Published online 21 April 2012.
Book Review: Anthony Giddens, Beyond Right and Left: The Future of Radical Politics. Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
In this earlier diary of mine, I argued that if we didn’t regard Barack Obama as a “leftist,” this might eventually open up some political space for a political left in the US which went beyond the conservative impasse which pitted corporate conservatives of the Democratic Party against antipublic conservatives of the Republican Party.I obviously didn’t look at motivation. The question I should have asked is one of why the phantom Left still exists as a meme of American political discussion. Sure, there are people in America who still call themselves leftists. But voting for the “lesser of two evils” offers such people an excuse to avoid having to take more-than-superficial positions on sensitive political topics. As a friend of mine once told me, “there’s nothing I can do” about global warming. Liberals no longer have to decide about methane emissions or civil liberties or oil pollution or drug policy or education policy or employment policy or a host of other subjects. The decision has already been made for them, and besides the Republicans are worse.
The system offers “liberals” a choice: they can either support “possible” policies which aren’t actionable, or they can shift their priorities a bit and support “one side” in some Kabuki theater that has a bad outcome but which supposedly makes them look good (see e.g. the debt ceiling negotiations). Reasoning through this choice, and figuring out how best to claim to stand for something, is no doubt an activity which takes up substantial time for “liberals.”
Thus, given the grimness of the political choices, being a self-identified liberal in America today means adopting a pose: “I criticize Obama, but I support him.” (Alternate pose: “Obama’s rhetoric is nice, therefore I support him.”) Appearing to be “leftist” is, moreover, going to persist as a mark on the CVs of a marginal section of the professional class — but I’m not clear that that in itself is enough to sustain the meme of “the Left” in America. The sort of Left that (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) organized for what it wanted is dead and has been dead for some time, except for occasional forays into radical living by dedicated college students. What replaced it was a phantom left. The fact of the matter is that organizing a third party in America today (or even a progressive insurgency to take over the Democratic Party) is too much fruitless work, whereas being a participant in the phantom Left is easy. It’s just too hard to make a political movement look real.
In order to understand how things got this way, we must explore history. What I will suggest here is that an autopsy of the old Left would do well to perform a reading of Anthony Giddens’ old book, “Beyond Right and Left.” Now, I know that historical autopsies of the old Left are not an original essay topic — you have one full in the flesh, for instance, in Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class, and most of a second one in Lance Selfa’s critique of the Democratic Party, The Democrats: A Critical History. The problem with these autopsies is that they assume the time of death too early: Hedges imagines that McCarthyism killed off the Left in the ’50s, whereas Selfa can only imagine a Left outside of the Democratic Party, discounting the golden age of capitalism. So it’s essential we start a new autopsy, one that charts the diminution of Left hope in America. See below for the role Anthony Giddens might play in all this.
Now, Anthony Giddens is from the UK, which has a rather different history of the Left, a multi-party political system, and a significantly more robust welfare state than what we have here in the US. Nonetheless we can glean some important ideas from Beyond Left and Right, because it’s a piece of social theory, and so much of what it says also has meaning for us. Giddens was a significant social theorist long before this book came out. His magnum opus is The Constitution of Society, which outlines his “theory of structuration,” a theory of how people exist in society both individually and socially. It’s an amazing work of social theory.
As a book, Beyond Right and Left has a structure which is easy to understand. Most of the main points are in the introduction — their elaboration is in each of the chapters.
In Beyond Right and Left, Giddens is suggesting that the Left has become conservative, and the Right has become radical. Much of this development is due (in his opinion) to globalization: the Left must defend a shrinking welfare state because “Communism” is no longer a viable option, whereas the Right is free to explore the world created by globalization through neoconservatism and neoliberalism. I found this to be a fundamentally valid observation.
His preface suggests a lot:
Conservatism become radical here confronts socialism become conservative. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many socialists have come to concentrate their energies on protecting the welfare state in the face of the strains to which it has become subject. Some socialists, it is true, continue to say that authentic socialism has never been tried, arguing that the disappearance of Communism is a windfall rather than a disaster. Communism, in this view, was a form of authoritarian dogmatism, deriving from a revolution betrayed, while reformist socialism of the sort found in Western Europe was dragged down by trying to accommodate capitalism rather than surpassing it. However, this thesis is threadbare indeed and socialists have mostly been thrown back onto the defensive, their position in the ‘vanguard of history’ reduced to the more modest task of protecting welfare institutions. (2)
Here Giddens oversimplifies the situation for the global Left after the abolition of the Soviet Union. There was nothing wrong with the thesis promoted in books such as Alex Callinicos‘ The Revenge of History, which is what Giddens has summarized above — it’s just that if we are to regard socialism as getting a fresh start with the end of the Soviet Union, we’d have to place any conceivable revolution further back into the future than either Giddens or Callinicos wanted to consider.Nonetheless Giddens is right here to presume that the “Left” of his time had become conservative. What this meant in practical terms is that the “Left,” globally (and especially, for that matter, in the US) became vastly diminished by becoming conservative. The Right can characterize welfare as a “burden upon taxpayers,” while the Left refrains from criticizing capital’s appropriation of the surplus from the working class. The Left loses a lot of rhetorical ground in forswearing the critique of capitalism that one reads in Karl Marx. Even the compromise position, that the worst abuses of capitalism can be mitigated through the welfare state, suggests a greater degree of political power power than a defensive pleading-before-the-emperor that says “don’t take away our bennies!” Giddens didn’t mention this.
