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Monday, July 25, 2011

Liberals, Neoliberals, and Saints

Last week, the big conversation amongst politics and political theory blogs was an argument over neoliberalism, begun by Henry Farrell here, continued by Matt Yglesias here, and sprawling outward to include all sorts of commentary (see here, here, and here for a start). The gist of the argument, as I see it anyway, is an old one that touches on all sorts of concerns many of us who consider ourselves on the left have: what, if anything, can be done to give socialist and/or populist and/or radical democratic policy options a greater chance of electoral success, when a lot of the best, most thoughtful, and most successful liberal thinking in the country--of which Yglesias is but one example--remains resolutely in the "neoliberal" box, in which the claimed egalitarian potential of monetarily guided market growth and indirect subsidies via tax breaks are preferable to the class-based perspective exemplified by union power, rising and minimum wages, expanded welfare, and job protection? This is a concern not simply because of some old Marxist argument which suggests that every success egalitarian reformers have in making a little bit of peace with capitalism makes real egalitarian reform of our society and economy less likely, but because those reforms are, many of us on the left claim, not sustainable in themselves, and become more and more beholden to corporate sensibilities and interests with every electoral iteration. (The current legal and political arguments over the Affordable Care Act and the debt ceiling are only the most recent bit of evidence which arguable supports the left's argument.) Hence, the difference between "leftism" (which, whatever its particulars, is fundamentally concerned with gaining equal access to society's pie for all, and the historic and economic structures which make it such divisions difficult to achieve) and "neoliberalism" (which, however one chooses to explain it, is fundamentally convinced that attacking structures is mostly useless and often counterproductive, especially in comparison with simply working with capitalism to increase relative size of the poor and middle-class's slices of pie) is a political difference, with the former insisting that good politics has to be about organizing alternatives to and opposition to the current structures of society, and the latter insisting that good politics involves technocratic mastery of, and a consistently compromising approach to, the current social structure.

I freely grant that talking about organizing alternatives and opposition drives many a smart and decent egalitarian batty, because the efforts seems so repetitive and pointless. Far better, perhaps, as Tim Burke suggested (and then suggested again, in a response to me), to adopt a kind of "sociocultural libertarianism" in which you opt-out of most of these debates over reform. We should accept that there's always going to be so many different metrics for measuring success in any policy debate that it's wrong to make a fetish of any one of them, that there's no solution that'll fully achieve one's stated goals (particularly because there's no way of achieving any of those goals without releasing, as Tim wonderfully put it, "a lot of extremely rivalrous visions of praxis, with varying degrees of improbability and/or undesirability", into the room), and that if all that means you lose any given policy argument (like over the Affordable Care Act, or over the debt ceiling), you might as well just accept it, make something satisfactory out of it, wait until next season, and quit using the loss as a pretext for arguing that there's still that one thing you haven't tried yet that'll solve all your problems.

It would be unfair to call Tim's call to "chill out" a bourgeois, neoliberal call, because it really isn't...but it does share some elements with it, and I think he'd admit to that. "Satisficing" in the context of our present socio-economic structure is, in a sense, very much what the neoliberal, Ygelsias position entails: it means asking what can be done with our present liberal capitalist modernity that has done most of us (or at least most of us who hang out on the internet) a fair amount of good, and not day-dreaming about some plan that will suddenly make the leftist, structure-challenging approach to reform politically viable. What neoliberalism assumes, as Ygelsias apparently assumes as well (though perhaps this is unfair to him as well), is that liberalism is what we've got, and so why not be content with technocratically "nudging" it (as Henry observes in another follow-up post) as best we can?

It's here that I think a post from Noah Millman (a post which brought out comments from some much-missed bloggers like Pithlord) is directly on point:

The broad point is: alternatives to neoliberalism won’t be as liberal. They will be less-likely to prioritize efficiency. They will also be less-likely to prioritize positive-sum solutions. They will also be less-likely to prioritize basic fairness or democratic principles or whatever else. They will assign a higher priority to increasing the economic and political power of the people they are trying to represent (or their designated representatives).

