Monday, February 19, 2007

Big vs. Little Isn't a Right vs. Left Issue

Those who enjoyed the movie Babe: Pig in the City may remember the voice-over as the camera pulls back from the bucolic seen. A small place, the narrator intones, remains "somewhere to the left of the twentieth century."

The left: that phrase annoyed and intrigued me, because I thought the defense of the rural and family-centered against the urban and impersoanl was somewhere to the right of the twentieth century. Of course thinking about, if right means defense of economic growth, constantly growing property values, and new super highways, then yes, I suppose they are to the left of the twentieth century. On the other hand, if left means increasing regulation of sheep farms, steadily higher income taxes, and imposing unfunded mandates on small business then, no they are not to the left of the twentieth century.

Now there's a reason why each side, right and left, wants to seize the image of the small, honest, naive, good-hearted soul struggling against cynical and uncaring institutions: to us in the post-1960s era, it's an awfully attractive image. (Of course the image of the rational, fair, and progressive reformer struggling against the prejudices of small-town, ignorant religious fanatics is an image which hasn't run out of steam either).

In the whole debate over the Crunchy Cons, what struck me is how the language of the crunchy con supporters is a "sixties" language: valuing authentic over efficient, local over universal, and traditional over the rational. But it is often forgotten that the real target of the sixties movement was not "conservatives" (they weren't important enough to be a target), but the mainstream liberalism of JFK and Lyndon Johnson, which by contrast was entirely devoted to the efficient, the universal, and the rational, and indeed saw the defense of the authentic, the local, and the traditional to be pretty much the same thing as the segregated, the racist, and the Christian fundamentalist. That is a side of the left often forgotten today.

My son Jeff is taking AP US history and they are covering the early twentieth century. As he talks about progressive period, Teddy Roosevelt, trust-busting, the Populists and so on, I am reminded of my own history classes. And my high school teacher Mr. Jefferson -- a great teacher, and don't hold him responsible for the right-wing use I've made of his lessons -- used to emphasize that the socialists liked bigness in business, because big business was much easier to nationalize in one fell swoop than small business. And big business had economies of scale that made provision of benefits and so on much more feasible.

On the other hand, the defenders of the very local, traditional, and authentic Populist movement today are generally found on the left; and they themselves saw the banks and hard money as their greatest enemies.

So which side really believes that "small is better"? Which really owns Babe: Pig in the City? The right or the left?

Neither, I think. Rather I think the complex of values associated with big and small can be found in places on both the right and the left. Much more important seems to be time: the period from 1865 to 1965 was the time in which bigness held the ideological high ground in both right and left forms, but since 1965, the concept that "small is beautiful" has increasingly influenced both the right and the left. Much of the sixties were only accidentally "left" -- at heart it was a revolt against impersonal bigness and hence its political leanings proved highly unstable over time. Libertarianism, paleoconservatives, gay pride, black pride, feminism, crunchy conservatism, Operation Rescue, natural family planning, Christian reconstructionism, the militia movement, seamless garment Catholicism, whole/slow foods -- what these movements have in common is the sixties revolt against the nuclear family-big corporation-big government model in which universality and rationality were the concepts right and left both wanted to capture. Of course in the "real world" the sixties revolt against bigness was not entirely successful by any means and in the world making money, bigness in its progressive (Rooseveltian) and whig (Hamiltonian) forms is still big. But among thinkers and the writers it seems to me that "small is beautiful" has become, by a slim margin, the default position.

Now usually a post like this should conclude with a rousing cry of "let's get beyond the tired old cliches of left and right" and "create a new politics". Well, I'm not going to issue that cry, first because the division of left vs. right seems anything but tired to me, and second because I don't unequivocally approve of the "small is beautiful" side, any more than I do of the "big is rational" side. But I think those who support the small side would do well to recognize that small isn't inherently right or left, or even conservative or liberal, but a value that can be mixed and matched with all of these.

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