and brimstone madness.
Yet the spirit of the transitional demand lives on, not on the far left, but in press officers, strategists and speechwriters of all political parties, when in opposition.
We are living in the age of the baggy impossibility.
What is a baggy impossibility?
It is a generally phrased policy demand, usually a generally popular, well intentioned, alleged proposal made by a politician who lacks, and will never posess, the ability to deliver any specific significant practical consequences that arise from that demand, or any mechanism to seriously attempt to do so.
The greatness of a baggy impossibilityand it’s political attraction is that it revolves around a worthy and desirable outcome which does not seem, and in fact is not, technically impossible.
It is just that achieving the baggy impossibility would require resources outwith the resources, knowledge or capability of the speaker. The baggy impossibility may even happen at some point in the future, just as many transitional demands have come to pass. It is simply that it would be impossible for the speaker to ensure it happens.
Such a tactic has many political advantages. For example, demanding a unicorn for everyone is madness. No-one could ever be taken seriously who pledged such a thing. The cost would be prohibitive, the benefits uncertain, the scale daunting. No serious politician would do such a thing.
Yet calling for a vital international debate on the need to devote an increasing share of global resources to the genetic manipulation required to create domesticated sapient alicornal quadrapeds, on the other hand, would be a baggy impossibility.
Such a call would probably come with a headline like “X calls for Super-Unicorn push“. Further, this puts the doubtful sceptic in the unpleasant rhetorical position of apparently being against Super-Unicorns, which might lead to headlines like ‘Y outflanked by Super-Unicorn plan” or even, if some on her own side had their own reasons for favouring Super-Unicorns – “Y on horns of Super Unicorn dilemma“, probably with an unflattering cartoon, and who knows, maybe some South African geneticist is even now fiddling with an Ibex.
I submit however, that despite these attractions, baggy impossibilities are bad and wrong. They are a curse on modern politics, and those who employ them deserve censure, disgrace and humiliation.
I say this regretfully, in the manner of a football manager mourning the loss of the bracing two footed challenge from the modern game, but it is true.
Baggy impossibilities destroy faith in politicians, in those who make promises and those who are asked to keep them. They set governments up for future betrayal myths and open the door to bullshit merchants and quack medicines pedlers of politics, who can spot a baggy impossibility a mile off, and will leap to assert that is is indeed achievable, if one only were to buy their bottle of politcal Hadacol.
Further, by offering the seductive prospect of the implausible, they prevent us from discussing the mundane but likely.
So whenever you are tempted by a baggy impossibility, remember, it is a lie.
How can you tell if a politician is seeking to win you over with a baggy impossibility?
1. There is always an accountability chasm.
As the proposer does not expect their pledge to be delivered, they have inserted sufficient space between the vastness of their ambition and anything they could ever be held accountable for in future. Promises will seem firm, but become complez and fractal under scrutiny. Caveats will flourish, nuances appear, while aspirataions will usurp apparent pledges
2. There is always a fall guy.
The baggy impossibility always requires the vital contribution of others to success, these others standing ready for the blame for any future failures, weaknesses and disappointments that the proposer believes will flow from indulging in the politics of the baggy impossibility.
The unhappy fall guys can be countries, companies, transnational institutions, or even the electorate themselves. All they need to fulfill is the ability to be blamed for a future absence of worthy, attractive outcomes and an extreme unlikeliness to ever protest at their casting.
3. A vacuity of mechanisms.
This is related to the accountability chasm, but is subtly different. The vacuity of specifics refers to a curious absence of any mechanism by which Desirable Outcome can be achieved. This is sometimes known as the Underpants Gnome manoeuvre.
Often, those who demand such mechanisms will be seen off with, the pledge of a wide-ranging 360 review, or by a flurry of extraneous data and facts, employed as political chaff to allow an interview to escape unharmed from the assault.
4 . The start of a debate.
As soon as someone raises the need for a debate (I have done this myself), the chance of any subsequent statement being a baggy impossibility increases dramatically.
Be aware, however, that there is another reason to call for a debate, which is that I need a plausible way to get you to accept me doing something you’re not going won’t like one bit and will make me extremely unpopular. I expect the Prime Minister calls for an urgent family debate on whether his children need to go to the dentist.
In some ways, the call for a debate is used in two equal but opposite circumstances – when I want to distract you from the fact I’m selling you an impossible good thing, or when I want to distract you from the neccessity of a horrid thing.
So, remember dear voter, beware of baggy impossibilities.
They will only disappoint.