Crossposted at DailyKos.com and at VOTS

"Obamney" Coin

Why don’t we have meaningful choices anymore?

In my last diary over at DailyKos.com I received this curious comment:

I usually think of left and right (0+ / 0-)

as relative terms that describe a political position within a spectrum based on the context of the time or place. In that case, to say there is no left in the United States doesn’t make much sense. But it appears that you use the terms to describe two categories that are defined by unchanging ideological criteria. If that’s the case, I suspect both the left and the right will fade out over time.

To be sure, AaronInSanDiego is nearly right about everything, or right about nearly everything. I will explain below. Nonetheless, I still find it useful to think of politics in this era as defined by two right wings, the corporate right and the antipublic right. BACKGROUND: I use as a starting point for my discussion of the Right this diary, which argues that there are two dominant right wings in American politics, as follows:

…(there are) two different types of conservatives:

1) Antipublic conservatives — conservatives who are interested in destroying the public sphere and the commons for the sake of some idea of radical, disconnected individualism that imagines everyone as individuals defending property with guns, or as beholden ideologically to the church of their choice (see e.g. Rick Santorum)…

2) Corporate conservatives — conservatives who are mainly interested in “saving capitalism” (Obama’s primary mandate) and who do so by maintaining corporate hegemony but who are also interested in buying off the mass public to the extent necessary to preserve the social order. This version of conservatism might be called Rubinism (as David Mizner called it)…

At any rate, here is my explanation of the theory of the two right wings, below.

What Happened To The Left

I suppose the quintessential history of the terms “Right” and “Left” (as they apply to politics) is Marcel Gauchet’s “Right and Left,” from the anthology of French history Realms of Memory. Gauchet’s essay is wordy, and goes through the divisions of French politics from the French Revolution through the beginning of the 20th century. Still, its author occasionally gets to the matter of what the terms “Right” and “Left” mean. Gauchet would without doubt agree with AaroninSanDiego that these terms acquire meaning “based on the context of the time or place,” yet there are continuities of meaning that stick to Gauchet’s version of French history, and indeed to our version of American history. The Right wishes to fortify the political status quo, typically in the name of nationalism; the Left opposes the status quo, and is utopian and oppositional. Gauchet’s speculation about the neoliberal era (1973-present) is also apropos of our situation here in the US:

In the absence of extremes well enough defined to influence the structure of politics in general, France may well move toward a two-party system, with two major political forces clashing in the center without pronounced ideological differences (286).

Perhaps what Gauchet says in the quote directly above is true of French politics. Here in the US, however, neither of our parties is “center” — they both wish to reinforce a status quo which has chosen to be symbolically “hip” in the sense in which a Robbie Conal poster is hip, or a proudly-displayed peace sign is hip in an era in which Dick Cheney’s war on the world has become the new normal, or a left-wing ’60s song sounds hip when you hear it in your local supermarket’s loudspeaker system. (Well, maybe the Republicans are unhip, in the Huey Lewis way in which “it’s hip to be square.”) At the same time our political system, regardless of its party affiliations, reinforces the power of the bankers, the corporations, and the most “cool” of entrepreneurs.

Part of the story of how American politics became universally conservative is told by Anthony Giddens — at some point the Left became “defensive.” The other part of this story is told by Chris Hedges — the people who were entrusted with this “defense” gave up, leaving us with universal conservatism.

Now, we might say, as AaronInSanDiego suggests, that the categories of “Left” and “Right” could fade out over time in light of the political reality of the present — yet there is nonetheless a lingering desire (no doubt amidst the omnipresent Left symbolism and the discussions, small yet important, of the possibility of a Left) that we should have a real Left in American politics in the terms which Gauchet recognized as belonging to the various Lefts of the French past. There is a wish, perhaps shared by a few, perhaps by many, that we find the exit door away from the current political reality.

Environmentalism offers a potent example of this desire for an authentic Left, and of the universally conservative substrate in which it dwells. Its real-life theater of action has been reduced to recycling, composting, community gardens (where real estate is cheap enough) and the occasional solar-power business — and maybe a few people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet nonetheless the same American civilization puts out pieces of writing like this one. Bill McKibben:

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.

This is indeed a utopian vision befitting a Left of today — keep the grease in the ground, and pursue a post-fossil-fuel world. It’s also a necessity.

