Moving Forward Without Dogma

Ken Brociner

Despite the severity of the current economic crisis, the morale of the progressive movement remains sky high. Liberals, progressives and leftists worked their tails off to help elect Barack Obama – and this time we won!

Even progressive icons can, at times, have a negative influence on the movement's ideological understanding of the world.

Hundreds of thousands of progressive activists worked directly with the Obama campaign, while similarly large numbers worked in parallel projects such as the all-out mobilization organized by the labor movement and MoveOn’s impressive grassroots campaign – to name two of the largest independent efforts.

Less noticed has been the fact that over the last year most progressives approached politics in a principled and pragmatic manner. Third party-ism never threatened the progressive movement’s determination to rally behind Obama. Neither did another chronic problem on the American left – the temptation of political purists to sit on the sidelines as a presidential election hung in the balance because the Democratic nominee wasn’t progressive enough.

In short, the unrestrained progressive activism during the campaign signals a weakening of the dogma that has previously stifled the left. To build on this momentum, we should do all we can to further minimize both doctrinaire thinking and shrill rhetoric within our ranks. By doing so, we’ll be able to enhance our movement’s ability to communicate with the American public.

Like all social movements, ours has anointed or elevated a small number of individuals to the status of icons. But even progressive icons can, at times, have a negative influence on the movement’s ideological understanding of the world.

These days, two of the leading icons of both the American and international left are Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Chomsky, of course, achieved icon status decades ago. Klein’s reputation and influence has reached such heights in the last few years.

Both Chomsky and Klein are courageous and dedicated activists who have made important contributions to the struggles for peace and social justice. Yet their worldviews each contain strands of dogmatic thought that, because they are so influential within the left, have been adopted by a significant percent of progressives in the U.S. and around the world.

One of Chomsky’s many strengths has been his uncanny ability to deconstruct propaganda and, in doing so, expose the hypocritical – and often criminal – nature of our government’s actions.

However, while Chomsky’s biting skepticism towards practically everything that emanates from official sources is generally on target, his bitterness, has at times, come to cloud his better judgment. Furthermore, his writings all too often tend to convey an overly conspiratorial view of world politics.

For example, when the Clinton administration finally did the right thing by intervening in order to stop Milosevic’s brutal aggression in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), Chomsky adopted positions that assigned such sinister motives to NATO that they crossed over into a form of demonization.

According to Chomsky the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Bosnia was really driven by the interests of wealth and power.” As for Kosovo, Chomsky pronounced that in brief, it was well understood by the NATO leadership that the bombing was not a response to the huge [Serbian] atrocities in Kosovo, but was their cause, exactly as anticipated.” (Monthly Review, Sept. 2008)

Fast forward to the 2008 presidential election and we hear a similarly dogmatic – and cynical – reaction from Chomsky. So, every year, the advertising industry gives a prize to, you know, to the best marketing campaign of the year. This year, Obama won the prize. Beat out Apple company. The best marketing campaign of 2008. Which is correct, it is essentially what happened.”

Naomi Klein’s worldview has, in some ways, become as doctrinaire as Chomsky’s, albeit with a different twist. In her otherwise brilliant book, The Shock Doctrine, Klein embraces a terribly oversimplified interpretation of the last five decades. She writes that the extreme tactics on display in Iraq and New Orleans are often mistaken for the unique incompetence or cronyism of the Bush White House. In fact, Bush’s exploits merely represent the monstrously violent and creative culmination of a fifty-year campaign for total corporate liberation.” 

At another point in her book, Klein writes, As proto-disaster-capitalists, the architects of the war on terror are part of a different breed of corporate- politicians from their predecessors, one for whom wars and other disasters are indeed ends in themselves.” A few pages later, she again fails to incorporate any ambiguity or complexity by declaring that ” the architects of the invasion [of Iraq] had unleashed ferocious violence because they could not crack open the closed economies of the Middle East by peaceful means.” 

In Klein’s economically deterministic view of the world, there is little room for multiple causes of disastrous policies. Everything essentially boils down to the singular desire to maximize profits.

Now that Barack Obama has moved into the White House, the progressive movement is poised to enter into a new phase of its long-term struggle to remake American society and our nation’s role in the world. In order to effectively move forward, we’ll need to reject any and all dogma – wherever and whomever it may come from. By doing so, we’ll be in a better position to understand the nuances of the obstacles and opportunities that we will be facing in the critical years ahead. 

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Ken Brociners essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.
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