Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

The why of it - part 3

In the last part, by the early 90's, in the wake of the collapse of Actually Existing Socialism, I'd started moving away from -- and in fact reacting against -- what had become of the left. But I was still uncertain about what I was becoming, politically. By this point of my story, then, I'm pretty much through with the "why of it" (but keeping the title for the sake of continuity). Here I want to talk a little bit about that more puzzling question of how such change happens, and then see about getting to what I myself was changing into.

The "how", i.e., the process of personal political change, has unfortunately a lot to do with the labels that people attach to various political positions -- e.g., Marxist, conservative, socialist, libertarian, progressive, fascist, liberal, etc. Such labels attach to the people that hold these general positions as well, more or less, and can be used to identify social groupings, from friends to workplaces to entire communities and sometimes regions, though of course with less precision as the groupings broaden. At the most general level -- "left" and "right" in the conventional 1-dimensional polarity -- these political-social labels are associated not just with one's social groupings of all kinds, but can become value-belief systems so deeply rooted that they form important parts of a person's identity, and of a whole way of life.

A label like that is not an easy thing to change. Still, like any belief system, such political identifications can come under pressure from events -- doubts begin bubbling up, from more and more sources, less and less repressible, and threatening to break open the system as a whole. When that kind of process gets underway, there are roughly three kinds of response. You can vow to suppress the doubts by sheer will and retreat into a hardened, inflexible shell of fundamentalist faith that nothing in the real world can penetrate; or, you can largely keep your doubts to yourself, retain your outward political label for the sake of getting along, but pull back from politics as a source of value or purpose in your life; or, finally, of course, you can at least try to be open and rational about such doubts, and see where they take you. Since reason, even in a limited sense, has always been a primary source of meaning for me, I never felt much attraction to either of the first two options. The third, though, has its difficulties and problems, without question -- I've lost friends in some cases and lost aspects of friendship in others, and that's been sad. But other friendships have remained, even over  long stretches of years, and considerable distance, both geographically and  politically, and that's been deeply gratifying. Politics, after all, isn't everything and it isn't the only thing.

But there's one important thing to note about that third option: taking that route, one of the first things you need to overcome is what I would call "the tyranny of the label". This comes up when, in analyses or discussions of particular issues, people attempt to use such labels as arguments in themselves -- e.g., using "That's right-wing" or "conservative" (or "left-wing" or "liberal") as an accusation. It's tempting, particularly when you're just starting down this path and still flinching at having a long-despised political label flung at you, to want to try to deny or refute such "accusations", but I think such a temptation should be resisted. It  risks sidetracking the discussion as a whole, and in any case immediately puts you on the defensive -- in effect, you're letting yourself be bullied by a mere label. Instead, I think it's better to respond along the lines of: "Whatever; the argument isn't whether such-and-so is left or right, the argument is whether it's right or wrong." Which applies to one's own internal arguments as well.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Social justice" vs. "just society"

This arises from a quick post on Metamorphoses the other day which, after making allowance for some Hayekian skepticism regarding the phrase "social justice", suggested that the concept might be interpreted in a broader sense than the usual blanket rationale for left-liberal state confiscations and distributions. Borrowing from another post, I called this broader context a "just society". (As an aside, I'll just note that in Canada this phrase has unfortunate associations with a charismatic but controversial former Prime Minister -- please, no snickering at the notion of a "charismatic Canadian" -- and then I'll ignore those associations.)

Now it's plausible, and interesting, to think of those two notions as strongly related, if not synonymous -- wouldn't "social justice" prevail, after all, in a "just society"? And it's also enjoyable to see how, as the original article relating to the Tea Party movement pointed out, the latter notion either forces an enlargement of the meaning of "social justice", or forces the partisan narrowness of the concept out into the open. But it's also possible, and maybe instructive, to consider the two notions as distinct in an important way. The notion of justice that's contained in the phrase "social justice" is the notion of a just end or condition of society, in which everyone receives exactly what's due him or her, and is maintained in this condition. The notion contained in the phrase "just society", on the other hand, is the notion of a just structure or framework for society, within which everyone is free to act as they see fit and obtain what they're able and willing to.

