Review of ‘Left Turn – Political Essays for the New Left’
Posted by Dave Bath on 2012-06-04
Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, edited by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow.
Publication date: June 2012
Format: 288 pp, PB, 210 x 135 mm
ISBN : 978-0-522-86143-3
- This review was first published, with minor edits, as a guest post over at skepticlawyer.com.au. On republishing "at home" I’ll being adding a few other links about the book, and to other places, as time permits. I would like to thank my far-from-lefty friends over at skepticlawyer for their invitation. There will be more comments over there, as it’s a blog with far greater readership.
"Left Turn", with the secondary title "Political essays for the New Left", edited (I’d say "assembled") by Antony Lowenstein and Jeff Sparrow, is a series of essays from a range of lefties with different perspectives and concerns, each essentially a single issue, with some "doubling up". The introduction and back-cover blurb acknowledge the despair of many of the left, and offer the promise of suggestions for a way for the left to make a difference again.
It’s a book of bits, disparate opinions, varying styles, and varying quality. That makes it tricky to review – like a food critic trying to give a concise impression of a "bring-a-plate" dinner, nothing consistent, apart from in this case, needing to say "Hang on … there was no dessert … where is my dessert?"
If there is something striking about the book for me, it was what is missing.
Reading the book feels like being in a slightly too-small room full of ardent lefties, all wired on lattes, tongues loosened with chardonnay, everybody talking at once. Aaaah … memories of times before I met my grandson’s grandmother, when Big Mal Fraser was the Big Bad … the nods or wry smiles at good points, the rolled eyes at stating-the-bleeding-obvious and the lowered slowly-shaking head at clangers.
If you are much younger than I am, you might instead feel you are reading a "Best of Larvatus Prodeo" – for better and worse.
The "bring-a-plate" dinner has some tasty bits. Some morsels come with a nice dipping-sauce of self-criticism. There are few, not quite enough, meaty bits of common-sense suggestions.
Then there are the bits where something wasn’t trimmed properly before cooking, the bits you bite on, then wonder whether you risk gagging on it, or whether it is possible, in a polite way, to reach into the back of your mouth with your fingers, grab the horrible gristly bit, and put it on the side of the plate – where, sadly, everybody can see what was served up.
"Capitalism is, after all, inextricably linked to the contemporary concept of ‘being a slut’."
– Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism
Oh dear. Where’d that come from? Now … nobody brought any napkins to wipe my fingers after disentangling that from my uvula. If by capitalism you mean Adam Smith capitalism, then I am confused – but then, Marx and Engels missed predicting the inevitability of that inextricable linkage too, so I guess I can forgive myself.
This is one problem that comes from the left talking to itself, expecting not to be pulled up by other lefties when making statements that are "out there" as if they are self-evident, needing no justification. I guess there is a karaoke machine at the bring-a-plate dinner, with everybody getting up, expecting that really bum notes won’t be commented on among friends – yet … it’s not a private party … there are righties wandering past the doors, scrunching their faces in pain while laughing at the bits horribly off key. This is not the way to help yourself to be taken seriously when you are complaining about not being taken seriously.
One thing the book does correctly, I imagine due to the editors, is minimize use of the term capitalism, with "neoliberalism" named again and again as the "Big Bad".
This thing done correctly, however, points to what I see as the flaw in the book, the "where was dessert?" moment: there is a place between the left and neoliberals, not a small place, not terra nullius, but with many good thinkers, wanting, like many lefties, decent humane outcomes, evidenced-based policy development, better discourse in the parliament and the press, and just as depressed about how things are going.
The "missing dessert" problem is made worse when the book discusses the way the media and politics now operate, what I see (but not much discussed in the book) as the way anti-intellectualism is pandered to because it avoids the need to deal with evidence when developing policy. The flawed processes, the social conservatism, the absence of Jefferson’s informed and active citizenry is just as troubling to "decent righties", who would make such good and necessary allies, are not mentioned, and certainly, there is no reaching out to the progressive right, no suggestion of this being a way forward.
Perhaps given the bittiness of the book, a few bits, albeit possibly out of context, are useful. Given this review is hosted by women, it’s probably appropriate to select bits written by women, and mainly on women’s issues.
"Indeed, abortion still falls under the Crimes Act in every Australian state and territory, save Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. … This illicitness fits nicely with the conservative worldview – and the importance of the nuclear family. That’s perhaps why, despite the gains from sexual liberation being subsumed by neoliberalism, women’s reproductive rights are the one area the marketplace hasn’t claimed. The market may very well hold all other aspects of women’s bodies in its grasp, but social conservatism still reigns over abortion, self-abortion, and reproductive products. "
– Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism
Reasonable observations, some facts, and a justifiable interpretation. The book contains enough such bits to be worth reading, if you are into political essays.
"Feminism needs a program that … stops focussing on debates about semantics and pornography, and, instead, returns to collective action with broader tangible goals. … [long dot dot dot to next page] … Maybe a contemporary feminist movement should concentrate on the right to free abortion-on-demand, without the doctor’s or the court’s permission."
– Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism
Good – some self-criticism, and a sensible enough suggestion about what to do, perhaps a bit bleeding obvious, but worth saying nonetheless, especially for those on the left hung up about semantics, … but … no mention of the natural allies in the progressive right who want those same tangible outcomes.
