Running on Fumes

I have just come back from this year's Political Science Shabbaton down at Stern. Not quite as star-studded as last year's, but still very good. The highlight of the event was a visit by Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn/Bronx), House Democratic Whip. Congressman Weiner is exceptionally talented, having been the youngest person ever elected to New York's city council, and is still unusually young for his position.

Weiner's speech was fascinating to listen to, though I did not agree with much of it. I will note only two points in particular. First, he criticized what many in the blogosphere have also lamented, that President Bush has not asked the American people to sacrifice for the war, keeping an artificial divide between America's policies and the daily experience of most people. Indeed, by one way of looking at things the President has effectively bribed America with tax cuts. While many groups of citizens have taken it on themselves to support the war effort through organizations such as Soldiers' Angels, most people do not even know such organizations exist. The effect of all this has been to make the people quickly lose interest in the war. Congressman Weiner particularly feared that the general fatigue would make nearly impossible any military action against Iran's nuclear program.

Second, he mentioned that he was part of a small group of Democrats pushing for the party to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, both for sound foreign-policy reasons and to make the Republicans pay the price for their close ties to the Saudis. This would seem to be a no-brainer. Most people hate the Saudis, and many conservatives are livid that their party continues to deal with them. Moreover, Saudi Arabia continues to fund the spread of Salafi Islam, which is presently destabilizing much of Europe, while still taking advantage of preferred prices for American military equipment. Yet the Democratic leadership has resisted moving against them; indeed, despite the incredible political benefits of doing so the Democrats do not even talk about Saudi Arabia, leaving it to be covered by Michael Moore and his ilk.

Why? Perhaps the Democratic leadership is as compromised by Saudi money as the Republicans are; this is likely, given the strong ties between the Saudis and the State Department and the CIA. But I think that a larger reason is that to move against Saudi Arabia would be dangerous, and would only be tried if it were part of a larger strategy. The Democrats have no larger strategy for dealing with the world that I can tell, and certainly none that would justify the disruptions in the world oil market, the American munitions industry, and the Middle-East balance of power that would ensue from such a conflict.

In a later panel discussion by members of the faculty, our International Relations professor noted that the Democrats typically win the presidency when their candidate is credible on security (FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson) or when the world is seemingly free of major conflicts (Clinton). But when the Democrats run a weak candidate during wartime, they get flattened (McGovern, Dukakis, Kerry). The Democrats will likely remain out of power until they regain a fundamental willingness to use force, and more importantly to justify using force.

This is the key point. When you look at the conservative end of politics, you find a distinguished group of intellectuals and philosophers who have between them developed a powerful and flexible conservative ideology. This group includes Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Allan Bloom, Victor Davis Hanson, and a host of others. Not only did such figures breathe new life into conservatism as an idea, but each could justify a set of consistent policies that flowed out of his philosophical positions. And conservative politicians could look to a powerful theoretical foundation to back up their agenda.

On the liberal end, this sort of intellectual firepower seems to be lacking. Not that liberals are stupid; but they cannot point to a clearly elucidated, consistent philosophy in the same way as conservatives can, unless they go back to discredited ideas from Marx's various students. A senior member of our faculty (who shows by her example that Trotskyism can be a good thing) calls the current liberal leadership "marshmallows" and is frustrated that they cannot describe what they stand for, because in many cases they don't know themselves.

In such an environment, the discourse of the Left is being taken over by those who scream the loudest, usually refugees from the '60's. These people fantasize that they can somehow transcend the evils of the present capitalist society by rehashing the same failed ideas that they tried the last time. Or, when the ideas themselves are useful, they do not represent a true alternative to the status quo.

Example: in the last few weeks there has been a great deal of coordinated media attention to a "movement" called Freeganism—essentially a euphemism for dumpster-diving. There is nothing wrong with dumpster-diving, of course; as the linked site notes, over 40% of U.S. food production goes to waste, to say nothing of furniture or clothing, and freegans can apparently make out quite well with the trash of others. But many freegans are not simply thrifty people out to benefit from the waste of others; they have the audacity to consider freeganism an alternative to capitalism! The movement's publicity is mostly funded by Wetlands Preserve, and the Freeganism site contains an article titled Everyday Revolutions which states, in part:
If we are to build a revolutionary movement with the power to truly challenge the status quo, we must demonstrate that the principles we uphold offer not only planetary survival, but a better everyday life. We must recognize that for most working people, the threat of not being able to pay rent is a much more immediate than loss of biodiversity , threats to civil liberties, or nuclear war.

To build a truly revolutionary movement, we link our indictment of the horrors of the current system, things like factory farming, the Iraq war, and rainforest destruction with the sense that we offer a better way than the status quo to provide for people’s food, shelter, health, community, security, intellectual stimulation, and joy in their lives. When we build a movement that demonstrates the capacity to offer all of these things, while challenging the greed, misery, and destruction of megacorporations, their puppet government, and entire capitalist-industrialist model, then we can begin to build broad support and engagement in ecological resistance struggles, and finally have a real chance to liberate this world.
Freeganism will never "challenge the status quo," of course, nor will it "build a truly revolutionary movement." Freeganism is not an opponent of capitalism, but a parasite. Parasites are valuable in any ecosystem, and freeganism could have a valuable impact on society, but to say that freeganism will overthrow capitalism and its associated activities is like saying that vultures will unite and wipe out Africa's lions. That people could seriously make the statements above suggests either monomania, abject stupidity, or shallow and simplistic thinking in otherwise intelligent people.

That the Left has become so intellectually bankrupt should not be a cause to celebrate. Not only is their incompetence allowing the Right to become smug and complacent, but society in general is denied the chance to refine its intellectual model. I strongly advocate capitalism, but I do not love capitalism. Its great advantages are balanced against the discomfort of the poor, the everpresent stress and tension of modern life, and above all the constant focus on materialism and the consequent narrowness of vision that capitalism creates. Spiritual concerns are pushed to the side; indeed, this may well be the eventual undoing of capitalism as Marx predicted.

But the present range of alternatives such as the welfare state are not alternatives at all; for all of them cause far greater misery and tyranny in the long run, compounded with a distateful infantilization of society. At any rate, they also tend to denigrate the spiritual in favor of the physical, so we have gained nothing thereby.

It should be the purpose of the Left to offer substantive challenges to the staus quo, that can actually improve the lot of the world. Instead, for the most part we get a jumbled mush of Third Way social welfarism, petulant anarchism, naked authoritarianism, and cheap populism. This is hardly an intellectual framework that leads to good policy, nor has it done so.

Until the Left produces a new generation of philosophers that can move beyond its many ideological flaws and offer something better, they will continue to hinder the advance of society instead of promoting it. This is particularly true since the Left's influence promotes the idea that Western civilization is not worth fighting for. When we are warring with an enemy that fervently believes in its own righteousness, such apathy will be lethal. Until the Left develops a true alternative to conservatism, they must be denied power.

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