This is a familiar enough distinction, perhaps, but laying out the alternatives in this way I think helps make clear some of the oddities and difficulties inherent in the "social justice" view. First, how are we to determine just what is "due" to a particular individual, or even to some grouping of individuals? Second, even if we could determine this, how are we to ensure that individuals actually get what they're due, and no more than they're due? Third, even if we can make this sort of "just" distribution once, how are we going to ensure that everything stays just, as people go about their daily lives? It would certainly help if we had a divine perch from which to look down on and into the lives of individuals to determine what was each their due, and then a divine power to dispense or distribute goods like Santa Claus at Christmas, as well as to reach into their lives on an ongoing basis so as to maintain this just distribution. But, lacking that, "social justice" proponents tend to fall back on the simple notion of dividing the available goods equally, regardless of merit, character, motive, choice, etc., -- not to mention right -- and relying on the tax man and other state bureaucrats in lieu of God to enforce this rough state of "justice". In the real world, of course, few such proponents any longer think it's possible to impose such an absolute egalitarianism -- there aren't many real communists left -- but that simply means, in practice, that they'll always view any actual condition of any actual society as requiring ever more substantive equality to be more "socially just".

All of which, though, should make it clear that the notion of "social justice" as some sort of just end state or condition of human society is not just a mirage, the pursuit of which is folly -- it's also wrong, or unjust in itself. We're not God or gods, nor are our political representatives, nor the bureaucrats they appoint, and the pretence that anyone can determine what is justly due everyone is nonsensical and arrogant. The attempt to enforce a crude version of that kind of "justice" through an endless campaign of egalitarianism is manifestly unjust.

"Justice", however, as a form or structure rather than as a substantive condition is quite another matter. In this sense, justice consists of a set of fair or just rules for behavior, within the limits of which the varying human situations are all equally just, regardless of condition. This doesn't mean that we should do nothing about such varying conditions -- justice isn't the only human virtue, after all, but is only one among such others as mercy, compassion, and love. But, unlike the way in which "social justice" often subverts virtue, the "just society" is one that provides a foundation and structure for the exercise of virtue.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The why of it - part 2

The last part ended with the first real election in Russia since the 1917 Revolution, in which the anti-communist boor was overwhelmingly elected, the candidate of the distinguished, intellectual, but communist Gorbachev decisively defeated. And this surprised me. I, in my bourgeois, consumerist "hell", had all this time been labouring under the delusion that the people who actually had to live in the original "workers' paradise" would appreciate its basic achievements, though no doubt chafing at its bureaucratic irritants -- and I was disabused of that notion. Coming at the culmination of a whole series of world historical events in which one socialist regime after another was toppled, and/or socialism itself repudiated, the foundations of my own political beliefs were shaken. In this sense, the historical too can be personal, and it seemed that the only honest and rational response to this global upheaval was at least to pause to re-examine those foundations.

In fact, at first I remember welcoming this time as an opportunity to do just that, and hoped and expected that the left in general would seize the opportunity as well. There were a number of signs preceding these events, I thought,  that seemed to indicate a certain drying-up of leftist thought and creativity, anyway. I've already mentioned the infiltration of so-called post-modernism into what it would term leftist "discourse" as one sign of sterility through obscurantist, calcified jargon. Another was the rise of "political correctness", which substituted a superficial concern with language and rectitude, not unlike that seen in religious fundamentalism of all kinds, for actual political thought and strategy. It was as though the left's arteries had been hardening, its mind constricting, well in advance of the spectacular collapse of "actually existing socialism" everywhere but Cuba and North Korea. So there was good reason to hope that the shock of these dramatic events would shake the left out of its stupor and open it up to new, creative, and fundamental ideas about its bases and objectives, about where it had been and where it was going.

But, sad to say, that didn't seem to occur. Some parts of the left, to my amazement, acted as though nothing much had happened -- "nothing to see here", etc. -- carrying on with the style of detailed but Marxist analysis of events that, this time especially, missed the forest and the trees in its heads-down determination not to see what was before it. Other parts in the early 90's seemed to intensify that preoccupation with victim issues that was an aspect of political correctness, to the virtual exclusion of any talk about "socialism" as such, or indeed about any kind of social-political solutions other than, perhaps, that the state should make people not be racist or sexist, etc. Other parts found another way to drift away from the socialist ideal, in the form of the rising Green movement, which, in its motherhood embrace of "the earth", had its broadest appeal among children, students, ad-men, and, ironically, the more affluent of middle-class social groupings. Some parts seemed to retain at least an interest in the social-political-economic sphere but also seemed to have dropped the word "socialist" from their vocabularies, as though it were now a kind of embarrassment, and instead substituted words like "anti-capitalist" or "anti-globalization", without giving any indication whether or not such words had any positive meaning at all. And some, the most honest and most poignant, simply expressed a kind of elegiac lament for the failure of their ideals, recognizing at least that something quite significant had happened, but never venturing to enquire why socialism had failed -- it was as though the world or "the people" had simply not measured up.

