Sunday, October 14. 2012
I haven't thought about Barry Commoner, who died Sept. 30 at age 95, in quite a while. I'm not even sure I finished his 1971 bestseller, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, but he had a major impact on new left thought in the early 1970s, not just adding ecology to the list of concerns but showing how they all fit together. When I finally went to college, I spent my first year at Wichita State garnering credits and shopping for a better school. I was most impressed by the sociology department roster at Washington University, but after I applied, got in, and moved there, I found that their three biggest names had vanished: anthropologist Jules Henry (author of Culture Against Man, another book I spent lots of time thumbing through) died. Alvin Gouldner (author of The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology -- the definitive slam down of the Talcott Parsons school) and Commoner took leave, and as far as I know never came back.
But Commoner, at least, had recruited Paul Piccone, who was my main mentor for my two years at Wash. U. Piccone edited the quarterly Telos, and managed to wangle a Compugraphic typesetting machine from Commoner's budget. Aside from his synthesis of phenomenology and Marxian critical theory, I learned translation, editing, and typesetting from Piccone -- the latter giving me the profession that supported me for five years after my academic burn out. Commoner and Gouldner may have had an inkling that Danforth intended to crush Wash. U.'s sociology department. One critical blow was denying Piccone tenure in 1977. As far as I know, he never taught again, although he did continue to edit Telos until his death in 2004. (Looks like they're still chugging along: they've published a collection of Piccone's writings, and even have a nice website.)
Peter Dreier does a good job of summing up why Commoner was, and is, important. I'm quoting from the print version of The Nation, which appears to be edited down from his longer piece here.
The New Left isn't held in high regard these days. I especially cringe when I read people like Tony Judt, with his Old Left roots and later anti-Communist fixation, try to belittle the movement, but that's partly because he should know better. What's had far greater effect has been a 30-year propaganda assault by the right against what for lack of a better term they call "the sixties." What I think of as New Left was sort of the intellectual crust on top of a much broader-based push for social and political reforms -- a movement that itself never coalesced under a common brand name, like the early-20th-century Progressives: rather, you had movements for civil rights, antiwar, women's liberation, the environment.
It's worth noting that as the 1970s unfolded all of those key New Left movements were remarkably successful, both in terms of political effects and in shifting deep-seated cultural norms. Even after thirty years of well-funded counterrevolution, the right's attack on those four cornerstones is limited to fringe issues that more often than not have to be disguised. By some measures, the military has bounced back strongest, but no one entertains the prospect of restoring the draft, and for most people the endless grind of foreign wars has no sensible impact on their lives.
In retrospect, the main shortcoming of the New Left revolution was the failure to establish sustainable political institutions. This was in large part because the New Left was deeply distrustful of power in any form. It was also because natural allies nominally on the left side of the political spectrum, like the unions and the Democratic Party, were often viewed as enemies -- after all, it was LBJ who tragically escalated the Vietnam War, and Chicago mayor Daley who organized the police riot against demonstrators in 1968. Meanwhile, the unions had essentially given up on trying to organize the poor after Taft-Hartley became law, and by 1972 many were supporting Nixon (and later Reagan in 1980, including the air traffic controllers Reagan soon locked out).
The New Left grew out of an idealized self-image of America as an egalitarian middle class society -- something very different from previous left movements, which grew out of the inequity of economic relations, with the underclass organizing to fight for their own interests. For the most part, New Leftists were satisfied with their own station, but were sharply critical of the hypocrisy of their prosperous egalitarian society for allowing poverty and injustice to persist. The brilliance of the movement was in its relentless uncovering of that hypocrisy, starting with obvious ideologies like racism and sexism and militarism and imperialism and extending ad infinitum: for example, R.D. Laing wrote a piece picking apart the whole concept of obviousness. Eventually, all that analysis hit home -- in the 1970s I worked on a publication called Notes on Everyday Life -- but early on politics was all about helping other people, be they the poor in Appalachia, the segregated in the South, the peasants in Vietnam. Some even got worked up to the point of self-destruction (Weatherman is a case in point) but for most students it became a phase, giving way as personal life (families and mortgages and such) grew ever more complicated.
Ecology was a perfect concept for a time when we were coming to suspect that everything is related to and affected by everything else, and also that capitalism's gospel of infinite growth would sooner or later crash into the finiteness of the world. Commoner both introduced the concept and drew the key political conclusions. The environmental movement was quickly defanged by success, as the path from Earth Day to major legislation on air and water pollution and endangered species was almost immediate. But the next step toward facing the limits of capitalism never came close to making the public agenda, even less than the notion that civil rights should advance the economic profile of Afro-Americans.
