Friday, July 15, 2011

Jacobin: On "Dancing on Liberalism’s Grave"

I just noticed that the new issue of Jacobin is out. It's well worth reading. There is an excellent article by Richard Seymour (previously posted on his blog Lenin's Tomb) entitled "How can the Left Can Win?". Lars T. Lih has a piece as does Paul Le Blanc. There's also a piece by Zizek and a response. I also just finished reading an extremely interesting piece about radical political economy, Marxism and neoclassical economics. Check it out.

I should like to say something about this issue's editorial "Dancing on Liberalism's Grave". It ends with a cautionary note to the Left:
Radicals must avoid submerging our identities into an insipid and ahistorical “progressivism”; we must remain firmly anchored to the socialist tradition and never shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. But socialists should also be wary of slipping into a rhetorical posture of unrestrained invective that only cements the Left’s marginal status in American political life. Don’t dance on liberalism’s grave. There’s nothing to celebrate.
I couldn't agree more with this particular set of claims. I, too, agree that we should reject ahistorical "progressivism" and remain firmly rooted in the socialist tradition. Neither should the Left shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. And, it is also true that the Left should avoid sectarian Schadenfreude in the context of the demise of reformist liberalism.

But, having conceded this much, I would like to take issue with the way that the Left is carved up by the authors of the editorial. In their estimation, the Left has "traditionally" responded in two ways to the decline of liberal reformism: by adopting a politically tepid, fiercely dogmatic lesser-evilism meant to roll back the rise of the Right, on the one hand, or by taking a cynical, sectarian delight in the implosion of liberalism on the other. "Traditionally" seems a bit misplaced here, since the authors seem only to have in mind the demise of postwar liberal reformism in the US in the 1960s and 70s. It's not clear that their analysis helps us make sense of previous epochs of reaction and revolt (e.g. the 1920s, on the one hand, and the explosion of left radicalism in the 1930s, on the other). But this is a side note: let's stick with the period that interests them, i.e. the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s during which postwar liberalism died a painful death as a hard-nosed neoliberalism was born.

The suggestion in the brief editorial is that we should follow Harrington's lead and avoid sectarian Left celebration when liberal reformism slides into crisis. I agree with that much. But Harrington is suggesting more than that. He's putting forward a particular view about the relationship between the socialist left and liberal reformism (specifically electoralism, of a Democratic Party-centered variety). So far as I can gather from the editorial, Harrington's view was something like the following. The revival of the (socialist) Left requires, as a pre-requisite, a healthy and revived liberal reform movement. This, in turn, implies the following: in order for this pre-requisite to be fulfilled, the socialist Left should play a role in reviving liberal reformist organization (especially those committed to electoral campaigns).

I should like to offer two points of criticism here. First, I think the "pre-requisite" view is mistaken. Often, healthy liberal reform movements grow out of (and co-opt) left radicalism and struggle. The New Deal is unthinkable without the explosion of labor militancy in the 1930s. And the period of Keynesian reformism that followed WWII was, in part, a way of stabilizing US capitalism politically and economically in response to the upheavals of the 1930s. Moreover, the explosive radicalism of the 1930s (which, in my view, should be more of a touchstone for the Left than the 1960s) was not lifted up by a buoyant reformist liberalism. It was built through patient grass-roots organizing during periods (e.g. the 1920s in the US) in which the Left evinced many of the outward signs of being dead (compared to the recent past). To require that the socialist Left tether its project to the ephemeral swells of electoralism is a sure recipe for political confusion, co-optation, irrelevance and defeat. (Footnote: I think Robert Brenner's piece in New Left Review a few years back titled "Structure of Conjuncture?" does an excellent job of giving a solid historical account of what the electoral road is a dead end).

