This isn’t just an American condition. The great global educated class, a mostly affluent group weighed down by iPhones, tablets, and other necessities, has risen firmly against the status quo. One can find them protesting by the thousands at Puerta del Sol or Rothschild Boulevard or Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park. Polls show trust in established institutions crashing to all-time lows.
Even the status quo has turned against the status quo. President Obama, who achieved prominence as an anti-war voice and was elected to office by running against the Bush legacy, enjoyed, in the flush of victory, a brief fling with big positive programs in the old-fashioned style of FDR and LBJ. After his party’s thumping in the 2010 elections, however, the president has seemed happy to resume a life of virtuous negation, delivering vehement lectures against guns, economic inequity, the oppression of gays, women, illegal aliens—an endless roster of established ills.
The passion for negation has created interesting incentives. The dream event for an environmental pressure group, for example, would be a devastating oil spill. The NRA is still cashing in on recent attempts at gun control legislation. I don’t know whether such professional idealists actually sit around hoping for the worst, but there’s a certain upside-down logic to the notion.
That conservatives rail against contemporary conditions shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s what they do. Bill Buckley, who knew his tribe, defined a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
It’s the progressives’ fall from the heights of optimism which needs to be explained. The entire historical trajectory of progressivism has been one vast project after another to improve our species by the application of political power. Surprisingly, progressives once believed they stood for progress. Today, even the word is taboo.
Most protesters milling around the “occupied” parks of the world are disillusioned progressives, socialists, social democrats. They demand change but are utterly unable to articulate what they mean. The same holds true for established political parties. “Where they are in opposition, European social democrats don’t know what to offer voters. Where they are in power, they don’t know how to use it,” writes Irish-born Henry Farrell, himself a devout social democrat. A progressive today might be defined as someone raging against the status quo while rejecting the possibility of positive change.
This dilemma is rooted in a historical event of cataclysmic magnitude, which naturally passed unnoticed by our thinking classes. I refer to the collapse of the dream of revolution.
A generation ago, to be progressive meant to have faith in revolution. All of the left’s programs and policies aimed a single transcendent purpose: to make the world anew. The debate was whether revolution should be achieved violently, in what the French lustily called un grand soir—“one great night”—or, as the more inhibited Anglo-Saxons preferred, by means of incremental reforms. But the direction was the same, the orientation of change unproblematic. Between 1789 and 1989, faith in revolution inspired some of the finest minds and most atrocious acts in history.
That faith is now gone. I can’t think of a single progressive activist or intellectual with any following who believes that revolution is possible or even desirable. The world can’t be made anew. For conservatives, this is a source of perverse satisfaction, but progressives sense, obscurely, that a rather large hole has opened in the logic of their beliefs. Without revolution, they have no true north, no way to define progress. They are marooned in a sort of ideological Gilligan’s Island, and all their elaborate schemes and escape plans only return them, at the end of the day, to the place where they started out.
I pin the new political pessimism on this feeling of being stuck in a tight place with unpleasant people, and no hope of escape.
Who killed revolution? The conventional answer is that revolution died at some point between 1989 and 1991, of wounds inflicted during the fall of European communism. This explanation is accurate enough, but incomplete. Many who believed in revolution were not communists, and by the time the Soviet Union toppled to the ground it was hardly an object of utopian fantasies. A different theory of the crime, proposed by Pierre Rosanvallon, makes progressives into accomplices in the death of their dream.
Rosanvallon, author of Counter-Democracy, maintains that the people he calls “radicals” have contracted an extreme case of myopia. Unable to perceive politics globally, as the field of revolutionary activity, they must focus their feeble eyesight on a single obtruding issue, some “crisis” or “problem” or injustice for which they demand a solution. The radical impulse, according to Rosanvallon, has become reactive rather than revolutionary, and seeks to browbeat the government into action, rather than overthrow it.
This last goal is achieved by sheer force of negation. “To be radical,” observes Rosanvallon, “is to point a finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.” By such pointing and twisting, progressives have outsourced their concerns to the established order. This relieved them of the burden of having to fix the human race, but has left them stranded in a world where, in Henry Farrell’s despairing words, “There is no alternative.”