A Romantic, a Monk, and a Neoliberal Walk Into a Bar…
On Romanticism in Politics
Romanticism is wonderful in a work of fiction, art or video game. As a died-in-the-wool modern day romantic, I’ve spent most of my life doing my best to use fantasy novels, role-playing-games, and other modes of escape to travel to other worlds. This world can feel awfully pale and insubstantial at times.
Sometimes, when this drab reality causes us to yearn for the romantic, even (or perhaps especially) in the realm of the political.
Take Occupy Wall Street. Shawn Gude writes:
“It was my first experience of an enlivened, confident left. This beautiful upsurge radicalized me and opened my eyes to alternatives: both of ways to order society and to think about the problems of liberalism—this time from a leftist, anti-capitalist perspective. It also prompted me to take the long view of the struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination. I became convinced that expending too much energy on short-term, trans-ideological coalitions can militate against the longer term, Gramsican goal of uprooting the prevailing neoliberal capitalist ideology. Myopic pragmatism can undermine the long-term project of the egalitarian left.”
Political romanticism requires heroes and villains. In neoliberalism – a word that has so many meanings it is almost meaningless – a certain contingent on the left has found its villain.
Shawn points to his second influence in his shift away from left-libertarianism toward something more concretely leftist in nature – the work of Corey Robin. “Robin’s principal assertion is that the right is animated by an opposition to the extension and deepening of democracy,” Shawn writes.
Libertarians, also, are far too hostile toward democracy according to Shawn. And liberals have dropped the ball by focusing on “ostensibly more important objectives and principles” (though we are left to guess what these might actually be.)
“The left would be wise to sharpen its underlying division with the right, elevating democracy and self-governance to its rightful place in the leftist constellation of principles,” Shawn writes. “With democracy as a reference point, a new dividing line, libertarians could no longer “transcend the left-right spectrum”; they would be ineluctably arrayed against the long-term project of democratizing undemocratic spheres and subverting domination and hierarchy.”
Democracy’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose
Domination and hierarchy. Neoliberalism and democracy. Such big words, and both Gude and Robin wield them like broadswords, painting wide swaths of accusations. This is a shame, since both have important insights into the nature of power, domination, and hierarchy.
Robin sees the libertarian/conservative/neoliberal goal as one of replacing state power with private power. Libertarians may talk about devolving power from the state and giving it back to the people, but in reality they’re simply attempting to devolve power back to smaller, more poignant tyrannies, such as the family.
For all their “individual bluster” Robin argues, libertarians are hardly concerned with individuals. “When these libertarians look out at society,” he writes, “they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.”
What’s required, instead of devolving power away from the state and into the hands of “an archipelago of private governments” is, as Shawn argues, democracy. Or, rather, widespread collective action.
“Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems,” Henry writes at Crooked Timber. “But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action.”
Where this all begins to fall apart is in the still too-crude definition of “neoliberal” and the way the term “democracy” is being thrown about.
Yes, there are liberals who are more obviously neoliberalish, preferring broadly pro-market, pro-globalization policies to protectionism. Sometimes these liberals have a hostility toward organized labor, or eye unions with skepticism.
But part of the reason for this, I would argue, is that unions are not always the best examples of democracy in action themselves. Like democracy, unions are a means to an end – not an end unto themselves. Maybe many on the left disagree, but I find it awfully short-sighted if this is the case.
Unions are not necessarily paragons of a virtuous democratic society. Neither was the Occupy Wall Street, for that matter. For one thing, these are all simply pieces of a broader puzzle. The ugly, upsetting fact about democracy is that its inhabited by all sorts of people with all sorts of politics, including politics hostile to organized labor or the occupation of public parks.
Occupy Wall Street is even thinner gruel than organized labor, so far as I’m concerned. A union is a pragmatic thing, aimed rightly at the protection of wages and workers’ rights. There is much to admire about the organization of labor against capital. Balancing labor and capital against one another, the teeter-tottering of twin powers, can be a healthy part of an economy (though this is not always the case.)
OWS, on the other hand, wasn’t so much the embodiment of democracy as it was the gathering of like minds.
Anyone who looks at the Occupy movement and calls it democracy is seeing things through rosy-tinted glasses. This is the drum circle of democracy. Utopian in its lack of anything abiding. Exhilarating because this world is drab and boring for so many of us, and suddenly being in close proximity to all the energy and enthusiasm of people trying desperately to infuse their lives with a higher purpose, with something truly meaningful, is an intoxicating endeavor. It isn’t democracy, but it’s certainly a beautiful thing to see people doing something that matters, or that they think matters, especially when many of the things they’re against are actually important – such as an overgrown finance sector or swelling economic inequality sans any potent policy measures to ameliorate the problems that are inevitably sprung out of said inequality.
