Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Crises of -- What Is That Economic System, Anyway?

Mark Tushnet

On Friday David Brooks’s column identified three “crises” of contemporary U.S. society, which, he argued, needed to be addressed more urgently than matters like health care and, in general, the size of the national government. They are crises of opportunity, solidarity, and authority. I’m generally not a fan of Brooks’s work, which is too often fatuous and pompous (all this apart from his notorious reliance on “facts” that prove not to be so). This column, though, seemed to me basically right – but radically (so to speak) incomplete.

The first gap is the most important – a failure to connect the dots, as Sandy Levinson is wont to say. What, one might ask, is the source/cause of these three crises? The answer is The Economic System That Must Not Be Named: capitalism.

A related gap – Brooks doesn’t identify any national level (or any other level) policies that might address those crises, because he can’t and still maintain his belief that he’s a true conservative. There might in fact be no such policies, although I suspect that a massive government jobs program could do a lot to address the first two crises, and maybe the third. Of course, Brooks can’t support such a program. But then his criticism of President Obama for mistakenly pursuing health care reform rather than using his political capital to address the three crises seems a bit churlish.

Finally, though this is more contestable, my view is that the crisis of authority results in large part from a concerted campaign by Brooks’s erstwhile allies in the Republican Party to undermine such sources of authority as science and technocratic expertise. One might respond that the phrase “Question Authority” is associated with the left, and that much of the political action in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of efforts by the left to undermine existing authority. Here I think it might be worth distinguishing between liberals associated with the Democratic Party, who – I think – are entirely comfortable with authority, and the dirty effing hippies who really did question authority (and still do), but who are not now, and may not have ever been, a significant force in U.S. politics. (They are – we are – my peeps, though. On this question, I can’t recommend strongly enough Tom Stoppard’s “Rock 'n' Roll,” which places the conflict between the dirty effing hippies and the sedate Marxist left at its heart, and “shows” that the hippies were right.)

[Provoked by an e-mail exchange with Mike Seidman]

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