October 29th, 2010 / 11:48 am

Rude Democracy, Jon Stewart, Your Face

“Do we want more civil talk than uncivil talk?” she asks. “Of course. But what we need to focus on is how both civility and incivility are structured, contained, and used… Even some incivility can move a policy debate along. Creating a culture of argument, and the thick skin that goes along with it, are long-term projects that will serve democracy well.”

Scott McLemee looks at Susan Herbst’s book Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics and comes away with a great justification for Mean Week (in case anyone needed one). Addressing the Jon Stewart rally thing, McLemee argues, “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it’s better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor — this is not civility. It’s timidity.”

I’ll always argue that it’s possible to disagree nicely, but I also liked the quote McLemee ended his article with, from T-Bone Slim: “Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.” Impolite rhetoric has its place, why not. But in a comment box? Y’all’re morons.

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  1. Kate Dino

      Thank you GOD, someone at last encapsulizes what bugs me about the Rally to Restore Sanity.

  2. Critique_Manque

      I think there’s a difference between “making arguments” or “expressing ardor” and “drawing a Hitler mustache on your opponent’s picture.” The point isn’t anti-argument, it’s anti-red faced screaming match.

  3. Matthew Simmons

      I don’t know. Kind of seems like the whole Rally to Restore Sanity thing is not about everyone always playing nice—I mean, the guy who is headlining the thing ripped Tucker Carlson a pretty gaping new one a few years back—but instead to maybe say that bringing guns to healthcare reform rallies, curb-stomping members of the opposition, having your own private army handcuff reporters, and comparing every last God damned opponent in the world to a guy who oversaw the murder of six million human beings is FUCKING CRAZY. Let’s go ahead and be rude, but let’s stop bringing guns to a debate.

      I don’t get the Rally backlash at all. Every time I read a piece trashing it, it feels like the critique is starting from a contrarian spirit and over-thinking the hell out of it. There’s an “anti-ideological spirit” to the thing? What about the spirit of Voltaire? (Or the spirit that friends of Voltaire attributed to him, anyway.)

      “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

  4. Alec Niedenthal

      Damn. I think you’re 100% right and insightful here, Matt.

  5. deadgod

      I didn’t know there was a “Rally backlash”.

      What’s the problem?: that the Rally-ers aren’t hysterical enough?

      There’s room for abusive ranting and sarcasm mild and corrosive.

      Are the foax (pl.) ‘bugged’ by the, um, collegiate atmosphere of the Rally the same foax who’ve been bitterly attacking Obama for not waving a magic stick and – poof! – rendering ultracons impotent? the progressives who won’t vote because they’re ‘disappointed’ that winning one election hasn’t dissolved the API, insurance companies, health racketeers, and fucking Wall Street? – and now they’re misunderburnishing their legacies in advance so as not to get blamed for two years of teabagging subpoena-paralysis?

  6. Matthew Simmons

      I like this deadgod person.

      (Foax [pl]—hilarious. Post synergy.)

  7. David

      Matt, I’m really with you on this. I think what drives me up the wall about floating and uncommitted Leftism – especially of the US variety – is its tendency toward immediate sectarianism: critique before solidarity. As if the purpose of Leftist critique weren’t meant to be solidarity. The fact there’s a widespread countermanifestation of political opposition at this point, even if organized under the banner of mild-mannered anti-extremism, is important. Yes, it’s not enough but it’s also just as well to point out that no one’s mandating that only John Stewart and Co. are to be the only entertainment on the day. When will there be another opportunity like this to have so many Left-leaning Americans assembled in one place: in between acts, it’s a perfect opportunity for activists to circulate and give speeches to the constitency of the crowd on how much more needs to be done, on organization and solidarity and how token registration of discontent is strangling the action of discontent. I will say, though, I understand why the critiquers are a little underwhelmed by Stewart’s presentation of the event – because he has this totally exasperating tendency to present it as a moderate middle ground thing, as though the Left were as equally lunatic as the Right or something, or as though there weren’t away to be radically extreme and not a party of barely contained intimidating mass thuggery. The politics of moderation are a huge part of what enervates these displays of mass energy, ruins their effectiveness in advance, makes them little more effective than a strongly-worded letter to the local congressman. What I would love to see from this is that it emerge as an exercise in radical outrage – and maybe even lawlessness – but an outrage and lawlessness that is simultaneously the antithesis of the Right’s attempt to marry Ma and Pa America with the stormtrooper leagues.

