U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Left Behind, Left Ahead

This week saw the publication by Tikkun magazine of a forum on Eli Zaretsky’s Why America Needs A Left, in both print and online iterations. I am flattered to have been included in the latter. No doubt the conversation about Zaretsky’s provocative work will be of interest to many readers of this website.  

This week also saw the publication, in The Nation, of an ambitious work of synthesis and polemic by Timothy Shenk, a young intellectual historian of capitalism whose work I have sung the praises of here: I encourage everyone to give his essay a careful and attentive look. I disagree with Shenk on almost every premise and conclusion. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to hash out our differences in one way or another, down the road.

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Between the two events, it strikes me that the revival of the intellectual Left in the US continues to make impressive strides. To my mind, the mark of a real political culture is the existence of dissensus, the presence of real disagreements and antagonisms simultaneous with the mutual self-recognition of all parties to the conflict of underlying affinities and solidarities. Increasingly, I think, it is the case that a newcomer to the Left might be able to cut his or her teeth on internal debates, on the excitement of dialectical negotiation of complex topics, rather than the pledging of allegiance to some broad goal or slogan or even “structure of feeling.”

Even more exciting, I think, is the centrality of “capitalism” as the concept with which the Left intelligentsia is wrestling. The shared sense that a position must be arrived at vis-à-vis Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, for example, strikes me as uniquely encouraging. Piketty, though reviled by orthodox and right wing economists, is not a Marxist. His focus on the perils of distributive inequalities, as some of the bloggers at Crooked Timber have noted, seems to chime with John Rawls and the “justice as fairness” tradition (rather than the “justice-as- ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’” tradition of the Marxian Left).

As I understand Piketty’s argument, this is, in fact, a superficial gloss on his analysis: what matters most about the concentration of wealth among the one percent is the danger of a persistent “savings glut” or hoard that Marx wrote about extensively in Capital. For US historians, the historical implications of this analysis could not be further from Rawlsian commitments to the “veil of ignorance.” We know, from the work of Martin Sklar, Theda Skocpol, and Mary Furner, among others, that the function of the Progressive Era American state was precisely to learn about and puzzle out the problem of the excessive hoarding of wealth by the very wealthy, and to effect the ideological re-education of the national bourgeoisie in order to make capitalism functional for capital (a task at which individual capitalists were failing miserably, as they are, again, today).

In my brief contribution to the Tikkun roundtable, I suggested that we are currently in a moment of Left anxiety. What that means, in psychoanalytic terms, is not that we are confronted by some menacing object that enters the field of vision like a Hitchcockian bird (though that is certainly what anxiety feels like), but rather that we are at risk of losing a certain psychic distance from our desires. The sense of danger from without, in other words, presents itself as a threatening “something” when what we really fear is a loss of a precious “nothing.”

I left the implications vague in that essay, for reasons both literary and pragmatic. Here, with the proper distance afforded by the context of writing for this site—a removal, by at least one degree, of the author from the arena of “real politics” via the ruse of a choice to treat contemporary political writing as an intellectual-historical archive––I might push the analysis slightly farther.  What is clear from the debates and disagreements currently radiating throughout the Left is that it is increasingly young Marxists (or intellectuals with roots in and commitments to the Marxist legacy) who understand how the economic system operates. It is these radicals, alone among students of political economy (consider how ineptly an ostensibly “smart” thinker about matters economic like Matt Yglesias reviewed Piketty’s text) who might be able to synthesize historical lessons about how capitalism has saved itself from itself in prior moments in order to formulate a restoration of the ordinary miseries of the business cycle.

The ironies here, of course, are great: for it is precisely these thinkers who most want to abolish capitalism, once and for all.  In the immediate term, however, the situation appears to be not the usual Marxist binary of “socialism or barbarism” but a trinary of “socialism or barbarism or (with extraordinary effort) the restoration of old-fashioned Fordist capitalism.” The challenge, then, would be a genuine renovation of the political tradition of First International Marxism, a movement that might grasp the project of saving capitalism from aristocratic revanchism, in order to then supersede capitalism in the name of a more profound egalitarianism, as a plausible American road to socialism.

If I was to engage in the foolish business of prognostication, I might say that this will likely be the premise around which the new generation of radical intellectuals will likely organize in the coming months, and that if this is the case, historians will later recognize it as a significant turning point in the intellectual history of the Left—a turn away from horizontality, “twinkle fingers,” and the keywords of affect, privilege, and community, and towards a much more structural and systemic analysis, powered by a sense of the plausibility (rather than impossibility) of an imminent Left ideological and cultural hegemony.

35 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Kurt,
    Could you draw out the argument of your last paragraph a little more? Perhaps we simply differ on our interpretations of the spirit and focus of the young marxists, but I see the division between horizontality/affect/privilege/community and structural analysis as a false choice. Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the drift of what you’re saying?

    • Sure, of course. Thanks for the prompt to do so.

      I should start by saying that this is not an “ideal typical” question–one could imagine all sorts of combinations of affect and analysis, “twinkle fingers” and meditation upon the falling rate of profit. What I am interested is the particular admixture that has come into view since, say, 2012.

