Why Can’t the Leftists Teach Their Children How to Speak?
Michael Kazin in Dissent, echoing some of my concerns in recent posts:
But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter-century of growth and low unemployment that followed the Second World War understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on gaining rights for minority groups and women more than on addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own mass movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of the white middle class.
No disagreement there. Kazin wonders what Occupy will mean in the long run:
But the Occupiers made the brilliant decision to appeal to anyone with a grievance of any kind against the visible corporate hands who helped bring us low and have suffered little or not at all for their actions. One result of this inclusiveness was a flood of new activists, some of whom had no experience with the organized Left…But the very breadth and openness of this proudly leaderless uprising make it difficult to sustain. Even if it endures, such an insurgency is unlikely to grow into a movement that can bend politics in its direction…So the Occupy movement gave American leftists a chance to appeal to millions of their fellow citizens who care about the same crisis they do and were willing to listen to egalitarian solutions. But the open-ended nature of the movement and, to paraphrase Marx, the incubus of failed ideas and strategies on the left still weighs heavily on its fortunes.
This comes up a bit short, I think. It is true that the Occupy movement was disorganized, that it never really provided a coherent explanation for what it was about, etc. It is NOT necessarily true that this was the product of choices the Occupy protesters made.
It still seems obvious to me that the incoherence and lack of moral vision is a preexisting problem. It’s been a long time since the Left has seriously considered the moral vision animating its platform. Indeed, John Rawls remains the closest thing that the 21st Century Left has to an animating moral spirit. Unfortunately, Rawls’ project, whatever its philosophical merits, is a rhetorical disaster. Much as we might like to convince our interlocutors to abstract away from themselves before making moral judgments, it’s not an especially compelling in a world driven (and riven!) by human self-interestedness.
To clarify: Leftists don’t need more sophisticated philosophers (they already have Zizek, after all). They need to link their political arguments to moral principles. Philosophers can help with that, but they’re hardly the only ones. Incidentally, when he’s inclined, Kazin actually does it better than almost anyone else.
Conor Williams is a freelance writer. Past work published by The Run of Play, Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.