My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).
Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.
To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.
My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)
The liberal and social democratic reforms of the New Deal and its counterparts in other developed countries were incremental changes. But they weren’t presented as mere technocratic adjustments to social and economic mechanisms. FDR’s New Deal and Four Freedoms, the Beveridge Report, the Swedish Folkhemmet, Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill”, Michael Savage in New Zealand, all presented their reforms in the context of a broader vision that could inspire mass support.
Combining day-to-day advocacy of immediately feasible reforms with mobilization for a broader vision of a better world implies some constraints. Most obviously, the kind of vision I’m talking about needs to be realistic rather than utopian. As I said in my post on Hope, the goals
ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.
On the other hand, the kinds of incremental change we should be looking for must be informed by these goals.
An example, one of the few topics where Obama has maintained the rhetoric of hope that inspired support in his campaign is his advocacy of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Obviously, this can’t be achieved at a stroke, and it may never be fully achievable. Nevertheless, (as I plan to argue in more detail soon) we seem more likely to make incremental steps away from the precipice on which we are standing if we have such an ultimate goal in mind than if we think in terms of adjustments to a balance that depends, in the end, on mutually assured destruction.
Conversely, articulating a goal like this (as compared, say, to non-proliferation) implies the need for much sharper questioning of the positions of the long-established nuclear powers. Are essentially frivolous considerations of national pride sufficient to justify Britain and France in maintaining a capacity for genocidal war? Assuming the perceived need for a strategic deterrent is going to persist for some time, can the US and Russia justify keeping tactical nuclear weapons. And so on.
Similar points can be made about the other goals I suggested in my ‘Hope’ post as well as those put forward by commenters and other bloggers. A moral imperative to end extreme poverty in the world seems more likely to overcome parochial tightfistedness than a desire to promote economic growth in less developed countries. But it also implies different policies, with more focus on action that will directly meet human needs for better health, education and nutrition, and less on large-scale development projects, which might be better left to the market sector.
I’ll repeat the endings of my previous posts. Writing this kind of thing, I can sense the feeling that it’s naive/utopian/pointless. But I think it’s precisely this kind of feeling, hammered into us by years of retreat that we need to overcome. And I’m keen for better ideas and analyses than what I’ve offered. So, comments please.