What is Centrism?

‘Centrism’ is rather confusing as a political position. Vague and relative as they are, terms like ‘leftist,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ denote a set of core principles that can be upheld or challenged. I, at least, have always been confused by what it’s supposed to mean. After devoting a bit of thought to the question, I’ve decided I was right the first time: centrism is fundamentally incoherent. It’s also much worse.

One often hears that in U.S. politics, smart politicians aim for the center. Clinton ran as a centrist, so did both Bushes, so did Obama. Pretty soon someone will call the U.S.’s dominant role in Haitian relief efforts ‘centrist.’ Being a centrist means you can call yourself non-ideological and pragmatic, which in our anemic intellectual climate is understood to mean ‘correct,’ or as close to that vapid ideal as humanly possible.

Centrism is without content because unlike conservative or liberal, its basis is completely relative to ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conceived as imaginary ‘ideological’ positions that the centrist grants himself the authority to name. Centrism has a history (how could it not), but it keeps its distance. It is always cheerfully presentist.

None of which prevents some centrists from calling themselves radical, which is also ‘in’ these days. Third Way politics constitute ‘radical’ centrism’s most visibly branded forms. But the pragmatic centrist can always call himself ‘radical,’ since he predicates himself on being undetermined, unimpressed, a step ahead, free.

centrism

On one level, centrism should be taken at its word: it is neither right nor left, because these equal and opposite poles are its inventions. It has no formal dogma, because dogma is also its invention. Centrism is about just what it says it is: finding the center, or figuring out where the power is in any given situation and sticking to it. Since power is what relates otherwise disparate situations, centrism has a broadly ‘progressive’ teleology (in the sense of expansion) and a broadly conservative strategy (in the sense of conservation of power). The closest term of comparison is ‘opportunism.’

‘centrism’

At the risk of rubbing salt in an open wound, we can take Obama’s trajectory as a high-profile, exhaustively documented example of how centrism works in practice. Obama’s marketing and general demeanor on the campaign trail skewed progressive because that’s where the power was after eight years of Bush on the Internet. He cut the cord once elected because in becoming president power had shifted from the grassroots to the Oval Office, Wall Street, and the Pentagon. He (correctly so far) calculated that nothing he could do once in office would drive away his party’s avant garde because in a two-party system they have nowhere else to go, while everything had to be acceptable to the most bought and paid for members of his party first, who are willing to leave at the drop of a gavel. Barring an inverted Reagan-style comeback, Obama looks like he will be remembered as the president who took most seriously his role as the chief PR man for big capital in its hour of need. What else does he have the time or space to achieve beyond constant crisis management?

Centrism as a political norm has in fact changed the face of politics, openly acknowledging what politics has been in reality since the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ and the fateful decision to stake the world’s future on the price of the dollar, that is, public relations as population management. Rousseau’s ideal state, with government as the strictly bureaucratic servant of the general will, has come to pass, with the modification that the general will is now produced by a corporate entertainment media complex. Or at least it is only taken seriously when in this form. Every excuse the centrist makes, every concession to ‘hard realities’, every condescending shake of the head to the criticisms and demands of ‘ideologues,’ should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction. If conservatism is the failure of democracy, centrism is its abnegation. And those still willing to identify as ‘left’ can’t be sure if they’re Zhuangzi or the butterfly.

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35 Responses to “What is Centrism?”

  1. butch cazza Says:

    This is quite startling, although not entirely unsurprising. What if only those you put under the label ‘centrist’ are actually not especially that, but maybe you’ve chosen the term to condescend to as you say ‘centrists’ do. Even Susan Sontag claimed to be a ‘centrist’, by the way.

    It could be a cleverly worded play on something you’ve done, but I can’t say I find any of it convincing in the least.

    This: “Centrism is without content because unlike conservative or liberal, its basis is completely relative to ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conceived as imaginary ‘ideological’ positions that the centrist grants himself the authority to name. Centrism has a history (how could it not), but it keeps its distance. It is always cheerfully presentist” is supercilious as well as extremely spurious. Even if it WERE a phenomenon that has ‘different properties’ than leftism or conservatism, that would still not mean it is ‘without contient’. Now would the failures of the left and right not automatically render something akin to what is usually (but clearly not here) thought of as ‘centrism to exist.

