Monday, June 21, 2010

The why of it - part 2

The last part ended with the first real election in Russia since the 1917 Revolution, in which the anti-communist boor was overwhelmingly elected, the candidate of the distinguished, intellectual, but communist Gorbachev decisively defeated. And this surprised me. I, in my bourgeois, consumerist "hell", had all this time been labouring under the delusion that the people who actually had to live in the original "workers' paradise" would appreciate its basic achievements, though no doubt chafing at its bureaucratic irritants -- and I was disabused of that notion. Coming at the culmination of a whole series of world historical events in which one socialist regime after another was toppled, and/or socialism itself repudiated, the foundations of my own political beliefs were shaken. In this sense, the historical too can be personal, and it seemed that the only honest and rational response to this global upheaval was at least to pause to re-examine those foundations.

In fact, at first I remember welcoming this time as an opportunity to do just that, and hoped and expected that the left in general would seize the opportunity as well. There were a number of signs preceding these events, I thought,  that seemed to indicate a certain drying-up of leftist thought and creativity, anyway. I've already mentioned the infiltration of so-called post-modernism into what it would term leftist "discourse" as one sign of sterility through obscurantist, calcified jargon. Another was the rise of "political correctness", which substituted a superficial concern with language and rectitude, not unlike that seen in religious fundamentalism of all kinds, for actual political thought and strategy. It was as though the left's arteries had been hardening, its mind constricting, well in advance of the spectacular collapse of "actually existing socialism" everywhere but Cuba and North Korea. So there was good reason to hope that the shock of these dramatic events would shake the left out of its stupor and open it up to new, creative, and fundamental ideas about its bases and objectives, about where it had been and where it was going.

But, sad to say, that didn't seem to occur. Some parts of the left, to my amazement, acted as though nothing much had happened -- "nothing to see here", etc. -- carrying on with the style of detailed but Marxist analysis of events that, this time especially, missed the forest and the trees in its heads-down determination not to see what was before it. Other parts in the early 90's seemed to intensify that preoccupation with victim issues that was an aspect of political correctness, to the virtual exclusion of any talk about "socialism" as such, or indeed about any kind of social-political solutions other than, perhaps, that the state should make people not be racist or sexist, etc. Other parts found another way to drift away from the socialist ideal, in the form of the rising Green movement, which, in its motherhood embrace of "the earth", had its broadest appeal among children, students, ad-men, and, ironically, the more affluent of middle-class social groupings. Some parts seemed to retain at least an interest in the social-political-economic sphere but also seemed to have dropped the word "socialist" from their vocabularies, as though it were now a kind of embarrassment, and instead substituted words like "anti-capitalist" or "anti-globalization", without giving any indication whether or not such words had any positive meaning at all. And some, the most honest and most poignant, simply expressed a kind of elegiac lament for the failure of their ideals, recognizing at least that something quite significant had happened, but never venturing to enquire why socialism had failed -- it was as though the world or "the people" had simply not measured up.

Through this time I was groping about myself, of course, trying to think my way through this personal intellectual crisis. Now, not everyone takes political concerns quite so seriously, I know. I once considered such concern a virtue, self-flattering though it was, but have since mellowed out considerably on this, recognizing that there are many other focuses of concern -- e.g., family, friends, work, play -- and politics is at most just one. Moreover, there are many different levels of political concern, from local to global, and from the practical and immediate to the abstract and theoretical. But for me at least, political concern on that more abstract, general level was, and still is, an important source of meaning, value, and purpose. Those are qualities that religion provides too, you'll notice, and I won't for a second deny the comparison. What I will say is that virtually everyone needs and in fact has some source for those qualities, and that source can accurately be termed a belief system -- the pertinent variables, then, are simply the degree to which one is aware of one's own belief-system and the degree of rationality of such a system.

So in any case, at this time I found myself back in discussions in pubs again, though without quite the fervor of the grad school days. Everyone I knew was on the left side of the political spectrum to some extent, and though by this time not so many could be described as Marxists any longer, I think there was still a widespread sense that -- what with the pomo cult, the Gaia pseudo-religion, the PC righteousness, etc. --something had gone awry with the left. For many, this was simply a time to find other, and no doubt healthier, interests. For me, it was a time of rising and spreading dissatisfaction, amounting to irritation, with many forms of overt leftist politics altogether, since, without the anchor of a viable positive vision,  they seemed increasingly irrational or reflexive, and also belligerent and almost nasty, in a very personal fashion. That slogan "the personal is political" began to assume a kind of totalitarian invasiveness, and I found myself reacting against it in part by taking a new interest in re-examining the targets of the left's hostility -- e.g., conservative values like family, character, liberty, and even religion. I became, in that sense certainly, increasingly a "reactionary", though that reaction was in direct relation and proportion to what I saw as the liberal-left's decreasing hold on common sense and decency.

For all that, I remained -- and still remain -- an atheist, for example, an opponent of capital punishment, a supporter of abortion rights, a proponent of the important distinction between science and religion (for both creationists and environmentalists), among other things; I'm not, in any true sense, a conservative. But that just raised the unsettling question of what I was then, politically -- unsettling in no small measure because of the powerful effect that political labels can and do have on one's entire social context.

(To be continued.)

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