I think this is a vital observation, because much of the left, in confronting this frustrating reality, often handicap themselves, I feel, because of their determination to remain liberals. And if your primary concern is equality...well, why should you be? Obviously there is good reason to be liberal in the broad, original sense--to be open-minded and respectful of difference and appreciative of individual rights and concerns. But the construct of liberalism, much less neoliberalism, with its bone-deep commitment to fairness and efficiency and individualism and neutrality and elite (as opposed to populist or radical) democratic procedures? Is that really the best model to follow if one's hope is to engender social democratic challenges to the prevailing, unequal structures of society? Perhaps one of the reasons we on the left often find ourselves frustrated is because we're too often taking many of our talking points from people uninterested in examining radical alternatives that take us away from the assumptions of liberal modernity.

This month's issue of The Atlantic contained two review essays which exemplify this attitude: one by Caitlin Flanagan on Cesar Chavez, the other by Christopher Hitchens on Mohandas Gandhi. Flanagan's story is somewhat sympathetic to Chavez, or at least reluctant in its condemnation of him, but perhaps all the more damning because of that; Hitchens attack on Gandhi, by contrast, is almost predictable. But what is most predictable in both pieces is how little use both authors see--especially in Flanagan's case, as she looks back as a globalized member of the American elite at her family's one-time Berkeley-liberal infatuation with the United Farm Workers when she was a child--for anyone who approaches issues of justice and equality from anything other than a technocratic, melioratic, redistributive approach. For Chavez, his attempt to push forward efforts on behalf on exploited workers meant making use of not only the union-organizing lessons of the Wobblies but also a "mystical Roman Catholicism" which led Chavez to make hunger strikes, peregrinations complete with crucifixes, and celebratory Masses part of his campaign. In Flanagan's view, his determination to pursue equality in this devout and "hard way"--her words can barely hide her rueful smile at how "the mighty Berkeley Co-op," where she once worked fundraisers for the UFW, and where "shoppers (each one a part owner) went in to buy no-frills, honestly purveyed, and often unappealing food", has been replaced by a Whole Foods chain store--is what best accounts for his ultimate susceptibility to cult-thinking, paranoia, and irrelevance. "Like most '60s radicals...[Chavez] vastly overestimated the appeal of hard times an simple living...as everyone from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Black Panthers would discover, nobody actually wants to be poor". Hitchens, as one might expect, takes Gandhi's opposition to modern complexity and meritocracy even further, suggesting that his campaign to free India from British rule really has more in common with the reactionary attitude of Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalism generally, than anything that can be called humane. Dismissing the idea that justice and equality can be rooted in what he labels (invoking again his well-known attacks on Mother Teresa, attacks which I think are actually quite persuasive...just not in the way Hitchens supposes) "redemption by self-abnegation", he concludes that Gandhi's vision for India revealed him to be a "friend of poverty" rather than a friend to the poor, and moreover reveals him to be a believer in what he caustically calls the "grotesque" and "conceited" notion that "the meek should inherit the Earth".

