We’ve had a bit of fun at Crooked Timber lately, pointing out the silliness of those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions. But, as quite a few commenters have pointed out (including Jack Strocchi using the same phrase that occurred to me) the exercise does seem to savor a bit of flogging dead horses.
It seems to me necessary to go beyond this, which was one reason for my post on hope the other day. To make progress, we need to reassess where we stand and then think about where to go next. This is bound to be something of a confused and confusing process. Over the fold, I’ve made some (quite a few) observations, making for a very long post, which is mainly meant to open things up for discussion.
First, considered in intellectual terms, there is very little remaining on the political right (particularly in the US, but this point applies to most of the English-speaking countries, and to a large extent elsewhere) that is worth engaging with in terms other than the derision employed here. It’s not that, as rightwing pundits go, people like Douthat, Goldberg, Krauthammer and McArdle are soft targets. Compared to, say, Powerline or the cast of Fox News, they are paragons of reasoned and reasonable discourse.
The same goes for the thinktanks and quasi-academic institutions that are supposed to provide some kind of rigorous basis for thinking about policy. AEI, Heritage, Heartland and the rest offer little more than partisan hackery. Increasingly, the same is true of Republican-aligned academics. There is simply no room for independent thought.
Overall, as I said on my blog a while back, the scene is one of complete ideological incoherence. Market liberalism has run out of steam, libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties (to be fair, Obama has also failed here) , and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.
The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.
The best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, from climate change to health policy, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.
Second, though, even if intellectual engagement is impossible, we can’t ignore the fact that the right remains politically powerful, and is currently resurgent in both the US and (in a rather different form) in Europe. Furthermore, the established conventions of political discussion in the US take it for granted that there is in fact a debate going on in which the contributions of the two sides (as defined by the two major political parties) are more or less equally worthy of attention. It is necessary to criticise this convention and hammer home the point that the right has become totally disconnected from reality and rational argument.
The same point needs to be made to the (shrinking, but still significant) group of intellectuals of a conservative or libertarian disposition. Regardless of the abstract merits of ideas there is no way to remain associated with the political right and maintain any kind of intellectual integrity. The list of issues on which no dissent from the party-line talking points is permissible is so long (a string of inconsistent justifications for the Iraq war, voodoo economics particularly on anything related to budget deficits, anti-science views on just about everything) that even maintaining a discreet silence amounts to intellectual dishonesty.
The right is becoming aware of these things, as the debate launched by Julian Sanchez recently showed. But it’s certainly important to hammer the point home.
Third, important though it is to kill off intellectual zombies, that can only be the beginning of a response to the failure of the right. It’s not as if we have a left-progressive program and movement ready and waiting to fill the vacuum. The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century has eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions.
Practitioners of this kind of managerialist quasi-social democracy have found themselves unable to handle the challenge posed by the irrationalist right, whether in the form of Tea Parties and militias in the US, or slick advocates of xenophobia like Pim Fortuyn in Europe. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax. While competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. Again, this is one of the reasons I think we need to offer hope, in the form of goals that can excite enthusiastic commitment to a progressive alternative.
Fourth, while I don’t see much, if any, benefit in engaging with actually existing conservatism, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore conservative, and libertarian, ideas. You don’t have to be an unqualified admirer of writers like Burke, Popper or Hayek to concede that they made valid criticisms of the progressive ideas of their day, and to seek a better way forward. Some examples of the kind of thing I have in mind
* Popper’s critique of historicism. After thirty years in which teleological claims of inevitable triumph have been the stock in trade of Fukuyama and his epigones, the left should surely have been cured of such ideas, but their centrality is evident in the very use of terms like “progressive”. It’s important to recognise that beneficial change is not an automatic outcome of “progress”
* Burke and his successors on the need for beneficial reform to be “organic”, in the sense that it reflects the actual historical evolution of particular societies, rather than being based on universal truths that are applicable in all times and places
* Hayek on the impossibility of comprehensive planning. No planner can possess all relevant information or account for all possible contingencies. We need institutions that respond to local information and that are robust enough to cope with unconsidered possibilities. In some circumstances, but certainly not all, markets fit the bill.