      I suppose that I might be able to best illustrate what I mean by recalling a conversation I had recently with a historian who is working on a history of the American Left. He was planning to conclude the story, as I understood, with Occupy, horizontality, anarchism, the rejection of parties, the return of the participatory, small is beautiful, neo-hippie green leftism (perhaps with a dose of anti-cop anti-statism). So, let’s say this was true (I might be slanting things)–in any event, one can easily imagine someone in 2014 making this decision with some confidence that it was historically accurate.

      My challenge to this story would be that I think this is already several years out of date. What has not carried on at all, out of the OWS formation–to my surprise–has been any trace of the affective culture and infrastructure of Occupy (with the possible exception of Occupy Sandy, which struck me as a rather traditional sort of organized Left political mobilization).

      In broader terms, though, the “spirit” of OWS has completely evaporated (except for maybe in the writings of Rebecca Solnit, Natasha Lennard, Nathan Schneider–which already seem backward looking, elegiac, maybe a bit embarrassed). OWS’s house intellectuals–David Graeber, Sitrin, Adbusters, a host of SDS/New Left veterans who saw Port Huron in Zucotti Park–seem to have no intellectual authority any longer. Micah White launches a “boutique activism” consultancy firm and shills for Google Glass. Malcolm Harris writes for Buzzfeed. Etc, etc. These are, as far as I can tell, empirical observations. I am not trying to take too substantial a position on them (in fact, I still think many of OWS’s horizontalist critiques of traditional Left politics are apt).

      But the thing didn’t work. Even in the hazier Raymond Williams-ian version of lasting cultural purchase. I don’t see it. I think many Leftists, whatever their fidelity to the memory of OWS, now associate much of its affective culture with the health food entrepreneur/9/11 truther fringe that has, for example, taken over Pacifica Radio.

      What has taken the place of this horizontalist, neo-anarchist, affective politics is–among young the much-derided Millennials–an extraordinary efflorescence of smart and focused writing, self-consciously in the tradition of Western Marxism, and deeply engaged with political economy. This writing seems to me very uninterested in Romantic anti-capitalism, or even self-expression. It wants to be smart, analytic, incisive, ironic, learned, and mature.

      I am almost a generation older than many of these younger writers, and I have some differences with them, about many things. There is often a commitment to the notion of a “useable past” at work in their political imaginaries, which I am not very confident is useful; there is also often an almost religious commitment to the experience of organizing the unorganized–of doing “politics” in the mold of the leader-led campaigns of the labor movement of the last 20 years. I’m not sure about that, either.

      But the objections are personal and idiosyncratic on my part. It seems to me that the ethical obligation of someone like me (qua intellectual historian) is to seek an understanding of the central ideas and passions, and to represent them in a sincere and respectful fashion.

      What do you think?

      • Kurt: I really admire your knowledge and sense of the recent history (or THE history) of these younger thoughtful activists. – TL

  2. Kurt,
    That makes a ton of sense to me, and I share your sense of surprise at the evaporation of the particular affect of OWS that you’re indicating. Nonetheless, I would argue that there is a sort of affective residue from OWS, and not just from OWS, but from the waves of occupations still going on, and that is the affect of–holy cow, this sounds grandiose–history itself, that capital-H History is in fact within the reach of ordinary people, that participating collectively in something genuinely historical is a real possibility. I would draw a line back to the enthusiasm behind the Obama campaign in 2008 for almost the same affect.

    I don’t think that affect is entirely tarnished or dissipated by the objective disappointment of the hopes that first prompted it. And I would argue that it is quite present in the writings of the millennial marxists–what is palpable throughout so many of these pieces is that their authors believe that someone in the future will read them in order to understand what turned out to be a turning point in the history of capitalism–in world history! And I say that not in the least to belittle these aspirations–what a time to be an intellectual historian!

  3. Kurt and Andy, thanks for launching us into another great exchange. I am caught up in Michael Denning-land these days, trying to get my students to think about the political manifestations of cultural expressions and within some identifiable cultural apparatus.

    I wonder if you two see anything bubbling out of the swirling media that can connect on-line work in Jacobin, n+1, Corey Robin’s blog, Tom Sugrue’s Facebook updates, and the big-ticket, sort-of-big idea movies of The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle.

    The two movies nominated for best picture contrast crises of capital in ways, it seems to me, highlight the intellectual path I think many contemporary writers have taken toward their positions today. Recent scholarly interest in 1970s America as a tipping point toward the fracturing of what was left of New Dealism into a market-dominated culture, has echoes in American Hustle as the scandal at the heart of the story revolves around trying to scam the damn government into rebuilding the Jersey Shore and giving people jobs. Where as the Wolf of Wall Street finds the government playing straight man to the great capitalist joke of our era–the joke is on all of us and the government is either impotent or implicated. It seems to me that so much of what I read from our various sources of commentary on the intelligent left have imbued their work with both gravity and sardonic humor.

    Having you two engaged in this kind of debate brought me to full ramble!

    • Ray, I wish I could answer your question intelligently, but I have yet to see either American Hustle or Wolf of Wall Street. But I completely agree with your characterization of the tone of many young leftists as a mix of gravity and sardonic humor.

      But then, I wonder how new that mixture is. Certainly it was present in some–but by no means all–of the voices of the New Left, and one of the many things that I think Denning’s work on the Popular Front teaches us is that the later characterization of it as humorless and yet saccharine is a terrible misreading, a deliberate form of ignorance or even amnesia about the actual tone of so many of the monuments of the culture of the Popular Front.