What do these articles, or the examples of Chavez and Gandhi for that matter, have to do with the argument about liberalism, neoliberalism, and the left? Perhaps only this: as a long-time reader (and really, an admirer) of Matt Ygelsias, I'm fairly confident that his opinions about Chavez and Gandhi would be substantially the same as those Flanagan and Hitchens laid out...and he wouldn't be alone amongst those pundits and economists and lawyers who have developed the monetarist, nudging, neoliberal approach to increasing egalitarianism in finding a lot of sympathy with those views. Chavez and Gandhi were, well, saints--meaning people who are, as George Orwell famously put it, "anti-human" and "judged guilty until proven innocent", and if there's anything which liberalism in all its varieties prides itself on being, it's human--grounded in the human experience, addressing the needs and wants of the human individual, taking seriously solely that which pertains to the human being present before you. That's a powerful and important force for equality...but it's not the only one, and not necessarily the best one, especially if you open you eyes to historical, structural forces (one of which might very well be sin) which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the solitary individual before you, whatever rights she may possess, to be able to equally enjoy the goods of society. Taking on those unequal structures requires a perception and conviction which very well can--and I think, more often than not, usually does--incorporate elements of the liberal, even technocratic, idea: after all, why wouldn't one want to make use of tax credits and hidden subsidies if that serves to accomplish one's immediate ends? But a serious--call it "utopian," if you will, in the spirit of Erik Olin Wright's excellent book--effort to actually empower the meek in their places and in their lives (as opposed to promising job retraining and college loans to help them join the elite)...well, that's going to require structural work, and structural work will require a comprehensive vision of some sort. Liberalism alone can't get you there.

The power and appeal of liberal modernity it obvious, and as a consequence late capitalism probably isn't going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. The problem--for us on the left, and for everyone else--is what follows when some assume that, because it's not going anywhere, there is little reason to imagine anything beyond it, and it is just too-frustrating-to-be-worth-it to attempt to argue for a way of believing, acting, organizing, and sacrificing which it might at the structures of capitalism, and point in a different, more equal direction beyond it. Some will always assume that, of course; not everyone is going to find anything remotely appealing about saints. But I would hope that there will always be some believers attempting to articulate something a little bit more comprehensive, and perhaps even keep alive some of the means (most particularly unions, but there are others as well) by which those more comprehensive, structural challenges can make a political dent in the system.. It's a way to keep up leftward pressure on the neoliberals, at any rate.


VALiberaltarian said...

I have been a long time "lurker" following your blog and this may be the first time I've ever left a comment. I'm not entirely sure. So first off, thank you for contributing your thoughts out to the blogosphere. They are greatly appreciated.

Second, I feel like I am approaching this debate from a perspective similar to Yglesias (liberal, secular and rational) but fundamentally sympathetic to your perspective (which I'd summarize as looking for a egalitarian democratic socialism rooted in community, in fact your perspective is you can't have the egalitarian democratic socialism without the community roots). But there's a gap that I can't overcome, being the cold bookish intellectual I am.

We lack the social capital and communities that your vision would require. What we need is "nation building" in the sense of nations being a community of people with shared language, culture, history, etc. This doesn't just happen overnight and in fact there's a darker history of nation-building occurring at a larger state-level where local communities and differences are straightened out. But that's another issue. You're obviously looking for a thousand local nations blooming, in addition to more egalitarian, decentralized decision making institutions, not a top-down creation of France/Germany/Italy out of indidividual communities.

I don't think I've ever seen a "manifesto" for this approach that is on the "cold rational intellectual liberal" side of the spectrum instead of the more emotional pitch you're making, except for "The Vermont Papers" by Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, which I read roughly 10 years ago and still find to be an amazing work translating the New England sense of community into a modern political agenda, if only on the state level.

Which relates to a second point, which is that you're essentially promoting a liberal or Marxist conservatism, in contrast to what I'd call the conservative liberalism of the modern Republican Party. Your community-based sense of egalitarianism is more conservative than anything coming out of the GOP today. The United States really has only one true conservative tradition to draw on, and that's Southern conservatism, which has the flawed design of being based on slavery. I don't know if it is a fundamental flaw or a flaw that can be redeemed. But I'm approaching this as a secular, rational, liberal/libertarian who is fundamentally sympathetic to a Marxist like Eugene Genovese. I want to find something from American conservatism that can be the basis of a political ideology but I can't find a way to move past slavery. I don't think Southern conservatives ever did, which is why they largely aren't around anymore (in the traditional sense, not the modern GOP flag-waving nationalist sense).

