On Beinart v. Perlstein

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.



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11 responses to “On Beinart v. Perlstein

  1. Michael Kazin

    Jim– I can’t speak for the other left writers you say are possessed by a “will to powerlessness.” But I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how the left can and should have an impact on the political system we have–in places like “Dissent” and “The New Republic.”

    Cheers, Michael

  2. Michael, I’m thinking here of (1) the notion that you can’t have socialism without a movement for socialism, which among left intellectuals typically means a movement against capitalism; and (2) your remark toward the end of American Dreamers, to the effect that we now live at the “nadir” of the Left.

  3. CP

    Your blog post convinced me to re-read Beinart’s essay. I found this part of it especially troubling:

    “For a moment, Occupy shook the country. At one point in December 2011, Todd Gitlin points out in Occupy Nation, the movement had branches in
    one-third of the cities and towns in California. Then it collapsed.”


    “Then it collapsed?” Come on! Why did it collapse? Of course, the issue of Occupy isn’t a central part of Beinart’s analysis. Nevertheless, we should be honest about the causes of its dramatic downfall: state violence and intimidation. To be fair, this blindspot is hardly unique to Beinart. In my view, too many are unwilling to address the question of repression in Obama’s America.

    • Wes Bishop

      I think you have a very valid point about the intimidation and violence against Occupy participants (and its impact on Occupy would be a very interesting study), but the larger question I think is what would have a sustained Occupy looked like? People speak repeatedly about how Occupy should do this or that, but is it really a political party or a protest movement? The former implies permanence, the latter implies that it rises up, protests, and then “recedes” back. I think there are many things that the various Occupy chapters could do to be even more effective (i.e. running primary challengers to people like Rahm Emanuel, etc.) but I think Beinart’s larger point is that Occupy isn’t reflective so much of an organization as it is an expression in generational shift. As such what difference does it make, ultimately, if Left ideas are brought to the political process by a movement like Occupy or the Democratic Party? Establishing the paradigm of “Why did Occupy fail/collapse?” plays into this notion of “will to powerlessness.”

      But you raise a good point about brutality against Occupiers. Much like the draconian measures the Right is implementing in terms of voting, I think they reflect a larger trend where the Right realizes it must resort to force/coercion to maintain power. Not a particularly promising state for conservative politics.

  4. Rick Perlstein

    In what sense is, say, France, or Denmark, less open than “most open society on the planet”? That sounds like Reaganism to me.

    • Good question. Caveats preemptor. I assume that by “Reaganism” you mean the notion of American exceptionalism that has supposedly disfigured popular historical consciousness and political discourse in the USA. As intellectual shorthand, that’s fine with me. But let me say, as a working historian, that exceptionalism is (a) a European invention, not a native growth, (b) the politician’s way of congratulating Americans for escaping the past, and (c) a notion I have never understood, let alone deployed. By now it has become the intellectual’s way of congratulating himself for immunity from nationalism.

      On open societies. I wasn’t channeling Popper or Soros. But I would say that France or Denmark are less open societies than the one we inhabit here in the US because (a) our borders (in every sense) are more porous; (b) as individuals or even as citizens, we don’t share a national origin, a racial stock, a linguistic affinity, or a religious sensibility, so that argument about what it means to be an American is what constitutes “the people” as a nation, as such; (c) sovereignty as the Constitution and political tradition construe it in the US resides “out of doors,” not in the state, the cabinet, the minister, the president, the government, but in the people at large.

  5. mike

    Perlstein insists that, as an historian, he prefers a perspective “closer to the ground” than mere columnists like Bienard are allowed to employ. But one case he cites to suggest an absence of democracy and the coming Republican distopia — while admittedly an example of the pernicious influence of dark money — is from a state that voted for Obama twice and just legalized recreational dope. So what does an NRA sponsored, off-year, off-season, uniquely special election teach us about Colorado, much less the larger Left or the future of the United States?

    Perlstein’s use of the “Historian” dodge left me thinking: Is getting so “close to the ground” you reduce the horizon to inches what historians do? If so, who needs em’?

  6. What you call a will to powerlessness within the left Jim is, I fear, too innocent a critique. Will to powerlessness sounds like a kind of charming shyness of the bookish cafe dweller. I’m afraid that life in that “clearing” that you evocatively describe is instead more indulgent and deliberate. That life is too often a choice to engage in cheap point scoring. It is a choice to engage, compulsively, in moral exhibitionism. The fearless snarl, the cheap moral rebuke is, at the end of the day, a lifestyle choice of much of the left. It’s breezy and free and all that but only because it is so remote from the more claustrophobic work of engaging with and attempting to win contests against entrenched power. Not just by snarling at it but by figuring out ways to win.

  7. Richard Schneirov

    It seems to me that the root of “the will to powerlessness” (Jim Livingston) or “the moral exhibitionism” (Chris Mackin) of many left intellectuals is a kind of elitism. I see that elitism in the very definition of the left as a select group of thinkers who can be the “dreamers” (Kazin) of society. This conception leaves the large majority of Americans as the inert mass, “the center,” to whom truth must be brought—as if the average American doesn’t or can’t dream. This elitism can be viewed as the current version of old Leninist vanguard party. It is also the current version of the old Protestant moral reform tradition in which those who are saved are called upon to evangelize and uplift the unregenerate, while keeping themselves free of sin. The alternative to both traditions is a democratic definition of the left as the large majority of Americans. If Americans are so conservative—If they can’t be trusted—how else can we explain the strong leftward tilt of American history, whether it be the flowering of democratic institutions (mass parties, civil society, extension of the franchise) in the nineteenth century, the abolition of slavery, the acceptance of unions and regulation of corporations, and the expansion of freedom in culture and personal life in recent decades. Even the present rightward tilt is a response to the continued leftward movement of Americans. By excluding the American people from a definition of the left, those who call themselves leftists disconnect themselves from the promise inherent in the lives of everyday Americans.

    Rich Schneirov

  8. < This will to powerlessness places these intellectuals outside the corridors of power…. 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.

    Livingston’s argument may be appropriate in a certain scope, and this may be a particularly depressed spurt of blogging from Perstein. But from my middle American non-academic point of view, the writers listed – or at least several of them that I know – are doing something prerequisite to power: getting an intellectual footing after many decades of what was a true intellectual will to powerlessness on the left – a studied fecklessness. In particular, Robin and Perlstein (and several Jacobin writers) are a massive blast of very fresh air. I’m not suggesting that their freshness excuses them from criticism, just that getting an intellectual footing does matter, before – and/or during – doing anything else.

    I mean, go back a decade or three, and will to powerlessness on the left is ubiquitous to the point of cliche-stink.

    I agree that Perlstein’s blog post (what it was after all) is rather morose. That happens. I don’t see how to extrapolate from that the pathetic trend (the list) Livingston does.

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