Friday, January 22, 2016

Contra-deBoer: Realist

I'm continuing with an analysis of Fredrik deBoer's left manifesto for 2016 (start here). My eighth piece was "Democratic". Now we look at his "Realist."

Fredrik deBoer wants the left to realize that victory is neither just around the corner, nor it is impossible. It should refrain from the two extremes of "triumphalism and fatalism", but start from the fact of the rootedness of "existing power relations." The way forward is going to be hard. But it is not impossible, as the history of left mass movements shows: "progress is possible, even likely," as the "history of labor and socialist victory" proves, and "political change seems impossible until it suddenly seems inevitable." But deBoer doesn't like the politics of word games.
[The left] would be skeptical of the value of symbolic or linguistic achievements. It would place little political importance on altering vocabulary, communication, and similarly symbolic goals. It would not treat popular culture or celebrity as meaningful sites of left-wing practice. It would always define success in material terms, not in representational or symbolic terms.
These, of course, are the words of a Moses rallying the Israelites in the middle of their 40 year wanderings in the wilderness. We will get there, but it won't be easy. Only men of steel -- well, more likely bronze -- and the women that love them will get to the Promised Land. By the way, do you notice the word "socialist" above? It's the first time that deBoer has used the S-word in his Left 2016 piece.

If we are going to be realist, could we please look at the difference between now and the situation in the 1840s when Marx was formulating his scientific socialism? Back then the Irish were dying in their millions in the potato famine, and the Germans were also experiencing a hungry forties of their own. In Britain the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had reversed 250 years of welfare policy and forced the poor into factory work under inhuman conditions in the cities where everyone could see them. It looked like this misery would continue forever unless Something Was Done about it, i.e., socialism.

Only the misery didn't continue forever; instead, everyone became richer, including the working class. As a racist, sexist, homophobe, I like to believe that the misery retreated because the textile revolution was followed by the railway revolution, followed by the oil revolution, followed by the electric revolution, followed by the auto revolution, followed by the electronic revolution followed by the information revolution. The textile revolution provided cheap cotton clothing for the masses, the railway revolution provided transportation for the masses, the oil revolution provided cheap illuminating oil for the masses, the electric revolution provided cheap urban transportation for the masses, the auto revolution provided personal transportation for the masses. And so on.

A left-winger like Fredrik deBoer would insist that the decline of misery was caused by the worker mass movement and the socialist mass movement. Very well, except that in 1850 "economic and social justice" would have meant equality at a very low level. And what would the economic and social justices have said about the upstart John D. Rockefeller and his standard illuminating oil?

A realist would have to admit that the attempts to create a socialist society have been horrible failures, and indeed the most grotesque tricks on the common people. For the leaders of the Soviet Union, the Peoples Republic of China, and post-independence India all thought that they were implementing the very latest in western European social and economic technology when they socialized their economically backward states. Reading the manifestos of the ideologically fashionable back in Europe they didn't realize that the socialist ideas were the ideas of a crank, a man who had taken the incomplete ideas of the classical economists and completely missed the point. So they visited untold miseries on their peoples, and compounded the error by resorting to terror (except in India) to force their crank ideas through to success. In other words, they turned the realist hard-slog rhetoric of Fredrik deBoer into brutal reality and utterly immiserated their peoples in a way that was unimaginable to the Educated Youths like Marx and Engels.

Underneath the realist rhetoric in deBoer is a naive faith in politics, as though politics can solve the existential problems of humankind. But politics is violence; it proposes to correct the violence of the "existing power relations" with new, righteous violence that will correct the dominations and oppressions of the old order. But how bad can things be if they have increased per capita income by 3,000 percent in 200 years? How bad can things be when three-fourths of the poor in the US  own a car or truck? When 42 percent own their own home?

When deBoer talks about a "mass movement" and about "victory" he is making my point that politics is violence. For sure, he is not talking about violent insurrection, but he is talking about the intimidation of peaceful protest and naming and shaming. And he is talking about using the power of government to alter the decisions of the market. How do you think that a policy of "economic and social justice" would be implemented? By suggestion? It would be implemented by government functionaries, backed up by government enforcement officers, also known as men with guns.

Fredrick deBoer opposes a symbolic politics of "altering vocabulary, communication, and similarly symbolic goals" because for him a left movement is about material goals. Really, he knows not what he says. The left has made extraordinary progress in recent decades with its program, borrowed from the Frankfurt School, of changing the culture by naming and shaming those that don't talk leftist. And politics is downstream from culture. If there is one thing that conservatives fear it is that the left has won over their children in the culture wars. And once you have won the culture, what else is there?

Next up: "Pessimist."

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