Thursday, August 26, 2010

modernism and modern politics

(Please note: this post is only meant to be a brief sketch of some ideas -- hopefully we can discuss and develop them further in later posts.)

A recent string of posts from around the blogosphere, including some compelling ones by my fellow UMass colleagues Mark Silverman and James Miehls, have sought to sort out the presence and importance of conservative trends in various contemporary leftist critiques of capitalism. The main question of these posts seems to be, "are there elements of arguments on the political right to be found in various leftist arguments against capitalism, and if so, what should we do about them -- engage and incorporate, or make the rightists play by our own rules?"

I recently found a piece posted originally on 3 Quarks Daily titled "Why Conservatives Should Read Marx," which I think does a good job of focusing on where the debates spurred by Mark and James can and cannot find resolve. How do arguments on the left intersect with some conservative arguments?

First, you need to establish the tradition of markets as well as other institutions. It is well known, for example, that the development of markets is bound in a history of moral and political restraints. Whether the rules of market competition are guided by a preservation of communal norms (as in this paper by Jason Opal) or by religious values, market society is not naturally equated with financial derivatives and international price-cutting strategies. Thakkar makes the point nicely here:
If they want to be consistent, conservatives ought really to be anti-capitalist. This may be a little surprising, but in point of fact conservatism has always been flexible as far as particular policies are concerned. In the U.S. conservatives oppose universal healthcare as an attack on freedom; in the U.K. they defend it as a national tradition. Both positions count as conservative because, as Samuel Huntington argues, conservatism is a “situational” ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time: “The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.”
In other words, modern conservatism is not entirely engaged with the view that markets, everywhere and in any circumstance, are a good thing. However, there is a subset, a newer world view, which we should be engaged with: the neoclassical, neoliberal world view. The real point of leftist resistance to neoclassical economics in particular should be against these economists' aims of applying a specific framework for understanding economic behavior without regard to context -- history, culture, and so on. It is a forward-looking view, a modernism which extends itself blindingly into various political debates, such as the financial system -- without remembering why and how markets were created in the first place.

I really do think it is a kind of sick version of modernism that plagues a subset of the modern rightist and also, to a degree, modern leftist political views on the market. However, I don't really know enough about modernism to make this claim forcefully.

I can only appeal to some of my literary heroes -- Kafka, Eliot -- for their own critiques of modernism. Kafka, of course, rails on bureaucracy are beautifully expressed. And I think there is much for Leftists and conservatives alike to take away from Eliot's depressing commentary on progressivism and the decay of modern society. For an example, I end this post with an excerpt from Eliot's last work, Four Quartets ("East Coker"). Emphasis my own:
.... There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

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