Monday, March 12, 2007

A Ship Lost At Sea

One of the great pretensions of the liberal left was on display in Martin Peretz's editorial homage to the history of The New Republic, which, as of this week, is no longer his own: Namely, he indulges in the sort of painstaking soul-searching about past failures (not his own, but his predecessors') that make liberals seem like whiny, futsy, self-obsessed wonks incapable of imagining anything new because they can't get over their past mistakes.

I have before me a collection of TNR pieces, The Faces of Five Decades, with an introduction for each of those decades by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who died within the past fortnight. In his notably evocative prose style, AMS sketches tnr's philosophical commitments and its (certainly in retrospect) silly dalliances. Among these were collectivism, isolationism, and, for a few very long moments, an idiot infatuation with, yes, Stalinism.

Ack! Stalinism? Seriously? Stalinism? This coming from a man who oversaw the encouragement to war in Iraq. An interesting dodge there. I may have been wrong, but at least I wasn't a Stalinist...

In fact, Peretz's editorial almost seems like a warning to the new management at TNR. Following the above, he goes on:

Why do I dwell on this tawdry part of the honorable and actually fastidious life of The New Republic? Because it highlights, perhaps even to the point of exaggeration, the precariousness of the liberal idea and of liberal institutions and liberal men and women when faced with regimes, movements, and systems of belief (however cruel or crude) that mobilize with words and arms against the United States and its lessons. Forgive me: The United States has something to learn from a few other countries. But many countries have much to learn from us.

That is, Peretz--a man guilty of no few mistakes himself--is warning those who follow not to stray too far; the history he demonstrates shows the failings of radicalism and the potential for being led astray. In the last three decades, he led TNR steadily rightwards.

"By the time the change took place," he writes of his acquisition of the magazine,

the Democratic Party and American liberals had slipped into a deep and disturbing trauma, of which George McGovern's campaign was itself less a cause than a reflection--a pathetic reflection, to be sure. That the demos should have chosen someone as demonized as Richard Nixon in the midst of a hated war and after Watergate had begun unraveling told us something stark. And it was not just the colossal margin of his victory that was doing the telling. There was a serious breach in the populace. One evident truth was that the American people were offended by haughty elitists, self-styled revolutionaries, and tribunes of the pretty soul.

So what was Peretz's own legacy at the helm of a defining journal of liberal American politics? The answer, unsurprisingly, is "neoliberalism."

"Neoliberalism was the doctrine on domestic affairs that Michael Kinsley shaped when he came to edit the magazine shortly after I took over," writes Peretz. And indeed, his warning comes at a high moment of tension over not just TNR's future, but the future of neoliberalism itself. On Sunday, David Brooks dedicated his New York Times column to "The Vanishing Neoliberal," writing: "For the past few years, The New Republic has tried to keep the neoliberal flame alive, under editors like Peter Beinart. But there is no longer a readership for that. The longtime owner, Marty Peretz, has sold his remaining interests and, starting this month, the magazine will go biweekly."

Why? According to Brooks, the answer is simple and predicatable: Bloggers. "[Kevin] Drum and his cohort [i.e., bloggers who hate neoliberalism] donĂ­t want a neoliberal movement that moderates and reforms. They want a Democratic Party that fights," writes Brooks. "Their tone is much more confrontational. They want to read articles that affirm their anger. They are also further to the left, driven there by Iraq on foreign policy matters and by wage stagnation on economic matters."

I suppose I might count myself amongst that bunch; after all, I did write a post a couple months back entitles "Neoliberals Take a Bow at The New Republic." It would certainly be edifying to imagine I--as a nameless part of a critical mass--somehow contributed to the downfall of the pitiably misguided neoliberal movement. But that's all B.S., spun by one of D.C.'s biggest bullshitters. By that logic, TNR first non-Peretz cover should have had a reflecty page with the words: "The Future of American Liberalism" atop it. Thus the egos of bloggers--yesterday's armchair cranks sending out barbed letters-to-the-editor--are appropriately stroked.

Unfortunately, as above, that's all bullshit. True, bloggers can get a good crowd going and screaming for blood. But if bloggers have had anything to do with changing TNR, it's less ideological than economic. The web is killing print media, and that's sad: I am yet to be convinced that blogs actually add anything important to discourse. In fact, let me rephrase that: blogs don't add to discourse. They replace it. They assure their readers that they're our choir leaders and we can be safely preached to; worry not, you need not be exposed to dangerous ideas. In fact, you need not be exposed to ideas at all. We're all realyl here to kvetch about the daily outrages we get from Daily Kos or whatever other piece of crap we read.

No, I can't say I think the blogosphere adds anything to American discourse, save providing easy and non-critical corners for politicians to hide in, where their most ardent supporters can watch their man's (or woman's) credentials get burnished while avoiding all those unpleasant revelations, all the nasty, devilish details.