    “At the risk of rubbing salt in an open wound,”

    That’s what I meant by supercilious. Surely, we can all find the left and the right both ‘open wounds’ if you’re going to call ‘centrism’ an ‘open wound’. The post does posit one interesting idea: That ‘centrism’ is of a different order than the other ‘affiliations’, which, if without ‘centrism’ (which “acknowledges what politics has been in reality’) which would still make it ‘contentless’.or the ‘only open wound’ (you don’t say that explicitly, but how is one not to read that into this). So, without ‘centrism’. whose horrible reality-principle disturbs all the little warring oppositions of far left, far right, and all the little special interest parties in between, actuqally itself interrupts the ‘equal opportunity’ of the ‘real, contentful’ parties (even including the far right.) It is annoying precisely for not staying primarily in theory, for not remaining ineffectual, it is as if it is an ‘open wound’ for actually dealing with any problems at all. The others are, by comparison, noble even if mornoci and stupid, because they are not so reality-oriented.

    In fact, it is all the other parties that are ‘open wounds’, even if it’s only because they don’t have the power, although that’s not what’s crucial: It’s that they are ‘open wounds’ because they are not ‘working’. You can still always say that Obama’s, etc., ‘centrism is ‘terrible’ and ghastly.

    “Every excuse the centrist makes, every concession to ‘hard realities’, every condescending shake of the head to the criticisms and demands of ‘ideologues,’ should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction. ”

    Well, maybe these so-called ‘excuses’, which, by the way, excuses are not something ANY party of any order or property does not make, if what doesn’t seem to be working, they either make excuses or place blame. Placing blame, it is true, is even more ineffectual and impotent, but does seem to work very well for the left, which does nothing else. The right operates ruthlessly every time it gets a chance to, and doesn’t bother with ‘excuses’ or ‘laying blame’ unless its ruthlessness is kept in check.

    If conservatism is the failure of democracy, centrism is its abnegation. And those still willing to identify as ‘left’ can’t be sure if they’re Zhuangzi or the butterfly.

    “should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction”

    Well, you know, one can in fact, disagree with this, or is that not possible? Is this something so fixed that what you’ve said about the ‘effectively bought individual citizen’ is so emblzaoned in steel or stone or whatever that it is not even up for debate? And so, the ‘centrist’, which you have yourself identified as the only reality-oriented ‘political persuasion’, then perhaps it would be better to have no reality-oriented persuasion at all? Surely so, eh? And so what if conservatism is the ‘failure of democracy’ and, according to you, ”centrism is the abnegation of democracy’, isn’t that what the true leftist needs as a symptom to feel fully invited in, so he can then become the subject to deploy the ‘constant terror, surveilliance’ (I’d lose the iPodified consumer satisfaction, once the hard left gets hold of the terror and surveillance mechanisms, the cultural production tends to get pretty shoddy, with USSR as the most extreme example, China has done better with its ‘happy oppression). But without the loss of democracy caused by conservatism and its maintenance, quietly (?) , as it were, by ‘centrists’. how would there be vacuum enough for the leftists to come in and finish up the whole deal? Because the left is not looking for democracy and doesn’t even claim to. Surely, loathing of democracy is what is held in common by all except the Greens or like types.

    So no, it’s good to write something in this kind of authoritative voice, because you do find out that there will be dissenting voices who said yes to the style and NO to the content. Obviously, you haven’t convinced me of a thing with this post, and even the interesting idea that ‘centrism’ is of a different kind of order than the others seems only an asset, rather than a liability. Maybe, like the Constitution (couldn’t resist that), it allows AS MUCH DEMOCRACRy as the real traffic will allow, serves as a kind of discipline to the clear HYSTERIA of all the other parties, and that it is of a different order is an asset, not a liablitty. But in that case, I’d just call it centrism, not ‘centrism’, which is what I think your post is about.

  2. @Traxus, in re: previous post. You’re wrong. Centrism does have a political position: committed quietism (not to mention, serving as a sounding board for the national media). What’s always struck me about centrism is, precisely, that despite claims of mediating between extremes and playing the middle ground (opportunism?), it actually offers up solutions that are non-solutions. The nuance that it claims to see in the world is actually another dualism: rational (usually, this involves telling others what to do) and irrational (those who kick against the pricks). It’s a political position that masquerades as disinterest and intelligent deliberation (find me a centrist who actually deliberates before coming to a conclusion!).

