In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, political scientist, Corey Robin says that conservatism draws its power and purpose from opposition to the left. “From the French Revolution through civil rights and women’s lib, struggles for collective liberation through revolution or reform have forced the right to think harder and better, to act smarter and with greater discipline and intentionality — not out of any Millian desire to get the better of the argument, but out of a desperate need to defend power and privilege against a movement that seeks their elimination.”
What if there’s no left in the US?
According to Robin: “Without a genuine enemy to tutor it, the right has allowed the long-standing fissures of the conservative movement to deepen and expand. That absent tutelage is most visibly embodied in Trump, whose whims are as unlettered as his mind is untaught. Trump is a window onto the dissolution of the conservative whole, a whole that can allow itself to collapse because it has achieved so much. Battling its way to hegemony in the second half of the 20th century, the American right would never have chosen a Trump — not because it was more intelligent and virtuous or less racist and violent, but because it was disciplined by its task of destroying the left. With that left now destroyed, the foot soldiers of the right wing think to themselves: We’ve had conservative Republican presidents. We have a conservative Republican Congress. Why haven’t they delivered on the promises they’ve made for so long? Why haven’t they made us great again? Why not Trump?”
Robin doesn’t say it but one of the chief reasons that conservatism became ascendant is that its erstwhile foe —the Democratic Party (who posed as the left)–abandoned the fight and actively aided conservatives.
For example, it wasn’t just the conservatives who sold us a bill of goods on the wonders of globalization, it was neoliberal Democrats as well. If you export millions of jobs to Mexico and Asia, take workers’ negotiating powers away and push them into crappy jobs with no benefits, while massively aiding banks and corporations, the result will be the sorts of extreme inequality presently plaguing our country.
This kind of analysis is not rocket science and it used to be part of every left-wing intellectual’s toolbox. The left made a serious mistake by ceding the economics sphere to bankers and finance, while focusing their energies on identity politics and cultural issues. In fact, the American left has gone two generations without understanding economics and finance, or even caring to understand. According to writer Mark Ames, “it was the hippies who decided half a century ago that finance was beneath them, so they happily ceded the entire field—finance, business, economics, money—otherwise known as “political power”—to the other side.”
Right now the so-called Resistance is focused on Trump, as if he were the cause of all our problems. But, like I’ve said before and will repeat–Trump is not the cause, he’s just one of the more ghastly symptoms of a failed economic system and dysfunctional democracy.
Since the Red Scares of the 1920’s, when President Woodrow Wilson and his Attorney General Palmer, virtually destroyed the labor movement and radical press, the destruction of the left in America has been a long running goal of conservative business culture.
The Great Depression and New Deal revitalized a labor movement that was energized by socialists and communists. Following World War II, however, the corporate state struck back, with the Taft-Hartley Act, that limited strikes and while fragmenting labor-power with right-to-work statutes, and the McCarthy witch-hunts during the early Cold War years, where the threat of the Soviet Union was used as a cudgel to attack left intellectuals.
The United States is nominally a representative democracy, however corporate interests have an outsized influence on the policies we enact. These corporations spend enormous amounts of money to get the American people to identify free enterprise (meaning state subsidized private power with no infringement of managerial prerogatives) as the American way. In addition to the day in and day out pro-business advertising and PR, corporations have waged intensified propaganda campaigns, deploying the term free enterprise as a means of gaining support for corporate policies.
This long running program to defeat the left has been a one-sided class war where the wealthy and corporations they control have routed their foe and are busy shooting the survivors.
So, I have a question. What are we going to do about it?
If we want a left that can help balance out our world and provide workers some needed power, we need to redevelop an vibrant economic critique of the present ruling ideology–neoliberalism.
In retrospect it seems obvious, but Bernie Sanders did so well in the 2016 presidential election because he’s the first Democrat in forever to offer a trenchant political analysis of the US economy, focusing on class and state power.
The ironic aspect of the rebirth of the left in America is that this development could be the best thing that’s happened to conservatives since Ronald Reagan. Conservatives, as Corey Robin, convincingly argues, absolutely requires a vibrant left to revitalize it as a political movement, lest it end up with Donald Trump as its standard bearer.