Sunday, May 1, 2011

Some Politics of Some Novels

. Sunday, May 1, 2011

Awhile back a reader asked Tyler Cowen what was the prototypical left-wing novel, using these criteria:

A conservative friend and I recently discussed Atlas Shrugged, which he said was the ultimate right-wing novel. He challenged me to point him towards a left-wing novel that does for that side of politics what Rand does for the right. I think the book needs to do two things: justify the welfare state and argue the limitations of the invisible hand.

Leave aside for now the definition that a "left-wing" novel is defined as a "Third way" technocratic-utilitarian vision of society, where markets are good but externalities are real, and folks shouldn't be left to die in the street. The rules are: be like Atlas Shrugged in importance/influence, defend the welfare state (on what grounds?), question the invisible hand. That's a pretty strange set, and under most common utilitarian(ish) ethical paradigms including nearly any non-Objectivist Western ethical system, Atlas Shrugged is actually a pretty good example. The book is a nightmare; the Rorschach test is which nightmare you see. Rand imagined a dystopia where the weak and stupid push the strong and innovative out of society through confiscatory politics, leading to societal sclerosis and collapse. Others see a nightmare where less-talented people are dehumanized, where no conception of power or social structure is considered in the terms of production, and where there is no sense that markets require mass coordination among mass publics -- not just a cabal of smart people -- in order to produce the economies of scale that generate wealth. In other words, it comes down to how you view this statement from a young Alan Greenspan, responding to a negative review of Atlas Shrugged in the NYT Book Review: "Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should". If you're comfortable calling masses of humans that make up the market for Atlas' innovations "parasites", and if you're comfortable damning them to non-existence, then that puts you on one side*. It's a glorification of the politics that Thucydides decried: the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must. It is, in other words, an autocracy of the exceptional.

If you're not on that side, then you might conclude that society, including the capitalists, benefits from some form of a welfare state. Maybe also that the "invisible hand" (which makes no appearance in Atlas Shrugged) trembles a bit. If you're to the left of the Rand/Greenspan side -- which includes everyone this side of Hayek, inclusive, as well as later-period Greenspan -- then the nightmare of Atlas Shrugged is actually a very strong argument in favor of embedding markets within systems of governance, including a robust social safety net. In other words, Atlas Shrugged is not a conservative book at all, and Rand would have recoiled from the notion that it was. (The original questioner puts two signifiers in the first sentence quoted above: "conservative" and "right-wing". The two are not always analogous. This is one of those times.) In fact, there isn't much about Atlas Shrugged that is especially pro-market, in the Smith-Ricardo-Hayek sense. Dagny Taggart might have run her railway company, but she didn't single-handedly build the lines. Rearden may have invented a stronger steel, but he couldn't mass-produce it on his own. Atlas Shrugged is not a paean to markets; it's a paean to innovators. What it misses is that innovators need markets just as markets need innovators.

In some ways, Atlas Shrugged is the flip side of the Marxist coin: similar general theory of production, different normative implication. So I think the question is crap.

Nevertheless I won't want to evade it, but I am going to keep circling for a bit. Andrew Gelman says the answer to the original question is 1984, and I can see why. There's a certain strand of leftism coursing through that book. But ultimately, fundamentally, it is not an anti-market book, because it has little to say about markets. While the invisible hand of markets is mostly neglected, the visible hand of the state is scorned. What markets do exist -- in prole shops and the black markets -- yield nearly the only pleasures in the book.

Similarly, 1984 does nothing to justify the welfare state and is nearly as derisive towards the "proles" as Randians are of the "parasites". Yes, "if there is hope, it lies in the proles", but the takeaway is that there is no hope. The book is often read as anti-Stalinist, and it is, but remember that the imagined 1984 exists in England, not Russia. The warning is about creeping authoritarianism within social democracies. In that way, it's much closer to Hayek than most people realize. (Orwell reviewed The Road to Serfdom, and found not a little value in it. In fact, in many respects Orwell's vision of the future of social democracy is closely related to Hayek's, as Lord Skidelsky examines here)**. So when Winston doesn't even try to mobilize the proles, instead opting to infiltrate the elite, that should tell you something. The proles are too much distracted by pop songs and bad alcohol and pornography to be of any use. And life on the dole in 1984 isn't exactly portrayed as something to be desired. 1984 is one of the greatest criticisms of government ever written, and not just of the Stalinist kind. The left strands are all Trot-libertarian. Orwell was more Bakunin than Bukharin. While not an anarchist, he was not enamored with the statist "egalitarianism" either. So 1984 does not properly qualify as a left-wing book under the definition given, for similar reasons as those that disqualify Atlas Shrugged as a pro-market, conservative book.