  3. butch cazza Says:

    Just to quickly a bit of sugar if a wound was caused (don’t have time to read Alex’s comment just now), that I think that the effort to even write a post on Centrism’ is quite admirable. But since you (wrongly lol) accusedc me (and used my REAL NAME WITHOUT PERMISSION) of ‘not being ruling class’, I must say that, as of recently collected surveillance evidence in New York in 2010, that I think you are not only a centrist yourself, but and Extreme Centrist possibly even, like me (although not yet, because you don’t consciously think ‘centristically’, you just seem to embody it more than the leftism which seems to consume your thinking to such a degree that you will even attend dread conferences and seminars. etc,. Of cours,e I could be wrong, but then you were wrong about my ‘class’, which is not ‘upper class’, but was, within the context of the culture I grew up in, ‘ruling class’ THERE, although that doesn’t mean I’m the regular at Park Avenue parties I’d like to be…altjhough that might make me become officially right-wing, not sure about that) But my impression was that your Centrism is even more deeply embedded in 2010 than it was in 2007. hee hee 🙂

  4. Oh, I forgot. “Hypocrisy” is the number one tool in the arsenal of centrists. They can accuse everyone else of failing to live up to their ideals, because centrists (purportedly) have no ideals. “You ate at a fancy restaurant last week, and you claim to be a leftist”.

  5. anxiousmodernman Says:

    butch, I still think traxus’ description of centrism as an empty, contentless idea holds. Again, unlike liberalism, leftism, or conservatism, centrism does not uphold any principles whatsoever.

    I get that you’re trying to compare centrism to the US Constitution and its principles of formal democracy, enumerated rights, ability to change, etc., but I don’t think the comparison holds.

    Centrism may not be an ideology or idea, but that is not to say that it is not useful as a term to define where power resides in American politics: the upper echelons of the Democratic and Republican parties. Centrism is about power, not principles, and either party has often taken up the term as it suits them, just as they have taken up or discarded principles, ideas, and different parts of the Constitution itself. If centrism has any content as an idea, it’s the stream of mass media babble, as Alex notes, but this is not exactly a principled position, is it?

    The old Communist parties were said to govern by (what they called) “democratic centrism” i.e. a democracy of a very few Politburo types. I think that’s pretty close to what goes on in the Senate.

  6. butch cazza Says:

    Oh, I forgot. “Hypocrisy” is the number one tool in the arsenal of centrists. They can accuse everyone else of failing to live up to their ideals, because centrists (purportedly) have no ideals. “You ate at a fancy restaurant last week, and you claim to be a leftist”.

    No, it’s neither centrists nor anybody else who understands better or not that hypocrisy is 100% across-the-board with EVERYBODY. Some people just deny it jmore than others do. But hypsocrisy is never not found in any polical party, group, whatever. The sooner you understand this basic fact, the sooner you’ll realize how to operate your projects. Otherwise, enjoy being the loser. Not that I think leftists are any less hypocritical that rightists, they both deny being hypocrites, and yet we all are.

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    butch –

    “It is annoying precisely for not staying primarily in theory, for not remaining ineffectual, it is as if it is an ‘open wound’ for actually dealing with any problems at all.”

    there are plenty of effectual self-identifying liberal and conservative organizations, such as republicans and democrats as a whole. there are one or two functioning leftist governments (like Cuba), though most have been demolished. and there are plenty of functioning right wing governments. not counting all the activist political groups from both sides, who don’t always lose (Xian fundamentalists and progressive liberals helped put the last two presidents in office).

    don’t allow centrism to claim monopoly over pragmatism — everyone has to be pragmatic in order to get anything done, that’s simply common sense. you can’t claim pure pragmatism as a political position without concealing who you’re working for. the idea of all or even most people with ideologies (and what does that even mean? people with recognizable opinions? parties with comprehensible programs?) as a bunch of hysterical vestal priests is a fiction that crumbles upon first inspection.

    centrism is annoying for letting others determine its positions in lieu of having a theory.

    “discipline to the clear HYSTERIA of all the other parties”

    i would argue that its current function in the u.s. is to enforce hysteria, as the only way interested parties can get anything done that wasn’t going to happen anyway. you can’t argue with someone who isn’t forthcoming about his or her positions.

