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Is the failure of utopian ideas: the end of left-leaning politics in the US?

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The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy,

By Russell Jacoby

This discourse, on the death of utopian ideas, including the death of the "left project" by a thousand self-inflicted wounds, is interesting, disturbing and perplexing.

It is interesting because it takes a deep dive into history, providing us with the historical facts needed to separate the forest from the trees, so that we might be able to fully contextualize the events of the past. It helps us explain how we got to where we are today. And as a retired U.S delegate to the UN, a foot soldier in the Civil Rights struggle, and a University Professor during much of the turbulence of the Vietnam War, I can personally attest to the fact that many left-leaning projects, utopian and otherwise, have either bit the dust, or tripped over their own tails.

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The book is disturbing because by leaning too heavily on the more anachronistic aspects of that past, (the bug-a-boo of the Communist threat for instance), it has only told us "how," but not "why," the left systematically lost the war of ideas. We need a sequel to this manuscript that addresses directly how to get at the why.

The book is perplexing because, although it mentions the 800-pound gorilla in the back of the room indirectly in a number of different places and contexts, it still fails to fully acknowledge that capitalism, even with its gigantic flaws, has won, and is now the "Big Dog" left standing alone on the top of the hill. This treatise has failed to fully acknowledge that capitalism is still the only viable economic system that can provide a dynamic structure for the global economy as well as and for global development.

Put crudely (but said openly): not only has capitalism won, but it now reigns across the global economy without a rival. But due to a poverty of imagination on the left, it leaves the reader with the depressing impression that since capitalism has won, this is the end of the road not only for the "left project," but indeed for a politic that can successfully challenge the run away train of unfettered and unbridled capitalism.

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But is this impression true? Is the fact that capitalism has won, and the left has failed to acknowledge this fact, a cause for the failure in leftward imagination? I think not.

This well-written erudite treatise leaves us hanging: hopelessly depressed, without serviceable ideas, programs, or policies that might get those of us still smarting over the left's lost of status and clear direction, up off the couch and back in the game so that we might then be able to make the left politically relevant and viable again.

Nothing could be more embarrassing than having to watch for nearly eight years, Mr. Obama being forced to grovel and then "tack" to the right to get his slightly right of center (but assumed to be left-leaning) programs enacted. Even the ones he succeeded in enacting, such as his ACA, were so watered down by rightward bullying and corporate intrusions that they remain virtually indistinguishable from similar proposals introduced by the hard right. It is not insignificant that Republicans failed to support any of their own proposals when Mr. Obama introduced them.

Far be it for me to tell the author that one of the left's main problems has been that of remaining in denial -- not just about the efficacy of capitalism, but also about its own poverty of imagination when it comes to deciding what is its proper role via a vis unbridled capitalism.

But this is not all, there is a larger problem yet: The left, in all its many guises (and changes of names) has been confused mostly because it has misunderstood its true role via-a-via capitalism: The true role of the left (whether called Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Liberalism, progressivism, or the "old" or "new" left) was never to be an alternative to capitalism, but a proper critique of it. Full stop.

Indeed Marx's original ideas were critiques of capitalism and little more. In short, the left's job has never been to "take on" or to "take down" capitalism, as many have assumed. Instead, its primary role has been to serve as a proper venue to critique capitalism, whereupon from this perch it might then act as a "humanizing governor" and "brake" for run away capitalism.

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A failure to recognize this simple fact has put the "left project" at risk of proceeding into the future with uncertain and often misdirected thinking. And moreover, This has also led the left enterprise down a path with a series of false choices as possible end states, choices such as whether to just get in bed with capitalism, as all of our politicians have done -- including Mr Obama who tried vainly to get in bed with them, but he was spurned; or whether to click our heels and salute to it falling in line behind the zeitgeist of Ludwig Von Mises, Frederick Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Gordon Gekko, as our turncoat neocons and the "Tea Party" have done; or to just continue sitting on the sidelines, in mindless denial, pouting and swatting flies, and leaving "the left project" with nothing to do or to say about the future.

Since I would need a book-length review to do justice to this fine book, recommended by the incomparable Chris Hedges, allow me to end it by paying homage to two intellectual heavyweights, Cornel West and Roberto Unger, who in their 1984 book entitled "The Future of American Progressivism," did sketch-out briefly a way forward that avoids both the trap of denial about the efficacy of capitalism, and ending up having to decide between the false choices mentioned above.

The West/Unger book, in my view, was way ahead of its times, and thus did not get the attention it deserved at the time of publication. I believe that it needs to be reconsidered and studied, because even though its proposals are only suggestive, within them one will find the outline of a template for where the left should be headed in its attempt to coexist with, rather than act as an alternative to, capitalism.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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