Thursday, June 22, 2017

Liberals in the desert they made for themselves

Emmett Rensin writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books (excerpts):

Liberalism is not working. Something deep within the mechanism has cracked. All our wonk managers, our expert stewards of the world, have lost their way. They wander desert highways in a daze, wondering why the brakes locked up, why the steering wheel came off, how the engine caught on fire. Their charts lie abandoned by the roadside. It was all going so well just a moment ago. History was over. The technocratic order was globalizing the world; people were becoming accustomed to the permanent triumph of a slightly kinder exploitation. What happened? All they can recall is a loud thump in the undercarriage, an abrupt loss of control. Was it Brexit? Trump? Suddenly the tires were bursting and smoke was pouring into the vehicle, then a flash. The next thing they could remember, our liberals were standing beside a smoldering ruin, blinking in the hot sun, their power stolen, their world collapsing, their predictions all proven wrong. …

The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason. The trouble with liberalism’s enemies was no longer that they were evil, although they might be that too. The problem, reinforced by Daily Kos essays in your Facebook feed and retweeted Daily Show clips, was that liberalism’s enemies were factually wrong about the world. Just take a look at this chart …

This shift was a necessary accommodation to the fact that, beginning with Bill Clinton, the slim ideological differences that existed between the Democrats and the GOP were replaced with differences of style. Clinton’s “Third Way” promised to be every bit the dupe-servant of war and profit its rivals were, but to do it with the measured confidence of an expert. The New Democrats would destroy the labor movement, but sigh about it. They would frown while they voted to authorize the next war. They would make only the concessions necessary to bolster the flailing engine of finance capital, but they would do it with the latest research in the world. …

The notion that knowledge asymmetries lay at the root of all political conflict was quickly transmuted into the basis of policy itself. …

The result was an American political movement whose center was a moral void. …

The 2016 presidential election was meant to be the final victory of the wonk-managers, the triumph of a West Wing fantasy wherein the leadership class didn’t quite do anything beyond displaying the sublime confidence of cerebral people hurrying down the hallways of power with matters well in hand. Donald Trump was a perfect foe: the forces of stupidity and reaction, starkly manifested, were about to be dispatched. By this point, the knowledge-asymmetry theory of politics had become a commitment so pervasive that its champions could articulate it explicitly: Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate in history, full stop. The Clinton campaign was technocratic liberalism incarnate. Its surrogates might have been empty or evil, but they were smart. Its ideas might have been inert, but they were backed up by the latest charts. The campaign’s messaging apparatus was a digital marvel, cooked up by the best computers Robby Mook could buy. The Clinton campaign believed that it would win because it predicted that it would win, and because the capacity to predict and manage was precisely the competence Clinton’s team was selling. But then Clinton lost. The car crashed in the desert instead. …

Politics, in its classic incarnation, is the art of deriving an is from an ought; the point, as Marx famously said, is not to describe the world but to change it. But if the world is as it ought to be already and the essential task is to maintain it — that is, to police the circumscribed boundaries of permissible behavior and ideas — then those tasked with that maintenance must conceive of themselves as acting above politics itself. They become a superego, beyond the libidinal whims of any faction and dedicated not to some alternative vision of the world but to resisting all impulse toward alternatives. Possibility goes in, correction comes out. The End of History suggests a perfectly healthy mind; thus, any attempt to alter this situation is dangerous. But the trouble with superegos is that, once they have taken on this role, they cannot cease to perform it. When the id can be kept in control, all is well. But when it can’t, then the result is not the superego’s surrender — it is repetitious, manic dysfunction. …

If liberalism has ceased to function as a political faction so much as a censorious regency for capital, then there is little difference, in its view, between left and right — both are id-ish impulses that must be suppressed. The language of irresponsibility and childishness is not just a messaging contrivance but an explicit statement of core values: the trouble with all of these radical politics is that they want to pull society up by the root — and the root, as any adult knows, must be kept firmly in place. The fact that the right receives a larger share of liberalism’s disdain is not a reflection of a larger distaste but simply of the fact that the right happens to be winning. That it might be winning because managerial liberalism has hamstrung progressive impulses is an unthinkable idea, dutifully suppressed.

Like any superego, managerial liberalism is concerned first and foremost with appearances. This explains why, in the face of so much bad policy, liberals are incessantly talking about decorum. …

For 60 years, liberal managers believed that their political authority was derived from their intellectual authority. When their political authority was suddenly and violently ripped away, they tried to reestablish it by reminding the world that they still knew better than the rest of us. But they got the order of their power backward: without political power, there is no power to assert the boundaries of the normal. … The truth is that intellectual authority does not cause political authority, and political authority does not cause intellectual superiority. Both are derived from class power. …