Fifth , equally, we need to reconsider Marxian and other left socialist critiques of social democracy. The central burden of most such critiques is that the welfare-state and similar interventions offer no possibility of transforming society or substantially mitigating the inequality of wealth and power inherent in capitalism. The last time this kind of debate had any relevance beyond setting out the correct viewpoint from which to deplore the advances of the right was back around the 1970s. At that time, there was a serious belief in the possibility of a revolutionary alternative in relation to which social democratic reforms were at best a distraction, at worst a deliberate obstacle. This belief (I assume) has now completely dissipated. So, the standard Marxian critique of the 1970s now amounts to defeatism: social democracy can’t change capitalism and neither can anything else. But radical movements can make space for lots of of different ideas, particularly in relation to organisation and mobilisation, and local ‘bottom-up’ policy initiatives. At least some of the time currently spent on combating the right ought to be devoted to more engagement with these ideas.
Some similar points can be made in relation to the green movement, though I think there has been much more progress in aligning greens and social democrats, both intellectually and as political movements.
Finally, as I’ve said before, the left has to stand for something more than keeping the existing order afloat with incremental improvements. We need to offer the hope of a better world as an alternative to the angry tribalism that threatens to engulf us.
That’s more than enough from me, and I’m keen for better ideas and analyses than what I’ve offered. So, comments please.
24 thoughts on “After the dead horses (crossposted from Crooked Timber)”
Para 4 could have included political division of the judiciary (supreme court).
The most extreme expression of all of this is the right’s attack on science.
Knowledge of the “real” world offers the only “universe” connected platform from which to judge what is “true”. Presently our civilisation is flying blind in a…turbulent…storm, and there are those who are trying to destroy trust in the only instrument that we have with which to determine which way is “up” an what is our course. In the very first science lesson I had at high school, the very first thing that we were told, is that “science” comes from the latin word “scio”, which is… to “know”.
The truth of knowedge is our fundamental security, and its sharing, preservation, and sanctity should carry the status of a fundamental human right.
Those who choose knowingly, for personal gain, to intentionally misrepresent and distort “truth” and “knowledge” should be seen as a dangerous threat to human civilisation, and the biosphere of earth.
The unique beauty of the human experience is in the obtaining of knowledge and the infinite potential for its use.
Totally clear perception of the phenomenon of “dead horse flogging” can most conveniently and thoroughly obtained through the knowledge compiled by Robert Sopalsky.
I suppose this is the sort of stuff one gets on the internet these days. A series of short hand quips, advertising some purported “complete ideological incoherence”. Social democratic capitalists certainly do end up in a “miserable fit of the blues.”
No progress is possible unless the evolution of the mode of production, and its impact on humanity and ideology, is taken into account, as it relates to Australian economic development – 1788 to 2010.
No progress is possible unless the issue of ‘hope, love and hate’ is entirely independent of capitalist alienation(s) and warfare.
There is no point reconsidering Marxism and other left socialist critiques of social democracy, as these critiques only follow a deeper criticism of the evolution of forms of society in general, and the capitalist mode of production in particular. All that a Marxist would say about social democracy, is that they take OECD economic wealth as normal, and faithfully, ignore countervailling tendencies ballooning, volcano-like, beneath their feet.
So, instead of John’s Fifth, progress needs to include a reconsideration of Marxian and other left socialist critiques of capitalism.
I am not sure what John means by “standard Marxian critique of the 1970s “, and I don’t think he knows either.
However there was a shift in British and Australian Marxism in the 1960’s, and within the OECD, the emergence of so-called Western Marxism and Eurocommunism and associated ideological trends such as the Frankfurt school. This shift did not produce fruit.
There is no hope for a better world unless you understand the root causes and real meaning of “angry tribalism” (whatever sociological phenomena this is trying to point to).
Chris, you’re welcome to a full refund if you don’t like what’s on offer here. Better still, point me and other readers to the superior analysis you repeatedly hint is available elsewhere.
“There is no hope for a better world unless you understand the root causes and real meaning of “angry tribalism””
This to me is epitomised as the “Alpha” syndrome. The need to dominate…by any means. Again, refer to Robert Sopalsky and his observations of the Alpha male.
But this is too easy, see: Superior Analysis 101 But you have to scrape away the Trotskyite nonsense (eg H Ticktin)which always attaches itself.
The Christian socialists also seem to have a superior analysis of a kind.
But Marx’s analysis underpins it all – the mother of all “superior analysis”.
Unfortunately, once you are dumped in the middle of capitalism, you have no means to pay a refund. But are you offering IOU’s.
If you hanker for a banner – try democratic market socialism.
