01 November 2020

The Five Deadly Sins Of The Left?

Ruy Teixeira, writing for the American Compass on October 13, 2020, offered up "The Five Deadly Sins of the Left" in a bit of really neo-liberal "concern trolling" from a conservative leaning source that nonetheless deserves some attention. The five "sins" identified are each discussed below in turn.

* Identity Politics

Identity politics is arguably the biggest wedge that keeps smart conservatives out of the Democratic party fold. 

On the other hand, while I might have doubted it prior to the Trump era, either as a reaction to left wing identity politics, or Trump openingly fanning flames that had gone into the closet, for decades, there is little doubt that the United States now has a self-avowed and violent white supremacist movement that is on track to becoming as powerful as the modern KKK was in its heyday.

The left has also benefited from identity politics, winning over non-white, non-Christian supporters even when they are conservative on other issues because they are not welcome on the right. And, the left has been incredibly successful in its movement politics grass roots effort to increase LGBT acceptance among members of the general public.
Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” even mean and does it explain all the socioeconomic problems of nonwhites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Are personal pronouns necessary and something the Left should seek to popularize? Are transwomen exactly the same as biological women and are those who question such a claim simply “haters” who should be expunged from the Left coalition (as has been advocated in the UK)? This list could go on. What ties the questions together is that they are closely associated with practitioners of identity politics or adherents of the intersectional approach, who deem them not open to debate with the usual tools of logic and evidence. Politically derived answers are simply to be embraced by the Left in the interest of “social justice.”

The Left has paid a considerable price for its increasingly strong linkage to militant identity politics, which brands it as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They really are looked down upon by elements of the Left—typically younger, well-educated, and metropolitan—who embrace identity politics and the intersectional approach. This has contributed to the well-documented rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region.
* Retro-Socialism.

The sin of "socialism" seems to be mostly a question of marketing rather than substance.
The American Left is mostly careful to put the qualifier “democratic” in front of “socialism” to distinguish it from the authoritarian, command-economy socialists of yesteryear. And for many who use the term, their idea of socialism seems closer to a traditional social-democratic mixed economy than a radically different system that would somehow do away with profits and markets. So why call it socialism, a term that has all kinds of unpleasant associations and does imply a replacement of capitalism? Why not call it “people’s capitalism” or “democratic capitalism” or “the advanced mixed economy” or whatever?

By grasping nostalgically at revolutionary rhetoric, the Left sets the bar high for public embrace of what might otherwise be quite popular policy ideas, from single-payer health insurance to free college to a job guarantee. Generally, it is not a selling point for voters that your policies are a step along the road to socialism. Moreover, belief in the viability of replacing capitalism and the market encourages unrealistic thinking about policies that might work within a market system and misestimation of how quickly they might be adopted. This tendency has not gone unnoticed by voters, who are pragmatically interested in what is feasible and workable and have no ideological commitment to a different system. The socialist label and terminology undercut efforts to persuade voters that the Left’s agenda can work.
* Catastrophism. 

There seem to be at least four things going on here in a critique of the way the left's environmental agenda is presented also wound up into anti-capitalism. 

One is the blow to the movement's credibility that comes from crying wolf (see the Peak Oil movement). The closely related second issue is the notion that if you describe the problem is too overwhelming, people will think it is futile to take action. 

These are slight tactical points. It is a natural reaction to a right wing that just doesn't care about the environment at all. And, it is worth noting that the left's environmental rhetoric is one portion of its agenda that has penetrated into conservative circles. Young conservatives and Evangelical Christians are much more pro-environment than the older generation even as they remain conservative in other respects.

The third is the tendency to muddle environmental and economic justice causes (much as Denver ballot issue 2A does). This is also a fairly minor tactical point.

The fourth is the anti-scientific rejection of nuclear power. I share this concern but this specific policy point can hardly be called something as epic as a "sin" of the movement itself. The "sin" here (arguably better raised as an aspect of "technophobia") is letting fear cloud scientific asessments.
From the final crisis of capitalism to the inevitabilities of war and fascism, the Left often extends systemic critiques to claims that the Big Meltdown is just around the corner and can be prevented only if the Left comes to power and radically restructures the system. Among many current iterations of this catastrophism, the most prominent one by far concerns climate change.

