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The Left has Lost its Way and Lost its Voice By: Camille Paglia
The London Times | Monday, August 19, 2002


The language of leftism is out of date. It desperately needs reconstruction and revitalization, if the Left is ever to regain its proper status as a voice of ethical critique of materialistic modern society.

As a registered Democrat who voted for the far left Ralph Nader for president in 2000, I am well aware of the decline in prestige and effectiveness of leftist organizations since their high point in the 1960s. The large demonstrations against globalization two years ago, for example, made scarcely a ripple in the U.S. and have already been forgotten. One problem is that too many leftist periodicals are run by callow cliques whose vaunted populism is a mask for snobbery.

Leftist analysis has been slow to adjust to the massive expansion of the service sector following the Second World War. In the U.S., salaries of skilled manual laborers have long exceeded those of mid-level office staff. Leftists consistently misinterpret mass media and new technology, which they treat with paranoid theories of manipulation and "commodification" coined by writers schooled before the Second World War (before the birth of television). The communications revolution has blurred traditional class lines. But the Left still doggedly invokes paradigms from early industrialization, applicable today only to the Third World. The left finds "oppression" under every rock and reduces contemporary society to rote battles of the "powerful" and the "powerless".

The Left is willfully blind to the enormous contributions that capitalism has made to democracy and individualism. Over the past two centuries, capitalism has raised the standard of living and enhanced the health and life expectancy for untold millions in the West and elsewhere. It has stimulated new ideas and fostered free speech. When they call for the redistribution of wealth, leftists are endorsing an authoritarian system that, wherever it has been tried, has resulted in economic stagnation and a sapping of cultural energy. Such concentration of power in the state creates its own tyrannical master class. Without the profit motive, few are inclined to work for long. The play of the market, rather than government engineering, is more reliable for long-term job creation. When jobs are varied and plentiful, ethnic and racial tensions diminish.

Only a lunatic fringe on the far Left is still calling for revolution, a smashing of the social order, but it must be acknowledged how widespread that idea was in the 1960s. Most leftists do believe that, without them, the naive proletariat would wallow forever in ignorance and slavery. Unless they are volunteering hands-on service in blighted neighborhoods, however, most leftists are far removed from working-class life. Many are wordsmiths — journalists or academics who run in packs. Leftism has become wordplay — a refuge for bourgeois intellectuals guilty about their comfort and privilege.

The crisis of the Left was signaled 20 years ago by academe's retreat into poststructuralism — an elitist, jargon-filled methodology practiced by literati with scant knowledge of history. In the U.S., liberalism too is confused, alternating between a genteel humanitarianism credulously craving government programs to an overtly machiavellian power politics.

Because the Left has been programmatically anti-business, it has been unable to reform the business practices that generate prosperity in the West. A strong, articulate Left could have roused public resistance to the Marie Antoinette corporate culture of the past 15 years, which have climaxed in recent revelations of monumental fraud. As smaller companies were swallowed up in transnational conglomerates, plant closings produced superficial cost-cutting, rewarded by skyrocketing compensation for top management. Boards of directors went limp, while stockholders were helpless. An honest, respected Left would have been well positioned to render aid when and where it was needed.

The most radical task facing contemporary leftism is a purgation and reclamation of its own rhetoric.


Camille Paglia is a social critic, author and feminist, who is not afraid to challenge dominant feminist orthodoxy.


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