Giddens tried to justify this “Left conservatism” in terms of what he saw as the obsolescence of the marxist utopia. He argues that the “cybernetic model” of a society suggested by “Communism” requires consciously directed central planning, and central economic planning brings us to a dictatorial economic model. By contrast, we are told, “markets make possible bottom-up decisionmaking which is very often the condition of economic efficiency.” (68)
Giddens’ reasoning about socialism isn’t entirely necessary. The limitation of the socialist movement was not that the Soviet Union provided any necessary model of a socialist society, nor that subordination to markets was necessary for “bottom-up decisionmaking.” Planning need not be “central planning,” and communism didn’t necessarily have to be dictatorial. Rather, the main problem with the historical achievement of socialism in the 20th century was that Marx and Engels were wrong to imagine in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism will produce its own gravediggers. Expanding capitalism was more likely to assure the dominance of elements in the working class who thought that (capitalist) social democracy was the answer to their problems. I would argue that in the history of expanding capitalism, from the 19th century to the late 20th century, anticapitalism has largely functioned to provide a utopian backdrop for worker struggles in, for instance, the union movement, which contained both radical and reformist elements. Giddens’ reasoning about socialism doesn’t have to be right, though, because the practical result has been the same as if he was right. He’s essentially correct to argue that “the Left” has fallen into a defensive position in this era.
In “Beyond Right and Left” Giddens nonetheless offers meaningful suggestions, suggestions meaningful even today, for the reconstitution of the Left. They include:
1) the repair of damaged solidarities, which involves supporting family life.
2) what Giddens calls “life politics,” which involves questions of how one should live in this era. Life politics deals with lifestyle issues. I presume this is the box in which Giddens places his various observations upon environmentalism throughout this book.
3) a politics focused upon what he calls “generative politics.” Generative politics is a politics which seeks to allow individuals and groups to make things happen, rather than have things happen to them, in the context of overall social concerns and goals.
Generative politics is a defence of the politics of the public domain, but does not situate itself in the old opposition between state and market. It works through providing material conditions, and organizational frameworks, for the life-political decisions taken by individuals and groups in the wider social order. Such a politics depends on the building of active trust, whether in the institutions of government or in connected agencies. A key argument of this book is that generative politics is the main means of effectively approaching problems of poverty and social exclusion in the present day. (15)
4) Extending what Giddens calls “dialogic democracy.” This means promoting greater accountability for government, but also the promotion of social movements and self-help groups. Generative politics and dialogic democracy could mean the Occupy movement, or it could mean the Tea Party.5) Reforming the welfare state. Giddens’ well-intentioned move here is to insure that “welfare measures aimed at countering the polarizing effects of what, after all, remains a class society must be empowering rather than merely ‘dispensed.'” (18) In US politics this meant the invention of “workfare.”
6) “A programme of radical politics must be prepared to confront the role of violence in human affairs.” (18). Clearly this means dealing with the whole apparatus of the military, the cops, guns, violent crime, violence against women and children, and so on. In practical life this can mean both the “war on terror” and the peace movement.
As you can see, Giddens’ considerations for “the future of radical politics” are multivalent — they can suggest a renewed radical politics or they can be co-opted into another conservative “movement.” There are some profoundly liberal moments in this book — Giddens is for expanded access to health care, global feminism, and improved social welfare. At one point he suggests that the environmental crisis suggests a “utopia of global co-operation” (223). It’s clearly not “on Giddens” that we now face a political world of competing conservatisms.
Giddens’ next book after Beyond Left and Right was named The Third Way, which became a slogan for Tony Blair in his ascension to the post of (UK) Prime Minister through what he called “New Labour,” which is to say, neoliberalism with “communitarian” state interventions. The Third Way became, to be sure, a heavy influence upon the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Beyond Left and Right, then, is Giddens’ preparatory work for his advocacy of the Third Way, of a political initiative which attempts to preserve neoliberal economic institutions by engaging social initiatives of various kinds — more or less along the lines of what you see in the list prepared by the Obama Achievements Center. (Despite Giddens’ claim that the “Third Way” was not intended to be neoliberal, the strengthening of neoliberal power was indeed the result of Third Way policies.)
Much of the rest of Giddens’ book is pervaded by the philosophy of the “risk society.” I can’t claim to be very enthused by this content. The “Risk Society” thesis may be used by its primary exponents, especially Ulrich Beck, to promote environmentalism — but it’s also a philosophy ready-made for warmongers (see e.g. Mikkel Rasmussen’s The Risk Society At War for more on this). I think it’s an easy, conservative move to categorize a bunch of disparate phenomena as “risks.”
If Giddens’ suggestions were to be the basis for a new radicalism, as his subtitle would suggest, they would have to be further radicalized — as indeed the Occupy community has started to do — but instead, it appears, they were co-opted. One can see that, in the title of “Beyond Left and Right,” we got to “Beyond Left,” but are still stuck in Right.
I will conclude this review with my critique of conservatism. The problem with conservatism is that it’s intellectually easy. See status quo, defend status quo. Reactionary politics is only slightly more difficult: imagine past, defend past. Progressivism demands that we imagine a positive future toward which we’re progressing; radicalism demands that we get at the roots of the current dilemma to imagine how radical change could succeed. Either of those are much more demanding as intellectual tasks than conservative thought, and perhaps too daunting for the politics of the current era. In Beyond Left and Right, Anthony Giddens offered a complex critique of political life in the era immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, with lots of clues to how political radicalism could be restored to his time. None of these clues are of much consequence so far.