The anti-neoliberals point to democracy and collective action as a salve for our economic and political woes. To combat economic and political asymmetries, they would have us work collectively against a the forces of the status quo. What they fail to realize is that the status quo is malleable; that power shifts but never evaporates. One tyrant replaces another. That’s why balancing power is so essential to a healthy society.
The Importance of Language
Part of the problem here is the language used. Neoliberal, as I’ve said, is an almost entirely meaningless word. What is a neoliberal? Is a neoliberal best defined by the dreaded Matt Yglesias? Or would Hayek or Milton Friedman be a better example? That all three of these men disagree vehemently on innumerable issues is apparently unimportant. Each held or holds up markets as one way to let economies thrive and to devolve power away from an inefficient state.
Are the governments of Scandinavia neoliberal? Many of the northern European countries we so often hear described as socialist are in fact much more economically neoliberal than the United States – at least in some respects.
“I don’t think of the US as especially neoliberal,” James K writes in the comments to Shawn’s post, “while you have a lot of transfer payments they’re principally focused on transferring income from the young to the old, rather than from the rich to the poor.”
James points us to the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. “They use 10 metrics to determine economic freedom,” he writes, “2 of which relate to government spending so if we take those out we should get a better picture of the regulatory intensity for each country. If you build an index like that, you find that Denmark, Sweeden and Finland rank higher on economic freedom than the US, leaving only Norway as less free.”
It’s not hard to see how definitions begin to break down.
Some of these countries have economic and political systems that would be galling to an American neoliberal. The Finnish school system is just about the opposite of what many school-choice or “market-based” education reformers envision. The union density in Scandinavia is much higher than in the US. The taxes are higher and the safety nets much more robust. School at all levels including college tends to be provided free of charge by the state. Everyone has access to healthcare.
Then again, these governments have very pro-market economic policies. Their economies are less regulated and the Scandinavians themselves tend to be much more pro-globalization than Americans. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the neoliberal master-plan – to globalize, deregulate and redistribute – is alive and well in social-democratic Scandinavia.
There’s a twist of course. Would any of this be possible without the higher level of union membership? On that front, what makes these governments so much more efficient than say, the governments of the UK or the US? What makes the unions in these countries so much more hospitable to free market policies than the unions in France – or in the United States?
What I think countries like Sweden have done very well is take a broadly democratic approach to consensus building and efficiency. On some levels this approach is technocratic and market based; on others it is fiercely collectivist. Maybe this is all the result of cultural factors rather than purely economic or political ones.
Obviously our definitions are useless if we set the stakes up as neoliberals (and libertarians) vs. leftists. If we pit the heartless capitalist against the brave union worker we miss the actual working third options we see in places like Scandinavia and, to varying degrees, Australia and elsewhere.
When we stop talking about those “ostensibly more important” issues and focus instead on romantic notions, first principles, and political philosophy, we also tend to take the finer edge off of our words. And words matter.
The problem with this anti-neoliberal insurgency on the left is that its proponents believe passionately in the power of collective action. This, they argue, is the key. This is why Occupy was so exciting.
But how do we achieve this widespread collective action? Unions have been in decline, largely thanks to the government and a shifting economic landscape, and the only two examples of grassroots populism in recent history have been OWS and the Tea Party, and neither of these has been particularly mainstream or influential outside of one or two news cycles.
Meanwhile, technological changes are making union membership less likely not more. The service economy is evolving, and more and more workers are – like yours truly – essentially private contractors working in a gig economy.
There are policies that I prefer that align with those to my left. I want fully funded public education. I want anyone to be able to go to college at a public institution free of charge. I want every child in every public school safe and well fed regardless of cost. I would like to see some form of universal healthcare. The “anti-statist” argument against these programs rings as hollow to me as the “anti-neoliberal” argument against market policies.
Right and wrong is not defined by our political ideology or our principles. You can complain that the family represents the ultimate tyranny, and you’d be right – it does! – but it’s also an essential part of society. If you think that simply balancing that out against a more powerful state would end the tyranny in the home, you’d be only half-right. Without truly drastic measures, with possibly quite serious social and economic repercussions, the government will never have much power over the home. Creating an economy with equal opportunity for everyone regardless of sex or race or sexual preference is the best way to achieve some semblance of true individual liberty.
Freedom to exit is a powerful thing, and too often those on the left who critique so-called neoliberal policies understate the value of choices. But we all have ways of using language to disrupt meaning.