Monday, July 9, 2012

The Problem of Political Labels

The standard and often interchangeable political labels that continue to underpin many conversations about politics are ill-suited to the political realities of today. Notions of liberal and conservative no longer hold their historical precedents. As the historian Tony Judt pointed out in his book, Ill Fares the Land, the left has lost much of its radical bent, while the right, particularly the American Right, has become increasingly revolutionary.  As a result, modern would-be leftists, or those who believe in the preservation of the social state and public institutions, have more in common with traditional conservatives such as Edmund Burke. Meanwhile it is the radical right, with its ideology of repealing 'entitlement' programs and eliminating the roll of the state in public life, that represents a new strand of revolutionary thinking. There is good reason why the Tea Party has co-opted 18th century radical, Thomas Paine, to it's cause, even if Paine would have been at odds with much of the Tea Party agenda.

Modern political distinctions becomes all the more confused when we further consider the political triumph of  economic neoliberalism throughout most of the Western economies.  While it may be a fallacy, as John Gray notes, to speak of "The West" as unified place, it is true that ideals centered upon deregulated markets, privatized industries and the like have become the dominant paradigm throughout the American and European world.  While the current economic crisis has demonstrated the fallacies of neoliberalism, the dominance of this economic/political ideology has not been slowed. This is partially due to a lack of politically implementable alternative. Social Democracy and the social state persist in several Western European (particularly Scandinavian) states and as vaguely autocratic neo-Marxist holdovers in parts of Asia and the Americas, however, the notion of developing new and meaningfully implementable ideologies from these frameworks seems to be impossible.

The lines have been further blurred to with the emergence of a consensus around liberal intervention and that ideologies close alignment (acknowledged or otherwise) with neo-conservatism. The distinction in the position of someone such as Christopher Hitchens regarding the case for War in Iraq and those of neo-conservatives who orchestrated the war, such as Paul Wolfowitz are so minute, they represent the parsing of the very finest of hairs. This is also true of other liberal interventionists, such as Samantha Power who is, according to consensus, the intellectual architect of recent US action in Libya. Indeed, the speed with which the United States along with many of European states jumped to intervene in Libya last year - despite gross exaggerations as to the nature of the situation on the ground in Benghazi and sensationalist intelligence marshaled in favor of intervention that was acknowledged as bogus at the collection level at the time it was being peddled - speaks to how liberal intervention has become politically uncontroversial. The ease with which modern states are willing to go to war-  largely in part as a response to the new found mechanization of warfare, allowing for most killing to be done by way of remote controlled drone aircraft or long-range bombing - has further erased barriers between right and left.  

The remnants of radical militarism inspired by ideologies of the old left seem to have ended with the Soviet Union, while former Marxist radical groups like the militant wing of the PFLP or the SDS collapsed.  This shift is best dramatized in the French miniseries on Ilich "Carlos the Jackal" Ramírez Sánchez, Carlos, in which we see an aging Carlos realize he has become truly irrelevant, finds himself persona non grata in his old client state of Syria and eventually finds himself in Sudan, where the Khartoum authorities eventually sell him to the French for the long-standing bounty.

What is likely to emerge may be a new paradigm of culturally divergent forms of capitalism that compete with one another.  As the English political philosopher, John Gray, notes in his shockingly clairvoyant book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, the variety in culturally determined forms capitalism is enormous and there is no reason to expect, as much neoliberal economic theory suggests, that any of the emerging and soon to be dominant world economies will necessarily take on Western characteristics. Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Russian and Japanese capitalism all have their own important traits and characteristics which are likely not reproducible outside of  their cultural contexts. Thus, while economists may criticize Japan for its years of apparent economic stagnation, the Japanese economy may be far more robust than many Western neoliberals may realize, or as Gray points out, may be simply returning uniquely Japanese development of high standard of living at zero economic growth. The irony of globalization is that, while it drives deregulation internationally, it also manages to strengthen certain culturally determinant characteristics of societies and economies.  It has also internationalized the actions of new types of internationalist militant organizations, such as Al-Qaeda that are simultaneously products of modernity while reacting against it.

If and how a Western political left may re-emerge is difficult to tell.  It may take the form of the mass civil society uprisings that the Occupy Wall Street movement and Stéphane Hessel agitate towards, however there is a question of if it can even re-emerge amid the new Western neoliberal consensus. Especially as this consensus, technology and entertainment industries take center stage, appears to increasingly conform to that Neil Postman forecasted in his seminal Amusing Ourselves To Death. Political alternatives may very likely proliferate in different cultural settings or contexts, however it remains to be seen how these alternatives will be able to be translated cross-culturally. Political conflict, in the United States at least, has been transformed such that, as David Bromwich points out, one political party: The Democrats have won on the cultural issues, while the other: The Republicans, have won on the public policy and economic ones.  Both parties, however, remain largely preoccupied by political tribalism without articulating a clear view of the public good. This distinction is important and is rarely acknowledged in mainstream political discourse.  Until there is some consensus as to which public services are valued by society - and that these services historically represent the backbone from which functional civil societies are built - the dominance of a dehumanizing and destabilizing neoliberal economic theory will continue to go unchecked.

So what of our political labels then? Without the above-mentioned shift away from neoliberalism, they remain absolutely meaningless.

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