Category: Neoliberalism

Liberalism (Yet Again)

In his London Review of Books review (February 6th issue) of Alexander Zevin’s history of The Economist magazine, Stefan Collini makes a point I have often made-and which I presented at some length on this blog some eighteen months ago.  To wit, the term “liberalism” is used in such a loose, baggy way that it comes to mean nothing at all—or, more usually, everything that the one who deploys the term despises.  If John Dewey and Margret Thatcher are both liberals, what could the term possibly designate?

My take has always been that there are a number of things—habeas corpus, religious tolerance, social welfare programs, freedom of the press—that in specific contexts can be identified as “liberal” in contrast to more authoritarian positions, but that the existence of these specific things are the product of different historical exigencies and do not cohere into some coherent, overall ideology.  They may be a family resemblance among the positions that get called “liberal,” but there is no necessary connection between habeas corpus and religious tolerance.  You can easily have one without the other, as was true in England for several centuries.

In a letter to the LRB, Zevin objects to Collini’s refusal to credit the more generalized use of the term “liberal.”  I find his objection cogent and thus offer it here:

“Resistant, in general, to overarching categories, he [Collini] seems particularly sensitive when it comes to liberalism. ‘When people ask me if the division between men of the Right and men of the Left still makes sense,’ the essayist Alain once remarked, ‘the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.’  When someone says, mutatis mutandis, ‘all you mean by liberalism’ is ‘not socialism’ and ‘there is no such thing,’ it is safe to assume the speaker is a liberal, defensively protecting himself.”

So, yes, guilty as charged.  I am a liberal—and do have something at stake in claiming that the term ‘liberalism’ is used in too loose a fashion to do much good.  I want a finer grained statement of what specific features of the political landscape are desirable, are worth fighting to preserve where they exist, and to introduce where they do not.  We should know what we are talking about—and what we are advocating for.  Zevin’s point (not surprisingly) is that the liberalism of The Economist encompassed its support of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars; Collini, no doubt, would argue that many liberals opposed those wars, whereas they were the brainchild of many to the right of liberalism, those often called neo-conservatives.  The right, in other words, was more solidly unified in its opinion on those wars than a sorely divided liberal camp. Yes, some liberals supported those wars, but hardly all.  And it is very hard to believe that a centrist like Al Gore would have led the US into that “war of choice” in Iraq.  To which, the anti-liberal leftist says I have two words for you: Tony Blair.

The left, it seems, needs to continually assert its distance from a detested center that it calls ‘liberalism.”  It also needs to constantly trumpet the sins of that liberalism and to mitigate its differences from the right.  For the soi disant radical left, neo-liberal and neo-conservative become equivalent terms, with no appreciable difference between them.  Hilary Clinton is no better and no worse than George W. Bush.  And somehow both are liberals.

My defensiveness comes from wanting to save the term “liberal” to designate a raft of values and positions I wish to advocate.  Maybe I should give that up, call myself a “social democrat,” and move on.  I resist that move because there are values captured by “liberalism” (especially those connected to rights and tolerance) that aren’t covered by “social democrat,” with its focus on economic sufficiency and regulation of market forces and market practices.

But how about the “not socialism” broad brush?  Michael Clune, in an essay entitled “Judgment and Equality” (Critical Inquiry, 2019, pp. 910—917), repeats the by-now familiar dismissal of liberalism’s individualism, its reduction of everything to “choice,” to “consumer preference.”  Even a cursory reading of 20th century liberals such as Dewey or Charles Taylor would indicate how sloppy a vision of liberalism such a charge demonstrates.  Not to mention that one standard conservative charge against liberals is precisely that they negate individual responsibility in their emphasis on the social determinants of behavior.  Which is it?  Liberals are full-scale believers in heroic individual autonomy, or they are apologists for the impoverished and the misfit, blaming social conditions for their perceived failures?

Still, Clune does make a concrete claim: “The liberal tradition supports the effort to correct egregious market inequities through policies that leave the market intact” (928).

Now we are talking.  I do think that the commitments I think of as liberal include an acceptance of the market.  That acceptance is, partly, pragmatic (in the vulgar, not philosophical, sense of that term.)  I think the chances of overthrowing the market and installing something different in its place are nonexistent.  In that sense, there is no realistic alternative at the current moment.  So, says the radical, you and Thatcher are the same.  Told you so.

