Ideology and the Left Blogosphere

by Rob Horning

19 January 2011


This post by Freddie deBoer about the rightward drift of ostensibly left-wing bloggers names names and has generated a lot of responses. DeBoer writes that “almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.” That’s not to say you can’t find socialists and the like blogging here and there; it’s just that the conversation-defining pundits online don’t read them or respond to them. Instead there is a Potemkin left wing made up of moderates. “The nominal left of the blogosphere is almost exclusively neoliberal,” deBoer argues. It subscribes to “the general paternalistic neoliberal policy platform, where labor rights are undercut everywhere for the creation of economic growth (that 21st century deity), and then, if things go to plan, wealth is redistributed from the top to those whose earnings and quality of life have been devastated by the attack on labor.” Some of the prominent moderates may have begun further left, but career incentives have driven them to the neoliberal line, which secures “professional entitlement” in punditry circles.
The gist of his critique is that unless you are willing to assent to the broad tenets of neoliberalism (antiunion, anti-regulation, pro-neoclassical economic interpretations, etc.) you are not regarded as an “adult” in American political discourse. “The neoliberal economic platform is enforced by the attitude that anyone embracing a left-wing critique of that platform is a Stalinist or a misbehaving adolescent,” he writes. And sure enough, deBoer himself had his maturity questioned. DeBoer cites a few examples in his postscript, and today at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen, after referring to deBoer target Matt Yglesias by his first name only (an annoying trait of the consensus-sphere; as if we are all chums and should all automatically know who is being referring to) writes somewhat condescendingly:

Freddie deBoer seems to be very smart. I had never heard of him before, which I suppose means he is not extremely famous as a blogger. So let’s see how he evolves when it comes to his critique that “labor rights are undercut everywhere for the creation of economic growth” in an ongoing debate with some people who know more about it than he does. he shows a much better rhetorical skill than he does an understanding of labor economics.

Whether or not you agree with that marketplace-of-ideas approach to credibility, it’s worth considering whether it’s appropriate to dismiss rhetorical skill so quickly. Part of what deBoer claims is that left-wing argument is dismissed out of hand as mere rhetoric as opposed to the more “pragmatic” arguments of neoliberals. Left-wingers spout ideology while neoliberals have “real” policy discussions. But “real policy” is constrained by the rhetorical climate that is allowed to prosper; empiricism doesn’t occur in a ideological vacuum. Instead ideology dictates to some degree the terms of the “ongoing debate” Cowen mentions, and deBoer is pointing out how restrictive that ideology has been. Mike Konczal puts this well in his response:

deBoer thinks that policy wonks create solutions within the context of a neoliberal capitalism, solutions that reify the naturalness of the current economic order, and that ignore the real problems. These solutions broadly fight for scraps that are left over from what the elites divide up, and don’t address more fundamental problems existing within our economic order.

To overcome that “reified naturalness” requires explicitly ideological effort of the sort that conservatives have never been embarrassed to engage in, at various levels of Straussian deception and bad faith. Ideological vigor (preferably of the good faith, nondeceptive variety) is not the only thing the left needs, but it needs it to some degree, and that means allowing views further to the Left than Gerald Ford into the “adult” conversation.

It’s interesting to compare that Cowen passage with one from a recent post by Steve Waldman, whose has been arguing against complacent technocracy for several months now.

The empirical evidence is clear. Ideology is malleable, over years and decades rather than generations and centuries. If you have to choose one — smart policy and indifference to ideology or sloppy policy and careful ideological work — you are better off choosing the latter.

Waldman makes the claim that ideology is “path-dependent”—that is, what’s currently hegemonic affects the scope of what can become ideologically persuasive in the future. After some game-theoretical analysis he concludes that the side that focuses on “rhetorical skill” will be able to shape the “ecosystem of constraints” that dictates future policy more than the side that regards ideological work as unnecessary or somehow disreputable. In a fitting piece of rhetorical jujitsu, Waldman accuses the tepid moderates and technocrats of immaturity:

It is childish, and wrong, to imagine that acknowledging the ideological aspects of one’s work and self makes one less trustworthy or more dangerous than those whose work is equally ideological, but who mistake their ideology for objectivity or truth and who therefore deny any role for ideology. Many of history’s most dangerous ideologues have been “true believers”, and others have pretended a “scientific” perspective while advancing claims we now recognize as ideological. Being acted upon by, and acting upon, prevailing ideology are part of what it means to be human. It is not just the province of economists or policymakers, or a fabrication of Svengalis in the propaganda ministry. Nevertheless, politicians and economists and other “opinion leaders” probably do have disproportionate influence over ideological change. As far as I’m concerned, they (we) ought to be doing a better, more careful, and more conscious, job of it.

Doing policy or doing ideological propaganda is not an either-or proposition. To be effective, one arguably must do both, with as much rhetorical skill as possible. But the existing crypto-left instead seems to sacrifice ideology to get along career-wise in the neoliberal media world as it already stands, rather than take advantage of the internet’s potential to build an alternative forum to subvert it.

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