I have minor objections to Peter Beinert’s essay in The Daily Beast (“The Rise of a New New Left”), the most important one being that it’s much more convincing than my attempt at the same argument in “How The Left Has Won,” an essay I wrote for Jacobin. It’s always irritating when another writer is clearly better than you are on a topic you take seriously.
Rick Perlstein of The Nation, on the other hand, has major objections. To me, they’re the perfect illustration of the Left’s will to powerlessness, which is on display everywhere these days, but especially poignant among the leading intellectuals who keep chanting “The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left.” (Among many others, see Michael Kazin, Corey Robin, Bhaskar Sunkara, T. J. Clark, Richard Wolff, Eli Zaretsky, and Jeffrey St. Clair.) This will to powerlessness places these intellectuals outside the corridors of power, where they cannot be corrupted by the blandishments of fame, money, and celebrity—it places them in a “clearing,” it gives them the footing they need to speak truth to power. And so it keeps them innocent in the old-fashioned sense of that word.
It also keeps the existing political system intact. This system appears, in these terms, as so hopelessly corrupt that it’s beyond critique. In short, the will to powerlessness breeds a corrosive cynicism.
Here are Perlstein’s objections:
“Beinart’s generational argument is deterministic. It’s not about what the defining argument of the future will be. Young people’s ideological outlook seems to him already settled—leftward. That’s far too simple and optimistic.
“For one thing it assumes that political dynamics are linear—since the trends tend this way now, they will only tend that way more so in the future. It thus leaves out an awful set of variables that complicates any narrative of progress.
“For [another] thing, he assumes that America has a democracy.”
Translation: First, Beinert is predicting the future, and this is simply impossible, no matter how solid the numbers and trend lines may seem in the present. Second, America is no democracy. The Republicans have gerrymandered so many districts, and can spend so much “dark money” provided by the likes of the Koch Brothers, that the more likely outcome of the “Age of Fail” on a once-idealistic generation is withdrawal and abstention:
“Another scenario looks like this: young citizens motivated by left-leaning passions run into a brick wall again and again and again trying to turn their convictions into power. The defining story of our next political era becomes not a New New Left but a corrosive disillusionment that drives the country into ever deeper sloughs of apathy.”
Or a right-wing Populist revolt against liberal elites.
I find Perlstein’s objections almost comical, especially since he understands (and says) that Beinert is using Karl Mannheim’s notion of political generations very carefully. Beinert is predicting the future in the very limited sense of extrapolating from measurable historical trends. Every historian does the same thing, often without thinking—Perlstein himself does it here, in offering alternative political scenarios.
But the more comical objection is the (unstated) prediction that because America is not now a democracy, being subject to “dark money” and electoral chicanery from the Right, it cannot and will not become a democracy. No matter that the USA is by far the most open society on the planet—not the best, not even the most free, but the most open. No matter that the promise of American life is an explosive force of production in its own right, more powerful than any technology.
You can’t get there from here? Tell it to the Spaniards who lived under Franco, the Chileans who lived under Pinchet, and yes, goddamn it, the Cubans who lived under Batista.