Beating the milking cow: The basic paradox of the left

The western radical left, and its proponents around the world, take pride in a critical, anti-statist approach. In their fashionable theories, however, there is a certain paradox, usually swept under the rug. And what have milking cows to do with all of that?

Dai Jinhua is a woman whom the western left loves to adore: She is a leftist, feminist activist, critical of her own government and the capitalist west at one and the same time. Dai, which is currently engaged in a lecture tour throughout North America, had recently given the keynote speech in the prestigious annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Toronto. Praised in glowing terms by historian Gail Hershatter, the president of the association, Dai castigated both “western imperialism” and “Chinese nationalism”, indeed the nation-state project as a whole. She pitted herself against totalitarian communism, but also against “developmental capitalism” which brings the world to the brink of ruin. The greatest failure of socialism in China and elsewhere, she said, was its association with the repressive nation-state. Leftists, she proposed, must liberate themselves from this harmful legacy and carve a new alternative to world capitalism, nationalism and statism.

Dai Jinhua. An anti-statist approach.

In her speech, Dai Jinhua had unknowingly raised a larger problem exceeding her own agenda. This problem, related to  a basic paradox of the western “New Left” and its paragons around the world,  is usually swept under the carpet. Here I will name it “beating the milking cow”.

As Asaf Sagiv writes in his excellent analysis of the Israeli and western radical left, most of its intellectuals and activists, even the Marxists among them, tend to be (like Dai) extremely critical of the nation-state. They detest its all-pervading power (Foucault), expose its seminal myths and “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm), and condemn its “artificiality”, capitalist “plunder” and related projects of colonialism and imperialism (Chomsky). These ills tend to be portrayed not as aberrations, but rather as inherent flaws of the nation-state from its inception. Some even argue that the “state terror” of nation-states is much more dangerous than the exploits of terror organizations such as Al-Qaeda. Therefore, in the words of historian Herbert Bix, a vocal proponent of the Neo-Marxist left in the United States, the ideology of the nation-state must be undermined and weakened as much as possible. As described by Sagiv:

“In view of the menacing omnipresence of the state, radical thought seeks to create a realm of political activity that is free from the hold of the governing powers. This activity is always a form of “resistance,” of curbing state intervention or exposing the evils it tries to conceal. In contrast to liberal politics, which aims to check state authority from within the governmental system itself, radicals, who place no faith in the establishment, seek to challenge this system from the outside, to create a “political” sphere that is not subject to—and actively works to undermine—“politics” in its institutional sense.Such logic precludes any attempt to participate in the public process that shapes the state’s political and legal agendas. The radical approach is not interested in either creating a new order or rectifying the old one; its sole concern is the deconstruction and subversion of the status quo. Foucault, for example, asserted that the political was born out of “resistance to governmentality, the first uprising, the first wrestling.”Similarly, Jacques Ranciטre, one of the most quoted philosophers in this context, defined politics as a “disruption” of the police order.And, in the same anti-statist vein, Agamben says that “The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity).”

However, there is a slight problem with this anti-statist approach. The programs espoused by many of these intellectuals, from Eric Hobsbawm to Herbert Bix, Noam Chomsky and Dai Jinhua, require a stronger, not a weaker state. Anti-statist they may be, but at the same time they call for equality between ethnic groups, well-funded public education, social justice and generous welfare programs. In other words, a fairer distribution of the communal goods. But in order to distribute fairly, one needs to invest the distributer with considerable power. And as long as you expect the distribution to be more fair, more just and more equitable, the distributer  has to penetrate further into the fabric of society, and to employ more, not less, legislation, enforcement and coercion. Money for welfare will not come of its own. Someone has to collect it. And if more money is to be collected, the collecting bureaucracy has to be bigger and stronger. In short, there is an interesting schizophrenia in the political ideology of the New Left: on the one hand, it detests the nation-state and strives to weaken it as much as possible. On the other hand, it still wants it to fulfill more functions, to collect more money, to enforce more justice and equality. Leftist intellectuals and activists are beating their cow, and at the same time expect it to produce more milk.

