‘The Left Alternative’, ‘The Left at War’ reviewed by Michael B Mathias

The Left Alternative

Verso, London, 2009. 197pp., £7.99 pb
ISBN 9781844673704

The Left at War

New York University Press, New York, 2009. 341pp., $29.95 hb
ISBN 9780814799840

Reviewed by Michael B Mathias

About the reviewer

Michael B. Mathias is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Frostburg State University (USA). He is …


What a difference a year makes. In 2009 the Left celebrated the election of Barack Obama, a centrist-liberal promising transformative change. One reason for his election was the implosion of the housing and credit markets in the United States, which sparked a global crisis in capitalism. Another reason was Obama’s pledge to end the Bush-Cheney regime’s lawless misadventures abroad and to work within the framework of international law. The moment seemed right for fundamental institutional and ideological change. Books claiming ‘the Left is lost’ seemed ill-timed (Unger, viii). After all, it was the Right that was totally disoriented. With its traditional coalition splitting apart into bitterly opposed factions, the Republicans were simply ‘the Party of No.’ But within the year it became clear that the Left would not seize the day –Obama and the Democratic Party responded to the economic crisis in an utterly conventional way and their approach to health care reform confirmed that they would not provide a compelling sequel to Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society.

So, what’s wrong with the Left? Roberto Magabeira Unger and Michael Bérubé struggled with this question during the darkest days of the Bush-Cheney administration. In The Left Alternative – a reprint of What Should the Left Propose? (2005) – Unger argues that the Left suffers from a serious lack of imagination, which precludes it from offering a substantive alternative to the neoliberal orthodoxy. The Left must shed old habits of thought and recognize new opportunities for advancing a progressive social agenda, Unger counsels. Berubé’s The Left at War chronicles how the American Left tore itself apart in the debates about intervention in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, leaving itself fractured and politically weak. A prominent voice in these debates – that of ‘intellectual giant and iconic figure of the left,’ Noam Chomsky – expressed a crude and outmoded understanding of culture and media. To be relevant, Bérubé advises, the Left must better understand culture. These books are engaging and provocative. They aim to stimulate the Left through an injection of new ideas. To the extent that these ideas challenge what some see as core Leftist convictions, some on the Left – those who are content to stay the course and await the coming revolution – will not welcome them. But those who see the Left at a critical crossroads, who believe that its recent political failures have amplified the need for the Left to reinvent and revitalize itself, will certainly find these ideas worth consideration.

Over the past three decades Roberto Mangabeira Unger has developed an important, though highly contested, alternative to liberalism and Marxism. The Left Alternative provides a concise introduction to his recent thought, which has shifted towards a more pragmatic and centrist position. Unger’s basic aim here is to emancipate the world from ‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’ by offering a constructive Leftist program. The Left, as Unger sees it, is split into two main camps, both lacking a substantive agenda. The ‘recalcitrant Left’ attempts to halt the march to markets and globalization, but offers no alternative to these institutions. The ‘well-behaved Left’ – personified by Obama – has joined in the march, resigning itself to working within existing socio-economic arrangements while attempting to humanize them through redistributive tax-and-transfer policies. In short, the Left has no concrete strategy for realizing the basic aim of democracy – a larger life for the ordinary person.

On Unger’s diagnosis, the Left is unable to imagine new national and global ways to realize progressive social change because of its rigid adherence to certain suspect principles. Because the Left persists in believing that equality can be realized only through governmental control of the economy, it cannot imagine how the democratization of the market would foster greater opportunity for all. Because the Left continues to believe that the primary drivers of social change are either national crises – wars or natural catastrophes – or class conflict, it cannot imagine how a high-energy democratic politics would eradicate the distinction between everyday and revolutionary politics. Because the Left goes on regarding organized labor as its natural constituency and alienating the petty bourgeois, it cannot conceive that the latter are more effective agents of social change. In sum, Unger argues that there are ample opportunities for advancing a progressive agenda, if only the Left would remove its blinders and recognize them. 

