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“Against Responsibility”

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n21/william-davies/against-responsibility

There is an interesting historical narrative starting to be told about the political context in which I grew up in. I remember the period well, as I first starting following politics during this time. I ordered Cooper’s book based on the superb outline in this review. Davies gets to the heart of it when he says,

“What is brilliant and original in Cooper’s analysis is her demonstration that there are clear continuities between traditional forms of moral accountability (to parents, children, husbands, the church) and entirely new ones (intrusive systems of welfare reform, new forms of student and consumer credit). She suggests, for example, that gay marriage could only be introduced thanks to the demand for equality not in cultural or political status but for equal rights under inheritance law. What unites neoliberal and neoconservative mentalities is an insistence on personal bonds of one kind or another, whether financial, familial or some combination of the two. In the panic surrounding the libidinous insurrections of the 1960s, some form of superego had to be revived or reconstructed if an inflationary counterculture nightmare was to be averted.”

This romance between the neoliberals and neoconservatives is notable because before this alliance there was a period where, at least to many social conservatives, the neoliberals where effectively part of the counterculture. (The marriage between Bill and Hillary Clinton seems to be a perfect analogy for this. A former Goldwater girl meets an ideologically malleable “hippie” who is only as smart as the last book he read.) 

While the results of this alliance are well known, there is an interesting aside I’m hoping the book might take on a bit. What about the relationship between the New Left and the neoliberals? We could probably say society has become far more progressive culturally because of the neoliberals more than those who remained on the left. The cultural turn of the New Left was such a heated debate internally because, as the adage goes, so little was at stake. The left was already effectively powerless. 

This pretty well brings us to where we are today. Right now, for the most part, the radical left is not differentiated by its economics. Indeed, any stray from economic orthodoxy is typically associated with the “populist” right (e.g., Brexit, Trump tariffs). The radical left, in the minds of much of the populous, is differentiated by being more radical than the neoliberal establishment when it comes to cultural demands. Outflanked and overpowered on economics, the left distances itself from established structures the only way it has had (or at least thinks it’s had) past successes. (Here again I think of the Clintons. Hillary Clinton can have some over-educated staffer tweet out her 401-k plan for social justice, ripe with all the Twitter-woke keywords like “intersectionality,” and people forget the Clintons had unpaid black inmates doing household chores around the governor’s mansion in Arkansas. Yes, you read right, the Clinton’s had slaves courtesy of the Arkansas penal system. How’s that for tradition!) 

None of this is to say there’s a sort of cut and dry version of history. Often cultural and economic issues overlap, and one is not necessarily more important than the other. I also think that while there is something to this notion our current hyper-focus on cultural alienates parts of the working class and spurs a right wing backlash (I’ve worked in manufacturing for nearly 20 years if you want anecdotes), it’s also true the left has suffered from reluctantly defending tax and spend liberalism and nanny state “nudging” as a least worst option. 

One great thing about getting older is reflecting on histories you actually remember. One not so great thing is remembering how cyclical these debates on the margins are. It’s nothing less than a miracle people like Bernie Sanders have been able to stay consistent for so long. 

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