There are exceptions of course, but the Left’s dominant strand of thinking sees climate change as a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the Left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most on the Left nod in agreement.

Such a rapid transition of global energy systems is a fairy tale, making the situation look hopeless instead of solvable. That is a real liability. Voters want to hear how problems can be solved—not told they’re doomed unless obviously impractical steps are taken. And it doesn’t help that the Left’s version of the steps that must be taken includes a raft of unrelated social programs that would be nice to have but don’t do anything about climate change (see, for instance, the Green New Deal proposed in Congress). Nor does it help that obviously necessary components of a clean energy program like nuclear power are ruled out because, well, people on the Left don’t like nuclear power.

None of this makes sense as either a political or policy approach.
* Growthphobia. 

The faults here are failing to recognize that prosperity is the natural soil for liberalism, an inaccurate believe that growth implies greater inequality, and a failure to give credit to human nature and what people really want.

This is arguably the most credible of the substantive policy criticisms of the left.
Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.

Some resistance to growth may derive from an assumed growth-equity tradeoff, but evidence has strengthened over time that high inequality regimes (such as the one we live in today) have a negative effect on growth. We have gotten the worst of both worlds: sluggish growth and high inequality. A more equal society is fully compatible with a higher growth society—the proverbial “win-win.”

In truth, the Left’s lack of interest in growth reflects not only an understandable and laudable focus on unequal distribution, but also a general suspicion that the fruits of growth are poisoned. Growth encourages the accumulation of unneeded material possessions and a consumerist lifestyle rather than a truly good life, the thinking goes. And, worse, it is literally poisoning the Earth, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling the human race toward doom.

This has led many on the Left to argue that our capitalist economy based on growth must be replaced with a “degrowth” economy focused on simple, healthy communities; efficient resource use; and the elimination of wasteful consumerism. If that means no or negative economic growth, so be it.

Degrowth is probably the worst idea on the Left since communism. People want more, not less; they don’t object to growth, they object to where the benefits of growth have mostly gone. In short, they want abundance, not societally-mandated scarcity. And not only will people not accept artificial scarcity, but also the transition to a green economy is really only possible in a high-growth context, where the requisite (and expensive) technological innovation and infrastructure development—as, for example, in a Green New Deal—can be supported.
* Technopessimism.

I am pretty skeptical of the proposition the the Left as a movement as a whole is techno-pessimistic. It may have some technopessimists among it, but the Left is the pro-science party of change as well.
In the 21st century, the Left has become distinctly unenthusiastic about the potential of technology, tending to see it as a dark force to be contained rather than a force for good to be celebrated. . . . one would expect the Left to embrace techno-optimism rather than technopessimism. If the goal is improving people’s lives, rapid technological advance is surely something to promote enthusiastically. But the Left has been lukewarm at best about the possibilities of new and better technologies, leaving techno-optimism to the libertarian-minded denizens of Silicon Valley. As British science journalist Leigh Phillips has observed:

"Once upon a time, the Left . . . promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons . . . that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly . . . is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future." 
There are two main reasons for the Left’s ambiguous relationship to technology. One is directly related to the sin of growthphobia: The Left tends to underestimate the importance of economic growth, believing incorrectly that its social objectives are achievable with slow or even no growth. That leads naturally to an underestimation of the importance of technological change, since one of its chief attributes is promoting growth.

Second, and worse, many on the Left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs rather than leading to skilled-job creation, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens, and destroying the planet in the process. 

The Bottom Line

In sum, while Ruy Teixeira identifies some issues to be concerned about that may be the orthodoxy in corners of the progressive left, many of these points are not really integral to the movement or are not widely held even among those on the left. The criticism shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, but also shouldn't have those of us on the left shaking in our boots. 

For the most part, the issues identified are questions of means and not ends, tactics and not goals.

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