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Monday, May 09, 2011

Longing For a Certain Kind of Left

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

The Pew Center has come up with yet another scheme of political typologies which we can use to situate ourselves; I took the test (because I always take these tests), and ended up a "New Coalition Democrat." Its group profile isn't horribly inaccurate; at least it didn't lump me in with authoritarians like Joseph Stalin the way the Political Compass quiz does. But if I'm looking for a test that'll truly reflect my own mixed communitarianism, Christian socialism, localism, and democratic populism, I haven't seen it.

Maybe that's because it doesn't exist, not really. Maybe it exists in only in theory--or in memory.

Erik Kain has written another one of his typically smart and insightful posts of ideological self-analysis, this on reflecting upon nostalgia and how, in his "rush to the left," he has "written the most conservative work [he's] ever written," most of it arising "from this sentiment of things lost and things remembered." He finds a strong parallel between his own contradictory feelings, and those of Paul Krugman, who would certainly come out a "Solid Liberal" on the Pew Center test:

[Krugman's political Eden was his hometown of Merrick, Long Island, in] the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared....[As he wrote] "The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history....All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening....You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate....I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers--basically the unionized blue-collar occupations--were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

Erik notes in agreement with what Jim Manzi also notes--that this is a conservative Eden, voiced with a "love of [a] particular, specific and local lived experience." And why wouldn't it be? Part of perhaps my oldest and firmest "left conservative" argument is that it is culture and memory, our lived experience with and our reflective investiture of meaning into particular, received forms of life, that provides the ground for all our thinking. Identity is inescapable. So if one believes, for whatever reason, in equality, in providing for collective goods, as Krugman does, then one has to make that happen while respecting the particular, even if the economic and political goals has in mind challenge it, or demand its change. My only beef with Erik is him calling all this "nostalgia." Yes, some cultural reflections become simplistic identifications with the past, holding it as something static, just a wonderful happenstance of transitory sociological details; but as Christopher Lasch--who was, I would argue, the definitive thinker on the matter of respecting, even conserving, our best and most equalizing local mores and traditions, while simultaneously insisting on seeking to make them potentially realizable in the lives of all--insisted, nostalgia is a dead-end, and it isn't what a proper communitarian thinker wants to do. A proper communitarian (and that's what Krugman is, thought he almost certainly wouldn't agree philosophically with the label) is one who tries to keep the foundation, the collectivity, the neighborhood, the family within which they grew up and came to appreciate the world in the way that he did, functioning and replicable even as the world and all its constituent parts change. Krugman wants the president to focus on jobs, he wants the president to defend his health care reform against Republican opposition, because he believes those things will help keep what he truly values--a decent "kind of middle-class life," as Manzi put it--more equal, more viable, more alive. They will keep his particular "communitarian" or "conservative" Eden alive, in the lives of more families, more neighborhoods, more people.

Perhaps the main reason why Krugman, and many other liberals sympathetic to him, feel lonely is because they're convinced that this kind of communitarian work (or whatever you want to call it) can only be realized through even more of that which worked in creating the rarified world of America in the 1950s and 1960s which they're idealizing in the first place: even more of what Freddie de Boer has rightly mocked as "globalize/grow/give progressivism." And yet, if you do not fundamentally question markets, if you do not want to put into question the technological and moral transgression of traditional limits which the ever-expanding economic vistas (and consequently expanding gaps between rich and poor) which mature capitalism has made possible, then how could you possibly turn to any other solution than that one? You can't. Hence, it's the solution Obama turned to, when it came to reforming health care; it's the solution all the serious policy wonks that Freddie loves to joust with also turn to, because it seems like it's the only game in town. Stimulus spending, job training, and the welfare state! Surely that can come close to recreating Merrick from a half-century ago, yes? No? Well, then we'll just make do with our rapid-fire, high-opportunity, high-risk, cosmopolitan world. Of course, we like unions--Krugman was absolutely on the right (left?) side when it came to Wisconsin--but basically, only as a way to shore up benefits and wages. That's fine. But a more expansive--more, dare I say, "socialist"--view of unions, as reflecting a "basic philosophy of empowerment and dignity for those on the bottom," as a means of economic security and "self-determination"? That's not the way the world works anymore, sorry to say.