The agenda for Unger’s third Left is organized under five institutional ideas. The first idea involves the practical conditions that would make possible rebellion against the global political and economic orthodoxy. Here Unger suggests policies and arrangements that would create a ‘shield of heresy,’ enabling countries to approach markets and globalization on their own terms. The second idea is that social policy is about empowerment and the development of capacity, and here Unger floats various plans for revolutionizing education and radicalizing meritocracy. A third institutional idea is the democratization of the market. The aim here is to chart a course of action that would promote socially inclusive economic growth. For example, Unger proposes the formation of small-scale, decentralized institutions within the market; the experimental coexistence of different regimes of private and social property; the creation of a capital fund from which society’s stakeholders can draw; and the development of a national network of alternative lending institutions that would democratize access to credit and production. Unger’s fourth institutional idea involves refusing to treat cash transfers as a sufficient basis for social solidarity; he plans to foster social solidarity by compelling every able-bodied adult to have a position in the caring economy, providing care for the young and old, the sick and poor. The final idea involves high-energy democratic politics. Unger advocates the creation of institutions that attenuate the dependence of change on crisis, including the use of plebiscites and other instruments of direct democracy; the public financing of political campaigns; and even the creation of a special ‘destabilization’ branch of government that would demolish entrenched hierarchies.

Unger’s reconstructive Left aims to make us more equal, in circumstance as well as in opportunity, and to enhance democratic control over all spheres of life. It aspires not simply to humanize society but to divinize humanity – to make us more godlike. The policies and institutional arrangements proposed here are designed to promote the free exercise of our essential capacities for creativity and self-definition, and to make us less subject to natural and social necessities. This driving theme of Unger’s anti-necessitarian social theory – his effort to draw out the normative implications of our context-transcending nature – will sound familiar to Unger’s readers, as will the echoes of Christianity, romanticism, existentialism, and classical liberalism. While he shares Marx’s transformative aspirations, Unger repudiates the determinism built into his philosophy of history.

The style and tone of the book are also typical Unger. This is not a work of professional philosophy, but it does not claim to be. It is a self-described ‘hopeful manifesto’ delivered with deep moral conviction, self-assuredness, intense passion, and radical optimism. The tone of the work is not conversational. The reader is often spoken to as if from on high – Moses has come to lead his lost people out of the desert. Though rhetorically powerful, the style of presentation is somewhat at odds with the anti-authoritarian, radically democratic message.

Unger certainly captures the dismay that many of us feel in the face of an implacable neoliberal orthodoxy and the constriction of human possibilities that it entails. And he offers a well-deserved rebuke to those on the Left who have become institutionally conservative in attitude and abandoned any transformative ambition. Nonetheless, what Unger characterizes as the ‘first steps’ in a new direction seem more like giant leaps given the political realities that presently constrain opportunities for change. President Obama – Unger’s student at Harvard Law School – claims that his critics on the Left fail to appreciate the slow, grinding pace of change. Perhaps the student has an important lesson in political realism for the teacher. While we certainly should work to bring about a future that does not require crisis to bring about change, it remains very hard to imagine how Unger’s seeds of change will germinate in the calcified soil of America and Europe. Perhaps the soil of the developing world will prove more fertile.

Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War is two books under one cover. The first is an incisive study of the American Left’s failed effort to oppose the Bush-Cheney administration’s foreign policy. The second surveys the recent history of cultural studies and makes a credible argument for the relevance of cultural studies to politics. The thread that connects the two is the idea that an influential faction of the American Left simply does not comprehend American culture. Bérubé’s basic point is straightforward: a political movement that fails to understand the culture that it is trying to shape is doomed to failure.

Millions of Americans united to protest the Bush-Cheney regime’s bellicose response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But within a short time conservatives and liberal hawks successfully branded the anti-war movement as un-American, effectively rendering it politically inert. As Bérubé explains, the pro-war coalition employed a very basic political strategy: it focused attention on the most extreme element within the anti-war movement, creating the false impression that it was representative of the movement in general. The pacifist movement and the Left were identified with the inflammatory rhetoric of Noam Chomsky and the ‘Manichean Left.’ As Bérubé’s label implies, the Manichean Left sees politics as a fundamental struggle between good and evil, where America is evil and anything opposed to it is good. American intervention is always and simply imperialism, and figures like Slobodan Milošević and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who boldly defy the U.S., are worthy of defense. With the Manichean Left as the enthusiastic poster-child for the anti-war movement, it was easy to delegitimize popular opposition to the war.

