Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Gleichschaltung der Kulturen. Drawing, 2003, by Walter Wesinger ("Waldah"), via staatenlosinfo,org.

David Brooks ("What's Wrong With Radicalism") in the grips of a kind of interesting thought today: that the policies promoted by our two big political parties aren't really very radical:

Stylistically and culturally, Trumpian populism screams “blow it up” and “drain the swamp.” But Donald Trump’s actual policies are run-of-the-mill corporatist. The left-wing radicals talk a lot against the systems of oppression and an institutionalized injustice. But they are nothing like the radicals of the 1930s or the 1960s.

Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality. They don’t want to stop technical innovation, which is displacing millions of workers. They don’t have plans to reverse individualism, which atomizes society and destroys community. A $15 minimum wage may be left wing, but it’s not Marxist-Leninism.
If that's true, then isn't Brooks's whole shtik misplaced? He's been telling us for ten years that we need to situate ourselves humbly in the sweet, quiet spot between the extremes of left and right; now he's saying we're already there, but it's so noisy in here we don't realize it? Or what?


today’s radicalism is more about identity than social problems.
Both the Trumpian populists and the social justice warriors are more intent on denouncing the people they hate than on addressing the concrete problems before them. Consider the angry commentary you hear during a given day. How much of it is addressing a problem we face, and how much of it is denouncing people we dislike?
It's still too radical, it's just not radical about anything.

This seems to me a remarkable misuse of the political sense of the adjective "radical", for starters:

a very different from the usual or traditional extreme
b favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions
c associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change
d advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs

Brooks is really using "radical" to mean "unpleasant", "rude", or "making me feel nervous about my identity".

Of course I also think he's almost entirely wrong about everything else here.

It's true that what I regard as a normal set of ideas on the left is far from radical, but it also goes well beyond the Fight for Fifteen slogan: I think the aim is simply to catch up with the other developed countries in protecting the vulnerable from the ravages of capitalism on the basis of rules laid down in America mostly in the 20th century, from the pro-worker, anti-monopoly legislation of the Progressive Era through the social safety net of the New Deal plus the Affordable Care Act (which doesn't provide universal cheap care but to me is the shortest route we have to it), to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and environmental legislation—to shore it up, reinforce it, bring it up to international standard, making the health care truly affordable, the retirement security really secure, the universal free education up through tertiary education/job training, and the enviromental law scientifically up to date. Stuff they've had in conservative Germany for more than 50 years. Plus the traditional need of the US to have a more liberal immigration policy than other countries.

It's wrong to even talk about Trump himself having "actual policies", as if he had anything in mind but trolling, but the policy ideas clustering around the White House are extremely radical, including Ryan's views on making the tax burden more and more regressive and ultimately eliminating the social safety net; Sessions's plans to remove civil rights protections; DeVos's attempts to encourage educational privatization; Pruitt's and Zinke's attacks on environmental protection. An enormous lurch, far more violent than anything attempted in the Reagan administration, from the traditions of a century and a half of willed gradual progress.

But you know what's even more radical than that? The program Brooks seems to offer himself, of a radicalism he thinks is worth considering:

  • "upending the meritocracy"—It's difficult to be certain what Brooks means when he starts denouncing meritocracy, as he often does, but there's a real clue here in the reference to "inherited inequality"; Brooks believes that being good at taking tests, or compiling a good record of job performance, or meeting any of the typical criteria used in a meritocratic system—like the civil service exams instituted in the US in the 1880s to replace the old spoils system—are genetically inherited traits, so that the techniques we use to eliminate bias from a meritocratic system, like affirmative action, blind auditions, and so forth, won't prevent the formation of a hereditary ruling class. Instead, we need abandon the very idea of meritocracy, of promoting the best, to put more mediocre and even incompetent people into responsible positions.
  • "stopping technical innovation"—I wouldn't expect Brooks to be an open Luddite, though we all know he doesn't much like working with computers, but sticking technical innovation into the list between two things he's known to hate suggests he really wants to do this too, presumably to keep more people in the kind of endlessly repetitive, soul-killing jobs that robots do well; rather than coping with job displacement with industrial planning and intensive worker retraining programs and my own favorite, the kind of artisan and craft encouragement (musical instruments! cheese!) that's made Italy so rich in recent decades, he'd like to bring automation to a complete halt.
  • "reversing individualism"—the Germans had a word for that, didn't they?

Especially when you put these three next to Brooks's constantly urged demand that we should all stop speaking for our "identities", our particular parochial interests as women, African Americans, Mormons, gays, electricians, teachers, dairy farmers, disabled persons, whatever, and speak instead in undifferentiated voices as members of the nation, the Res Publica or public thing, in which everybody's interest is the same.

Gleichschaltung literally means switching everybody into the same gear, synchronizing the population. As the name of a central National Socialist policy, it referred to the program of coordinating the German people into a single thought, a single identity, in which no one would stand out. Special interests like labor unions and political parties (right as well as left) were eliminated, and the differences among religious denominations minimized under the active intervention of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs. Everybody had a basic choice of just one social organization; all Aryan boys at 10 were required to join the Deutsches Jungvolk and the Hitlerjugend at 14; for all girls, the Jungmädel and then the Bund Deutscher Mädel. All workers were expected to belong to the recreational Kraft Durch Freude.

I'm shocked to realize what a Brooksian program it was, the kind of utopia he's described in dozens of columns, with the formation of a "national story", the development of new forms of belonging to replace the old social bonds frayed and broken by modernity, the attempt to provide everybody with one and the same sense of purpose. And these ideas of suppressing "meritocracy" in administration, of eliminating obnoxious standouts and regressing everybody to the mean, and of getting rid of the selfishness of "individualism", focusing all minds on the collective, these are vital parts of Gleichschaltung too. And the constant insistence that "we", some nameless elite corps with which he's having the conversation, must create all this stuff to preserve our sacred nation from decay and collapse.

We've all thought as Brooks stopped being a doctrinaire conservative, he was becoming a kind of soppy-headed theo-liberal, a sentimental appreciator of the Goodness of Man, but we were so wrong. When he talks about a radicalism that's neither of the right nor of the left, and complains that right and left are not really radical at all, except in the sense of bad-mannered, he means it.

Trump's a feeble-minded emperor, Junior and Kushner empty-headed rich boys, Gorka a drag performer, and Miller and Bannon gamer boyz who have never really gotten out of Mom's basement. No wonder Brooks hates them! Not because they're dangerous, but because they're fakes. I never imagined I'd be able to think this, but the real Nazi, the theorist, whether he knows it or not (and I seriously don't suppose he's ever imagined it, he just naturally thinks like Goebbels), is David F. Brooks. That's not even a joke.

See Driftglass for the rest of the column, including Himmlerish reference to Saul Alinsky.

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