I have not come across this author before, but I quickly Googled it, and it seems very similar to the “human animal” line suggested by Desmond Morris some time back (which I did look at years ago) – but maybe at a deeper, more advanced, level.
Very interesting, and Marx went on the same quest in his “Ethnographic Notebooks” which I find almost unreadable.
There is always the question – what is homosapien’s true “species-being”?
But alpha theory does not explain economic crisis. Economic crisis comes out of capitalist merchantilism, and equal exchanges, that does not necessarily involve domination.
In my quick scan – I did not see Sopalsky as pointing to a root cause. Democratic, voluntary, equitable capitalism will still need debt, exports and population growth, and will therefore collapse once these countervailling tendencies have ballooned out of proportion or become exhausted.
Non-alpha capitalism (if feasible) still has immutable crisis tendencies.
Sopalsky’s observation was of his primary study bobbon troup which at a later time started feeding at a community rubbish tip. It was the idle Alphas who fell into this habit. The consequence was that the eating of Tuberculosis contaminated meat led to the death of every Alpha male in the troup. Sopalsky was devastated and very angry. However some time later he noticed that an amazing transformation had occurred within the troup. It was now very peaceful. Troup members got along very well together there were few fights, communal grooming became common and longer in duration. Furthermore as males joined from outside the troup after 6 months the new arrivals dropped their Alpha hierachial behaviour and took on the peaceful tone of the new highly altered and inherently stable community. There is a Nat Geo documentary on this. I was spell bound. So many things clicked into place.
Frankly, to me the Alpha hierachial structure does explain economic crisis. The “you hit me I hit him” process of stress management/economic distribution diminishes empathy. Nothing can prevent crisis brought on by natural catastrophy, but it is only with empathy that the society heals uniformally. Also with empathy crisis created by greed should not be possible. Think North Korea or Zimbabwe.
The dominant narrative of the past century or so has been about the politics of economics – who gets what share of the wealth produced by industrialisation and imperialism. Is this going to be the dominant concern in 2050? Seems to me the big issues will be ecological – global warming, maintenance of the species web, coping with the impacts of other shortages, all exacerbated by population pressures and continuing competition for at least a share of the advanced lifestyle.
In this case, conservatives like Burke have a lot to offer, particularly in their vision of society asrooted in history and responsible for the future as much as the present. Promising ever-increasing prosperity is unrealistic. So how do we make a more modest future more attractive?
Another great post John.
Given the sheer electoral promise of throwing the switch to Vaudeville and going for a little left of centre populism as did FDR, the failure of Rudd and Obama to do a bit more of it is kind of inexplicable. In so far as I can explain it my guess is that they navigate the world as an amoeba or a dodgem car does, which is to say they manoeuvre around following their instincts until they run across some obstacle and on doing so they head in some other direction.
At the same time they respect those at the top end of town. For those who are not sure of themselves, those at the top end of town come with a certain legitimacy – their success. Oscar Wilde sends this kind of thinking up ironically when he has Algernon say in the Importance of Being Earnest “Really, if the lower orders dont set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”.
But with those at the top regarded as guardians of what’s serious and what’s not, and of course if push comes to shove they also have access to quite a lot of raw political power, politicians avoid crossing them, or embarrassing themselves in their eyes.
In fact it is right wingers who are good at bucking this kind of thing – as for instance Howard was with the lawlessness of the Tampa adventure.
“Really, if the lower orders dont set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?” I like it. What indeed?
What annoys me about the so called “intellectual leaders of the right, in its libertarian, neoconservative and Republican tribalist versions” is their total repudiation of the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Rather than engaging in serious debate, in for example, mainstream journals, they prefer to have their own, believer only journals, proselytize preferably without a strong opponent rather than deal fairly with their strongest critics arguments, and form and live in little enclaves [sometimes called think tanks] where if you don’t remain a true believer you will be quickly expelled, with extreme prejudice. The way the handle those who don’t toe the party line is very reminiscent of the worse of the behaviour of the extreme left. This is a very unintellectual way to behave and is also more characteristic of behaviour in advancing some religion or cult than it is of what should be an intellectual endeavour.
John, Freedlander, just came across an apposite quote.
On the topic of the banal underpinnings of the wrongs of the right, last weekend The Sunday Age reproduced an article from The Guardian which had some great prose in it. The article linked various finance industry insiders belief in Ayn Rand’s philosophy to the creation of the GFC:
The article included this:
“While, outside of America, Russian-born Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilisation has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom. Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who’ve never read her books or even heard of her. The rightwing “Tea Party” movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.”
