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Applying Bertram’s Left to America

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last week, Chris Bertram speculated some about the predicament of the European left, observing that nowadays “the only thing that unites the various lefts is hostility to a neoliberal right”, and that “the differences of policy and principle at the heart of the so-called left are so deep that an alliance is all but unsustainable”. He then went on to analyze what he saw as the existing streams of thought amongst the left–a search that sounded pretty familiar to me. He identified four groupings: 1) “the technocratic quasi-neoliberal left”; 2) “the left version of populist nationalism”; 3) “the eco-left”; and 4) “the old Leninist hard left”. I thought that was an intriguing breakdown–though, as became apparent in the very engaging comment thread his post gave rise to, it really doesn’t quite describe the American situation. Some went further than that, arguing that Chris’s breakdown criminally neglects movements which the American experience proves to be absolutely essential to any definition of the left. I don’t think that’s quite right; I think Chris’s set-up is more applicable to our situation than some might think, though it is obviously limited in important ways. So, since I like doing this kind of thing, let me see what I can disentangle here.

1) The neoliberal technocratic left. For the US, that means Bill Clinton, Larry Summers, Robert Reich, their whole gang of global-market-embracing nominal egalitarians. Calling these folks “neoliberals” is somewhat problematic on this side of the Atlantic, as the term has a slightly different resonance. In Britain, the rise of Blair in the 1990s finalized a long period of internal transformation within Britain’s Labor Party, making it all but entirely committed to the ideal of achieving social equality through carefully managed economic growth, and abandoning even a nominal commitment to socialism. In doing so, it essentially accepted certain elements of the Thatcher Revolution, in which a Hayekian reading of modern economics revived (and substantially revised) the older meaning of “liberalism”. In the US on the other hand, economic growth (through trade, market expansion, business innovation, and all the rest) has long been (with very rare exceptions) the presumed aim of both the Republican and Democratic parties; they were both “liberal” in that sense. Perhaps at the heights of FDR’s New Deal you really did have a Democratic party that was edging over into genuine “social democratic” territory, but we certainly haven’t seen anything like that since; the “Great Society” of Cold Warriors like Kennedy and Johnson is fondly or dismissively remembered by Americans of different ideological persuasions as a high point in egalitarian policy-making, but even it was clearly a product of welfare-state capitalism. So for us, “neoliberalism” tends to mean those Democrats who began to question the verities of the post-WWII, state-capitalist, liberal consensus–liberals who challenged the negative cultural effects of large government bureaucracies, powerful unions, and the welfare-state in general in the 70s and 80s. These “new Democrats”, particularly because they often distanced themselves from the (electorally shrinking anyway) pro-union industrial base which was once key to the New Deal coalition, found it easy to conceive of funding egalitarian programs through the economic growth promised by high-tech entrepreneurialism, financialization, and globalization. And this is what has given us the post-Reagan Democratic party, in which politicians regularly appeal to a wide variety of constituencies, one of which happens to be those of us on the left who are unhappy with capitalism and its overriding emphasis on economic growth, and in so doing make vague promises which suggest that the relationship between the government and the elite managers of Wall Street will be changed once they are elected…and then proceed to appoint the same kind of “globalize-grow-and-give” economists and business leaders to top posts in their staffs and administrations as soon as they’re in office. It’s fairly predictable.

As are the players–as Chris notes, these are the folks who like to talk about being members of the “reality-based community”, who are going to be “grown-ups” when it comes to health care, the debt ceiling, and more. This is the Democratic party of Obama; this is most of the liberal punditocracy in the blogosphere. There’s nothing wrong with these people, and heaven knows I learn from them, appreciate their insight, and will generally vote for them and their progressive compromises against much of their typical opposition. (I dislike the Affordable Care Act, and totally support it at the same time!) But their commitment to achieving their ends through a “progressive” management of global capitalism generally blind them, I think, to the moral deficits which come along with their programmatic embrace of a basically undemocratic, ultimately secular, bureaucratic welfare state. And in that sense, their dominance of what passes for the left in America is a shame.

