The long game

Many liberals hold the view that on “culture war” issues, they can simply wait out the conservatives. Inevitably, younger people who grow up around openly gay people, for instance, will be more accepting of homosexuality, while the more conservative older cohort will eventually just die off. Any step forward on liberal cultural issues is welcome, but none is a make or break — victories reinforce the inertia that is already working in favor of the liberal position, but no particular victory is ever strictly necessary.

This view doesn’t seem to be entirely unjustified. There are many examples of a forcible reassertion of “traditional values” throughout history, but the extreme measures required in those cases highlight the strength of cultural inertia. Barring a radical Christian junta seizing control of the United States and imposing “biblical law” or something, liberal confidence in the power of inertia seems reasonable.

A similar calm confidence attends another cultural presupposition of our time: that all of life should and inevitably will become a market. Those who hold this position can afford to “wait out” any opponent, whose actions can often seem like a desperate acting-out. Take, for instance, education reform. We all know that the entire enterprise is a joke from an educational standpoint — the “school choice” movement has consistently failed to deliver the promised results. This would be a decisive objection if the goal of education reform were to improve education as such, but we are long past the time when market structures used to have to justify themselves for extrinsic reasons. Here as everywhere, the point isn’t to impose market-based reforms because it will deliver better outcomes, but simply because education will then be a market.

Unequal outcomes are a feature, not a bug — the “school choice” system is designed to reward the most talented while leaving the mediocre behind. We would know this if we simply listened to the compassionate liberal view of the issue, which held that inner-city schools are impossible to do well, more or less by definition, and that we have to figure out some way to give talented and motivated students a way out. The assumption that inner-city schools always have to be soul-crushing warehouses where intellectual curiosity is destroyed and students focus on practicing for when they go to prison — that is never questioned. As in health care, a “one size fits all” solution is always envisioned as a grim dystopia of deprivation. Given that public school are always by definition going to be squandering human potential, what alternative is there to figuring out some way to sort out the most promising students so that at least their potential won’t be squandered?

That is a powerful narrative that has been building for decades, and I personally know many left-wing people who buy into it. Even if the Chicago Teachers Union meet their goals in their current strike — and I fervently hope they do — that won’t be enough to displace the powerful cultural inertia working against them. Thankfully, they seem to be well aware of that and have developed a robust positive agenda [PDF], one that many parents have bought into.

It’s hard for me to avoid fatalism. It’s hard for me not to assume that any victory will be temporary and will only delay the inevitable. Perhaps Rahm Emanuel will prove to be enough of a political animal to give up on this issue for now and live to fight another day — but it’s essentially impossible that any Chicago Democrat with actual power will give up on the “education reform” agenda, much less work to reverse it. After Emanuel leaves office, the next person will set to work again.

Yet that’s precisely why a victory is so important now, because it sets a precedent for unions to act as an independent power base, which seems like the only way to build a new cultural consensus that would cash in on the forces built up by capitalism and gradually phase out the market as a dominant force in our lives.

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16 Responses to “The long game”

  1. AcademicLurker Says:

    I’m old enough to remember when “market based solutions” bothered to justify themselves by promising to deliver superior results. I’m not sure at what point that stopped and markets became ends in themselves, let alone at what point self-identified liberals started agreeing.

    I vaguely associate it with too many otherwise smart people naively reading Wired magazine during the 90s.

  2. Tom Elrod Says:

    This is purely anecdotal, but I think it’s very possible that Americans in the under-30 crowd are much more anti-market/anti-capitalist than any preceding generation. I think growing up (largely) post-Cold War, coming into maturity during the Bush administration, and now struggling to have adult lives in the Great Recession have not enamored them/us to traditional market economies and the institutions which thrive under them. So maybe, as with cultural issues, it really will be a matter of older generations dying out and being replaced by their less capitalist-minded heirs.

    Of course, there may not be much of a republic left by the time this happens. Or maybe in ten years we’ll all have jobs and become Republicans much like the generation of ’68 went on to vote for Reagan.

  3. Thomas J Bridges Says:

    “The assumption that inner-city schools always have to be soul-crushing warehouses where intellectual curiosity is destroyed and students focus on practicing for when they go to prison — that is never questioned.”

    I think this is true; this is an assumption of the “solution.” I think, further along this line of thought, is the idea that people choose to be in bad schools, just like some might choose to be in good ones. Obviously, school of choice cannot be a solution for everyone, only for the ambitious, those who have the power to lift their own boot straps long enough to land on better soil. What could be done? Not much, unless every parent of every student in these soul crushing warehouses opted out, and they closed or transformed into something better.

  4. seymourblogger Says:

    The liberal assumptions you asserted in your first paragraph are that historical time is linear, that history is progressive, and that time is continuous. This assumption has been contradicted by Fukuyama, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, and Zizek. Even the great Austrian economist Von Mises in his Theory says that history is event driven, thus siding with those labeled post modern.

    Since education was for a long time my profession and always my passion, there are people to read in this field that will force you to think differently. Kozol; Sylvia Ashton Warner; Montessori; Ivan Illyich; Neill of Summerhill; Steiner; Bruner; many many more that are not coming to the tip of my tongue at the moment, but who have profoundly influenced me.