  8. deadgod

      as though the Left were as equally lunatic as the Right

      No! — Stewart’s point – quarrel with it as one will – is that the moderate Left is actually a central zone of compromise, and that there is no moderate Right (remaining to talk to).

      (Or do you think he bends over as far backward as, say, CNN does rhetorically to equalificate the Left and the Right? – I don’t watch his show often enough to argue knowledgeably that he doesn’t, but he seems to me to be unwilling to say that, for example, FireDogLake has the same disdain for empirically-determinate evidence and rigorous method as does FoxGoebbels.)

  9. David

      That’s likely true, deadgod, but that point slips into the tired old (and failed) American tradition of what’s called the radical centre, developed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the Cold War 50s to define the Democrats both against the Republicans and New Deal ‘socialism’. I doubt Stewart’s personal philosophy would baulk much at the word socialism but the idea of a grand zone of radical compromise that would be inherently Leftist and so shut out the Right is at least as big a delusion as belief in the possibility of a moderate Right. It’s fuzzily nostalgic too, mismembering the mid-decades of the last century as some non-conservative or more leftist oriented moment in American political history. In fact, in a strange act of transference, we could actually see that missing moderate Right as being liberal-leftism itself: hence, the pathological parasite that is the ‘blue dog’ Democrat. I think it bothers certain left-wing voices that Stewart – a hugely intelligent guy with a great personable appeal and a large media platform – isn’t bolder in refusing a certain ecumenical niceness that would have seen the march to restore sanity named something like the march for a new democracy. I mean, basically, if the battle is between the Right wing and the centre zone then there is no battle really because the centre zone will always cede way to the right since its refusal of the Left is a refusal to resist the one-way polarization to the Right.

  10. deadgod

      [Replying to David]

      Well, if the point – that moderation and compromise are, and have been for decades (so much deterioration goes back to Morning in America, doesn’t it), genuinely characteristic of the centrist Left and are and have been rejected (gradually, then suddenly) by all the Right – sounds like a rejection of “New Deal ‘socialism'”, then I’ve been mistaken!, either/both actively or/and passively.

      (I don’t remember Schlesinger as having “developed” anything comprehensive or programmatic “against” the New Deal; maybe I’m misunderstanding your sentence.]

      I’d meant supportively to indicate the tradition of the anti-Stalinist Left – I think: a vital, persistent tradition (in America as well as in many countries) of more-or-less widespread and diversified socialism (no scare quotes) that’s unembarrassed to be and (one hopes) unweakened by being directly opposed to red fascism/state capitalism/party dictatorship. – A tradition that includes, of writers, Orwell, Oppen, Arthur Miller (by way of too-facile signposting).

      It’s not that compromise is “inherently Leftist”, but rather that accumulation, by political-economic definition, has undemocratic and de-democratizing power, so compromise is more necessary for, say, environmentalists, in the case of a factory poisoning a river, than it is for that factory’s owners/managers. What would it take to get a democratic (i. e. non-autocratic) shift of power towards the best interests of the most (read, in the case of carcinogenesis: all) people? – Education, of course. (And even in this hypothetical case, the accumulators have the advantage of skepticism: they don’t have to prove that their poison is safe, they only have to indicate that ‘there are two sides to the science of carcinogenesis’, etc.)

      Surely the Blue Dogs are DINOs – and, although the Colorado Senator (Bennett?) might beat the teabagger, that biohazardous Lincoln will get her insurance-company-flacking ass spanked to the curb (by electorally neglectful progressives) for her pro-backwardness obstructions these last couple of years. Yes, Baucus, Nelson, and the rest of these pigs are the “moderate Right” – the Democrats have had fiscal-‘conservative’ war hawks in their caucuses for, what, ever?. Will a teabagger from Arkansas be better for Arkansans that Lincoln would have been? Equally surely, that’s a tough call!

      The battle between the Right and the moderate Left has, as you say, been “no battle really”, but, I think, not simply because Left-compromise is a “refusal” to be “Left”. Rather, the Left – all of it – has to educate the millions (here in America) swayed by ‘government is the problem’ bullshit, and one vehicle of information is the fact itself of voting.