Not so fast.  What I am saying is that the consequential political battles of our time are going to be fought over what kind of market we are going to have.  This is a real battle, with real stakes.  The right over the past seventy years has fought tooth and nail to discredit social democracy, to roll back any state (or other) regulation of the market, and any mechanisms (from unions to minimum wage laws to other forms of state involvement in wage negotiations) that would overcome the imbalances of power existing between employers and workers in an unregulated market.  We know two things: one, that the right has been largely successful in this battle; two, that the vast majority of workers in the West are worse off now than they were in 1960.  Social democracy was a better deal for workers than the present regime (call it neo-liberal if you like, although that term ignores the liberalism of the twentieth century in favor of the “classical liberalism” of the 19th).

Another (contingent) feature of liberalism is its distrust of concentrations of power, its desire to share power around, to create “checks and balances.”  Currently, that entails a recognition that economic power is over-concentrated; that we need state power to counterbalance it because the collective power of workers (through unions or other mechanisms) is hard (if not impossible) to mobilize under present economic conditions.

It is fair to say that the founders were more concerned about concentrated state power than about concentrated economic power.  It is a stretch, I believe, to see Jefferson as a laissez-faire classical economist, but his words and ideas can be wrenched in that direction (by historians like Joyce Appleby) because he wanted to establish sources of power outside of the state’s reach.

I think economic sufficiency does provide a citizen with some independence from the state.  Therefore, I am also willing to argue that acceptance of markets is not just a pragmatic expediency, but also justified in its own right.  Economic bases of power apart from the state are not necessarily a bad thing.

The bad thing is overweening economic power, just as tyrannical state power is a bad thing.  Markets, like states, tend toward the abuse of power.  We need mechanisms, enforceable regulations and structuring rules, to curb market power.  We also need to identify various basics—like health care, education, transportation, clean water and energy—that are not well served by markets and create alternative institutions for their provision.  The best guideline for these alternative institutions is that old liberal standby: equality of access for all.

There are three very strong arguments against the market.  One, the market inevitably produces wildly unequal outcomes.  The liberal response: there are mechanisms, including unions, taxes, and redistributive policies that can combat those unequal outcomes.

Second, markets are inimical with democracy.  The liberal response: workplace democracy is possible, as is political democracy.  Its achievement depends on active mechanisms of participation which must be mandated as part of corporate and state governance.  But there is no absolute bar to the existence of such mechanisms.

Third, economic power always overwhelms political power—if it does not simply convert itself directly into political power.  The reforms that liberalism envisions as answers to numbers one and two never happen because the opponents of such reforms always already have power—which means the power to perpetuate existing inequalities.

That last argument is the killer.  It simply seems true—and then the issue becomes how best to diminish the power of the wealthy, how to turn plutocracy into democracy, and use the democratic state to rein in the inequities of the market (not to mention its environmental degradations).

At this point in the argument, I don’t think the leftist and the liberal have very different goals.  They just differ strongly on tactics.  Is it better to aim to win the way to reform of the market?  Or is it better to work toward the total overthrow of the market?  I don’t see any remotely realistic pathway to that second goal, which is why I remain someone committed to the re-emergence, in even stronger and better form, of social democracy.

Fathers and Sons

I have just finished reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (published in 1862).  I first read the novel some thirty years ago (I really have no idea when, but it must have been somewhere between 1974 and 1984).  I was not very impressed by it, and filed it away in my mind in the bin labeled “overrated.”  Then, for reasons completely obscure to me, I re-read it sometime in the past ten years.  This time I was very moved.  Bazarov, the main character, is a self-proclaimed “nihilist.”  But, in fact, the novel shows that he is a very intelligent, very energetic, very talented young man from a lower middle class background (in so much as that terminology makes any sense in the Russian context).  Through education, Bazarov has acquired what is a perhaps exalted sense of his talents, but his self-conceit (the novel’s term) is justified by the strong impact he has on others.  He is a force.  But he is a baffled force because Russia offers no outlet for his talents.  Turgenev portrays a paralysed society, one that is in the process of dismantling its feudal past.  The novel is set in 1859, even though it was written in the wake of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs.  It clearly presents Russia as incapable of making the transition to modernity, to a rent/wage system of labor, even as Turgenev holds no truck with serfdom.  What moved me was the portrait of a well-meaning (even if boorish) young man frustrated (in the deepest sense of that term) by his dysfunctional society.

So I decided to teach the novel.  My recent re-reading is for my class–and I will be interested to see how they respond to it because, perhaps in the effort to see it through their eyes, I have found the novel less satisfying this time around.

