A Partial Mea Culpa
[Note: Originally posted at The Safe Depository.]
Over the past few months, as a result of Occupy, my lack of awareness of leftist thinkers, and my exposure to Corey Robin’s fantastic The Reactionary Mind, I’ve become decidedly less enamored with that veritable hobby horse of mine, left-libertarian coalition building. So think of this as a partial mea culpa, a qualified repudiation of my earlier expositions.
To understand my attraction to libertarianism—and it was an attraction, even if I was just pushing for a short-term alliance—you first have to understand my relationship with the Left. While I fancied myself a genuine man of the left, happy to attract the scorn of conservative interlocutors, I was essentially just a Bernie Sanders-style liberal Democrat. More importantly, my actual acquaintance with leftists thinkers was, to put it charitably, minimal. This probably had something to do with the left’s emaciation and general invisibility.
A compounding cause was being ensconced in the world of mainstream political journalism. I was the politics reporter for my college newspaper for several semesters and covered the Iowa Caucus, the Iowa Legislature, and the 2008 presidential election, among other things. I had absorbed the circumscribed version of political discourse most mainstream journalists advance (and, disgustingly, congratulated myself for being “in the know”—i.e., parroting conventional wisdom). Accordingly, even as a political junkie with liberal persuasions, I rarely read anything to the left of The Nation; these publications and thinkers had negligible political purchase, so I all but disregarded them.
As a result, my initial foray into libertarian works surprised me. I was surprised to find cogent critiques of liberal governance; I was especially drawn to disquisitions on the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and the twin scourges of concentrated power and corporatism. Furthermore, I appreciated libertarians’ unwavering commitment to civil liberties and anti-militarism, especially in light of widespread liberal Democratic apologism for Obama’s capitulations. In short, I had become sympathetic to (without fully embracing, mind you) a strain on the American right, ignorant that the left had superior critiques of liberal foibles—without the corresponding contempt for democracy.
Then Occupy came onto the scene. It was my first experience of an enlivened, confident left. This beautiful upsurge radicalized me and opened my eyes to alternatives: both of ways to order society and to think about the problems of liberalism—this time from a leftist, anti-capitalist perspective. It also prompted me to take the long view of the struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination. I became convinced that expending too much energy on short-term, trans-ideological coalitions can militate against the longer term, Gramsican goal of uprooting the prevailing neoliberal capitalist ideology. Myopic pragmatism can undermine the long-term project of the egalitarian left.
Which brings me to Robin’s work. Robin’s principal assertion is that the right is animated by an opposition to the extension and deepening of democracy. Proponents of this protean ideology—traditionally, conservatives—adopt transitory political stances, but their abiding interest is in defending privilege, elite rule, and hierarchy, of quelling calls from below for the “lower orders” to govern their own affairs. The “lower orders” are mutable and historically contingent; the reactionary’s opposition to the assertion of their agency is static.
Robin’s claim has been met with cries of calumny, but his thesis shouldn’t be controversial: Correctly perceiving its embedded egalitarianism, the right is hostile to democracy. The left would be wise to sharpen its underlying division with the right, elevating democracy and self-governance to its rightful place in the leftist constellation of principles. (The left and center-left have a history of subordinating democracy to ostensibly more important objectives and principles. Dispensing with democracy is rarely prudent or normatively desirable.) With democracy as a reference point, a new dividing line, libertarians could no longer “transcend the left-right spectrum”; they would be ineluctably arrayed against the long-term project of democratizing undemocratic spheres and subverting domination and hierarchy.
I won’t retract all I’ve written on left-libertarian coalitions. The drug war needs to meet its demise, civil liberties need to be restored, and the imperialist march needs to be halted. Aligning on these ends could quicken their realization. But time and energy is finite.
And as for a more ambitious, multi-issue coalition, my own experience calls its plausibility into question: A resurgent left, in part, prompted me to rethink my once-strident support for left-libertarian coalitions. At the end of the day, maybe that’s the folly of cross-spectrum alliance building: Once one camp senses its electoral or political power growing, it quickly reneges on its end of the deal, (understandably) opting for purity over pragmatism.