The Dead Center

REFLECTIONS ON LIBERALISM AND DEMOCRACY AFTER THE END OF HISTORY


LUKE SAVAGE


“If you have appreciated Luke Savage's work… as much as I have, then you must pick up a copy of this book. Luke brings a smart, informed, critical perspective to bear on the crisis of American democratic life and the continuing class war from above against the democratic achievements of generations.” —Harvey J. Kaye, Professor Emeritus of Democracy & Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America


“Sardonic and hilarious, The Dead Center contains some of the best political, media, and cultural criticism I’ve read in some time. It’s clear-eyed about the immensely powerful forces working against progress and the working-class. It left me feeling both angrier about liberalism’s failures and more hopeful. This is a book that understands the past, present, and future of left politics as well as any I’ve read.” —Alex Shephard, The New Republic


“Luke Savage is one of the contemporary left’s finest writers and one of liberalism’s most astute and merciless critics. These qualities converge in The Dead Center, which catalogues twenty-first century liberalism’s worst embarrassments and darkest betrayals. This entertaining and timely book will unsettle political moderates — and, more importantly, provide ample reinforcement for a rising generation of leftists intent on challenging them.” —Meagan Day, Associate Editor, Jacobin


“Liberalism, we know, is in crisis, and few people are better at dissecting the tensions of contemporary liberalism than Luke Savage… Savage illuminates the contradictions and blindspots that have made modern liberalism so ill-suited to solving the problems that bedevil the present moment. A must-read for anyone of any ideological persuasion interested in better understanding our age and its pathologies.” —Daniel Bessner, Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor, University of Washington


“Everyone should read this book. Luke Savage is a perceptive thinker and a lively and entertaining writer, and skewering centrist liberalism is what he does best. The socialist left is lucky to have him.” —Ben Burgis, author of Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters


“It’s more than a little infuriating that one of the most clear-eyed and insightful writers on American politics is Canadian, but I suppose that’s just a sign of the times we live in.”
—Josh Olson, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, co-host of The West Wing Thing



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About the Book

The Dead Center takes an acerbic and often ribald eye to contemporary politics, particularly those of mainstream liberals in the United States. Combining engaging polemic and serious intellectual analysis, it offers a timely portrait of a political landscape sullied by an already ineffectual Biden administration, the marginalization of forces around Bernie Sanders and the ominous shadow of Donald Trump in the wings.

In these pages Jacobin staff writer Luke Savage exposes the hollowness and futility of the liberal project in the 21st century, offering searing critiques of some of its leading figures, notably Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, and touching on topics that extend over the milquetoast politics of the Biden presidency, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, the monopolists of Silicon Valley, and the worst excesses of cable news punditry. Always deeply informed, often on the basis of direct personal experience, Savage’s book also explores the recent trajectory of younger people away from the liberal mainstream and towards the socialist left.

272 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-333-4 • E-book 978-1-68219-334-1

About the Author

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Luke Savage is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Statesman, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. Born in St John’s, Newfoundland, he studied political science, history, and philosophy at the University of Toronto, where he edited Canada’s largest student newspaper The Varsity. Having worked for several years as an investigative reporter covering Canadian politics and the far right, Luke has been a staff writer at Jacobin since 2018 – where he is a frequent commentator on American, British, and Canadian politics. He is co-host of the popular Michael and Us podcast, a twice-weekly show about politics, cinema, and our crumbling world.

Read an Excerpt

Liberalism’s Loss of Confidence

Though it would be reductive to isolate a single moment or point of rupture, the financial meltdown of 2008 and its aftermath is certainly a worthy enough place to begin the story of liberalism’s loss of confidence. Appropriately enough, 2008 also saw the ascendancy of Barack Obama: a figure who for many (including my nineteen-year-old self) represented the best hope for a different kind of world after the crisis — a crisis that plenty outside of elite circles, whether versed in the inscrutable workings of high finance or not, understood to be the product of deep structural flaws in the architecture of the world economy.

The administration’s willful decision to forgo any serious reordering of the political settlement and the subsequent global march into austerity caused untold human suffering and emboldened the most sinister currents on the political right. But it also helped instill in a generation of downwardly mobile young people a hardened skepticism of centrist platitudes, political saviorism, and liberal doublespeak. As you’ll see from the pages of this book, the inveterate conservatism of so many would-be progressive figures has played a major and undeniable role in the development of my own politics. Though I certainly cannot claim to speak for others, I suspect this trajectory is one that many millennial readers in particular will identify with.

Life on the left, of course, is ultimately about much more than finding fault with centrist triangulation or rolling one’s eyes in the direction of individual liberal politicians. Unless grounded in materialist analysis and undergirded by firm egalitarian commitments, anti-liberal critiques can all-too easily slide into shallow contrarianism or various genres of ersatz iconoclasm that are really just conservatism by another name. Events of the past decade, however, have been remarkably clarifying for those of us who once believed that the leaders of a conventional institution like the Democratic Party could, or even wanted to, deliver progress in any meaningful sense of the word.

