07 April 2014

Symbols and signposts

I used to say that the Left was mostly right about economic and foreign-policy issues, and that the Right was mostly right about cultural and social ones. To some extent, I still believe that. But as I’ve looked more closely at American politics, a disturbing thought has struck me again and again. Regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Mali, Syria and now Russia I’ve noticed party-line Democrats ratting their sabres as bloodthirstily as Bill Kristol and the neocon crowd did in Iraq, and calling for the heads (whether literally or figuratively) of Pvt Manning and Edward Snowden. Regarding economic issues, I’ve seen Democrats cravenly defending the Citizens United decision and dishonestly sweeping the deep failings and inbuilt flaws of Obamacare (notably its prominent lack of a public option) under the rug.

On the other hand, the Republicans have never shown any conviction on abortion, and their having run for office Romney, who had been staunchly pro-choice (before his candidacy) and had invested in a company which profited from abortions, merely shows how they use culture-war issues as cynical ploys to win conservative voters. Increasingly more Republicans are either bailing on their opposition to same-sex marriage, if not switching sides outright as publicly as Obama had. Now more than ever, with a very few blessed exceptions, I suspect that ‘left’ and ‘right’ in American political terms refer merely to constellations of symbolic lifestyle and faux-cultural consumer choices rather than any deep differences in principle.

Both what passes for an American ‘left’ and what passes for an American ‘right’ are completely fine with whatever you choose to do so long as it doesn’t affect them. Unless you happen to be poor, in which case neither side will lift a finger to help you (by, say, raising the minimum wage or ending corporate subsidies for big unaccountable MNCs or offering tax benefits to poor families) – the only difference is that the ‘left’ will patronise and there-there you and the ‘right’ will revile you as lazy. If you happen to be poor and brown, the ‘left’ will patronise you even more before they shut you out of their schools, and the ‘right’ will threaten to shoot you (if they don’t actually do so) before they shut you out of their gated ‘communities’. If a white man commits a crime against you, both ‘left’ and ‘right’ will let him off with a wrist-slap, but if you commit a crime, the ‘right’ will cheer as you’re electrocuted and the ‘left’ will do nothing to stop it. If you’re poor, brown and unborn, you’re even more SOL. The ‘left’ will have you cut to pieces in a vacuum without a qualm, and the ‘right’ will make a big show out of wringing its hands whilst it does so. If you happen to be poor, brown and foreign, well, you’re really SOL. The ‘right’ will drone-bomb you into oblivion without a qualm, and the ‘left’ will make a big show out of wringing its hands whilst it does so.

An oversimplification? Probably. Unfair? Possibly. But I’ve had a couple of friends on the ‘left’ unfriend me on FB for opposing the war in Syria, and at least one friend on the ‘right’ unfriend me for posting anti-abortion literature. It might be possible that I’m becoming more extreme in my views, but I seriously don’t think so. I have never attacked Obama in the way or in the terms in which I once attacked Bush, for example. I have even ‘defended’ him on occasion, from the clearly wrong-headed and vacuous charges of his being non-American, Muslim or (most laughably) socialist.

I have this nagging suspicion that the most serious argument to be made against gay marriage is a left-wing, feminist one: it makes mutual sexual attraction the only philosophical basis for marriage and turns the norm of reproduction into a loveless contractual exchange on the open market, reifying the bodies of women (and the sperm of men) not even as labour but as productive capital – as machines, in other words – with the final product, the body of a child, to be designed with the self-interest of the homosexual ‘client’ parent in mind. But I am convinced also that, in the final analysis, the most serious argument to be made against capitalism generally is going to be a non-Marxist, personalist, even a conservative one: that it presupposes a materialist version of the cosmos wherein everything can be reduced to its symbolic, monetary value.

If there is any signpost to a new kind of politics in the US, it will be built on the instincts that are already there in much of the Democratic base, particularly amongst non-whites and blue-collar whites. These instincts were what propelled Obama to triumph in the ’08 primaries over Clinton, though he has long since abandoned them. These instincts are populist, anti-war, anti-police state and anti-racist. But they are also heavily traditional – even distributist – and pro-life. The big question now, is whether those instincts will be retained in the coming generations, or whether they will be ‘educated’ out of existence by the dominant party line.

In the meantime, when people talk about the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ in America – ignore them. America has no ‘left’, apart from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and several more marginal political figures (like Jill Stein). And America’s ‘right’ is only that insofar as its fusionist ideology conforms to the standards of Anglo-American liberalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment