Walzer: Angry Left? Fearful Right?

In the midst of our blog-talk about the left, A&L put up “All God’s Children Got Values” by Michael Walzer. He begins his argument:

The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn’t values that lost us the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion of fear.

He discusses the state of the left and offers solutions, but hasn’t the feistiness of Peter Beinart. In a telling look for comparisons he is unwilling to go with the anti-communists (no Scoop Jackson liberal he) but rather farther back, to the “kitschy” forties of anti-fascism.

In the context of that thread, this essay from Dissent critiques the state of left thought; while Walzer is not angry, the issues are ones we discussed.

To the right, he argues

ideology rules everywhere . . . across the spectrum of issues in which right-wing intellectuals and activists take an interest (note the combination: it used to be only the left that had intellectuals and activists). Everywhere, we see radically coherent, single-causal analyses of social problems and radical proposals to deal with the problems once and for all: lower and lower taxes, privatized Social Security, tests and more tests in the public schools, torture for terrorists, war for Saddam, democracy for the Arabs. And everything will be wonderful, after the revolution.

Well, at least he, unlike Paul Krugman, sees ideas on the right. Not very good ones, of course.

We are surprised by his allusion to the “revolution” and that “everything will be wonderful.” The right is, after all, the party of the tragic nature of man. The right doesn’t have much faith in utopian dreams. Of course, I didn’t think the right argued for “torture for terrorists” either.

If he doesn’t have the tone that people posted about, he does have a consistent theme. He returns to fear in his last paragraph:

The Bush administration exploits our fears, but it is not interested in a collective effort to cope with them-that is, to provide the necessary forms of protection and to stimulate the necessary forms of mutual assistance. That is the project of the near-left. The ideological right aims deliberately at undermining security, in the name of self-reliance, but with a deeper purpose: to discipline the workforce and stabilize the new forms of inequality. By contrast, the left project is egalitarian because we are committed to distribute the costs of security fairly and to make sure that the most vulnerable people are the first to be protected-or to be helped to protect themselves.

Obviously, he believes the simple-minded solutions of the right do not cope with fears. But, his last sentence seems to be self-deluding: his belief that the left and not the right are likely to protect the “most vulnerable.” Frankly, it seems to me that the left consistently takes positions against the vulnerable. Who is more vulnerable, those in the teacher’s union or the poor kids thrown into bad schools? Do we consider George Soros or that farmer in Nebraska who votes Republican vulnerable? Were the Iraqis more or less vulnerable after America marched in? (Well, I guess the Lancet would say less, but that doesn’t seem to be the attitude of the Iraqis who today were busy setting up their government.)

Walzer’s essay has no sense of the magnitude of Bush’s policy (as demonstrated so ably by Lex). Nor does he appreciate (perhaps understand) the empowerment that comes from ownership. I’m sure there are new ideas and ones with quite different solutions than Bush’s; they don’t seem to be here. The egalitarianism he argues for is likely to be one partialed out by elites. Most of all, this essay seems an argument in which stasis is valued; the left, he argues, is pragmatic and sees nuance. Well, yes, life is complicated. But if we don’t start testing the kids, how the hell are we going to know if they are learning anything? Sure, there are things that can be improved and things that can’t. But it seems to me that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness – and frankly, I see testing, for instance, as shining a light into the abyss of American education. It is a lot better to try to take the first steps – from Iraq & Afghanistan to schools to social security – then to pretend that the problems don’t exist. That pretense is the mask of fear, the unwillingness to take risks. I see it a good deal more in Walzer than in the Town Hall columnists.

16 thoughts on “Walzer: Angry Left? Fearful Right?”

  1. “The…right aims deliberately at undermining security, in the name of self-reliance, but with a deeper purpose: to discipline the workforce and stabilize the new forms of inequality.”

    Just the latest variation on a paranoid theme that Communists have been playing for many decades. And Walzer accuses conservatives of exploiting fears?

  2. Man, this stuff is everywhere.

    Out here, in between calls for Bush to be impeached for violating the Constitution by “questioning” the Social Security debt (i.e., pointing out that the “trust fund” was debt rather than savings) (Oh, and if we’re supposed to impeach Presidents for violating the Constitution, why didn’t Roosevelt get impeached for violating the Constitution by, among other things, introducing the accursed program in the first place? Not to mention, oh, every single president since him, and quite a few before, for one violation or another?) we find the interesting theory that the Republicans’ hopes are ”
    to create a massive underclass ruled over by the extremely wealthy…erode public education – only private schools will survive. And who can afford that? Run huge deficits so social programs have to be cut back, if not eliminated…college will only be affordable to the rich, so you have no hope for social advancement…all the jobs will be service-oriented, since we’ve already established the Empire’s third world slave labor force…and illegals will take the rest, since Mexicans sneaking into the country are a huge part of America’s slave labor here at home…curtail civil liberties and expand the intrusive powers of government…hell, Gitmo and Afghanistan are already the beginnings of our Gulags…”

    Yes, that’s right, not only are Bush’s policies bound to impoverish us all, Bush has deliberately set out to mire us all in poverty and ignorance because…. well, none of them seem to have thought out just how making us all poor and uneducated and unemployed would serve his purposes or profit him in any way.

