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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Misfit liberalism

If LI is anything, we are that crash dummy that is continually being tossed around Lefty sites, the liberal. The sissified liberal, unable to put our shoulder to the wheel and overthrow the capitalist system in one giant revolutionary push. This is true. Our negative reason for this balky liberalism is that we don’t think the revolution would do anything but continue the treadmill of production in place. We don’t think it would take apart the war culture, but simply embody it again, another of the endless avatars. On the positive side, we think the liberal notion of encouraging a profit system, while at the same time putting two loaded pistols to its head at all time – militant labor, and a state that can exert some countervailing pressure to lessen the grosser features of the profit system in spite of its natural inclination to support capital – is the best of all methods to produce affluence. It is the Misfit method – named after the character in the Flannery O’Connor story – and if we were going to slap a little label on our politics, it would certainly be misfit liberalism.

Because it is a system of checks and balances, however, liberalism can’t really operate by the blind application of abstract principles. It can and should encourage that degree of equality, for instance, which forestalls and –hopefully – extinguishes the billionaire, while at the same time not aiming for an absolute equality that would abolish the profit motive.

Misfit liberalism, like all liberalisms, does suffer from a penchant to systems blindness. It is why Marx is still indispensable to the liberal – Marx did see systematically and whole. Unfortunately, in the Reagan era (which we still live in), liberalism went whoring after strange gods – an insane faith in the marketplace, for example, an inability to understand the crucial role of organized labor, and an inability to defend, on political grounds, common sense things, like – a really trivial point - encouraging the state to expropriate a lion’s share of the enormous surplus of wealth seized by the top one percent of the population. Alas, these common sense notions – known even to the well known, muscular liberal, girl scout cookie seller cannibal Harry Truman – are now heresies even among media liberals, a group who operate, generally, to pimp for the biases of the governing class. They are the too fit liberals.

But – to get to the nubby little point of this post – one of the root perversions of Reaganism is the infusion of methodological individualism into every good soul. The bias here is subtle. I thought about this reading a very good post written by Ezra Klein today about the brilliant NYT Magazine piece by Michael Pollan – and knowing my readers, they have already scarfed down the Pollan essay and gone, God fucking damn, I wish I had written that!

Klein draws on Pollan’s book to make several astute remarks. But we detect, here, a bit of that old systems blindness. About which we will comment in our next post.


Arkady said...

Poor old LI is not a dummy or the dummy being kicked around. While philosophically liberal, and politically an exponent of liberal democracy, LI is in no sense a lib'rul. George Packer, Peter Beinart, Nude Model, and Michael Kinsley fit the bill; weathervanes, cheese-moving middle managers aspiring to move cheese faster, with muscle, to dismal eighties dance music which they feel gives them moral superiority to the disco wingnuts. When the revolution comes, LI will be the first taken out for drinks. Even if it never comes, LI is still going to be asked out for drinks. It would be hard to make this any clearer. But that never stopped me. You may self-identify as a lib'rul, but I self-identify as badger. TO MY ENDURING DISMAY all the she-badgers treat me as just another human.

That said, I disagree almost completely with you. The state is bound to be captured and held as a weapon by people who mouth platitudes about the profit motive, but dread anything resembling honest trade. They stick omega fatty whatsits in their unmentionables and smirk with glee about this clever form of cornering the market.

Anonymous said...

Brother Rail Gun: I think I know where you are coming from, and I don't necessarily "believe" in the State as a perfectable human institution, but in the end I doubt the vast majority of people would benefit from the hobbit anarchy that emotionally appeals to me. Societies without strong central states of some kind are not necessarily paradises.

Count me in, still, among the liberal, even managerial, ilk. Even though emotionally the Carterian Hobbet System is so appealing.

roger: your role is the erudite sage, helping educate us plebes. That's a very worthy role, no matter what you call yourself.

Roger Gathmann said...

Brian, damn. I thought my role was stage magician - I've been trying to earn my cape and practicing a few card tricks!

I find that whenever the conversation starts off right away about the 'state', things rapidly move into the abstract zone. I can't imagine any state, from the Moghul kingdoms of India in the 17th century to the State of Texas sitting on my face even as I write not serving the most powerful. This is why nourishing outside powers - say, organized labor back in the 1930s, or the gay organizations that rammed AIDS down the public throat in the 80s and 90s and refused to be polite about it, were able, finally, to use the state to a certain extent. In the U.S. there is an anglosphere dream of when the state was small and all men were free - back in the 19th century, for instance. But of course all men actually boiled down to a very few men, and the parameters of freedom I care about - for instance, freedom to be healthy - were ferociously filtered by money. I don't think Mr. BRGF is talking about mere contractual freedom, of course, the lingua obscura of libertarianism, but about the way the state binds us all in systems that tend in some pretty horrible directions.

That is all true. Which is why misfit liberalism is all about naming, targeting and taking apart those systems - the war culture, the unsustainable treadmill of production that refuses to acknowledge social costs, etc.

Anonymous said...

A worthy goal, roger. Living in one of the many nexi of the war culture (the major air force transport base for the west coast is here), it just seems so pervasive. "The troops" include many of my neighbors (when they are not on duty overseas). It's tough to be a skeptic.

Arkady said...

Misfit liberalism would be worth defending, if it could ever gain as much as a toehold. The self-branded liberals (defined as conservatives who don't think gay people have cooties) aren't very interested in it. They want to elect Democrats. That's all they think of. They're royalists of the worst kind. They fixate on the state itself. The minute the misfit liberal tries to dismantle a troubling system, they cry: boo, hoo, hoo, alack and woe! Sure, they'd like the troubling system to go away, but not if it means doing anything about it.

I'm afraid, Roger, that there's only you sticking up for misfit liberalism, along with Ralph Nader and perhaps a few lawyers at the NLG and ACLU. I, of course, spend my days importuning she-badgers.

Roger Gathmann said...

Mr. BRGF, now, don't be putting me with the Ralph, with whom I have various serious bones to pick.

I concede that the celebrity parade has left Misfit liberalism behind, but I don't think that means that a lot of plain people don't actually like it. They don't like "middle class entitlements", cause they sound terrible - but they like the idea of a retirement and health system, for instance.

Of course, just plain people are very comfortable with the war culture - this is in the very air they breathe. Here, you just have to go out with your gun, alone, and take a stand - I always, at these moments, call on the spirit of Elmer Fudd. I would call on the spirit of Harry Truman, but you always get put on hold calling H.T. - too busy yakking with a well known high quality adult entertainment star.