Thursday, May 08, 2003

James Capozzola frets that an article (written by Willian Greider) he found in the Nation is old enough that it's already been discussed and linked to by everybody in Blogovia, yet still wanted to make his own link to it.

He shouldn't worry about it. The article is masterful, describing the goals and methods of the Movementarians extraordinarily well. It details their desire to return to the politics and society of McKinley-era America, leaving behind not just the New Deal reforms but pretty much every other social and political change that's happened over the 20th century. It also recognizes that they aren't in a rush, and that they're perfectly willing to move one step at a time. This is practically self-evident... most of those who watch the Movement for any length of time have probably noticed that it tends to nickle-and-dime its ways to its political objectives. "Faith-based initiatives" seem relatively benign, compared to the end-goal of the heavy re-integration of religion into society and politics. The war over the Bush tax cuts seems like only quibbling over numbers, instead of one salvo in the battle to eliminate income taxes and replace them with regressive consumption taxes. And, of course, the war in Iraq seems like only a confrontation with a dictator, instead of a wholesale reordering of America's foreign policy. It's not that Movementarians are counting on some sort of "slippery slope" per se... it's more that they're making people comfortable with the concept, then pushing a little more, a little more, a little more...

Anyway, the article goes over it in a lot of detail. What really grabbed me, though, is the finale:

In other words, I do not believe that most Americans want what the right wants. But I also think many cannot see the choices clearly or grasp the long-term implications for the country.

This is a failure of left-liberal politics. Constructing an effective response requires a politics that goes right at the ideology, translates the meaning of Bush's governing agenda, lays out the implications for society and argues unabashedly for a more positive, inclusive, forward-looking vision. No need for scaremongering attacks; stick to the well-known facts. Pose some big questions: Do Americans want to get rid of the income tax altogether and its longstanding premise that the affluent should pay higher rates than the humble? For that matter, do Americans think capital incomes should be excused completely from taxation while labor incomes are taxed more heavily, perhaps through a stiff national sales tax? Do people want to give up on the concept of the "common school"--one of America's distinctive achievements? Should property rights be given precedence over human rights or society's need to protect nature? The recent battles over Social Security privatization are instructive: When the labor-left mounted a serious ideological rebuttal, well documented in fact and reason, Republicans scurried away from the issue (though they will doubtless try again).

To make this case convincing, however, the opposition must first have a coherent vision of its own. The Democratic Party, alas, is accustomed to playing defense and has become wary of "the vision thing," as Dubya's father called it. Most elected Democrats, I think, now see their role as managerial rather than big reform, and fear that even talking about ideology will stick them with the right's demon label: "liberal." If a new understanding of progressive purpose does get formed, one that connects to social reality and describes a more promising future, the vision will not originate in Washington but among those who see realities up close and are struggling now to change things on the ground. We are a very wealthy (and brutally powerful) nation, so why do people experience so much stress and confinement in their lives, a sense of loss and failure? The answers, I suggest, will lead to a new formulation of what progressives want.
I absolutely agree with this. As others have pointed out, the roles have changed... Democrats are just protecting the gains that they've made, whereas Republicans (at least, the Movementarian branch of such) are the ones that are actually trying to "progress" somewhere. It's less like two armies clashing on the field of battle in the war of ideas, and more like an invasion, or a slow retreat.

I think there are three main reasons why this is the case. (There may be more). The first is exemplified by Grieder's own conclusion:

The first place to inquire is not the failures of government but the malformed power relationships of American capitalism--the terms of employment that reduce many workers to powerless digits, the closely held decisions of finance capital that shape our society, the waste and destruction embedded in our system of mass consumption and production. The goal is, like the right's, to create greater self-fulfillment but as broadly as possible. Self-reliance and individualism can be made meaningful for all only by first reviving the power of collective action.
The first problem, as shown here, is that many on the left seem to be trying to play the same game as the Movement, except that they wish to go back to the 1930's instead of the 1900's. Rewriting neo-Marxism (as Grieder has done here) is not going to inflame the passion of Americans. Considering that many either aspire to owning a business one day or know somebody that does, considering that many (for one reason or another) are investors, and considering that many (if not most) Americans aren't really bothered by being consumers, this sort of approach will only convince most Americans that the left has nothing new to say and nothing important to offer. It's not that I totally disagree, exactly, it's that rhetoric like this not only seems stale, it perpetuates the class war that the Movement has been fighting since the Reagan period. Their success implies that if the debate stays on that ground, they'll win, and win big.

Second is another problem that the left seems prey to, as exemplified by that "not the failures of government" element in the above quotation. There is this tendency to look everywhere for "underlying structural reasons" for the behavior of government, looking everywhere but government itself. Corporations, electoral systems, the nature of society... anything and everything is employed to rob the Bush administration (and, going back further, the Movement types) of responsibility for their actions. In turn, the solutions desired seem to be not only overly grandiose and unrealistic (it's much harder to change society than it is to change a government), but they completely miss the real and manifest power of those conservatives that have recognized that it really is about government, and are more than willing to use it. This is partially due to the tendency of many in all parts of the political spectrum to believe that the political is the slave of the economic, and the governmental is the slave of the structural. They cannot accept that economic answers are not always suitable for political questions, and that the agency of government can overcome the structure of society (which is, in any case, inevitably and gloriously contradictory). I defended Prof. Krugman because I believe that economics is important, but I genuinely disagree with his idea that economics is akin to Asimov's "psychohistory"... it does not contain all the answers, not even close.

(Besides, the Movement has demonstrated that the first step towards changing society is to gain control of at least one branch of government. The two go together quite well. There's no need to be fatalistic about it- if they did it, others can too.)

The third element is post-modernism. Now don't get me wrong, I believe that the insights of the post-modern project are important ones, even if I disagree with them on several issues, but they create a problem where there simply can't be any unified left-wing "vision", because many on the left disagree that such unity is desirable, or even possible! There are divisions on the right, sure, but they recognize that such divisions are an impediment to the effectiveness of their movement, not something to be prized in and of themselves. The right is winning at least partially because the left is letting them, and the left is letting them because (ironically enough) the right seems to understand Leninist partisanship better than they do, and the importance of unity as strength.

(This can also be seen in the constant conflict between centrist liberals and the idiotically-dubbed "loony left", which is, by far, the best weapon the Movement has and the one that is arguably most responsible for their success.)

Grieder is still right, however, on his basic concept, if not his solution. The liberal-left does need to move into a new era. It needs to embrace unity (at the very least due to a shared enemy), it needs a new vision that is rooted in American culture as it actually is, and not as anti-capitalists wish it would be, and it needs to recognize that there can be and often are political and governmental solutions to political and governmental problems. Not everything is economics, and not everything is structural. Do that, and the Movement has already lost.

(Oh, it also needs to create a coherent and distinctive foreign policy as well. That's one of the few things that 9/11 really did change, and the most egregious example of old economic answers being pushed for new political problems.)

Excellent find, James.

Edit: URL closed.

No comments:

Post a Comment