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Dissent: Already Commodified

Very interesting article in Dissent from Michael Walzer, here, noted for saying rather well something that I’ve been noticing for a while:

Intellectuals on the left certainly lack certainty: we no longer have a general theory, such as Marxism once was, that tells us how things are going and what ought to be done. Does that mean that we are no longer “general intellectuals” but only locally and particularly engaged-“specialists,” as Michel Foucault argued? This left intellectual writes about education, this one about city planning, this one about health care, this one about the labor market, this one about civil liberties-and all of them are policy wonks. Is that our world? Well, maybe it is ours, but it isn’t theirs. Here is the crossover again: there are definitely general intellectuals on the right. The theory of the free market isn’t a world-historical theory exactly; one might say that it is a world-ahistorical theory. But it does have extraordinary reach; it allows its believers to have an opinion about pretty much everything. In this sense, it is an imperial doctrine, like Marxism… [here he begins to lose me again – ed.]

Those of you inclined to disregard any tract featuring the M-word should bear in mind that Dissent requires a certain number of uses per paragraph as a matter of editorial policy.

Obviously, there’s wonkishness on the right: vast amounts of it. It doesn’t play into Walzer’s worldview, though, since his Right is a monolithic thing in which

the free market, individual self-reliance, the crusade for democracy, the war against terrorism, heterosexual marriage, conventional sex and gender roles, religious faith, and patriotic sentimentality

come in a single package with a ribbon on top. He also exercises the partisan’s prerogative in assuming that the people on the other side are venal and uncaring, while only the scattered ranks of his side actually care about fixing the world’s various problems.

But he’s right in his main point: we’re lacking a coherent Big Theory on the left, and the result is a more cautious and moralistic Democratic party. (Which I regard as a bad thing, but there you go.) The interesting thing to me about the contemporary Right is that people with an interest in only one or two of the list of concerns quoted above – even the disfavored ones towards the end of the list – can still be regarded in some sense as being in the same big tent. Walzer (not to mention the rest of us) might benefit from musing a bit as to why this can be so.

UPDATED TO ADD: The “M-word” to which I refer is, of course, “Michel”. And the last sentence.

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