Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Contra-deBoer: Wrapup

I'm finishing up my analysis of Fredrik deBoer's left manifesto for 2016 (start here). My eleventh piece was "Human". Now I'm wrapping up with a big picture look at deBoer's vision for the left and what it means for the rest of us.

Let us start by cycling through the headings that deBoer used to outline the left movement that he wanted for 2016. He started with "Materialist," meaning that the movement should be concerned with the "material reality of the present world," and science and so forth. But the left has shown remarkable lack of interest in developments in the social sciences since Marx, starting with the marginal revolution of 1870 that basically ruined the economics of Capital. Why not?

He calls for the movement to be "Anti-capitalist" and takes it for granted that the "moral and practical problems of capitalism cannot be reformed away from within the system." In the first place, the word capitalism is a pejorative cooked up by Marx & Co., and capitalism is not a "system." Nobody knows what it is. Is it the ability of young nobodies like Arkwright and Rockefeller to start enterprises without permission from the great and the good? Or is it the union of credit and government? Nobody knows. It is certainly not a system, in the Newtonian, mechanical sense; it is better to think of it as a chaotic emergent phenomenon, according to modern chaos theory. And to talk of replacing capitalism with a "moral social system" is oppression and domination, flat out. Really? Who gets to decide?

The left movement is to be "Antiracist," for racism is "a unique form of injustice... ever-present in modern society." Really? I'd say that racism is universal in pre-modern society, that only became scandalous with modern capitalism. You could certainly say that capitalism first perfected slavery in the sugar plantations and then, with the help of the evangelicals of the 18th century, recoiled from what it had wrought. And then it abolished slavery, and then extended the franchise to the former slaves, and then banned all forms of racial discrimination, so that now we are arguing about the number of black Oscars on the head of a pin. The left played a great role in the fight against racism; now it's time to declare victory and go home.

The left is to be "Feminist," for "gender discrimination is a unique form of injustice that has been ubiquitous in human history." Really? I'd say it goes all the way back to the chimpanzees, in which there is a male hierarchy and a female hierarchy, and all the males outrank all the females. The interesting question is ask is why this domination has become scandalous in the modern era. Why does the First Feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, show up in the 18th century and not a millennium before? I will tell you what I think. I think that female equality could not emerge until the frontiers of war had receded enough so that only a few men were needed to be soldiers. Now that women have emerged into the public square they have started to reshape it to fit a more feminine sensibility, as Georg Simmel prophesied a century ago. For that we need a militant political movement? I think we should let the ladies get on with it, and only interfere when their feminizing agenda starts to attack basic human rights, like the presumption of innocence.

deBoer's left is to be "Anti-nationalist," because the nation state is fundamentally illegitimate. Well, yes. But every state is illegitimate, having been born in war, not in a law court. The question is, what can you come up with that is better than the nation state, which at least expands the human community from the blood kin to the community of language. Right now, in Europe, we are seeing the looming bankruptcy of the elite-inspired supra-national community. So it looks like the nation state is here to stay, for a while.

The left movement is to be "Pacifist." I confess to a special irritation at the left's conceit that it is the Peace faction, and this comes from the left's fundamental ignorance about politics. Politics is violence; government is force. Politics needs an enemy; government needs a war. The left finds its enemies in capitalists and the rich and the white racists and conducts merciless and unremitting war against them. But the left is scandalized by the external wars of nation-state politicians. It takes a special kind of blindness not to see that the left movement and the nation state are in the same war-like game, only with different enemies and different war-fighting techniques.

The left is to be "Liberal," in the sense of recognizing that certain individual rights trump "the pursuit of economic and social equality." Anyway, rights are popular with the people. Well, yes. But maybe rights of every kind, including the right to engage in work and buying and selling and own private property should trump the pursuit of social justice. Just saying, because that was the original meaning of "liberal."

The left movement is to be "Democratic." deBoer means here that the left cannot be a small cadre movement; it must be a mass movement that persuades rather than coerces. I couldn't agree more. The only problem is that a political movement is inherently coercive. It wants to acquire the levers of political power and use them to have its way with the unconvinced. That's why conservatives believe in limited government. We believe that government's force is not very useful for things beyond policing lower-class young men and spanking the foreign ennemi du jour.

deBoer wants the left to be "Realist," understanding that leftist victory is neither impossible nor just around the corner. I'd say that any realist would have to say that the left is a movement looking for a cause. In the 1840s, Marx had a point. The laboring class, instead of starving on the farms and in the workhouses as of old, was surviving, just, by working under fiendish conditions in the satanic mills. There had to be something better than that. But now, 170 years later and 2,000 percent richer, the realist on the left would recognize that the left needs a total reboot.

The left should be "Pessimist." It's a broken world, and the only hope is to make it a little less broken. There is a limit to what political action can achieve. I agree.

In "Human" deBoer more or less admits that the whole left project is a crock. Dehumanization is the mark of capitalism and of the social replacements. What is needed is a world to "empower individuals to direct their productive energies towards tasks that given them meaning and satisfaction." Here's a thought. I don't think that any militant political movement is going to achieve that, because every such movement, like an army, is all about subordinating its members to the organizational goal, the final victory. It is inevitable that a political movement, like an army, grinds up individuals like cannon fodder and leaves them precious little time to self-direct their productive energies to any purpose other than the Cause.

In closing, let me say this. Back when the First Feminist was writing, the First Conservative was also making waves. It is salutary to recall how modern, and how right, Edmund Burke was when he made us conscious of the notion of "tradition" and set the stage for dairyman Tevye to sing about it in The Fiddler on the Roof out in the shtetl. Burke was for Catholic emancipation and lost his parliamentary seat in the slave port of Bristol over his views; he was for American independence during the Revolutionary War; he was against colonial oppression and exploitation in the person of Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal; he was against the French Revolution which, he predicted, before the invention of the guillotine, would end in the gallows. It was in The Vindication of the Rights of Man that Wollstonecraft made her reputation with a critique of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. But Burke made a grand defense of self-conscious tradition over the mechanical Rights of Man, that we the living cannot just act as though we are free to reinvent the world for our convenience. We have a contract that we must honor, not just with ourselves, but also with our dead ancestors and with generations yet unborn. Before Burke, everybody just took all that for granted.

And that raises the interesting question why, in deBoer's manifesto, there is no mention of "family" or "parent" or "child." What exactly is the left's plan for the family? Inquiring minds would like to know, beyond the notion of "equal dignity for all gender identities."

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