A Manifesto of Meaninglessness

Yet another righteous declaration from the self-proclaimed moral middle, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto. It’s written by Bo Winegard over at Quillette.

It doesn’t seem particularly coherent, except maybe on an emotional level. It comes across as uninformed and inapplicable platitudes, along with some moralistic patronizing. More of a description of a personality type or a psychological attitude than a political position. The author is basically saying he wants to be a good person and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Ya know, why can’t everyone just get along?

I’m not going to argue against that sentiment. But there needs to be some meat on the bone, if we are to make a meal out of it.

“The centrist, like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.”

Many people are worried about radical utopian proposals. The minor detail is that those such as myself see the rhetoric of the status quo as radically utopian.

Capitalist realism with its ideals of free markets freeing the world, meritocracy freeing human potential, and creative destruction freeing innovation. Geopolitical neoconservatism proclaiming to spread democracy around the world by force of superior moral example and moral righteousness, in the form of a Whiggish Holy War of Manifest Destiny. Paternalistic Technocracy of learned professionals, wise leaders, and maybe even an enlightened aristocracy.

Is this what such centrists are in the center of? If so, such centrists are radical utopians because the reality on the ground doesn’t match this ungrounded ideological optimism (or rather dogmatic arrogance). Besides, our country is rare in the world for having been founded on soaring idealism, even though it has become co-opted by the reactionaries and authoritarians in power.

I’m not clear what claims of being realistic mean in all of this. Realism always necessitates an ideology by which to judge reality. Almost everyone perceives reality as being on their side. So, whose realism are we talking about? Does this supposed centrist see himself at the center of reality itself?

“So far, so conservative. This sounds like a modern version of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.”

It does have much in common with Burke’s views. More than the author realizes. Even the supposed differences mentioned don’t apply, which is why it is important to be well informed.

Burke was in the progressive party, the Whigs. He often supported political reform. He was a conservative only in Corey Robin’s sense of the reactionary mind. He was seeking reform in response to a failed traditional order. Burke did not loathe change. In fact, he supported change so far as to support the American Revolution, up to the point that Independence was declared (as he remained loyal to the British Empire, even as he wanted the status quo improved).

On the second point, Burke didn’t believe in a transcendental (religious) moral order. He wasn’t a believer in natural law, although interestingly many early leftists were (and many still are, such as progressive Evangelicals, New Thought Christians, and New Agers). Rather, Burke was a critic of natural law, specifically as a basis of social order and a political system.

“The great conservatives of the past–Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Klemens von Metternich, John Calhoun, T.S. Eliot, et cetera–often evinced a peculiarly fervid attachment to the current social order”

It depends on which individual in relation to which aspect of which then current social order.

Because of his Whiggish progressiveness and reform-mindedness, many arguments have been made for Burke as a liberal, in the way that Locke was a liberal (both having a reactionary aspect that would show up in certain areas, but that is true of many liberals today in the Democratic Party). Remember that Burke was for revolution before he was against it, as initially no one knew what revolution would mean, and obviously Burke didn’t immediately see it as threatening.

Even Calhoun has been categorized as a liberal by Domenico Losurdo, from his European left-wing perspective, and he makes an interesting argument. Calhoun talked of the necessity of divided power and the protection of minorities, even as he defended slavery (many liberals back then weren’t abolitionists).

The centrism being described in the article sounds like what one person called melancholy liberalism:

“Part of the strength of that liberalism has been its power of self-criticism. […] what differentiates liberalism from socialism and premodern conservatism is its conviction that there is no permanent solution to the problems of politics […] as we come up against environmental and economic limits to progress. The conclusion is premature. Much of the globe still lacks the freedom that the West takes for granted; and it is precisely at moments of discouragement that liberalism itself is most vulnerable to attacks from more confident and simplistic ideologies. The beleaguered tradition needs, and deserves, not just critics but celebrants.”

I’m sympathetic with this attitude and worldview. During a transitional period of my life, I was drawn to this melancholy liberalism and drawn to the appeals of moderation and centrism. My present leftism has been an attempt to shake myself free from this narrow thinking.

To return to the Quillette article:

“The conservative is correct that the past is full of wisdom for the future; but the progressive is correct that the past is also full of errors, dogmas, and barbarism. Perhaps one could put it this way: The past is like an old, unused, and rotting library; the books are full of wisdom, but the building is ruined by insects and decay. The conservative wants to keep the library; the centrist wants to keep the books; and the progressive wants to burn the whole thing down and start over.”

Liberalism was founded on an Enlightenment worldview that looked to the past. Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary leaders were constantly referencing the ancient Greco-Roman world along with the early history of Europe and the British Isles. It related to why they were prone to invoke natural law, a Greek philosophy that had been used by Stoics (and, following their example, early Christians) to challenge imperial authority.