    People used to profit from an abundance of poor, uneducated peons – back when energy was scarce and captive human muscle power was valuable. If we get over our hysteria over nuclear power, we can safely assume those days are gone forever. So the only reason to want people to be dumb and desperate is if you’re out for something other than a profit. If you want to make money, you don’t want an army of desperate morons. If you want to conquer the world, an army of desperate morons won’t help you do that either. If you don’t care about profit, and want to be idolized as people’s protector and savior, then an army of desperate morons will do just fine, and smart, independent, confident people insistent on managing their own affairs are useless to you and can be an actual threat if their neighbors start getting ideas.

    So if a guy’s out to make money, I trust him a hell of a lot more than if he’s out to take care of me. The plutocrat might still oppose me if there’s money in it, but he’s not going to screw me over just for kicks, and he’s not going to want me to be his surrogate child.

  3. “undermining security, in the name of self-reliance, but with a deeper purpose: to discipline the workforce”…seems to me that it’s the *Democrats* who want to “discipline the workforce” (or, more accurately, the voters) by insuring that their retirement savings (at least the SS portion thereof) are available only through the mediation of the political class…and if you want to get back what you’ve paid in, you’d better vote right.

  4. Re the SS trust fund: the fact that something is debt doesn’t mean it can’t also be savings. If I own a treasury bond, it is savings for me but debt for the government. Similarly, if I own a GE corporate bond, it is savings for me but debt for GE.

  5. Their fears are their wishes. They’re still disappointed that the alienation and immiseration of the proletariat didn’t happen on schedule. If the evil bushilterhalliburtonchimp does succeed in impoverishing the working class, maybe their time will come.

    It must be tough to be the “leading party” when your followers wander off. They still talk about “false consciousness,” even in this article, without irony. I suppose it sounds better than “We know what’s best for you, so STFU!”

    What a delicious irony if the “ownership society” is the realization the socialist utopian end state – the common ownership of the means of production through private accounts and 401(k)’s. And the socialists hate it!

  6. “ownership society” –=Peter Drucker, in his memoirs I think talks about how he met with a guy in the 1950s who was in charge of the GM employee retirment plan (I think). They joked about how he used to be a socialist, but how if everybody got into a stock-market fund as a retirement fund, then the workers WOULD end up owning all the means of production within a generation or so, through capitalism and not socialism.

  7. “Re the SS trust fund: the fact that something is debt doesn’t mean it can’t also be savings. If I own a treasury bond, it is savings for me but debt for the government. Similarly, if I own a GE corporate bond, it is savings for me but debt for GE”

    But if you’re holding your own bonds in a “trust fund”, that’s not much of a savings plan.

  8. The Politics of Fear (a post I wrote back in December…)

    In short, the reason the left views the right as using “the politics of fear” is because the left is afraid of the policies of the right (and vice versa). When Bush talks about taking out Saddam, those of us on the right are hopeful for the future, while those on the left are fearful of an upset international order and a failure to comply with the UN. When Kerry talks about international support, people on the left are hopeful about getting extra help from other nations, while those on the right are fearful of having our policy set by a bunch of dictators.

    Walzer thinks Bush is playing off “our” fears precisely because HE fears what Bush proposes, and he assumes everyone else has the same fears. He’s afraid of private ownership and of giving individuals power — he only wants “power to the people” in the plural sense. To him, the people (as a whole mob) should have power and ownership, but individuals acting individually should not. So of course Bush is playing the politics of fear — because Bush wants to empower individuals, and that scares Walzer.

  9. Ken…if the trust fund is viewed as a set of obligations held “in trust for” the beneficiaries, then the analogy is not with holding one’s own bonds.

    If you own a business and you put debt obligations of that company in a trust account for your kids, that would seem to be a fairly close analogy, economically if not politically.