      The millions of people who won’t vote this fall because they’re ‘disappointed’ in Obama – do these people still assert that they “can’t tell the difference” between Clinton’s sometimes-toxically mixed bag and the fucking Rove administration?? That “refusal” to think clearly, and not Stewart’s anodyne reaching-across-the-aisle, constitutes Left-suicide.

  11. NLY

      There’s an an anti-ideological spirit to the event because the current political climate is, by its very nature, anti-ideological itself. Ideology, despite the surface, is no longer on the table. It’s about decibels and numbers. The deliberate function of the rally is to swing the pendulum back to where we can focus on ideology. It is not saying Just Be Nice, and everything that lady said about the rally is reductive and idiotic.

  12. David

      On the whole I agree with you, deadgod, when you point out how there is a frustrating obstructionism in a refusal to think any clear difference between the Democrats in this election and the conservative adminstration just gone. But actually, you point back to Clinton, and on that, I do not agree. One of the most sincerely insane things about this election so far has been the mass nostalgia for Clinton, the fact he’s gaining such gushing approbation at rallies and so forth, and will likely save the Democrats a number of seats. How disorientated can the population possibly be? Apologism for Clinton – who was much more than a ‘sometimes-toxically mixed bag’, but the man who oversaw the destruction of the Left of the middle ground, if it ever actually existed, who obliterated the further future possibility of your so-called ‘anti-Stalinist Left’ when he liquidated the welfare state once and for all (a thing even Reagan-Bush I, try as they might, could not do) – that apologism goes to show the pathological problem of treating the blackmail of a very real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans as an inspiring difference, as something that can be converted somehow into the revitalization of a centre-Left politics now very dead and gone. The Right are right, in this respect, when they call (with what seems crazy obliviousness to the political scene) for Obama to ‘come back to the centre ground’. They are essentially calling for Obama to become Clinton. They are also acknowledging that any actual Leftism today can never be centrist. As always, we can learn from our enemies.

      On Schlesinger, just briefly, the idea of the so-called radical centre was, indeed, if you take its rhetoric at its word, a sterling effort to posit the Democrats as a middle Leftism against the radical capitalism Right and the so-called ‘anti-Stalinist Left’. But it was the beggining of the idea of the ‘two totalitarianisms’ that continues to distort our politics today. Let’s be clear: there was not, and never can be, such a thing as ‘red fascism’. I’m not of the party that argues that Stalinism had nothing whatsoever to do with the Communist programme but Stalinism, actually, was not the Left equivalent of Hitler (ever wonder why the Right feels it can put Hitler’s mustache on Obama without contradiction? You can thank the radical-centrists) but rather the terminal conflation of the communist ideal of classnessess with the police-bureaucratic imposition upon the population of the insistence that there is only one class. In this respect, neoliberal democracy today has actually been superlatively Stalinist – though not as brutal and direct in its methods, as will to slay its opponents outright (and why does it need to? it has the impoverishment and violence of the market itself to do that), it too insists at the barrel of a gun that there can only be one class. Hence, the quite accurate sense I believe we all have today (expressed in the political apathetic knowledge that voting wont help me) that we do have a one-party state, despite the very real and ongoing differences between the two parties.

