Even more on neoliberalism
While there are some minor things sprinkled throughout the post with which I disagree, I think E.D.’s latest entry into the burgeoning (not-for-profit) blogging cottage industry that is the ongoing leftist/left-neoliberal debate is a good one. As I said in my earlier post on the subject, I think that this is the conversation that left-leaning political thinkers and activists need to be having right now, so I’m more than happy enough to throw in a few more cents.
As far as I’m concerned (and I don’t consider myself to be an especially idiosyncratic member of the left in my thinking), the ideal policy goals between left-neoliberals and leftists aren’t really so far apart. But the emphasis here has to be on the word ideal. When E.D. writes about a kind of market-friendly, horizontal unionism, in contrast to the dominant models both historically and today in the developed world, he’s not describing anything that I’d find less than praise-worthy…if I thought that such a model could function any time soon. And on that count, I have some real doubts.
If you’ll allow me to step back for just a second, I think it would be worthwhile to establish the landscape, as it were, in the collective left-wing brain (insofar as such a thing can be said to exist) circa 2011, because I think understanding why we’re having this conversation will go some length towards clarifying where the lines of disagreements come from. Primarily — and, of course, this is all simply my personal analysis, as my Official Spokesperson of the Leftist Illuminati application remains pending — this is a debate that has moved progressively towards center-stage among the left-wing blogosphere because of the events of the first 2 years of the Obama Presidency and the resulting “shellacking” of the 2010 midterms.
Without going through so much recent history (material that’s been combed over quite thoroughly on these here blog-pages), I think it would uncontroversial for me to say that many left-leaning people expected much more from Obama in the wake of the Bush Administration. Among most lefties — and not just the unwashed hordes of Kenyan communists at Daily Kos and Fire Dog Lake — the results of 8 years of W. seemed to self-evidently discredit movement conservatism, while the financial crisis of 2008 was seen as an almost equally obvious deligitimization of nearly 30 years of economic orthodoxy. Crucially, Presidents Carter and Clinton are counted among the sinners in this narrative.
Again, I’m not saying you have to agree with this; I’m just trying to help those who may be confused as to why a considerable chunk of the left-wing commentariat holds such animosity towards neoliberalism.
The idea, then, is that not only does movement conservatism not work, but DLC-styled “new” Democrats (and, across the pond, “new” Labour) also doesn’t work. At heart, this is a deeply nostalgic vision of politics: things were, more or less, working from 1945 until the early 1970s, then they didn’t (explanations vary from the more nuanced to “because evil big business staged a silent coup!”), but now things are worse than before and we must turn back again towards Eden. And rather than a fig leaf or loin-cloth, the standard dress in Eden is, wouldn’t you know it, work-boots, slacks, and a blue collar.
Acknowledging that this is all generalization and its accompanying over-simplification — and that, as is always the case with these things, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would truly sign-off 100% to the narrative delineated above — I don’t think what I’m describing here is an especially outlandish or unfair rendering of this cohort’s thinking. And so, because they think that what we’ve been doing and are doing still just isn’t working (using Obama’s relatively moderate accomplishments, and the resulting reactionary electoral bloodbath, as proof), it rankles these people to hear arguments to the contrary. I can only imagine what some left-wing people must’ve thought, for example, when they read this in E.D.’s latest:
To the question of a sustaining politics, I would simply say well of course neoliberalism can be sustained. It offers a broad tent with many different interests represented, including immigrants and minorities and women and social liberals and so forth. Really, I see the inevitable lines drawn much differently than many leftists do. I see the broadly neoliberal movement on one side, and a more nativist, protectionist right emerging on the other (somewhere down the road). Either way, there are only so many choices. I don’t see how liberals will gain more converts by pushing pro-union policies when they are doing fairly well on social issues, immigration, and the welfare state.
The counter to E.D. here is to point to the Tea Party, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and whatever the latest evidence is of Obama’s fundamentally milquetoast nature, in some variation of that order, and to say, “No, we are most certainly not doing fairly well.” And then, of course, comes a paean to the glory of the New Deal coalition and its political might, with unions as its foot soldiers and vanguard, both.
I realize I’m engaging in some strawman stuff right now, and I apologize if anyone thinks I’m taking it way too far. I do so not because I find the arguments I’ve described thus far patently ridiculous, but rather because I don’t think they’re nearly as self-evidently correct as their most forceful proponents tend to imply if not outright state. As Yglesias and others have pointed out during this seemingly endless discussion, it’s hardly as if the labor movement in America was riding high when mean old Mr. Reagan took a 2×4 to the air traffic controllers union. On the contrary, Reagan’s aggressive move during that impasse was only possible because he was in many ways assaulting a paper tiger. By that point, unionism in the United States had been on the decline for nearly a full generation (and, really, if we want a boogie man in this regard, it’s Taft, not Reagan).
And whether or not it’s quite as relevant to the future as E.D. seems to think, he’s absolutely right when he points out that the success unions had in the past in raising wages for the average worker — even those not unionized — was likely to some degree predicated upon American society’s having a smaller labor pool due to positively suffocating patriarcy and virulent white supremacism. Considering that the only thing harder than changing the hearts and souls of “the people” when it comes to matters of sex and race is amending the Constitution, I’d just say that, sadly, the gates of Eden remain closed, and I don’t envision them being pried open any time soon.
But all that said (and I realize I’m long past the point of needing to get to the bloody point), I still don’t think E.D. is right when he somewhat blithely assumes that progressive politics can sustain itself without significant union help, off the backs of well-meaning bobos, blacks, latinos and gays. A political coalition like that, built on a two-tiered system of sensible people of means and self-interested (though not necessarily unsensible!) racial and cultural minorities seems to me to be disconcertingly precarious. Because, really, as much as a Greater Good or Common Interest may exist not only in our hearts and minds but among the bookshelves and hallways of academia, the fact is that electoral politics is not the realm where reason and cooperation win the day.
Not to put too fine a point on it: but we can either have Grover Norquist and Tom Donahue standing as the men behind the curtain, ready to bring the hammer down during those few moments when a politician begins to think the Greater Good might require something considerably different than the status quo; or we could have those men be George Meany and Walter Reuther. Ideally, of course, I’d have those men be E.D. and I (we could write a mean Pledge to Never Troll, methinks); but something tells me that the best we can reasonably hope to achieve is to have one from each side. George and Grover; Tom and Walt.
And while we may simply be experiencing a predictable backlash to the Obama phenomenon, one that will in retrospect seem like merely a brief hiccup interrupting a stirring song of progress, I just can’t shake the feeling that we’ll keep taking one step forward and two steps back so long as center-left politicians need to worry just as much about pleasing Lloyd Blankfein as they do Mother Jones.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)