  4. Like Andy, I am woefully behind in my movie watching. For an excellent example of the ways in which the new Left formation has received these films, I think Tim Barker in The New Inquiry is great: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/some-of-this-actually-happened/

    Part of what is most interesting about this new “cultural front” (though it reminds me more of the Progressive Era literary left, in many respects) is the presence and participation of US historians (like Sugrue, Heather Thompson, Josh Freeman, Kazin, Lichtenstein, many others) and of Marxist social scientists (like the Corey Robin or the terrific Toronto-based Socialist Register brain trust of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin) who sometimes work as US historians. This is a unique activist academic convergence, I think–different than the ones that have happened around wars, disaster relief, or crises immediately threatening the profession. It is a bloc in alliance, I think, with a small but vital movement towards a Left politics that sees end-of-history capitalism as its target.

    The question I’d be interested in having Ray and Andy answer (and everyone else!) is whether pop culture works like “Wolf of Wall Street” (or others that come to mind, there are tons of them) speak to this new political development, or remain stuck in an earlier, Oliver Stone-ian moralistic critique of finance? (Please ignore the fact that this is also an object lesson in how to ask a leading question :))

    • Oh man, do I have thoughts about Wolf of Wall Street. Mostly about why the media so willingly bought into the idea that it’s even about Wall Street — Jordan Belfort must be absolutely thrilled to learn he’s now considered an emblem of finance! Because apart from about 5 minutes in the very beginning (the famous McConaughey scene) it’s not a film about (legitimate) finance and it’s certainly not a film about Wall Street. It’s a film about a boiler room penny stock scam operation on Long Island, which not anyone in either the legitimate finance world or the government would ever have thought was remotely legal. When of course, if you’re looking for a genuine critique of finance, most of the really interesting and troubling things are going to be all the things that (the actual) Wall Street does that are perfectly or at least ambiguously legal.

      So, given all this, I thought when the film came out and still think now that it is interesting to ponder why boiler room penny stock scams so often stand in for the real Wall Street on film (see also the smaller but very similar film Boiler Room). And none of this is to suggest I didn’t like Wolf of Wall Street — I think it’s a truly fantastic Scorsese crime movie! But it’s not a movie that says anything about, say, the subprime mortgage crisis int he way that some media coverage seemed to want to make it.

      So, to resolve this tension, some commentators have suggested that you just can’t make an interesting movie about the sober-minded fellows at Goldman Sachs. Hence pure crime has to stand in for it. But I am not convinced you couldn’t take, say, the reporting of Kevin Roose or Michael Lewis and turn it into a quite compelling Hollywood movie. Plus smaller movies (Arbitrage; Margin Call) have done it OK. So it’s a really mysterious set of questions, to me.

      • Or even the reporting of Matt Taibbi—on his recent book that asks why the Goldman Sachs types didn’t end up in jail? My point is that some writers (Lewis, Taibbi) have an ability to take the complexities and draw out the moral lessons—how Big Financial Bureaucracy trumps and tramples the little players.

  5. Sorry, haven’t read all the comments or even the whole post yet, but I want to correct something.

    Kurt Newman writes:
    [Piketty’s] focus on the perils of distributive inequalities, as some of the bloggers at Crooked Timber have noted, seems to chime with John Rawls and the “justice as fairness” tradition….
    This is not what Chris Bertram argues in the linked Crooked Timber post. Bertram argues, rather, that the facts about wealth inequality and concentration emphasized by Piketty suggest that certain aspects of Rawls’s theory perhaps deserve somewhat less classroom attention than they usually receive. (Specifically, Rawls is often taught w a focus on income inequalities and their possible justifications, even though it’s pretty clear R. himself thought wealth inequalities were equally important as, if not more important than, income inequalities.)

    The Bertram post is not about whether Piketty chimes or does not chime w Rawlsian justice as fairness. Rather, the Bertram post is about how Piketty should affect the way R. is usually, or often, taught. Hence the title of the Bertram post: “Teaching Rawls after Piketty.”

    • Thanks for this comment. It is helpful. Nevertheless, I do not see that what I wrote originally needs a “correction.”

      • Ok, feel free to ignore “correction.” Not the best word; “clarification” perhaps better?

        Anyway, I’ve now read the rest of the post, which is interesting (and also, albeit quickly, the comments thread).

        I’d like to see some of the new generation of leftists also turn their attention to a sophisticated critique of U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. global role, rather than leaving that critique to an assortment of disaffected (self-styled) realists and a few others, almost all of whom that I can think of by name are aging (i.e., they’re *even* older than I am, which I guess is my yardstick for ‘old’ ;)).

        P.s. There no doubt are some younger critics (i.e. outside the mainstream spectrum of consensus) of U.S. foreign policy, but except for e.g. Rachel Maddow (whose book on the subject I haven’t read), I can’t think of many offhand.

  6. Kurt —

    This was a pleasure to read. I think your most tantalizing sentence is:

    “The challenge, then, would be a genuine renovation of the political tradition of First International Marxism, a movement that might grasp the project of saving capitalism from aristocratic revanchism, in order to then supersede capitalism in the name of a more profound egalitarianism, as a plausible American road to socialism.”

