Posts Tagged ‘left-wing’


You’re not going to read or hear anything positive about the Bernie Sanders campaign from the usual liberal commentators and pundits. So, it falls to an unlikely source, conservative columnist Ross Douthat:

on his way to winning more caucuses and primaries than Dean or Bradley, Sanders has proved two important points about his party’s voters. First, they are quite ambitious. Many of them see the liberal policy victories of the Obama years (the health care law, Dodd-Frank, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) as first steps rather than capstones to the liberal project. Many of them regard Hillary Clinton’s leftward progress on issues like immigration and criminal-justice reform as admirable but wildly insufficient. And they’re eager for ideas — single payer! free college! a $15 minimum wage! — that would stamp their party as thoroughly rather than just partially left wing.

Second, their ambitions have demographic momentum on their side. The leftward, ever leftward impulse is concentrated among the party’s younger constituents, with whom Sanders has rolled up ridiculous margins. So there’s every reason to expect that a future left-wing insurgency could surpass his success even as he surpassed [Bill] Bradley’s and [Howard] Dean’s.


According to the American Enterprise Institute (as conservative as they come), prior to New York,

Among the 20 states that have held their Democratic primaries and caucuses thus far and for which exit poll data are available, Bernie Sanders has won the youngest cohort (generally speaking, 18- to 29-year-olds) in every state except two—Alabama and Mississippi. In these two states, his support among younger voters was still stronger than among any other age group. Other than in his home state of Vermont where he won 17- to 29-year-olds with 95 percent of their vote, Sanders carried the most young voters in Illinois with 86 percent. The least amount of support he received from this age group while still carrying it was 54 percent in Georgia and South Carolina. In each of these 20 contests, the youngest age group made up no more than 20 percent of voters.

In New York, Sanders trounced Clinton among young voters, winning roughly 3 out of 4 voters younger than 29.

Clearly, young people represent a hope we can believe in.


They’re often referred to in the major media, like the New York Times, as “left-leaning economists.” Although, as Doug Henwood observes, “So slight is their leftward lean that it would require very sensitive equipment to measure.”

So, I’ll just refer to them as liberal mainstream economists, who with colorful language and little in the way of an alternative analysis, have taken to attacking Bernie Sanders and one of his economic advisers, Gerald Friedman.

The language is over the top: Sanders’s proposals are various referred to as “puppies and rainbows” (ramped up to “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars”) and “unicorns.”

And, aside from one careful, critical study of Sanders’s healthcare plan (by Kenneth Thorpe), there’s nothing in the way of an alternative analysis.

All liberal mainstream economists (like Alan Krueger, Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, and Laura D’Andrea Tysonthink they have to do is put their signatures to “An Open Letter from Past CEA Chairs to Senator Sanders and Professor Gerald Friedman” and assert, in the name of “responsible arithmetic,” that the Sanders campaign is citing “extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan.”

What we’re witnessing is an extraordinary spectacle of all the elements of “liberal ideology“—including, when all else fails, the ultimate threat: a campaign that dare steps outside the liberal mainstream and, thus, “is well on its way to making Donald Trump president.”

It’s as if Sanders has had the temerity of not consulting the liberal establishment in formulating his plans and that Friedman, who has been called out by name, has had the audacity of making headlines without the credential of belonging to the liberal establishment.

The liberal mainstream economists who are now attacking Sanders and Friedman seem to be taking it personally, as if their monopoly on analysis and policy has been challenged.

I guess it has.

So, how should we read Sanders’s plans and Friedman’s analysis of its costs and consequences? My view, for what it’s worth, is that Sanders and Friedman are not presenting a “realistic” proposal that follows the dictates of liberal policies and forecasts. What they’re doing is something bolder: they’re imagining a world in which a wide variety of fundamental changes have been made—a minimum wage of $15 an hour, universal health coverage, free public higher education, massive infrastructure spending, and so on. In such a world, their analysis suggests, there would be much lower unemployment, faster economic growth, and much less inequality than prevail under existing conditions.

It’s as if they’re holding up a mirror to what is being touted by liberal mainstream economists, which shows both that “realistic” policies and forecasts promise more of the same—excessive unemployment, slow growth, and grotesques levels of inequality—and that, as a country, we have the wherewithal to do much better.

Much better than we’re doing right now. And much better than the “liberal fantasy” suggests we can do.

Since liberal mainstream economists are being left behind, all they can do is resort to a language of rainbows, unicorns, and puppies.


Note: Rainbows, Unicorns, Puppies—”a true multiband distortion, with 3 variable signal paths – each with adjustable gain, comp, and level controls – plus clean blend, FX loops, mid boost and master 3-band EQ”—does, in fact, exist.


Special mention

huck2dec minwage-foodstamps


Friends continue to remind me that, back in the day, when Obama first announced his plans to run for the presidency, I explained to them that, based on watching him in Illinois, he was one of the smartest and at the same time most moderate, middle-of-the-road Democrats around. He was not then, nor would he ever become, a “progressive.” Instead, he (along with much of the Democratic Party) was firmly in the middle of the mainstream consensus that austerity was inevitable. The only question was, how much?

Tim Duy, after witnessing Obama in the most recent negotiations over the fiscal cliff, comes to much the same conclusion.

From day one this has been a debate about the extent of the austerity, not a debate about austerity itself.  Does anyone have the sense that President Obama does not fundamentally believe in the pursuit of deficit reduction sooner than later?  I keep coming back to this observation from Bruce Bartlett:

In a little-noticed comment on Spanish-language television on December 14, Obama himself confirmed this typology of today’s political spectrum. Said Obama, “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

I think this is correct and explains a great deal about why Obama refuses to use his leverage to pursue liberal policies and keeps inviting Republicans back to the negotiating table again and again on the budget. He wants a deal, he wants to cut spending and balance the budget if possible. This may or may not be a wise course for a Democratic president to follow, but that is who Obama is.

