19.8.13

THE LIMITS OF VANGUARDISM.

It's not surprising that a longtime libertarian would see encouraging signs in the current political environment.
Libertarianism is on the march. From the rapid rise to prominence of first-term Senator Rand Paul to the state-level movements to legalize gay marriage and marijuana, the philosophy of fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and restrained foreign policy seems to be gaining currency in American politics. But it's nothing new, of course.
Indeed. Try freedom.
Skepticism about power and about government, individualism, the idea that we're all equal under the law, free enterprise, getting ahead in the world through your own hard work -- all of those ideas are very fundamentally American. Obviously, from a libertarian point of view, America nonetheless has done a whole lot of things, from slavery to Obamacare, that offend some number of those libertarian values, but the core libertarian attitude is still there. And a lot of times when the government suddenly surges in size, scope, or power, those libertarian attitudes come back to the fore.

I think that's what you're seeing. I think you're seeing a growth of self-conscious libertarianism. The end of the Bush years and the beginning of the Obama years really lit a fire under the always-simmering small-government attitudes in America.
The Cold Spring Shops position is that collective might is an illusion.  Today's readings, though, suggest that the illusion isn't limited to libertarians.

Start with Martin Gurri, theorizing about why the self-styled progressives are out of ideas.
A progressive today might be defined as someone raging against the status quo while rejecting the possibility of positive change.

This dilemma is rooted in a historical event of cataclysmic magnitude, which naturally passed unnoticed by our thinking classes. I refer to the collapse of the dream of revolution.

A generation ago, to be progressive meant to have faith in revolution. All of the left’s programs and policies aimed a single transcendent purpose: to make the world anew. The debate was whether revolution should be achieved violently, in what the French lustily called un grand soir — “one great night”—or, as the more inhibited Anglo-Saxons preferred, by means of incremental reforms. But the direction was the same, the orientation of change unproblematic. Between 1789 and 1989, faith in revolution inspired some of the finest minds and most atrocious acts in history.

That faith is now gone. I can’t think of a single progressive activist or intellectual with any following who believes that revolution is possible or even desirable. The world can’t be made anew.
That's about guillotines and gulags. Those of us with long memories remember how "got a problem, get a program" came undone in the Carter years. It's a lesson the hope and change crowd has to learn the hard way, apparently.

But even the true believers in vanguardism are having second thoughts.  I give you climate alarmist Bill McKibben.
It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
Same-sex marriage is an expansion of freedom of contract, while much environmental policy-making is an infringement of freedom of contract. Try freedom. (And keep in mind that Al Gore is so charismatic his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.)  On the other hand, there's a lot an environmentally-minded consumer or entrepreneur can do while The Best And The Brightest dither and cavil and collect their consulting fees.
I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders less and less.  It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.

For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.
The essay goes on for some length, culminating in recognition of the principle of self-organization.
That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them.  It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.
Historiann finds a reason to be skeptical of technocrats imposing online courses on all students except those at the Ivies in a Michael Lind denunciation of Consensus Crisis.
I am not a populist by temperament. I respect academic training as well as expertise based on personal experience. I think that institutions are, or should be, less likely to make mistakes than individuals. I detest people who pose as “contrarians” for the sake of controversy. I would happily be an establishmentarian, if there were a U.S. establishment worth belonging to.

But the track record of what passes for the bipartisan elite in the U.S. in the last generation has been pretty poor. Instead of sober, dispassionate analysis of long-run trends, considered from the perspective of the nonpartisan national interest, the conventional wisdom among America’s movers and shakers has consisted of one hysterical fad after another.

The earliest I remember is the “energy crisis.” In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, it was the conventional wisdom that fossil fuel supplies were about to run out and that we faced a future of energy starvation. Then oil prices dropped in the 1980s, because of new energy finds and efficiency.

Around the same time, back in the 1970s, the consensus exaggerated Soviet power. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a desperate, defensive attempt to stem a wave of Islamist revolutions in Soviet central Asian republics — was portrayed by the right’s alarmists as part of a grand pincer movement around Africa or the Indian Ocean or whatever that could lead to Soviet world domination. A group called “Team B” — including many of the neoconservative foreign policy apparatchiks who would later work for George W. Bush — claimed that the CIA was underestimating Soviet power. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, it turned out that the CIA had actually underestimated the strain imposed on the Soviet economy by Soviet military spending.

Then a few years after the Berlin Wall fell, many of the same neoconservatives who claimed that the U.S. was on the verge of defeat by the Soviet Union proclaimed a “unipolar world” in which the U.S. was a “hyperpower.”
Got a problem? Get a program? Assemble the talking heads, fret about the latest "crisis" (an overused word, if ever there was one), speculate about its implications for process or the presidential race, bring in the experts, who are often the same experts that created the previous mess to clean up the current mess.  Mr Lind fears that some new crisis will lead to the same thing.
At the moment, fortunately, we are between ill-conceived elite fads in the U.S. But fashion abhors a vacuum. If experience is any guide, some new Big Idea that is at once fresh, seductive and wrong will soon emerge to excite the political class and the commentariat and become what every serious, respectable person believes — at least until it goes horribly wrong.

When it comes to the hype market, you will seldom err by betting against it.
On the other hand, now might be the time for emergent, decentralized thinking to fill in the voids left by the Fossilized Policy Wonks. (Hillary Clinton running against another Bush brother? Death duel of the dinosaurs, anyone?)

Try freedom.

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