Sunday, January 3, 2010

Left, Right, and Center; A Political Ramble

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People

I've been working on this thing for awhile trying to put it in coherent shape. I'm not a politician, lawyer, or a political scientist, so I'm out of my depth. But, politics is something I care about, as should we all. Politics is too important a business to be left to politicians, lawyers, or political scientists. So here is what I wrote in all its muddled inconclusiveness.

If all I knew of left-wing politics were the writings of Marx and Lenin, then I would most probably have inherited my father’s old Cold War Republicanism. The Russians between 1917 and 1920 must have been very angry and desperate to sit through so many of Lenin’s bloodthirsty incendiary speeches. Marx was a ruthless modernist who had precious little patience for people’s petty “feelings.” I think it’s no surprise that ruthless ideological capitalists these days are so enthusiastic for his writings. When Marx wrote so eloquently in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism reduces all values to values of use and exchange, he wasn’t complaining. He believed that everything solid should melt into air. Much of the Communist Manifesto is a hymn of praise to the ruthless materialism and transformative power of capitalism, as the smarter contemporary capitalist ideologues have figured out. Communist and capitalist ideologues are brothers under the skin. The banker and the commissar are much closer than either imagine. I think it’s no accident that the people who were in charge in the old Communist systems cashed in and got rich when the slogans changed from “Building Socialism” to “Free Market.” The whole Chinese regime is trying to do just that; figuring out how to change religions without changing bishops, and how to get rich at the same time. So far, they are succeeding spectacularly. As the old East European joke went, “under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it’s the other way ‘round.” As Lenin insisted, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. A New York developer vacating a neighborhood with an immanent domain order backed up by the courts and the police would agree heartily.

What drove my views leftwards was dealing with (and worse, working for) people like John Mackey, recently profiled in The New Yorker and discussed by Digby recently. I used to know a lot of people who worked at Whole Foods, and it was not a happy experience for any of them. There are lots of guys (and gals) like this; plutocrats who smoke pot. Beneath that warm colored Timothy Leary exterior beats the cold heart of Henry Clay Frick with his pistols and his Pinkertons. As much as these guys try to blend in with their hipster employees, they make no secret of despising them. To them, employees are a necessary evil, parasites sucking their teats dry. The employees, and all the rest of us, are just more eggs to be broken in order to make that omelet. They hate labor unions, minimum wage laws, and OSHA with a Vanderbilt’s passion. When they talk about favorite employees, it’s as if they are talking about favorite hunting dogs. It never occurs to them that their employees’ time and effort produces their wealth.

It was working with and for people like this that drove me to the left-thinking authors. The first one I read with any real enthusiasm wasn’t Marx. It certainly wasn’t Lenin, and it wasn’t Noam Chomsky. It was Rheinhold Niebuhr. I remember that back in the ‘80s he was briefly popular with the conservative crowd, until they looked a little deeper into that “Christian Realism” and were horrified to discover the beating heart of a true believing (and passionate) socialist. I also read that other Cold Warrior hero George Orwell. I read the books by Orwell that the Cold Warriors chose to ignore. As much as Orwell savaged communism in 1984 and in Animal Farm, he did so to capitalism and imperialism in Down and Out in Paris and London and Shooting Elephants. Despite the Chamber of Commerce’s attempts to make him into a capitalist freedom fighter, Orwell died a true believing socialist. There was a brief attempt to appropriate his memory by the “left” apologists for the invasion of Iraq like Christopher Hitchens. I can’t imagine Orwell endorsing a big smash and grab in the Middle East by a great Western Bwana. That’s what his anti-imperial short stories set in India and Burma are all about.
That other Cold War hero, Arthur Koestler, turned on his communist oppressors only to find himself used and discarded by his new capitalist masters. One of the most ferocious anti-communists of the early Cold War was Norman Thomas, the American socialist leader. He refused to support Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign precisely because of the communists in Wallace’s campaign staff.

When I finally read Marx, it was under the tutelage of another thinker who enthusiastically admired the insight and originality of his thought without ever becoming baptized into his church, Hannah Arendt. That’s how I feel about him now; a brilliant thinker who suffered quite a lot for his insights, and for acting upon them, but I’m not signing up for his catechism class. If anything, the communists that I have known have a lot in common with the Southern Baptists I grew up with; stubbornly certain despite any evidence to the contrary, insufferably arrogant, intolerant of any variation in opinion, and very puritanical. The red diaper babies that I’ve known have relations with their communist parents that are strikingly similar to those of children from rigid Catholic or Evangelical families.