      You see, the whole point of a radical centre was really to impose upon the Left a new definition of its reason for being: to maintain the status quo but still be Left – or, in other words, how to be a Left anti-communist. And the answer to that problem was to present all opposition to Communism as opposition to ‘Stalinism’, to red fascism. Hitler apparently had two homes. The Left stood against extremisms, and that anti-extremism itself became known as democracy, a state form. Unsurprisingly, because largely the point, this was the real death knell of the agitationist, quite communist though hardly Stalinist Left that shook America in the 30s: the commitment in the 50s by ‘the Left’ to the Cold War consensus was a new deal about the new deal. In other words, the 50s-60s America of civil participation and general gentlemanliness we think we need now (the fact it was also the age of segregation, rife gender discrimination, the origins of runaway military spending, environmental devastation, massive poverty and the restriction of the working classes in all kinds of ways as well – I’m thinking, for instance, of anything, of the gradual clampdown, which began then, on union organizational power), the sense of ‘America the Great’ that informs the idea of taking back the nation now, is actually a misprison of what that great America was: a deeply oppressive Right wing ‘centrism’ in which the social-democratic aspects of the past were retained at the price of a refusal to extend the settlement any further (this is the heart, indeed, of ‘the compromise’) than the ongoing recalibration of a series of inherently legitimate private ‘interest groups’. In a weird way, the massive breakthrough of the ‘New Frontier’ and ‘Great Society’ legislation was thus the Left at its most non-ideological: even as it saw through the most stunning blows against racism, sexism, capitalist pillage and numerous other kinds of discrimination, it shored up the righteousness of the Vietnam War, lowered taxes for the wealthy by some 20% (the beginning of the anti-tax victories), imposed draconian legislation upon youth crimes (the beginning of the current segregation of an African-American prison population; the beginning of exorbitant ‘civil’ police powers against protestors, the other ‘civil rights’ enacted by that legislation), oversaw the concentration of authority to abolish tariffs in the office of the presidency (hence Reagan’s breezy ability to devastate entire industrial sectors overnight), marked the refusal to endorse free universal health care (the flagship program of communist states and the one which, to this day, stands as a true accomplishment of those states) instead turning medical treatment into a welfare benefit (Medicaid: for those on benefits and the elderly) which continues, to this day, to determine that peculiar American madness in which providing healthcare to all, irregardless of class or wealth, is considered a sine qua non of the social contract, or is, in other words, theoretically classless, and more besides, as I could go on. Obviously, my point here is not to make the ‘Great Society’ legislation into some kind of evil moment in American politics – it was a true achievement – but notice how sentimentalized it is by the very Democrats who, today, gleefully destroy its every last vestige: Clinton, for instance, saw himself as a man after LBJ’s heart. In this respect, when Americans today feel that ‘government is the problem’, a sentiment the Right cranks up to a sort of zealous bastardry, they’re not miseducated as such, they’re actually quite correct in a way – except the Right has substituted an conservative word for what used to be a Leftist mode of attack: for the unashamedly anti-capitalist Left, the state was (and is) absolutely the problem. A new political state needs to be implemented.

      This is really what the effort to take back the Democratic Party for the Left in the 70s was all about: with the evidence and momentum of the civil rights movement at hand, the protest movement understood the apotheosis of radical centrism as being far from the crushing legislative abolition of inequality it proclaimed itself to be – and continued on. Hence, Martin Luther King Jr was shot in Tennessee, well in the wake of the Great Society legislation, at a rally for black sanitary workers seeking better pay and conditions. Ditto Malcolm X and of course Robert Kennedy, whose lifestory is probably the greatest example of a reformed and penitent liberal Leftist, a man who prosecuted and persecuted Communists in the 50s, who chorused Kennedy into the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, and who later stood on television, in areas of terrible poverty that continued to exist and said, firmly, that the Vietnam War must end immediately and that the Great Society was not nearly enough. The late 60s and early 70s ended the Right-wing consensus of Cold War anti-communism which the Right-wing today calls ‘liberalism’ and means Leftism, the idea of the radical or vital centre that had put radical experimental politics into deep freeze. But, as we know, it failed before it really got going. As did many other similar revolutionary convulsions across the world at that time: May ’68, the revolutionary character of certain Third World movements like Nasser’s Egypt, the Iranian revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It’s that point we need to pick up from today, looking toward the future. Not a restoration or return to anything.

      So, the Left is mistaken to think the problems only began with the advent of Reagan’s inauguration: “Morning in America” is precisely so ideological because it declares itself so categorically as a horizon of thought even to its enemies. The neoliberal breakthrough occurred in the wake of a widespread realisation of how insufficient and malaise-ridden was Carter’s attempt to restore the consensus politics of the Cold War middle. And surely, if like any prior President, Obama right now resembles Carter (which explains the growing sense of disenchantment and malaise, the seemingly relentless rise of the Right (since nothing organized further to the Left exists to take it on as an alternative) and the feeling this may yet be a one-term presidency, a terrible thing really. And like Carter in worse conditions, seeing as Carter restored the wretched middle in the wake of a massive Left-wing convulsion: today the middle is proposed to be restored in the wake of a runaway Right-wing reaction. Though, having said that, Obama is not just another Carter: a mistake the Left makes, insofar as it thinks a mere illusion the idea that Obama is the most genuinely radical thing to emerge in the American presidency since FDR. But he absolutely is: the problem is the situation is so attenuated that his radicality is inherently moderate. Obama’s failure, however, is to believe in his heart of hearts a moderate radical is all the times will allow him to be. And we saw what a disaster that innately conservative instinct was in his muted and altogether useless reaction to the Gulf oil spill. If any moment made Obama Jimmy Carter, it was that. He did not step forward to proclaim a new American anti-capitalism at that moment: instead, he brokered and dallied and cleaned up behind the scenes, pure adminstrationism, in other words.

