Two cheers for the post-political

Since at least the 1990s, it might be said that Western liberalism has set the negation of politics as a primary objective. Perhaps a bit more precisely, it has seen the end of “the political” as the final outcome and greatest metric of its own success in a post-Soviet global order.

These rather triumphalist remarks of Tony Blair’s from 1998 – intended to lay out the principles of the Third Way political project – are emblematic of that zeitgeist:

“Human nature is cooperative as well as competitive, selfless as well as self-interested; and society could not function if it was otherwise. The grievous 20th century error of the fundamentalist left was the belief that the state could replace civil society and thereby advance freedom. The new right veers to the other extreme, advocating wholesale dismantling of core state activity in the cause of “freedom”. The truth is that freedom for the many requires strong government. A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organizations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate. These are the values of the Third Way. Without them, we are adrift. But in giving them practical effect, a large measure of pragmatism is essential. As I say continually, what matters is what works to give effect to our values.”

Some readers will instantly detect certain rhetorical ticks – even if unfamiliar with the speech – thanks to the Blairite posturing having been so widely emulated: the synthesis of themes taken from the old right and left (competition and cooperation!); the fanatical commitment to “moderation”; the attempt to discard ideology entirely; the instrumental logic undergirding the whole thing (“what works“).

The specifics of Blair’s speech are not hugely important – I could have chosen innumerable other passages. But taken together its themes usefully illustrate the post-political, as I understand it, within the context of modern liberal capitalism.

That is: a political framework, both normative and conceptual, that sees politics as an enterprise of management and narrows its horizons accordingly. The “big questions” having been resolved, so the story goes, democracy is primarily about people selecting the best team of managers – representatives whose disputes, such as they are, will be limited to things like small tax cuts, minor subsidies to citizens or private enterprise, the adjustment of certain social benefits in response to global economic changes, etc. Adherents therefore practice what they take to be a politics without conflict or ideology where what matters is what works.

Readers of my work elsewhere will know that this particular contention of contemporary liberals – that they transcend the binary of left and right, even “politics” altogether – plays a big role in my general animus towards their project. For one thing, it’s impossible to be “without ideology” if by ideology we mean a way of understanding the world and having certain ideas about how it ought to be. I think there’s also a near irrefutable case to be made that this style of politics has contributed to widespread democratic disengagement and atrophy in countries like Britain and the United States, with huge sections of the electorates disengaging and political contests becoming increasingly low-stakes PR battles an ever smaller segment of the population pays attention to. In the face of right wing onslaught, it’s also proven totally impotent and inadequate – putting huge numbers of people at risk.

Post-political liberalism, as much as some op-ed writers would like to preserve it, does appear to be on notice.

It recently occurred to me, though, as someone whose expended so many words agitating against the post-political character of contemporary liberalism that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the category of post-politics itself.

In their own crude way, figures like Clinton and Blair had a dialectical view of history and human progress – not semantically unlike the Marxist one. The 1990s was, for them, the triumph of the last and best system by which our societies could organize themselves and, sincerely or not, they at least branded their project as a synthesis of left and right. Where the enterprise went fundamentally wrong was in thinking that social and ideological conflict could simply be ended by declaring it finished. Put another way, partisans of the Third Way were incorrect that the big questions had been put to rest (or were at least content to sublimate them, hail victory, and let the markets rip).

Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first.

Conflict remains and the fundamental interests of whole blocs of society are visibly at odds. Whatever the specifics or ideological contours of your analysis it seems impossible to look upon countries as structurally unequal as Britain and the United States (where the post-political Third Way was most fanatically embraced) and conclude anything else. Politics, of the kind which recognizes and embraces division, is the only potential avenue of escape or resolution here.

But supposing any of us survive to live in something resembling an equal society it’s likely we’ll see the return of the post-political, and in that case it should probably be welcomed. Instead of Clinton and Blair clones arguing over which taxes to cut, imagine a cooperative socialist society amicably debating how to best distribute abundant resources, how to cut necessary labour hours the most, or which galaxy to explore first. These debates would still be debates, but they would in some respects no longer be political – genuine, dispassionate differences of opinion about how to pursue a common objective rather than expressions of divergent interests between asymmetrical actors.

The point isn’t that conflict is desirable in politics – only that, in an unequal world riven with injustice, it is necessary.

One day, perhaps, it will be socialists who greet the post-political with open arms.

Image: “The Prologue and the Promise”, by Robert McCall. 1983.

 

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Liberalism in theory and practice

“Liberalism dominates, but without confidence or security; it knows that its victories at home are tied to disasters abroad; and for the élan it cannot summon, it substitutes a blend of complacence and anxiety. It makes for an atmosphere of blur in the realm of ideas, since it has a stake in seeing momentary concurrences as deep harmonies. In an age that suffers from incredible catastrophes it scoffs at theories of social apocalypse—as if any more evidence were needed; in an era convulsed by war, revolution and counterrevolution it discovers the virtues of “moderation”…Liberalism as an ideology, as “the haunted air,” has never been stronger in this country; but can as much be said of the appetite for freedom?” – Irving Howe

One of the major points of division between liberal and left thinking, it seems to me, is evident in how each side perceives liberal democratic institutions and how they function in practice as opposed to theory.

A particular memory from grad school comes to mind. I recall participating in a discussion of John Rawls’ political thought that after half an hour or so felt completely divorced from reality. It wasn’t that those assembled didn’t understand Rawls – on the contrary, they were incredibly knowledgeable about his work and the innumerable theoretical debates surrounding it. What struck me was that they were discussing these debates in tones that strongly implied contemporary political institutions actually, albeit in varying and imperfect degrees, embodied the idealized speculative versions sketched out in Rawlsian and other neo-Kantian thought.

