Noted Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra has an article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books ( ) in which he channels Arthur Koestler to suggest that there are three things wrong with society today: the corruption of the ruling class, the sleeping sickness of the proletariat and the deterioration of the intelligentsia. All part of the same fundamental process, he says.
Mishra focuses on the last of these in his review of two books, one by Yasha Mounk, the other by Samuel Moyn:
Harvard, 277 pp, £21.95, April, ISBN 978 0 674 73756 3
Harvard, 277 pp, £21.95, April, ISBN 978 0 674 73756 3
He attributes this deterioration to the left’s surrender of its traditional dedication to peace and social equity to chase after the authoritarian populist goals usually associated with the right. “Pragmatic patriots,” he calls them, “trying to beat right-wing populists at their own game.” What comes immediately to mind is the way democrats bought into the right’s understanding of socialism as a fate worse than death, discredited Bernie Sanders as a viable candidate, and threw in their lot with Hillary Clinton.
The “authoritarian populism” Mishra speaks of began, he says, with Thatcher (I would tie her together with Reagan), as a means of addressing the “unresolvable structural crisis of capitalism.” It has now spread to the once principled left, which is buying into (manufactured fear-based) anti-terrorist policies, moral panic over immigration, a willingness to go to war and to support right-wing efforts to shore up the financial sector, increasing the gap between rich and poor. Mishra charges Mounk with joining this move to the center, “replacing principle with triangulation” (which I believe it would take a close reading of Mounk to make sense of) and characterizes Moyn as going the other way – from “eager collaboration with power” to “tough-minded scrutiny of it.”
Whatever the left stood for before, it has, since the days of Thatcher and Reagan, come to take an interventionist position in international affairs. The world is a mess, say the leftists, now agreeing with the rightists, and the United States (and other Western democracies) have a duty to fix it. Socialism has proven to be an inadequate response to the world’s ills, they charge; the emphasis should henceforth be on human rights and it is now “imperative to ‘establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society’ – by force, if necessary.” It is the rights of man that should hold sway; national sovereignty not so much. Moyn provides a long list of examples of how this philosophy has been put into practice over the years, starting with invasion of Somalia in 1992, increasing with the response to 9/11 in 2001 and thereafter, to the point where Philip Bobbit, advisor to Blair and Cameron as well as several U.S. administrations, can claim that ‘no state’s sovereignty is unimpeachable if it studiedly spurns parliamentary institutions and human rights protections.” Samantha Powers’ notion of a proper response to evildoers is “American unilateralism untrammelled by international institutions.” Powers, remember, was Obama’s representative to the United Nations.
An equally (if not more) influential voice of support for the liberal political philosophy behind this new Pax Americana, as it is commonly referred to, is the Canadian liberal leader and Harvard professor, Michael Ignatieff. An unabashed supporter of the war in Iraq, Ignatieff’s 2003 book, Empire Lite criticized NATO for taking too timid an approach to fighting what we now call “bad guys” in Kosovo and Rwanda.
What Mishra likes about Moyn’s intellectual trajectory is his support for the modern-day revival of support for socialism. Without going into detail, he takes a stand in the leftist conflict between good-old socialism and new-fangled humanism and comes down on the side of socialism.
A bit of clarification here (hopefully this is clarification and not misrepresentation or obfuscation): What is notable about American (and other Western) leftist positions is their focus on the state – state terrorism, the crimes of rogue states such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador and the duty of Western democracies to put them right, all the while ignoring grass roots movements by women and indigenous peoples and alternative forms of development with their focus on “entitlements to work, education, social assistance, health, housing, food and water” (Moyn’s words). The focus is on the law and on individual rights, and not so much on universal well-being, on the individual, in other words, and not on the collective. Americans are not merely anti-socialism in theory; they are anti-socialist in practice.
In so doing, Moyn (Mishra) argues, they became enablers of oligarchies and the abuse of power by non-state actors, helping to usher in such ill effects as those of policies put in place by the IMF and the World Bank in the 1980s and 1990s. The result of all this is a crisis in national welfare, a stagnation of the middle classes and the endurance of a global hierarchy, which, in time, led to the kind of widespread dissatisfaction that brought about Donald Trump.
My sympathies lie naturally with anyone who tries to drive home the point that the real problems in America (and elsewhere – for the whole world suffers the consequences of American folly) are not the fool currently rolling back the progress achieved by people of good will in the recent past, but such things as “economic inequality, deadlocked government, subprime debt, offshored jobs, unrestrained corporate power and (a) compromised legislature that made Trump seem a credible candidate to millions of Americans.” Yes, yes, yes, I want to say. We have such limited horizons. We allow somebody to persuade us that it makes sense to give millions in tax relief to those who can’t spend the millions (or billions) they already have, allegedly because they will create more jobs with that money. We know that trickle-down is bogus, a theory now completely disproven. We know that they are just as likely to buy yachts with the extra cash, but those arguing we should put at least as many eggs in the wealth distribution basket as we do in the wealth generation basket get nowhere these days in greed-ridden America. The superrich get away with it, according to the prevailing view, because even the poor hope to be among the superrich one day, and prefer to live in a dream world. Who wants to be a downer, anyway? Who wants to live among people who don’t dream?
