[Paleopsych] Dissent: Michael Walzer: All God's Children Got Values

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Michael Walzer: All God's Children Got Values
Dissent Magazine - Spring 2005

    The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn't values that lost us
    the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion
    of fear. But maybe frightened people look for strong leaders, whose
    strength is revealed in their firm commitment to a set of values. Fear
    politics and value politics may turn out to be closely related. So
    what is wrong with the liberal-left? Do we really look weak,
    uncommitted, value-free-tacking to the wind, whichever way it blows?
    And is this just a matter of appearance, a failure of public
    relations; so that what we need is a little rhetorical uplift,
    cosmetic surgery, some improvement in our posture? Stand straighter!
    Talk tough!
    Well, no. We had better tell ourselves a more interesting story than
    that. Something big has happened in American politics over the last
    several decades, a basic shift in perspective, a strange crossover of
    left and right traits that we need to understand. Consider the role of
    ideology on the right today. We on the left tell ourselves that the
    politics of the Bush administration is driven by old-fashioned class
    interest and corporate greed. But that's only partly true. If the old
    Marxist ruling class were actually ruling right now, its policies
    would be considerably more moderate than those of this
    administration-at home and, even more clearly, abroad. What we face in
    Washington is an ideologically driven politics, in which class
    interest is certainly well represented but also exaggerated and
    In fact, ideology rules everywhere on the right, across the spectrum
    of issues in which right-wing intellectuals and activists take an
    interest (note the combination: it used to be only the left that had
    intellectuals and activists). Everywhere, we see radically coherent,
    single-causal analyses of social problems and radical proposals to
    deal with the problems once and for all: lower and lower taxes,
    privatized Social Security, tests and more tests in the public
    schools, torture for terrorists, war for Saddam, democracy for the
    Arabs. And everything will be wonderful, after the revolution.

    This is the first crossover: ideological certainty and zeal have
    migrated to the right. Of course, there are still people on the left
    who are absolutely sure about their political position and zealous in
    its defense. But they don't set the tone; they are off on the margins,
    a frequent annoyance, but not a political force. Most of us on the
    near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we
    understand, and we move around in that world pragmatically, practicing
    a politics of trial and error. We defend policies like Social
    Security, which have worked pretty well, and try to make them work a
    little better. We want more redistributive tax and welfare systems,
    but we are not Bolshevik egalitarians-even if our opponents are
    Bolshevik inegalitarians. We opposed the Iraq War but are painfully
    unsure about how to get out and when. National health insurance is the
    most radical proposal that I've heard from American liberals in recent
    years, and it's a European commonplace.
    I was struck by the pragmatism of the near-left when I read a
    review-essay by Richard Rothstein, one of our best public
    intellectuals, in the New York Review of Books (December 2, 2004).
    Rothstein's essay is mostly a critique of Abigail and Stephan
    Thernstrom's No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, but it
    also discusses six other books about education and inequality. I am
    interested here not in the immediate issues (though they are
    important), but in the most general argument of the essay. "Today's
    education debates are poisoned," Rothstein writes, "by the insistence
    of partisans on finding a single cause . . . for racial inequality and
    then [on denouncing] remedies that address others." The Thernstroms
    are the chief targets here, and Rothstein's essay is a liberal-left
    response: our educational problems, he says, are very complex; racial
    inequality has many causes; and it has to be addressed from different
    angles. "Modest improvement" in our schools is "a more appropriate
    aspiration" than radical change. "If we fail to accept gradual
    progress, educational reform will remain a hopeless enterprise."
    Rothstein is certainly persuasive; I read him and agree. But he does
    sound very much like the early neoconservatives, writing in the Public
    Interest thirty or forty years ago, before the right was seized by
    ideology. Wasn't the liberal "war on poverty" criticized with words
    and phrases similar to Rothstein's? Beware of ambitious projects
    predicated on the certainty that we know what causes what. Beware of
    the unanticipated consequences of theory-based politics. That old
    neocon wariness is ours now. But can it inspire left intellectuals and