    What I am struck by is that there may be something more intersectional occurring than your final contrast between Occupy’s particular brand (I use that word consciously and somewhat, though not entirely, ironically) of horizontal anarchist anti-representational direct democracy and “more structural and systemic analysis.” Must these be in utter opposition? Can they be brought together, are they being brought together, in current efforts to think through how and where and on what grounds looser modes of democratic decentralization meet up with more taut and organized, even hierarchical, systematic kinds of thinking and action? I wonder.

    Thanks for this post,

    • Michael, thanks for this wonderful comment. I agree that whatever comes next–if it is to work–must synthesize some form of anarcho-Marxist sensitivity to affect, desire, and autonomy and a left mastery of the “dismal science.”

      One lesson of OWS is that horizontality not imply, necessarily, the absence of “demands”–the question remains: how does one formulate these demands and press for them?

      The models I see as promising, moving forward, are (unsurprisingly) ones emergent within African American and feminist collectivities (the Chicago Teachers Union, Moral Mondays, the push for justice for Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, the anti-carceral politics of prison abolitionists and sex workers’ rights activists). If the new Marxist Left can make meaningful alliances with these coalitions (as, I think, it has, at least tentatively) and learn from their organizational successes, the synthesis you propose might well have legs.

      (That would require, incidentally, a strong reckoning with the craziness of the Walter Benn Michaels/Adolph Reed “stop talking about race and start talking about class!” line, and its surprisingly large number of adherents within the New New Left. The insistence that talking about race, and gender, is always talking about class is one of the genuine achievements, I think, of US historiography of the last 30 years; we should celebrate that ).

  7. LFC: I agree that the foreign policy perspective of the new Marxist left seems to me hard to pin down. I would love to hear what you or others would offer as a diagnosis–I will provide my own tentative own below.

    The new new Left seems to me, broadly speaking, to have returned to the blanket anti-militarism of the early 1930s (with some glimmers of a new antifascist politics that would authorize some forms of armed conflict in the name of defeating fascism).

    It is not, I don’t think, a real continuity of the anti-Vietnam Left, if only because the legacy of the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO remains so unsettled. The politics of magazines like Dissent and The Nation continue to reflect the purchase of the same anticommunism that fueled American intervention in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and consistently horrific allegiance to the worst side of every conflict in the developing world.

    Today’s left bears strong traces of the influence of the Central American and anti-Apartheid solidarity movements of the 1980s, but this has not congealed into any coherent narrative or perspective. I think Corey Robin has been very good on pushing back against right wing efforts to rehabilitate Pinochet and Thatcher-qua-neoimperialist.

    In the final analysis, the reasons for the new new Left’s incoherence on FP are threefold.

    I think that 1) the catastrophe of Clintonian liberal interventionism remains a trauma that no one quite knows how to talk about. The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars–and lack of legal consequences for torture–are further traumas, and the pain of witnessing ratification of Obama’s continuation of Bush/Cheney policies by many liberals remains largely unprocessed. JSOCs drone warfare policies, documented so powerfully in Scahill’s Dirty Wars, have retroactively erased any daylight that might have separated Obama’s neoliberalism from Bush/Cheney neoconservatism–at the level of political theology, the premises remain Schmittian. Sovereign is he who decides the exception.

    2) At the same time, much of the contemporary Left is powerfully anti-libertarian, so there is terror (a crazy, nonsensical terror, in my opinion) that criticism of the national security state plays into the hands of the Rand Pauls. But that cuts against the possibilities of any broad, Popular Front-style foreign policy coalition with liberals, or strategic alliances with libertarians.

    Then, 3) finally, most importantly–there is Israel. The Marxist Left avoids foreign policy largely because rational discussion of Middle East politics has become so impossible. One simply cannot articulate a critique of contemporary US foreign policy without talking about Israel and Palestine. While diminishing in influence, the so-called PEP (progressive except Palestine) caucus is a major block to a revitalized Left.

    Thus, I think that one of the reasons there is so much energy currently being channeled into theorizing political economy is the apparent impossibility of thinking about foreign policy. But that will have to change, and soon, if the new new Left is to be a Left in any traditional sense of the term.

    • Thanks, quite a lot to ponder here. I plan to reply to this (albeit perhaps not at equal length) at some point in the next few days.

    • Fascinating discussion here. Thanks, Kurt, for kicking it off.

      Of your three reasons I think the first is the most important. I may be speaking parochially here, in which case take what I say with a grain of salt. But for a certain generation of leftists — that would be mine — the impact of the 1990s is really hard to over-estimate.

      For two reasons. First, we were foolishly taken by surprise by the depth of American militarism post-Cold War. I think in a weird way we came out of the 1980s thinking we, the left, had kind of won the foreign policy debate. Through traditional social movement organizing, we felt like we had forced the US to get on the right side of apartheid. We had stopped the US from invading Central America (we look back, rightly, on the death squads with horror, but we forget that there was another option on the table). And it seemed like there might be a peace dividend. Then the Gulf War happened. It’s hard to capture the trauma of that war. It was the first real time that I saw the country go to war in a massive mobilized war. It was terrifying. And thankfully brief. But it sent me reeling. And then you had all the subsequent military operations, the bombing in the Balkans, etc., all of which set the stage for the Iraq War. Which many of us saw as a continuity, not a departure. So that’s the first thing.

