The Left Fights Itself

The Left at War by Michael Bérubé, NYU Press, 352 pages, $29.95

In June of 2002, a British university dissolved one of its smaller departments. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was shuttered, and students eager to research the culture of soccer hooliganism or the effect of teen-rag advice columns on adolescents' burgeoning sexuality were effectively cast adrift. Officials at the University of Birmingham cited low marks on research evaluations as reason for the closure. The centre's defenders cried foul, speculating it was punishment for the department's history of radicalism. Nine months later, the United States would lead an invasion of Iraq, setting in motion a war still not over. Could the prevention of the former have helped stop the latter -- save the cultural theorists, save the world?

Liberal blogger and "dangerous" academic Michael Bérubé would like us to at least consider it. In The Left at War, Bérubé links progressives' inability to control the conversation on national security during the Bush administration to cultural studies' failure to deliver on its promise of a vibrant New Left. And in the process, he also tries to imagine a newer and better one -- a left that both knows what is worth fighting for and how to fight for it.

Bérubé's story begins in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Americans united to protest what they considered unnecessary military aggression. Skepticism was expressed by every strain of leftward thought -- from dovish independents (Lincoln Chafee) to libertarian socialists (Ed Herman). And yet, none of the individual messages were reflective of the group as a whole. The anti-war movement became associated with inflamed smash-the-state rhetoric and even its moderate voices were written off as "dirty fucking hippies." Left became a term of derision, and to be against the war was to be anti-American. As Bérubé describes, hawkish Democrats suddenly carried liberalism's banner; center liberals were dubbed radical; and radicals became the center of attention. The "Manichean Left" is to thank for this -- and it didn't have to be this way.

The Manichean Left, as Bérubé describes it, is vanguardist and reductionist. It is a "leftism of style." The Manichean Left wears "Free Mumia" shirts and listens to bands like Capitalist Casualties. This faction would probably be innocuous, even valuable, if it didn't practice a politics of negation and if it weren't so good at forcing itself into people's daily lives: It knows how to organize rallies, culture jam, build police-thwarting lockboxes, and generally attract media attention. Bérubé identifies the Manichean Left with linguist-cum-political dissident Noam Chomsky -- it defends figures like Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while dismissing any atrocities they have committed as minor compared to the crime of American imperialism. Because the United States is by definition bad, anything opposed to it is good. Conservatives and liberal hawks alike had no trouble characterizing this brand of reactionary leftism as representative of the left at large.

As a foil to Chomsky, Bérubé offers British theorist and former Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies director Stuart Hall. In particular, Bérubé devotes considerable attention to Hall's rejection of Thatcherism, "a historical moment in which Americans can recognize a distant mirror of the early years of the twenty-first century: an energetic right wing at the helm of the state; a befuddled and demoralized 'opposition' party not offering much in the way of opposition; and a doctrinaire out-of-touch 'left' repeating shopworn slogans."

Hall rejects Chomsky's binaries -- his version of hegemony does not automatically cast American capitalism as evil and its enemies as righteous.  Hall, instead, considers the innumerable ways that power is both exerted and subverted. He promotes an "independent leftism" that does not assign morality to structures but instead focuses on the ends they are used to achieve. Oppression isn't a clearly defined project; mass media forms aren't categorically bad (as they are for Chomsky); "false consciousness" isn't used as a crutch whenever the huddled masses would prefer to watch 24 than breathe free. He anticipated Margaret Thatcher's rise as prime minister, criticized the Falklands War, and offered an internationalist alternative to the "fundamentalist left."

And yet, Thatcher remained in power for over a decade, the Falklands crisis reinforced Britain's conservativism, and the tired left railed on. Despite the prescience of his project, Hall's practical effect was minimal. Of what import is his model if it didn't do much of anything? Even within cultural studies, Hall's political vision did not leave a lasting impression. At its birthplace in Birmingham and in universities across the United States, cultural studies' radical mission became lost in a sea of pop culture and subculture analysis -- it degenerated into the field of clever dissertations on The Sopranos and skate punks. Indeed, Bérubé quantified cultural studies' impact on the social sciences as comparable to "the carbon footprint of unicorns" in a recent essay.

While Bérubé is careful to stress that a cultural studies revival won't cure the left's ills, he suggests it might serve as a corrective to the fringe's lazier habits. However it's worth acknowledging that while Hall can serve as an intellectual foil to Chomsky, he is no substitute. As Bérubé documents, many liberals -- himself included -- reflected Hall's thinking in their cases against war. The problem was that the activists leading marches did not. And it's unlikely that they will ever embrace cultural studies' lingering ideological project. After all, the Manichean Left represents a sort of subculture -- a group to be studied, not led. Cultural theorists can exhaust reams of paper trying to decode rebellion within a safety pin, but they give its wearer nothing to believe in, as Chomsky does.

Given that Hall's views on internationalism and mass media failed to change the course of Britain's history and that the Manichean Left will likely never embrace it, are his theories of any consequence at all? Only insofar as Hall's project has actually had more success in the past few years than it ever has. The mass media Chomsky denounces for its corporatism was successfully used to express popular dissent, as Hall anticipated. The development of the political blogosphere, where Bérubé is an active participant, undermined the influence of the far left's traditional tactics and made it difficult to ascribe radical views to the larger anti-war movement. People who previously would have marched with the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) subscribed to MoveOn.org's mailing list instead. Netroots' organizing and fundraising helped deliver a congressional majority to Democrats in 2006, and the Internet played no small part in electing Barack Obama as president.

The Left at War is ultimately an ode within an elegy, an optimistic reflection on the left's immediate missteps as well as those of the generation prior. It is also, as Bérubé hopes in his introduction, a somewhat "untimely book." Though perhaps not the way he would like -- the left, of course, is still at war, and now ultimately responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq. His various dreams for the left's future, however, seem now to be irrelevant, impossible, or already a reality.

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