So, in closing, there are two concerns I have. One, the lack of a clear agenda in trying to move forward. Perhaps there can't be one until the intellectual battle has been won against neoliberalism and the like, but I'd point out that the lack of a more rational/secular/liberal way of looking at this issue hinders its appeal to other leftists like myself. Second, the lack of a historical tradition that is drawing on past examples. It's not enough to draw on a worker commune in Spain or a village in Italy or a farming community in the 18th century. At least not for me, anyway, I'm craving something a bit more American. Which, I would argue, was the problem with socialism in the first place in America, it couldn't compromise its beliefs enough to embrace Americanism.

Hector said...

Re: The United States really has only one true conservative tradition to draw on, and that's Southern conservatism, which has the flawed design of being based on slavery.

I don't think so. While I have very, very little fondness for Southern culture (and even less for its insufferable advocates today who sing the praises of tradition and from air-conditioned Houston McMansions), I don't think it's the only type of organic, communitarian American conservatism. There's Mormon conservatism in the West, and then there's Lutheran conservatism in the Upper Midwest states (which, to be fair, is rooted in German and Scandinavian culture and is perhaps not truly homegrown in the sense of the other two). Arguably there's also something of an organic 'conservative' Catholic tradition in the old Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Of course, Lutheran communitarianism in the Great Plains and Roman Catholic communitarianism in the Great Lakes region aren't 'conservative' at all in the economic sense. Which may be precisely the point. None of those communitarian identities has the burden of slavery and/or extreme racism, as far as I know. (Yes, I know all about the white-only Mormon priesthood, but I'm sure Russell is better equipped to deal with that objection then me.)

Hector said...

FTR, Russell, I'm not sure that Gandhi is easily classified as 'radical' or 'on the left'. Hitchens is not to be trusted even when he says the sky is blue, of course. But there was a great deal that was very conservative about Gandhi, not least his hostile views about birth control, industrialization, modernity, class conflict, and so forth.

I also think it's rather facile to compare Eamon de Valera and Gandhi, as Hitchens does. India and Ireland were two very different countries at different levels of development, and holding that Ireland would benefit from a little more adherence to tradition and a little more resistance to modernity, doesn't mean that the same prescription would be right for India. (Incidentally, as a Christian society Ireland was already, inherently, in some sense more 'progressive' than India; Christianity is, in some measure, at its core inherently progressive and egalitarian, as Chesterton pointed out early last century).

VALiberaltarian said...

Hector, I'm not too familiar with the more localized traditions you reference, but I'll do my best to respond. I think the problem is that they either aren't authentically America, aren't authentically conservative, or don't have a foundation for political action. For example, while I understand the Lutheran belt in the Midwest exists from German and Scandinavian immigration, I don't know how much it's just a localized form of unique culture and tradition vs. a conservatism in both praxis and theology. Today it seems to be just another form of flag-waving, bible thumbing GOP conservatism like the South's bible belt, which I do not view as representative of Southern conservatism anymore.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Virginia Libertarian,

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. Sorry it's taken me a couple of days to get around to responding. Any fan of The Vermont Papers (a copy of which I have on my shelf here at the office!) is a friend of mine, whatever our other disagreements!

I fully agree with you regarding America's current lack of social capital, and you're correct to identify me as a kind of "Marxist conservative" (or, as I but it a long time ago, a "left conservative"). But I've also made it clear in the past--indeed, I make it here in this post--that I'm wholly willing to embrace certain "progressive compromises" if I think that's the only way to keep some sort of egalitarianism in the game, and hence, while the communitarian in me fervently wishes for "a thousand local nations blooming", as you say, the truth is that I'm not as opposed to the way Germany, for example, has constructed its own social democratic institutions as you imply. Which is other way of saying, we likely are speaking to each other across a bit of a libertarian divide.

That perhaps partly answers your concern the lack of a "clear agenda" on my part; I actually am willing to borrow heavily from the Marxist and social democratic traditions of policy-making and governance in developing suggested avenues of reform. But, as my allusion to Erik Wright's excellent book suggests, I want to do in the name of a more radical democratic and communal goal, not as a technocratic end to itself. Hence, something broader must be found than just nudging towards democratic empowerment whenever possible.