    So this is the second crossover: ideological uncertainty and
    skepticism about all-out solutions to social problems have migrated to
    the left. This must have something to do with 1989 and the collapse of
    communism-though I don't think that the left, near or far, has even
    begun to come to grips with the disaster that was communism. Perhaps
    the second crossover is also the product of the (very incomplete)
    success of social democracy in Europe and New Deal liberalism here, of
    civil rights and feminism, even of multiculturalism. Successes of this
    sort don't leave us without an agenda, but they may leave us without
    the kind of agenda that makes for passionate conviction and zealous
    endeavor. A lot of near-left energy over the last fifteen years has
    been spent defending past victories, whose problematic features we
    know only too well.
    The non-zealous near-left might still win elections. Bill Clinton won
    twice, after all, and Al Gore really won (even though he didn't).
    Surely there have been occasions in the past when cautious reformers
    defeated ideological reactionaries. But the crossover of ideology and
    caution has come at a very bad time for us. After the attacks of
    September 11, 2001, the world looks a lot more dangerous than it did
    before, and hesitant, pragmatic reformers don't inspire confidence.
    John Kerry spoke truthfully when he said in one of the presidential
    debates that a politician can be very certain and very wrong. But
    large numbers of Americans seem to believe, though they might not put
    it this way, that certainty will prevail in the end, even over its own
    Intellectuals on the left certainly lack certainty: we no longer have
    a general theory, such as Marxism once was, that tells us how things
    are going and what ought to be done. Does that mean that we are no
    longer "general intellectuals" but only locally and particularly
    engaged-"specialists," as Michel Foucault argued? This left
    intellectual writes about education, this one about city planning,
    this one about health care, this one about the labor market, this one
    about civil liberties-and all of them are policy wonks. Is that our
    world? Well, maybe it is ours, but it isn't theirs. Here is the
    crossover again: there are definitely general intellectuals on the
    right. The theory of the free market isn't a world-historical theory
    exactly; one might say that it is a world-ahistorical theory. But it
    does have extraordinary reach; it allows its believers to have an
    opinion about pretty much everything. In this sense, it is an imperial
    doctrine, like Marxism. And combined with a theory of American-led
    democratization (and, for many people on the right today, with a
    conviction of divine support), it is also an imperialist doctrine: it
    allows believers to have an opinion about pretty much everywhere.

    Now here is the strangest part of my story: deprived of a theory, we
    (on the left) try to get by with principles and values. Despite the
    claims made in the last presidential campaign, the truth is that it's
    the left whose politics is value-driven. There is a distinctly
    moralizing tone in the work of liberal-left intellectuals and
    activists today. The old, Marxist left didn't need morality because it
    had history. Its intellectuals and activists had only to affirm the
    forward movement of the historical engine and join forces with the
    designated driver, the working class. Questions about just and unjust,
    right and wrong, goodness and evil, would all be taken care of after
    the revolution. For the right today, the market takes care of such
    matters, or God takes care of them; the common good arises out of the
    competition for private goods-in obedience, amazingly, to God's word.
    On the left, however, we have to take care of moral matters by
    ourselves, without the help of history, the invisible hand, or divine
    revelation. Hence the arguments we make are almost always moral
    arguments: in defense of human rights; against commodification, for
    communal values; against corporate corruption and greed, for "equal
    respect and concern"; against unjust wars, in favor of humanitarian
    interventions; against environmental degradation, in defense of future
    generations; and so on. We can't claim that any of these arguments are
    in the service of economic growth, or modernization, or revolutionary
    transformation, or religious redemption. They aren't world-historical
    arguments. Marxists would be contemptuous of people arguing like that,
    without a theory of social change, without an analysis of social
    forces. Nonetheless, these aren't the arguments of specialists; some
    of us make all of them, all the time, without any expert connection to
    any of the things we are talking about. Aren't we still general

