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what should the left propose?

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An interesting (and devastating) review of Roberto Unger’s What Should the Left Do? by Michael Bérubé. (I haven’t read Unger’s book, so I can’t really attest to the accuracy of the review, but I’m willing to take MB at his word.) Here’s one bit where Bérubé highlights a Unger’s reaction to the “Dictatorship of No Alternatives” in which the reaction itself takes the shape, to my mind, of a repetition of exactly the sort of third-way progressivism without pain that is half or more of the problem.

To understand the nature of those proposals, one needs to realize that when Unger speaks of the Dictatorship of No Alternatives and humanity’s desperate need to overthrow it, he is not just talking about the narrow spectrum of politics in the United States, where the center has shifted so far to the right that tepid Clintonian triangulation has become the left wing of the possible; he’s dissenting from the idea that the projects of egalitarian social justice should be funded by the redistribution of wealth. Instead, Unger’s project seeks “to root a bias to greater equality and inclusion in the organized logic of economic growth and technological innovation rather than making it rest on retrospective redistribution through tax and transfer.” (This does not, however, prevent Unger from proposing a confiscatory tax on inheritances—or, as he puts it, “the simple abolition of the right of inheritance”—so that “social inheritance for all would gradually replace family inheritance for the few.”)

How do we root a bias to greater equality and inclusion in the organized logic of economic growth and technological innovation? Basically, by making market dynamics more dynamic than even the most exuberant cybercapitalist has yet imagined, in order “to produce a series of repeated breakthroughs in the constraints on economic growth.” At the same time, we will set about creating a form of “high-energy democratic politics” that “requires a sustained and organized heightening of the level of civil engagement,” including plebiscites and other instruments of direct democracy that will override fusty old constitutional strictures and the friction-generating effects of that pesky Madisonian separation of powers. We will thereby “arouse a fever of productive activity, not by suppressing the market but by broadening opportunities to participate in it,” even as we “impose on the creations of such feverish productive activity a rigorous mechanism of competitive selection.” If this sounds like a paradox, surely it is no less a paradox than the idea of creating a new branch of government devoted to the creation of ceaseless flux, a kind of Megadepartment for the Fomenting of Constant Change, “equipped with both the practical resources and the political legitimacy to undertake a task for which the traditional Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary are ill suited.” That task, Unger explains, “is to intervene in particular social organizations and practices that have become little citadels of despotism, and to reconstruct them.”

If the book opens with a critique of actually existing “flexibility,” the answer proposed seems to be a utopian version of the same, a leftist thread of irrational exuberance that, yep, hitches its wagon to the very creative destruction that is the watchword of the thread of No Alternatives to the No Alternatives. (And, god, while things might be straightening out a bit now, way later than it should have happened, given the polls on Iraq, the Patriot Act, and just about every other issue of public import during the first 3/4ths of the Bush era, do plebiscites really seem like a sure fire fix?)

But beyond the question of value of this particular book, what is at once rather revealing and disheartening about that fact that it fails, the fact that every book and article and thought of this sort seems either to fail utterly to fulfill its contract and propose any proposition at all or to collapse into a heap of insane contradictory repetitions or repetitive contradictions, is the sense of how difficult it is today to develop even a modest suggestion of what it is that we might collectively want or do or even just think about wanting or doing. The Dictatorship of No Alternatives rules inside our restive, if confused minds and works just as profoundly as it does out there in the world of blurring partly lines and incessantly announced impossibilities. We see in Unger’s book – and just about everywhere else – just how difficult it is for the left – whatever left, whether we’re talking about the US democratic party or Brazilian legal theorists or marxist English professors or anyone between or beyond these poles – to say coherently just what it is that the left should or even might propose beyond reactive incrementalism, parrying against the worst possible cases.

(In a sense, what I am writing here is not only about Bérubé’s review, but also a tough day at the office. Heard two papers, both informed by some degree if different types of political engagement via cultural analysis, by two esteemed scholars, one of which shrugged off without real rejoinder the fact that the aesthetic principle he seemed to be advocating streamed historically, quite directly, into an allegiance with Nazism, while the second derided the work of human rights organizations and practical critics like Sontag (sure, sure, of course we see what you mean, of course) without suggesting any possible course of action beyond thinking good thoughts, radical thoughts, knowing better than the engaged and entangled. I was not a happy camper by the end of the day…)

And, to preview where I am headed with all of this in future posts: I am beginning to wonder whether a realignment (not total, but definitely significant) of the aesthetic humanities (did you see that! a little realignment in and of itself right there) might not be able to incrementally work towards a modest utopianism, or utopianly vector a kind of political incrementalism, in such a way that we (both the aesthetic humanists in the academy and, well, hopefully, the wider world) might start to know again what kind of story we’d like to tell ourselves and our children about the world and its direction. I wonder if, given certain adjustments in the way we work and in particular what we work towards might begin to shed light on at least what it is that we want, what we like, what is, in the fullest and newest sense, beautiful, a shift that might with work and luck be a first step on the road toward what we might do.

Stay tuned… More to come…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 6, 2007 at 12:29 am

One Response

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  1. Late to the game, but:
    my main thought is that Bérubé makes Unger sound like a Futurist of the Marinetti variety. This is not praise for a work that claims to run politically left.
    I’m of the opinion that the Left’s fashionable revolutionism is, at this point, the replacement of action with nostalgia; Unger’s proposals seem like another set of (No) Alternatives, with a dash of possible fascism thrown in.

    Dave M

    June 11, 2007 at 5:45 pm


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