      The second is the way in which the liberal hawks and lefty interventionists used the rhetoric of internationalism against us, and we really had no good counter-argument. We still don’t, I don’t think (you kind of allude to this.) We had always assumed international solidarity was our calling card, but here it was being thrown at us by adepts in the ways of waging leftist propaganda. Some times it was easy to bat away (Paul Berman comparing Iraq to Spain in the 1930s). But at other times it was harder.

      You could retreat to arguments from national sovereignty, but that wasn’t really appealing. You could retreat to an anti-imperialism, but that was complicated (it obviously wasn’t the same as defending the Sandinistas from the US). You could retreat to pacifism, but that has its problems. Or you could retreat to a kind of dyspeptic realism, a la Mearsheimer and Walt and Judt. Also not without its problems.

      And that’s where we are. I wrote about this a bit in a piece for The Nation back in 2005. I’d change a bunch of things, but I think we’re still pretty much where we were back then. Might be of interest.


      For my part, I don’t think the Israel issue or the anti-libertarianism thing is nearly as tough as the first point. But again that could be me speaking parochially.

      • Ditto Kurt on being thankful for this comment. I was too young, Corey, to process the first Iraq War the way you did. And at the time I (as a young, impressionable adult) was *impressed* with out brief national unity (I won’t insult the term “solidarity” by using it here). -TL

  8. Fascinating, illuminating stuff, Kurt (as well as all the comments your post has produced). Regarding the so-called “revival” of the intellectual Left in the US–I am not sure if this is the best way to describe it–one has to add the significance of social and alternative media in making the radical left visible. In other words, think of it also in terms of public visibility. I am still no sure to what extent the ideas that drive these diverse publications and groups are “new”. (my sense is that you also don’t view them as such, reading your comments). For me it’s not an issue because I am not particularly seduced by the fetishism of the new; but it is still curious how the rhetoric of newness still accompanies us, even subconsciously.

    Like Michael, I am intrigued by your allusion to a “genuine renovation of the political tradition of First International Marxism.” Can you explain this idea further? How is it that such Marxism conceives a “saving” of a non-aristocratic capitalism and at the same time its supersession? Does this notion follow a dialectical logic? How would anarchism fit within this renovation?

    About Ray’s question, I don’t really see either American Hustle or the Wolf of Wall Street as part of this new new left. There’s definitely a dialogue and overlapping elements between what Kurt describes and the rise of a mainstream cultural production that offers a “soft” critique of crony capitalism, but there’s also a clear divide. I see this divide specially in the undercurrent of cynicism and moral anomie in both films and the ambivalence toward the characters represented in the films. This is specially so in the case of the Wolf: as many critics pointed out, when does the parody end up reifying and even celebrating the parodied subject?

  9. Another element that I think is worth throwing into the pot (and to which, I take it, LFC alludes as “an assortment of disaffected (self-styled) realists”) is the cognitive dissonance that can come from, say, seeing Andrew Bacevich’s work published in the New Left Review. The unresolved legacy and problematic political placement of anti-interventionists throughout most of the 20th century makes it extraordinarily challenging to know whether we should turn to people like Bacevich as allies, intellectual resources, or what. Bacevich has ostensibly taken up the mantle of William Appleman Williams, but the conventional left characterization of Williams as a hero of the New Left (which IMHO is pretty simplistic) creates a certain amount of confusion with that proposed lineage.
    To out-parochialize everyone on here, it seems to me that the historiographical indeterminacy of “isolationism” (did it exist? if so, who was an isolationist, and why? how broadly should we define isolationism?) is itself a major problem in fashioning a coherent left critique of US foreign policy. I know Christopher McKnight Nichols and Brooke Blower are working on this, but there’s a lot to do.

    • Andy raises a question I have as well regarding Bacevich’s role on the left. Bacevich has offered as somewhat standard critique how successive administrations from following the Vietnam War made sure to avoid to draw too much attention to direct combat while covering their deadly but smaller scale wars with patriotic piety. However, in such work, Bacevich (and perhaps Thomas Ricks) has been among the few, it seems to me, to deal with the image and mythology of the soldier. He doesn’t do much with strategy or combat, but does contend with the implications of fewer and fewer Americans soldiering for causes that barely register long enough for the rest of the public to consider what these soldiers are doing in their name. In this way, Bacevich is quite different from Williams, and does not fall neatly into any of the categories that Corey mentions above. And his point does not seem to align with the position we often assume isolationism takes. I think what is especially worthwhile about Bacevich’s writing comes from the awareness he brings to yet another group of Americans who represent far more than what they should and are barely known by their fellow citizens.

      • Ray, thanks for this. A long essay from you on Bacevich, the WAW legacy, and civic religion/American military ideology would be wonderful!

  10. Left for what?

    It seems to me that most of the discussants on this thread, as well as the OP, take for granted the notion that “the Left” or having “a Left” is good and desirable in and of itself. But nobody has articulated what having a Left is good for. Is it possible that the things for which a Left has been necessary are no longer — or not at present, anyhow — achievable via the workings of a Left?

    Basically, I’m wondering how to historicize this idea, how to historicize this hope. When people — especially historians — are exhilarated at the thought of a renewed or reborn Left, what is that hope about? And what does that hope rule out?