Growing up in a place where the graffiti said “Read the Bible!” one day and “Read Atlas Shrugged!” the next, I didn’t need Hannah Arendt to show me the harm of ideological thinking (though I read her work with pleasure). When I went to college, the only thing that changed was “Read the Daily Worker!” got added to the other two graffitis.

My old Republican dad didn’t read any of those things, and he probably never heard of Ayn Rand. All he knew was that the same people who hated Nixon hated people like him. I probably got my best political education from him. Ideologies, party platforms, agendas are all just window dressing. What really drives politics are those deep dark tribal passions of loyalty, fear, and resentment that lie just underneath the surface of all ideologies from left to right. That is the jet fuel that drives the machinery of ideological politics. That is why the extremes of left and right end up looking like each other.
Richard Nixon rarely cracked open a Bible and never read Atlas Shrugged, yet he could play the resentments of lower middle class people (like my father) like a violin. Nixon paved the way for thirty years of Republican political hegemony by exploiting the resentments of Southern whites over Civil Rights legislation. And yet, there would be no place for Nixon today in the very right wing and very ideological Republican Party he helped build. Pragmatic Nixon, ironically, was more of a liberal on domestic policy than either Clinton or Obama. Anyone remember Nixon’s proposed guaranteed minimum income? (Hat tip to JCF for recalling that to me in a past post). Anyone remember what happened to it? Do you think anyone now from either party would ever propose such a thing? (Its fate is something all you progressives who want to veto the current flawed health insurance reform bill should think about).


Such different thinkers as Saint Augustine and Machiavelli show us that none of us is in a position to look down on the political street fight from some Olympian height. We are all in it up to our ears whether we like it or not. Both Saint Augustine and Machiavelli remind us that we are each responsible for this world of politics. Augustine said we are responsible to God. Machiavelli said we are responsible to our children and grandchildren. Politics is not about abstract agendas, it is about doing real concrete things for real people. Politics is that constant competition for power that we are all part of. We can engage in it to do good or to do harm. We are not wandering solitary animals like tigers. We are not creatures of collective hives like bees. We are neither. We are political creatures. We live in communities, not packs or hives. We separated ourselves by family, clan, and city long before we separated by trade or by class.

Marx and the classical economists of capitalism agree on a fundamental point. They both agree that people are fundamentally economic creatures. Human beings produce as naturally and inevitably as silk worms spin silk, said Marx. Marx ultimately dreamed of a world where the old Curse of Adam is lifted, a world where grinding toil in pain and sweat to win our bread was extinct, and where work was as natural and effortless to us as breathing. Marx wanted a world where people are no longer alienated from their true producing selves. Small wonder that the tyrants of the old communist systems exploited that vision to build what were in effect national plantations. Marx would have been horrified to see his ideas exploited to justify a kind of messianic monarchy in places like North Korea and Cuba.
The old 19th century Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer counted on the Curse of Adam to cull the human herd, so that its masters could rise to the top. They dreamed of a kind of feudalism of the fittest, where the unfit were reduced to the status of chattel to their clearly superior masters. The saber-toothed plutocrats of America’s first Gilded Age like Cornelius Vanderbilt, and even Andrew Carnegie, believed that labor was a class of people to be sacrificed for the common good. Those Social Darwinists would have been horrified to see their vision of aristocratic arcadia exploited to create a mass trash culture of childish self-indulgence and quick easy profit. Their dream of an American Athens became Las Vegas.
One dream is clearly unobtainable. The other dream is simply repulsive. Both groups of economic visionaries counted on their brands of Old Time Religion to keep the suckers producing like busy profitable little silk worms.

One of the things that always struck me about economists left and right is that beneath all of their thinking is the assumption that people act rationally in their own self interest. Anyone who has sat through 5 minutes of Introduction to Psychology knows that just isn’t true. To all those left and right who assume that humans are economic rational creatures, explain the Rwandan genocide? How was anyone economically advantaged in that outbreak of mass insanity? How does economics explain the other big tribal bloodletting in the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia? There were certainly people plotting to take political and economic advantage of those conflicts, but I think it would be a real stretch to conclude that those same people were the driving force behind the fighting. All of those peoples fought so bitterly and desperately because they hated each other and wanted to rip each other’s guts out. They were terrified of each other, and desperate not to see their enemies advantaged at their expense.