      Still, let’s look at what Obama in his first phase did manage: the health care reforms. As paltry in some respects as they are, the health care bill nevertheless is the first genuine social legislation to impact the country in years. That breakthrough – hence the Right’s desperate gasping squals for ‘Repeal!’, never mind the fact it’s the kind of legislation that still means megamillions for the insurance companies, which, moreover, allows them to survive and never mind the fact people overwhelmingly want the provisions of the bill (even as, because totally disorientated by economic crisis, and yearning for surety, they fear the bill itself and endorse ‘repeal’, because it is, indeed, a massive rent into the unknown) – that breakthrough, though hardly sufficient in itself, is a massive symbolic strike against the neoliberal settlement; it is such a trauma for the Right because it declares, and much more than the bailouts, really, which can be talked away as ‘a crisis from outside’, that the neoliberal years are truly over, despite the fact they are everywhere still with us.

      And let’s not be cautious: neoliberalism is dead. But that death does not mean the death of the rampant plutocracy that was neoliberalism’s essence: in fact, what’s most disturbing, I think now we’re seeing that essence unleashed. And this is why moderate Leftism is in no way enough because that unleashed plutocracy is very much a test of whether America is, in fact, to be a democracy of any kind, even a capitalist-representative one. Or is it to become the first openly market Stalinist nation. All countries under neoliberalism have been subject to market Stalinism but it’s only now that we’re seeing the real spirit of that come into the open. The problem for the Left, then, is that it will find itself drawn increasingly into a new wedge: to fool itself into thinking that rehabiltating capitalist representative democracy, ‘restoring sanity’, is the next great mission rather than a further collapse to a capitalism that risks being so secure it only modulates between two forms of victory: outright plunder or liberal apportionism.

      So on this count, in the face of a new tyranny of unvarnished brutality, I appreciate where the impulse toward ‘restoring sanity’ comes from – it is absolutely about saying ‘are we to remain a democracy of any sort?’. But it’s nostalgic and, basically, deluded, insofar as it continues to believe ‘democracy of any sort’ is a horizon of victory, rather than a necessary but attenuated rearguard action, a desperate defence, against off-the-hook exploitationism, and insofar as it spiritualizes the middle years of the last century as some great American moment, not, even now, where all this insanity stems from.

  13. Owen Kaelin

      Hmm… .

      I seem to remember… just a year ago, Democratic senators and congresspeople were receiving death threats. People were gunned down in the holocaust museum. Jerks were going to Obama speeches with handguns and rifles. Just a couple of weeks ago, anti-abortion groups began once again sending out the same “Wanted” posters which, some years ago, incited the assassination of several doctors. Sharon Angle, who might or might not be the new senator from Nevada, circa Tuesday, stopped talking about “Second Amendment remedies” only a couple months ago.

      While I’m not silly enough to think that a “restore sanity” rally will actually make any difference, I’m not looking forward to more violence.

      In re: David: I think I agree that the Democratic Centrists have been largely instrumental in making all this “kill Medicare but don’t take away my Medicare” and “Please make me feel important or I will shoot you” insanity a reaction not against liberalism but against moderation. At any rate, it would probably have happened anyhow… so I think I’d prefer that they were ‘reacting’ against liberalism rather than against moderation.

      I’ve cursed the Centrists for years for doing what they did to this country. But at this moment, they are not the problem. Let’s take one crisis at a time, here.

  14. deadgod

      [Replying to David]

      Apologism for Clinton

      Yes, the “gushing”, and the rote ‘expert’ pabulum-head drooling-point of Clinton’s ‘sheer political genius’, are disturbing. But:

      when he liquidated the welfare state once and for all

      This ‘liquidation’ – and the other ‘obliterations’ you mention – simply didn’t happen, haven’t happened (in the intervening administrations), and won’t, because of Clinton, happen. In the smallish ambit of acquaintance that I travel in, I know plenty of people on Stamps, finagling unemployment, and on other forms of state relief. Etc. anecdotal data etc.

      Clinton also started lending a lot more money to college students, for one example of progressivity in social programs during his administrations.