I certainly don't claim to have added anything to the greater discourse myself. In fact, blogging has been terrible for me. I waste my time writing short pieces few will read, pieces scarce on detail and research and the sort of meat which makes for a truly good argument, a breed strikingly dissimilar from the normal web-based raving you get.

No, if TNR is failing (and as a subscriber, I certainly hope it doesn't fail completely), it's failing for two reasons: the economics of the web-based world, and the vacuity of the ideas Peretz has championed.

Neoliberalism was a dismal moment, even given that it's a concept about as easy to nail down as neoconservatism. The problem, fundamentally, was that neoliberalism was not nearly so great a break from the self-absorbed left of the past as it imagined. Or perhaps it's fair to say that all politics is self-absorbed, and Peretz's scathing indictment of 1970s liberalism as a liberlism of "haughty elitists, self-styled revolutionaries, and tribunes of the pretty soul" is merely naming one variety of a universal constant. Neoliberalism, no less than what came before and what's followed, was an ideological framework, there really being no place for rational decision-making, independent of doctrinal beliefs, in American politics. And neoliberalism's great failure lay in precisely how it helped redirect the particular brand of selfishness evident in the Baby Boom generation to reshaping the economy.

Increasing meritocracy in higher education and industry did little but replace one entrenched class with another, save that the new power-class could reasonably claim an almost Darwinian justification to their success. If they were the winners in a meritocracy, the losers had lost fair and square. As education was reshaped to favor their children, the danger of solidifying the social divides grew stronger, ironically under the name of a liberal education system. The belief that a college education was a real option for everyone devalued secondary education as job- and life-skills training in favor of college prep. Needless to say, America quickly embraced an ever-changing series of premonitions of the future that supported this decision. These days, for instance, there's lots of talk about the "creative" class--well educated, creative people, capable of learning new skills easily and fluidly navigating an ever-changing economy.

Fair enough, and that does describe me pretty well it turns out, but that's not all of America. But the reality is that our so-called "meritocracy" has created a huge underclass of people not served well by college prep high school curricula; to get even basic job skills, they now have to pay for further education through professional schools and community colleges. In the past, they could have entered an apprenticeship program through a union to learn job skills. But just as neoliberals embraced the churn of a liberalized economy, they favored weakening the power of unions, which were seen across the economic libertarian political spectrum as needlessly unwieldly and painfully outdated, not to mention likely corrupt.

Moreover, under Clinton, neoliberals got into bed with neoconservatives on the economic front. Clinton's reliance on Alan Greenspan was widely praised by neoliberals even into the Bush Presidency. Greenspan was granted an uncritical acceptance by the mainstream political spectrum that leant itself to his aura as a seeming wizard of the "New Economy," which achieved high rates of growth with no attendant inflation. The reality of that, though, was that Greenspan was an ace at balancing growth and unemployment rates (with the help of H1-b visa-happy congressmen). In other words, Greenspan always put the dampers on just enough to keep unemployment high enough to prevent too much wage increase from occuring. Abetting this tendency while serving industry's own self-interest was a greater reliance on hefty stock packages which increased investment in companies by transferring wage increases into inventment. In other words, Greenspan fought desperately to keep people from getting a raise, while congress fed the job market with a goodly number of well-educated foreign workers to level off unemployment stats, and corporate America encouraged us to take stock instead of wages, which kept the bubble increasing while wages stayed stagnant.

We're only beginning to realize the error of our ways on these fronts. Good stats on the 1990s show that the economic boom didn't distribute itself well across the populace, and the economy since 2000 has more nakedly exemplified these priciples. Education, like healthcare, is becoming a nightmare as the huge costs and massive debts become patently exclusionary towards the children of the poor and working class. And neoliberalism's vacuous foreign policy boosterism of spreading democracy (which put it more in line with neoconservativism) ultimately imploded in Iraq.

So with all due respect, Mr. Peretz, I have to call B.S. on you and your tepid warning, with all its high-minded rhetoric about a "people's capitalism" and that, "People who live under the heel of dictatorship and are fighting to get out from under are our friends, like the Contras were." The Contras? Seriously? For several years, it's become increasingly clear that the great mistake of many of the Bush administration's thinkers and policy architects is that they remain purely a product of Cold War thought. They never divorced themselves from the belief that states, threatening military equivalency with the United States--represent our greatest threat; and that, as with any imperial state, the best way to deal with aggression was a seemingly endless series of proxy wars, fought in far off places for a variety of ideological and realist-economic purposes. And now it's clear that The New Republic's faux intellectuals are guilty of the very same crime: An inability to move beyond the guilt-tripping, Cold War mentality of who was right, who was wrong, and who was a fellow traveller; the Cold War hawk mentality that sees a moral obligation to make war for a higher cause; and finally, the anti-Communist mentality that places capitalism on such a high pedestal that it's difficult if not impossible to legitimately question its excesses, its inequalities, and its occasional patent failure.

Thank God you've still got Jonathan Chait.

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