Against Centrism

Well it’s not like I’ve ever been accused of being a centrist. But this isn’t an argument against centrism per se, but rather an argument against the idea of a center. It’s something I tend to think about whenever I receive reader comments. I’ve found several times that my anonymous peer-review readers, through no fault of their own, approach my work within a certain paradigm that sees liberalism as a center.

This presents a couple of interrelated concerns. First, that liberalism is understood only as the in-between of the left and right. (This itself can manifest in one of two ways: that which sees liberalism as a common-sense leftism, or one that sees liberalism as the dead-center bisection between left and right.) The problem here is that political culture is necessarily then understood on a flat, two-dimensional spectrum with immutable sets of beliefs or policy positions on each end. For example, one assumes that if one is anti-racist, he/she is also a civil libertarian suspicious of state power. (I’ve written about the ways this particular conflation manifests here.)

Second, it prevents us from seeing the center—which in our case, is liberalism—as having it’s own language. At worst, centrism is conflated with moderacy, a term with arguably an even more problematic set of connotations than centrism. In a forthcoming essay, I argue for the necessity of taking liberalism as something with its own epistemes, or meanings. Liberalism is an intellectual and cultural language with its own myths and symbols and stories. (These days I’m most interested in liberal humanism as a kind of narrative mode that transmits the language of liberalism.) That it is seen as a kind of common sense in the present only masks the power within which it continues to circulate. And arguably such a view of liberalism as common sense is only boosted by the understanding that it sits at a center.

A friend forwarded me an awfully bad article from Bloomberg News recently. The article describes “neoliberalism” in an not altogether inaccurate but grossly ahistorical way. Worse, it defines neoliberalism as the center, around which an extreme left (socialists) and an extreme right (anti-globalists?) lie. It occurred to me that the essay writers weren’t just ignorant, although I don’t rule out such a possibility. Instead, I think they may have been doing something strategic. To suggest that neoliberalism is centrist—and to stretch the definition of neoliberalism to imply that its vision for state intervention is to achieve some kind of “redistribution”—is to do some quick rhetorical work towards validating it.

I’ve taken a perverse interest in another recent news event: the publication of the Republican Senator Ben Sasse’s new book. Sasse has become a media darling lately because he was an early #NeverTrump advocate, and he remains a stalwart critic of the President. And last week, he published a book. To be clear, I have not read the book, I’ve only read reviews of it in outlets such as the New York Times and the Daily Beast, and heard Sasse interviewed on NPR.

On the whole, the Times review was appropriately critical of the book. But elsewhere, its reception seems to reflect the prevalence of a common sense liberalism that could only be understood in directional terms as centrist. But certain assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews clearly lie behind Sasse’s arguments, which appear to be profoundly producerist. As James Livingston points out in Against Thrift, there’s a history of pro-austerity producerism that can appear in the language of socialists and conservatives alike, those whom we might call the “left” and the “right.” But this isn’t to say that such an ideology then must lie in the center. Producerism has its own history, with its own discursive genealogy. To see Sasse’s liberalism as a center that we simply need to pass beyond is to ignore the gravity that works to pull us in.

I don’t mean to single out liberals or neoliberals for adopting the device of a center, socialists do it too. An article I read today in Jacobin today described “centrist Democrats.” Such approaches usually identify “technocracy” or “wonkishness” as the problem behind the failure of mainstream self-identified liberals or Democrats to advance a coherent strategy or vision. While I do think that technocracy itself can be a kind of ideology or episteme, I think too often it becomes an explanation for a seeming lack of an intelligible ideology. And such analyses I think are wrong. And I would argue that it’s the prevailing idea of a center that permits such a substitution to take place; although we can find examples of extremists that appear to lack coherent worldviews, we’re far less likely to find such examples on the imagined peripheries than in their relative center.

Maybe I’m totally wrong, maybe talking about a center does have a useful purpose. But if Donald Worster used to say that historians need to identify capitalism and name it, I’d say the same needs to be done with whatever is taken as the center. What if writers, academics, and cultural critics of all stripes were handicapped, prevented from using words like center or centrist? How might ideas, ideologies, languages, symbols, and stories become more intelligible?