    I’m not asking to be difficult or contrarian — I want to understand.

    • L.D., those are very important questions to pose, and while I don’t want to speak for everyone on here, Kurt’s Tikkun piece did end with a very similar line: “it [the tale he was just interpreting] also encourages us to move from the question of ‘America needing a Left,’ or a ‘Left needing America,’ to the more profound inquiry given to us as a mostly unopened gift by Spinoza, Marx, and Freud: what do we want?”

      One desire is simply to put an end to the accelerating recrudescence of inequality of both wealth and incomes (this is basically the thrust of the Piketty book). I think most historians firmly believe that the tools for doing that–for putting a brake on the tendency toward greater concentration of economic power in fewer hands–have historically been taken up either by the left or by groups who have temporarily allied themselves with the left. So, for many, the renewal of a left signals, or is an answer to, the recognition of the centrality of the problem of inequality.

  11. Although this whole thread is so full of juiciness, my own thoughts on it are still too fuzzy to contribute anything that sounds coherent. But, I will jump in on Wolf of Wall Street.

    I have seen this movie, and I agree with critics who say that the parody borders on, and in places passes into, celebration. As a film with an argument about contemporary capitalism or even just Wall Street (if you want to separate the two concepts) it fails, in my mind, to really communicate that message in a way that is going to make any significant intervention into the public’s consciousness. I have no doubt that Scorsese and others who worked on the film intended for it to — they have said as much, I believe — but I don’t think it worked out.

    Part of this is due to what another commenter noted; it focuses on a case that was clearly illegal (which does not bring up the question, in the minds of the audience, about what practices which *are* legal should remain so) and, in that sense, is insufficient for understanding something like the housing bubble. It also makes it easy for otherwise free-market folks to dismiss. A certain unnamed relative of mine enthusiastic about “capitalism” watched this film and enjoyed it, and it didn’t disturb his faith in the ultimate benevolence of the financial sector at all. Something is not working there, then; those who defend the institution being criticized by a film should, at the least, feel their feathers ruffled a bit. I think by and large, for those not already critical, the film is read as a fun romp through some crazy person’s antics, a person with some faults but lovable nonetheless; almost as if they had gone on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.

    Compare that to something like say, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Now I know there are a lot of people critical of this film as a film for many reasons, but when I watched *that* movie with another (different, however) unnamed relative of mine, she was so upset just halfway through that she spent the rest of the film looking up bad reviews on her iPhone so she could growl at me with anger afterwards for making her watch it. (Later she apologized and said, “I just wasn’t ready to feel like shit that night.”) Now, that’s a film that gets its argument across, that actually forces some sort of disruption in our usual modes of thinking about a social problem.

    Now, some might argue that it won’t do the trick either — that it hurts more than it helps by, as she put it, making people feel like shit. I don’t agree with that — and in this case she also said it did make her think about a lot of things she had not considered before — but I think a film like that has a better shot of making a bigger (and better) difference than a film like Wolf of Wall Street. Sure, more people will go to see it, but the storyline chosen, and the spectacular, carnivalesque way it is presented is going to fail, in my estimation, to fundamentally screw with most people’s assumptions about what is required at this historical moment if we’re going to reel back inequality.

    All of which is to say, it was a good film, interesting and entertaining, but I don’t think it can be read as a serious or substantial political intervention.

  12. Yes, excellent question, LD, and excellent reply, Andy.

    I would add only that a key text for us to consider in regard to LD’s question is this one, by Alan Badiou http://newleftreview.org/II/49/alain-badiou-the-communist-hypothesis

    And that there are pragmatic reasons to see the following formula as deeply threatening to human flourishing: the acceleration of inequality, combined with the attenuation of mechanisms of democratic governance in rich countries, and the radiating poisonous effects of the trillions of dollars owned by the wealthy and not being recirculated through the economy.

    Is there a non-Left way to apprehend this reality? Is there a non-Left way to mobilize public sympathy towards its amelioration?

    These are honest questions. It may be the case, as Polanyi argued, that something like a “Left” is required, periodically, to save liberal societies from the pathologies of laissez-faire. It may be the case that some sort of Right organicism can enlist the populace in a collective acceptance of the need for new dimensions of human suffering. It is this final prospect that would make one want to be for the Left–in the Left tradition of being about, above all, hating the hatred of democracy (articulated, at one point, in the US, as “anti-fascism”). This would follow from a suggestion of Jacques Ranciere’s–politics starts not with democracy, but with the premonition and terror, on the parts of elites, of the possibility of democracy. The first Left–the one to which one might wish to be faithful–is the one that arises in opposition to this hatred.

  13. Andy (at #11, above), thanks for this reply. I guess I am still a little surprised that the best answer to “what do we want” (who is included in “we”?) would be “a Left,” or that the changes we might want are changes that are only (or most easily) available via a Left whose most salient feature is its self-conscious Leftness, if that makes any sense.

    In terms of practice, I’m thinking of the growing groundswell against standardized testing in the schools. Mark Naison — exuberantly Left, and New Left, and maybe New New Left — has been a vocal leader in that movement, and has teamed up with Diane Ravitch. While Ravitch has moved to the left, I don’t think she is identified with “the Left,” is she? And I doubt she would identify herself as such.

