In the late 1980s, Jürgen Habermas wrote an article on contemporary politics called ?The New Obscurity.? The thirty years following the Second World War had been a Golden Age for European social democracy. It was the period when, throughout Western Europe, the bases of the modern welfare state were established. At the time, the concept of ?full employment? was not merely an object of theoretical speculation but was viewed by many economists as feasible. But during the 1970s economic crisis set in?a crisis of ?stagflation? from which, in many respects, the West has never fully recovered.
By coining the phrase ?the new obscurity? Habermas was referring to the fact that, as a result of the new, intractable economic difficulties, the gamut of usual left-wing political solutions had also become confused. The traditional social democratic remedies, which had mandated state intervention and a robust public sector, betrayed an inflationary bias. In the future, these inefficiencies would have to be tamed.
In 1981, the French Socialist Party, under François Mitterrand and flush with victory, pursued the time-honored socialist policy of robust economic nationalization. It backfired egregiously. Two years later, Mitterrand would appear on French television eagerly singing the praises of free enterprise–at which point, his communist coalition partners jumped ship. Soviet-style dirigisme had never been a serious political option in the West. In the Soviet Union itself, the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) was roundly mocked as the ?years of stagnation.? The crisis of democratic socialism set the stage for the anti-governmental animus of the Thatcher and Reagan years and a baleful return to the ideology of laissez-faire.
What programs, then, should democratic socialists have proposed to oppose and offset the neoconservative zeitgeist? In many respects, European socialists and American welfare state liberals were forced to own up to the ambiguities of their own postwar success. Henceforth, British labor (under Tony Blair) and the German Social Democrats (under Gerhard Schroder) would buy into the pro-market ethos of the conservatives. It became legitimate to enquire: what was socialist about European socialism?
I was reminded of the crisis of social democracy, and the aptness of Habermas?s ?new obscurity? sobriquet, by the recent attempts to assess Obama?s first year in office?a mixed bag, to be sure. I was especially struck by Michael Walzer?s contribution to this debate. In my view, no one exceeds Walzer in ?thinking politically? (also the title of a wonderful anthology of his political essays). But given the dilemmas of the current political impasse, Michael virtually throws up his hands. Here is the first paragraph of his March 23, ?What Ought to Be Done?? post:
The strangest thing about this political moment is the absence of any strong or even plausible answers to this question. Should we be caucusing inside the Democratic party? Founding a new party? Planning an internet campaign (if there is such a thing)? Organizing at the grass roots? Demonstrating in the streets? Marching on Washington? Seizing control of the English department? Collecting signatures for a manifesto? Publishing a (new) magazine? Writing a philosophical treatise on the meaning of the question: What ought to be done? No one knows.
Dissent?s contributors have excelled at offering insightful, level-headed social criticism?and one can never have enough of that! But, as usual, Michael has put his finger on an important aspect of the current ideological-political impasse: the traditional left-wing solutions were noble yet flawed; and we remain uncertain in what ways or directions they need to be supplemented.
Have we, then, entered an ambiguous new political phase of permanent trial and error? Is staving off the worse?the political hysteria of the Tea Partiers, the militias, and Fox News? irresponsible political demagoguery?the best the left can hope to do accomplish? Perhaps.
But there is also a ?new obscurity? in the well-nigh unmasterable complexity of contemporary politics. As president, Obama inherited two wars, a cataclysmic economic crisis, unprecedented congressional gridlock (precipitated by his Republican opponents? massive political bad faith), an intractable stalemate in the Middle East, the challenge of a fundamentalist Muslim regime (Iran) hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, and, more generally, America?s international prestige at an all time ebb.
Perhaps we can take consolation in the fact that there is nowhere to go but ?up.?