[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
A couple of fascinating exchanges over the past three or four days have caught my eye: first, the long thread which followed Rod Dreher’s comments last Friday regarding an interview with a British community organizer and Labor party official, talking about the low level of community responsibility and respect in Britain today. Second, Rochelle Gurstein’s vehement response on Monday to a sharp, critical, but also somewhat condescending assessment of Christopher Lasch which TNR had published by Alan Wolfe. What do they have in common? To put it much too simplistically, it’s all about whether the Left can make room for hope.
In this age of Tea Parties and Red Tories, just about everyone who calls themselves a conservative or a Republican or whatever–that is, just about everyone who acknowledges some attachment to the Right side of the our usual way of arranging political agendas, however incoherent or arbitrary that attachment often may be–recognizes that we have some big problems. (By “the Right,” let’s just say we’re talking about anything having to do with tradition and/or personal stewardship.) The civilizational determination which drove many conservatives the height of the Bush-era (say, 2005) is mostly gone; in it’s place, today even Republicans and Conservatives at the heart of their respective political establishments in the US and UK are talking about the need to rethink the key tendencies of mass democratic politics. These people talking aren’t necessarily reaching the talk-radio masses or taking control of the funding and recruiting infrastructure of their respective establishments–in fact, despite David Cameron becoming the new British prime minister, they almost certainly aren’t–but nonetheless echoes of their talk is being heard, one way or another. Ross Douthat summed it up yesterday pretty well:
This feels like a populist moment. Americans are Tea Partying. Greeks are rioting. Incumbents are being thrown out; the Federal Reserve is facing an audit; Goldman Sachs is facing prosecution. In Kentucky, Ron Paul’s son might be about to win a Republican Senate primary. [By the time you read this, he may already have done so.] But look through these anti-establishment theatrics to the deep structures of political and economic power, and suddenly the surge of populism feels like so much sound and fury, obscuring the real story of our time. From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.
Of course, you can dispute, as Ezra Klein does, Douthat’s whole framing of the issue here: Klein argues, and finds support from plenty of self-identified conservative voices for his contention, that if the consolidation of authority makes sense “on a case-by-case basis,” then you’re essentially passing on the hard questions; you’re allowing yourself the luxury of being concerned about “government in general” rather than specifying exactly what you’d rather not be done, or rather be done differently. To the extent that complaints about our current, numerous, interconnected predicaments don’t talk practically about compromises and trade-offs, Ezra’s charge carries weight. But at the same time, if you never look at the forest as opposed to the individual trees, if you never look at the broader felt context through which various case-by-case decisions are being made, then you’re going to fail to respect, fail to serve, even actively alienate those people for whom the context matters. It privileges an individualism, in other words…and individualism which too much of the Left has made peace with, I think.
Not that the Right so much more able to practically implement populist responses to this perceived problem; Douthat himself, despite having written a whole book on the topic, doesn’t seem to have much confidence in the ability of the current range of “conservative” responses to adequately address this “messy,” contextual problem, but at least he knows who he’s speaking to when he voices his fears. My question–the one which the argument over Lasch makes implicit, and which the discussion at Rod’s lays out explicitly–is: is there a Left audience for these same worries? A liberal Klein, for all his insight into the process, isn’t ready to admit that, piece by piece, the process itself could be adding up to an even larger problem. But obviously the world of liberal, managerial wonkery doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. Still, it can’t be denied that practical, left-leaning voices on this point aren’t especially vocal, and that’s frustrating.
It’s a frustration shared by Jon Cruddas, the activist mentioned before, has been engaged in for years: referring to Philip Blond and the way Red Toryism at least hypothetically imagines a “marrying up of liberalism and social conservatism,” he wonders: “Is there an equivalent [message] for the left? Is there an anti-statist, values-based politics that offers Labour an opportunity for reconciliation within itself and with its core supporters?” Cruddas’s concerns reflect his attachment to the heart of the “Left” side of the political equation–by which I mean, let’s say, a commitment to equality, and a willingness to see society, and even society’s traditions, changed in order to accommodate that equality. Now clearly, the interventionary state has done a great deal over close to a century of welfare state policies and other liberal social developments, not just in Britain and the U.S. but all across the Western democratic world, to spread access to that equal opportunity and justice. But the consequences of those policies–and, most crucially, the perhaps necessary compromises with market economics which were essential to funding them–have had plenty of negative consequences as well, most particularly in regards to the breakdown of solidarity, community, and democracy which enables people to not only take some real control over their own lives, but also to have a reasonable chance of feeling fulfilled by them. (There’s that “context” again.) The classic individualist response–which has come to dominate both Right and Left–is to dismiss this: it’s the responsibility of particular individuals themselves to strive for such sovereignty and discover such fulfillment; the community (much less the government) has nothing to do with it. That response is often true…but not always. It certainly is not true when you’re dealing with the “core supporters”–or at least one segment of them–of the Labor position, or the Democratic one for that matter: in such cases, we are addressing the needs of people who, at least in part because of a fundamental (and often historical) inequality in terms of access to opportunity and goods and education and more, will frequently be concentrated on the receiving end of any harmful or unlucky changes in the marketplace or family structure or simple demographics…and in such situations, the lack of community hurts a lot, because there may not be family, friends, or neighbors capable of helping out and holding hands in their times of need.