2) The populist/nationalist left. In Chris’s post and the discussion which followed it, it seemed fairly clear that, in the British and European context, any talk of ordinary citizens (usually meaning lower- or lower-middle-class people) popularly defending jobs, their rights, their neighborhoods, their wages, and their way of life–which began as a clearly leftist cause, as embodied by trade unions–has become unavoidably tangled up with fears over immigration. Which is something the neoliberals have hard time wrapping their minds around (witness Gordon Brown’s difficulty dealing with a Labor voter who is, nonetheless, pretty convinced that eastern European immigrants are contributing her local hardships), especially since many of those who explicitly take such a “populist” line are very much on the right. In the US, such concerns over immigration are a reality as well, though in a somewhat different way (as an immigrant nation, it is harder–though not impossible–for those inclined towards both nationalism and the left to speak of the need to politically preserve and promote America’s identity; mostly, arguments about immigration end up being arguments about undocumented Mexican workers). The important difference in regards to populism is that in the US, there is a specific historical example of culturally conservative, locally rooted, working class people become the primary agents in a movement for egalitarian and democratic change: the People’s Party, or Populists, of the late 19th century–who may not have accomplished much on their own, but who, through charismatic leaders like William Jennings Bryan, forced the major parties into embracing what eventually became the progressive, union-friendly reforms of the early 20th century, and then beyond that the New Deal itself.

One of the most constant themes of all political punditry in the US is guessing game as to where, or whether, this particularly populist vote will appear. In recent decades, it is generally not the Democrats who have been able to draw it forth; instead, we have seen southern farmers voting for George Wallace, Catholic union workers voting for Ronald Reagan, and white small businesspeople voting for Ross Perot. The tension between these voters and the neoliberals who, since the 1980s, have come to control much of the Democratic party establishment isn’t merely a hold-over from fights over segregation and civil rights (though there is a lot of that), and it isn’t entirely over immigration either (though Perot’s attack on Clinton for supporting NAFTA was perhaps the single most important factor in bringing him to national prominence). Religion has much to do with it as well; to a degree perhaps far greater than anywhere in Britain or even all of Europe, what is called “left” in the US has become closely identified since the 1970s with various culture war conflicts, with the result that large portions of the white Christian population has come to view attempts to articulate populist concerns in a democratic or egalitarian–that is a “liberal”–context as suspicious, to say the least. The populist left thus remains to be articulated pretty much solely by those occasional Democratic and other liberal political leaders that are willing to use the particular language of religion, civic identity, patriotism, and the common good. Politicians like Jon Tester and Bob Casey, Jr., have some of that, but they mostly remain within the neoliberal mainstream; you don’t see them in a position to organize real leftward movement in their party anytime soon.

3) The eco-left. Chris took a fair amount of flak for this label, but I like what he was trying to capture in the label–people who are neither fully localist nor fully cosmopolitan, but have both communitarian and anarchist sympathies, and strive to incorporate both environmentalism and egalitarianism into their worldview. The Green party is probably the most obvious manifestation of this conglomeration of ideas. Throughout Europe the Green party is a serious reality, having developed egalitarian and environmental agendas that have a strong records of implementation and contestation. In the US, by contast, the Greens have become a tiny catch-all site for all sorts of anti-globalist, anti-corporate, anti-military, radically localist, vaguely socialist, strongly environmental (or, indeed, eco-centric), pro-immigrant, pro-union, counter-cultural attitudes. A minor mishmash like that doesn’t make for much of a coherent movement, and to that degree what Chris called the “eco-left” makes about as much sense as the way the people in the US speak of the “WTO anarchists” that gave us the Battle of Seattle. However, while anarchism holds probably a more-or-less identical position in the US as it does in the UK–that is, it is an ideology with an appeal overwhelmingly limited to relatively well-off and directionless young people, as well as your occasional intellectual activist–it is undeniable that at least some form of this kind of anti-establishment discontent has had a surprisingly unpredictable, even robust, history in the US over the past 50 years, from Students for a Democratic Society and onwards…or even, if one is so inclined, going all the way back to the beginning, with Thomas Jefferson speculating about “ward republics”, Henry David Thoreau retreating to Walden, and various communal experiments spreading throughout the countryside. What is really at work under this label is what Sheldon Wolin called “fugitive democracy”, and what Erik Olin Wright refers to as “interstitial movements” towards greater egalitarianism and democratic emancipation: it is the perennial hope of people being able to find some reliable (even if necessarily transitory) way of directly managing their own local affairs, and making social and economic decisions not wholly subject to technical powers which presume–or indeed, necessitate–demand corporate and government managers handle it on their behalf.