Through this time I was groping about myself, of course, trying to think my way through this personal intellectual crisis. Now, not everyone takes political concerns quite so seriously, I know. I once considered such concern a virtue, self-flattering though it was, but have since mellowed out considerably on this, recognizing that there are many other focuses of concern -- e.g., family, friends, work, play -- and politics is at most just one. Moreover, there are many different levels of political concern, from local to global, and from the practical and immediate to the abstract and theoretical. But for me at least, political concern on that more abstract, general level was, and still is, an important source of meaning, value, and purpose. Those are qualities that religion provides too, you'll notice, and I won't for a second deny the comparison. What I will say is that virtually everyone needs and in fact has some source for those qualities, and that source can accurately be termed a belief system -- the pertinent variables, then, are simply the degree to which one is aware of one's own belief-system and the degree of rationality of such a system.

So in any case, at this time I found myself back in discussions in pubs again, though without quite the fervor of the grad school days. Everyone I knew was on the left side of the political spectrum to some extent, and though by this time not so many could be described as Marxists any longer, I think there was still a widespread sense that -- what with the pomo cult, the Gaia pseudo-religion, the PC righteousness, etc. --something had gone awry with the left. For many, this was simply a time to find other, and no doubt healthier, interests. For me, it was a time of rising and spreading dissatisfaction, amounting to irritation, with many forms of overt leftist politics altogether, since, without the anchor of a viable positive vision,  they seemed increasingly irrational or reflexive, and also belligerent and almost nasty, in a very personal fashion. That slogan "the personal is political" began to assume a kind of totalitarian invasiveness, and I found myself reacting against it in part by taking a new interest in re-examining the targets of the left's hostility -- e.g., conservative values like family, character, liberty, and even religion. I became, in that sense certainly, increasingly a "reactionary", though that reaction was in direct relation and proportion to what I saw as the liberal-left's decreasing hold on common sense and decency.

For all that, I remained -- and still remain -- an atheist, for example, an opponent of capital punishment, a supporter of abortion rights, a proponent of the important distinction between science and religion (for both creationists and environmentalists), among other things; I'm not, in any true sense, a conservative. But that just raised the unsettling question of what I was then, politically -- unsettling in no small measure because of the powerful effect that political labels can and do have on one's entire social context.

(To be continued.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

The why of it - part 1

Previously, I'd said that my politics had changed sometime between 1992 and '94, but that this change had little if anything to do with actual events in that time period -- that instead it was the culmination of a process that had begun sometime earlier, and that I could be fairly clear about why that process had begun but not so much about how it worked. That distinction itself may not be entirely clear, but I'll come back to it (I hope) in subsequent posts in this thread.

As to the why of it, though, it's first necessary to see where I began. From high school, my politics had been leftist, though liberal, and then, following a well-worn trajectory, had moved further left in university and grad school. I'd witnessed the upheavals of the 60's and, though never much of a joiner, participated in enough of them to burn in a commitment to radical politics, where "commitment" needs to be understood as perhaps the central virtue for the politics of the time, akin to a kind of lefty "born-again" status. Frequented leftist book stores, argued Marxist theory and practice in the beer parlors of the time (and this was a time in Canada when "beer parlors" attached to seedy hotels, in all their terry-cloth tawdriness, were the only drink outlets available to thirsty grad students), attended the odd protest and the even odder study group, etc. Still have not just all three volumes of Capital moldering at the bottom of a book shelf, but the three separate tomes of the supposed fourth volume, Theories of Surplus Value, and the preliminary notes of the Grundrisse. I put this out not to boast of my reading (whether out of laziness or maybe just a sense even then that life might be too short, I've never even made it all the way through the first volume), but just as an indication that I've always been interested in the intellectual underpinnings of what was then, and still must be, the most serious and "scientific" brand of socialist theory available. I never quite called myself a "communist", and of course the actual Communist Party (of Canada) was by that time just a geriatric joke. But I was about as convinced as any intellectual/activist wannabe of the time that socialism -- i.e., state control of "the means of production" -- was the ultimate goal, and the only question, hashed over incessantly among the various sects and disputants on endlessly recurring beer nights, was how to get there.

