30 September 2016

A realist-left primer?

Clockwise from top left: Lasch, Solzhenitsyn, Mailer, Berry

Someone – and I would be more than happy to work together with the Realist Left and Lord Keynes on this – should put together a primer on the realist left, encompassing primarily (but not exclusively) American thinkers, poets, activists and essayists of the past century who embraced the sort of values we stand for: firm commitments to the working class, to fair trade and to the family, but also a deep-seated scepticism toward crypto-libertarian fragmentation, regressive identitarianism and the ‘lifestyle’ elements kindled by the American New Left. My modest suggestions, at this point, would include Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, Norman Mailer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Advisedly, of course, as I realise that these are all ‘cultural’ scholars, and the interests of Lord Keynes and Realist Left do swing more toward the economic side of the equation. I still hope that they would generate some interest.

Christopher Lasch is something of a no-brainer here. He began his idiosyncratic sociological career as a Freud-inspired Marxist, and throughout his career he never lost his deep-seated leftist revulsion at the entire capitalist structure or the narcissistic personality traits it encouraged. But as his career went on he began to see these same narcissistic predilections at work in the same ‘radical’ elements of the counterculture that claimed to want to displace capitalism. He saw in this ‘radicalism’ several decidedly non-radical, alienating elements: the abandonment of the family; the managerial revolution in the liberal arts; the obsession with youth and its maintenance; the elevation of ‘busyness’ as virtue; the pursuit of sexual pleasure at all costs and the corresponding ‘flight from feeling’; the shift from grassroots-radical producerism to the accommodationist language of ‘social mobility’; and the encroachment of a welfare system run by degree-holding ‘experts’ (usually with faux-‘radical’ lifestylist social agendas) upon the lives of working-class families. He grew deeply, perhaps even overly, critical of the communitarians for a ‘sentimentality’ which corroded their insistence on overlapping meshes of rights and responsibilities – but he embraced environmentalism as a form of politics which encouraged class solidarity and continuity between generations. Together with Lawrence Goodwyn (with whom he studied), he is one of the foremost historians of the populists of the 1880’s and 1890’s, whose heterodox economic and monetary ideas find echoes in modern monetary theory.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may not be as much of a no-brainer, on account of the obscurantist and reactionary reputation he has gotten in American circles as a result of his Harvard address in 1978. And it is true: he supported the continuation of the Vietnam War, and the critique implicit in his address to Harvard was as much aimed at the ‘softness’ and mushy-headedness of the American academic and countercultural left as it was against the Communists who took over his motherland. He was no friend to the antecedents of the regressive left. He was a true patriot who loved both the nation he was exiled from, and the nation which sheltered him. Yet he was no war hawk – he spoke out with his wonted prophetic vehemence against the military campaigns in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. His economic ideas themselves tended toward a kind of decentralised economic democracy. Not only did he speak up (perhaps surprisingly to some) in favour of a form of the local soviet model as it had been originally envisioned in the early days of the Russian revolution, but he also had a high respect and admiration for the backwoods-Yankee town hall culture as it was practised in his adoptive Vermont. Also, similarly to Lasch, even though he wasn’t anti-industry per se, he endorsed an environmental-conservationist ethic because he felt that high-profile, top-down, wasteful boondoggles were ruining Russian communities and laying waste to Russian families, selling off Russia’s true patrimony to support its sprawling imperial ambitions abroad.

Wendell Berry is another kindred spirit in the same vein: the poet-prophet of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, the American farmer and the disappearing small town. The realist left may find some to disagree with in his sceptical treatments of (in particular) the ‘food industry’ (though I’d hope they appreciate his principled opposition to ‘free trade’ dogmas), but, critical as they are of globalism, they will also find much to love in his championing of local communities and local businesses, his championing of ‘producerism’, and his opposition to the proletarianisation of much of rural America. They may also enjoy the well-deserved literary lashing he once delivered to his gender-feminist critics back in 2003, as he defended the family, the family economy, and the growth of family-based industry and production. On the topic of immigration, he has decried the ‘mean’ sloganeering of both the xenophobic right and the regressive left, and called for a balanced, humane approach which respected all three of the law, the local economy, and the demands of those genuinely fleeing from violence and deprivation.

Last but certainly not least on my current list is the prodigious counterculture essayist and novelist Norman Mailer. I confess that I’ve been quite remiss on my Mailer for these several years in which he’s been on my radar; I have yet to read anything by him longer than a publicly-available essay. Yet what I have read from and about him has been intriguing. He was an ideologically-evasive and politically-incorrect man-of-letters, often (literally) pugilistic in his high-profile academic and literary feuds. He was, in the words of Taki Theodoracopulos, ‘anathema to those censorious leftists and middlebrow novelists who are taken seriously nowadays’. But he called himself a ‘left-conservative’, and his critics described him as a ‘radical moralist’: he wants to promote equality and alternatives to capitalism while at the same time conserving, in his own words, ‘family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance’ and other ‘dependable human virtues’. Yet at first glance, his books seem suffused with the horrifying possibility that neither, ultimately, may be possible in our current cultural moment… Certainly some more in-depth reading is due on my part in order to get the gist of his thinking, but I would like to give him a tentative boost here.

At any rate, perhaps a project to consider, in the broader interests of keeping it real and keeping it left.

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