    That last question is connected to a more urgent one: Why isn't the
    moral character and the value-driven politics of the near-left more
    widely recognized? For right-wing intellectuals and activists, values
    seem to be about sex and almost nothing else; vast areas of social
    life are left to the radically amoral play of market forces. And yet
    they "have" values, and we don't. They can be relied on to defend "our
    values," and our way of life, and even our lives, and we can't. This
    is, of course, an exaggeration; fifty-nine million Americans voted for
    John Kerry and so for the American liberal-left in its party-political
    form. Still, my account of who is taken to have and not to have values
    is, I think, an accurate reading of the dominant political culture.
    Why is this so?
    The answer has to do with the ideological crossover. Liberals and
    leftists are engaged on many fronts, but we are not coherently
    engaged. No one on the left has succeeded in telling a story that
    brings together the different values to which we are committed and
    connects them to some general picture of what the modern world is like
    and what our country should be like. The right, by contrast, has a
    general picture. I don't think that its parts actually fit together in
    a coherent way, but they appear to do so. And in politics, despite the
    common view that all politicians pander to their constituencies,
    saying one thing here and its opposite there, the appearance of
    coherence is the name of the game.
    Scattershot doesn't work, not in arguments and not in campaigns; you
    need a coordinated barrage. And somehow, right-wing intellectuals and
    activists have managed to convince themselves and a lot of other
    people that the free market, individual self-reliance, the crusade for
    democracy, the war against terrorism, heterosexual marriage,
    conventional sex and gender roles, religious faith, and patriotic
    sentimentality all hang together. They are a coherent set, and
    together they constitute the American Way. And then the defense of
    "values," even if it's narrowly and weirdly focused-say, on sexual
    license in Hollywood movies-calls to mind everything else. Well, I
    guess it's not entirely weird; there is a recognizable picture of
    America here, even if it's a nostalgic picture, and even if a lot of
    Americans (maybe, today, most Americans) are left out of it.
    In the aftermath of the last election, some liberal Democrats, most
    notably Peter Beinart in the New Republic, argued that we once had a
    similarly recognizable picture and that we had better recapture it.
    They evoke the "fighting liberalism" and the militant anticommunism of
    the early cold war. The founding of Americans for Democratic Action in
    1947 is Beinart's moment of truth, and he hopes for a similar founding
    today-of a new liberal-left defined by its militant opposition to
    Islamic radicalism. ADA was indeed an admirable organization (though
    the editors of Dissent in the 1950s criticized many of its political
    positions), and its founders were a memorable group: Arthur M.
    Schlesinger, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Walter
    Reuther were among them. Beinart doesn't mention that all these people
    were defenders of the "containment" of communism over against the
    "liberation" of Eastern Europe. It would be interesting to play out an
    analogous contrast in today's politics. But let's accept Beinart's
    description of "fighting liberalism." Then the crucial point to make
    is that this politics was not a great success. Harry S Truman won the
    1948 election on domestic issues, with a populist attack on "special
    interests" that looked back to the New Deal, not forward to the
    anticommunist struggle-even though we would soon be involved in the
    Korean War. And then in 1952, the American people trusted the
    Republicans, not the fighting liberals, to see us through the war and
    to sign the necessary compromise peace. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won
    the presidency, claiming that Eisenhower had failed to push up
    military spending and that we were vulnerable, or soon would be, to
    Russian missiles. This was the biggest victory of cold war liberalism;
    for once, Democrats succeeded in looking tough. But that need to look
    tough and then, once they were in power, to act tough led the United
    States step by step into the awfulness of Vietnam. In 1968, Americans
    once again trusted the Republicans to see us through the war-to
    negotiate the necessary withdrawal and accept the inevitable defeat.
    This isn't a record that invites imitation today.

