I have a good friend, an Italian who lives in Milano, who for a while was the head of the youth organization of the Italian Communist Party. One day he was walking across one of the major Milanese piazzas, and had an epiphany, which he later described very simply. “I shouted, ‘There is no working class!’”
A bit later he left the Party to become a newspaper and book editor — and an invaluable guide to the workings of European Communism. But I want to focus on that epiphany, because it’s both rare and important. It’s rare, since very few true believers have the honesty and courage to blurt out a truth that puts paid to their entire worldview and compels them to abandon a career, which in his case was already very successful and held the promise of even greater things. And it’s important because it underlines the intimate relationship between our ideas and the real world.
The epiphany was a fine example of one of Hegel’s basic insights, which is that the world is constantly changing, and ideas must accordingly be updated, or become anachronisms. So it was with “working class,” a concept that accurately described a group in a society at a certain stage of industrial development, as in 18th- and 19th-century England and Europe. For much of that period, “working class” helped understand what was going on, and it helped policy makers deal with very real problems. There were working-class parties, scholars who specialized in studying the working class, politicians who made careers by representing working-class districts, and so forth.
But the world changed, and in the modern postindustrial societies, the working class vanished. There aren’t working-class parties any more, since there aren’t enough voters who think of themselves that way. And honest politicians like my Italian friend gave it up, updated their thinking, and tried to cope with today’s problems.
In this process, there are plenty of people who can’t update their thinking. They’re easy to recognize, because they write and talk about a world that no longer exists. The easiest places to find them in contemporary America are Hollywood, college campuses, and the Obama administration with its attendant satellites, the dead tree media and the Democrat Party. Their common bond is anger and frustration; frustration because they can’t understand what’s going on, and anger because their remedies for contemporary problems do not come to grips with the essence of the problems.
Hegel would have well understood one of the most interesting contemporary developments: the old liberal establishment is shrinking, both in numbers and in confidence, and their political/ideological opponents are growing. Several smart people have noticed the extraordinary depth of the conservative political team, many of whose members were on display in Tampa this week. The Ryans and the Romneys, the Christies and the Haleys, the Loves and the Rubios, the Brewers and the Walkers, on and on. They have a much clearer vision of the real world, and they accordingly have more realistic political approaches than those on the left, who are trapped in a world that no longer exists.
Here’s another way to grasp the dialectical process: look at Wisconsin. Long considered one of the wackier leftist places in America, it is now the cradle of creative conservatives. The Progressive mission known as the “Wisconsin Idea” is politically and intellectually dead and buried. Wisconsin now votes for Paul Ryan and Scott Walker (and probably Tommy Thompson in a couple of months).
If you’re one of those leftists, unable to sort out how the world works nowadays and unable to win an honest debate with your political and intellectual opponents, it makes you very angry, and you lash out at them with a violence that often surprises observers who are less engaged in the political or intellectual wars. The left has died as an intellectual force worth taking seriously. Its mission belongs to another time. It is reduced to fighting for political power alone, and its weapons are what we recently called “the politics of personal destruction.” It’s the only way they can hope to win. None of us should be surprised when the leftists accuse the righties of pushing old women off of cliffs, or murdering cancer-afflicted employees, or waging war on women, and so forth. They have to destroy their opponents one by one. They no longer have a “movement” of any significance.
That’s what happens when you become an anachronism. For me, the greatest line of the week was Ryan’s, the one about the fading Obama poster on the wall of an unemployed young American.
Once upon a time, the left was able to lay claim to intellectual and moral superiority, and to look at the conservatives with imperious disdain. No more. Their heroes are fading to the point where a cultural icon, from Hollywood of all places, sees that the seat of authority is entirely empty, and that it’s time to just let its nominal occupant go. Away.
UPDATE: Welcome to Instapunditeers and thanks to Glenn for the link.