Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Nader and Progressivism

Over at Read Red, Shelley Ettinger points, with deserved scorn, to the release of a novel by Ralph Nader, of all people, called Only the Super-rich Can Save Us! Apparently, the idea is to explore in fiction "what could happen if 17 billionaires and super-rich people" take on "the existing business power bloc and the politicians in Washington who serve it". Shelley says:
The spectacle of such a bizarre, twisted delusion being promulgated by someone who used to present himself as a fighter for progressive change might strike some as sad. It ought in any case to expose him once and for all as no legitimate leader in the cause of the class struggle.
Sadly, given the urgency of the problems facing us and the general disarray of the left, it's possible that it's true that we could only be saved by the actions of an imaginary small group of benevolent rich people. But it's still delusional.

This gives me an excuse to expand on my remarks from earlier in the week. I think Nader had revealed that he was no real leader, without the aid of any delusional novel, in the way he conducted his last two presidential campaigns. I voted for him without apology in 2000 because he seemed to be part of something larger, and the idea, however limited, was to expand the base, to be part of building a real movement against the stagnant two-party oligarchy (funding for third parties being part of that). I remember there was real excitement in the air. I voted for him again in 2004, this time without much enthusiasm. I didn't like his campaign that year, divorced as it was from any kind of wider movement, though I also did not appreciate the attacks by liberals unfairly and inaccurately blaming him for the considerable evils of the Bush Administration (liberals seemed uninterested in the truth about the stolen 2000 election; it's always more important to defend the system). The Kerry campaign was simply a joke.

As I mentioned, I voted for Obama last year, under no illusions about who or what he would be. And I could not justify another Nader vote, in part because I increasingly feel that he misses "the bigger picture". What I mean is this. Contrary to what Shelley says in the quote above, I do believe Nader is a progressive. That's part of the problem. Progressivism is intimately tied to the fortunes and methods of the capitalist state. I've referred here on several occasions to the "so-called Progressive Era", citing Gabriel Kolko's excellent history of the period, The Triumph of Conservatism, in support of the idea that, far from being this golden period of left-wing victories (though there were some victories, to be sure), in fact the era consolidated and strengthened the hand of the capitalists, the smartest among whom themselves argued for and largely created the extensive regulatory apparatus that was necessary to protect capitalists from the free market. But, in fact, my smarty-pants use of "so-called" is unwarranted, because this is exactly what Progressivism was.

Of course, the word "progressive" has become a sort of catch-all umbrella term covering any liberal or vaguely left-wing views, and this is how Shelley innocently uses it in her post. She is an avowed communist, so I know she harbors no illusions about liberals or the state. But I find the word unhelpful and have ceased using it to describe myself or my beliefs--there are big differences between those of us who are resolutely anti-capitalist and those who believe in liberal democracy and the tameability of the capitalist system. It's true that in the context of the existing system, a functioning regulatory framework is much preferred to the current situation. That said, it must always be remembered that not only was the regulatory system designed by capitalists, but the welfare state--the New Deal, for example--was part of a necessary accommodation with labor, in order to, again, save capitalism from itself. This deal was enabled by the incredible, unrepeatable growth of the post-WWII period (growth which itself was enabled by the burgeoning military-industrial complex and the insanity of the Cold War), and itself entered into crisis in the late 1960s/early 1970s. There is no going back. And yet going back appears to be all that progressives, Nader included, have to offer, in the face of ongoing, expensive wars and the lack of a powerful labor movement which could force such an accommodation. Nader sounds great when he talks about regulation and generally says the right things about particular wars and about Palestine, but he gives no indication that he appreciates that crisis is necessary to capitalism, that war is, that the capitalist state does not exist to serve the people.

Incidentally, the narrative of progress itself is another reason I object to the word "progressive". This is a narrative that exists within the Marxist teleological tradition, too. Usually this implies change that can be seen as a kind of necessary, inexorable "progress", in the way that history itself is seen as progressive--where, to rework a phrase from Marilynne Robinson (quoted by me, here), previous generations are seen as benighted in comparison with our own (as I used to assume, in my youthful naivete, that each generation would necessarily be less racist, less sexist, less religious than their parents). It's perhaps the blithe acceptance of technological progress that most disturbs me. We act as if technology simply progresses, as if technological change isn't a function of the capitalist process, as if it would continue to "progress" in the same manner in the absence of the capitalist pressures, or ought to.

Drastic changes are urgently needed, but many of the changes that I think are necessary would involve reviving lost forms from the past, a give and take with the best of what tradition has had to offer. I would call the world a better place if they took place, but I would not call it progress. More on this in future posts.

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