A Deal Gone Wrong

Wretchard writing at the Belmont Club describes a kind of ‘deal’ as an explanation for the bitter divisions in the West since 9/11.

But although Marxism was defeated by the largely economic process of Globalization it flourished — even dominated — in the cultural institutions of the West at a time when Islamism was triumphing over secularism in the Middle East. From the Marxist perspective at least, the Cold War ended not in defeat, but in a negotiated armistice; with surrender on the economic front offset by a capitulation to it by the West on cultural matters. People might have to work in private companies, it’s true, but all the accompanying baggage of traditional culture like religion, sexual mores, notions of objectivity, etc were forfeit; and that was more than compensation. That was the tacit ‘deal’ and the EU, UN and cultural institutions were going to carry it out. By slow degrees the Western world was going to be politically corrected, multiculturalized and transnationalized. “Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do”. And as the 1990s drew to a close it didn’t seem all that far away.

September 10, 2001 was the last day on which which hypothetically incompatible modes of thought could coexist in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment. When the planes smashing into the Twin Towers forced everyone to nail their colors to the mast Marxists no less than the conservatives indignantly found themselves facing an unanticipated rebellion. Liberal rage over Bush — and maybe Lieberman and McCain — for behaving “illegitimately” and “turning back the clock” is incomprehensible until one realizes that from a certain perspective it represents a double-cross. The West was supposed to die; slowly and comfortably but ineluctably. And we were supposed to buy off the Islamists until we could finish the job ourselves.

As an American ‘liberal intellectual’ who grew up in the 60s this story is familiar and raises a smile of recognition. I once held a set of views that were similar to this in that I believed and assumed the liberal left consensus of the 60s was going to determine the future course of the West. I certainly mistook the post FDR American liberal consensus of the 50s and 60s for common sense and thought that view was what all reasonable people held. I didn’t share the more explicit Marxist ideas such as historical inevitability or buy into the political correctness and multiculturalism that eventually emerged on the left – but I bought into their beginnings. By ’68 I was already having second thoughts. The extremes of the American left in Chicago went further than I was prepared to go, but I didn’t understand and couldn’t articulate my own position until many years later.

So for me this passage supplies a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle I’ve been trying to put together since 9/11. The missing piece is the notion of ‘the deal’ or tacit understanding that the future was already defined in terms of a set of familiar ideals embodied by the UN, transnationalism, multiculturalism and the like. It rings true to me because I worked as an academic for 25 years and observed first hand the world view Wretchard is referring to become increasingly prevalent in the US and Australian academic world. While I think Wretchard is referring to a very real phenomena, I think naming this political ideology ‘Marxism’ is a simplification. Much of it is derived from or influenced by Marxism, but it has evolved into something quite different than classical Marxism. Without developing that argument further in this post, I’ll just say I believe the differences are important because they elide and extend Marx’s ideas in highly questionable ways. John Fonte in a paper in American Diplomacy entitled The Ideological War Within the West, describes this political ideology in detail and names it ‘transnational progressivism.’ He contrasts it to his own liberal democratic view and makes a key distinction between internationalism and transnationalism. The entire essay is well worth reading. Here he sets the context:

In October 2001, Fukuyama stated that his “end of history” thesis remained valid: that after the defeat of communism and fascism, no serious ideological competitor to Western-style liberal democracy was likely to emerge in the future. Thus, in terms of political philosophy, liberal democracy is the end of the evolutionary process. There will be wars and terrorism, but no alternative ideology with a universal appeal will seriously challenge the principles of Western liberal democracy on a global scale.

Thus, it is entirely possible that modernitythirty or forty years hencewill witness not the final triumph of liberal democracy, but the emergence of a new transnational hybrid regime that is post-liberal democratic, and in the American context, post-Constitutional and post-American. This alternative ideology, “transnational progressivism,” constitutes a universal and modern worldview that challenges both the liberal democratic nation-state in general and the American regime in particular.

Fonte goes on to describe what he sees as the critical issue between transnationalism and liberal democracy.

The promotion of transnationalism is an attempt to shape this crucial intellectual struggle over globalization. Its adherents imply that one is either in step with globalization, and thus forward-looking, or one is a backward antiglobalist. Liberal democrats (who are internationalists and support free trade and market economics) must reply that this is a false dichotomythat the critical argument is not between globalists and antiglobalists, but instead over the form global engagement should take in the coming decades: will it be transnationalist or internationalist?

