The following quotation chord sounds the root notes of my antipathy toward the dominant ideology of the professional-progressivist class. Two of the three authors are left-liberals.
Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:
The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of… reformists. But it retains a conviction… that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.
“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision-making. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.
To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.
Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailerpark studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.
This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.
Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:
Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?
Another from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:
It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls “the secession of the successful.”
Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the “center.” The party no longer has a visible, noisy left wing — a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth had become too scary a topic for any American politician — much less any sitting president — ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.
If the formation of hereditary castes continues unimpeded, and if the pressures of globalization create such castes not only in the United States but in all the old democracies, we shall end up in an Orwellian world. In such a world, there may be no supemational analogue of Big Brother, or any official creed analogous to Ingsoc. But there will be an analogue of the Inner Party — namely, the international, cosmopolitan super-rich. They will make all the important decisions. The analogue of Orwell’s Outer Party will be educated, comfortably off, cosmopolitan professionals — Lind’s “overclass,” the people like you and me.
The job of people like us will be to make sure that the decisions made by the Inner Party are carried out smoothly and efficiently. It will be in the interest of the international super-rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy. For they need people who can pretend to be the political class of each of the individual nation-states. For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere — to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear.
Contemplation of this possible world invites two responses from the Left. The first is to insist that the inequalities between nations need to be mitigated — and, in particular, that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens. These two responses obviously conflict with each other. In particular, the first response suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.
The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, who have always been internationally minded. The second response comes naturally to members of trade unions, and to the marginally employed people who can most easily be recruited into right-wing populist movements. Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders — as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal!:
Our story begins in the smoking aftermath of the 1968 election, with its sharp disagreements over the Vietnam War, its riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago, and with a result that Democrats at the time took to be a disastrous omen: their candidate for the presidency, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost to Richard Nixon. Soul-searching commenced immediately.
There was one bright spot in the Democrats’ 1968 effort, however. Organized labor, which was the party’s biggest constituency back then, had mobilized millions of working-class voters with an enormous campaign of voter registration, pamphlet-printing, and phone-banking. So vast were their efforts that some observers at the time credited labor with almost winning for Humphrey an election that everyone believed to be lost.
Labor’s reward was as follows: by the time of the 1972 presidential contest, the Democratic Party had effectively kicked the unions out of their organization. Democratic candidates still wanted the votes of working people, of course, as well as their donations and their get-out-the-vote efforts. But between ’68 and ’72, unions lost their position as the premier interest group in the Democratic coalition. This was the result of a series of reforms authored by the so-called McGovern Commission, which changed the Democratic party’s presidential nominating system and, along the way, changed the party itself.
Most of the reforms the McGovern Commission called for were clearly healthful. For example, it dethroned state and local machines and replaced them with open primaries, a big step in the right direction. The Commission also mandated that delegations to its 1972 convention conform to certain demographic parameters — that they contain predetermined percentages of women, minorities, and young people. As it went about reforming the party, however, the Commission overlooked one important group: it did nothing to ensure representation for working-class people.
The labor leaders who, up till then, had held such enormous sway over the Democratic Party could see what was happening. After decades of toil on behalf of liberalism, “they were being taken for granted,” is how the journalist Theodore White summarized their attitude. “Said Al Barkan, director of the AFL/CIO’s political arm, COPE, early in 1972 as he examined the scenario about to unfold: ‘We aren’t going to let these Harvard-Berkeley Camelots take over our party.’”
But take it over they did. The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another — in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals. Byron Shafer, a political scientist who has studied the 1972 reforms in great detail, leaves no doubt about the class component of the change: “Before reform, there was an American party system in which one party, the Republicans, was primarily responsive to white-collar constituencies and in which another, the Democrats, was primarily responsive to blue-collar constituencies. After reform, there were two parties each responsive to quite different white-collar coalitions, while the old blue-collar majority within the Democratic party was forced to try to squeeze back into the party once identified predominantly with its needs.”
Years ago, when I first became interested in politics, I assumed that this well-known and much-discussed result must have been an unintended effect of an otherwise noble reform effort. It just had to have been an accident. I remember reading about the McGovern Commission in my dilapidated digs on the South Side of Chicago and thinking that no left party in the world would deliberately close the door on the working class. Especially not after workers’ organizations had done so much for the party’s flat-footed nominee. Besides, it all worked out so very, very badly for the Democrats. Neglecting workers was the opening that allowed Republicans to reach out to blue-collar voters with their arsenal of culture-war fantasies. No serious left politician would make a blunder like that on purpose.
But they did, reader. Leading Democrats actually chose to reach out to the affluent and to turn their backs on workers. We know this because they wrote about it, not secretly — as in the infamous “Powell Memo” of 1971, in which the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell plotted a conservative political awakening — but openly, in tones of proud idealism, calling forthrightly for reorienting the Democratic Party around the desires of the professional class.
I am referring to a book called Changing Sources of Power, a 1971 manifesto by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, who was one of the guiding forces on the McGovern Commission. Taken along with the Republican Powell Memo, it gives us the plans of the two big party organizations as the country entered upon the disastrous period that would give us Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Gingrich, and the rest. Where Powell was an arch-conservative, however, Dutton was a forthright liberal. Where Powell showed a certain cunning in his expressed desire to reverse the flow of history, Dutton’s tone is one of credulity toward the inflated sense of world-historical importance that surrounded the youth culture of those days. In the book’s preface, for example, he actually writes this: “Never has the future been so fundamentally affected by so many current developments.”
Dutton’s argument was simple: America having become a land of universal and soaring affluence, all that traditional Democratic stuff about forgotten men and workers’ rights was now as relevant as a stack of Victrola discs. And young people, meaning white, upper-middle-class college kids — oh, these young people were so wise and so virtuous and even so holy that when contemplating them Dutton could scarcely restrain himself. They were “aristocrats — en masse,” the Democratic grandee wrote (quoting Paul Goodman); they meant to “rescue the individual from a mass society,” to “recover the human condition from technological domination,” to “refurbish and reinvigorate individuality.” Better: the young were so noble and so enlightened that they had basically transcended the realm of the physical. “They define the good life not in terms of material thresholds or ‘index economics,’ as the New Deal, Great Society, and most economic conservatives have done,” Dutton marveled, “but as ‘the fulfilled life’ in a more intangible and personal sense.”