Pankaj Mishra gets at least one thing right. The rhetoric of the secular left is indeed increasingly devoid of any moral content. But this is hardly news. The de-moralization of the left has been a very deliberate project engineered by a narrow clique dedicated above all else to defending sexual freedom against popular democracy. Abandoning socialism and self-government and class solidarity as animating ideals in favor of technocracy and juristocracy and meritocracy thus followed naturally.
Recall that the New Deal was “maternalist,” a set of institutional innovations designed to protect “traditional family life” (that artifact of political economy) from the remorseless logic of the market. Social norms and regulatory interventions were designed to stigmatize paid labor for women and to secure a “family wage” for male breadwinners. Sexist to the core, this regime at least maintained that there is more to life than “wholly materialist and secular goals,” as Mishra puts it.
The New Dealers saw families as a democratic redoubt against industrialism. Today’s center-left, in stark contrast, promises a program of childcare subsidies and related measures that are more “market-friendly” than “family-friendly,” designed to create as large and pliant a workforce as possible. For those who “slip through the cracks,” the credentialed shock troops of the social services are ready to punish and reward as necessary. Custodial democracy thus becomes a fact of life for millions.
Which is why the religious right is right, at least in part. For Mishra, what the wags call “Christianism” is the mirror image of Hindutva: a politics of nationalist self-assertion, with religious rhetoric masking Class War waged by the Haves on the Have-Nots. But what if it’s a function of a defensive orientation? Vacuous though it may sound, “family values” means a whole spectrum of things: intimate sphere, household security, keeping the market in its rightful place.
Rather than legitimate material acquisitiveness, the call for “family values” represents a radical challenge to the way we live. Gandhi might have understood that.