John, I forgot to say earlier, what an excellent post. I hope you do turn it into an article or paper somewhere. It deserves a much wider audience than simply this blog. Rather than all this nonsense of the ‘Government Bad, Private Sector or Market Good’, two really serious issues (of government administration), other than social and environmental issues, are how to make markets work better and how to make orgnisations, of all kinds, work better. Tackling either of these is hard work – far harder work than the simple formulaic solutions of privatisation, corporatisation, deregulation, three strikes and you’re out for over paid management, or any of the other uninspired fads or thought bubbles that are regularly presented as policy or ‘reform’. Seems most of these thought bubbles are probably adopted by politicians simply because they lend themselves to being sold, politically, in the form of some trite little slogan. (Also, typically being rather simplistic, they would also be easier to be briefed about.) In this regard, the convergence of both sides of politics and their lack of any motivating objectives may be an unfortunate consequence, as Nicholas’ quote says, of politcs today being ” ‘primarily a matter of rhetoric and manoeuvre’… [where] …strategy and tactics are ‘inseparable from disputes about persons’ “. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in the age dominated by the professional politician who has no other objective than getting their job and keeping their job, no matter what the cost of doing so may be to others. As for doing their job, that only happens for the professional politician when doing coincidentally coincides with keeping.
Even Business Spectator are dropping the deregulation bit
For me as well, but I laugh more at the underlying economic theory – the Keynesian dead horse.
But then Keynesians claim Marxism is a dead horse.
One day we will all need to stop laughing.
The only hope would seem to be an analysis with two strands. One strand must be rigorously empirical and environmental, pointing out that the economy and society are totally dependent on a livable environment and renewable resources. The other strand must be one of moral philosophy extending into the political economy. We need to crytallise this in Bill of Human Rights and Human Duties. Basic Human Rights need to inalienable. Additional human rights (for adults) need to be conditional on performance of basic Human Duties. Human Duties would need to extend to caring for and preserving the environment both for its intrinsic worth and for its aesthetis and economic value to humans. We need to see ourselves existing in nature not over and above it.
Oops. Is there any way I can correct typos and missed words in a previous post?
Chris – perhaps you should have stopped laughing when people started deriding Keynes and consigning him to the dustbin of economics and putting Friedman (and his followers like Greenspan) on a pedestal. Keynes ghost will haunt us (and be known to us all) all far longer than the apocryphites of the right…who will be forever associated now, with an extreme that failed (free deregulated markets).
At no stage, did Keynes seek an extreme that threatened to unravel state oversight (or do away entirely with Adam Smith’s recommendation of a central planning athority), as we, in most developed nations, have long had and long developed by triall and error, over centuries, as a central orgnising entity. We fought for it. We voted for it and it became ferevnt on the right to want to destroy it and pull it down.
That was the right’s mistake. They sought not change, nor improvement, but erosion and destruction of the very public systems that were for decades and centuries useful and beneficial.
I doubt, despite the noise of the few…the right will continue to enjoy the conservative vote should this approach continue.
Chris, the reference you pointed to was about the impossibility of market socialism, and you’re clearly dismissing Keynesianism and social democracy. We’ve seen enough of comprehensive central planning to know that it doesn’t work.
So, if you’re advocating something other than defeatism, you need to spell it out a bit more.
The reference I pointed to was not about the impossibility of market socialism. It was to a debate between David Schweickart and James Lawler (for market socialism) and Hillel Ticktin and Bertell Ollman (against market socialism). I prefer to look at both sides, and encourage others to do the same.
I cannot see how comprehensive central planning even got into the issue. Where did this come from? How does this relate to the “democratic market socialism” I specifically mentioned above.
This is a problem, I say X, you reword it as Y, then you castigate Y. Anyway I have no information about this so-called, rather novel “comprehensive central planning”. It is a diversion.
I am not sure where I clearly dismissed social democracy. How, where, when? Is this another case of someone putting words into my mouth?
Similarly with defeatism. Ye gods, what else can be thrown. I am not advocating defeatism.
The real problem with Keynesianism, is really the problem of the circular flow within a specifically capitalist context. In 1977/78 Galbraith had a TV series called “Age of Uncertainty”. During this program he described how postgraduate students tried to produce a working model of a Keynesian economy using fluid flowing around an economy. And Galbraith noted, this was a complete failure. The machine was on display at the science museum in London.