This is visible in more banal, less esoteric contexts too. A big part of what animates mainstream liberal opposition to the Trump administration – let’s call it the hashtag resistance – is an underlying notion that American institutions more or less functioned harmoniously, or at least in a manner not completely dissonant with what they’re supposed to be on paper, before Trump and his brigands crashed the gates.

The general left view of liberal institutions, on the other hand, is a lot more pessimistic about how they actually work and, in particular, how they work relative to what liberal intellectuals have told us we can expect from them – furthermore to what extent they can conceivably be expected to fulfill even their most basic assigned functions against the backdrop of a political and economic system in which “democracy” has such narrow applicability.

Oddly enough, this all came to mind because of some work I’ve been doing around employee pension plans in Canada – among the biggest and most profitable companies criminally underfunded despite huge dividends continually being paid out to shareholders since the financial crisis. As we’ve recently seen with Sears, this means that the pensions of a huge number of Canadian workers aren’t safe and could more or less vanish into thin air if their employer suddenly goes into insolvency. Why? Because shareholders at big companies have been allowed to cannibalize billions of dollars even if it’s meant worker pension plans run deficits in the hundreds of millions. Even in the wake of the Sears debacle, the reaction of Canada’s Liberal government has been extremely tepid. Justin Trudeau, our great and progressive leader, has said “his heart goes out” to laid off workers at Sears but nothing about concretely guaranteeing pensions in the future and has uttered not a single word of censure towards Sears executives and the bonuses they’ve received despite crashing one of the country’s flagship retail chains (and biggest employers). His Finance Minister, meanwhile, wants to help employers permanently shift potential liabilities onto workers by replacing Defined Benefit Pension plans altogether.

I bring this up because it seems like such a clear demonstration of liberal institutions’ structural inadequacy but also their failure to reflect the basic principles of economic pluralism and democratic representation we’re told they exist to guarantee, expand, and protect. Here you have a clear and present issue of basic justice, around which there are strong incentives for the government to act – the Liberals, after all, talked about protecting pensions in opposition, and a visible move on behalf of ordinary people’s retirement savings would undoubtedly be popular – and the best a supposedly progressive, liberal PM with a massive parliamentary majority can offer is his best wishes.

 

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Everything is communism

Spend any sizeable portion of time in the right wing blogosphere and its associated mediums and you quickly notice that just about everything is communism.

Same-sex marriage? Communism. Soup kitchens that serve the homeless? Establishments of the deepest crimson. Anti-discrimination laws? Bolshevism, pure and simple. Taxes that subject janitors to different rates than Fortune 500 CEOS? Surely, this must be the Frankfurt School at work.

Earlier this week I spent some time investigating organized conservative opposition to a new sex-ed curriculum. Most striking, apart from all of the oozing sexual insecurity at play, was the way a primal fear of socialism always seemed to be lingering in the background. At one rally, for example, a speaker denounced the use of gender neutral language in classrooms by complaining that the word “comrade” had allegedly appeared on a school board list of gender neutral terms.

This is silly and anecdotal, sure. But there’s a lot more where it came from.

According to senior figures in Canada’s conservative movement: Mary Poppins is communist propaganda; minimum wages are communist, as is “the language of equality” when applied to marriage. In the midst of the 2015 federal election, Conservative MP Larry Miller tweeted an old warning (in fact, an infamous fake meme on the right) of the “communist rules for revolution.”

Fake as it may be, note the range of conservative pathologies represented here:
communist_rules-for-revolution.jpg

No special insight here, except that this particular conservative tick seems to affirm Corey Robin’s thesis that the right is less a strict set of ideas than it is a fluid series of reactions to any push for equality.

 

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Liberalism without the left

Lately – and probably in no small part due to the US presidential race – I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the robustness of liberalism as a political ideology depends on the forces pressuring it from the left.

Today, when pressed on questions of economic justice, many liberals respond with tired market dogma, redbait, or simply wilt. Some try and conflate a caricatured “political correctness” with “cultural Marxism”, as if class politics are just an organic extension of the cultural politics found today on many campuses (or vise versa).

In the 1960s liberalism was deeply engaged with questions of economic and distributive justice. The patron saint of liberal political theory, John Rawls, wrote a hugely influential book on the subject which even conceded some ground to socialist theories of public ownership (revealingly, Rawls’ second major book – published more than two decades later – virtually abandoned economic issues and instead attempted to reconcile liberal and communitarian identity politics).

The political and economic backdrop for Rawls’ thinking was very different from what exists today: the US (and most liberal democracies) still had relatively powerful labour movements; the civil rights and antiwar movements loomed large; New Deal welfarism had yet to collapse; Keynesianism was still the economic orthodoxy du jour; a good portion of the world was officially committed to communism and Western socialist parties were still present as both a political and ideological force.

generalstrike1926

The British general strike, 1926

By the 1990s liberals no longer had to engage with communism, socialism, or social democracy out of necessity and responded to the right instead. The resulting political settlement combined the neoliberal economic theories ascendent since the 1970s with a cultural politics that broke with conservatives in some respects around issues of pluralism and identity, while globalization and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth continued apace. The social bases and institutional structures that had sustained and empowered the left for generations, so brutally and effectively assaulted by the right throughout the 1980s, withered.

In other words, liberalism seems to be at its most robust when it’s been forced to grapple with a strong and mobilized left for an extended period of time: In the absence of one, it sets itself in opposition to the right (a much easier and more comfortable task); when suddenly confronted with one (as it’s starting to be now), it is unprepared and retreats into tired old truisms and cliches.

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