Monday, July 2, 2012

Quotes of the Day - July 2, 2012

I've graduated from high school. The summer has started. This can only mean one thing: more time to read. My first book of the summer is The Vital Center, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. I'm a bit more than halfway through, and I'm enjoying it. Schlesinger has an immense command of history, and incorporates useful tidbits of his knowledge into his analysis of the political problems of the 1950s. The book, though, is very much a product of its time. Many of the anxieties - related to mass media, the rise of consumerism, the first taste of a post-industrial age, etc. - that surfaced in the 1950s (the book was first published in 1949) have either been addressed or have disappeared. Still, more than fifty years after its publication, The Vital Center has a number of valuable insights for the political observer today.

The first chapter, entitled "Politics in an Age of Anxiety," begins with a description of man's current situation. 
Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach them, like shadows in the falling dusk. Most of the world has reconciled itself to this half-light, to the reign of insecurity. Even those peoples who hastily traded their insecurities for a mirage of security are finding themselves no better than the rest. Only the United States still has buffers between itself and the anxieties of our age: buffers of time, of distance, of natural wealth, of national ingenuity, of a stubborn tradition of hope.
Fifty years later, globalization has erased the buffers. The United States entered the age of anxiety years ago. Times has caught up with the country. Its industrial production has waned. Its distance from the rest of the world has been minimized by technology. Even the United States's vast natural wealth has begun to seem limited. Ingenuity is left to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who are idolized and hailed as job-creators despite their lack of civic contribution. Hope faded after 9/11 and the War on Terror. It grew fainter still after the financial crisis.

Despite these changes, Schlesinger's analysis of modern life can be adapted for post-industrial life.
The velocity of life has entered into a new phase. With it has come the imperative need for a social structure to contain that velocity - a social structure within which the individual can still achieve some measure of self-fulfillment.
Now, with our increasingly atomized existences despite our instantaneous interconnectivity, we express a similar need. What do we do with our time? How do we related to technology and the internet? Isolated and stuck behind screens, what can we do create some kind of meaning? (Of course, the question of whether being stuck behind screens actually isolates us is still up for debate:

The industrial corporation - the hallmark of Fordist production - is now an artifact.
It gave the new impersonality an institutional embodiment; a corporation as the saying went, had neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. "Corporations will do what individuals would not dare to do," the richest man in Boston wrote with candor a century ago.
But now, even though corporations are people, impersonality remains.
The impersonality of the new economic system meant, in brief, that no one had to feel a direct responsibility for the obvious and terrible costs in human suffering.
The economic system isn't new anymore. And in 2008, we may have had a taste of its demise. However, before systemic change occurs, things can only get worse.
As organization became more elaborate and comprehensive, it became increasingly the instrumentality through which moral man could indulge his natural weakness for immoral deeds. 
Schlesinger writes at the beginning of the time during which the American capitalist began to adopt the humanitarian guise. Describes the birth of neoliberalism:
The modern American capitalist as a result has come to share many values with the American liberal: beliefs in personal integrity, political freedom and equality of opportunity. This process is reflected in the general support for the Marshall Plan, in the establishment of liberal business organizations like the Committee on Economic Development, in the proposals of some of the more forward looking Republican politicians.
The modern capitalist shares the values of the American liberal because conventional liberal values have turned out to be effective weapons in the arsenal of capitalist exploitation. Today, arguments for market liberalization and decreased regulation are often colored by liberal language and talk of freedom. Cuts to social services are reframed by capitalists as issues of liberty, not in the interests of those who stand to suffer from the cuts but of those who stand to profit from the suffering of others.

Schlesinger was a Democrat, but much of his book is devoted to challenging the Left. His insight and criticism of progressives has hints of radicalism.
Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the most subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where he can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
This critique isn't new, but it did surface again recently when it appeared SYRIZA in Greece was could win a general election. For many Leftists, and even liberals and progressives, there is no plan for what happens once the election is won or the party is in power. At protests there is always a slew of statements announcing opposition to this policy and or that idea. Rarely is there a constructive platform put forward for what a progressive future might look like.

But that maybe progressives don't actually want the future for which they claim to fight. Schlesinger argues that progressives treat politics as just an intellectual game.
Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words.
Perhaps, this is beginning to change. Intellectuals, like Corey Robin and even the editors of N+1, have challenged the Left to surrender their privilege and take radical action:
It remains to be seen if Leftist heed the call to action.

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