Monday, July 18, 2011

The "neoliberal left": an oxymoron

I saw this over at Crooked Timber (via Memeorandum) and wanted to highlight a bit of it:
There is a real phenomenon that you might describe as left neo-liberalism in the US - liberals who came out of the experience of the 1980s convinced that the internal interest group dynamics of the Democratic party were a problem. These people came up with some interesting arguments (but also: Mickey Kaus), but seem to me to have always lacked a good theory of politics.

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. 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. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is.
This seems an apt enough description, and one that I would use to help my readers understand what is defined as a "left" in the US (and to a somewhat-to-slightly lesser degree in Europe). Now there's an old saying that I'll attribute to social psychologist Kurt Lewin: "There's nothing so practical as a good theory." Much of our "left" in the US has been, during the course of my adult life, largely atheoretical when it comes to politics. As a teen and young man, I would refer to those who took the neoliberal turn as "yuppie liberals" and later as "401k progressives". Such pejoratives contained an important kernel of information regarding how these relatively technocratic "leftists" viewed themselves and perhaps even a few kernels about our own particular historical context. My reading of the 1980s is one of disillusionment with the prevailing ideologies of the preceding decades. Keynesian capitalism was no longer fashionable, to be sure. The nations that had put various flavors of Marxian socialism into practice were in decline, making it rather difficult to find much enthusiasm for these particular alternatives to capitalism. The infrastructure upon which our particular left, such as it was, largely depended upon entities such as organized labor - whose origins were decidedly of an anticapitalist flavor (whether Marxian, or anarchist) - and civil rights and peace movements - which themselves were based on theories which questioned much of what was considered sacred to those in power. The basic upshot was that the concept of praxis (basically, putting ideas into action), solidarity and collective action were steadily abandoned over the course of the decade. In its place, emerged an "end of ideology" mentality.

The main upshot of it was that with a few tweaks of the machinery or software, any problem in the system could be fixed. No assumptions were to made about the role of class, etc., nor did there appear any inclination to do more than sneer at those who might. Nor was there any perceived need for the sorts of collective actions that had seemed perfectly sensible prior to the 1980s. What we ended up with was a disinterested and disconnected polity that managed to lumber along in spite of mounting evidence that an atheoretical approach to politics was an epic failure (I could go on about the increases in poverty, the resumption of the war against women, etc.).

It really wasn't until the last handful of years that anyone with any serious influence has questioned if the technocrats might be part of the problem. Without a coherent political theory, neoliberals of the left have no means of sustaining the sorts of long-term movements needed to effect any social change (as we have seen here and elsewhere, such change still requires feet on the ground), nor any means of providing an alternative analysis outside the very narrow confines of our contemporary economic and political discourse. Instead, our technocratic elites continue to fall for anything in order to seek out the next quick tweak to the system (which is what happens when you don't, as the saying goes, stand for anything). Hope and change you can believe in? I think not. Those ideologies of yore are starting to look pretty damned relevant once more. We ignore them at our peril.

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