  10. All politicians sell fear and hope.

    Every political idea can be phrased in terms of fear and hope. People only grant power to the State when the believe they need it to protect them from some threat but people also want solutions that make the world better. Every politician uses fear and hope like a stick and carrot to convince the electorate to grant them office.

    I find it disturbing that many apparently intelligent people actually believe that other side of the political spectrum always sells nothing but fear and that their side sells nothing but hope. The degree to which politics scrambles people’s intellectual processes is just frightening.

    I do think it is true that in different eras, different parts of the political spectrum sell a little more hope than they sell fear. I think the progressive or change seeking elements of each era are sell more hope than fear whereas the conservative or reactionary elements sell more fear than hope.

    One thing that really leaps out about Leftism in the 30’s is the intense optimism for the future that was conveyed in all forms of expressions. Across the spectrum, from the Communist and Fascist in Europe to the New Dealers in America, the tone was one of onward and upward. By contrast, the Right of the era conveyed as sense of world weariness and even helplessness to effect change. The Left portrayed a vision of the future that held gleaming cities and rocket ships. They spoke in terms out what could be gained in the future. The Right had no parallel vision, they spoke of the future only in terms of what could be lost.

    Today, this tone has reversed. Today, it is the Right that is the progressive element in the political spectrum and the Left that is the conservative. It is the Right that talks of the future in terms of potential gain and the Left that talks of the future in terms of potential loss. Whether we are talking about Social Security or the War on Terror, it is the Right that has the can-do attitude and the Left that conveys world weary helplessness.

    The Left can’t offer hope because the Left can’t abandon the solutions of the mid-20th century, solutions that most have judge to be either failures or no longer applicable to contemporary circumstances. If people have no confidence in the practicalities of one’s solutions the will see little hope in them. It is the same problem that the Right faced in the 1930’s.

    People buy hope before they buy fear. We like the carrot more than the stick. The part of the political spectrum that can offer more hope than fear is the part that holds power more consistently in any given era.

  11. “People buy hope before they buy fear”…I think this is true up to a point. When they feel really scared and threatened, they worry more about avoiding total failure than they worry about success.

  12. David Foster,

    ‘”People buy hope before they buy fear”…I think this is true up to a point’

    True. People can be stampeded by one particular issue at one particular time.

    I was thinking in terms of broad political movements, i.e. the totality of Leftism or Rightism in any particular era. If we think of broad political philosophies as mixtures of hope and fear, then broad philosophy that generally offers more hope will be the most politically successful.

  13. Feminists used to complain about the patriarchal nature of language; this always seemed odd since women were more verbal and women taught the next generation to speak.

    So exactly why is the right – noticably absent in teacher’s unions and academia – the one that wants to “erode education” and produce a moronic population? Ken’s right, it doesn’t make economic sense, either. This seems a pretty weird set of arguments for these people to make. (And my experience has been that some have joined the right motivated by its greater hospitality to an intellectual tradition including that of the great books.)

    Lotharbot, I liked your site and your argument.

    I think Shannon’s and David Foster’s points are good; I suspect, indeed, that the left (always avid poll watchers) know what Shannon does – we prefer someone not mired in doubt and fear but hopeful & active. That is the reason they use “fear” rhetoric. The problem is, look at the timidity with which they approach many issues – that is fear at work. Hell, they are afraid to put judges up for a vote.

  14. Ginny mentions the “timidity” with which the Left approaches issues. Leftist critiques of the Right, like those of Walzer, Bill Moyers, and the Deaniacs seem uncertain, taciturn and hesitant when it comes to proposing actual policy. They long for approval, but don’t dare to make a wrong step.

    Maybe the Left remembers too well their recent litany of embarrassments, like forcing our defeat in Vietnam, the stark benevolence of global capitalism, the utter foolhardiness of depending on the U.N. for our nation’s security, the “Global Test.”.

    I am reminded of the gawky high schooler who is scared to ask the lone girl across the room to dance at the prom. The Left is so in fear of stepping on her toes, or drooling on her shoulder that it is terrified of taking the chance again. It is far safer to sit bowed by the punch bowl and talk about how badly everyone else is dancing.

    I attribute some of this self-consciousness to their tight Hollywood connections. Like the manic Hyacinth from the BBC’s “Keeping up Appearances”, image-making has superceded the generation of substantive policy, to a fault.

  15. I dunno, Steve…seems to me almost the opposite. Many on the left conduct themselves as if they had not the slightest interest in converting others to their point of view. I’m not sure they care about approval outside their own circles, even for purely tactical purposes.

  16. In one of his movies (maybe Annie Hall) Woody Allen said something like: Commentary and Dissent are going to merge and the magazine will be called Dysentery.

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