      No question: Clinton came down much harder on the poor than he did on the rich when it came to “welfare”. But David, reckless terms like “liquidate” and “obliterate”, while palliative to one’s rage, are, simply, factually inaccurate: there’s still, despite decades of uncountered – or unsuccessfully countered – fiscal-‘conservatism’ political-economic folly, a “welfare state” in America.

      Here’s a big part of the collapsing-politics-into-the-personal thing that kills me: an administration is NOT equal to or at all reducible to a President. What we got with “Clinton” was NASA, the EPA, the FDA, the Geological Survey, and scores of other Executive branch agencies and programs staffed by engineers, scientists, doctors, and institutionally-unconnected professionals. What we get with ‘conservative’ administrations, and have done openly since Reagan, is science denial. Your claims that Clinton ‘destroyed the Left’ fly in the face of the million concrete, materially-effective decision-making nodes that constitute the working of the federal executive branch.

      centre-Left politics now dead and gone

      Again, inaccurately over-wrought rhetoric.

      The Right is, even on its own terms, not “right [in] call[ing] for Obama to “come back to the centre ground”‘; they’re doing exactly what they did for eight Clinton years, what they’ve been doing for decades: exaggerating absurdly the progressivity of the Left in front of them so they can defeat it – straightforward Machiavellian, Art-of-War tactics, right?? Obama’s yoga-across-the-aisle contortions are called ‘the most socialistic programs we’ve ever seen’ – David, this is not an “acknowledg[ment] that any actual Leftism today can never be centrist” – why accept the Right’s shitty argument? It’s evidence that no actual Rightism today can be rational. Obama is, by the terms of the Richard Nixon health-care proposal that Teddy “et ego, Caesar” Kennedy rejected, a “centrist” progressive, and there is no moderate Right.

      so-called anti-Stalinist Left

      Why “so-called”?

      there was not, and never can be, such a thing as ‘red fascism’

      Why not?? “Hitlerian fascism: ethnically determinate state capitalism” – how does this fail to account for Stalin’s removals of Caucasian and central Asian populations? or for the Sovietization of post-war eastern European nations? You could argue that the ethnic component of “fascism” was diminished rhetorically and in fact by Stalin, but, in outline, his statized political economy wasn’t that different from Mussolini’s, to my scant knowledge. (Nor that different from the corporatized political economy of, say, Henry Ford; hence: “state capitalism”.) Certainly they have more in common with each other than either does with the New Deal! – that is, with socialism-to-rescue-capitalism.

      Yes, the ‘radical center’ was all about making it possible for capital to continue to marshal society. But, as the kind of gradualist that Marx himself despised, I don’t think this means – or needs to mean, anyway – “one-party state”. The worker, the borrower, the environmental-carcinogen exposed, the consumer: all still of the “party” opposed to the accumulation of capital – no?

      to impose upon the Left a new definition of its reason for being

      Your discussion is good, but I’d emphasize the (at least) dual nature of “the Left”, and the continuity of that part of it critical – I think: too often not constructively – of its other ‘half’. The fact that King, Malcolm, and RFK all evolved away from ethnically over-specific or anti-Commie positions, respectively, and towards, what, holistic criticisms of corporate capitalism (and of ethnic separation, in the case of Malcolm) – this fact tells me that left-Leftism was, and is, a healthy alternative to compromise-Leftism – but, back to the point of Stewart, and of voting for Blue Werewolves: while progressives organize, agitate, truth-tell, etc., they still have to fight against the inertia of ‘they’re-all-the-same’ apathy. They’re not “all the same” – Obama needn’t be anything other than progressive, eventually. FDR’s, um, recommendation obtains: Make progressives operate progressively – not by abstention, and not by quitting because a dud like Lincoln won one primary against a progressive to her left.

      rehabilitating capitalist representative democracy

      Yes, this is the project of (what I think you’re calling) neoliberalism. ( – though I’d quibble with many of your details. To limit myself to one example, Carter wasn’t trying to restore the outlines of a Cold-War consensus; he was, and he was politically destroyed for, attacking the terms of that (false, in the sense that all the Left went along) consensus – for example, by making oil companies ‘enemies’ of the Executive branch.)

      It’s important, step by step, to make clear that capitalism will always be inimical to democracy and that socialism need not be. But it’s also important to see complexity as complex, as, in its apprehendability, resistant to overcharged rhetoric. Democracy-by-Blue-Werewolf would – might still – be a drastically attenuated “victory” – Stewart himself has shown himself to be ‘disappointed’ by the flaccidity of the never-was-a-fight for single-payer, for example – , but it’d still be a “victory” against Teabag America.

