A Lefty Imagines Reforming Institutions
but Trumpists are still the enemy
So, what does a lefty arguing for “fighting for social change today” say about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its aftermath? Particularly when he is Matt Johnson and author of How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment?”
Now, of course, when I read a piece like that I am looking for codewords that reveal lefty — well let us say Enlightenment era — superstition. You know what I mean: the superstition that reason can solve social questions. The notion that politics is good for anything other than offing real enemies that wish you dead or at least in chains.
But I thought I should check the Amazon blurb on Matt Johnson’s book to see what he means by “an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.” In La Wik, Counter-Enlightenment means the French Revolution, Romanticism, and Totalitarianism. Johnson seems to mean that the Enlightenment means “free inquiry, humanism, and universal liberal values,” while Counter-Enlightenment on the right means “the arbitrary constraints of tribe, faith, and nation” while on the left “a reductive and censorious brand of identity politics, as well as the conviction that their own liberal democratic societies are institutionally racist, exploitative, and imperialistic.”
See, I would say that “Counter-Enlightenment” is missing the point. I would use the term “Post-Enlightenment” to comprehend the whole arc of history from: Kant and we-cannot-know-things-in-themselves; to Romanticism meaning that logic and reason are only part of the answer; to the psychology of Freud and Jung that conscious logic and reason don’t explain more than a small percentage of human behavior; to the Frankfurt School notion that there is an inescapable injection of domination in the application of reason; to Habermas’s notion that the systems world of Enlightenment and instrumental reason should be balanced by a life-world of communication and negotiation.
In other words, I say that Johnson really does not get the way that western thought has changed and critiqued and bettered itself since the Enlightenment.
Still, reading a chappie wrapping an argument for more government around the civil-right era is very helpful, for the reveals and the “tells” that it necessarily provides.
As you know, I start with the Schmittian notion that politics is about friends vs. enemies, and that there is no politics without an enemy. And I assume that anyone in politics tends towards the attitude that, whatever the problem is, the solution is to take the fight to the enemy. Because like it or not, politics is all about the enemy.
Let us say that in the civil rights era the US had a real political problem, and that the Americans backing civil rights for Negroes had a real political cause: for them the people that backed the Jim Crow era race laws really were enemies of everything they knew and loved. But when Bayard Rustin can write an article for Commentary published in February 1965 entitled “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” and say that the
elaborate legal structure of segregation and discrimination, particularly in relation to public accommodations, has virtually collapsed
well, sports fans, he is saying that the political problem is over. Because if the legal structure of segregation has “virtually collapsed” then the political problem, meaning the fight against the segregation enemy, is over. Been there done that: Victory is ours!
But already Bayard Rustin is living in la-la land. Because, old chum, what exactly is the difference betweemn “protest” and “politics” that you are talking about?
There is a difference. Oh yes. “Protest” is the fight against the enemy in the sreets, mostly peaceful, of course, except when a spot of violence is winked at by the ruling class, as in the Summer of George Floyd. “Politics” is the fight against the enemy in the corridors of power, using the power of government force to compel the enemy to bow to your totems and finance your government programs of loot and plunder.
Now, I say that we should be understanding when we analyze thinkers that still live in what must be for us today the Dark Ages of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Folks in that time were constrained by the mechanical, rational world view of the time. Newtonian. Mechanical. Action and reaction is equal and opposite. Forces. Billiard balls banging off the cushions. So, of course, the thinkers of that time thought in terms of force and mechanical interaction. Bless their hearts.
But we 21st century thinkers and actors live in a new world and experience the old Newtonian mechanical world as an Age of Superstition. Of course, because we are so sophisticated and advanced, we do not hold anything against the thinkers of the Olden Time. What did they know: what could they know, bless their hearts?
Given this glorious 21st century vista we may be excused for being just a little Murdstonian when it comes to our lefty friends today, and think that a little “firmness” might be in order when we propagate thoughtful and informed critiques of the lefty cultural, political, and economic world view. For we believe that any serious thinker that has understood the arc of thought since Kant is bound to regard lefty thought as marinated in the limited science and philosophy and world view of a simpler, more primitive time than our own.
For instance, I would say that once you have written legislation to make discrimination on the basis of race and sex illegal then “that is final,” as an American president once said. If anyone violates such laws then there is nothing to do beyond siccing the FBIs on them. We already know that the FBI is a dab hand at dawn raids on eevil Trump associates, so we have every confidence that they could do the same on eevil racists and sexists.
So, the problem with Bayard Rustin and Matt Johnson and all the lefty ships at sea is that once they introduce words like “Negro struggle” and “progressive forces” and “fighting for large-scale social change” they are talking about taking it to the enemy, not working out differences in non-coercive ways that fall short of a fight with the enemy.
But, alas, trapped in their ways, our lefty friends cannot think outside the bubble of politics. Wrote Rustin:
It is institutions—social, political, and economic institutions—which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.
Yes. But what exactly is the passive voice all about? Who is doing the reconstructing? Protesters? Activists? Or just the passive voice? And so Matt Johnson writes:
Reforming institutions requires cooperation from many different segments of society[.]
That sounds unexceptionable, except for this disturbing sentiment:
the main enemies are Trumpist Republicans who want to ban books in public schools and prevent black Georgians from voting.
See, Matt, when you write something like that you are not talking any more about everyone getting together to reform institutions, real friendly like. You are making it perfectly clear that Trumpist Republicans need not apply, to coin a phrase. The Trumpist Republicans are the enemy; they must be destroyed.
But let us propose something utterly heretical and racist-sexist-homophobic, and not to be endured in educated and activist circles. Suppose we suggest that, after 50 years of the post-civil rights era, white Commoner Trumpist Republicans have suffered injustice from clueless lefties that have no idea in their brains beyond Enlightenment era ideologies seasoned with a bit of Frankfurt School critical theory? And that the lefties literally have no clue about modern concepts of creative “emergence?”
For if lefty thinkers are experiencing Trumpist Republicans as enemies, then it isn’t too much of a stretch to speculate that Trumpist Republicans experience lefties marinated in exploded Enlightenment theories as enemies too. And if that is so, then who is in the right? Who, in other words, is being “oppressed?”
And who will be the victor?
And who would we select to be the unbiased judge and jury of this political question? The present Supreme Court? An expanded Supreme Court? Peaceful protestors outside the homes of Supreme Court justices? Or does the question inevitably come down to a fight? In which case the victory is to the strong, not to the just.
Rustin didn’t say that racism had disappeared—he said the removal of the major legal barriers to racial equality meant black Americans had to focus their activism on issues that blighted the entire society: poverty, health and educational disparities, etc.
Or maybe, we non-elite-sponsored activists have to focus our activism “on issues that blighted the entire society” ever since the civil-rights era: the politics of the educated class that, on issue after issue, Makes Things Worse.
And why? Because politics begins with the identification of the enemy and ends with the defeat of the enemy. And there are really very few things on this Earth affecting human beings that can be improved by the application of the enemy concept.
I wonder what it would take for a chap like Matt Johnson to wrap his brain around the idea that a century and more of lefty politics — whether based on the Enlightenment or not — has not just Made Things Worse, and not just piled up mountains of skulls and starvation and miseries and injustices, but is the worst cultural, political, and economic movement in all of world history.