Of course, nobody with any shred power is seriously pursuing this vision — even 350.org leaves such a vision as an implied matter, pursuing smaller goals such as a pipeline shutdown and a divestment campaign. And the divestment campaign seeks largely to preserve the realm of profit while at the same time claiming high moral ground for a few institutions here and there. Moral high ground won’t save the planet.

The point I’m trying to make here is that America has not given its Left anything important to do, which is why said Left has become a merely symbolic Left. As for utopia, the reigning notion of utopia as developed in previous eras has gone as far as it can go, called itself “Disneyland” or “the American Dream” or “regulated capitalism” or something like that (contingent, of course, upon one’s ability to pay the entrance fees), and has installed itself as the reigning conservatism of our time.

Sure, people still dream of other utopias; Occupy was the most recent attempt at mass-scale utopian design in this regard. It doesn’t seem to matter at this time. The drying-up of utopia with the ascendancy of what economist Philip Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective” was well-noticed globally. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas, a German, speaking to an audience of Spaniards:

Today it seems as though utopian energies have been used up, as if they have retreated from historical thought. The horizon of the future has contracted and has changed both the Zeitgeist and politics in important ways. The future is negatively cathected: we see outlined on the threshold of the twenty-first century the horrifying panorama of a worldwide threat to universal life interests… (From Habermas’s collection The New Conservatism, page 50)

And these words were uttered in 1984, when the word “neoconservatism” was first being used. Political reality has only gotten more so. Only conservatives, I would add, don’t worry about practicing a politics from within a reality in which the future is negatively cathected and utopian energies have been used up. So we are all conservatives in that sense. In the next segment, I shall examine our conservative political class.

Our Conservative Political Class

Half of Congress consists of millionaires. Practically all of Congress voted for one form or another of austerity budget in the 2011 struggle over the debt ceiling. Defense budgets sail through Congress without complaint. Both political parties promote “fiscal prudence.”

Essential to an analysis of the conservatism of our political class is the predominance of money in political process, as reinforced by the Citizens United decision. Ralph Nader complains:

Democrats like Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Dem. Ohio) tell me that when the House Democrats get together in an election year, they go into the meetings talking about money and walk out talking about money, burdened with the quotas assigned by their so-called leadership.

Money is our universal fetish. When the pundits talked of “saving capitalism” back in 2010, the essence of their discussion was that they were talking of saving the power of money against the potential collapse of the system. Money is the ultimate reason for what I have been calling “capitalist discipline” since I started posting here — your resume or CV is a history of how you spent your life pursuing money, acquiring skills with noticeable exchange value in the labor marketplace. And money is what the politicians pursue out of the will to power while making fabulous claims of necessity.

So what we have with our current political class is a conservatism of money, befitting an era in which the bottom 93% have lost ground and the top 7% still profit. The banks got bailed out, and we get sold out. It’s also, then, a conservatism of social class divisions — keeping the social structure of the (capitalist) world-system in the hands of an owning class in monomaniacal pursuit of profit.

One might also argue for a different depiction of affairs in American politics — that the Tea Party is the real conservative force amidst an otherwise “centrist” political class — but the overall direction of the “centrists” is actually conservative regardless of the Tea Party’s oneupmanship in that regard. There is nothing “liberal” pulling the “centrists” in some imagined other direction than that in which the Tea Partiers form a sort of more-rightist-than-thou vanguard. There is no other direction in establishment American politics — The Tea Party merely advocates in a spirit of excessive and unnecessary force what the political class as a whole wants anyway, because in fact they themselves (like the mainstream) represent a fraction of capital, as the blog Lenin’s Tomb identifies them.

Usually conservatism is said to conserve something, thus the word “conservatism.” It isn’t the planet the conservatives are trying to conserve — the planet, and its working class, are to be plundered for profit and polluted with carbon dioxide under the regimes of conservatives of both stripes. The last thing is something I’ll get to later. Rather, what is to be conserved is privilege — this is why politicians today are so comfortable discussing the “middle class,” a class with some degree of privilege, and so uncomfortable discussing poverty, which signifies a lack of privilege.

Even the public is getting in on the boom in conservatism. Last year Glenn Greenwald noted, through the WaPo:

The survey shows that 70 percent of respondents approve of Obama’s decision to keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay. . . . The poll shows that 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats — and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats — support keeping Guantanamo Bay open, even though it emerged as a symbol of the post-Sept. 11 national security policies of George W. Bush, which many liberals bitterly opposed.