    “your Centrism is even more deeply embedded in 2010 than it was in 2007. hee hee”

    thanks

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    Alex –

    “committed quietism”

    i like this as a characterization but can’t buy it as a consistent political position. ‘quietism’ doesn’t have content in the same way that, say, liberalism does, or libertarianism, which represent different relations to the state and political economy. there is an intellectual tradition and a practical history to those two terms; ‘quietism,’ just like ‘opportunism’ is relative to whatever seems to be happening in the present. hypocrisy too, while accurate, is just an attitude.

  9. traxus4420 Says:

    that should be: “intellectual tradition that informs a practical history”

  10. traxus4420 Says:

    “Centrism is about power, not principles, and either party has often taken up the term as it suits them, just as they have taken up or discarded principles, ideas, and different parts of the Constitution itself.”

    exactly. i’m pretty sure there are centrist activists, but they’re probably a psyop. lol.

  11. traxus4420 Says:

    another way of putting it — you could call a senator in ancient greece a ‘centrist’ or a ‘quietist’ and it could make sense, but calling him a liberal or a marxist would be anachronistic.

  12. Having known and intensely argued with certain centrists, I’m very reluctant to see it as something other than a political position. It’s the position that won’t admit it. But it has a clear ideology: “The problem with politics (today) is that people can’t just sit down and reason with one another”. This ideology has its implications, as well: “demagogues” on the right and left are seen as /the/ problem while deliberation is seen as /the/ solution. It sides with the legitimized international institutions (UN, NATO, IMF), regardless of the actual practices of these institutions (because pragmatists never actually research what the institutions that they love actually do). It has its ideologues (Habermas, Rawls, Rorty). I simply can’t see it as a non-politics. It’s a politics of a certain institutionality – the meeting point of neoliberism and classical liberalism.

  13. traxus4420 Says:

    why aren’t habermas, rawls, and rorty liberals? or to be more specific, liberal social democrats? have they ever identified themselves as centrists? as i say in the post, the problem with putting centrism on the same axis as liberalism, leftism, etc. is that to some extent that horizontal line is centrism’s invention. it can only understand political ideologies as formally equivalent, as media images basically.

    and, butch, i should have emphasized in the post that i see the triumph of centrism as a genuine impasse — arguing or advocating a consistent politics in the traditional sense is NOT taken seriously (the apparent impossibility of Change isn’t a failure of the imagination as is often claimed, but the consequence of a political and practical defeat). everyone disgusted by this should feel challenged to reconsider what it means to publicly identify allegiance, agreement, or solidarity at ALL today (marxism is identity politics).

    here’s something from the invisible committee that seems relevant:

    “I AM WHAT I AM,’ then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between things, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us exist, and ensures that the whole world doesn’t everywhere have the look and feel of a highway, an amusement park or a new town: pure boredom, passionless but well-ordered, empty, frozen space, where nothing moves apart from registered bodies, molecular automobiles, and ideal commodities.”

  14. butch cazza Says:

    For different reasons, I agree with Alex that centrism is a political position as well, but you separated it off to begin with that way, and by making it a ‘different-order’ position, you put it purely in a defensive posture in this presentation. Even if it’s only ‘content’ is ‘power’, that is not ‘content-free’. Tell me how power is not content, given its potency.

    But don’t be offended that I find you somewhat centrist yourself. It’s pretty vague what we’re discussing here, especially making of it this ‘different thing’, and that makes it just seem like the ‘conspiring elite’, which I’m just not paranoid enough to buy. So what I see as ‘centrist’ is not necessarily what you see, since I’d need to agree more with your definition of what it was for that to mean that much. But you’ve said things before about ‘style and politics’, and I agree with this relation to a great degree. Hence Alex’s “They can accuse everyone else of failing to live up to their ideals, because centrists (purportedly) have no ideals. “You ate at a fancy restaurant last week, and you claim to be a leftist/” Well, you know, that’s a legitimate accusation, not because it’s ‘fair’, but because it’s not one whit different to the ones you’re making toward your ‘centrists’, Alex. What do you expect? ideologies to ‘play fair’ in their competition? Not one of them does, otherwise there would be this constant gentle something or other. As it is, opposing parties uusually end up fucking each other or killing each other, perhaps even at the same time, who knows?