That was not always the case. The old, communist left, was certainly not anti-statist, as it had “good” statist models: the Soviet Union, Communist China and Cuba. However, as Asaf Sagiv argues, with the disappearance of these positive models, the left had nothing tangible to offer. In fact, this process was gathering steam since the 1950s, when the crimes of Stalin became publicly known. Having been disillusioned from communism, but still resentful of the capitalist west, the left increasingly espoused the model of “resistance” to the current order (thus the all too common alliance between radical leftists and Islamists, yet another fascinating phenomenon). The absence of a positive communist model, and the resistance to the capitalist state, had left the activists with no agent to implement their costly dreams and projects. At times, that leads to senseless fury and violence, as in Greece. But in other cases, such as the Occupy Wall street movement in the United States, the activists, without disavowing their anti-establishment posture, do expect the same establishment to fund their pet projects.

As a Harvard graduate student, I came to know numerous radical activists. I have posed this questions to many of them, and in most cases only heard that “a new way has to be found” or that “it is impossible to understand the socialist future when living under capitalist conditions”. Other activists, however, told me that they are not against the state as such, only against the nation-state. That distinction is, however, irrelevant. Because what they criticize in the nation-state is first and foremost its power to command, penetrate and control. Unfortunately, power is just the aspect of the state that they need in order to implement their projects. The dream of social equality requires more power, more coercion, and more ideological indoctrination to enforce it. So even if the nation-state will be abolished and another, unidentified state will rise from its ashes, it will still have to exercise power; Lots and lots of power, in order to implement social projects. So we are back at point zero, and the paradox remains acute as ever.

Michele Bachmann- what about her milking cow?

Nor is the anti-statist right, such as the Tea Party, free from the same paradox. Its dominant leaders, such as Michele Bachmann, detest the governmental establishment and (unlike the left) could not care less about equality, social justice or social projects. However, they still want an assertive foreign policy and big army which will be able to wage wars around the world. Thus, Bachmann had criticized President Obama for his “exaggerated” defense cuts. An army fitting a super-power, alas, costs enormous amounts of money and requires a big, convoluted bureaucracy. So Bachmann, too, preaches for a small government, but would like to consume the fruits of a big one. Just like Noam Chomsky and Dai Jinhua, she is beating her milking cow. It is no mere chance, as Reihan Salam  notes in Foreign Affairs, that republican presidents such as George W. Bush actually expanded the government though promising otherwise. In the US political scene, it seems, only libertarians like Ron Paul genuinely and consistently follow the vision of a small state. But in order to do so, one has to abandon dreams of justice, sweeping reforms or military prowess. And that proves extremely difficult for most politicians, and voters.

Perhaps both left and right are lucky that the nation-state is probably here to stay, notwithstanding their pointed attacks. Therefore, they will continue to have their boogeyman, and at the same time struggle over its resources. Fortunately for them, the milking cow is still alive and well.

An Update

Just now, I have received by mail an ad from a journal called “The American Conservative”. This journal opposes the coming war with Iran, just like all other “imperialist wars”, out of conservative, anti-statist values. “War,” write the editors, “is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement”.  So it seems that in the American right, too, people recognize the “cow paradox” and are consistent with their anti-statist approach.


About דני אורבך

ברוכים הבאים לבלוג "הינשוף"! קוראים לי דני אורבך, ואני דוקטורנט להיסטוריה באוניברסיטת הרווארד, חוקר הפיכות צבאיות, טרור פוליטי, התנקשויות ואי ציות צבאי ביפן, סין, גרמניה ובכלל. בעבר פרסמתי בעברית את הספר "ואלקירי- ההתנגדות הגרמנית להיטלר" בהוצאת ידיעות אחרונות. הבלוג הזה יעסוק בפוליטיקה, היסטוריה, ושאר נושאים המעניינים אותי.

Posted on March 23, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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