Unfortuantely, in the American context this sentiment frequently bleeds over into a vulgar, leave-me-alone libertarianism, one which either makes its peace with corporate power and economic inequality (because buying into the American dream of wealth and a good choice of suburban schools and a nice home in a gated community is a kind of “sovereignty”, after all), or else is distracted from such concerns by more crudely nationalist appeals (of the “Obama isn’t really an American” variety). This is one of my greatest personal frustrations when it comes to ideology–why are so few localists, people deeply committed to their local community, folks thoroughly convinced of the need to organize their neighborhood and get things done, so resistant to applying that passion to the corporate powers that be? I suppose the career of Ralph Nader becomes an important part of the answer: his accomplishments in taking the safety and health needs of consumers directing against entrenched business and government interests made him, at one time, one of the most trusted men in America–but the neoliberals hated him, dismissed his political and economic critiques as elitist, utopian, and irrelevant, and especially loathed him for refusing to recognize the legitimately important differences between the two main parties when it came to the “status issues” so crucial to establishment egalitarianism today. And that, in the final analysis, is perhaps the strongest distinction between how these categories can play out in Europe versus the US. In Chris’s view, the members of this incoherent, highly participatory left is “closely connected to the social movements that have in fact given us most of the left’s real policy gains in the past 40 years”. But in the US, with the exception rabble-rousers like Cornell West, this mostly not the case. The moral power of the 60s civil rights narrative here in America shapes nearly all debates amongst all those who feel some sympathy for the left, and the fact is that relatively few radicals in Nader’s leftist/anti-globalist/pacifist camp (I think of Bernie Sanders, Wendell Berry, Dennis Kucinich, or Bill McKibben) have strongly identified with the cause of civil rights liberalism, and some have questioned some of its verities (Nader once derided the focus of liberals on “gonadal politics”), with the result that they are not seen as truly serious about the real problem that any left ought to tackle–namely, discrimination. The civil rights movement’s legacy has been spread throughout several different streams of democratic and egalitarian thought (Martin Luther King himself, though he never formally associated himself with such, clearly embraced democratic socialism), but by and large the feminist or racialist critiques of America which connected fighting discrimination to fighting capitalism and the “growth” mentality have faded, and civil rights in the US today is mostly associated with the same sorts of affirmative redistribution which is the bread and butter of mainstream neoliberal Democrats. And that is, again, for all the good it does, a real shame.

4) Finally, the old hard left. It is, if anything, an ever more marginal presence in American life than it is in Europe, and there Chris calls it “washed up, marginal, authoritarian, and unappealing”. Obviously, in a nation of over 300 million people, you get your exceptions, and it is true that there have been various communist and socialist organizations and parties throughout American history–and sometimes those groups and movements have played an important role (such as in the earliest years of both organized unions and the civil rights movement) in American politics and culture. For example, Michael Harrington–the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group I’m a proud member of (that’s their symbol to the left)–profoundly shaped the better egalitarian directions of the American welfare state as it developed through the 1960s and 70s. But by and large, the simple fact is that when it comes to organized socialism, even amongst the American left, it just didn’t happen here.

So, after all that, what do I think is–or at least, what do I want to be–the hope for the left in America? Chris expresses the greatest sympathy for what he called the eco-left, and I mostly agree with him; I think that my fellow anti-capitalists need to recognize, first, that markets are pretty fundamental to human society; second, that markets are much less likely to be exploitative or the cause of great inequality when they are subject to democratic control, via unions or workers cooperatives or any number of other similar innovations; and third, that this democratic control over markets, if it is to avoid all sorts of problems associated with regulatory capture, special interests, and corruption, pretty much mandates that both economic life in general, and government in particular, remain, wherever appropriate, relatively small, decentralized, and local. That means state socialist policies should have a fairly minor in any future argument for democracy and equality. But I think it also means a strengthening of the community bonds, civil associations, and sources of collective solidarity which would make it possible to pursue socialist goals across disparate local conditions. Hence, I don’t think you can, or should, aspire to build a socialist future out of the anarchism/localism/eco-centrism of stream #3; you’re going to need to conserve the popular, cultural, even national grounding which stream #2 represents as well. So call me a Leftist 2.5, halfway in between the populist and the localist. How to put together what are, in a certain sense, this most “conservative” potential of the American left with its most radical part? Well, I have my ideas. But I can understand why, when confronted with the unlikely prospects for such conceptually complicated, interstitial efforts, and recognizing the lack of appeal for the old Marxist unities which once claimed to pull it all together, anyone interested in even a little equality is likely to support the neoliberal mainstream. They get results (sometimes, occasionally, a little bit, maybe), after all.

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About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.