TCS Daily


By Uriah Kriegel - February 8, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's State of the Union address made clear that his plans for his second term will focus on two projects: the Greater Middle East Initiative and Social Security overhaul. The response from the other side of the aisle suggests that Democrats plan to spend the next four years fighting back these two projects. What Democrats have not yet offered, however, is an alternative set of projects, which might then be claimed to be better or more worthy of the nation's energy and capital than Bush's.

This is an emerging pattern not only in the Democratic party but in the worldwide political movement of the Left, and not only in the past few weeks but for almost a decade now.

That movement formed originally around anti-globalization activism and was consolidated through the opposition to the Iraq war. Its common thread is a certain kind of anti-Americanism and perhaps more generally a sort of "anti-powerfulism," which can be defined as the instinctual opposition to all who are powerful: the United States in the first instance, but the World Bank, WTO, etc. as well.

Observe that all three platforms -- anti-globalization, anti-war, and anti-Americanism -- are "anti-" platforms. They are all premised on an opposition to something. The worldwide left-wing movement has thus been defined in the past few years in reactive rather than active terms. The essence of the movement has been what it is against, not what it is for.

This is not to say that there have been no ideas within the movement as to what it is for (or at least ought to be for). But such ideas have not been the unifying force behind the movement. By and large, they have been half-baked ideas, and in any case they were never shared by the entire movement. What was shared by the entire movement, and thus defined it as a single, cohesive entity, was its negative platform, not any positive one.

It all started with anti-globalism. The idea was that the globalization trend in world economy was a bad thing. What would be a good thing remained mostly unclear. The only discernible suggestion was that keeping things as they are were -- mostly, keeping protective tariffs at their current levels -- was a good thing. That is, the good thing to do is to conserve the existing order in reaction to the apparent progress of history.

(Ironically, based on conceptual confusion, the anti-globalists were and are prone to describe themselves as anarchists. If they were, they would be the first anarchists to call for more state intervention in private affairs and resist all liberalization and marginalization of the state apparatus.)

The same logic appears in the anti-war and anti-American platforms. The ideas seem to be, respectively, that the war in Iraq is bad and American leadership of the international community is bad. Again, what would be good remains unclear.

Throughout the opposition to the Iraq war, the Left did not offer an alternative set of principles for dealing with destruction-bent despots. The Right had a clear principle, the Bush Doctrine. The Left, by contrast, remained largely -- nay, completely -- silent on what should be done with brutal dictators set on instilling fear and misery among their subjects as well as neighbors.

Likewise, the anti-American front, which is in fact pervasive to all other components of this worldwide movement, has rarely offered an alternative suggestion for world leadership. If the US were to forsake its leadership role in world affairs, who is to take its mantle? The only discernible thought seems to be that the UN is the right body, but of course this cannot be taken seriously as long as a substantial number of UN members represent ruthless regimes largely uninterested in the welfare of their people.

Thus the left-wing movement has become over the past decade a mostly reactive rather than active movement. Positive action has been carried out on the Right, while reactivity became the staple of the Left. We are accustomed to using the labels "conservative" and "progressive" to describe (respectively) the Right and the Left. But over the past decade it has been the Right that pushed toward a certain kind of progression, indeed progress, while the Left has fought to conserve things as they are.

The same pattern is apparently going to characterize the next four years of American politics. President Bush's is not a pair of local pet projects. It is an almost revolutionary program to bring widespread political freedom to the most wretched regions of the earth and an ownership society that stresses individual responsibility and, correlatively, individual freedom to the beacon of the West.

The Democrats' reaction is just that - a reaction. The main theme so far has been to claim that there is no problem with Social Security and there was never a problem with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The thought is that Mr. Bush is fabricating crises so he can then offer his preconceived ideological cures. More fundamentally, nothing has to be done about anything in particular -- things should be conserved as they are rather than revolutionized.

It is an ironic historical twist we are witnessing. The Right is becoming the force of progress-oriented action, while the Left solidifies its status as the force of conservatively oriented reaction. Very possibly, over the next couple of decades, the Right will attempt to bring democracy and market wealth to humanity at large, while the reactionary Left does its best to oppose all such change.

The author teaches in the philosophy department at the University of Arizona.


1 Comment

A Marxist says: oh so true!
What a superb article.

No-one who claims to challenge the current system of capitalism from the Left for the last twenty years or more has actually talked seriously about how they would try and run society if they got hold of it.

The culture of 'protest' - instead of a culture of 'taking power and responsibility', keeps the Left weak and powerless.

One nitpick - describing Bush's Mideast strategy as 'almost' revolutionary is I think wrong - Bush's strategy there is revolution against dictators plain and simple - no 'almost' about it.

David Jackmanson

;Last Superpower

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