The usual response to an attack upon that individualist response is to ask if the one making the attack would prefer “socialism” instead. Usually what is meant there is some kind of hypothetical, ugly, state socialism, a collectivism of all industries and local economies alike. That solution, it is pretty clear from the historical experience of communist states, doesn’t actually do much to address the “concentration of authority”–in fact quite the opposite, obviously. But that attack on a particular kind of socialist bogeyman hardly exhausts all the ways in which someone could speak of broadly “socialist” reforms. But to open yourself up to the possibility of such reforms, means opening yourself up to hoping for different, often non-Marxist, often primarily ethical, forms of solidarity, equality, and community…and that brings us back to the basic problem for the Left. As one of the participants in the Cruddas interview put it, calls for community can easily become “King Canute stuff”–meaning that it’s impossible to work against the often harmful or unlucky (more harmful and unlucky for some than for others) changes of modern life, or to help generate some way to balance them out, in the same way that it’s impossible to hold back the sea. Values and covenants and responsibility and respect are nice and all, but, in the end, “the modern, less constrained individual likes the idea of community but…acts in such a way as to undermine it.” So why fight it?
At however deep a level, thinkers of the Right–a few of them, anyway–do know why to fight it, because they have a commitment to tradition, and they can see however family breakdown and faceless bureaucracies and moral dissolution can kill it off. (They often fail to note that it is the expanded marketplace and corporate power which not infrequently provides the immediate or proximate cause for all of those things, but at least they’re noticing something.) Why might people on the Left do so? Why should they?
Well, for a good many reasons, not the least being that real equality, an equality of respect and integrity and membership, demands at least some degree of community conservation, so where people can build lives and have a basis from which they may act compassionately and responsibly towards others. This is, obviously, especially true for that aforementioned traditional core constituency (or one of them, anyway) of the Left, those who have suffered and lost through social and economic dislocations, disruptions which no amount of personal stewardship, however valiant it may be, is likely to be able to effectively contest. Unfortunately, this realization does not seem to come naturally to many within the progressive worldview today (though it is worth noting that when a smart leftist like John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber started talking about what the Left ought to be hoping for last month, he prominently included lessons that needed to be learned from various conservative thinkers, about the perils of an over-reliance on planning, about being too attached to progressive change, and–most relevantly to this post–about the Burkean insight regarding “the need for beneficial reform to be organic,” or in other words, to respect and take into account “the actual historical evolution of particular societies”). On Rod’s thread, the argument was made repeatedly by several commenters that, while there may well be a few “dissident” leftists here and there, by and large the sort of Democrats or Laborites or liberals or whomever that would be willing to really engage this problem of consolidation and alienation have died out. The poster child of this view? Christopher Lasch.
It’s reasonable that his name would be brought up–as Lasch, more than any other public writer and thinker in America over the past 30 years, really did take seriously “values and covenants and responsibility and respect”…and moreover, he did it all within a framework that accepted equality, both social and economic, as a central value. Hence the value of the argument over Lasch in the pages of TNR. If the conclusion of smart leftists is that, actually, talking about equality and community or tradition at the same time is a dead end, then the desire to press the liberal establishment to hope for something better than the pragmatic managerialism which dominates both governments and corporations today will be that much lessened.
Wolfe’s portrait of Lasch, inspired by Eric Miller’s intellectual biography, is to my mind a thoughtful and appropriate critical one, but also one filled with condescension. Wolfe clearly admired Lasch’s ability to construct an argument and take down an opponent; he calls Lasch’s The Culture of Narcisissm a “perfect book…morbidly clever, brilliantly on target, idiosyncratically compelling,” and has complimentary things to say about Lasch’s other historical studies and polemics as well. But over it all, there is a tone of regret. In Wolfe’s view, Lasch chose the wrong target to blame for his complaint with an America which became, through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, increasingly concerned with identity, diversity, and profitability, and unconcerned with community, solidarity, and equality: “Lasch was,” Wolfe writes, “engaged in an endless war against the leftism of the 1960s when the true enemy of American traditionalism would turn out to be the radical right.” And Wolfe does not see how Lasch’s critiques apply to them as well, because he cannot take seriously as an expression of egalitarian concern the way Lasch, to use Cruddas’s words, married “liberalism and social conservatism” to challenge the therapeutic state.
