Interview: The Baby Drought
Industrial: Lies, AWAs and Statistics
Workplace: The Invisible Parents
History: Bruce’s Big Blunder
Politics: All God's Children
Economics: Spun Out
International: Shakey Trials
Legal: Civil Distrubance
Review: Crash Course In Racism
Poetry: You're Fired
The Locker Room
An Act of Faith
Remembering Workers In Cairns
Fair Go For Injured Workers
A Question Of Choice
Galahs Up The Cross
All God's Children
The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn't values that lost us the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion of fear. But maybe frightened people look for strong leaders, whose strength is revealed in their firm commitment to a set of values. Fear politics and value politics may turn out to be closely related. So what is wrong with the liberal-left? Do we really look weak, uncommitted, value-free-tacking to the wind, whichever way it blows? And is this just a matter of appearance, a failure of public relations; so that what we need is a little rhetorical uplift, cosmetic surgery, some improvement in our posture? Stand straighter! Talk tough!
Well, no. We had better tell ourselves a more interesting story than that. Something big has happened in American politics over the last several decades, a basic shift in perspective, a strange crossover of left and right traits that we need to understand. Consider the role of ideology on the right today. We on the left tell ourselves that the politics of the Bush administration is driven by old-fashioned class interest and corporate greed. But that's only partly true. If the old Marxist ruling class were actually ruling right now, its policies would be considerably more moderate than those of this administration-at home and, even more clearly, abroad. What we face in Washington is an ideologically driven politics, in which class interest is certainly well represented but also exaggerated and distorted.
In fact, ideology rules everywhere on the right, across the spectrum of issues in which right-wing intellectuals and activists take an interest (note the combination: it used to be only the left that had intellectuals and activists). Everywhere, we see radically coherent, single-causal analyses of social problems and radical proposals to deal with the problems once and for all: lower and lower taxes, privatized Social Security, tests and more tests in the public schools, torture for terrorists, war for Saddam, democracy for the Arabs. And everything will be wonderful, after the revolution.
This is the first crossover: ideological certainty and zeal have migrated to the right. Of course, there are still people on the left who are absolutely sure about their political position and zealous in its defense. But they don't set the tone; they are off on the margins, a frequent annoyance, but not a political force. Most of us on the near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we understand, and we move around in that world pragmatically, practicing a politics of trial and error. We defend policies like Social Security, which have worked pretty well, and try to make them work a little better. We want more redistributive tax and welfare systems, but we are not Bolshevik egalitarians-even if our opponents are Bolshevik inegalitarians. We opposed the Iraq War but are painfully unsure about how to get out and when. National health insurance is the most radical proposal that I've heard from American liberals in recent years, and it's a European commonplace.
I was struck by the pragmatism of the near-left when I read a review-essay by Richard Rothstein, one of our best public intellectuals, in the New York Review of Books (December 2, 2004). Rothstein's essay is mostly a critique of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, but it also discusses six other books about education and inequality. I am interested here not in the immediate issues (though they are important), but in the most general argument of the essay. "Today's education debates are poisoned," Rothstein writes, "by the insistence of partisans on finding a single cause . . . for racial inequality and then [on denouncing] remedies that address others." The Thernstroms are the chief targets here, and Rothstein's essay is a liberal-left response: our educational problems, he says, are very complex; racial inequality has many causes; and it has to be addressed from different angles. "Modest improvement" in our schools is "a more appropriate aspiration" than radical change. "If we fail to accept gradual progress, educational reform will remain a hopeless enterprise." Rothstein is certainly persuasive; I read him and agree. But he does sound very much like the early neoconservatives, writing in the Public Interest thirty or forty years ago, before the right was seized by ideology. Wasn't the liberal "war on poverty" criticized with words and phrases similar to Rothstein's? Beware of ambitious projects predicated on the certainty that we know what causes what. Beware of the unanticipated consequences of theory-based politics. That old neocon wariness is ours now. But can it inspire left intellectuals and activists?
So this is the second crossover: ideological uncertainty and skepticism about all-out solutions to social problems have migrated to the left. This must have something to do with 1989 and the collapse of communism-though I don't think that the left, near or far, has even begun to come to grips with the disaster that was communism. Perhaps the second crossover is also the product of the (very incomplete) success of social democracy in Europe and New Deal liberalism here, of civil rights and feminism, even of multiculturalism. Successes of this sort don't leave us without an agenda, but they may leave us without the kind of agenda that makes for passionate conviction and zealous endeavor. A lot of near-left energy over the last fifteen years has been spent defending past victories, whose problematic features we know only too well.