    The major achievement of the ADA took place at home, not in the larger
    world, not in Washington, but in the camp of the liberal-left: the
    defeat of the old popular front, the end of "fellow traveling."
    Schlesinger, Reuther, and the others understood what communism was and
    why liberals and leftists had to sustain a militant opposition to it.
    We can indeed learn from their experience. Since 9/11, a number of
    Dissent writers have stressed the political danger and the moral
    awfulness of religious zeal and terror and have insisted, in the face
    of considerable reluctance among many leftists, on the necessity of
    militant opposition to both. This is an intra-left argument, and we
    need to have it out. I agree with Beinart that strong support for
    democratic forces around the world has to be a central feature of our
    opposition to zeal and terror. But I don't share his "fighting faith."
    Above all, I don't share his ambition to make this fighting faith "the
    road back" to state power. Militancy is for movements, not
    governments. It rightly characterizes the ideology of intellectuals
    and activists, of labor unions and human rights organizations, of
    feminists and environmentalists in international civil society. All
    these people, all these groups, should be working with democratic
    activists around the world: committed democrats are our comrades,
    wherever they are found. But the idea of a state with a fighting faith
    is much less appealing, and an army with a fighting faith is
    positively alarming. Here the ideological crossover seems eminently
    defensible: leftists can legitimately be wary of faith-based politics.
    Certainly, the state should be guided by moral and political
    principles, but these have to be tempered by caution and pragmatically
    interpreted. Leftist intellectuals and activists support democracy
    because it is the form of government that best accords with individual
    freedom, equality, and collective self-determination. But the United
    States should support democracy because democratic states are our most
    reliable allies, with whom we are most likely to share not only
    principles but also strategies.
    "Fighting liberalism" was at least partly responsible for getting us
    into Vietnam, just as "fighting neoconservatism" was at least partly
    responsible for getting us into Iraq. So we need to be careful about
    "fighting." Since the time of Machiavelli, military metaphors have
    been common in political life, and they work well enough: we have
    election campaigns, debates about strategy and tactics, ideological
    militancy, and "wars" on crime, drugs, poverty, and terrorism. But
    metaphors are dangerous if people take them literally. The
    liberal-left today should reject politics-as-war in favor of a
    political politics that recognizes that militancy means knocking on
    doors and talking at meetings, that the war on terrorism is mostly
    police work, and that persuasion and negotiation should always be our
    preferred strategies.
    Maybe the struggle against Islamic radicalism and religious zeal is a
    world-historical struggle, as the struggle against communist
    totalitarianism was. I doubt that Islamic radicalism has the
    expansionist potential that communism had, but . . . maybe. Let the
    historians of the future worry about that. We should be looking for a
    version of ideological coherence and militancy that doesn't lead us
    into actual crusading warfare-that enables us to "fight" this "war"
    one "battle" at a time. "Fighting faith" as a state ideology belongs
    to the right today, and liberals and leftists have to oppose it, not
    only because it merits opposition on its own but also because opposing
    it is the best way to "fight" effectively against zealots and

    So, how do we bring coherence to a pragmatic, cautious, and highly
    moralistic left? We might begin by noticing that the succession of
    fighting liberals-Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy-shows a steady
    decline in commitment to the critical moral value of equality (that
    was one reason for Dissent's criticism). Anticommunism was a necessary
    politics, but it did tend, in the United States during the cold war,
    as in Eastern Europe afterward, to promote individual liberty and
    market freedom at the expense of social justice. In the sixties, the
    civil rights and feminist movements produced a radically egalitarian
    politics alongside the Democratic Party's liberalism and sometimes,
    uneasily, within the party. Today, however, the Democrats are a party
    of justice only relative to the Republicans. Egalitarianism is the
    distinctive mark of liberal-left politics, but in 2005 the
    distinctiveness is barely visible. This should worry us because any
    coherent leftist response to zeal and terror, to world disorder and
    global poverty, to tyranny and fear, has to have this distinctive
    If there is a historical analogy that might help our political
    thinking today, it is with 1930s antifascism rather than with cold war
    anticommunism. All the books and articles identifying the new enemy as
    "Islamic fascism" are no doubt inexact, but the description is
    politically useful so long as it is treated with crossover caution.
    Fascism is a secular politics; the Baathist regime in Iraq (as
    described, say, in Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear) came very close to
    the real thing; any religious politics is sure to be more distant.
    Still, the mobilization of zeal and hatred, the authoritarianism and
    brutality of a regime like the Taliban, the cult of death among the
    militants, the radical hierarchy of believers and infidels-all this
    bears at least a family resemblance to what we might think of as
    classical fascism. And it invites a liberal, democratic, and
    egalitarian response.
    Engagement in the cold war did not make for a strong commitment to
    social justice at home. By contrast, antifascism did make for a left
    politics at home-compromised by the opportunism and kitschiness of the
    popular front, but productive nonetheless. The growth of the labor
    movement and the transformation of the factory floor were its greatest
    achievements. But there were others. Opposing fascism meant supporting
    people in trouble-all sorts of people: unemployed workers, the
    elderly, the rural poor, Jewish and (eventually) black Americans. The
    links were sentimental but they were also programmatic. Can similar
    connections be made today between the fight against zeal and terror,
    on the one hand, and some kind of left domestic agenda, on the other?
    I am unsure of the answer to this question, but let's consider the
    possibilities, raising more questions along the way.