    But what gives this anti-testing, anti-common-core movement its power is the involvement of teachers and parents. The teacher involvement can be seen at least in part as an expression (a resurgence? a remainder?) of Left labor activism. But my sense from tuning in to the discussion from time to time is that this is not necessarily a politically or even culturally “Left” issue for those who are weighing in. It is framed sometimes in very traditionalist or conservative terms (preserving local relationships / practices / qualities of life against impersonal and instrumentalizing change). Same with parental support for anti-testing, or conservative resistance to the common core.

    I think the heartening possibility here is not that all these people involved in this issue will say, “Hey, based on our stance on this issue, we are apparently part of the Left. Who knew! What else does the Left stand for?” I think the heartening possibility is that these people will say, “Hey, we are coming from across the political/economic spectrum, and can work together to shape our social institutions in a way that improves the quality of life for our kids and their teachers and preserves what is best about public education. I wonder what else we can tackle.”

    And from where I sit — red-state suburbia, flyover country, a place similar to that about which Thomas Frank unfruitfully wonders “What’s the matter?” — possibility #2 (“We can come at these challenges from different directions and make common cause”) looks a lot more possible than possibility #1 (“The important thing is that we all come from the same direction.”) However, if the important thing is Leftness, that’s not going to draw anybody but those for whom Leftness is already valued and valuable.

    • L.D.,
      I agree. But I think where the enthusiasm (from those who have it) for the resurgence of a self-consciously leftist cohort is the hope/expectation that this resurgence will lead to a broadening of the landscape of what is thinkable politically. That greater breadth will in turn (the hope runs) create more places where people can make common cause–not for the sake of the left, per se, but for the sake of a broader and more diverse front on which to combat inequality. The hope is, I think, less about recruitment than agitation–shaking things up.

      Of course, that is just one kind of hope for the left, which has never been immune to partisanship and territoriality, and some leftists may see the increase in young people reading Marx as a ripe moment for recruitment to their particular tendency or faction.

      • “But I think where the enthusiasm (from those who have it) for the resurgence of a self-consciously leftist cohort is the hope/expectation that this resurgence will lead to a broadening of the landscape of what is thinkable politically. That greater breadth will in turn (the hope runs) create more places where people can make common cause–not for the sake of the left, per se, but for the sake of a broader and more diverse front on which to combat inequality.”

        This is exactly perfectly right. Thank you for expressing it.

  14. This is a great discussion, even though a good portion of the historiography is outside of my intellectual depth. However I do want to address Kurt’s reference to the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and related movements (such as the prison abolition movement) as models that could provide the answer for “what’s a Left for?”

    There are particular structural policy answers to that question, but there is a practical organizational element to the answer, too–what must the process of change look like in order to arrive at the best possible transformation.

    Those of us who watched the incipient movement form in the Chicago Teachers Union as an activist, unabashedly Left caucus (CORE) took over were fortunate to see something fairly unique for my age cohort (X/Millennial), namely, an organizational transformation in which organizational problem-solving and distributed (though not strictly speaking horizontalist) decision-making powered a public campaign, rather than vice versa. That is, in contrast to much of the type of organizing that young leftists and liberals experience–from elections, to environmental campaign, to top-down mass-scale union organizing drives–the CTU’s transformation and subsequent strike was sincerely and by necessity bottom-up.

    The way CTU has been able to rise as a radical force in Chicago politics (and to reverberate in cities across the country) is an object lesson in a different sort leftist practice, where the “why a left in the first place?” is answered with, “because participation nets its own reward.” Contrary to the principle labor activists in particular had recently been drilled to accept–that centralized decision-making was the only ballast to corporate aggressiveness–the CTU’s surprising strength and resilience in the face of a very hostile climate was its distributed decision-making and participatory organizing model. (Indeed, the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO, and later the brutal disaffiliation fight between SEIU and its nursing home local in California, centered around this issue of “size and growth versus worker control.”)

    The basic premise underlying marketing-style campaigning and organizing is that particular, fixed benefits are the purpose of activism, and the means to achieve are best left to functionaries and professionals. Increase top marginal tax rates, shut down the Keystone Pipeline, pass EFCA. The CTU’s strategy seemed to be more that by empowering activists with real agency, those material benefits upon which they decided–rather than those determined by professionals and marketed to them–would have an inherently higher value. In other words, at least in the realms of public education and workplace governance, participatory-democratic structures themselves would necessarily result in “Left” outcomes.

    Obviously, things like the grassroots anti-busing movement counsel against the universality of that principle. But what was so compelling about the CORE/CTU organizing model was that it expressly rejected the contemporary preference for disciplined marketing and centralized decision-making, without sacrificing either discipline or flexibility. As a workers’ organization, it created tangible agency for workers and their allies. Arguably the expression of that agency, whatever the policy outcomes, is one of the projects of the Left; ideally coupled with intellectual leadership of the type Kurt describes.

  15. This post and discussion raise the question of whether the Left is a fixed entity or a constellation of sensibilities. It also raises the issue of “self-consciousness.”

    LD writes:

    “But my sense from tuning in to the discussion from time to time is that this is not necessarily a politically or even culturally “Left” issue for those who are weighing in. It is framed sometimes in very traditionalist or conservative terms (preserving local relationships / practices / qualities of life against impersonal and instrumentalizing change).”

