TCS Daily

A New Politics

By Frederick Turner - February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

A realignment is taking place in the politics of this country and indeed of the world at large. It is increasingly difficult to define the meanings of left and right, liberal and conservative.

Democratic candidates are running on once-Republican platforms of fiscal restraint, protection of jobs from foreign competition, and the principle of leaving dictators alone; the Republican President proposes expensive prescription drug and space exploration plans, encourages legal guest workers, and sets out to make the world safe for democracy. Progress is surely the property of the "conservatives," while resistance to economic, technological and political innovation comes from the once-progressive liberals. The "culture wars" have ended in a strange standoff, even a detente. The left seems bankrupt of new ideas and cannot be a partner in any really interesting conversation. The recent collapse of the Dean campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is a case in point: his only platform, as the delegates perceived, was to be against things.

A rift is opening at right angles, so to speak, to the old borders of contestation. The rift, I will argue, is not between left and right but between libertarian and communitarian. Or perhaps we could say that in the intellectual absence of the left, an inherent rift in the right is becoming the new locus of debate, and the remnants of the left are having to choose one side or the other.

But this process has been going on for some time. Consider, for instance, the Seattle protests against the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. The protesters focused a wave of anti-global sentiment that included: anti-free traders from the trades unions and the Gephardt wing of the Democratic Party; "right-wing" Buchananite nativist opponents of immigration, open borders, and the exportation of jobs; Earth First Greens who revere Nature and advocate human submission to biology; gay liberationists who oppose any biological limitations on human freedom; third world advocates who resent the corruption of traditional religious morality in ancient authoritarian patriarchal societies by American democratic capitalist culture; feminists who regard America as sexist but who would be compelled to wear the veil or chador in the societies that the World Bank leans on; and so on. Strange bedfellows indeed, if one takes a traditional left/right perspective.

Signs of realignment are everywhere. The Republicans are accused of creating Big Government, the Democratic Party of being anti-progressive and reactionary. Bill Gates and George Soros, the great capitalists, come out against inherited wealth. Polls of inner-city voters support school vouchers to send minority children to private schools. Bill Joy, the leading-edge technologist, warns in Luddite tones, oddly resembling the Unabomber's, against the dangers of human enslavement to machines. Bill Clinton the liberal leaves office with his major achievement being the abolition of welfare as we know it, under a cloud of scandal about his having been bribed by big business. Samuel Francis, the religious conservative, opposes the involvement of religion in politics, and conservative religious groups oppose President Bush's faith-based services plan. Black educationalists advocate racially segregated black schools. Some conservatives advocate the liberalization of Chinese society by the spread of capitalism through free trade, while other conservatives want to use anti-capitalist tariff barriers to pressure the Chinese into allowing religious freedom. Liberals are divided in the same way, between those who see capitalism as the cure for Chinese political tyranny, and those who see the denial of capitalist privileges as a moral weapon in the cause of human rights. Chronicles, the conservative journal, attacks big business; Fidel Castro wants access to U.S. capitalist markets. Ted Turner, the liberal entrepreneur, gives the U.N. a billion dollars; Jane Fonda is born again. Susan Faludi, the feminist, writes a book praising butch blue-collar committed Dads, literally patriarchs who take charge of their kids. Martha Stewart makes a billion-dollar business out of traditional housework. All your base, as the cant phrase goes, are belong to us.

From the Book Shelf

How do we make sense of all this? In an interesting book, the Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel sees the split as no longer between left and right but between libertarian free markets and free minds on one side, and closed markets and closed minds -- both left and right -- on the other. For any grizzled veteran of the 'Sixties, her combined advocacy of legalized drugs, legally unhindered gun ownership, freedom from PC speech codes, legalized abortion, open immigration, sexual freedom and equality, and unfettered capitalism makes one's head spin, but one is forced to recognize the odd coherency of her position.

Dinesh d'Souza, in The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence identifies the new split as between the yea-sayers and the nah-sayers to biocybertechnological riches; he is with the yea-sayers, but he acknowledges the "nah" arguments of social conservatives, and himself draws the line at any intervention in human genetics.

Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, laments the decay of the old authoritative institutions of civil society, ranging from families to neighborhood police to company bowling leagues to churches -- what 'Sixties liberals, who wanted to overthrow them, called the "pig Establishment" -- but he does so with the almost Marxist-sounding intention of opposing the commodification and alienation of commercial society. (Putnam is very persuasive about the decline of social life in America until one realizes that he has left out the enormous expansion of social contact in his very own institution, the university, and in the greatest civil-society institution of all, the corporate campus.)