What kind of demented person sees progressives as wanting to burn the whole thing down and start over? The author here shows his reactionary side, a fear of even mild leftism as a danger to the existing social order.

“Centrism, then, is defined by a number of assumptions and tendencies; it is not defined by policy dogmas. Below is an undoubtedly incomplete but useful list of these assumptions and attitudes: (1) Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions.”

That is true of many people. Only a minority of people anywhere on the political spectrum would embrace extreme proposals and actions. But it always depends on who is defining extreme.

Those on the political left often see the political right as extreme. And as extremist neoliberals and neocons control our society, many outside of the center of power see centrists as extreme, specifically in that the center of power contradicts and subverts the center of majority public opinion. I’ve often noted, on many important issues, how far right self-proclaimed centrists are in comparison to most Americans.

With this in mind, I’ve asked: Is there a balance point in a society of extremes? What can centrism and moderation mean?

Now to the second defining assumption and tendency of ‘centrism’:

“(2) Mistrust of grand political theories or systems.”

That’s fine. Few ascribe to grand political theories or systems. That isn’t how most people think. But there are always grand political theories and systems playing in the background.

Being a ‘centrist’ doesn’t save one from this fate, considering that the status quo itself is built on grand political theories and systems, one of the grandest (i.e., largest and most encompassing) in all of world history. The status quo that dominates is also quite absolutist in its claims on reality, which is the ground upon which centrists base their moral authority to judge others.

“(3) Skepticism about the goodness of human nature.”

Skepticism in general is found among a wide variety of people. Leftists and left-liberals have a strong skeptical tradition. It’s the reason many of them prefer to focus on systems and environmental conditions, rather than placing their faith in an inherently good human nature that will win out against oppressive evil.

Most people across the political spectrum, including conservatives and right-wingers, think of human goodness as more of a potential than anything else. That isn’t meant to dismiss the genuine disagreements about that human potential.

“(4) Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions.”

Anyone who knows history knows that compromise and large coalitions have been found among diverse ideological groups and movements. This was particularly true of the political left. The early European workers movement included Marxists, communists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertarians, etc. And similar to Martin Luther King jr, the Black Panthers early on sought alliances with a wide variety of others: feminists, Native American activists, and poor white groups.

What we see of the left is splintered and beleaguered by generations of oppression and persecution. Cold War witch-hunts, COINTELPRO, and union-busting have had a devastating effect. The once large and diverse leftist coalitions in the US are now but a memory, although there are many on the left who have continuously fought to rebuild them.

“(5) Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth.”

What does this have to do with centrism? Scientists and other professionals dealing with evidence (and truth) hold different ideologies, including on the far left and far right. And a wide variety, specifically on the political left, support scientists in this endeavor.

Among those who celebrated the hope and sought the pragmatic application of science included: Nazis, Soviets, and Maoists; New Dealers, eugenicists, and race realists; Progressives, Objectivists, and Libertarians; left-wingers, right-wingers, and centrists; et cetera. Only those like anarchist environmentalists and extreme New Agers along with the most reactionary of right-wingers have consistently and entirely dismissed the dominant scientific paradigm.

This past century has been ruled by science and it required a contrarian attitude to oppose it.

“(6) A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics.”

Patriotism is a form of identity politics. People hold many identities. In the 19th century, it was common for Americans to identify with their state or their region, not with the country as a whole and certainly not with the federal government. Many others have identified with their ethnic group or religion. The average person has always had multiple identities that overlap and sometimes contradict.

Identity politics isn’t a new invention. Our country was founded on identity politics, specifically that of an institutionalized and legally-enforced racial order that dominated every aspect of life, economy, and politics. Even feminism was a growing political movement prior to the American Revolution, although suppressed for a while following that. If present identity politics gets your panties in a wad, the identity politics of the early twentieth century would have scared you shitless.

“(7) A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles.”

Few are absolutely against rule of law and constitutional principles. It depends on the political order.

Every major society that ever existed had rule of laws and many had constitutional principles. Saudi Arabia has theocratic rule of law and the Islamic centrists living there have steadfast dedication to rule of law. The Soviet Union and Maoist China were constitutional republics where fidelity to constitutional principles was considered the social norm.

So, what point is the author trying to make?

“For the centrist, one of the more disturbing trends of the past 15 years is the radical moralization of policy preferences.”

Radical and moralization are the kind of words that means many things to many people. To me, radical just means going to the roots (of human nature, an ideological worldview, a belief system, a social order, a country’s founding, or a civilizational project). What one does after getting to the root is another matter — root it out like a weed, pick out the grubs, replant it elsewhere, or whatever else.

“There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.”

Many? Is the author implying that there are more on the left that denounce those not on the left than those on the right who denounce those not on the right? And why does the author as a self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ pretend to stand above the fray in denouncing others?