But Keynesians still expect to fix problems by injecting liquidity and by the State employing unused resources. In effect they assume, at a particular interest rate, that the supply of money is unlimited. They then wonder how come economic instability ratchets up in the long run.
If you review economic textbooks, you will always see the dogma of the circular flow between households and firms. But, if you see profits included in addition to wages, you will never see dollar amounts included. [ex fig3.3, in Economics, Australian Edition, Jackson and McConnell (1980) pg 53].
It is reasonable to see Keynesianism, as capitalism based on the circular flow.
So if all costs are $1000, then, all sales must be $1000. This circular flow would work. But capitalists demand $1005. And Keynesians happily inject the necessary liquidity without any thought about the future. They assume future population growth, or exports will balance it out, later.
Keynesians also seem to have no real concept of value, other than whatever emerges out of a market mechanism – even if this demand includes debt.
Of course this is crazy, and such a model needs further increments of debt, cycle after cycle, until the whole edifice comes crashing down.
Obviously classical economists had a better understanding of these issues.
What I advocated at #5, is based on a circular flow, but without specific capitalist profit.
That is all I advocate and is all we need. If you want a label, then this is democratic market socialism. Maybe there is a Keynesian market socialist theory, but I am not aware of it.
Keynesians need to realise that there are two types of profit – firstly that obtained by producers through their own skill and labour. Secondly there is additional profit obtain by accumulating the product from other peoples skill and labour.
The first is market socialism – the second, Keynesian capitalism.
I would expect there is enough references available through Google on market socialism, to flesh this out further.
We have seen enough to know that what was done doesn’t work, for the most part. Except, of course, in Nazi Germany where their seemed to be some success. That said, it was a war time economy which is different, as a single objective does lend itself more to central planning. Just as attempts at flight had a long history of failure, and I am not proposing central planning as any desirable goal, I don’t think it can be concluded that any form of central planning is bound to be a failure. I think also technology plays a role. The improvements in computation and communications technology can change the story on the ability of central planning to be a success. This is in much the same way that lighter materials and lightweight and powerful engines underpin the success of air travel. To a very great extent their is much greater central planning today, including virtual central planning in the form of chains of firms working together to form just in time supply and delivery chains, supplying components and final products more responsively due to a greater aggregation and distribution of information through the use of modern information technologies through a myriad of firms working together. Likewise, the modern western economy through information aggregation and distribution, probably relies on more elements of central planning than soviets, in the 1920s ever invisaged and, ever achieved.
All this said, I am not advocating central planning, but I think we should recognise that its scope for success is getting greater and greater and with it the potential for larger and larger, successful private corporations. I think we need to be aware of the potential for mega corporations to eventually displace government through the success of their central planning, and to also contemplate whether a private mega corporation run centrally planned world is more desirable than a government, with suitable democratic institutions, centrally planned run world. That may eventually be the only two options on the table.
If I assume you are serious, then there is a slight problem. If there is the potential for mega corporations to eventually displace government, then they would no longer be “private mega corporations”.
Government is a social function and cannot be displaced. It can only be transformed from one form into another with the consent of the majority of the people.
There’s your problem.
Your slight problem is a meaningless semantic construction which makes it so slight as to be no problem at all.
Central planning authority – are these not the suggestions on the table at the moment? Here and now..example..Rudds reform of healthcare?
The new deal…Fannie mae…are these not examples of central planning? The police? The bushfire authorities? The roads network? Are these not examples of central planning??
Do we need it? Yes!
Its not a dirty word. It doesnt mean communism has arrived to take over our lives and send us all to work camps. What is wrong with people that they confuse central planning over beneficial infrastructure (are we not like ants…..? With our collective intelligence we can build effectively but not of we are too busy competing with our neighbours to stay alive?).
Central planning is not a dirty communist word. It is essential to healthy capitalist market structures. That is where the neoliberals have come badly unstuck…. They abrogated central planning for beneficial and useful services, thinking the market could do a better job but it did a worse job. They went one step too far, ideologically speaking.
They threw the baby out with the bathwater. Call it Keynesian economics but you also have to call it Simithian economics. Not much help really….throwing out two of the greats (when we should have learnt from the greats).
What the new conservatives needed to do was find maximum market particpation aided by central planning. That was the winning ticket but they missed it, by trhinking the unfettered market could deliver on its own.
That was their mistake. It was a big one.