We are relatively well-informed about the debate between capitalism and socialism. Socialism, say the capitalists, robs the industrious to reward the lazy. Capitalism, say the socialists, divides the world into rich and poor. It cannot be sustained because eventually the rich abuse the poor and the poor rebel. Socialism, when it holds sway, leads to dullness and boredom; capitalism, even in its best moments, leads to hostility, strife, inequity and injustice.
We are less informed about the debate between those on the left who still see socialism (social democracy, not socialism pure) as the solution and those who, in their support of human rights have been seduced into thinking they have to move to the center and join forces with the right to have any chance of succeeding politically. What gets lost in this compromise is any hope of fighting back against vulture capitalism.
Wading through Mishra’s review one is reminded of the fact that all discussions such as this one can get bogged down until the terms are defined. Is a “liberal” simply a person open to change or an advocate of governmental control of change? Where is the line between liberal and anarchist? Between liberal and libertarian? Is a “socialist” the bogeyman Americans fear, somebody advocating complete control of the means of production? Or only partial control? And is “partial” simply a nose in the tent for the real goal of total control? Do we see government control as the mechanism for implementing and maintaining democratic rule? Or the best way tyrants have of taking over? Is a social democrat the same thing, ultimately, as a democratic socialist? How does one balance the generation of wealth over and against the distribution of wealth? And on and on. And then there is the need to define populism. Is it simply a movement to correct the misuse of power by an insensitive elite? Or a prelude to the destruction of the institutions of power and their replacement by an autocracy? There is no way to bypass the need for a shared definition of terms before engaging in any debate or discussion.
I began with Mishra’s assertion that the big three problems of society are “the corruption of the ruling class, the sleeping sickness of the proletariat and the deterioration of the intelligentsia.” We see how the latest American effort to address the first of these – the alligators in the swamp – only led us (excuse the mixed metaphors) out of the frying pan into the fire. We followed a pied piper (if I can mix once, I can mix twice).
In my view, you’d have to search far and wide to find a better illustration of Mishra’s suggestion that the left (the intelligentsia) have sold their souls to the right than by looking at what happened when the Democrats chose in the 2016 election to ignore the social democratic ideals of not only Bernie Sanders but of most modern democracies today – and move to the center.
What we have now in the Republican Party (the voice of the current ruling class) is a group so corrupt that, simply to put more money into the hands of their rich supporters, they sit silently by as their leader tells us that our security agencies and our press are not to be trusted. We have evangelicals and other authoritarian (Mormon, Roman Catholic) religionists closing their eyes and deliberately napping, having been convinced by their own that the most obviously, unabashedly, publicly immoral man ever to sit in the White House was actually put there by God to stop abortion, root out homosexuality, turn around the move towards a fairer share of the pie by women and the non-white heirs to slavery and segregation, and make America a white Christian nation as they insist it once was.
Having spent the bulk of his review on Moyn’s book, Mishra concedes that the battle on the left between the socialists and the humanists is far from over. At least, he hopes, Moyn will bring Americans closer to an understanding of what the rest of the world has known for a long time: that American imperialism (aka the "Pax Americana") is not the solution to the world’s problems. And the recent anti-establishment uprisings (pace Trump supporters) are
unlikely to be defused by attempts to rebuild the liberal order on Macron-style yuppie populism, inclusive nationalism, pragmatic patriotism or any other expedient of an intellectually insolvent (though materially resourceful) centrism.
Moyn may not have the answers to the problems, he argues. But he provides a bracing critique of our lethargy and our unwillingness to admit that our legalistic approach to problem-solving may not be adequate. What is needed is renewed all-out commitment to social and economic justice, the goals of democratic socialism.
I am easily persuaded that the world is right to speak out against America's self-interest when it becomes excessively self-serving, and I don't think one becomes anti-American when one does so. And I am also inclined to go with the "humanist left" when it intercedes to stop genocide. I supported the war in Kosovo, for example, using the argument that we made a commitment never to allow another Holocaust in Europe to occur. I am ready to sign up with the fast-growing social democrats, if only to remind democrats what it should mean to be a liberal/progressive. I am with Mishra, in other words, and his argument that the left has lost its way in ignoring economic justice in order to remain politically viable. I would urge, however, that when presented with an either/or, one's first response should be to ask why not both/and? Can we not have a commitment to social equity as well as global cooperation? The progress toward human rights is painfully slow. But when viewed from a distance, it has also remained remarkably consistent over time. Given that fact, why would one want to join forces with the cynics and the enablers? Come on, my fellow lefties. Time to find your groove again.