  15. David

      Just quickly: to your first point, I don’t apologise for using a term like ‘liquidated’ nor do I view it as in any way inaccurate. That there is a persistence of social programs – not least Medicaid – does not mean that the welfare state was not liquidated by Clinton, no more than when assets in a corporation are liquidated they cease thereby to exist in all forms whatsoever. In that sense, you’re quite right to say that what remains, and may not disappear, will be “because” of Clinton. But that’s not a grounds to be thankful toward him at all. If today there is a constant sense that the remnants of welfare, such as they exist, are perpetually insolvent, that it is always at risk of that final stage of liquidation called dissolution (a stage which the Dems, being such knights in shining armour, will step in to stop), then we can thank not Reagan but Clinton for that, as what was saved in the 80s was the welfare state as a solvent entity: this was only destroyed by Clinton and his determination that the welfare state – for government is the problem – must be replaced with the welfare contract or programme.

      On this point: “Your claims that Clinton ‘destroyed the Left’ fly in the face of the million concrete, materially-effective decision-making nodes that constitute the working of the federal executive branch.” There is a point of truth I accept in this – certainly that the creation of certain agencies, especially research-based ones, can be hugely important in terms of defining the pressing political realities of our moment. But I don’t think your argument accounts in any way for how institutionalisation of intellectuals comes with its own code of conduct about what their research is, or is not, able to say. If Clinton’s indulgence toward the communicative leftism of making and reading reports is the only thing we can say for him, then it’s as weak a positive as I would expect. Not least because, simultaneous to that expansion of expertise, we must count in the fact that Clinton spent nearly as much time in his administration as Bush shelving and ignoring the painstaking reports that came his way. Why see this as anything other than two sides of the same coin? The democratic dividends, the feel-good Leftism, of commissioing such research is in lockstep with the leftist realism of being inveterately ‘unable’ to act upon it: it’s what I’d call, with due sarcasm, the soul of philosophy in Democratic statecraft, that which makes them so much more civilized than the Right. And, indeed, business ontologists to the core, the Republicans are simply more ‘efficient’ in this regard, more aggressively politicizing the public service itself so as not to deal with the hassle of the warnings coming their way: “Heck of a job, Brownie.” That denialism of enabling research and policy advice to be commissioned then utterly sidelining it was perfected under Clinton and so, while I accept your point that he oversaw an expansion of a public service with some professional interity, a thing that had evaporated in the Reagan-Bush years, this expansion also must be understood as the very kind of credentialisation of their comptence to govern that the Democrats thrive upon: while it would seem nothing but an inconvenience to have a public service handing you advice you have no political intention to follow, it actually establishes the notion that you are the party of ‘policy settings’, of consultation and collation of the facts, of the broad church, when in fact you are the party that also calcifies issues through the establishmentarianism of experts (which itself frequently and severely narrows the range of policy advice on offer) and by bifurcating expertise from political practice – or, in other words, keeping at a remove from politics (since a grand liberal value is that the public service must not be politicized) the consistently radical instances of policy advice that are almost never enacted.

      On this: “Clinton also started lending a lot more money to college students, for one example of progressivity in social programs during his administrations.” Expanding funding on social programs is a good to be sure but eminently reversible. It does little to nothing to ensure that such funding is mandated as a permanent part of the state – hence, it’s categorically different from Obama’s own amendments to student loans, which (though again limited) signals a hugely lasting difference in terms of long-term social support for students, as it’s been legislated, and is not simply a budgetary decision revisable at any point.

      We agree that there is no moderate Right. But, again, this is because the moderate Right is the moderate Left: they are one and the same. The missing moderate conservatism on the Right is located in left-liberalism itself, which is why the whole political scene – not just in the US but all over the world – seems unduly oriented rightwards all the time. No amount of appeals to “reasonableness” will undo this constitutive lopsidedness, as such reasonableness is exactly what causes the distorted lean.

