The River

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Saving the American Left: The Case for a New Progressive Creed

by Bernard Chazelle


Marxism died for all the right reasons, but regrettably so did with it the only systematic attempt in the history of political philosophy to put the underdog at the heart of the reflection. Sensing a vulnerability, opponents pounced with glee and festooned any leftish idea with the blood and tears of every Gulag victim. Soon sedated by the illusory success and soothing materialism of the Clinton years, progressives lost the means and the will to fight back.

The Great Sellout came at a price: electoral disaster. Yet, while busy mastering the fine art of the concession speech, Democrats swatted away all attempts at rebuilding a movement. To this day, their triangulating appetite for compromise remains voracious and they rarely flinch from flinching. Unless, that is, the cause is sensible but symbolic, like protesting the display of the Ten Commandments in a court of justice. Progressives need not prioritize because their moral world is flat. Why obsess over war and poverty when, instead, you can ventilate about courthouse furniture? Their creed, such as it is, is a recitation of platitudes: feel-good drivel about vibrant communities, boundless opportunities, growing prosperity, and other such controversial matters. They engage in vigorous policy debates but none of them is germane to the creed—would you expect a discussion of the Clear Skies bill to be informed by a belief in breathing?

Just as science should be falsifiable, ideologies should be disbelievable. A creed that can be rejected only by the enemies of motherhood and apple pie is useless because it denies one the means to make tough choices. But can such a thing ever be useful, let alone necessary?

Yes and yes. A creed serves two functions: to feed the soul and to guide hard decisions. Neoliberalism takes care of the decisions and the little that's left is fast food for the soul. To see why, consider the Revolutionary motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” A good measure of a left-wing belief system is how tightly it keeps the three threads together. Take away the last one and your creed is soulless; remove the first two and it is toothless. Fraternity (for lack of a less sexist term) arbitrates between liberty and equality: it speaks to the why and the how; they speak to the what. Neoliberalism gutted the motto and left progressives with the monumental task of turning ethics into policy without the normative mediation of a conceptual framework.

True, as a drive for free markets, globalization, deregulation, privatization, elimination of economic distortions, deunionization, and market-driven policymaking, neoliberalism is no more a theory of social justice than greed is a theory of property rights. It did not supplant the progressive creed so much as let it shrivel into a mere quest for decency—a noble pursuit to be sure, but one that is doomed without a set of principles to guide it. It's not enough to have your heart in the right place: your brain, and especially your will, must be there, too.


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