Politics leaves me lonely

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Orwell writes about the dramatic swings in opinion among his comrades on the left:

Here were the very people who for twenty years had hooted and jeered at the ‘glory’ of war, at atrocity stories, at patriotism, even at physical courage, coming out with stuff that with the alteration of a few names would have fitted into the Daily Mail of 1918. If there was one thing that the British intelligentsia were committed to, it was the debunking version of war, the theory that war is all corpses and latrines and never leads to any good result. Well, the same people who in 1933 sniggered pityingly if you said that in certain circumstances you would fight for your country, in 1937 were denouncing you as a Trotsky-Fascist if you suggested that the stories in New Masses about freshly wounded men clamouring to get back into the fighting might be exaggerated. And the Left intelligentsia made their swing-over from ‘War is hell’ to ‘War is glorious’ not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage. Later the bulk of them were to make other transitions equally violent.

..As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they result rather from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds. When they enthused over the Spanish war they knew, of course, that people were being killed and that to be killed is unpleasant, but they did feel that for a soldier in the Spanish Republican army the experience of war was somehow not degrading. Somehow the latrines stank less, discipline was less irksome.

In less extreme form, I’ve noticed something like this too, in the USA, during the last 20 years. My various friends in progressive movements can espouse one set of slogans in one year and another set of slogans 10 years later. Of course, most of the times the big swings do not occur within any one particular individual, but rather, they occur in a group, as different types of people are made prominent by changing external circumstances. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s slogans to keep them relevant to the changing political scene, but some of the changes suggest dramatic changes in underlying principles, and so they suggest that the underlying principles (suggested by yesterday’s slogans) were in fact loosely held or perhaps unthinkingly held.

I suppose at the moment I’m feeling confused over an accusation I just read, that Alan Greenspan, when he was head of the Fed, allowed the housing bubble to develop in the USA by holding interest rates too low for too long. Some people of nominally progressive sympathies repeat this without thinking much about it. But when in history has a Left movement complained that interest rates were too low? An interest rate is something that a borrower pays to a capitalist. A central bank raises interest rates to choke off inflation. A burst of inflation can erase the real burden of people’s debts (not the nominal value, but the real value). But some of these same people ask the question “Why did the government bail out the banks, but not the people?” I agree that the bailouts were unfair. I would like to see more effort made to help the average citizen, and less effort made to help the largest corporations. But there is some contradiction in criticizing low interest rates, but then also wanting the government to do more to help the average citizen. Though the effect might be poorly directed, low interest rates are one way to bail out many citizens.

But I don’t mean to dwell on a particular issue. And, please note, I’m not defending Alan Greenspan, who can be criticized for numerous other reasons.

I’m sympathetic to all of the New Left concerns that came to prominence during the 1960s, and I’m pleased to live in a time when people feel empowered to define themselves on their own terms. And yet, the lack of a central progressive narrative for our times leaves me feeling lonely. I have to be wary about those who agree with me, since so many have agreed with me in the past, yet a year or two later they had adopted some different stance. It feels… isolating? Maybe that is too strong a word. It feels confusing, perhaps, to have so-called allies who say unthinking things. I could list more examples. Perhaps the strongest case I can recall is dealing with a man who was very strong on working class issues, but really awful on women’s issues. The old traditional Left had a bad misogynistic streak. Men in progressive movements today are a mixed case, sometimes good, sometimes bad. I find it strange to talk to someone and share the excitement of seeing the world in the same way, on so many issues, only to find some issue where I would expect agreement, and instead I’m confronted with a chasm of aggression.

I am surprised by what I’ve been thinking this last year or two. For the sake of seeing some consistent movement in progressive politics, I’ve come round to the opinion that militancy on the Left is perhaps a useful thing. Not a good thing, but at least useful. These thoughts seem almost old fashioned. Militancy and discipline on the Left are concepts from the 1930s, they seem out of place in 2010. And yet, I can imagine them allowing for more progress than what has been normal for the last 50 years. I’ve recently become a believer that a trained and militant cadre would do a lot to help advance progressive causes in the USA. All the flaws and failures of this approach are well known to me – the in-fighting, the obscene factionalism, the constant lying and back-stabbing. I’ve seen a little of that with my own eyes, and I’ve read a lot about that stuff in history books. All the same, what are the alternatives? I’ve seen progressive movements try to take a relaxed and casual approach to politics all my life, and those movements have not been enough to defeat the overall conservatism of the era.

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