The non-zealous near-left might still win elections. Bill Clinton won twice, after all, and Al Gore really won (even though he didn't). Surely there have been occasions in the past when cautious reformers defeated ideological reactionaries. But the crossover of ideology and caution has come at a very bad time for us. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the world looks a lot more dangerous than it did before, and hesitant, pragmatic reformers don't inspire confidence. John Kerry spoke truthfully when he said in one of the presidential debates that a politician can be very certain and very wrong. But large numbers of Americans seem to believe, though they might not put it this way, that certainty will prevail in the end, even over its own wrongness.
Intellectuals on the left certainly lack certainty: we no longer have a general theory, such as Marxism once was, that tells us how things are going and what ought to be done. Does that mean that we are no longer "general intellectuals" but only locally and particularly engaged-"specialists," as Michel Foucault argued? This left intellectual writes about education, this one about city planning, this one about health care, this one about the labor market, this one about civil liberties-and all of them are policy wonks. Is that our world? Well, maybe it is ours, but it isn't theirs. Here is the crossover again: there are definitely general intellectuals on the right. The theory of the free market isn't a world-historical theory exactly; one might say that it is a world-ahistorical theory. But it does have extraordinary reach; it allows its believers to have an opinion about pretty much everything. In this sense, it is an imperial doctrine, like Marxism. And combined with a theory of American-led democratization (and, for many people on the right today, with a conviction of divine support), it is also an imperialist doctrine: it allows believers to have an opinion about pretty much everywhere.
Now here is the strangest part of my story: deprived of a theory, we (on the left) try to get by with principles and values. Despite the claims made in the last presidential campaign, the truth is that it's the left whose politics is value-driven. There is a distinctly moralizing tone in the work of liberal-left intellectuals and activists today. The old, Marxist left didn't need morality because it had history. Its intellectuals and activists had only to affirm the forward movement of the historical engine and join forces with the designated driver, the working class. Questions about just and unjust, right and wrong, goodness and evil, would all be taken care of after the revolution. For the right today, the market takes care of such matters, or God takes care of them; the common good arises out of the competition for private goods-in obedience, amazingly, to God's word. On the left, however, we have to take care of moral matters by ourselves, without the help of history, the invisible hand, or divine revelation. Hence the arguments we make are almost always moral arguments: in defense of human rights; against commodification, for communal values; against corporate corruption and greed, for "equal respect and concern"; against unjust wars, in favor of humanitarian interventions; against environmental degradation, in defense of future generations; and so on. We can't claim that any of these arguments are in the service of economic growth, or modernization, or revolutionary transformation, or religious redemption. They aren't world-historical arguments. Marxists would be contemptuous of people arguing like that, without a theory of social change, without an analysis of social forces. Nonetheless, these aren't the arguments of specialists; some of us make all of them, all the time, without any expert connection to any of the things we are talking about. Aren't we still general intellectuals?
That last question is connected to a more urgent one: Why isn't the moral character and the value-driven politics of the near-left more widely recognized? For right-wing intellectuals and activists, values seem to be about sex and almost nothing else; vast areas of social life are left to the radically amoral play of market forces. And yet they "have" values, and we don't. They can be relied on to defend "our values," and our way of life, and even our lives, and we can't. This is, of course, an exaggeration; fifty-nine million Americans voted for John Kerry and so for the American liberal-left in its party-political form. Still, my account of who is taken to have and not to have values is, I think, an accurate reading of the dominant political culture. Why is this so?
The answer has to do with the ideological crossover. Liberals and leftists are engaged on many fronts, but we are not coherently engaged. No one on the left has succeeded in telling a story that brings together the different values to which we are committed and connects them to some general picture of what the modern world is like and what our country should be like. The right, by contrast, has a general picture. I don't think that its parts actually fit together in a coherent way, but they appear to do so. And in politics, despite the common view that all politicians pander to their constituencies, saying one thing here and its opposite there, the appearance of coherence is the name of the game.
Scattershot doesn't work, not in arguments and not in campaigns; you need a coordinated barrage. And somehow, right-wing intellectuals and activists have managed to convince themselves and a lot of other people that the free market, individual self-reliance, the crusade for democracy, the war against terrorism, heterosexual marriage, conventional sex and gender roles, religious faith, and patriotic sentimentality all hang together. They are a coherent set, and together they constitute the American Way. And then the defense of "values," even if it's narrowly and weirdly focused-say, on sexual license in Hollywood movies-calls to mind everything else. Well, I guess it's not entirely weird; there is a recognizable picture of America here, even if it's a nostalgic picture, and even if a lot of Americans (maybe, today, most Americans) are left out of it.
