25 November 2010

Clegg, Obama, 'Old-Style Progressives' and 'Pragmatism'

In the U.S. political ideas seem to twist and turn at the whim of various right-wing media mouthpieces. Typically the re-fashioning occurs in cahoots with the right wing politicians. So, as the conservative DLC types in the Democratic Party make a hard charge to the right (which has been ongoing since the late 1980s) there is not much push-back from people who say ... ''Not so fast, that is a bastardization of this or that progressive or liberal idea ... or ... No, actually the constitution or our political tradition (or whatever) don't state or imply anything like what you claim!'

The problem, in part, is that any such voice of sanity is drowned out by the megaphones on the right. And, let's be clear here, I am not even talking about the Republicans with their party organ Fox 'News.' I am talking about the voices of 'moderation' among the Democrats. Of course, those voices are not typically attuned to intellectual discourse; they are concerned to show that they are realists. Think Bill Galston or Cass Sunstein. Think Rahm Emmanuel. No egg-head talk for them.

Here is an example from the U.K. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg offers this pronouncement on 'authentic' progressive politics in The Guardian. He constructs a dichotomy between old-style progressive who are obsessed with equality and new style progressives (like himself) who are properly re-focused on social mobility as a way of fracturing inherited, hence unjust, patterns. This rhetorical move brings to mind a remark from Vaclav Havel: "... hard and fast categories ... tend to be instruments used by the victors." In this instance, the distinction also fails - as Stuart White points out in this astute commentary - to grasp the actual claims of 'old style' progressives of a liberal or socialist stripe.

Distinctions, in other words, carry consequences. and in this instance Clegg surely is aiming to shift the terms of discourse rightward. It is not enough to say, as he does in numerous ways, 'let's work together,' 'let's think in non-zero-sum terms,' lets embrace bi-partisanship' (to echo our own hoper-in-chief). Because, having constructed a false dichotomy at the start he proceeds to neglect the fact that any reconciliation has profound distributional consequences. And those consequences are, as White notes, precisely the basis for pervasive inequalities that subvert the prospects for social mobility.

There are lessons here for the Obama is a pragmatist crowd. It is not enough to simply listen to everyone and split the difference. One has to look at where we stand, how we got here, assess responsibility and, most importantly, see how political-economic power has been used to shape the current circumstances, before making a plan to move forward. Simply splitting the difference leads to more of the 'winner take all' politics that Clegg claims to abhor simply because it takes the current state of affairs, with its already established winners and losers, as the point of departure. Old style progressives, in other words, insist on getting an historical grip before plunging ahead. Without that historical perspective, a putatively pragmatist focus on consequences simply re-confirms the fixed inequities we currently endure. On health Insurance; on war-crimes; on economic recovery; on foreign adventurism. On all those fronts, Obama has done lots of listening and little serious analysis of the sort I mention above. As a result we get not pragmatism but opportunism. There is a big difference.

Have a nice Thanksgiving.
P.S.: (Added 26 November 2010) You can find yet another astute reply to Clegg here. The punchline: "This isn’t democracy. It isn’t a new way of being progressive. It is the deep marketisation of our society, carried out at breakneck speed."

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