Now, though pretty much everyone in those sessions was a leftist, some were more or less Maoists, and, in any case, most were one variety or another of Marxist, I can safely say that virtually no one was an unreconstructed Soviet apologist, much less a Stalinist. It was readily admitted, if and when it came up, that the Soviet Union was a sclerotic bureaucracy, and that the socialist states of eastern Europe were largely its puppets. Still, for me, and I think for most involved in this kind of politics, there was always a soft spot for the birthplace of the first successful Marxist revolution, always a defensiveness about it vis-a-vis the predatory and nefarious designs of the US-led imperialist West, always a kind of puzzlement as to how things had gone so wrong with it, and always a certain hope that eventually it would moderate into what had been so ironically called, back in the tragic Prague Spring of 1968, "socialism with a human face".

Time passed, reality bit, though slowly, and the argumentative enthusiasms of youth congealed into a solid structure of belief. Solid at least on the outside, though still a bit fluid underneath where, all through the late 70's and 80's, deeper concerns about the seemingly increasing mismatch between Marxist theory and capitalist reality continued to generate some heat. This wasn't at all helped by the fetid miasma of post-modernism that spread like a dense fog over virtually all the humanities during that period, depositing layers of obscurantist jargon that sometimes went under the comically pretentious label of "Theory". In fact, this whole academic fad was deeply anti-theoretical, requiring its devotees to acquire a style of verbal posturing that was about as immune to thought, critique or analysis as computer-generated gibberish. Nevertheless, alongside family, career, and the other accoutrements of bourgeois, middle-class life that I'd acquired by this time, my leftist belief-system carried on, surviving, and perhaps feeding off of, the Reagan-Bush years in America, the Mulroney years here in Canada, the Thatcher years in Britain.

And then along came Gorbachev. Here, finally, was a relatively young, intelligent, well-read, open, and healthy man as the head of the state that was the origin of "actually existing socialism" -- and he was full of new ideas, including, famously, "perestroika" or "restructuring", and "glasnost" or "openness". Here, then, at last, was the great historical opportunity to put right whatever had gone wrong in the Soviet Union under Stalin and after, and to show the world what real socialism -- that "socialism with a human face" that had bloomed so briefly and then been crushed some 30 years earlier -- could do. It's important to understand, at this juncture, that while I'd always been critical of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, as I've said, I also was appreciative of what I'd felt was its real socialist accomplishments, in terms of its "free" education and health care, its moderate and more or less equal costs of living, its full employment, its technological and industrial triumphs, etc. I'd thought that the great majority of the Soviet people appreciated those too, despite the bureaucracy and despite, of course, not being given the chance to show such appreciation in a free vote -- and in this I think I was similar to the majority of fellow leftists of the time (though they may not want to say so now). So Gorbachev's moves toward democracy seemed to be just the icing on the cake. Yes, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and much of the rest of the east European puppets as well as chunks of the USSR itself had broken away from Moscow, but this was all really to the good -- all aspects of perestroika. But in 1991 a vote was looming in Russia for the first time since the Bolsheviks came to power -- on one side was Gorbachev-supported figure who carried the mantle of Gorbachev's openness and promise though remaining a communist, and on the other was a buffoon with alcohol problems, who was the anti-communist candidate. I think, before the election, I considered it a bit unfortunate that the pro-free market Yeltsin was such a poor figure himself, since it wouldn't be a fair test of the systems they each stood for. But, of course, when it was over, the buffoon had gained  57% of the vote in a large voter turnout; the candidate of Gorbachev, perestroika, glasnost, but still communism, got 16%.

