The Nation has a very good profile of Karl Polanyi, the mid-20th century left-wing Austro-Hungarian sociologist and economic historian.
“…[Polanyi] had been a violent critic of the gold standard—which, like the euro, restricted a nation’s capacity to inflate or deflate its currency based on the needs of its citizens. In his classic of economic history published in 1945, The Great Transformation, Polanyi showed how the gold standard made it impossible for nations to manage their own economies and how it often encouraged the retraction of welfare. It also empowered a small group of financial elites over the rest of society. Given their access to credit, bankers—rather than politicians and civil-society activists—became the country’s most powerful decision-makers. “Under the gold standard,” Polanyi complained, “the leaders of the financial market” find themselves “in the position to obstruct any domestic move in the economic sphere which [they happen] to dislike.”
…But Polanyi’s Great Transformation was not all dark prophecy; it also offered us some insight into how societies rebelled against this marketization of social life. The free-market economy, Polanyi argued, not only empowered financial elites and commodified social goods; it also created a countermovement in which bodies of people emerged, demanding that the state protect them from the market.”
Polyani’s observation that free-market economies tend to oligarchy but they also generate their own resistance, came to mind whilst listening to a recent episode of Open Source with Christopher Lydon. Lydon was interviewing Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his new book “On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (here is the originating Facebook post).
Synder’s entire book is an historian’s warning that Trump represents a serious threat to democracy, with 20 idea about how to prevent a Trump presidency devolving into a Caesarian tyranny. Snyder believes Trump’s early actions are a coherent stress test of the democratic institutions. He is feeling the edges of his power, taking stock of the strengths of his opposition. Snyder believes only civic resistance can deflect the Trumpist power grab.
The book is full of gems. I learned that the founding fathers – heeding Plato – never expected democracy to last as long as it did.
It brings to mind a wonderful passage from The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Much of this is eerily familiar:
“Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 12 3 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support. When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government. The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast in their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.”
At one point Lydon asks,
“Are we sleepwalking still, is there something to be said for a riled up citizenry?”
Snyder replies in the affirmative, and observes that in the anti-Trump reactions he saw unprecedented speed (airport protests) but also numbers and intelligence (large scale, multi-partisan alliances in the Women’s March). He also talked about the role of lawyers, pointing out that in 1930’s Germany the legal profession acquiesced then enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis, whereas the Trump era has the legal profession leading the fight in the form of lawyers helping travel ban victims or judges blocking executive orders.
This lends some evidence to my feeling that Trump, far from being the ultimate defeat for the American left, could herald their ultimate triumph.
Hear me out here.
Now the corruption – Russian interference, Oligarch money – and his lack of intellectual substance, disorganization and personality flaws will all be exposed.
The Trump effect is already damaging Populists in Europe. Trump may have helped in Wilder’s defeat in The Netherlands and he may well help sink Le Pen in France too. Merkel, despite domestic terror, is booming again in the polls.
I think the mood driving populism is still there. If Populism is a reaction to elites, globalism, industrial automation, immigration, cultural and political alienation, then we can expect it to intensify as the agonists are strengthening.
But the current right-wing populists are fairly or unfairly associate with the Populist Khan of Khans Donald Trump. As he flounders, he could take down the entire right-wing populist surge with him.
This leaves an opportunity for the populist left, and within that opportunity there are also dangers.
Jordan B Peterson, Dave Rubin, Sam Harris and others argue very persuasively that contemporary leftists also have a decidedly authoritarian bent.
The grim mirror image of Trumpian tyranny we have the left’s Neo-Stalinist assault on free speech, SJWism, essentialist identity politics, obsession with race/gender/privilege, racism and anti-Western obscurantism.
Can the center reassert itself? Can a principled, moderate left emerge? Are we like 1930’s German’s, facing a choice between two violent revolutionary anti-democratic ideologies: Nazism and Communism.
dare we hope for something good to come out of all this, or is it going to be the perpetual power of nightmares?
If the left can evolve out of identity politics and rediscovers its principles, embrace true pluralism and welcome true diversity, then it could be facing a golden age. If the US Democratic party can transform itself from being the party of white urban elites and minorities into a party that also genuinely represents the interests of rural people, the white flyover citizenry, and the poor – regardless of provenance – then it could be a generational political force.
Today’s left are Orwellian Nationalists. They assume that “human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.””
If it doubles down on PC, intersectionality and identity politics, it is doomed. Either it slips into leftist tyranny or dies with a whimper, on the scrap heap of ideas. The former entails bloodshed and civil war. The latter a triumph for Trump.
I hope a reformed New Left can emerge, recognizes the importance of individualism and embraces a principled politics of the 21st century based on science, reason and genuine democracy based on strong institutions.
Which will it be?
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
WB Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”