In the aftermath of the last election, some liberal Democrats, most notably Peter Beinart in the New Republic, argued that we once had a similarly recognizable picture and that we had better recapture it. They evoke the "fighting liberalism" and the militant anticommunism of the early cold war. The founding of Americans for Democratic Action in 1947 is Beinart's moment of truth, and he hopes for a similar founding today-of a new liberal-left defined by its militant opposition to Islamic radicalism. ADA was indeed an admirable organization (though the editors of Dissent in the 1950s criticized many of its political positions), and its founders were a memorable group: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Walter Reuther were among them. Beinart doesn't mention that all these people were defenders of the "containment" of communism over against the "liberation" of Eastern Europe. It would be interesting to play out an analogous contrast in today's politics. But let's accept Beinart's description of "fighting liberalism." Then the crucial point to make is that this politics was not a great success. Harry S Truman won the 1948 election on domestic issues, with a populist attack on "special interests" that looked back to the New Deal, not forward to the anticommunist struggle-even though we would soon be involved in the Korean War. And then in 1952, the American people trusted the Republicans, not the fighting liberals, to see us through the war and to sign the necessary compromise peace. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidency, claiming that Eisenhower had failed to push up military spending and that we were vulnerable, or soon would be, to Russian missiles. This was the biggest victory of cold war liberalism; for once, Democrats succeeded in looking tough. But that need to look tough and then, once they were in power, to act tough led the United States step by step into the awfulness of Vietnam. In 1968, Americans once again trusted the Republicans to see us through the war-to negotiate the necessary withdrawal and accept the inevitable defeat. This isn't a record that invites imitation today.
The major achievement of the ADA took place at home, not in the larger world, not in Washington, but in the camp of the liberal-left: the defeat of the old popular front, the end of "fellow traveling." Schlesinger, Reuther, and the others understood what communism was and why liberals and leftists had to sustain a militant opposition to it. We can indeed learn from their experience. Since 9/11, a number of Dissent writers have stressed the political danger and the moral awfulness of religious zeal and terror and have insisted, in the face of considerable reluctance among many leftists, on the necessity of militant opposition to both. This is an intra-left argument, and we need to have it out. I agree with Beinart that strong support for democratic forces around the world has to be a central feature of our opposition to zeal and terror. But I don't share his "fighting faith."
Above all, I don't share his ambition to make this fighting faith "the road back" to state power. Militancy is for movements, not governments. It rightly characterizes the ideology of intellectuals and activists, of labor unions and human rights organizations, of feminists and environmentalists in international civil society. All these people, all these groups, should be working with democratic activists around the world: committed democrats are our comrades, wherever they are found. But the idea of a state with a fighting faith is much less appealing, and an army with a fighting faith is positively alarming. Here the ideological crossover seems eminently defensible: leftists can legitimately be wary of faith-based politics. Certainly, the state should be guided by moral and political principles, but these have to be tempered by caution and pragmatically interpreted. Leftist intellectuals and activists support democracy because it is the form of government that best accords with individual freedom, equality, and collective self-determination. But the United States should support democracy because democratic states are our most reliable allies, with whom we are most likely to share not only principles but also strategies.
"Fighting liberalism" was at least partly responsible for getting us into Vietnam, just as "fighting neoconservatism" was at least partly responsible for getting us into Iraq. So we need to be careful about "fighting." Since the time of Machiavelli, military metaphors have been common in political life, and they work well enough: we have election campaigns, debates about strategy and tactics, ideological militancy, and "wars" on crime, drugs, poverty, and terrorism. But metaphors are dangerous if people take them literally. The liberal-left today should reject politics-as-war in favor of a political politics that recognizes that militancy means knocking on doors and talking at meetings, that the war on terrorism is mostly police work, and that persuasion and negotiation should always be our preferred strategies.
Maybe the struggle against Islamic radicalism and religious zeal is a world-historical struggle, as the struggle against communist totalitarianism was. I doubt that Islamic radicalism has the expansionist potential that communism had, but . . . maybe. Let the historians of the future worry about that. We should be looking for a version of ideological coherence and militancy that doesn't lead us into actual crusading warfare-that enables us to "fight" this "war" one "battle" at a time. "Fighting faith" as a state ideology belongs to the right today, and liberals and leftists have to oppose it, not only because it merits opposition on its own but also because opposing it is the best way to "fight" effectively against zealots and terrorists.
So, how do we bring coherence to a pragmatic, cautious, and highly moralistic left? We might begin by noticing that the succession of fighting liberals-Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy-shows a steady decline in commitment to the critical moral value of equality (that was one reason for Dissent's criticism). Anticommunism was a necessary politics, but it did tend, in the United States during the cold war, as in Eastern Europe afterward, to promote individual liberty and market freedom at the expense of social justice. In the sixties, the civil rights and feminist movements produced a radically egalitarian politics alongside the Democratic Party's liberalism and sometimes, uneasily, within the party. Today, however, the Democrats are a party of justice only relative to the Republicans. Egalitarianism is the distinctive mark of liberal-left politics, but in 2005 the distinctiveness is barely visible. This should worry us because any coherent leftist response to zeal and terror, to world disorder and global poverty, to tyranny and fear, has to have this distinctive mark.