    I was interested in this term you use ‘presentist’. Are you saying it as like ‘futurist, in which the first syllable would be accented, or a completely interesting new word ‘pre-ZINT-ist’, which is something I’m going to use even if you didn’t mean that.

  15. butch cazza Says:

    because centrists (purportedly) have no ideals.

    No, that’s just false. And it’s also important that centrism didn’t necessariloy arise just because it ‘wanted to come into being in all its power’, almost like an impossibly powerful elite THIRD PARTY. The political arm-twisting among the more officially opposed powers obviously forced a kind of centrism into being, whether or not you just think it’s some sort of corporate financial-industry alliance between Democrats, Republicans, Wall Street, super-rich, et alia. Of course it’s not ‘fair’. I tend to always think this expectation of ‘fairness’ to be the secret problem, although that’s clearly what should be in mind, or should be at certain points. But there’s little point arguing about the ‘merits of pragmatism’, since it’s always unavoidable, whoever is doing the pragmatic thing, and at whatever personal or collective level. Communists were doing t’the pragmatic thing’ in USSR, because they were the only ones that could, given what had been decided upon.

  16. Have you read Hofstadter? “Centrism” was, in a manner of speaking, the original position. When party politics was coming into being, the dominant ethos was “anti-faction, anti-party.” It’s only in the nineteenth century that partisanship is actually viewed as a good thing. The hyperbole of the Invisible Committee, as stirring as it is, pretends that so-called non-partisanship is a new thing. Of course, Marx taught us that non-partisanship was always partisan, and we should recognize the same thing with centrism. If you wanted to assign electoral values to centrism, I think they would amount to: “Liberalism is good for us (nationally) and bad for everyone else.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/world/20chile.html?hp

  17. butch cazza Says:

    On Capitol Hill, the fate of the health care legislation was highly uncertain as Democratic leaders quickly gathered to plot strategy in the wake of the Republican victory.

    I suppose that will be something from which to define centrism, and seems an unwelcome and wearisome form will come into being here. Won’t it? A lot of new arm-twisting caused by one surprise election outcome. So is, as per the rest of the article, ‘ramming through some sort of program’, since the Democrats are no longer filibuster-proof, the near-organic, since inevitable, ‘centrist process of pragmatism’ going to just continue, but in even less attractive form? Okay, sorry if I got too off-topic, I probably have lost the ability to cerebralize very long at a time.

  18. butch cazza Says:

    stirring as it is, pretends that so-called non-partisanship is a new thing. Of course, Marx taught us that non-partisanship was always partisan, and we should recognize the same thing with centrism.

    Exactement, and it should come as little surprise that, while centrists recognize that Marx ‘taught’ whoever was willing to be taught be him, that not all were good students. Therefore, centrists (presumably centrists, personally I never met one) probably make up their own minds about whether they have any content or not. They’re not using Marx’s context as a guidebook from which to operate. I can’t see much in that Invisible
    Committee statement, as ‘vacant space sensations’ and the rest seem to be the case with almost any ideology. I have noticed that leftists usually do not want to talk to conservatives, and I was interested in Graham Harman (for once) saying to k-punk, that they ‘ought to get some conservative friends’, that they might learn something. It may be that both leftists and rightists don’t really want to talk to any but their own number, and they are surely the cause centrism would become so prominent–you know, one of those ‘gaps’ or ‘spaces”, empty or something.

  19. In re: butch cazza’s last comment. I’ve had plenty of conservative friends. I don’t now. I know why we can’t talk to one another, but no amount of mediation is going to fix that. There’s more to opposing ideologies than simply failure to communicate.

  20. Perhaps that’s the crucial error of centrism: the belief that if we could find a means of communication, we could solve all differences.

  21. butch cazza Says:

    Oh, we probably don’t have to communicate, in any case I don’t know whether we do.

    I wonder if ‘centrism’ is therefore seen as the repository of ‘all things vacuous and empty, characterless, and perhaps also irrational’? Since the post is called ‘What is Centrism’ (excellent, I think), it’s bound to have different meanings. So I wonder if you now think it’s a less vague term than before, more definable. If it’s to be opposed, that might mean it could be opposed more or less effectively.