I myself started my political journey on the left and so am very interested in the impact of events on the evolution of the left. I believe the recent emergence of the Euston Manifesto on the British left shows a split between the transnational progressives that Fonte is talking about and a group that is more supportive of liberal democracy, but not necessarily pro war and with serious reservations about market economies or the likes of Fukuyama and Fonte. The Eustonians have been at great pains to precisely define what distinguishes their stance, but I think it is fair to say that they are united in their anti-totalitarianism. One argument they have felt it necessary to refute is that only the extreme left of the anti war movement has been pro terrorist or pro Saddam (like George Galloway). This geography of the left has it that there are three groups. The small extreme left and a small pro war left and the vast majority of the left in between that opposes the war without supporting terrorism or the Baathists. Here is Eustonian Norm Geras arguing that there are two groups in that anti war middle.

The real geography, however, has been different. Within the large ‘middle’ sector of left-liberal opinion opposed to the war there has been, from the start, a differentiating subdivision – between those who opposed the war without being in denial about the considerations on the other side of the argument, and those who precisely have been in denial about them. This latter group extends well beyond the far left.

The signs of denial are abundant in the recent public life of the Western democracies: in the banners and slogans for that Saturday on 15 February 2003, from which one would never have known that Saddam’s Iraq was a foul tyranny; in the numbers of those on the left unwilling to allow, many indeed unable to comprehend, why others of us supported a regime-change war; in a constant stream of comment in liberal daily newspapers and weeklies of the left; in the excommunications issued and more recent calls for apology or recantation; and, most seriously of all, in the perceptible lack of interest in initiatives of solidarity with the forces in Iraq battling for a democratic transformation of their country, part of a wider lack of enthusiasm for the success of this enterprise given its origins in a war led by George W Bush.

To state directly what I hope is obvious, I have brought together these three pieces of writing because I think the sector of left opinion identified by Norm Geras as in denial have reacted so strongly again the war and in particular to Bush and the US because they hold a vision of the future that is more or less what Fonte calls transnational progressivism. A nation state acting in its own defense after a clear attack is just not part of that view of the future where the nation state as we know it ceases to exist. It is a turning back of the clock and breaks what Wretchard called the deal. It is a contradiction of that vision of the future where differences and the conflicts they cause disappear and I think that much of the bitterness of the opposition to the war and Bush personally is largely that it feels to many on the left as if most of what has been done by the liberal democracies since 9/11 goes against the goals and ideals of transnational progressivism.

However I don’t believe there is any such deal. Realistically, and to give it its due, it is a hope or an expectation. Any deal, any tacit understanding, only existed in the minds of transnational progressives. I think the bemused look on Bush’s face when confronted by transnational progressive ideas arises precisely because Bush doesn’t know about the deal. He didn’t get the memo and his reaction only confirms to the transnational progressives that he ‘just doesn’t get it.’ Portraying Bush as sub humanly stupid – as a chimp – makes sense from this perspective. Portraying Bush as a monumental reactionary – as Hitler – again makes sense for many with a transnational progressive viewpoint. Of course that works both ways and that part of the left just doesn’t get it when Bush talks about promoting democracy and ceasing to support dictators as a way of making America and the world safer. They don’t even consider that he means it or that it might be a viable policy addressing the root causes of terrorism because their analysis tells them it is about oil and imperialism and maintaining the strength of the nation state in general and America in particular.

Because America is the strongest nation state it follows that opposing America becomes the priority and it is from this priority that I believe the denial that Norm Geras refers to arises as well as a great deal of the anti-Americanism from which, by the way, the Eustonians powerfully disassociate themselves. The denial has taken a while for me to see clearly but it is evident in the overt lack of support for democracy in Iraq, and the widespread hope masquerading as a fact that either America has been or soon will be defeated and humiliated in Iraq. At its core the denial is a refusal to acknowledge that on 9/11 the hope that the world would move in any particular direction – much less that favored by transnational progressives – was seriously disrupted by a spectacularly reactionary movement intent on restoring a premodern world order to at least the boundaries of the late medieval Caliphate and eventually the entire world. Fukuyama’s belief that such a reactionary attempt to restore an old word order is bound to fail not withstanding, the very divisions in the Western and indeed most of the modern world since 9/11 have made the challenge of Islamic radicalism much more difficult to deal with. I certainly don’t think we have found a winning formula yet, but until the West can agree that there really is a problem that cannot be solved with the usual procedures of negotiation with which we have been able to avoid all out conflict since 1945 the West will remain weak and divided and vulnerable.


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