The response of the liberals and the talking heads to the Edward Snowden revelations (Jeffrey Toobin: “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”) has made me rethink my visceral opposition to the radicalism of certain intellectuals on the Left—those who, like Naomi Klein, Greg Grandin, and Noam Chomsky, among many others, have defined the Cold War imperial state as the antithesis of development and democracy. Those who have said we need to overthrow capitalism, get rid of this stinking, morally depraved rationale for exploitation and greed.
Is this a police state, I asked myself last night, as I read Glenn Greenwald’s latest post at the Guardian, a preface to his column of today. Have we arrived, belatedly but definitely, at that place called Amerika? Well, no, the truncheons aren’t out. But then we’re not in the streets.
I’ve spent the last thirty years arguing against radicalism pure and simple because it exempts the Left itself from any implication or culpability in the atrocities of the American Empire. Because it places us outside the mainstream of US history, whereas we belong at its very center. Because it repudiates the past in a reprise of Huck Finn’s escape from civilization, pointing us toward unsettled territory—boyish beginnings, new frontiers—and letting us believe that we have nothing to learn from American history except that the big money always wins.
That’s how radicalism works, by assuming that revolution means a complete break from the useless past—it’s the negation of conservatism, which assumes that civilization can last only if any such a revolutionary break from the past is prevented, only so long as custom and tradition are preserved. Notice that conservatives and radicals concur on the meaning of revolution, in effect validating Edmund Burke’s fear and V. I. Lenin’s admiration of the French blueprint (thus displacing the American Revolution from the canon, as it were).
And that’s why I’ve been arguing against it. Maybe I’ve been professionally deformed by my formal training as an academic historian, but I’ve long believed that if we can’t learn from the past—if we can’t read our ethical principles as legible in our historical circumstances—then we have nothing to say to our contemporaries, who live under those circumstances, who cannot as a rule afford to divest themselves of their prior commitments and join a crusade for social justice. Once more I’ll trot out John Dewey’s Hegelian aphorism as explanation of this political reality: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”
To my mind, great revolutions are accomplished by refusing the either/or choice between radicalism and conservatism. A revolution, whether cultural or political, realizes the possibilities residing in and flowing from the historical circumstances of the time, but it also creates new, hitherto unseen possibilities—it preserves and annuls the past, and so it’s both conservative and radical. If it’s not both, it fails as a revolution.
At any rate that’s been my argument against the comrades who want to overthrow capitalism. I’ve been saying all along that socialism and democracy are still residents of this decrepit neighborhood, so what we need is not urban renewal—tear the thing down and build from scratch—but national reconstruction in the sense conveyed by anti-slavery movements after 1840. For example, I’ve suggested that we need to complete rather than inaugurate the socialization of the banking system first undertaken in the FDIC and since amplified by the Savings & Loan bailout of 1989-95 and the TARP program of 2009. We own the thing, we just don’t know it or understand what to do with our ownership.
But now, I’m not so sure. The socialization of the banking system at public expense has been accomplished without any corresponding increase of democracy. The socialization of job training has been similarly accomplished with public funds at the state level—call it education, or call it retraining of workers without jobs, either way the cost is borne by taxpayers while the benefits accrue to corporations—and at a “higher” level through the All-Volunteer Armed Forces, again without any increase in democracy. The Wal-Mart business model is the microeconomic apotheosis of this pattern, whereby the costs and risks of private enterprise can be socialized via local tax breaks, food stamps, emergency rooms, etc.—as taxpayers, we’re paying the social wage of all Wal-Mart employees—precisely because the people who run the company have kept workplace democracy off the table.
And now the socialization of information as such has been fully accomplished, under public auspices because it was carried out by government agencies, of course aided and abetted by the telecommunications companies–how do you fight in court when there is none?–but without any increase in democracy and indeed at the expense of democracy no matter how you define it, by a state that can’t know a limit.
So what do you call socialism without democracy? Totalitarianism was the word social scientists and political theorists came up with in the 1950s to summarize the erasure of the liberal distinction between state and society which was sponsored by both fascism and communism. This surveillance state of ours, is it totalitarian? And if so, does resistance to it require the pure and simple radicalism I’ve been arguing against all these years? Was Chomsky right all along?
The new Leviathan moving its slow thighs just now, this rough beast Edward Snowden has stirred, what would it take to tame it, head it off, or kill it? I don’t know. Not anymore. But I do know that radicalism makes a lot more sense at this moment than at any other in my adult life. The choice does begin to feel like it’s either/or.
My consolation is slim but not none, my hesitation short but real. The only and the most powerful arguments against the intrusions of this surveillance state, and these come from Glenn Greenwald himself, are the arguments that derive from the Constitution itself–from the 1st and the 4th Amendments, from “original intent,” from this still usable past.