Paralysis certainly seems to describe the US today.  Yes, it is true we live in turbulent times.  But all the sound and fury really seems to signify nothing since our dysfunctional neoliberal order only becomes more entrenched, more immune to any reform or revision.  Our public discourse barely attends to our society’s ills: homelessness, racism, declining wages, ecological disaster (the list could go on).  And the openings for the talented young are being eroded away.  No jobs for our PhDs, for our lawyers, for our idealistic young.  Politics is no place for someone with a conscience, and neither is business.  Where does one get a purchase on this disaster we are inhabiting?  This semester, in both my classes, my students exhibit a world-weary cynicism that alarms me.  They expect nothing from our politics and our society; they view it as rotten to the core, and take attaining their own separate peace, their own precarious niche within it, as the only path forward available to them.

Reading the novel this time, I found it meandering.  True, I now find E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End too formulaic in its presentation of the alternative paths open to England in 1910.  Turgenev, like Forster, is writing a “condition of the nation” novel that ponders its future in relation to question of who shall inherit it.  (Hence the generational focus of the title.)  Unlike Forster, Turgenev offers a much more muddled portrait of the issues.  His characters are harder to allegorize as representatives of concrete alternatives, and his interest in thwarted love affairs undercuts the analysis of larger social questions.  In short, Turgenev can seem as baffled as his characters, lacking himself a clear vision of the social scene he is trying to portray.  Since, like Chekhov, he mostly presents characters who are unable to act, and unlike Joyce in Dubliners, he suppresses any contempt for his paralysed protagonists, the result is a wide-ranging sympathy that seems ineffectual both as a narrative stance and as a political one.  His novel, I think, is not angry enough, is not shot through with indignation.  Even Bazarov tends to me more angry with himself, with his failures to be as tough in reality as he is in imagination, than he is with his society.

Joyce seems cruel because he blames the victims in Dubliners, never really zooming out to consider the social conditions that feed their paralysis, their despair, their pathetic stratagems for getting through the day.  What Turgenev gives us instead is a kind of melancholic despair; he can see the social mess clearly, but sees no way to amend it, and is not inclined to blame anyone for it.  Most everyone in the novel is well-meaning even if ineffectual.  His satire is reserved for social climbers.  And he quite frankly–in a remarkable passage–admits that the peasants are completely incomprehensible.  They exist in a separate universe, their motives and psychology an utter mystery to their betters–and to the novelist himself.  That gulf is unbridgeable in either direction–and seemingly insures that no progress, no planned change, can ever be achieved.

The parallels to our own time are real enough.  There is certainly a gulf between Trump voters and the social worlds that I inhabit.  The economic powers that be have managed to date to reap the whirlwind of racism, xenophobia, and class resentment, have managed to keep the essential structures that underwrite their power in place.  I dislike apocalyptic scenarios, the ones that rely on a day of reckoning to give the “establishment” (as we used to call it) its comeuppance.  Climate disaster is only the latest in a long list of such apocalypses that radicals look toward.  Yet it is impossible to read Turgenev and Chekhov, to inhabit their tales of social paralysis, without thinking of how that paralysis led to 1917.

Broken America

At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman.  The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets.  They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities.  They are consistently well-written and moving.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:  “America is broken.  You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this.  You just need eyes and ears and stories.  Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself.  There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all.  Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).

I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me.  And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition.  Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better.  We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things.  Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute.  There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society.  And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken.  The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land.  How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time?  How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?

 

 

 

 

 

The Class/Race/Generation/Political Divide

Back with a little tidbit from Bertrand Russell’s Human Society in Ethics and Politics: “Traditionalists hold their opinions more fanatically than their liberal-minded opponents and therefore have power out of proportion to their numbers.  A man who publicly advocates any relaxation of the traditional code can be made to suffer obloquy, but nothing of the sort can be inflicted upon benighted bigots” (125).

Lots can be said about this—and count on me to say lots.  For starters, we have here the usual contrast between mild-mannered liberals, lacking fire-in-the-blood passion, and visceral conservatives.  The politics of reason versus the politics of passion. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats).  I am not very convinced.  More plausible, I think, are explanations that look to “loss aversion” and to the superiority in “reality” of what is over what could be.  In my experience, those proposing reforms always meet with fierce resistance; stepping into the unknown always is based on uncertain gains balanced against very obvious losses.  What will be destroyed by the change is concretely There.  Those who are just fine with current arrangements will have a direct, straight-forward case for outrage.  “Jeopardy” in Albert Hirschman’s anatomy of the “rhetoric of reaction.”  Your changes will jeopardize the good things we enjoy now with no guarantee that what you put in the present’s place will be better.  You, the reformer, are inflicting an easy to identify harm.