    For this discussion I can only say to read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and his Lectures on Abnormal at the College de France 1974-5. The public schools are an integral part of the Foucauldian Grid of power/knowledge/capital and in understanding how power exerts within the interstices of the ever tightening and finer and finer grid, can we also find the optimum places for resistance. “Wherever there is power, there is also resistance.” – Foucault

    Any teacher aware of this must walk carefully. Any steps outside the Dominating Discourse can and will be punished.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I feel I could defend myself, but the way you put your comment disinclines me to do so somehow.

  6. seymourblogger Says:

    Please, why did you take it as an attack. It wasn’t meant so at all. I have been on the strike line and it was a necessary thing. Resistance is necessary.

    The liberal position is faulty in assuming history will be on their side. It may and it may not. That will depend on events. Zizek doesn’t hold with linear time.

    Please respond as I want to clear this up with you. I love your work. I defended you violently in all those comments on the L A Times site for your Zizek article. I was winning too. And then they disappeared.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I say essentially, “barring unforeseen events, cultural inertia is on the liberals’ side.” I don’t think I’m taking the liberal-progressive view — I’m just saying it’s not entirely wrong to assume that things will gradually drift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality, again barring the Christianist junta (which could happen!). I refer to many historical events where gains have been reversed. So where are you getting this notion that I buy into the ontological presupposition of a linear history moving toward “progress”?

    Thanks for your support in comments.

  8. Hill Says:

    Adam responds poorly to all mentions of Ludwig von Mises. In fact, this may be mentioned explicitly in the comment policy.

  9. seymourblogger Says:

    Well because “barring unforeseen events, cultural inertia is on the liberals’ side.” I don’t think I’m taking the liberal-progressive view — I’m just saying it’s not entirely wrong to assume that things will gradually drift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality,

    Inertia implies continuous movement that is arrested for the time being. Inertia does not imply discontinuity which is what I am saying about the Event driven perception of history.

    Hill above says you don’t respond favorably to Von Mises. I used to but that time is long gone. What astonished me in looking over his Theory book recently (I sell used books on the internet) was the passage in there where he lines up with foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc on discontinuity and event. I never expected to read that in a book by him. But there it was asserting the philosophical structure of a post modern thinker. Wouldn’t Rand have shrieked. Wait until I put it on my Around the Randroid Belt blog. And Rand’s swiping from Marx’s pre capital writing on capital that I found in Zizek’s Living int the End Times. surprise surprise.

    OK so far Adam. Did you see Zizek’s new movie by Fiennes premiered at TIFF a few nights ago and he was there for Q&A. God he’s sexy when he cleans up!

    Right now I am up to my ears in this Debordian SPECTACLE the media has cooked up for Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson. A great chance to fuck the tabloids. Give them one for turning Diana into a snuff film.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There has to be continuity for the discontinuity to stand out against!

    (I did not see that Zizek-related news. I’m a little disturbed that anyone would refer to him as “sexy,” however.)

  11. ben Says:

    Inertia implies continuous movement that is arrested for the time being. Inertia does not imply discontinuity which is what I am saying about the Event driven perception of history.

    It’s true that invoking inertia doesn’t imply discontinuity, but the first sentence is false. Inertia doesn’t imply that movement is currently arrested. To my mind invoking inertia means something like this: things will continue on as they have been, provided nothing interferes. You know—whatever is being called inertial has a tendency to remain in its present state. That doesn’t mean that something might knock it from its present state, it just identifies a default presupposition.

    So really, Adam’s right—invoking “inertia” makes the most sense against a backdrop of an event-driven view, because what you’re saying is that it would take such an event to knock things off their present (no doubt event-initiated!) course. There’s nothing teleological (in the negative sense) about that.

  12. Josh K-sky Says:

    Right. It’s easy to talk about politics having a present direction or momentum without being teleological about it. It’s hegemony in motion! I read a summary of Chris Hayes’ take on meritocracy which goes, neither the left nor the right is “winning” so much as elements of each of their programs that promote meritocracy are. There’s wind in the sails for acceptance of gay individuals, and there isn’t for social solidarity. The leveling of playing fields is proceeding in a progressive direction, and the intensification of the competition on those fields is proceeding in a conservative one. (I suppose there’s little that distinguishes that from saying that classical liberalism is on the move.)

    OK, here’s the money quote:

    The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress–gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination–are the battles it has fought or is fighting in in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats–collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality–are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.

  13. seymourblogger Says:

    Thanks. That was excellent.

  14. Brucerubnsly Says:

    You may be interested in the work of James Livingston, who argues that this has happened not just culturally, but economically as well. Here is his article “How the Left Has Won” at the Jacobin website: http://jacobin.webfactional.com/2012/08/how-the-left-has-won/

  15. “Won’t Back Down”: One More Ode to Privatized Life in Late Capitalism Says:

    [...] College theologian Adam Kotsko describes that eerie “calm confidence [that] attends” a “cultural presupposition of our age: that all [...]


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