Among other things, the breathtaking liberal hostility to both of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns was emblematic of an orientation whose guiding ethos remains hierarchical and corporatist, whatever its official branding may suggest to the contrary. The same applies in my native Canada, where Trudeaumania 2.0 has proven to be every bit as hollow, politically staid, and change-averse a phenomenon as early critics like myself argued it would be. In Britain, the other Anglo-American democracy to make an appearance in this book, the stunning and unlikely success of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party’s 2015 leadership election was met with a reaction from establishment pundits and media oligopolies so hysterical that it made the attacks on Sanders look tame by comparison.

Such hostility has been every bit as instructive as the corresponding lack of vision offered by liberals themselves. In the 1990s, figures like Blair and Clinton took up the task of dismantling the old order with gusto and conviction. Theirs was a self-consciously ideological effort animated by an almost libidinal zeal for the so-called Third Way and a genuine, if misplaced enthusiasm for an unbroken future of rule by the dictates of exchange value.

Even in victory, the bewildered progeny of Clinton and Blair possess none of this spirit — their energies occupied instead with symbolic gestures, triangulating soundbites, and cynical attempts to garnish what is by now a thoroughly technocratic project with a patina of popular allure. Beyond soaring platitudes and vague appeals to fairness; beyond empty bromides about transcending partisanship and finding a mythical common ground; beyond an ethereal language of inclusion, and the hazy promise of some newly shared prosperity which supposedly awaits us all just over the next electoral horizon, it has become difficult to say what, if anything, the contemporary liberal project is actually about. As a political practice today, what is generally called liberalism is effectively small-c conservative. In rhetoric, gesture, and affect, the liturgies of change and progress remain, but any sincere belief in them has melted into air.

Since 2008, liberal elites have floundered in a series of vain efforts to recover their lost élan and, more urgently, devise new ways of getting ordinary people excited about the focus-tested pablum churned out by their increasingly remote and hyper-professionalized political machines. To this end, the only strategy that has found any success — amid a less than negligible record of failure — has involved the creation and marketing of carefully airbrushed personalities who, in turn, audition to play protagonists in the gaudy and hypermediated spectacle which today passes for democratic politics.

With very few exceptions, these cipher politicians are actors in the plainest and most literal sense: the almost incidental byproducts of a vast and lumbering cultural machinery that has vetted them and provided most of the script in advance. As sentient human brands, their job is primarily to sell that script to electorates — who are, in turn, now conceived more like aggregations of consumers sortable into market niches than citizens of a democratic polity with clashing values and interests.

These themes strongly inform the lengthiest section of this book, which features pieces on a number of individual politicians (many of which were written during the 2019-2020 Democratic primary race). But you’ll also find them running throughout the portions devoted to neoliberalism and the media, both of which are component parts of the same story. If politics has increasingly been reduced to the level of spectacle and many of its participants to the status of performers-qua-commodities, elite pundits — ever the stubborn guardians of trite orthodoxies and conduits of received wisdom — deserve a very real share of the blame.

As I do my best to argue, this has at least as much to do with the modern media’s overall construction as it does with the individual pundits or talking heads involved. The press, much like the political class whose activities it’s charged with overseeing, is subject to a host of market pressures and incentives that strongly encourage both the embrace of spectacle and the enforcement of particular ideological boundaries.

This is where neoliberalism — our narcotic inheritance from the age of Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, and Blair — comes in. Freed from the various limits and counterweights it faced in the decades after the Second World War, the 21st century has seen us enter a world in which profit-driven corporate enterprise is really and truly allowed to consume anything and everything in its path. The upshot, or at least one of them, is that market economies have increasingly become market societies, the space within them not subject to the tidal forces of commodification and profit-seeking growing ever smaller by the day.

Notwithstanding the various terms associated with diffidence or passivity I often use in relation to many of this book’s subjects (surrender, retreat, etc.) it’s worth stating outright that this was always more or less the point. Neoliberalism is first and foremost a political project, and its greatest champions genuinely do accept, and even celebrate, the constraints on democracy it imposes, the hierarchies that it creates, and the overbearing influence that markets now exert over daily life.

Accepting these things as natural and inevitable necessarily limits the scope and substance of politics as well. When the realm of what can be debated or contested has been so radically narrowed, all that’s left is to tinker with minor reforms and try to weave them into a broad cultural narrative, most typically by drawing on the signifiers and attributes attached to a single personality at its center. It’s little wonder, really, that so many liberal politicians today come across as smarmy and inauthentic. The project they’ve signed up for effectively precludes anything else.

In the Media