Russell believes that “most of the disagreements that occur in practice are, not as to what things have intrinsic value, but as to who shall enjoy them.  The holders of power naturally demand for themselves the lion’s share” (110).  Is this true? That is, are there actually very few deep moral disagreements; rather, the real source of disagreement is about the distribution of the goods that everyone agrees are actually good.  That shifts the moral terrain significantly; the focus becomes who legitimately is entitled to a share and who legitimately can be denied a full share.  I am inclined to think conservatism is always, au fond, about legitimating unequal distribution.  The grounds for cutting some people out—race, meritocracy, education, expertise, various social and moral stigmas, citizenship—vary widely, but the basic goal is the same: to justify inequality.  We fight over the goods–not over what should be designated good.  At least in most instances.  Sounds plausible.

One maddening thing is that unequal distribution could (possibly) be justified by scarcity.  If there was not enough to go around, then some might have to do without.  But there is ample evidence to show that removing the condition of scarcity does little to quell the urge toward unequal distribution.  The drive for status, for hierarchy, for distinction, leads to inequalities as steep and as cruel (i.e. tending to total deprivation) as scarcity.  Russell does not pay much attention to the deep desire for status.  He is no sociologist.  But he believes that the “desire for power” is basically universal, as is the abuse of that power by any who possess it (118).  His only solution to this snake in the garden is sublimation: “to educate in such a manner that acquired skills will lead the love of power into useful rather than harmful channels” (118).  Like Freud and William James, he seeks for a “moral equivalent” of war, competition, status seeking, and the desire to dominate over others.

Not much cause for optimism there.  I do think “loss aversion” can help a bit here, as can a ground-level sense of fairness, of justice.  Russell is not keen on appeals to justice.  “I think that, while the arguments for approximately equal distribution are very strong wherever an ancient tradition is not dominant, they are nevertheless arguments as to means, and I do not think that justice can be admitted as something having intrinsic value on its own account” (117).  The idea is that justice is a means to peace—where peace produces a stable society in which everyone can enjoy the goods they have without fearing the violence of either the strong seekers of power/privilege/wealth/status or the aggrieved violence of the deprived.  Self-interest in such peace and the stability/security it provides is the foundational rock, not some commitment to justice per se.

I think Russell is wrong about that.  I think a disinterested (for lack of a better term) outrage about perceived violations of justice is a much stronger—and independent—motive than he allows.  It is, of course, true that many disputes that claim to be about justice are masking self-interest.  But I do not think that is always to case.  The same psychologists who uncovered “loss aversion” with their ingenious experiments have also noticed that people will be satisfied with less for themselves when a distribution procedure is seen as “fair.”  A real life example is elections.  People accept being on the losing side of a vote if they think the vote was fairly conducted.  One sign of deep trouble in our democracy is the growing refusal to accept the outcome of elections.  When results trump procedures, democracy is in trouble.  Even then, radicals on both sides—left and right—will shout that the vote was not “fair,” that is was fraudulent in one way or another.  A pretty infallible sign of the far-out radical left is the deep conviction that the “real majority” in the US favors the radical’s own program, refusing to countenance all the evidence that the American public is just not that leftist.

I am inclined to believe that those who are driven by an inordinate desire/need for power are a small minority, akin to the small set of adepts that Randall Collins claims can actually commit sustained violence.  (In his book Violence.)  That small number prey on the rest of us.  Our part in life is to try to ward them off, to resist them, and to get on with the business of living.  The powers of resistance are pretty strong; not always sufficient of course but able in many instances to frustrate the seekers of power.  It is not the insecurity of the tyrant that makes him miserable (in my view and pace Plato).  The control of the means of violence is pretty thorough, plus the tyrant’s delusions of grandeur include a sense of immunity to the normal vulnerabilities of the flesh (think of all those 80 year old Senators).  No, what makes the tyrant’s life miserable is the limitations on his power.  Finally, it’s just damned hard to get other people to do what you want them to do.  They resist—passively more often than actively, by not paying attention or doing things half-assedly, or just melting away.  The art of not being governed, as James Scott calls it.  It’s the path that Fred Moten and David Graeber recommend.  Just ignore the tyrant, as far as that is possible.

