January 20, 2011

The Left Has a Lot to Answer For

Crossposted at Underbelly.

Seems like everybody who counts wants to weigh in on Freddie deBoer (who?) 's piece decrying the marginalization of the left in the blogosphere.  See link, link, link, link, and perhaps especially link and many more.  I won't pretend to have read all of them, and I certainly can't top the best of them but I do want to add a thought that I haven't seen well enough developed elsewhere.

For starters,  I think deBoer is right; the blogosphere does need a more engaged left.  We all need a better left: market liberalism has turned into a kind of groupthink which is bound to become (if has not already become) a blind alley.  Sooner or later somebody or something is bound to upset this conceptual applecart and the sooner it happens the better for everybody.   If you doubt it, recall how the right horned itself into the dialogue 30 years ago and how, for all the howling (and, okay, for all the mandacity, the irresponsibility and the outright cruelty) the enquiry has been enriched by its  presence.  The dialogue needs the left.

The obvious corollary is that if the left isn't part of the dialogue, it's its own fault: the left isn't in the dialogue because nobody is listening and nobody is listening because the left doesn't have much to say.  this is a harsh, smug, self-satisfied and dismissive response.  Yet I will embrace it, because I think it is true.  The fact is, the left hasn't had anything interesting to say in years.  And this is a pity, because there are so many things on which things to be said.

Start with free trade.  It's one issue on which neoliberals and (many) conservatives agree.   Trade barriers bad, free trade good.  The left doesn't like free trade; they say it robs us of good jobs at the expense of low-paid labor overseas.    The mainstream response is that it really doesn't work that way--but the left isn't persuaded and in truth, they have a lot of evidence on their side.  Yet where is it written that American (steelworkers, auto workers, textile workers, whatever) should live well while a Bagladeshi starves?  Is this really what the left wants?  I doubt it, but isn't it s legitimate concern, and as such, doesn't it deserve  a response?

Or take the closely related issue of (private sector) trade unions (remember them?).   The left pines for a day when a man (sic) with a good union job could expect to support his wife and a couple of kids with a home in the suburbs, like Homer Simpson?  Well, you know what?  We all pine for those days.  Or, everyone except Scrooge McDuck.  We doubt they are on offer again; we suspect they depend on grotesquely unbalanced world economy, supported by trade barriers (see previous paragraph) that allowed Charlie Wilson and Walter Reuther to set an above-market price and divvy up the proceeds while we all drove crap cars.  Or worse: they loaded us up with railway featherbedding, with printers' bogus, with an illimitable array of makework charades that loaded us all up with extra costs while doing exactly nothing--or, nothing positive--for the worker's sense of self-worth.

We don't want to go back there, do we?  Once again, the question is not rhetorical.  Maybe the answer is "sure."  But it is a question, and deserves a candid and reasoned response--the kind of response that can only come from those who appear most committed to the old and (seemingly?) discredited scheme.

Or take public employee unions.  This is a somewhat different issue because they didn't even exist in the old days.  I speak out of special interest here because I enjoy a public pension and I'm just delighted to have it, thank you.  And in general, I think it is a fine idea to have a public service that is well paid.  But "well paid" has to mean "well paid for services rendered."  Thus I'm not at all disturbed when we pay our public school teachers decent salaries, but don't we have the right to expect something in return?  Can we really justify having teachers so (comparatively) well paid when the results they turn in are so consistently awful?

Or take the calamity of the underclass.  The right made some of its greatest inroads a generation ago when they cast a cold eye on Great Society spending programs and ventured you can't solve problems by throwing money at them.  And remember what happened?  Okay, I'll remind you: what happened was that they were proved largely right: all kinds of noble aspirations withered into private honeypots for the well-connected; jobs for the boys (and later, girls).  In a way it is a cheat: a lot of the voices insisting most loudly that you couldn't solve problems by throwing money at them--a lot of those voices really didn't give a rat's hind end whether the problems got solved or not (and they certainly weren't interested in giving their advice to the military).  But at the core, they were right.  The "liberals" pretty well lost that round, and it may be what cut them off from their leftist roots.  But the "left" for the most part, seems not to have learned the lesson.  And once again, we need to frame it as questions: can we really, despite all the evidence, really solve problems by throwing money at them? Can you put our mind at rest on that issue?  If not, what do you have to offer that will trump our concerns.

I could on here but I suspect you get the drift.  To restate the general point: I think there's a large chunk of the citizenry--I'd count myself among it--who have a serious interest in the health of the body politic, and a genuine eagerness to help produce a just society in which everyone can live with decency and self-respect (and good luck with that, eh?).   We certainly aren't eager to sign on to what we regard as the mainstream conservative agenda.  We are, for example, deeply apprehensive about the rising power of "movement Christianity"--we tend to be pro-choice; we believe in human-made climate change; we're revolted  by vulgar creationism.  But we aren't at all persuaded that "the left" has answers that are distinctive or interesting or, most of all plausible.

There is another, even more, contentious, way of stating the point: the left is still stuck pre-1989.  I don't suppose there are any communists left anywhere any more except on the North Korean politburo.  But a whole world of traditional leftism crumbled along with the Berlin wall.  It would take a hero to rebuild, or rather "reconstruct" it all.  I suppose it seems unfair to impose the responsibility on the advocates--a dialogic form of "blaming the victim."  Yet if anybody has done--or even begun--the job in any remotely plausible way, then I have missed it.  Any takers?