Some guy over at the American Enterprise Institute claims that the fact that air pollution has dramatically improved since 1980 is proof that the catastrophic predictions made by early environmentalists were wrong (and, hence, we ought to ignore all those dire predictions being made by environmentalists now, natch). As others point out here and here, this analysis neatly ignores the fact that environmental activism led to government regulation led to averting the predicted consequences of inaction.
This would not be especially noteworthy except that a similar line of "thought" can be found all over the place among those who feel that the market will provide. Running out of oil? No worries -- as the price increases, entrepreneurs will be motivated to innovate new extraction methods, new energy sources, more efficient engines, etc. (I've written a bit about this before, discussing some things said by John Romer, husband of Obama's chief economic advisor, Christina Romer.)
This providentialism always ignores the non-market activism that precedes and motivates the market activity that "solves" the problem in question. There's always a sticky point where Cassandras start screaming and marching and demanding change, and the market providentialists have a hard time fitting these Cassandras into their narratives of this, the best of all possible worlds.
I haven't linked to anything Glenn Greenwald has written in a very long time. This is partly because I have not been paying nearly as much attention to US politics since Obama's election. This is partly the recoil from paying way too much attention to everything in the lead-up to the election, and partly an attempt to inoculate myself against the mind-numbing depression caused by the daily ups and downs of the political "conversation" in the US. My dad works for a senator, and I can see the toll taken on him by the ceaseless chatter and clatter of the thousands of little Don Quixotes at work slaying the dragons of their political opponents, and by the nauseating stew of opinion and analysis served up by the news media. I sort of made up my mind that the guy I wanted to win had won, and I wasn't ready to be disheartened by attending to the daily atrocities committed by the best-guys-available-at-the-time.
His basic claim is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party sucks at politics. They suck at politics because they are incapable of making a credible threat to vote against the tiniest incremental improvement on some issue where they would like to see major reform. Their mantra is, "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," but the effect is that the "better than nothing" becomes the enemy of the good. The HCR debate has guaranteed that the Obama administration will never make any major moves to placate progressives within the party because they know full well that the progressives will always back them no matter what. The progressives have destroyed any leverage they might have had with the administration because they have proven themselves unwilling to sink the health care bill, even though it lacks any of their "must have" provisions.
First of all, I think this analysis is spot on.
Second, I think it can be generalized to cover much of the dynamic that obtains between (relatively) liberal and (relatively) conservative blocs in most major political debates in North America. In short, liberals suck at politics because they aren't willing to accelerate the contradictions. The notion that things might have to get worse in order to get better, and that a responsible effort to make things better therefore has to accept making things worse as a valid strategy -- this is beyond the pale of most liberal thought.
If the anti-war "left" had decided to make life really hard for Bush, they could have. Obstructionism is obviously not an entirely lost art in US Congress, and those opponents of the war who had the misfortune of not being elected members of the legislature could have been infinitely more extremist in the expression of their opposition to the war than they were. But that would have entailed making life worse for people other than Bush as well -- soldiers, one's fellow citizens, one's family, etc. It would have meant taking on board the responsibility for causing deaths, even. Being anti-war could not be passed off on one's conscience as being anti-killing, or anti-suffering, or the like. It would mean taking a decision against a concrete policy or act, rather than against only abstract generalities. (If you've decided to oppose this war, then nothing prohibits you from making war against those who would take us into this war, but if you have "decided" to oppose War, there is very little you can do to stop any actual war, which will always be a concrete course of action, carried out by people with guns.)
This unwillingness to make things worse in order to get what you have decided upon as your goal means the progressive left will always get steamrolled by those who are willing to say "Give me what I want or I'll destroy something both of us care about."
Foucault's lectures on "The Birth of Biopolitics" have been rattling around in my head. I think they present a real challenge for the Left, in the sense that they articulate the lack of what Foucault refers to as a socialist governmentality. In fact, on might even say that, in the West, there is currently no governmental alternative to liberalism. What does this mean?
Well, first we should set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a partisan position in North American electoral and cultural politics. Liberals in this sense tend to embrace liberal government for some issues (drugs, abortion, etc.) while rejecting it for others (minimum wage, environmental regulations, etc.). There is no neat fit between the mode of government and partisan identification, even if there are discernible patterns.
Likewise, I think it is necessary to set aside the sense in which "liberalism" names a theory of state legitimation. In this sense, liberalism asks the question: When is it obligatory that I obey a coercive power? To which liberalism answers: When that coercive power is necessary (and sufficient?) to secure a sphere of equal liberty for myself and my fellows, who are equally obligated thereby to obey. This morality of power and obedience -- basically, the social contract tradition -- has some relationship with liberal government, but is not identical to it. Hobbes offers a liberal legitimation of the state, but not a liberal theory of government. Smith proposes liberal government, but not a liberal legitimation of the state. (Foucault talks about this as the "strategic"difference between "revolutionary" (natural rights, social contract) and "radical" (utilitarian) strands within liberalism. The difference is strategic because the two strands can support one another in various ways, but are not reducible to moments in a dialectical unity.)
Liberalism as a mode of government names the technology of power that governs a natural-social phenomenon by establishing a normal range of incidence and keeping the phenomenon within this range by means of state action on the environmental variables that tend to affect incidence. In other words, liberal government accepts the thing to be governed as an ineliminable (natural) fact of the social world, and, rather than trying to forbid or otherwise abolish it, manages it indirectly by affecting those variables that encourage or discourage it by appealing to individuals' interests. In short, liberal government is economic government, government that understands and respects the economic incentives that produce harmful or unpleasant phenomena, and tries to manage problems by restructuring the incentives.
Now, when things are put in these terms, it seems, in fact, that liberalism is the only governmental game in town. The Right has a moral discourse and an effective political rhetoric, but no independent art of government. The Left has a critical discourse, but neither an effective political rhetoric nor an art of government. Mainstream liberalism has government all locked up -- but has neither a critical nor a moral discourse, and is largely lacking in the political rhetoric department, too! (Hence, the sorry state of the Democrats in the US and the Liberals in Canada, both of which must pin there hopes of electoral success almost entirely on the incompetence of their Rightist competition.)
This is a problem for the Left in that, aside from the momentous problem of, y'know, actually taking power, we have no independent practice of government by which we might wield the power of the state should it somehow fall into our hands. There are, of course, distinctive ends we would like to achieve, but when you ask: How would we go about, e.g., redistributing land, establishing a basic income, etc? the only answers that seem forthcoming are: a) a magical faith in the will of the people (a simple decree, anyone?) and b) ask the economists.