“That thought should chasten us and cause us to be as tolerant of the failings of our fellow citizens as we wish our descendants to be of us. Perhaps this is what centrism really is: a tolerant smile at the recognition that we are human, all too human.”

That really says nothing at all. That we are human, all too human is no grand insight of rare wisdom. It’s a fairly standard view.

The crux of the matter is what kind of tolerance toward which humans in which context. Is the author tolerant even of those who are intolerant of tolerance, those who would seek to undermine and destroy it? Should the American Revolutionaries have tolerated the British Empire and British East India Company? Should the slaves in the South tolerated their violent oppressors? Should the Jewish freedom fighters have tolerated the Nazis? Should Native Americans have tolerated those killing them and taking their land? Should workers have tolerated the abusive and corrupt Robber Barons?

What is the alternative? Would peaceful protests, petitions, and hunger strikes have stopped such evil? And what about the present evil of a two party system that promotes vast inequality, a permanent underclass, mass incarceration, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, a military industrial complex, CIA covert operations used to oppress populations and overthrow governments, near continuous wars of aggression around the world, invasion and occupation of numerous countries, the terrorizing and dislocating and killing of millions of people year after year, and on and on?

What morally sane person would want to claim a centrist position amidst such horrifying suffering and oppression?

* * *

Some helpful views from the comment section:

Speaker To Animals
September 1, 2017
“In most of the United States, for example, sex cannot be bought and sold legally. There are, of course, reasonable arguments for the legalization of prostitution, but it is not immediately obvious that society would be better if all potential market transactions were allowed.”
This raises the question of which ‘centre’ centrism is based on – the centre of the sates in which prostitution, for instance, is illegal or the centre where it is not?
Here in the U.K. prostitution is not illegal. Most people think it is, but it isn’t; practices associated with prostitution, such as soliciting and running a brothel are illegal, but not the sale of sex itself. Elsewhere in Europe there are countries where selling sex is legal but purchasing sex is not. In much of the rest of the world it is illegal for a woman to show her hair in public.
What you call centerism is just your own societies status quo. Defending the status quo is fine if you live in a liberal society but not when you live elsewhere. Why not just defend liberalism and call it liberalism?

Keith Ammann
September 1, 2017
   The author mischaracterizes progressivism. It’s not looking to burn down the library or anything in it. It wants to build a library that’s capable of accommodating new books. If the old library can be repaired and expanded, great. If not, demolishing and rebuilding it is simply common sense.
Also, the author condemns the left’s “radical moralization of policy preferences.” I would point out that many of these “preferences” are actively undermining the 20th-century international human rights consensus. Given the atrocities that led to the establishment of this consensus (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”), how can we consider attacks on this consensus to be anything BUT a moral issue, perhaps the most important one of our era? Should we excuse policies that overtly and aggressively assault people’s rights and dignity, that dismiss equal justice, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and economic security and opportunity, as mere differences of opinion about which people can disagree and still get along? If “Philando is a human being, as deserving of life as I am” is a radical moral position, then I have no use for any centrism that shies away from it.

September 1, 2017
At least at the start with broad strokes, I feel very comfortable calling myself a centrist by that definition: not a Republican, not a utopian calling on us to trust our neighbors unaware of human instincts or game theory.

Here however is the bs that gets moderates correctly mocked:
“the centrist has no sympathy for crowds shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” But it is crucial to remain committed to the rule of law and to protect free speech.”
If you want to represent moderates, if you want moderation to rebuild the center of American politics, then when people fly swastikas you need to be there. You need a plan, you need to do organizing. When you say “no sympathy,” that is the same as the centrists who had no sympathy for the original Nazis, closing the shutters on their windows and leaving it to someone else to do the work.
Moderation doesn’t need the defense given here. I think most people — certainly most of the left out to the Sanders or Chomsky edge — have an idea of human nature, have an idea of the value of the democratic movements that came mostly out of part of Europe (though I would rather be more specific.) Moderation needs to have politically crushed the Birthers and now the Alt-Right, ok, choose the methods, but you have to do the work to get to the end result.
The broad strokes ring true: No wild Communist revolutions. Instead, breaking up monopolies, national healthcare, making sure that everyone has job opportunities with dignity, and you’re going to come up with a real plan for getting the Nazis to be again unacceptable, rather than complain about the people trying something, right? The problem with moderation in America is not that it lacks respect from left or right — it’s not a philosophical problem — but that it is too apathetic and doesn’t do the organizing work. You can see something similar on the left: you talk about Antifa, which is a microscopic organization that liberals all the way out to Chomsky (well past Sanders) think is counter-productive. They organize.
The extremes are out-organizing the middle. To me the middle is single-payer health care; to you it might be something else. But screw the philosophy, almost everyone wants to be a moderate, almost no one wants to work. But 10,000 moderates on the street next time the Nazis have a rally, instead of having only thousands of liberals and dozens or a 100 or so Antifa show up.