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.
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.