David Brooks, in his marvelously funny Bobos in Paradise, identifies the new elite as a combination of the two warring sides of the 'Sixties: the bourgeoisie and the bohemians. But he is less explicit about the opposition to this new elite, which has likewise organized itself around a strange détente: between conservative moralists and lefty anticapitalists.

The Realignment Will Proceed

In many ways, these books have all been rendered moot by the events of 9/11. But the core message remains, and the realignment will proceed through the war on terrorism and its hoped-for aftermath of global prosperity and détente. Seven years ago I published in American Arts Quarterly the following meditation on the earlier collapse of the agricultural and manufacturing economies:

". . . the third wave, the information age, is upon us, the golden dawn upon the economic horizon. However, . . . the same thing will happen to the information industries, presently ascendant, as happened to the farms and factories. There is no reason the technologies of data storage, management and retrieval should not perfect and miniaturize and cheapen and streamline themselves almost out of existence like their predecessors. If the historical analogy holds, employment, investment, and cultural commitment in the information industries will rise to about 90% of the given resources; at first huge fortunes will be made; then as the labor demand rises, economic equality will increase; there will follow the predictable collapse of the labor market as the information industries become more and more cost-efficient, smaller and smaller on the world's horizon, less and less labor-intensive, and finally less capital-hungry and less profitable, leaving a few cash cows providing all the world's needs. Eventually their operation will take up 2% of our money and our people. Hordes of information workers will be turned out on the streets, asking the employed if they can spare a dime. Moreover all this will happen much faster than the rise and decline of manufacturing, just as the manufacturing age happened faster than the agricultural age."
(American Arts Quarterly, Winter 1997)

At that time I predicted the emergence of a new economy that would succeed the information economy:

"Finally, we will be left with the irreducibly labor- and capital-intensive human industries of what we might call "charm": education, entertainment, adventure, religion, sport, fashion, history, movies, ritual, personal development, politics, the eternal soap opera of relationships. . . The world's largest industry today is not electronics, not automobiles, not oil, but tourism."

If one makes enough predictions, some of them are bound to be accurate, and I make no special claims for my own personal crystal ball. My gloomy economic prognostication about the information age did indeed come to pass -- much faster than I had thought, alas -- and the emergence of the "charm economy" is well on track. But I for one failed to see the political dimension of these economic and social shifts, how the economic changes would alter the political ground-rules so as to produce a new cascade of consequences. Left and right are increasingly meaningless: a society in which cultural goods are the core of the economy needs a new kind of debate.

Emergent "Parties"

Perhaps now we can define the orientation of the new emergent "parties":

  • Libertarian vs. Communitarian
  • Freedom vs. Virtue
  • Economic inclusiveness vs. Preservation of non-economic values
  • Globalist/Localist vs. Nationalist
  • Evolution vs. Ecology
  • Free market capitalism vs. "Stakeholder" capitalism
  • Open communication vs. Responsible gatekeeping
  • Privacy vs. Accountability
  • Gender-blindness vs. Sexual equality-in-difference

Some of these categories probably require a gloss. The libertarian party in this schema -- not necessarily identical to the actual Libertarian Party -- believes that members of a free population will be disciplined by the consequences of their free acts and the exigencies of the market, so that they will acquire virtue as a by-product of their education by experience. Cultural and moral institutions will arise spontaneously to cope with the demand, without help from the state. The "nanny" state creates a moral peon class that never has the opportunity to develop virtue and the higher fruits of human life. The nature of virtue itself is one of the issues that is to be decided by the free process of the marketplace of ideas, and nobody's traditional value system should be forced on anyone else; victimless crimes, such as drug use, are not really crimes at all. For libertarians, freedom is the prerequisite for virtue.

Communitarians, on the other hand, believe that a free democracy cannot function, however excellent its constitution, without a virtuous population that is capable of judging objectively, voting responsibly, taking into account the needs of the whole community, and serving the public if called upon. Even markets depend, they say, upon accumulated cultural/moral capital. Thus a society (not necessarily the state) should preempt the free market and provide the basic security from want and illness that is the ground of virtue. It should protect the public from its own addictions. And it should encourage an education in values and civics that can counteract both the individualistic selfish tendencies of the free marketplace and the divisiveness of ethnic differences. For communitarians, virtue precedes freedom.

"Virtue" in this sense does not mean any narrow sectarian code of behavior, but rather the willing practice of life according to the "Golden Rule" found alike in Aristotle, Confucius, and in seven of the Ten Commandments: the habits, customs, and inclinations that make possible the public cooperation of any group of human beings. Narrower codes associated with specific religious revelations have historically engendered great stores of cultural and moral capital and have become the harbingers of the broader kind of virtue. Libertarians and communitarians agree that such religious institutions should be protected by the state, but that they cannot be part of the program of a nation such as ours, with its constitutional ban on the state establishment of religion.