This, finally, gave me pause for thought, a pause that lasted some two or three years.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Making it better by making it worse

Instapundit links to a post that refers to something called the "Washington Monument strategy" -- quoting from the original post by Veronique de Rugy:
This refers to the bureaucratic practice of threatening to close down the most popular and vital programs in response to prospective budget cuts; it gets its name from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which always threatens it will have to close the Washington Monument if its budget is cut.
Which is actually kind of funny, and doesn't say much about making anything better except in the sense that keeping bureaucratic budgets intact is axiomatically better for bureaucracies. But it brings to mind a theme from my radical lefty days when arguments used to rage over whether one should work to change "the System" from within, or work to subvert it from without. For the latter side, the worry was that "working within" ran the risk of actually improving things, but -- because we're still in the System -- such "improvement" would, axiomatically, be illusory for real Revolutionaries (which, from time to time, people liked to imagine themselves to be). The logic, in any case, was that things had to get worse before the otherwise complacent (not to say bovine) masses could be sufficiently roused to support -- or at least not get in the way of -- real change, i.e., revolution. (See also this Alinsky quote.)  Given that logic, it was a very short step to wonder why one needed to wait for the collapse -- why not actively hurry it along, especially since it's inevitable anyway?

Well, that was then, this is now. Lately, it's true, something called the "Cloward-Piven" strategy has been talked about -- this refers to a paper written by a couple of academics back in the 60's (of course) which suggested trying to overload the welfare bureaucracy of the time in order to cause its collapse, which in turn would force an improvement in the lot of the poor (?!). This seems at once both so fiendish and so loony that it's been taken up by the right as the strategy behind a vast left-wing conspiracy, so to speak. Which may be no more plausible than Hilary's vast right wing version was a while back, but conspiracy theories, after all, are not only fun, they're strangely soothing to the partisan soul.

Nevertheless, it's curious to see that old radical lefty -- or maybe just radical -- logic reappearing, however resuscitated, because, once you grant the premise, the logic does have a certain force to it, no? If the System -- whatever that may be -- is itself the problem then working to "improve" it will only sustain it, which is futile at best, pernicious at worst. And if the System must and will go pop eventually, why be passive about it -- why not actively worsen it rather than pointlessly trying to make it better?

As is often the case, though, the logic evaporates once you examine the premises. One is that evil resides in the abstract "System", not in the concrete effects of the System, so that no amount of amelioration of effects could ever fix the underlying problem, thereby turning actual social/political issues into idealized abstractions that only another Ideal -- Revolution -- could address. The other, more significant one, was that only we self-styled radicals and wannabe Revolutionaries actually know what is good for people, who otherwise are always being lulled by piecemeal reforms -- the post-Enlightenment arrogance of Reason (see the Theme) carried to an almost psychopathic degree.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Anti-semitism: something old is new again

Everybody but anonymous bigots, it seems, has by now backed away from Helen Thomas' "Jews out of Palestine" remarks, including Thomas herself, though too little too late. But I'm one who would have been willing to cut an 89 year-old woman some slack on this (if only we could get back even some of the ridiculous amount of slack she'd been given for years previously). Because I think she just inadvertently blurted out something that major portions of the contemporary left in particular really do believe, however unthinkingly. That is, what underlies not simple criticism of Israeli policies, but the increasingly over-the-top, one-sided, and hysterical attacks on Israel -- almost all of which emanates from the left -- is just plain, old-fashioned anti-semitism. A good bit of that hysteria, it's clear, stems just from a steadily rising frustration that Israel persists in existing at all. I know, of course, that there are also not a few gentle souls -- Lennon-style "dreamers" -- who would just like to see everyone getting along, as, for that matter, would we all. But even such bien pensant naifs will tend, reflexively, to attribute any failure to get along to Israel, and to "understand" any viciousness on the part of the Palestinians. It's become impossible to avoid the conclusion that the only way to understand and explain so blatant a bias is to see that beneath the cover of unremitting hostility directed at the world's only Jewish homeland lurks an age-old anti-Jew bigotry. It's the scapegoat all over again, this time in the more convenient form of a nation-state.

Which, ironically, points out the value of Helen Thomas' brief assertions. Just the mention of Poland and Germany, I think, was enough to make anyone with a shred of decency pause in their routine denunciations of Israel's acts of self-defense -- e.g., the blockade against arms-smuggling. In Europe, sadly, the discrimination seems little abated, but on this continent it does appear that her toxic comments have administered a kind of shock to the political environment surrounding Israel, and at least for a time, hopefully, the rhetoric will be dialed back a little.

The point is that the left, for complex historical and cultural reasons, has become soiled itself by contamination with a long-standing evil temptation. But it needn't have, doesn't have to remain so, and can and should take the opportunity of Thomas' "Kinsley gaffe" to clean itself up on this.