Or does it? Check out David Harvey on that point, here:

Why do I find this kind of Marxist explanation compelling, especially given the fact that a large majority of intelligent people, whether they be a Krugman-style liberal or more libertarian, simply reject it? For Jim Manzi, the problems that Krugman--and Harvey--are diagnosing (that is, the decline of equality and stability for the American working classes over the past generation or two) are "primarily the product of circumstance." Krugman doesn't, I think, fundamentally disagree, only the circumstances he'd focus on would be the election of Republicans beginning in the late 1970s, and what he sees as the dishonest and elitist way they'd violated the liberal consensus which came out of the Great Depression and World War II. My friend Nate Oman, following Jim's line--one which says the circumstances which allowed that consensus to exist were bound to fade anyway anyway--takes on Harvey's diagnosis further:

Harvey assumes that the observed stagnation in household incomes is a result primarily of political decisions, as opposed to technological changes and demographic shifts in household structure. Not surprisingly, the end of the long postwar rise in household income in the early to mid 1970s corresponds neatly with the explosion in the divorce rate and the proliferation of single parent households. Likewise, blathering about neo-liberal ideology while ignoring the rise of automation, information technology, just-in-time delivery and other technological changes strikes me as myopic.

I disagree--not because he is wrong about the details (at least some of which are, I think, quite correct; if Harvey's analysis is subtly informed by a secular anti-traditionalism which refuses to contemplate the disruptive consequences that ripping up the disparate communitarian foundations of our neighborhoods has meant for our economic lives, then he needs to watch this discussion of Lasch's harshest attacks on our current socio-economic situation, and think again), but because Nate's dismissal of Harvey's investigation into the causes of our economic struggles features, I think, its own myopia. Nate presents “political decisions” as somehow irrelevant to the cultural and technological changes which he highlights--but clearly, all sorts of policy and investment decisions, from changing divorce laws to the subsidizing of the automobile and fast-food industries to aggressive trade policies to encroachments upon union power to a great deal more, were all profoundly relevant to those “technological changes and demographic shifts” that contributed to wage stagnation. These material changes are not ideologically neutral transformations of the blank page upon which human beings engage in economic and social transactions; they are the result of contests over the context within and through which transactions take place in the first place. Yes, perhaps it is a little “myopic” to construct a single enemy ideology--“neo-liberalism”--and fault it for all these contests that have mostly resulted in wins for the finance sector, but it is equally myopic to assume the reverse: that there is no class actors (a class that happens to be in possession of a significant amount of social power) invested in propagating capital growth without much concern for the distribution and disciplining of wealth which resisting certain technological and cultural (that is, material) transformations might have made easier.

The above is a kind of murky argument, I know--but that's because what is really being talked about here, what's being longed for, is itself something distant and deep: the context, the community, the grounding, the locality, that we (a lot of us anyway) were lucky enough to experience as not nearly so unequal, not nearly so divisive, not nearly so worried and doubtful, as that which our children are facing today, and may face even more in the years to come. Trying to grasp all that invites philosophy, invites radicalism--and if that isn't one's cup of tea, then you're left with hoping that we can just keep making enough money, and maybe sew a strong enough safety net...or maybe you're Ron Paul, and don't even hope for the second of those two. And Krugman's Merrick, well, that just becomes a nice bit of nostalgia, something to remember when you go back to Long Island for a parade sometime, and not a lot more than that. The left I want is a complicated one: it's a left which wants to put empowerment first, and that means helping people--as I must always remind myself as well--grasp the limits, the particularity, within which such empowerment is possible. That's a hard left to maintain, and who knows? Perhaps it's an imaginary one. But allowing oneself to think that the conservatism inherent to a serious liberalism, that the communitarianism that ought to ground any left, is some sort of unfortunate nostalgia, isn't correct, or at least not necessarily. In fact, if the left is to be rightly understood--or at least so I believe--it is anything but.

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