The Religious Attitude
April 21, 2012

The above clip comes from Adam Curtis’ four-part BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, in which he tries to show how the modern West came to be ruled by (in his eyes) an ideology of radical individualism. Politics, he argues, is no longer about communal interests or the promise of a different world; it is instead about administering to the present state of affairs, and satisfying the individual’s self-interested needs and desires.

Curtis returned to that theme, one of his favorites, in a talk he delivered last weekend in New York City’s e-flux gallery. There, he expressed frustration with Occupy Wall Street and the left in general, saying that both had failed to come up with a workable alternative to the cult of the individual. Horizontalism, in Curtis’ dim view, is little more than an anarchified twist on the old fallacy of the market’s invisible hand: both posit that a mass of people all expressing their own individual preferences can somehow yield a coherent, dynamic, and mutually beneficial ecosystem.

You can quibble with that take on horizontalism, if you like — it is, to be sure, more than a little reductive to equate heavily structured General Assembly discussions with the Hobbesian chaos of a laissez-faire market. But Curtis’ broader indictment of the contemporary left is both harder to swallow and harder to dismiss. Those elements of the left that have denounced the ideology of the self (and they are fewer than you think) leave a conceptual vacuum in its wake. (more…)

Small-R Republicanism and the NeoL-word
July 20, 2011

social welfare maximization

Image via Wikipedia

Many, many blog-years ago Dylan Matthews and I had a back-and-forth over abstract philosophy’s role in concrete political debates. I argued that philosophy could play a bigger, more active role in public discourse, whereas Dylan insisted that first principles are “largely irrelevant” in real-world politics and only “emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant.”

But if there’s one thing we should learn from the progressive blogosphere’s ongoing debate over neoliberalism, it’s that these intramural differences over fundamental values can have significant implications. I was reminded of this when I grabbed a drink with Dylan just the other night, and we got to talking about his “neoliberalism”* versus my more traditionalist leftism. The more we explored the subject, the more we came to realize that our political differences reflected a deeper philosophical disagreement: I’m a small-r republican who equates justice with the maximization of non-domination, and Dylan is a utilitarian who treats non-domination as an ancillary concern to general well-being or flourishing.

My problem with utilitarianism in a public policy context is this: when it comes to accurately measuring and maximizing a phenomenon as fuzzy and nebulous as “well-being,” we’ve got a serious knowledge problem on our hands. On the other hand, Philip Pettit’s book on Republicanism includes a lengthy and fairly rigorous account of freedom as non-domination. And while the book — being, first and foremost, a work of analytic philosophy — does little to unravel the full policy implications, you can draw a direct line from my republican leanings and to emphasis on redistribution of power through workplace democracy, just as you can draw a line from Dylan’s utilitarianism to his preference for centrally-directed technocracy.

*I’m using scare quotes here because Dylan has a reasonable case that the term “neoliberal” is not really all that useful when explaining left/center-left divisions in American politics.

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In Which Markos Moulitsas Becomes Bad For the Left
September 1, 2010

Markos Moulitsas
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

I have a paleoconservative friend who, when I’m berating the modern right, will often respond with something like: “Well, don’t get too comfortable. Give your leftist friends a couple more years in power, and they’ll turn into rabid animals too.”

I begged to differ, instead reiterating some version of Jon Chait’s thoughts on the topic:

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism.

I still believe this to be true, in some sense, for the moment—though I would again caution that a governing philosophy can’t be pragmatic on the level of first principles because first principles can’t be pragmatic. But to pretend that it’s not possible for any ideological movement to slide into epistemic closure is to practice exactly the sort of self-deception that makes one so vulnerable to that very phenomenon.

My friend considers that process inevitable, and I would like to disagree—sadly, one of the giants of left-wing activism seems firmly committed to proving my friend’s point.

In Jamelle’s excellent review, he points out that Moulitsas is primarily an activist, not a journalist, and that this book is likely more about rallying the troops than painting an accurate portrait of the modern right. Fair enough. But Jamelle’s review also does a pretty thorough job of demonstrating why that’s no excuse. Once the loudest voices among the liberal base start showing a Jonah Goldberg-style willingness to sacrifice honesty for pom-pom shaking, Chait’s defense no longer works at all. I hate to go all “a pox on both your houses,” since Kos is still correct on a number of policy issues—but if the process by which he reaches those conclusions is this thoroughly corrupted, then the conclusions themselves are largely a happy coincidence.

In my book, that doesn’t count for a great deal. Not considering how bad this style of argumentation is in the long run, both for the left and the country as a whole. If liberals embrace American Taliban-style thinking, then we’re bound for a conservative resurgence and a liberal meltdown that will leave us much in the same position as the modern right: intellectually bankrupt, blindly emotive, and capable only of making noise and obstructing policy. In the shorter term, the left will have completely alienated those conservatives who we could actually make common cause with.

I can understand the impulse for this kind of rhetoric. My theory is that Kos is trying to gin up enough enthusiasm in the netroots to blunt conservative enthusiasm going into 2010. It’s a wise short-term play if you consider the goal to be simply subverting conservatism whenever you can—and, if at all possible, crushing it for good. But we’re not going to get rid of conservatives, nor should we want to. Instead, the goal should be a two-party system in which both sides show at least some appreciation for what David Foster Wallace called the Democratic Spirit. If Kos and his right-wing counterparts have their way, then the American D.S. will be dead in a generation.

Lucky for us, there’s hope. The proof: a prominent left-wing publication (the Prospect) publishing a review (Jamelle’s, see above) that rips American Taliban to shreds. As long we still have room for that sort of intra-movement dissent, we’re doing significantly better than the right.

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Recommended Reading for the American Left
August 14, 2010

Via Crooked Timber, here are parts one and two of an excellent interview on the philosophy and theory undergirding leftist thought. I haven’t read the full thing yet, but the early portions are an excellent overview of some of the concepts and ideas that are all too frequently absent from the American liberal lexicon. Unsurprisingly, this interview comes by way of the UK-based New Left Project; the British left and right both have firmer intellectual and theoretical foundations than American liberalism or conservatism, the latter of which has a stalwartly anti-intellectual foundation. But even American liberalism, as I’ve written before, suffers for appearing more like a list of disconnected policy preferences and priorities than a cohesive political vision.

It’s important to understand the philosophy that unites these policy preferences, and it’s very important to understand that there is, in fact, philosophy involved. Mainstream liberal arguments often take root in this notion of American liberalism as a technocratic, empirically-based approach to governance. Conservatives are the ideologues, goes the subtext; we’re the logical pragmatists.

That’s a deeply unsatisfying, even anemic, understanding of liberalism. There is an ideology, and a set of moral principles underlying the liberal worldview which anyone interested in left-wing American politics would do well to engage with. This interview is a great place to start.

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