Cowen says the answer is Grapes of Wrath, and immediately concedes that it doesn't answer the question. He also points to this list, most of which is disqualified by the criteria given, before concluding:

I would say that the story per se is usually left-wing, in both good and bad ways. It elevates the seen over the unseen, can easily portray a struggle for justice, focuses on the anecdote, and encourages us to judge social institutions by the intentions of the people who work in them, rather than looking at their deeper and longer-term outcomes. Precisely because the story is itself so left-wing, there won't be a definitive example of the left-wing novel. Story-telling encourages context-dependent thinking, although not necessarily in an accurate manner. One notable feature of Atlas Shrugged is how frequently the story-telling stops for a long speech or an extended dialogue, in order to explain some first principles to the reader.

Is the story per se left-wing? For that matter, is a "struggle for justice" left-wing? I hope and think that both answers must be "no", and not because I have any allergy to the descriptor. (These days, given all the essential and hard-won principles that yer archetypical "conservative" sneeringly calls "left-wing" -- equal rights under the law for everyone regardless of creed or personal proclivity, the maintenance of habeas corpus, the most basic rights to privacy and other civil liberties, xenophilia -- how could any considerate person not consider themselves some form of leftist? If those are wrong, then I don't want to be right. Wing, that is.) Many stories do look at the "deeper and longer-term outcomes", and I know Cowen knows this.

There's a bit of bias in Cowen's sentiment, but I see what he's driving at. I'd put it this way: the point of the welfare state is to eliminate the harsh drama that populates good fiction. So a left-wing counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged must either make the negative case against the lack of a welfare state (or equality, or democracy, or etc.) and need for a regulatory structure, or must be focused on other issues, with the social safety net just kind of sitting in the background. For the former, there's plenty of good stuff, from the Grapes of Wrath to Urban Jungle to etc. For the latter there is too, it's just not in the foreground. Almost any "urban" novel includes elements of this, as well as most stories set in educational environments, those including policemen as protagonists, etc. For certain types of "left-wing" you could choose several Vonnegut books. Why not Mark Twain? It would be hard to confuse him as unaware of deep, long-term outcomes of social policy. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is not a novel, but it is a story, and it is anti-conservative. Depending on how you define your terms, the New Testament might qualify.

Or I could just go with Gore Vidal's biographical novels of the United States***.

*And, as a friend commented on Twitter, everyone who proclaims to be on that side imagines themselves mini-Galts. A very un-Randian idea. E.g.: the producer/writer of the failed Atlas Shrugged film has blamed critics for its lack of success, and like Galt has declared himself "on strike". Which means that he won't make parts two and three. In response to the news, society shrugged. But why should a mini-Galt expect the masses to buy in?

**Skidelsky, of course, is Keynes' best biographer. In that capacity he notes that Keynes was also a Hayekian in some important respects. He wrote to Hayek in a letter, responding to The Road to Serfdom, "Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it; and not only in agreement, but in a deeply moved agreement." (Quote from same link as above.) The question for Keynes was about where to draw the line. Hayek admitted there must be one, but couldn't say where it should go, which point was the one that tipped over into serfdom. Nevertheless, for this abandonment of purity, Rand called him (Hayek) a "compromiser".

***But I haven't read those.


LFC said...

If one tosses out the original stupid criteria (justify the welfare state and expose the limits of the invisible hand), there are probably quite a few good left-wing novels (or novels with a leftist sensibility). Exs.: Andre Gide (one of whose novels I read many years ago and frankly don't remember v. well); Ignazio Silone (whom I've never read); Zola's 'Germinal', which is on that Josh Leach list and deserves its status as a classic, although the conditions in the French coal mining industry that it describes had improved by the time it was published.

If I were seriously interested in going into this question, one of my first stops would probably be Irving Howe's old-but-doubtless-still-good 'Politics and the Novel'.

LFC said...

P.s. Can't resist mentioning two of Iris Murdoch's novels; though neither quite fits the left-wing bill, they definitely have political content, are certainly not 'right-wing,' and are fun reads (though she's not everyone's cup of tea): 'An Accidental Man' and 'The Book and the Brotherhood'.

Some Politics of Some Novels




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