      Marx didn’t despise gradualists at all. In the sense that he believed that revolution would be a process always at war against history, he was a gradualist himself. But notice the difference between that kind of gradualism and the gradualism that attempts to see itself on the side of history as the expansion of goods and rights through a series of gains which, while they may backslide or lapse or be ruined by the Right, nonetheless are a work of steady accumulation. This is what Marx basically objected to: the idea that this was anything but a kind of ongoing brokered settlement with the forces of reaction who are the proverbial example of dirty dealers. “The worker, the borrower, the environmental-carcinogen exposed, the consumer: all still of the “party” opposed to the accumulation of capital – no?” Sure, but they are also the party of the party that can never ever come to power under capitalism, who, so it seems, are never the mass majority of candidates in Congress, or occupy the presidency. That’s what I mean by one-party state: the fact this broad coalition of anti-capitalist agents, even though ostensibly existing in a nation of free elections, somehow and in some way never seem to end up as the party in power.

      To this: “‘They’re not “all the same’ – Obama needn’t be anything other than progressive, eventually.” Again, I agree that the folk political idea that all politicians are the same is a cynical idiocy – one actually encouraged by political elites at the very moment people feel they can do better. Hence, the obsessional need on the Right to paint Obama as the consummate political operator, and, likewise, the insane hatred on the Right in the 90s of Bill Clinton – the consummate political operator – as some kind of out-of-control left wing ideologue. But also of the order of folk politics is the assumption that with enough forbearance and patience and auspiciousness of conditions, Obama will emerge as the progressive wave we’ve been waiting for all along. The fact is those auspicious conditions already happened: the oil spill. And it didn’t manifest – Obama’s first, and perhaps final, great failure. They might not be all the same but we should also stop reading secret motives and agendas into their persons: if Obama says he errs toward conservatism, which he has any number of times, even if there is something innately radical about his sensibility and politucal biography, we should believe him.

      On Carter: Carter’s war against the oil companies was an effort to save the Keynesian settlement from the destruction under its own contradictions that occurred in the 70s. It’s true that Carter’s rhetoric toward those companies was heavily anti-capitalistic but it was grounded in the sense that their corporate piracy alone had fundamentally busted the spokes of the postwar capitalist settlement. So, as usual, the rhetoric of anti-capitalism itself occluded a more far-reaching anti-capitalist understanding that would have, for instance, proceeded further toward socialism in that moment: say by nationalizing (or trying to) the oil companies. But that really wasn’t of interest to Carter who was a pure restorationist if there ever was one.

      Last but not least: on the ethnic violence of Stalinism: there’s no doubt that Stalinism was inflected with mass racial murder – the Holodomor is the most shocking example – but it was also characterized, even under Stalin, by what Terry Martin calls an “affirmative action empire”. Let me cite the blurb from Amazon to sum up the general gist of the argument:

      In the popular imagination, the Soviet Union was always synonymous with Russia, but in the U.S.S.R.’s early days Soviet leaders had a very different idea in mind: they wanted to establish a true multinational, multi-ethnic empire. To that end, they attacked Russian nationalism as a vestige of Tsarism, and instituted a set of policies that looked very much like affirmative action, enforcing the use of local languages and fostering the development of ethnic leaders, even at the cost of discriminating against Russians. Yet, as Martin shows in this fascinating history, simply giving an order was not enough, even in the Stalin years, and the complex relationship between socialism and nationalism in places like Ukraine often frustrated Soviet intentions. More important, ethnicity, once fostered, was frequently a counterweight to, rather than a bulwark of, Communist ideology; although Stalin remained rhetorically committed to the multi-state idea, he ended up terrorizing those ethnic leaders he saw as threats.

      The thing to be crushed, you can see, under communism, was the identitarianism of race, whilst under Nazism, such a singular identitarianism of race was the very principle under which one was authorized to exterminate and enslave others. These aren’t just simple opposites that become the same in practice, either: for if that were so, you would have had the relentless, absolutist genocide you encounter in the Holocaust, rather than the crime with genocidal characteristics that characterizes the Holodomor, say, where Ukrainians were, in some respects, ethnically targeted but with no clear policy end in itself to annihilate them from the face of the earth.

      I’m going to have to leave this here, deadgod, but thanks for the discussion. I found your arguments very eloquent and strong food for thought and really appreciated the chance to exchange ideas. Thanks, and all my best.

  16. David

      but with no clear policy end in itself to annihilate them from the face of the earth. Just to clarify, I should add that this isn’t to mitigate the Holodomor as a bestial crime. Rather, the point is that, as a crime, it is entirely singular not simply the Right wing conscience-salving idea of the Left wing’s Holocaust.