15 March 2010

Anti-Anti-Populism

"The lower middle class is what we're focusing on here, the people who own auto repair shops, bakeries, bicycle shops, plant stores, dry cleaners, fish stores and all the other small businesses across America -- in sum, the 'petite bourgeoisie,' stomped by regulators and bureaucrats while the big fry get zoning variances and special clause exemptions. The left always hated the petite bourgeoisie because it wasn't the urban proletariat and thus the designated agent of revolutionary change. Today's left no longer believes in revolutionary change but despises the petite bourgeoisie out of inherited political disposition and class outlook."

The writer is Alexander Cockburn, himself a man of the left, though I'm not sure how much longer that label will apply accurately. In the same issue of The Nation that features his latest "Beat the Devil" column an article on the 50th anniversary of New Left Review notes that Cockburn has removed his name from that journal's masthead over its endorsement of the manmade global warming model. He explains his decision by observing that "uncritical and unscientific...climate catastrophism" has become "the prime obsession of what passes for the left." Increasingly, though he may despise the comparison, Cockburn is shaping up as this decade's Christopher Hitchens, a champion polemicist whose pet peeves may end up driving him out of the "Left" altogether.

Still, from the left Cockburn has come out in defense of the Tea Party movement, answering what he deems a slanderous op-ed by Frank Rich in the New York Times. Rich's article was in turn provoked by what Cockburn describes as a "perceptive and rather sympathetic account" of the movement by David Barstow that appeared in the Paper of Record earlier that month. Barstow and Cockburn have in common an understanding that the Tea Parties are made up of people who have been genuinely hurt by the economy over the past decade and have legitimate suspicions about the motives of politicians, whether Republican or Democratic. Neither writer denies the existence of what Cockburn calls "nuts and opportunists" within the movement, but the columnist's verdict is that the TPs are "legitimately pissed off."

Cockburn is furious over Rich's labeling of the TPs as the "Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged," a blanket libel of the entire movement as the second coming of the 1990s militia movement. Barstow himself gave Rich cause to think so by reporting that the TP ideology comes closer to "Patriot" thinking than it does to the Republican platform. All three writers would agree that the TPs believe that the federal government as it exists today is fundamentally untrustworthy regardless of which party controls it. Rich and to a lesser extent Barstow are alarmed by what looks like a wholesale rejection of the idea of modern "big government," but Cockburn is more receptive. He remains enough of a leftist to agree with a founding TP premise: that "big government" as presently constituted inevitably serves the interests of an elite at the expense of the "petite bourgeoisie" or even the ordinary working person. Liberals vehemently reject this stance, believing that "big government" can be made to serve the people's interests if made more Democratic or simply more democratic. Arguably, Cockburn remains enough of a revolutionary leftist to think that only a different form of government, "big" or not, can faithfully serve the people's interests.

Whether Cockburn fully embraces the Tea Partiers' apparent preference for smaller, decentralized government remains to be seen, but I can understand why that preference unnerves most liberals. In the 20th century localism was proven, to most liberals' satisfaction, an inadequate guarantor of minority or individual rights. Given the perception of the Tea Parties as a "populist" movement and of the exclusionary tendencies of populism, most liberals most likely see the TPs as a transparent facade for all the ugly historical tendencies to be expected of a movement that's for now predominantly white in complexion. Liberals are also likely to see "big government" as the average American's only defense against Big Business, and may see Cockburn's "petite bourgeoisie" as mere stooges for "big business." If there's a fallacy implicit in the liberal critique, it may be the assumption that our current constitutional regime and the regulatory order established in the 20th century can still steer the country toward the common good. If there's a fallacy on the other side, it may be the assumption that anything "big" is inherently corrupt or oppressive. I think a case can still be made for "big government," but it isn't well made by a liberal complacency that assumes, in true conservative fashion, that what we have now will have to do, and that there's no alternative but chaos or terror.

It's not clear whether Cockburn considers himself a Tea Partier, but the movement needs an infusion of ideas from the "left" if it intends to do more than reproduce the ideology of entrepreneurial Republicanism. There's no guarantee that the influence of people like Cockburn would make the Tea Parties any more helpful in our current crisis, but at least liberals wouldn't be able to dismiss it as the same old thing in new wrapping.

8 comments:

d.eris said...

Over the past few months I've noticed a more wide-spread recognition among progressives and leftists that many of the the grievances of tea party activists are legitimate. In blogs (Polizeros comes to mind), in academia (Chomsky recently said something along those lines) and now the press, Cockburn for instance. One wonders how different things would be now if more progressives and leftists had joined tea party activists in their opposition to the bailouts etc. from the very beginning. Instead, we have the duplication of the bipolar form in the tea and coffee parties.

Crhymethinc said...

Any chance of the left joining the tea bagger movement went out the window the minute they started showing up at public meetings armed. Veiled threats and outright thuggery is quite the opposite of what "democracy" is supposed to be. The only way you'll have a true union of left and right is to keep the militia-types out of the deal. The last thing we need is a bunch of armed neo-nazis having any say in the government of a civilized nation.

Samuel Wilson said...

d: Many leftists did oppose the bailouts, as I recall, but their opposition may have been tempered by a desire to shield ordinary people from any adversity caused by the failure of those "too big to fail." The typical Tea Partier, I suspect, thinks that adversity builds character, expects people to rebuild after the perhaps-necessary crash, and may not really care if some don't make it through the process.

Crhymethinc: The issue may not be whether leftists join forces with "tea baggers" but whether they're willing to listen to any of the TPs' concerns rather than dismiss them as generic right-wingers. No doubt many TPs have given leftists cause to dismiss them as birthers, gun nuts, etc., but we should be careful before assuming that, since we don't like their attitude, that they have no cause to complain about the state of the country.

d.eris said...

Sam, yes, many did oppose the bailouts but not actively; and after the election and throughout last year most of them simply fell in line behind the Obama administration and Democratic congress because they falsely believed it represented something other than the continuation of the corporatist bipoligarchy.

Crhymethinc said...

1) The minute I hear the word "Socialism" drift from their lips, I know there's no point in listening to them because Obama has yet to even infer any truly socialist program.
2) The minute I hear them whine about "second amendment rights" I know there's no point in listening further. No one in government that I'm aware of has yet indicated they want to make gun ownership unconstitutional. Regulation is a whole different matter. And considering the problems in most big cities (and even small towns these days) with random shooters wiping out people, anyone who whines about gun rights is obviously putting their wants over society's needs. Such a person does not bear listening to.

Crhymethinc said...

btw d, as Uncle Sam can testify, I did actively fight against the bailouts. I called and emailed my representatives at both the state and federal levels. I am aware of at least a couple of others who did likewise. Not because I feel people ought to have to sink or swim, but because those banks and institutions failed because they were greedy. If they had been allowed to fail and the economy collapsed (ala 1929), the general populace would have demanded blood and those CEOs responsible would have been held to account.

d.eris said...

There were people speaking out against the bailouts on both the left and right all along, no question. But the elite consensus was, in some cases perhaps grudgingly, uniformly in favor.

Crhymethinc said...

One of the major theories currently as to why the stock market crash of 1929 led to the great depression is because the government refused to bail out key banks on Wall Street. My guess is that those who were in favor of the bail out were felt that way because they subscribe to that particular theory and wanted to avoid another "Great Depression" at all costs. I guess the question in that case is: Which would be more expensive and harmful to the country in the long run - the bail-out or another depression?