There are two essays on the media, one by Antony Lowenstein, the other by Wendy Bacon. These, along with the introduction, are perhaps the strongest parts of the book, perhaps because they focus on the systemic problems that block progress on every other part of the "lefty" agenda, and have fewer "gristly bits" that will make decent righties gag. There are criticism of journalists as mere stenographers passing on information, of the media not always conspiring against good policy and debate, merely being a bit gutless in order to get the favor of politicians, the privilege of an exclusive or a leak.
"Progressive media needs to reclaim the democratic philosophical underpinnings of journalism … a scientific approach to the testing of evidence, which does not preclude an interpretive point of view … the ‘claim of humanity’ to the principles of journalism. The claim states that journalists’ primary claim is to truthful, independent informing of a global public humanity."
– Wendy Bacon – A Voice for the Voiceless
Again, this is something decent righties want too – journalists doing what they are supposed to do in order to justify the privileged position of journalists in a democracy. But … no mention of the natural allies.
I was surprised, given the obvious problem of public disengagement, and indeed general antipathy to thinking, that I couldn’t find (maybe I reading too quickly) discussion of the success of The Jon Stewart Show as part of the way forward, throwing bricks at screwups regardless of which "side" is responsible for the screwup.
WHO CAN GET SOMETHING FROM THE BOOK
"Left Turn" is useful to lefties, and the most useful is the self-criticism, perhaps best done in "The Toxicity of Smugness" by Christos Tsiolkas. We need more of this.
The book has many good "factoids" useful for dropping into other conversations, pointing to failures in how our society operates, although the flaws are already obvious to lefties (and quite a few decent righties) and not uncommonly provided, if not put together to form a "message", in the mainstream media.
There will be the righties who read it, and go "I told you so" at the self-criticisms, look at the bits of sloganeering and roll their eyes and perhaps have greater reason to dismiss lefties in general. Still, the wry giggles are giggles, and laughter is good medicine.
Maybe some of the decent righty readers will see a snippet, and say to themselves, "well, yes, that’s a good point, and I am worried about that too." Every little bit of that helps, but I doubt it is "friendly" enough to decent righties in general tone to encourage acceptance of all the points that could be accepted.
The indecent righties, however, will enjoy the book no end, find every single "gristly bit", put on a great show of gagging, and make the left look sillier than it deserves to be. Of course, the indecent righties won’t point out the biggest flaw of the book, the "missing dessert" problem – oh, no – can’t have the decent folk of the right and left joining forces and spoiling the fun the hypocrites are having!
THE BOOK THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
If the problem facing the left is being considered irrelevant by the mainstream, if we need to make an impact again, make progress, then we need to have as much in our arsenal as possible.
So we should be aware of our natural allies among decent righties. We need to be able to criticize neoliberalism, and the failures of the financial market, with arguments that are valid, and more likely to get the attention of the unthinking mob, including the aspirationalists who assume anything labelling itself as capitalist is good, anything smacking of intellectualism bad.
We need to use the weapons the decent right provides for us. The Economist magazine, well-informed and a devout believer in free markets, warned for years about an impending financial meltdown and a housing bubble – their prognostications and criticisms of bailouts are surely useful, cannot be dismissed by the lumpenproletariat as the rantings of the smug lefty intellectual elite. Similar weapons are available from The Adam Smith institute, pointing out that the advantages of the flexibility of free markets and competition are lost when there is a political system that allows existing commercial players to get politicians to institutionalize moral hazard, make it difficult for new players or constructively disruptive products to compete – something as harmful, if not more so, than the state intruding in markets openly and for openly-discussed reasons.
It would surprise many that The Economist is very much for climate change action, because effective climate change actions, not the symbolic ones proposed by many governments are necessary anyway, good for business in a world of finite resources.
The cream on the missing dessert is the mutual respect, the strength through dialectic that comes from engaging with the decent righties, who are part of the intellectual elite, share a large part of the progressive agenda particularly where the underlying democratic processes are concerned. Jefferson’s informed and active citizenry essential for a functioning democracy is highly desired by the left, but Jefferson wasn’t a lefty. Edmund Burke’s arguments against British militarism and lack of due process for prisoners during the American Revolution, with so many parallels to the militarism of the USA today and the excesses of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, would fit right in with the lefty agenda – but Edmund Burke called himself a Conservative, and even John Howard (hypocritically, and he knew it), claimed there is Burkean Conservatism running in the blood of the Liberal Party.
Being more specific, and practical, Keynes and Hayek were on very good terms, admired the work of each other, while admitting disagreements.
The book that could have been would have used progressive righty arguments as well, and ideally, got some progressive righties as contributors – right and left not selling out or softening, but keeping each other honest, both fighting on their own high grounds against the common foes.
Are there big systemic problems that lefties would acknowledge as big systemic problems? Do we have, as Barry Jones puts it, the most highly qualified yet least educated cohort in history? Do we have politicians on all sides who no longer represent the people but are the puppets of faceless men in the back rooms of the party machines? Do we have regulatory and legislative capture, news-cycle political agenda for soundbites, rather than evidence-based policy development and the demand for it?
Would those same problems be recognized as systemic, preventing movement on important specific issues, by progressive righties?
The book that could have been would not be titled "Left Turn", but engaged all those influenced by Enlightenment values, it would have been called "Fall In, Forward March".
Notes / See Also:
- Christos Tsiolkas: The Toxicity of Smugness in The Adelaide Review, one of the essays included in Left Turn.
- You’re not all that. You’re really not. – (SL at Skepticlawyer 2012-06-01) on the Tsiolkas Essay