morality_play (morality_play) wrote,

A cautionary word on our "progressive US centrists"

It seems to me that political affiliations have become increasingly incestuous in the last ten years. Since February, Lou Dobbs, a free market ideologue with laissez faire commitments tempered by backwards nationalism in his old age, and whom the pop-left imagines as a populist themselves, has been periodically interviewing Jonathan Cowan of the Third Way organization. Ostensibly, Third Way's mission is to save the unwashed masses from extremism in America. Their label of centrism has become very fashionable in the last couple of decades, and has been manifesting itself more aggressively in our political climate recently, in the form of tickets like Unity08.

Centrism's popularity follows from it's ease of use, I think. It permits a simple person to act out the role of political participation without needing to do the work of intellectual engagement. Like Kabuki. Individualist culture in the US treats having an opinion like it's some kind of beatitude. But how do you speak meaningfully about the occupation of Iraq without knowing what articles bear upon it's legality, or test the merit of 20th century economic thought without being able to follow the socialist calculation debate? Centrism provides an easy solution to this problem by substituting the patina of "impartiality" where a smarter person would have placed a critical appraisal. And because centrism is designed to appeal to the mentally simple longing for a voice with it's brand of complete inattentiveness, it's poised to be infiltrated very effectively by right-political ideologues.

Chris Bowers for example, astutely observes that Unity08's "center-progressivism" persistently enunciates the political right's positions for it, and seems to be well compensated for doing so. Third Way has been described as progressive in a variety of venues, but listening to Jonathan Cowan's exchange with Lou the other night, I was struck by the presence of three _sinister_ narratives embedded in his stated positions. Narratives we can attribute to the nonsensical libertarian ideology of the Third Way organization, and which Mr. Dobbs permitted to go unchecked. They are as follows:

People are scared of impending poverty in our current economic environment, but _they're_ irrational.
The "neopopulists," Cowan's Bete noir, misdiagnose the problem. The "real problems" of the middle class are whatever nebulous failure of government Mr. Cowan imagines. Which brings us to the second narrative:

Blame the state apparatus!
The mechanism we call _government_ which allows us to responsively and rationally ameliorate our own quality of life, needs to be contracted for the benefit of the private sector! Forget institutions designed to improve our quality of life, like medicine, pure research in the sciences, environmental regulation or public education! Even the basic requirements of a modern civilization like _roads_, infrastructure, or a _functional military_ need to be placed at the disposal of private interests. Which brings us to the third narrative:

Trust the free market mechanism!
"Americans need to be given the tools to cope with a globalized economy," or so mr. Cowan tells us. Tools which the imbecile spectre of "big government" has failed to provide it's citizens with. Of course, this prescription for policy assumes that we're obligated to defer to a market mechanism that Cowan arbitrarily privileges! The idea never even enters the dialogue that market forces ought to be artificially controlled and _suppressed_ where they come into conflict with morally desirable conclusions. Why doesn't it?

Is it because the limits of argument were set by an economist (Lou) and an imaginary economist (Cowan)? You know... I'm an architectural designer by day and a MatSci/Eng grad student by night. I don't imagine what I do to be rocket science. But I do not possess the luxury of innumeracy that afflicts the highest functioning economist while he's practicing a discipline with _weaker predictive power than psychology_! It terrifies me that policy is being manufactured by this professional class. That's like giving policymaking authority to population biologists!

We need to abandon this fantasy that market forces, left to their own devices, lead to anything like social justice _or even an efficient use of resources_. Markets are non-intelligent emergent systems. Like natural selection, they do not operate in our interests. And design intervention in the market needs to intercede where they fail to do so. If that sounds perilously similar to a "planned economy," so be it.

Cowan can't level Third Way's tiresome "neopopulist" canard at me to minimize this criticism. I simply don't possess any meaningful egalitarian commitments. I'd estimate that policy making authority _ought to be_ in the hands of a technically competent class. But that means scientists! It sure as hell doesn't mean Cowan. If he thinks he or his ilk are permitted to set the policy agenda for the rest of us, then he radically misunderstands his place.

Why oh why can't we have a better quality of political dialogue in this country?

Cross posted to the 5th Estate.
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