Or scream bloody murder—like the traditionalists do.  Take the moral high ground whenever any kind of change is proposed.  There were all those artists—Yeats, Proust, Galsworthy, Nietzsche—documenting (often lamenting) the death of the aristocracy as the 19th century became the 20th century.  A privileged class was losing some of its privileges, but more crucially was losing its relevance.  Its material well-being wasn’t threatened, but its right to lead, to set the tone culturally and to direct the nation politically, was slipping away.  Today, it’s white America that is slipping away.  In the popular arts, black America has set the tone for quite some time.  Look at our music and our sports (the NFL and the NBA).  The change has been less swift in film and TV, and even less swift in the non-popular arts like classical music and museum culture.  The difference this time (as contrasted to the period of 1880 to 1920) is that neither the declining class (whites) nor the ascendant one (non-whites) is gaining economically.  Instead, both groups are getting played by the 1% that is hoovering up all the wealth to itself. But the decliners, the traditionalists, are certainly screaming bloody murder.  To a lesser extent, so are the exploited.  (Or maybe they are screaming just as loud, but lack access to the channels–literally Fox and Limbaugh–that would allow their screams to be heard.  The corporate consolidation of American media condemns them to an outer darkness.)

Hence the generalized rage.  The whites has “loss aversion” to the max; they are increasingly irrelevant, feel disrespected, and increasingly insecure financially.  The non-whites, while accorded a certain kind of cultural power and respect (but only within elite circles in New York and Hollywood and, even there, inconsistently), are resolutely kept from getting a decent slice of the pie.  And everyone looks for someone to blame, with the sad, boring, classic American story of getting the poor whites to obsess about their non-white rivals to the advantage of the rich whites.  I wish I had a different story to tell.  Sometimes the truth is astoundingly uninteresting, completely predictable, and apparently immune to any kind of creative rewriting.  It just sits there, an indigestible lump.

No surprise, then, that we turn to the young for an imagined way out of this impasse.  Their much-vaunted sympathy for socialism coupled with their skepticism toward a capitalism that has not served them at all (no less “well”) is seen as the road toward radical transformation.  The radical always relies on a sense that “things can’t continue this way,” that the current arrangements are unsustainable.  But they are unsustainable only if people refuse to countenance, to suffer, them.  And things from my perspective have been intolerable for fifty years now.  And, somehow, little in terms of the basic structures of distribution have changed in the US—except for the worse.

I can’t help but think that American politics are still transfixed by the political, economic, and cultural upheavals of 1965 to 1975.  Just like mainstream economists are still fighting the battle against inflation of the 1970s (unable, apparently, to process that inflation has been a non-issue for Western economies since 2000), so our political fault lines divide along the axis of those who want to return to a mythical 1950s (its prosperity, its blue collar jobs, its women contentedly at home, its blacks out of sight and out of mind, its gays utterly invisible) and those who affirm the various upheavals that brought women, blacks, gays into the public view, with their noisy demands for attention, respect, and their due.  Astounding, really, how traumatic the 1960s were—and how long-lasting (as is the case with traumas) its after-shocks.  The problem is that it is the cultural upheavals (experienced as traumatic by some and liberating by others) that gets all the attention, that generates 90% of the heat.  The economic coup d’etat, every bit as traumatic as the cultural changes, mostly flies under the radar.  The consolidation of economic power never becomes the explicit topic of political inquiry or rhetoric.

Those fiery youth of the 60s did not effect some radical transformation. The few radicals, like some SDSers and Martin Luther King at the end of his life, who tried to “pivot” away from anti-war and pro-civil rights activism toward economic issues (the poor people’s campaign) didn’t get much traction.  (Although we should not forget that something akin to a basic guaranteed income for all was actually debated in Congress in 1971.  How far we have fallen from that high moment.)  Rather, as my daughter likes to remind me, the baby boomers have left the US—and the world—much worse off than they found it.  So I am not likely to place too much faith in the transformative power of today’s youth, even if the generational divide is once again as intense as it was in the “generation gap” years.  Sixties youth, after all, had the insouciance of those who felt immune to economic worry.  No such luck for today’s millennials as they step into the world of contract labor.  Welcome to the precariat.

The lines of this analysis are familiar enough, which (as I say) doesn’t mean they are not (roughly) true.  But David Graeber offers a different way to think of all this—and I will go in that direction in my next post.