Now, as I suggested above, the main direction of the conservatism of politics in this era is the direction of money, but money seems to bring a conservatism with it that spreads out into all of the other areas (“defense,” for instance, or rather the privileges of the US military-industrial complex atop an empire in decline) which we would regard as “conservative.”

Even the ACA is a “conservative” reform as such. Originally drafted by the Heritage Foundation, implemented in its core aspects by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, the ACA is largely intended to preserve the health insurance companies against the doom predicted for them in John Geyman’s (2009) Do Not Resuscitate, which predicted that the health insurance companies would price themselves out of business.

Being Dragged, Kicking and Screaming, Into The Future

Typically, when political classes unite in their conservatism, this is indicative of a fear of the future. Conservatism, after all, is about protecting the status quo, and the future of the status quo is always uncertain. As Octavia Butler’s protagonist says in her science-fiction novel Parable of the Sower: “God is change.”

The future, in turn, tends to impose itself in startling fashion upon conservatives. If you wish to understand our future, then, think science fiction, not planning for sustainability. The ultimate arbiter of our future, the future of a capitalist system and a global economic empire approaching exhaustion, will be global warming. Needless to say, this is not what the conservatives in power are thinking when they imagine a future in which the status quo prevails.

As climate changes spread diseases throughout the world, frying the south while destroying agricultural patterns in the north and inundating coastal areas, lots of people will die. Our society might end up looking a lot like the society depicted by Octavia Butler in Parable of the Sower. At any rate, I can’t imagine how these developments, in and of themselves, will improve the call to sanity which sane activists should be issuing now. So the prevailing insanity will get worse.

A lot of emphasis is placed in the blogosphere on acceptance of the theory of global warming, and of the perniciousness of deniers. But you’d think that, if we were really concerned, there would be more of a recognition of the various shades of belief about global warming, and about the need to keep the grease in the ground if the problem is to be addressed.

A poll of global warming attitudes taken this year suggests that 16% of the American public is “alarmed” about global warming. That’s far from being a majority, yet it still constitutes a significant minority. You’d think that, in a country which had a Left, that 16% would hold an immediate get-together, beginning with an online get-together and then proceeding somewhere outside of the reach of PRISM, to discuss strategy, then on to implement the agreed-upon radical plan for transforming society before global warming burns its planet Earth to a crisp. I can then dream of 16% of the American public militating toward an immediate global treaty to phase out fossil fuel production. We are, after all, “alarmed.” I’d think we’d have something like the community meetings they had in Istanbul after the police stormed Gezi Park.

Maybe the right-thinking 16% would stop having children — it would save a lot of money in an era of declining global growth and it would spare us all the unfortunate Big Talk that we’ll all have to have in the medium-term future: “Mommy/ Daddy, why was I born?” “We felt that someone needed to be around to see the global warming holocaust.” Maybe the richest among us would emigrate to Canada at once, and buy up Alberta tar-sands land for preservation.

Maybe we’d just call for an immediate halt to the capitalist system — after all, the main reason our world-society consumes 89+ million barrels/day in crude oil and a nearly equal carbon-equivalent in coal is because the capitalist system wastes an enormous amount of energy in tasks not related to actual production. Or we might just militate toward a guarantee of basic survival under capitalism — who can focus on global warming when they’re struggling to pay for rent and food?

We might militate to create an immediate localization of food production in America. After all, everyone needs food, and part of the problem is that too much of Americas food comes from California, Washington, or Florida and it has to be transported, which costs energy. I’m sure a lot more than 16% of the American public would approve of a nationwide network of community gardens open to one and all.

Or maybe we’d all just move to Alaska, before the really warm weather hits. But we don’t do any of these things! I’d think that, if 16% of the public were genuinely “alarmed” about global warming, you’d see a 16% out there whose lifestyles started to diverge radically from that of the rest of the multitude. They would, in short, form a real, utopian Left, a Left with the genuine Romanticism that you see of the Left in Gauchet’s essay as discussed above. But they don’t. At any rate, it seems as if the main hindrance to our having a real Left, and doing something about our lack of a future (never mind the absence of utopia), is not merely that people are in denial about how bad it’s gotten, but rather that in America even the Left is conservative.

Image by Poster Boy released under a Creative Commons license.