    Fear has to be our starting point, even though it is a passion most
    easily exploited by the right. Religious zeal and terrorism produce
    real insecurity; if ordinary Americans are fearful today, they have
    good reason. Some leftists argue that the fear of terrorism is
    contrived, one more example of false consciousness, a diversion from
    the things we really need to worry about. There are probably people in
    the Bush administration who have exactly the same view; the only
    difference is that they admire the contrivance. But that view is
    wrong, and it would be politically disastrous for the left to act upon
    it. The first task of the state, as Hobbes argued, is to protect
    people from the fear of violent death and from actual violent
    deaths-and that is a legitimate and necessary task. But while the
    state is doing that, it can do many other things. Hyping the threat of
    terror is indeed a way of making Americans forget the other things.
    But acknowledging the threat can open up a wider politics of
    collective security. After all, the defense of vulnerable men and
    women is classic leftism. And if we want to protect the American
    people against environmental degradation, or nuclear accidents, or
    pandemic disease, or the vagaries of the market, or long-term
    unemployment, or destitution in old age, then we need to make the case
    that we can also protect them against terrorist attack.

    Collective security was the battle cry of intelligent leftists in the
    1930s, confronting European fascism. And security for ordinary
    Americans was a battle cry at home, confronting the structural crises
    and the human predators of a capitalist economy. Can we bring these
    two together again? Is it possible to talk about the millions of
    Americans without health insurance, about profit-gouging in the drug
    industry, and global warming, and the protection of future
    generations-all that, and suicide bombers and dirty bombs too? Kerry
    tried to hit all these notes, but they didn't add up to a tune that
    anyone could sing. Yet the issues do hang together. It isn't mere
    rhetoric to say that "freedom from fear" is a central leftist goal,
    and it isn't an accident that this goal was first enunciated in the
    course of an antifascist war by democratic politicians responding to
    the hopes of their people. American citizens, Franklin Roosevelt had
    already said in 1937, have a right to expect that democracy will
    provide "continuously greater opportunity and continuously greater
    security." We should still be committed to that democratic
    The Bush administration exploits our fears, but it is not interested
    in a collective effort to cope with them-that is, to provide the
    necessary forms of protection and to stimulate the necessary forms of
    mutual assistance. That is the project of the near-left. The
    ideological right aims deliberately at undermining security, in the
    name of self-reliance, but with a deeper purpose: to discipline the
    workforce and stabilize the new forms of inequality. By contrast, the
    left project is egalitarian because we are committed to distribute the
    costs of security fairly and to make sure that the most vulnerable
    people are the first to be protected-or to be helped to protect
    themselves. It seems to me that most of our values can be connected to
    this project. We can tell a plausible story about "freedom from fear"
    that addresses the actual vulnerabilities of ordinary people and
    advances the cause of democratic equality. We may not be able to match
    the excitement of real war: the Red Army marching on Warsaw in 1919,
    say, or the U.S. Army marching on Baghdad in 2003 (these two provide
    another example of the great crossover). I am not advocating a crusade
    for security-just a "battle." I doubt that faith will figure in our
    story; we won't be able to claim divine support, and in parts of the
    United States today, that is a serious and for us an unavoidable
    liability. But the American people will figure in the story, and their
    democratic values, and the anxieties they share, and the old
    liberal-left commitment to humane reform. If we can connect the
    values, the anxieties, and the commitment, we will have begun a
    "fight" that we might be able to win.

    Michael Walzer's most recent book is Politics and Passion (Yale
    University Press, 2004). He is a co-editor of Dissent.

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