Which brings me to my second criticism. The Harrington approach, as is well known, places heavy emphasis on working within the electoral system and, worse still, working within the established two party duopoly. That this approach is deeply misguided is made obvious by the analysis offered in the early paragraphs of the editorial:
To say that the American “reform tradition” is in crisis is to underestimate the extent of the debacle, since unlike a crisis, no visible reason exists why the present trend – the gradual abandonment of hope that liberal achievements of the past can be extended or even preserved – cannot continue forever. The great counterexample, Obama’s health reform, proves the rule: passed only thanks to a once-in-a-generation Democratic supermajority and the approval of every major industry lobby it affected, it emerged as a painfully inadequate, jerry-rigged palliative, already languishing under the scalpel of austerity.
To be fair, the authors do chide those with otherwise "impeccable leftist credentials" who jumped aboard the "Obama phenomenon" in 2008. I'm with them in thinking that was a serious mistake. But their invocation of Harrington and their argument re: reformist liberalism seems at odds with this observation. Perhaps I am misreading the author's argument. But that I should be able to do so is already a partial failing on their part, since the Left (now, more than ever) needs to be as clear as the Spanish "indignados" have been in uncompromisingly rejecting electoralism. Before long, the 2012 election cycle will be in full swing and the Left will be pressured to join one of the two camps described by in the editorial: (1) the lesser-evilist defeatists who will tell us to forget everything that Obama has done, and (2) the (typically academic) cynics who throw their hands up and somehow manage to relish the rottenness of the whole enterprise. I propose that we pre-empt this by firmly rejecting the false choice between (1) and (2). The pressure will be much stronger to adopt (1), so the Left needs a clear critique of this option. It shouldn't be abstract, ultra-Left or sectarian. But it should be uncompromising in emphasizing that large scale left-wing social change is won when powerful, organized and independent social movements are forged that can force the Democrats (or the Republicans, as the case may be) leftward. Our models should be the labor movement of the 1930s and the Black Freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s, not the dead ends of electoralism which, it should be emphasized, have never yielded any serious fruit in the form of reforms.

So, I agree with the authors that the demise of liberalism is, in itself, no cause for celebration. As a Marxist, I don't think that single-payer health care in a capitalist system is a water-tight solution to our health care crisis. But I would have fought tooth and nail for it had it been on the table- because, ethically, it would have drastically improved the well-being of millions and, politically, it would have certainly paved the way for more ambitious reforms and further growth of the Left. That the entire proposal was completely shut out by the Democrats and their ruling class backers is a tragedy, not a cause for celebration. But this tragedy is being felt well beyond the socialist left. The number of previously hopeful and presently disillusioned liberals is higher now than at any time in my lifetime- and it should be the job of the socialist Left in such times to offer a clear alternative. We shouldn't further muddy the waters by shackling ourselves to ultimately ineffective electoral efforts that reinforce the dialectic of disillusioned cynicism and dogmatic lesser-evilism.

The editorial makes no mention of Egypt, Tunisia, Greece or Spain. But those should be the watchwords of left-wing struggle in the present conjuncture. I'm with the "indignados" in Spain in thinking that the Left needs to offer a clear critique of the electoral mechanism itself. Harrington's Democratic Party tailism, while correct in dismissing ultra-left Schadenfreude, is not a viable way forward for the contemporary socialist Left.

One final remark: I'm also not sure that I agree with the suggestion in the editorial that:
The only true exception to liberalism’s demise concerns equal rights for ethnic, sexual, and other minorities – a principle won long ago at a cultural level but whose institutional consolidation is still incomplete and whose most recent advance was New York State’s legalization of gay marriage. On all other questions, the watchword is despair.
It's not yet clear what the authors take to have been "won long ago at the cultural level", but it certainly can't have been a decisive victory against racism, sexism, or lgbt oppression, since our culture (as well as our society writ large) is littered with all of these oppressive ideologies. To be sure, they are surely correct that the legalization of gay marriage in NY is a positive note on an otherwise bleak political horizon. And the emergence of phenomena like Slutwalk do suggest that sites of intensifying struggle are emerging on on the terrain of women's oppression. But if anything, the problems of structural racism and sexism are being exacerbated by the present crisis, as austerity and recession worsen the conditions for people of color, immigrants, and women. Anti-racist struggle, it seems to me, is perhaps at a lower point than that of class struggle simplicter.


Bhaskar said...

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. I'll reply at length, as soon as I get a spare moment.

I anticipated some of the confusion regarding our citation of Harrington and several other omissions that were made in the final draft. (This is a case where the constraints of print and keeping the piece to 700 words or so hurt us.)

t said...

I totally understand that it's not possible to say everything you want to say in a short editorial piece of less than 700 words. I'm pleased that you stopped by to read the comments on the editorial. I look forward to reading your thoughts!