Thursday, September 28, 2006

Two strange deaths

I live in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, home to Columbia University and several other "institutions of higher learning." While strolling on Amsterdam Avenue yesterday I saw a poster advertising a meeting organized by some miniscule socialist group. The subject of the confab was "The Prospects for REVOLUTION in America." Hope springs eternal to be sure. And in fact there are some similarities with the situation 35 or so years ago. However, students are not being drafted now, as they were then, so that there is little motivation for war resistance.

At any rate, thinking back to those days, there did seem to be a prospect for fundamental social change. There was also much recourse to Marxism as the open sesame to everything from sociology and anthropology to literature and music history. Today, I regret the time I wasted on this intellectual loser, a status that now seems obvious.

It is clear that with many families concerned mainly about whether to expand from a two-car to a three-car situation, and how to get their children into an elite university, there is little enthusiasm for radical social change. So the reasons for the first death, that of the far left in this country, are not difficult to understand.

But why should traditional liberalism be going the same way? Some may say that liberalism is just watered-down leftism, and is therefore implicated in the latter's fall. However, anyone who has worked on the battlements of leftist politics, as I did long ago, knows that revolutionary socialists regard liberals as their worst enemies, starting with Franklin Roosevelt, who "rescued" capitalism in America. There is no love lost between the two groups.

Identity politics bears a large share of the burden for the decline of the Democratic Party. During the Cold War Democrats had as good an answer to fighting Moscovite Communism as Republicans. Better, in fact, as it was Harry Truman who first called Stalin's bluff. At the same time many Republicans were isolationists, assuming that we need pay no attention to the rest of the world.

Now, however, Democrats seem paralyzed by the hydra of Islamic extremism. This does not mean that they should have supported the Iraq war. As is becoming increasingly clear, that war is the major obstacle to opposing Islamism. But Democrats should see that recourse to feeble international institutions, such as the UN and the World Court, do not address the problem. Just as we studied Marx during the Cold War in order to defeat the Soviet bloc, so we should study the origins of Islam now. A new school of revisionists is showing that most of what Muslims believe about their faith is a series of fairy tales.

Leftism is dead. Liberalism is "merely" dying. The latter seems to me a great shame.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're too modest. A sea change is happening as we speak, as the Constitution has been tweaked to eliminate judicial rights establsihed 200 years ago. Habeas corpus is now a fond remembrance when English Common Law had significance. Of course, the Bible does not recognize such modern ideas, so they have been eliminated. When and if "gays" and other subversives become "enemy combatants," the religious right will thow peanuts our way (if they are lucky). If nabbed under GWB's autocracy, at least we'll understand how Reinaldo Arenas felt under Fidel Castro's enormous arm against an individual. Such freedoms and great minds are a terrible waste in tyrannies. It says so in the Bible.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As to your larger point, yes, liberalism is under assault from the Right and the Left, being tested more vigorously than I can remember.

The Left has largely abandoned the term and adopted the appellation of "progressive," by which it means to keep liberal principles only insofar as they don't interfere with the perfectability of society. Having lost the Marxist utopian scheme, they've adopted a social engineering model that is radically utilitarian and "equalizing" even if in equalizing everyone loses or is diminished. The obsession with economic parity of everyone is not unlaudable, but it cannot be achieved without flattening the result to a lower common denomination. The Fabians think bureaucratic intuition and calculus can provide a sufficient social stratus that makes everyone "reasonably" comfortable, even if it does not include particularistic fulfillment.

The Right has adopted communitarianism, birthed at Vaticn II, and which put Judeo-Christian morality and structures at the forefront, while either marginalizing or outlawing any incompatibles. Unfortunately, the Catholic concept and the fundamentalist concept of communitarianism are often at odds because of entirely different perspectives of human anthropology. The fundamentalist strain is less liberal and more Burkean in that traditions alone should be the model of a good society. Of course, it isn't just a Christian tradition, but a biblical tradition, that is being espoused. Holding up Gaudium et spes to the fundamentalist model is dizzyingly at odds, but then Catholicism goes outside the bible for inspiration, while the fundamentalist does not. I would not object entirely to the Catholic model, but the fundamentalist chic is so out of touch with modern sensibilities as to be anachronistic. For example, the Catholic model would not negotiate certain values for putative defense of freedom, whereas the fundamentalist model sees everything only through a biblical lens.

Indeed, Catholic communitarianism is actually closer to the progressive agenda than to the fundamentalist model, in that the former espouses a common good for the individual, the latter espouses an individual good that constitutes the common.

Between the polar opposites sits classical liberalism, modified with piecemeal social engineering, but still focusing on individual autonomy to determine the "pursuits" of each person within a neutral social framework. It's the "neutral" part that makes liberalism the enemy of these other camps, as each sees society as a means to mold the individual according to its own conception of the good. Historically, "conservatives" adopted the neutral stance, but with the neo-conservatives and fundamentalism, the "neutral" is repudiated in favor of favoring certain institutions and individual lives according to their particular conception. Indeed, the single greatest assault from both sides is on the liberal principle of the "neutral state." Once that principle is rejected, then a certain gloss over society is projected as the aim of that view of society.

I suspect that most of the other liberal principles will survive in some measure, albeit compromised (to wit, the Detainee Law), but the notion of the "neutral state" is out of favor as smaller utopian visions now compete for favor. The New Deal in many ways advanced this sea change, although its aims were considerably more modest than today's different agendas. Against the progressive agenda of the Left, the Right has raised traditions it approves (which are largely theocratic), but the seeming result is that we are headed for competing ideal societies through utilitarian calculus or based on traditional Judeo-Christian principles.

To see the abandonment of liberal principles in almost their entirety, the September issue of the New Criterion, a "conservative" periodical, is unabashed about its rejection of liberal principles across the board. Those impulses have always surfaced, but never on such an unrelenting level. That an intellectual class would be so virulently opposed to liberalism is rather remarkable, since they are the founding principles of this nation. It leaves to Andrew Sullivan the task of trying to keep a Hayekean perspective (conservative liberalism) all by his lonesome. His task is obviously Herculean.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

The death of the left is not simple an American phenomenon. West European Socialism never really survived the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union; nor, in fact, did Chinese communism. The collapse of the nominally "Socialist" world was seen, bizarrely enough, as a vindication of capitalism.

Now the Chinese, who have become market capitalists par excellence, are, through economic competition, forcing Western Europe to abandon the last vestiges of European social democracy.

It would be use to look at this phenomenon as a global situation, not simply as a American one.

1:45 PM  

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