Thursday, December 23, 2004

Left Wing Conservatism

Smart folks like Virginia Postrel argue that
unplanned, open-ended trial and error - not conformity to one central vision - is the key to human betterment. Thus, the true enemies of humanity's future are those who insist on prescribing outcomes in advance, circumventing the process of competition and experiment in favor of their own preconceptions and prejudices.... these conflicting views of progress, rather than the traditional left and right, increasingly define our political and cultural debate.
Do I agree? Sure, in the sense that to make an issue an issue, some people want to change things while other people want them to stay the same (if everyone was of one mind, then it wouldn't be much of an issue, would it?)

I don't want to get into any big debate about whether left-right is a useful way to think about people's political identity, but I have been stricken by how the "left", traditionally identified with "progressive" causes, now seems to be primarily stasist while the "right", traditionally considered "conservative" is the one driving/riding historical trends. Personally, I think this has less to do with "tides of history" or "being correct" and more to do with events on the ground, luck, and being in power, but nevertheless, if you ask what the Middle East will look like in 50 years chances are it will be more democratic, more free, and as a result more successful, and this will be in part due to George W Bush deciding to bring democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun.

Or maybe not. Maybe the Middle East of the future will be just the same as it is today, with unaccountable tyrants lording it over failing cultures and impoverished soceities, with the whole Iraq War 2 thing a bad memory.

Or maybe the entire region will be a 3 inch thick plate of glass, still cooling.

The point is that claims to be on the "right side of history" depend very much on how things turn out, and figuring that out is a tricky business indeed. People still bicker over whether Reagan's tax cuts boosted economic growth by reducing marginal rates ans dead weight loss through tax inefficiency. David Brin, who seems smart and has agrees with Postrel that the real political split is between those who embrace the future and those who fight it, goes on to argue that "back-to-the-UN-and-France" Kerry represents more forward-looking change than "reshape-the-middle-east" Bush. Surreal. And dare I say it--dumb. I mean, you can agree or disagree with policy, but there is little argument about which side is about radical change.

This nice long review of the relationship between Europe, the UK, and the US kind of makes the point that embracing the future, becoming modern, is something that the US is quite good at and as a result gets to enjoy the future on its own terms. This by itself is an excellent reason to hate it, especially if you are a country that feels profoundly discomforted by the change and unease that tomorrow brings. I remember when MTV India first came to Dubai and it seemed that India, all of a sudden, could look to the future and know that it had a place there. All countries/cultures cannot say the same thing.

This is also thematically tied to this good long piece by Eric Raymond, more well known for his work on GNU/Linux than his online geek/libertarian/anarchist musings on firearms and women. Eric looks at the website left2right, founded by left-wing intellectuals to reach out to intelligent people on the right of the American political spectrum, and is unimpressed by their efforts. In particular, he notes
Velleman’s blythe unawareness of the reactionary tenor of his own argument suggests more than just a ignorance of right-wing political thinking that is crippling for anyone engaged in Left2Right’s project; it suggests that Left thought has become so empty of any content of its own, so stuck in reflexive oppositionalism, that all that remains to it is to grab at any concept that can be used to oppose George W. Bush.

In fact, this model of a Left stuck in reflexive oppositionalism is exactly what conservative intellectuals believe about it. Their narrative goes like this: once upon a time, Left thought was a genuine world-system, a coherent if tragically mistaken competitor to classical liberalism and capitalism. The Soviet Union used this theory for evil purposes, to seduce the intelligentsia of the West and foment among them anti-American, anti-capitalist hatred. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Left’s world-system collapsed with it. All that remained was a catalogue of resentments clothed in the tattered remnants of Marxist theory, but the Left intelligentsia never let go of this. As the theory crumbled, the resentments became the theory. So we are left with a Left that is more hysterically anti-American than ever, and willing to suck up to monstrous dictators like Saddam Hussein, precisely because it no longer knows what to be for.

Now: reread the above paragraph, then ask yourself what Velleman’s rhetoric will inevitably sound like to a conservative intellectual. You will know you have gotten it when your hair stands on end.
I don't want to put words in Eric's mouth, but it seems like he's saying the left is now in alliance with islamic fascism because both hate America and Bush. This sounds ludicrous, and certainly it's not clear why any traditional Progressive would pick a creed known for its love of violence, devotion to God, and subjugation of women, but I suppose strange times can make for strange bedfellows. Indeed, the difficulty of articulating a position that is both anti-terrorist and anti-Bush seems to have been a central difficulty the Democrats did not manage during the 04 election and continue to struggle with to this day. Indeed, perhaps Eric is implying that the reason this was so hard for them is because those two groups really are allies, albeit allies by Brownian motion, and if the Left stopped chanting slogans long enough to look at who else was getting his talking points from Michael Moore movies, they might realize they had ended up somewhere they never really intended to be and snap out of it.


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