Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Archeology of the Post-Left

A genealogy of the post-left would take us back to the inter-war period of the 20th century (see Alan Johnson's March 27th column on CiF,, or at least the end of the cold war and the interregnum of 1991-2001, between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the war on terror (the subject of my forthcoming essay in Democratiya). But a synchronic sketch of the thought-grid that defines post-left logic is easier. The postmodern, post-Marxist, postcolonial-theory "left" is a rigid "Zombie Left" (Bernard-Henri Levy), "The Left that Doesn't Learn" (Mitchell Cohen), "The Unpatriotic Left" (Richard Rorty). Here is why it can't learn, and why its brain is dead even though its limbs are still moving.

These are the elements of post-left thought, the building blocks of a paint-by-numbers exercise in ressentiment unhinged from politics in the Aristotelian sense of politike, or "the art of the common life."

1. Inverted Exceptionalism. Take the old "exceptionalist" idea and flip it. America is unique among nations—just not uniquely good, that's all. The horrid US, with its crude consumer culture, unparalleled racism, and war-mongering politicians, is to blame for everything.

2. Post-Zionism. Ditto the above for Israel. One is the tool of the other in the US-Israel relationship, though it's not clear which is which. For Walt and Mearscheimer, Israel manipulates the US. For Chomsky, it's the reverse. In any event, the new dogma of the post-left is that Israel's right to exist is in question (at best).

3. Third Worldism. The wretched of the earth ("multitudes," whatever) are not just unlucky but morally superior to the earth's beneficiaries. Empowered by powerlessness to take the place of the proletariat in conventional Marxist doxology, the Third World Other can do no wrong. It's all "resistance." Whatever it is. Up to and including terrorism. In this salvation myth, any two-bit despot—from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hasan Nasrallah, even Osama bin Laden—can be seen to represent a salutary rebuke to American Capital and The West. So the millenarian imagination persists, after "the end of history." Romanticizing victims and rooting for the perceived underdog in every fight are basic to the post-left mindset.

4. Cultural Revolution. It's manichaean also. Because of #1 and #2, a complete transformation of consciousness is needed to wipe away all the micro-corruptions of US-led capitalism, and replace these with more salutary (revolutionary) habits of mind (to be discovered thanks in part to #3). Everything "bourgeois" "white" and "male" will have to go. Barring that—for the, er, moment—at least it can all be "deconstructed"—in the, er, meantime. Mix with heavy doses of Sixties-style antinomianism and Seventies-style New Ageism. A heady cocktail for the mind that has slipped its moorings. Remember, all "difference" is good—provided it's different from you and me, of course; our difference is the same.

5. Totalitarian Ideology. Ah, but moorings are so very reassuring when one finds oneself adrift! The cultural revolutionaries find them all right, in a pathetic dialectic of abandonment and attachment worthy of Borderline Personality Disorder. Did I say totalitarian? Actually, Hannah Arendt said it. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she outlines the closed-world world-view of the totalizing mind and its self-serving auto-validating procedures. She was talking then about Stalinism and Nazism, but it works for the post-left too (if that sounds like a harsh comparison, see #6 below, support for mass-casualty terrorism). Inside this cramped, airless space, (a) every question receives an exhaustive total explanation, situating the smallest detail of an argument within a vast theodicy with no outside and little room for ambiguity or surprise. Nothing escapes. And no light gets in: For such explanations are (b) independent of and resistant to experience—anti-empirical as necessary—in defense of the post-left "a priori" structure of thought. This inclusive, arbitrary narrative without a referent is also (c) ultra-consistent. Why not, when you're making it up as you go along? Not only does everything fit that gets in, and nothing get in that doesn't fit, the results are always the same: the same demons, the same impotent self-righteousness. And finally, (d) the ascription of collective guilt to its enemies. The condemned in the post-left scheme of things will be judged not according to what they do or say or think or even who they are but what they are. For Osama bin Laden it's "Jews and Crusaders" who ought to be killed anywhere anytime by any means. For the emergent post-left—fully discernible per se after 9/11—it's a similarly blanket approach to enemy categories. The post-left, in short, offers its followers a tidy picture of a messy world, suitable for framing by lazy and credulous minds, with a bit of a bloodlust and a sadistic/masochistic streak.

6. Islamism. Thanks to #1-5, the pre-post-left prepared itself to embrace radical Islamism after 9/11 as a form of "resistance," indigenous to the Third World (#3), aimed at a guilty US (#1) and Israel (#2), striking a blow for "difference" (#4), that simply had to be good in some way (#5), because it positions itself against liberal capitalism in the name of something Else. This final element, qualitatively distinctive, catalyzes the other ingredients to produce the post-left proper. Granted that the totalitarian left of yore was already guilty of some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century—nonetheless, sympathetic understanding of and support for suicide mass-murder terrorism today is new, I argue, in my "Genealogy of the Post-left," forthcoming in Democratiya.

1 comment:

Artist22 said...

The emperor has no clothes. It's shameful that people who "see" receive such violent reactions. The problem with far left and far right is neither of them see that nothing is black or white. Nothing is purely good or purely evil, situations and contexts have lots to do with decision making, and God (if someone chooses to believe) doesn't endow men with the authority to pass judgement on His behalf. Their authority begins and ends with the laws of man and civilization. However, they do understand the power of group-think. When choosing Republican or Democratic affiliation, many people seem willing to accept some distasteful policies along with policies they truly support. Sometimes, it comes at a price for all of us. Where is the balance?