Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Left and its discontents

I hate the Soviet Union and Communism as much as I hate Nazism and Nazi-Germany. In fact, I think of the two Communism is far more dangerous: you don't have the swastika as a trendy fashion statement but you do have the equally blood dripping hammer and sickle being routinely worn by young, intelligent and idealistic people. It seems that you only need a few drags of Enlightenment to disguise your irrational and bloodthirsty ideology and all will be forgotten and forgiven. Just like that.

But Communism had a coherent theory of historical change - yes, a very silly and utterly discredited one, but even so: they had the analytical tools to comprehensively confront capitalism. I am afraid that modern social liberalism and social democracy lack these tools completely and have thus been doomed to be at the mercy of events, or, even worse, being forced to offer the political excuse for every single twist and turn of the dynamic, destructive and irrational global markets.

Capitalism works because it relies on human nature to function as has done throughout history: selfishly, shortsightedly and - within brutally strict limits - calculatingly. For a while it seemed that the messy social democratic compromise worked, but the immense power of capital seems now to have broken free of those rational, moderate limits that the democratic left imposed on it. One wonders what slow beast is now slouching towards Betlehem - what is clear in any case is that we have no control over history, no chance to moderate this mad continuous structural change that is the true meaning of capitalism. There is no long view to be taken and if these train tracks are going over a cliff, over a cliff we will go.

So, what is so desperately needed is a comprehensive theory of historical change for the rational Left: tools to confront capitalism, to control or transform it. Of course, one of the multitude of curses that the awful Soviet terror state left in its wake was to discredit all such theories and tools. And yes, all such aim to control the direction of history contains horrible temptations to our base, fearful and aggressive nature but the enlightened, moderate left is the only force now left that still can keep us on that extreme middle way, between irrational terror and destruction on either side of it. The tragedy of our times is that the enlightened, moderate left is in an abject state of confusion and demoralization: we are now on automatic control - and for how long will our luck hold?

8 comments:

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helsinkian said...

What kind of comprehensive theory of historical change would be able to function as a blueprint for moderate center-left politics? For extremist movements, it is easy to say that every decision is based on Mao's little red book or Mein Kampf or religious authority like the Bible or the Qur'an. But having such a simplistic worldview is just window dressing - basing your politics on one book or one theory works when you have one leader who thinks for all.

The big news that I got for you is that today's center-left has plenty of theories of which a whole is built. There is the liberal legacy of the Enlightenment, Christian ethics, socialist thought and then some. It's cherry-picking from several sources - you take everything that is progressive from each basket and discard the rest.

I understand you think this is a problem (moderate center-right does the same thing picking their worldview from several sources, a unified view just won't fit our times). You just can't quote the master at the source every time you need to make a tough decision. Now when I think of a center-left writer who has influenced me a lot, J.K. Galbraith, he has modified his positions over the years and obviously I cherry-pick when reading him those positions that feel comfortable to me to get a feelgood factor.

If there would be such a one theory that could be used as a political platform, rigidity would be very bad. The world changes at such a fast pace. Whereas using several sources for a worldview is good, the risk is what you I believe were trying to say, having no view at all.

I believe there is movement and debate both on the left and the right at the moment as there should be. But it takes so much work to really dig deeper into these debates and finding where the big differences in the worldview are.

I have a question, what is your view on globalization? Is this just a protectionism vs. free trade issue or is this first and foremost an environmental issue? Is it an us vs. them issue and who would be we and who would be they? What in the globalization debate makes you tick and do you already have a theory or a writer in that regard that you subscribe to?

Anonymous said...

No, of course there are plenty of theories around - and I know that "Grand Narratives" are supposed be dead (will someone tell this to Capitalism?), but this believe is more a symptom of left's malaise than a rational description of our experience and situation. Our cherry picking, our scattered, contradictory reactions to events, leave us at the mercy of events, of structural historical change that is taking us towards unreason and chaos. Or seems to, at this grim moment in time. I don't think we need a pseudo-Marxist Theory of Everything, but a practical political blueprint, a plan of action of how we will control very dynamic, very destructive capitalism - how we will confront and control blind historical change. Social Democracy has stopped doing that now and is at the mercy of events. This is fine for the traditional Righ (who believes in Providence) and to the agnostic Modern Right (who either believes in the invible hand or in the inherent randomness and chaos of history) but for the enlightened, progressive left that will not do.

helsinkian said...

Yeah, many people who had believed in leftist narratives supported the idea that all grand narratives are dead. Those who supported the idea that history has come to an end were right-wingers.

helsinkian said...

I'm just trying to say that I don't believe all narratives are dead even if I do believe grand narratives (everything can be explained by one theory) in a strict sense are dead. Narratives that work are updatable, that's the key.

stockholm slender said...

Well, it's an extremely complicated question: what exactly do we mean with grand narratives? I am quite influenced by post-structuralist thought but I have never been able to take seriously the most extreme formulations about the death of subject, of the perceived reality or of history and historical agents. In practice the agnostic and pragmatic (Oakeshottian) Right is usually very effective in puncturing the dangers and vanities of the Enlightenment Left, but I am a progressive in the sense of wanting rational and controlled progress and a differently and better behaved humanity. The reality is grim, and has always been - in many senses "sinful" or debased - but we must try to change it for the better. This the Right in any of its forms refuses to attempt.

stockholm slender said...

About globalization - well, I am a sort of a worried agnostic. In many ways it is excellent news that the huge marginalized masses in the 3rd World will finally get a greater share of the world's wealth. But I am not happy to see it happen under the banner of the most predatory investement capital. The starting level is so horrifyingly low that even most jungle like capitalist conditions will mean great improvement, but the human and moral costs will be very high.

This sort of massive uncontrollable shift in the global balance will also mean dangerous and unstable times to come - with the highly sophisticated weaponry we excel in making it is not a good combination. Maybe also the invisible hand will somehow take care of the natural resources and the environmental balance. Somehow I do doubt it though.

helsinkian said...

I agree with you on the environment issue. That's the huge dilemma of globalization. What will happen with the environment? Now it's essentially about the globe, not just one region somewhere. Who cares if anyone?