We’ve had a fair bit of fun here 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 (one using the same, maybe Oz-specific, 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.