Death of the Left?
(The American Conservative) -- by Arthur Versluis --
...Among the most influential books now in Left academic circles are those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, notably Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004). These two books, and especially the latter, represent efforts to steer the Left past the bloated corpses of totalitarian communist states and toward some vaguely imagined new secular aeon. The precise outline of their plan is not all that clear, but it does have some familiar aspects, among them the recurrent theme of participatory democracy. In fact, near the end of Multitude, Hardt and Negri actually propose that one possible guide for their future ideal state is none other than James Madison. Yes, that James Madison.
Of course, it’s not as though these archetypal figures of the Left really belong to the Right. In the place of Marx’s term “proletariat,” Hardt and Negri use the word “multitude,” which, they believe, better allows for the preservation of identity politics within collectivism. And although they occasionally tie their text to verses from the New Testament, there is a perverse quality to such allusions, as when they cite as precedent for the word “multitude” the story of the Gadarene demoniac whom Jesus encountered, and who in the Gospel of Mark says to Jesus, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” Talk about being the devil’s advocate! Dostoevsky would recognize these types right away.
But most troubling is that Hardt and Negri represent the return of secular millennialism. Like Marx, Lenin, and Mao, they imagine some great and sudden social transformation that involves, they think, a “machinic multitude.” It really isn’t clear what vision they have for some future utopian state, any more than it was clear for their predecessors, but their millennialist language troubles even some on the Left. Still, while relatively popular for somewhat theoretical neo-Marxist writings, the books of Hardt and Negri are far from household commonplaces, and at present one can see relatively little indication that the Left, as they envision it, is in the ascendant.
And yet we have to ask ourselves: when the consequences of globalization—the export of American manufacturing and agriculture—really hit home, when the results of a massive American trade imbalance with Communist China are completely visible, when the recession or depression finally hits with full force, do we really think that the pendulum might not swing back in the other direction? Might it not be possible that many of today’s policies here and abroad are sowing the seeds for a return of the murderous nightmares of more secular millennialism?
Historians—like our greatest contemporary historian, John Lukacs, in his masterful history of America in the past century, A New Republic—will no doubt remark that it is unclear how military adventurism and interventionism around the globe, policies “rendering” prisoners to the secular arm of foreign countries for torture, gulags where people are held indefinitely without trial, a gigantic military-industrial managerial bureaucracy, the curtailing of civil liberties, unsustainable deficit spending, obsequious behavior toward our greatest military threat, Communist China, and ever intensifying centralization of power in the federal government can be considered conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.
Indeed, if a careful study of the history of the Left during the 20th century leads to any clear conclusion, surely it leads to this one: that the massive centralization of a managerial bureaucracy, especially in the name of a secular millennialist vision, has led all too quickly to ideological purges and to all the other horrors of totalitarianism. Seen in this light, the hesitation of at least some on the American Left to embrace grand utopian schemes is not something to be scorned but rather may be a sign of welcome skepticism about the busybody notion that one can impose utopia upon others by force. Yet has the Right or the Left truly learned this lesson?
I must confess, I have come to wonder whether, in the end, terms like Left and Right are not quite as useful as is a political spectrum that goes from the totalized state at one end, to decentralized anarchism or libertarianism on the other, with all manner of gradations in between. Perhaps it is salutary for us each to consider where we belong on such a spectrum. It is possible, after all, that some on the so-called Left—who have come to be skeptical of grand state metanarratives and managerial bureaucracies, and who encourage decentralization, small businesses, and small farms—are closer to what used to be called conservatism than many on the so-called Right...MORE...LINK
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