What frustrates me about the Left for so long is its comfort in being in opposition. Until recently, I’ve seen little will to do the necessary work to get into elected office to make policy. It’s easy to play armchair politics, or to put together opposition rallies, teach-ins, and petition drives. All of those actions presume that someone else can be persuaded to do the necessary political dirty work. It’s quite another thing to actually govern and take responsibility for policy. One of the most illuminating things to emerge from the release of Soviet archives is the contempt Stalin and his successors felt for the American communists and the American left in general. They considered the very Red Americans to be feckless naifs and were not about to entrust major political and military espionage to any of them. The Soviets had their best success in the USA when they applied bribery and flattery. They found that even the most rightwing superpatriot could turn traitor with just the right measure of cash and appeals to vanity; e.g. Robert Hansen. The Soviet contempt for the American left was matched by their reliance on American greed and self-absorption.

The Right has no such scruples about power. They will do everything it takes to get into power and to stay in power. Despite right-wing politicians’ public displays of religious piety and rants about “personal responsibility” (usually someone else’s and not theirs), the Right very much believes in ends justifying means. When legal scruple gets in the way of policy expediency, it’s usually the legal scruple that gets sacrificed. That contempt for law is at the heart of so many of the scandals in Republican presidencies from the Cambodian invasion to Watergate to Iran Contra to the invasion of Iraq. They are all about either extra-legal actions or structures created for the explicit purpose of evading the law. Republicans certainly have no monopoly on this; the extra-legal machinations of Lyndon Johnson (and Kennedy to a lesser extent) created the Vietnam War. But “they did it too” is the most childish and least persuasive of excuses. No one should be evading the law.
That very open contempt for the American legal system by the last Bush administration really struck me. The whole point of Guantanamo and the secret prison network was to evade the justice system; never mind that the conviction rate for captured and prosecuted terrorists was nearly 100%. All of those responsible for the first World Trade Center attack were captured, tried, and convicted in open civilian court. All are still in prison and are likely never to come out. So far, only one major player in the 9/11 attacks is about to go on trial. The prosecutors are forced to use a mass of now very tainted evidence to try to win a conviction. The most important perpetrators of the attack are still at large thanks to a botched (“deliberately?” The conspiracy theorists ask) military operation at Tora Bora.
The Right counts on the new found eagerness of the inhabitants of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave to scuttle their constitution and their legal system (and even their claim to be a civilized people) out of fear and the demand for safety.

People get mad at God most often for his refusal to intervene in history. The more evangelical atheists point to this as more proof that God does not exist.
The image of Christ Crucified is a warning. God did not spare His Son from the machinations of history. What makes us think that He will spare us or ours?
Religious thinkers from Paul to Augustine to Luther to Tillich have always pointed out how Christ completely inverted earthly power. Christ could have changed everything if He wanted to. At any time, He could have asserted His irresistible power and bent the world to His will. He was repeatedly asked to do so, and refused. The devil tempted Him with political power out in the desert. When He hung dying on the cross, the crowds jeered Him, demanding that He prove what He claimed to be and to come down off the cross. He refused to do so and died in contempt. He embraced our scorn and contempt and chose the path of weakness rather than fulfilling our longing for the Powerful Savior.
We still demand that He assert His power and put everything right. We protest (rightly) about why suffering, evil, and death should remain our lot if He really is all powerful and all loving.
Perhaps history belongs to us. God and the angels are above history. Animals are beneath it. History belongs to us and we are responsible for making justice in this world

The Buddha said that we should leave behind history all together and embrace the path of salvation. He gave up a kingdom for the sake of Enlightenment. Politics and power belong to the world of illusion and desire. Our actions in it should be only out of compassion, to relieve the sufferings of our neighbors and our fellow creatures.

In the end, neither of these really satisfy me, though I respect them both very greatly.

Delacroix, Jacob Wresting with the Angel, detail.

1 comment:

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Thank you for this, dear Brother!