    That ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ makes me think of a recent discussion on censorship, in which very bourgeois types were discussing an overly profane piece that the BBC decided not to run on Xmas Eve. The most ardent defender of non-censorship I supported in every rational sense, but finallly told him that, even so, it didn’t matter how many coherent, logical arguments he was making, that the opponents of that weren’t concerned about whether their determination to keep the program censored was rational or not, and that at some point the non-rational will just stonewall. It’s possible that, in that case at least, as I told him, he might worsen his case by not accepting that the views were set in bedrock by both sides, and that it was like arguments about religion or legalizing drugs. I thought he was always right, except for not realizing that being still more rational would not convince, and you see this all the time. So some sort of compromise is always the result. I also don’t kow whether you see centrism as this ‘space of final compromise’ if it, therefore, is the place of power (now more than in previous times? what was more powerful in previous times than centrism as you see it now? etc…)

  22. Just a quick note, bc: you should distinguish my position – I believe that a centrist is a coherent political position with a narrow ideology – from Traxus’s. So when you say, “I wonder if you now think it’s a less vague term than before, more definable”, you should be careful. I think Traxus still maintains his original position.

  23. traxus4420 Says:

    ok, here goes:

    what classical liberalism, modern u.s. liberalism, modern conservatism, nationalism, marxism, libertarianism, leftism, and whatever else has been brought up here have in common is that they are based on a theory of the state and political economy. disagreements between them involve substantive differences in how the state should be governed, and are theoretically independent from the status of political parties and partisanship.

    centrism does not operate at this level — it’s an attitude toward political conduct in general, or a strategy, or a relative label, recurrent (as alex notes) in multiple historical moments as related ideologies but not as a coherent theory of the state. i don’t think founding fathers antipartyism counts as centrism — the constitution’s resistance to party division was based on solid (classical) liberal principles. thomas jefferson said lots of ‘centrist’ things but while they may imply similar attitudes, they don’t imply anything like the same theoretical and/or policy positions then as they would now.

    centrism in its contemporary form presupposes the unquestionable nature of the current system: institutionalized, 2-party mass politics managed by elites and the dominance of neoclassical principles in economics, neoliberal principles in foreign policy, and corporate-and-finance-friendly domestic policy. for the centrist there are no remaining theoretical questions — they’ve already been answered. it’s the ideology appropriate to corporate takeover: it doesn’t have to be coherent, so it doesn’t try.

  24. traxus4420 Says:

    i mean i guess it’s coherent if you think thoughtless obedience is coherent, but i don’t.

  25. butch cazza Says:

    it’s the ideology appropriate to corporate takeover

    I was told in 1973 that that had already happened. Okay, thanks for the explanation, I still don’t buy it. You may wonder why I don’t, but then I don’t buy the ‘end of culture’. And it doesn’t mean ‘the theoretical questions have all been answered’, it means that very often they are not the important questions, but I’ll leave this to the rest. I don’t see how this could have been expected to be an easily agreed upon subject, and the question itself remains more interesting than the ‘answers’ any of us have given. So I hope others will write up some stuff. Your last explanation very interesting, but still doesn’t cover nearly everything IMO.

  26. But there is a centrist theory of the state: self-interest rules. This implies a political platform for governance: the current state of affairs, if it is not anarchy, is better than any possible alternative. It also implies a secondary political platform: self-interested actors are best managed by the most clever among us. Sound like neoliberalism? Perhaps centrism is simply the rhetorical gesture of neoliberalism.

  27. butch cazza Says:

    Sound like neoliberalism? Perhaps centrism is simply the rhetorical gesture of neoliberalism.

    Yes, I thought it sounded like what most of you talk about as ‘neoliberalism’, while not being terribly clear exactly what you yourselves are (but that’s neither here nor there, I’m not concerned with it if, imagine yourself ‘ideologically pure or impure’, it matters to someone else, no me)

    So k-punk wrote last week:

    “temporality has become a permanent state of affairs, allowing neoliberalism to further strengthen its hegemony under the cloak of “post-politics”. Of course some even claim that the concept of “neoliberalism” itself is “gibberish” spouted by only by “half-witted Marxists”. What this kind of claim establishes is the depressing reach and power that capitalist realism has over large areas of the British middle class. The real capitalist realists are not those working in neoliberal think tanks, who know full well that neoliberalism is a political project that has to be ruthlessly, continually enforced, but those who deny the existence of neoliberalism itself; they are the liberal dupes who, in the name of a “realism” that routinely ignores facts and evidence while pretending to appeal to them, propagate a “commonsense” which takes place inside the reality system instantiated by neoliberalism.