When Commoner ran for president in 1980, he got crushed, as the nation decided to turn a blind eye to reality. I blame the Cold War, and for that I mostly blame the blind and cowardly acquiescence of liberals, including many labor union officials, in signing up for the anti-communist crusade. After the Russian Revolution, the new Soviet leader styled themselves as the leaders of world revolution, but they did very little -- other than to make affiliated communists look foolish -- until after WWII, when their armies occupied most of Eastern Europe and North Korea, and anti-fascist partisans from Albania and Yugoslavia to China and Vietnam had gained power bases.
Still, it wasn't inevitable that the US would choose to become the leader of the capitalist world, and would further decide to fight the Marx-inspired underclasses all around the world for the indefinite future. The US was itself formed by the world's first anti-imperialist revolution, and had traditionally avoided standing armies, international alliances, and -- except around its favorite "lakes": the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific -- foreign interventions. Even if the US wished to promote business interests abroad, it could have positively promoted the principles of independence, democracy, labor rights, and equal opportunities as an alternative to repressive systems both on the right and on the left, and it could have attempted to find common ground and interests with the Soviet Union and its bloc with the hope of ameliorating its repression and backwardness.
But a bipartisan succession of liberal presidents -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon -- chose instead to wage an international class war, supporting any friend (no matter how brutal or corrupt), opposing any foe (no matter how principled and progressive). What happened then was often astonishing. Just a few highlights: the US backed decolonization for Indonesia but not for Vietnam, leading to a 30-year war in Vietnam that killed millions of people (including 50,000 Americans), one that could largely have been avoided by elections, cancelled by the US on grounds that our guy would lose; meanwhile, when Indonesia veered too far to the left, the US staged a coup followed by the murder of several hundred thousand people the CIA suspected of bad politics; in Iran, a CIA coup ended democratic rule and installed a megalomaniacal shah, who 25 years later provoked a revolution creating the first militantly Islamic regime in the Middle East -- to this day, the US is trying to break Iran with economic sanctions and cyberwarfare, and threatening to bomb it; in the Congo, the CIA had its first leader killed, installing Mobutu instead, who siphoned billions of dollars out of one of the poorest countries in the world, leading to a series of wars which have killed millions more; in Chile when a non-communist socialist was elected president, the US staged a coup and had him and thousands of his supporters killed; the US urged Saudi Arabia to export its Salafist Islam, especially to Afghanistan, where the US sponsored the birth of modern Jihadism, starting a series of wars in 1979 that tie down US troops to this day.
But the anti-communist crusade wasn't solely directed against the underclasses of the world. It was also focused on the working class inside the United States, and once conservatives like Reagan came to power, that became its primary focus. If you look at the rhetoric they use to smash unions, to rip up the economic safety net, to strip regulation of business, to cut taxes on the rich, it invariably recycles the jargon of Cold War propaganda. Moreover, the same tactics and dubious ethics apply: government is no longer of, by, and for the people; it is something that a handful of self-designated rich guys insist they have to "take back." Broad middle class prosperity is a thing of the past, while poverty is way up, and we're running the largest penal system in the world. Worldwide war is a permanent feature: the only thing government can be trusted to do (maybe because it deposits the incompetence elsewhere). But religion is back -- initially another piece of Cold War propaganda to needle the atheist communists. And science, and for that matter education, is out, or at least being priced out of reach -- the right suspects it makes people more liberal.
The effect of the Cold War on our welfare is actually easy to calculate: following WWII the US and Europe had pretty much the same labor rules and welfare policies, the main difference being that the US was flush with cash and Europe was in ruins. Since then the US has fought its Cold War and beat down its working class, while Europe has at most gone through the motions, and so has preserved a middle class egalitarianism that Americans only have a distant memory of. Europe has some problems now, mostly too many politicians beholden to the same money interests that dominate the US, but they are many miles behind their American counterparts, in large part because they don't have that Cold War legacy to beat up their citizens with.
The right is so wrong on so many counts now that it's hard to know where to attack first. So it might be time to return to Commoner's essential conclusion, that unbridled capitalism will wind up ruining the environment, which is to say the world we live and work in. To keep the environment livable, we need to understand better how it all links together, but we also need to rein in capitalism, and the right. Survival depends on it.
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