If there is a historical analogy that might help our political thinking today, it is with 1930s antifascism rather than with cold war anticommunism. All the books and articles identifying the new enemy as "Islamic fascism" are no doubt inexact, but the description is politically useful so long as it is treated with crossover caution. Fascism is a secular politics; the Baathist regime in Iraq (as described, say, in Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear) came very close to the real thing; any religious politics is sure to be more distant. Still, the mobilization of zeal and hatred, the authoritarianism and brutality of a regime like the Taliban, the cult of death among the militants, the radical hierarchy of believers and infidels-all this bears at least a family resemblance to what we might think of as classical fascism. And it invites a liberal, democratic, and egalitarian response.
Engagement in the cold war did not make for a strong commitment to social justice at home. By contrast, antifascism did make for a left politics at home-compromised by the opportunism and kitschiness of the popular front, but productive nonetheless. The growth of the labor movement and the transformation of the factory floor were its greatest achievements. But there were others. Opposing fascism meant supporting people in trouble-all sorts of people: unemployed workers, the elderly, the rural poor, Jewish and (eventually) black Americans. The links were sentimental but they were also programmatic. Can similar connections be made today between the fight against zeal and terror, on the one hand, and some kind of left domestic agenda, on the other? I am unsure of the answer to this question, but let's consider the possibilities, raising more questions along the way.
Fear has to be our starting point, even though it is a passion most easily exploited by the right. Religious zeal and terrorism produce real insecurity; if ordinary Americans are fearful today, they have good reason. Some leftists argue that the fear of terrorism is contrived, one more example of false consciousness, a diversion from the things we really need to worry about. There are probably people in the Bush administration who have exactly the same view; the only difference is that they admire the contrivance. But that view is wrong, and it would be politically disastrous for the left to act upon it. The first task of the state, as Hobbes argued, is to protect people from the fear of violent death and from actual violent deaths-and that is a legitimate and necessary task. But while the state is doing that, it can do many other things. Hyping the threat of terror is indeed a way of making Americans forget the other things. But acknowledging the threat can open up a wider politics of collective security. After all, the defense of vulnerable men and women is classic leftism. And if we want to protect the American people against environmental degradation, or nuclear accidents, or pandemic disease, or the vagaries of the market, or long-term unemployment, or destitution in old age, then we need to make the case that we can also protect them against terrorist attack.
Collective security was the battle cry of intelligent leftists in the 1930s, confronting European fascism. And security for ordinary Americans was a battle cry at home, confronting the structural crises and the human predators of a capitalist economy. Can we bring these two together again? Is it possible to talk about the millions of Americans without health insurance, about profit-gouging in the drug industry, and global warming, and the protection of future generations-all that, and suicide bombers and dirty bombs too? Kerry tried to hit all these notes, but they didn't add up to a tune that anyone could sing. Yet the issues do hang together. It isn't mere rhetoric to say that "freedom from fear" is a central leftist goal, and it isn't an accident that this goal was first enunciated in the course of an antifascist war by democratic politicians responding to the hopes of their people. American citizens, Franklin Roosevelt had already said in 1937, have a right to expect that democracy will provide "continuously greater opportunity and continuously greater security." We should still be committed to that democratic expectation.
The Bush administration exploits our fears, but it is not interested in a collective effort to cope with them-that is, to provide the necessary forms of protection and to stimulate the necessary forms of mutual assistance. That is the project of the near-left. The ideological right aims deliberately at undermining security, in the name of self-reliance, but with a deeper purpose: to discipline the workforce and stabilize the new forms of inequality. By contrast, the left project is egalitarian because we are committed to distribute the costs of security fairly and to make sure that the most vulnerable people are the first to be protected-or to be helped to protect themselves. It seems to me that most of our values can be connected to this project. We can tell a plausible story about "freedom from fear" that addresses the actual vulnerabilities of ordinary people and advances the cause of democratic equality. We may not be able to match the excitement of real war: the Red Army marching on Warsaw in 1919, say, or the U.S. Army marching on Baghdad in 2003 (these two provide another example of the great crossover). I am not advocating a crusade for security-just a "battle." I doubt that faith will figure in our story; we won't be able to claim divine support, and in parts of the United States today, that is a serious and for us an unavoidable liability. But the American people will figure in the story, and their democratic values, and the anxieties they share, and the old liberal-left commitment to humane reform. If we can connect the values, the anxieties, and the commitment, we will have begun a "fight" that we might be able to win.
Michael Walzer's most recent book is Politics and Passion (Yale University Press, 2004). He is a co-editor of Dissent.
This article is from Dissent Magazine.
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