    One irony of this squeamishness about “bringing politics” into situations of mass human suffering, of course, is that, as Naomi Klein consummately demonstrated in The Shock Doctrine, the neoliberal project has depended on its ability to rapidly helicopter into”

    I can’t see from most of the leftists who write about neoliberalism, that is different from centrism in any important, but the post and thread worthwhile if only because the term ‘centrism’ ought to be bandied about a bit, since most don’t use it among the leftists, and most mainstream people don’t think of it as vacuous, an insult, and/or content-free. So, in practice, something like these things exist, and some think this is EVIL.

  28. Jonathan Rheinstones Says:

    Some (non political) questions:

    If centrism has no content, why object to it?
    If it has no content how can it invent right and left?
    How can right or left be inventions of centrism, yet at the same time definitive of the position? There is a chronology problem here.
    Why are “conservative” and “liberal” distinct from “centrism” as notions defined “relative” to imaginary political positions? They all seem to be interdefinable, but you weirdly you claim just one is dependent on the others.
    Wtf does “cheerfully presentist” mean?
    Why is the discussion of radical centrism relevant at all?
    How does inventing dogma imply that you don’t have one?
    Why are the poles of right and left “equal and opposite”.. especially equal?
    Why do you think centrism is essentially progressive teleologically and conservative strategically? (Seems like you are doing a lot of the inventing here, not to mention asserting claims without support)
    Are you also confused by terms like flat and hard and smooth that are defined relative to other points of a spectrum? Are those terms incoherent? Seems that there are unproblematic everyday senses of these terms… unless you are an essentialist.

  29. traxus4420 Says:

    when k-punk does political critique it’s usually directed against new labour and third way politics, which have also been described as centrist — bill clinton and tony blair were both ‘third way’ politicians. i believe it’s the first branded 1st world consensus that followed the fall of the wall. what k-punk calls ‘common sense’ functions in basically the same way ‘centrism’ does here — a contentless rhetorical gesture that obfuscates political commitments (which can roughly be described as neoliberal, also a contested term but for which rigorous definitions pro and con exist). k-punk is right that no one would ever run on an openly neoliberal platform.

    i would accept a definition of centrism as “the rhetorical gesture of neoliberalism” but it seems to me that by itself makes it incoherent as a political position. the descriptions alex gives: self interest rules, something is better than nothing, meritocracy (except when it’s nepotism) are pretheoretical behavioral and strategic assumptions. meritocracy sounds like something, but what is cleverness? ‘self-interest rules’ could be interpreted as right libertarianism, nationalism, mercantilism, oligarchy, or monarchy, none of which match with the emphasis on consensus we’ve been associating centrism with. all these ‘principles’ break down or reduce to something else after the first two questions, because it’s just generic business ideology, not a coherent political or economic theory (assumptions by themselves don’t constitute theory). i think it can only be rigorously defined as PR.

  30. traxus4420 Says:

    actually the features you (alex) list to define centrism form more or less the dictionary definition of classical liberalism of the adam smith variety — which makes sense as the slogans are basically all Hayek and Friedman took from their forefathers.

  31. traxus4420 Says:

    Rheinstones

    forgive me if i don’t respond to every point — the answers take a bit more work than the questions.

    conservative and liberal (classical and modern u.s.), just like libertarian and socialist, while differing according to national context and capable to some extent of combination, have stable principles and documented histories which they often refer to. you can check wikipedia for the full definitions. it’s actually rather instructive to compare them to the skimpy wikipedia entry on centrism.

    left and right can be used in two senses — as general abstractions to refer to a set of related positions, or the poles on a line segment. the latter is how centrism uses them, as straw men to position itself rhetorically (usually as the “Two Bad Extremes”).

    what you’re suggesting with this “flat and hard and smooth” argument is absurd — nowhere did i say centrism is meaningless, or that the word doesn’t refer to anything in reality (i actually said it’s “changed the face of politics”) it’s just not coherent as a political position.

    the rest i trust you can figure out on your own.

    pretty much done with responses to this post i think — just repeating myself at this point.

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