    There seems to be an implicit idea here that only the right holds the right, as it were, to stake traditionalist claims. I don’t see why these are not also available to the left (this was something Christopher Lasch was keenly interested in, for instance, to go back to that whole conversation). In the sense that the anti-testers are addressing claims about what constitutes the good and not acquiescing to top-down decrees and policies they, from Ravitch to parents to the CTU, are lefties as much as anything else.

    Part of the issue here is that the idea of a self-conscious left seems to make many cringe. Why is there an urge for this leftness to only exist un-self-consciously, as if people in the US especially must be brainwashed to become lefties without knowing they are? That is a question Andrew starts to broach. As he suggests, building in many ways upon Kurt’s initial idea of trying to spell out what kind of left might be emerging, nascently, in the contemporary moment (and by trying to think historically about this development), the pressing issue is perhaps how to articulate an understanding of “what is left?” that “broadens the landscape of what is thinkable politically” in terms of imagining and enacting, critiquing and recognizing, debating and deciding what a better society might be—and how to try to get there using, among many other tools, a sense of historical consciousness that is empowering rather than paralyzing. This would need to be a left that avoids, on the one hand, rigidly sectarian positions about the properly revolutionary position and, on the other, an anything goes pluralism. That’s no easy task. But it certainly can, probably must, include far more than a narrow and static definition of self-conscious leftism.

    Ramsin, your explanations of the CTU are really informative. Do you think there are historical inspirations for the CTU/CORE approach? I see the examples of what this mode of organizing was not supposed to be (a whole history of union tactics summed up in your post), but what were the inspirations?

    Also, this: “CORE/CTU organizing model was that it expressly rejected the contemporary preference for disciplined marketing and centralized decision-making, without sacrificing either discipline or flexibility.” How do you think the organizing model maintained discipline and flexibility at the same time? That seems intriguing for thinking about the history of those organizing models themselves (as well as about futures built upon those histories)? Thanks!


    • Michael, I wanted to answer your question about historical inspirations–to some extent, the local history of the Harold Washington campaign for Mayor in 1983 in particular, which absorbed extant community organizations and movements into a campaign apparatus and attempted, initially, to then integrate those organizations into governance, may have been an inspiration, conscious or otherwise.

  16. I’ve been absent from this thread for a while and as a result have read some but not all of the comments that followed Corey R’s comment. But I want to go back to Corey’s comment and to Kurt’s, to which Corey was responding.

    I agree, as both comments suggested (albeit in slightly different ways), that the left (and therefore the ‘new new left’) has had difficulty formulating a coherent, convincing position on (or against) ‘humanitarian’ or ‘responsibility-to-protect’-style interventions (which the 2003 Iraq war was not, but the ’99 NATO bombing in the Balkans and the 2011 Libyan intervention, for instance, were, or at least a colorable case can be made that they were). This is partly b.c, as Corey said, the proponents of intervention have sometimes effectively used the rhetoric of internationalism vs. their opponents, who often have struggled to come up with a satisfying response.

    Re Clinton’s foreign policy: it was disappointing as much for its continuation (in some respects) of a Cold War mindset (i.e. NATO expansion) and for its failure to take seriously al-Qaeda’s rise (cf. the ineffective response to the ’98 embassy bombings), as for its tendency to interventionism (which had at best mixed results, and to which I am not as blanket- opposed as Kurt or Corey are, though I would tend to fall often on the skeptical side).

    Partly because of this slight difference in attitudes, and perhaps also because I am 10 years older than Corey and thus have a different personal frame of reference, I see more of a divide between Clinton and G.W. Bush (the ‘Bush doctrine’ really was a departure); and I see Clinton, while v. far from successful on FP, less as ‘traumatic’ and more as (often) misguided. Unlike, say, Vietnam, which really was traumatic (in fact Paul Kattenburg wrote a book [c.1980] called The Vietnam Trauma in U.S. Foreign Policy) or some of Reagan’s grosser actions (e.g. Iran-contra, El Salvador, etc.).

    But I do agree that Obama has not broken sharply enough in some respects w the G.W. Bush legacy (drone use indeed went up under Obama until he promised to cut it back in the Natl Defense Univ speech, tho I’m not sure that has made all that much difference in practice so far). One can definitely trace elements of continuity through Bush I – Clinton- Bush II -Obama, inasmuch as they all operate(d) within a ‘policy space’ or with a menu of options defined by an establishment spectrum that runs from, say, Slaughter/Ikenberry/Anthony Lake on one end to, say, Kissinger or Brzezinski or Scowcroft on the other — with the neocons also sometimes being listened to, even when they don’t drive policy as they did under Bush II. (Bacevich, e.g., would be outside this spectrum, and I think Ray H. is right in his point about Bacevich, above.)

    One last thing: a commenter on a previous thread (I think it was the thread on ‘Great Bks in US Intellectual History’) mentioned Perry Anderson’s long piece in the Sept/Oct 2013 New Left Review (it takes up the whole issue) on ‘American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers’.
    I bought the issue and it arrived in the mail a couple of days ago; I’ve only glanced at it but I can say, though I’m sure I won’t agree with everything in it, that it appears to be a real tour de force.

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