I like what you say about the Southern conservative agenda, especially as Eugene Genovese has articulated it. It's a powerful way of expressing the kind of community-based, locally/culturally conservative, egalitarianism that I value. But I think Hector is right in saying that it isn't the only one. Moreover, in terms of finding something thoroughly American, as well as secular, well that's one of the reasons I take populism so seriously. The historical People's Party had it's own problems (mostly racial, in the same unfortunate manner as the Southern Agrarians), and it was, admittedly, thoroughly infused with a good deal of religious rhetoric. But it wasn't, fundamentally, asking for the creation of an American religious collective (or group of local collectives); it was, rather, insisting on a shift of perspective towards respecting and empowering people in their places, and adjusting economic and social attitudes so as to make that politically possible. That's an ideal worth fighting for, I think.

Russell Arben Fox said...


As always, it's great when you stop by the blog. Sorry I don't return the favor as much as I should!

Regarding the assortment of culturally/locally conservative/communitarian traditions in American life, and their relevance to democratic egalitarianism: I agree with you. Some of those are stronger than others, for a variety of demographic and socio-economic reasons--for example, Mormon communitarianism, it pains me to say, has mostly evaporated, at least within the American Mormon church, replaced by a combination of Founding Fathers fetishism and western states libertarianism, whereas Lutheran "good government"/social democratic conservatism seems to have some surprising strength lurking beneath the liberal surface, as the union fight in Wisconsin demonstrated. In any case, all of these traditions need to be tapped, without embracing any of them whole heartedly (that's part of the reason why populism is a valuable addition to any kind of localist thought).

As for your second point, about Gandhi, I don't mean to make some facile point about his being on the "left", and I was wrong if I did so. Gandhi was his own kind of radical--profoundly democratic and egalitarian, and equally profoundly anti-modern, patriarchal, and traditionalist. It's not at all a prescription for achieving both community and equality, but it is a model of the sort of "saintly" (that is, non-technocratic!) thinking that any such model will almost invariably involve. And Hitchens' comment comparing Gandhi and Eamon de Valera were rather revealing, I think; rather than contemplating the different ways in which "saints" might aspire to empower and liberate their people without losing that which makes them a community--indeed, while using that which makes them a distinct community!--Hitchens instead simply calls them both "reactionaries" and leave it at that.

VALiberaltarian said...

I understand your willingness to embrace a more "mainstream" progressivism in order to keep egalitarianism in the game, I'm a pragmatic libertarian willing to embrace "mainstream" progressivism because they accept a threshold of reason not found in the other ideological circles. So we're both coming to the same ideology from slightly different origins.

As you noted, progressives are having their own soul searching over what, if anything, they can do to keep egalitarianism in the game. Hence the round of posts from Farrell, Yglesias, and others. As a libertarian deeply rooted in American liberalism and its embrace of egalitarianism long before the more recent crop of conservative libertarians decided that equality was no longer a virtue, I'm happy to see this discussion occurring.

So you're coming into this argument among liberals over egalitarianism and agreeing that, yes, a greater emphasis on egalitarianism might be less liberal, but can still be left-wing, progressive, etc. But that's a good thing and American liberalism needs to experience some time with less liberal, more communitarian left-wing politics.

My problem isn't even with the prescription, but more with the availability of the cure. A doctor may prescribe a medicine, but there might be no available drugs at the store. You mention both Gandhi and Chavez, and Mother Teresa. I think all three are outside of the American tradition, even Chavez. This isn't a bad thing from my perspective, but it means it's going to be more difficult to get average Americans to embrace their teachings.

It's a lot easier to protect existing communal and egalitarian traditions than import them from elsewhere. There's a bit of an oxymoron to imported communitarianism.

I take the Populist Party seriously too, but do you think there's anything within the last 100 years of American history that comes even close? Did we take a wrong turn in 1912 and haven't found our way since?