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Folly on the Left

I’ve been there. I’m still there now, in some ways, but only by default. My civic-republican compass sometimes points rightward, but at bottom I believe that neither “left” nor “right” as we know them in America is a vessel of hope. See “Looking for America,” the introduction to this site.

Many blunders by Marxist ideologues have left us with a taboo against criticizing capitalism, whose twilight they announced rather too often. But aren’t we now in a relationship to capitalism analogous to that of American colonials to the British monarchy and mercantilism of the 1760s?

Most colonists then still professed affection for and reliance on the crown and empire, even as they began to sense that British interests couldn’t be reconciled with their own. Eventually they decided to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to rearrange matters.

So now, too, perhaps, something basic has to change in how we configure and charter the vast profit-making combines that are degrading the rhythms and security of our daily lives and incapacitating us as cultural actors and free citizens. Just as the divine right of monarchs had to be discredited as a fanciful cover for too much exploitation, so will our current version of divine right: The Invisible Hand.

Like most Americans of the early 1760s, we would rather not face this daunting challenge. So we tolerate a growing burden of distractions and distempers, eroticizing our pains or projecting them violently and expending tremendous energy on false solutions.

Left and right alike need to rediscover the American civic-republican tradition and to sacrifice ideological as well as physical comfort to revive it. In that tradition, a healthy society walks on two feet — a left foot of social provision that acknowledges that it does take a village to raise a child and that without it, the individual autonomy and virtues which conservatives cherish could never flourish; and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility, grounded in some kind of faith that’s beyond the reach of politics; without this, even the most “progressive” social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

While both left and right have credible claims on certain truths, each side clings to its own claims so tightly that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong. At any historical moment, one side may be insurgent, and its truths may seem the more compelling and liberating while going up against the dominant side’s institutionalized carapaces and cant.  But each side tends to get trapped in its imagined upswings and to disappoint in the end: The left’s almost willful misreadings of our divided human nature make it founder in swift currents of nationalism and religion, pitching between sweeping denials of their importance to abject and hypocritical surrender: Stalin’s “Socialism in one country,” Marxism as a secular eschatology. I get at this a bit more in the first essay here on George Orwell:’

Orwell’s ‘Smelly Little Orthodoxies’ — and Ours. from the volume Orwell Into the Twenty-First Century, developed for a conference at Wellesley College on the centenary of Orwell’s birth.

“Folly on the Left,” This review-essay on Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (Salmagundi, 1983) touched on the tendency of activists, left as well as right, to turn distant lands into giant projection screens for their unexamined fantasies of tribal and ideological solidarity.

Why Isn’t the Left Able to Deliver?, New York Observer, 1988

The Left’s Wrong Turns in the Politics of Race, Tikkun, 1991

“The Social Failures of “Money Liberalism,” Newsday, 1992, a review of Mickey Kaus’ The End of Equality

Forgetting Henry Wallace, the real third-party candidate of 1948, History News Network, 2002