The therapeutic state, is for example–with its civil courts, its child protection services, its procedures governing (and sometimes eliding) alimony and child-support payments–a necessary complement to an environment where family responsibilities can be freely and regularly sundered and administratively adjudicated through divorce: Lasch’s response, as Wolfe notes incredulously, was simply to propose that in a new Bill of Rights, “divorce [would be] forbidden…in the case of couples with children under the age of twenty-one.” That’s the sort of traditionalist response that puts, in Wolfe’s view, Lasch entirely outside the Left, and thereby incapable of criticizing what he regards–correctly, I would agree–as the primary threat to exactly the sort of “front porch world” which Lasch admired. “Lasch did take a wrong turn,” Wolfe concludes–a turn towards a “secular Calvinism” and away from his earlier guides of Marx and Freud which had made him such enable diagnostician of the excesses of the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. He did not recognize that, in a liberated, modern world, a world made possible by much of the good done by the liberalism which he supposedly became discontent with, insisting upon the depraved nature of human beings, and being suspicious of any effort to manage, coordinate, and distribute their various individual interests and pathologies, “may cause significant injury” to the very world he claims to want to protect. But all this is a failure of imagination on Wolfe’s part–a failure, most particularly, to recognize that the insights of both Calvin and Marx might be necessary for anyone on the Left who wants to extend their diagnosis into the present time.
Return, for example, to Lasch’s comments about divorce. Is this simple, right-learning traditionalism? No. On the contrary, it is a comment which arises from Lasch’s commitment to equality–especially an equal respect and support, remember, for that core constituency, those who lack the money or talent or luck to make their way individually through the modern liberated marketplace of goods and ideas. For them, in particular, equal opportunity depends upon intact families, communities, and economies, all of which are threatened by the dissolution of common bonds, norms, and practices…as well as the dissolution of those structures, families most particularly, which perpetuate such. Is his response then to be fully embraced by the Left? Not necessarily; there are a host of other issues which would have to be considered beforehand, many (though not all) of them raised by feminists who are just as concerned about equality. Rather, the point is simply to acknowledge Lasch’s opinion as a potential, and legitimate, leftist view, and insist that it, along with many other of his complaints with establishment liberalism, can give ground for people on the Left to truly hope for something. That is, Lasch’s work shows us that what might be called populism, or localism, or a particular kind of democratic socialism, or any number of other responses which revolve around seeking to build beliefs and institutions capable of giving people the resources they need to experience real equality and respect within their own lives, is not necessarily an attack upon any responsible left-leaning policy agenda; it can also be an important corrective and complement to it.
Gurstein makes the case that both Right and Left–or at least, those who count themselves in either group who happen to be sensitive to the contextual problem which the uncontrolled interconnectivity of our globalized condition presents–equally make use of Laschian insights, in their rhetoric and proposals, whether they recognize it or not:
[Lasch's writings present an] America [which] moved from a localized society of independent, self-reliant farmers, artisans, merchants, and entrepreneurs to a mass society of large-scale production, consumption, bureaucracy, and political centralization, administered in every detail by a new class of professionals and managers. Under these new social conditions, the sources of meaning and happiness became increasingly narrow and standardized: fulfilling, non-degraded work, voluntary associations, family, and friendships more and more gave way to commercialized leisure and the consumption of commodities. This understanding has now become a commonplace of American intellectual and cultural history and Lasch’s work did much to shape it. Equally importantly–and this is the most original aspect of his thinking–Lasch’s work revealed the psychological, moral, and cultural devastation that “progress” with its cult of “no limits” has left in its wake and articulated its political repercussions in terms that did not and still do not fit comfortably into conventional categories of Left and Right.
Gurstein is correct here. Right and Left may be exhausted terms, but so long as we continue to use them, the resources continue to exist for both categories, however defined, to recognize and respond to the consequences of the liberal world…and Lasch–who continued to vote Democratic up until his death in 1994–provides a guide for what to hope for that the Left can respond to, just as well as the Right, if they care to pay attention. Which is, of course, the rub.
Wolfe quotes from an essay of Lasch’s (“Liberalism in Retreat,” in Liberalism Reconsidered, Rowman and Littlefield, 1983) on how Lasch felt “the liberal order should have collapsed a long time ago” due to its “lack of a public philosophy” and inability to “articulate a theory of the good society” (p. 105). He somewhat snidely, and also somewhat unfairly, but also somewhat accurately, observes that “against the ignorance conspiratorialism of today’s right, liberalism’s theory of the good society, however thin, looks downright robust.” Wolfe makes a good point, one which anyone who looks to use Lasch, or anyone else, to hope for alternatives to a continuation of the (often incompetent) managerialism which fitfully governs the planet today needs to keep in mind. Human beings are at least in part products of their environment; in an environment which has conceptually abolished limits (at least for the decision-making and First World-dwelling elite), to talk of re-introducing limits, and developing ethics of community which could flourish within such, needs to take into account the ways in which we human beings have worked to arrange and bless our lives in accordance with the limits we have. Lasch was probably too contrarian to fully admit that. But at least, in that same essay Wolfe quoted, Lasch talks about having the hope and confidence to admit to the complications of the liberal order, and ask questions which refuse to get themselves hung up on particular trees: “If liberals were more confident of their own values, they might see that it is possible to raise these questions [about family life] without demanding a return to the dark ages, to value patriotism…without unleashing a wave of xenophobia, or to imagine a nonsexist division of labor between the sexes” (p. 115).
Sufficient hope to ask hard questions, and confidence that they don’t always have to answered in predictable, the-present-world-or-nothing ways. Someone of them might be, of course; we may well be stuck with the expert management of individualist rights and demands for many of our predicaments. But hopefully not all of them. Lasch, at least, shows that dissident leftists can hope for that as well as anyone else.