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TNR and the Crisis of The American Intellectual: Can the Old Liberal Stalwart Play a Role in Today's World?

Instead, he argues that they are “backward looking and reactionary.” By that he means they are stuck in the old Progressive era notion of “progress” and I would add the vision of statist socialism favored by many on the Left. First, Mead addresses ideology:

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

And this, to get back to the problem facing TNR, is still the perspective most of its editors hold. They think the “administrative, bureaucratic state,” as Mead defines it, can still be handled via regulatory measures. Hence their defense of and support of the disastrous ObamaCare, which outgoing editor Foer mentions as one of the magazine’s most important efforts. As Mead writes so powerfully, “if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and institutions of twentieth century progressivism.” Its promises have dissolved, and its “premises no longer hold.” This goes against the grains of many of our best intellectuals, Mead claims, an observation justified by reading many of TNR’s own writers and editors when they write about domestic issues.

For America to prosper, Mead argues:

Power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This is in line with what historian Martin J. Sklar argues in a forthcoming book he is working on, when he writes that the current health care legislation instead of producing democratization, leads to:

... a new system of inequality, tyranny, corruption … and social injustice … as has always been the case … with sectarian-utopian programs installed politically, under bureaucratic state-command, in the name of "social justice" and "redistributing the wealth" -- from Hitler’s Germany, to Stalinist Soviet Union, to Maoist China, to Fidelist Cuba, to Khoemeinist Iran, to Britain’s NHS, and to "real change" ObamaCare U.S.A.

Just as Mead writes about what a “Marxist would speak at this point about the proletarianization of the petit bourgeois intellectual professions,” Sklar too writes about the “proletarianizing of the medical profession,” which he argues is a “retrogressive and reactionary development” that moves us away from self-government and that intensifies conflict. The result, he predicts, will be discriminatory medical care, “first-class for some, second-and third class for everyone else … imposing a scarcity regime upon an abundance capacity.” By treating health care as a government controlled “entitlement,” Sklar argues, it converts “a human right into a state-right” and increases “the coercive power of the state.” As he puts it:

The state (government) has not rights, but powers. … Any claim by the state to rights is a usurpation of the people’s sovereignty, as well as of their rights ... [the health-care law violates] the constitutionally protected rights of life, liberty, property, and privacy, as well as the constitutional division and limitation of powers among the federal and state governments.

What it boils down to, in Mead’s words, is that our intellectuals have to give up their very worldview, and join those among the populace who “are in rebellion against this kind of state and society.” Society at large must be serviced, not the professional guilds and their narrow interests. It means nothing less than leaving behind the assumptions of the progressive state and the “Blue Social Model.” Most important of all, Mead argues this is not an old-fashioned and largely irrelevant left/right debate, but one about “the past and the future.” Both liberals and Tea Party members can unite, he suggests, about creating a “radical overhaul of our knowledge industries.”

Using another paradigm, the old statist model and progressive ideology is actually reactionary, and not “progressive.” Instead of creating more government protection to more interest groups, Mead writes, we have to radically restructure government “to be more effective at a lower cost,” and I would say, in a much smaller scale.

And this brings me back to TNR and its potential role in the future. As good and necessary as the American Euston Manifesto is, the advocates of the old progressive and liberal model have to move in new directions -- such as those suggested in Mead’s brilliant essay. Are Richard Just and the other TNR editors prepared to acknowledge that the old so-called progressive Left is neither progressive or “left,” but instead utterly reactionary? Is it, therefore, ready to dispense with the magazine’s own heritage -- that of a now reactionary progressivism favored by its founder Herbert Croly?

If Richard Just is up to addressing these questions in a serious fashion, then there is hope that the old liberal stalwart will still have a critical role to play in our nation’s forthcoming debates. I too was one of the signers of the Euston Manifesto, but much has changed since 2006 when it was written. We need more than a “path to a new and reinvigorated liberalism in foreign policy,” which was Euston’s major concern. We need an understanding that the old paradigm is over, and the search for what must replace it has just begun. Will TNR play a role in this endeavor? Time will tell, and I wish Richard Just much luck in his most difficult job.