Where They Differ

Libertarians and communitarians differ on how to deal with the neglect of higher values. Libertarians would solve the problem by permitting the market to incorporate higher values -- environmental, moral, spiritual, social, cultural -- and set an appropriate price on them so that they can compete with more "materialistic" goods. Eco-tourism and cultural tourism, free-market environmentalism (in which property owners are trusted to act as the best custodians of the land, as it is in their interest to do so), pollution credits that allow businesses to profit from environmental good citizenship, tax exemptions for religious organizations, vigorous public competition among sects and churches for the religious dollar, open and well-funded lobbying of government, vigorous consumer and investor communication and collusion in selecting corporate offerings, and the commercialization of art museums, symphonies and other cultural institutions would all be encouraged by the libertarians.

Communitarians would take a different tack, seeking to separate and insulate higher values from the marketplace. They would favor national parks, strict separation of church and state, campaign finance reform, regulation of both business and the power of consumers (as for instance in the Napster affair), and the professionalization of arts institutions and their preservation from market pressures. This analysis suggests why a proposal like faith-based welfare can act as a wedge issue -- it appeals to libertarians because it wrests power from the government, and to communitarians because it makes money serve virtue; but it also alarms libertarians because if government pays the piper, it is likely to call the tune, and alarms communitarians because money and economic incentives could corrupt the higher values of religious institutions.

Libertarians tend to view with optimism the emergence of political and economic units larger than and smaller than the nation. They do not mind regions and cities developing their own cultural institutions and foreign policy; at the same time they applaud the expansion of worldwide currency and equities markets, free trade areas, and suchlike, as long as they are not the instruments of the state. Communitarians view such developments with alarm, as tending to undermine the historical authority of the nation and its ideals, and the sovereignty by which moral and social virtues can be enforced.

Libertarians see the natural world as in a state of flux regardless of human intervention in it -- indeed human intervention is for them just another example of nature's own patented process of everything interfering with everything else, and thus selecting out the fittest to survive. Communitarians see nature as a homeostatic self-adjusting system, that can be disrupted by human activity and which can incorporate human society only if society submits itself to natural constraints.

Libertarians see the problems of the market economy, and the abuses of fraud, unemployment, exploitation, unfair competition, local poverty, environmental damage, and so on as resulting from imperfect communication within the market itself, whether because of government regulation or technological backwardness. Communitarians make somewhat the same diagnosis -- not all the stakeholders are properly represented in the market -- but a different plan of cure: to regulate the market so as to include ethics committees, oversight boards, etc, in the deliberative process, and to limit the free development of new technologies that might bypass traditional interest groups and social values.

Libertarians would welcome publicly available quantum encryption devices that would allow perfect secure communication among individuals without government surveillance and control. Communitarians see a need for law-enforcement access to and community regulation of information, so as to protect the public from private exploitation and abuse -- and also fresh-air laws that would prevent government from being manipulated by private interests. (There was an interesting debate between two science fiction writers, David Brin and Neal Stephenson, on precisely this issue, Brin arguing for complete electronic unconcealment as an instrument of accountability, Stephenson arguing for the creation of perfectly encrypted communications systems and banks as a refuge from government coercion and big-business monopolies.)

Libertarians tend to let individuals sink or swim in the market regardless of their gender, family status, or sexual preferences, arguing that in the end fairness will emerge as the result of the equilibration of interests and values and the reflection of that equilibration in wages and prices. Communitarians tend to admit the differences in sexual roles, to insist on equal valuation of those roles, and to desire legislation that would counterbalance market valuations of work and lifestyle, and compensate individuals for their acceptance of the social duties associated with their roles.

These divisions are, I believe, far more natural, rational, intelligible, and consistent than the current left and right, which are united only by their hatred of their opponent. My own slight bias in favor of the libertarian party in this analysis is probably obvious. But there are good arguments, and vulnerabilities, on both sides. Thoughtful people from both left and right might find a congenial place on either side of this conversation.

More interesting than taking one side or the other would be exploring how the debate itself might throw up excellent new ideas, solutions to old problems, and creative opportunities for cultural and political leadership. Perhaps we should look for a candidate in future presidential primaries and elections to attempt to seize one side of the debate and to define his opponents as on the other side. Will either or both of the major parties begin to split? If one party collapses altogether, as is possible for the Democrats, will the other fission into two in order to fit our two-party paradigm? We live in interesting times.


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