But, of course, the Manichean Left believes that truth is on its side. Indeed, the Manichean Left believes it is the sole purveyor of truth. It sees politics as a rigged game – the corporate elite have duped the masses who suffer from a bad case of false consciousness. If the befuddled masses oppose you, this is a good sign that your position is correct. If, on the other hand, your view should hold any popular appeal, this implies that you are likely wrong and have probably sold-out. So the countercultural Left happily plays a game of self-marginalization. But the outcome of this game is all too clear, Bérubé points out: a popular opposition movement will never take root in the United States.

As a contrast and remedy to Chomsky, Bérubé offers up cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Chomsky and Hall represent two distinct rhetorical styles of Leftism. Chomsky’s style involves telling the same basic story over and over again: America’s imperialist foray into Iraq is simply a replaying of America’s imperialist forays into the Balkans, Central America, Vietnam, and so on. In short, America’s post-9/11 foreign policy is no different at all from its pre-9/11 policy. Hall’s style is rooted in a more sophisticated understanding of hegemony. Where the Manichean Left sees everything as black and white, Hall sees many shades of gray. He is capable of recognizing new and distinct cultural phenomena – he knows when a new story is unfolding. Hall appreciated, for example, that Thatcherism was something wholly new in post-war politics. It is crucial, Bérubé argues, for the Left to recognize when it’s dealing with something new and not simply to normalize it in the manner of Chomsky. 

Bérubé worries that the Manichean Left’s unwillingness to recognize fundamental differences between cases – the differences between Kosovo and Iraq, for example – jeopardizes human-rights internationalism. Bérubé advocates the development of an international framework that promotes human rights, equitable economic development, and environmental sustainability. The International Criminal Court and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) are important elements of this international superstructure, and Bérubé claims they deserve the Left’s support. But because the Manichean Left assimilates all things in its one simplistic narrative, it denounces the ICC and R2P as tools of American imperialism and defends state sovereignty as an important barrier to American intrusion. Bérubé urges the Left to follow Hall and not Chomsky: we should see the ICC and R2P as genuinely new (and promising) developments in the world of international affairs, while fully acknowledging that international law has often been more about might than right.

It would be difficult for Chomsky to complain that his view has been misrepresented here, since Bérubé allows Chomsky to speak for himself by quoting long excerpts from his essays and interviews. Bérubé patiently dissects these passages, trying to discern Chomsky’s meaning and strategic intentions. While he readily indicates points of agreement with Chomsky, he has no reservations about calling him out when his arguments look to be unsound. Though Bérubé’s tone can be a bit snarky at times, his analysis is even-handed in general. Bérubé insists that the Left conduct its debates in an intellectually honest manner. This requires hard analysis and not simple sloganeering, and it requires that we try to better understand our opponents and not cursorily dismiss them as either simple dupes or sell-outs.

Both Unger and Bérubé are more persuasive in their critical modes, where they confront traditional habits of Leftist thought. Together they have done valuable work in clearing the way for a more intellectually innovative and politically effective Left. But they propose to take the Left in very different directions. Unger contends that the only way to realize the basic aims of the Left is through local experimentation and institutional decentralization, where Bérubé maintains that internationalism and a centralized framework provide the best hope for realizing the Left’s ambitions. Here, neither author makes a decisive case for following his lead.

29 November 2010

One comment

  1. Just a few questions about Michael Mathias’s clearly written review of books by Unger and Berube. Where is the Marx in this review? What is its relevance to anything within what might be called Marxist thought, even broadly speaking? Chomsky (now in his 80s) certainly is no Marxist–although he has earned much honor, in my view, as an activist intellectual for decades–and thus is not a typical example on a Marx & Philosophy review list. And Isn’t the Berube book an example of left-liberal thought of a particularly academic kind that should be taken to task critically (which doesn’t mean any good points it makes can’t be mentioned), at least to some degree from a recognizably Marxist perspective?

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