I frequently see commentators saying that Obama is terrible at the bargaining table, but I can’t help thinking that he is getting pretty much what he wanted.  Despite all the hate heaped upon him by the right, Obama just isn’t a progressive, and we shouldn’t expect him to seek a deal as if he was one.  After all, what progressive ensures a tax hike on the lower and middle classes (the expiration of the payroll tax cut with no offsetting cut elsewhere)?  Obama seems to believe the best deal is the one no one likes. . .

My guess is that Obama already knows that the outcome of that debate will be one in which he looks like he retreated over time.  But I also believe that the place he retreats to will be where he wanted to go in the first place; indeed, I suspect he never believed he would get 100% of the Bush tax cuts reversed in the fiscal cliff negotiations.  Note too that, to DeLong’s complaint, the next debate will again be an issue of how much austerity.  And expect that Obama will allow the negotiations to drag out to the eleventh hour, thereby forcing both Republicans and Democrats to choke down a meal – some combination of tax hikes and entitlement cuts – they both find distasteful.

But, we should remember, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t a progressive either. He and his administration moved in a more progressive direction, with the New Deal, because of sustained criticism from progressive economists, pressure from the left-wing of the Democratic Party, and, of course, organizing on the part of the Left and the threat of mass rebellion in the streets of America.

Their absence today makes the choice between two different paths to austerity the only game in town.

Does it make sense to vote?

In recent days, I have been engaged in two quite different sets of discussions about voting.

One discussion  has involved students. The argument I make to them is that, on the basis of neoclassical economic theory, voting is not rational. The argument is quite simple: since the probability that any voter will cast the “decisive vote” is negligible, effectively zero, it is not rational to go to the polls (or, alternatively, send in an absentee ballot) in any given election. I make that argument to demonstrate to them that not every activity can be reduced to or explained in terms of individual  rationality. Something else—like the practice of democracy or respectability in the eyes of others, doing what everyone else is doing, or something else beyond individual utility-maximization—must be involved in making sense of why people vote.

The other discussion is with lefty types, some of whom make the Tweedledum and Tweedledee argument—that is, the two presidential candidates or the two major political parties are effectively the same, and voting for the seemingly more progressive or less objectionable of the two is to avoid confronting both parties’ resistance to fundamental change. Sohail Daulatzai [ht: ke] has presented one version of that argument:

While there are those who claim that voting for Obama is the practical thing to do and that to either vote for a third party or to not vote at all is “impractical” and “misguided”, Malcolm might turn the tables and ask how “practical” is it to vote for either major party when the violent forces that define them are so intractable and resistant to change, let alone transformation?

And when confronting such forces, and recognising the others in the past who have tried so valiantly, how practical is it to continue to invest and commit to this process and expect something different? Isn’t that “impractical” and the path to irrelevance?

The problem with Daulatzai’s argument is that he makes it out to be a stark either/or situation: vote for Obama or engage in fundamental political change. What he doesn’t allow for is to vote for Obama (because, on a larger or smaller set of issues, conditions of life will be better than under a Romney presidency) and to engage in political activity, inside and outside the electoral process, to criticize the narrow options being presented and to create new possibilities.

My answer, therefore, is it does make sense to vote—and to do much more than simply cast one’s vote in this year’s election.*


*And there’s one final argument in favor of voting for Obama: to reject Romney’s “contempt for the electorate,” as explained by Greg Sargent:

The important thing to remember here is that the GOP argument for a Romney victory rests explicitly on the hope that those who turned out to vote for Obama last time won’t be quite as engaged this time around. Republicans are hoping the electorate is not as diverse as it was in 2008, and they are arguing that the GOP base’s enthusiasm is much higher than that of core Dem constituencies. The Romney camp seems to think it will help whip GOP base voters into a frenzy — and perhaps boost turnout — if Romney casts the way Obama is urging Democratic base voters to get more involved in the process as something sininster and threatening. This is beyond idiotic; it is insulting to people’s intelligence.

The Post editorial board, in a widely cited piece, has claimed that the one constant about the Romney campaign has been that it is driven by “contempt for the electorate.” To make this case, the editorial cites Romney’s nonstop flip flops, his evasions about his own proposals, his refusal to share basic information about his finances and bundlers, and his monumental Jeep falsehood and all his other big lies. It’s fitting that Romney’s closing argument rests heavily on one last sustained expression of that contempt for the electorate — one focused squarely on a call for more engagement in the political process, i.e., on something that is fundamental to democracy itself.

Adam David Morton’s superb review of the publication of a new book by Carlos Nelson Coutinho, one of the foremost interpreters of Gramsci’s work in Brazil (and, for that matter, in the world), reminded me of a research project I started (but never finished) a few years ago.

The goal of my research was to use Gramsci’s work to make sense of the rise of a whole host of new left-wing governments in Latin America (e.g., in Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela) as a a result of the crisis of neoliberalism. And, for that, I decided I needed to make sense of the rise of the neoliberal state and its perceived crisis, which meant going back to an earlier period when capitalist hegemony was first being established in Brazil (as well as Bolivia and Venezuela) prior to neoliberalism.*

My preliminary findings were more or less in accord with what Morton argues: the rise of the developmentalist state in those countries was based on a series of “passive revolutions” (to use one of Gramsci’s key concepts), revolutions without revolution from below, without mass mobilization (with the exception of Bolivian miners, a tiny percentage of the population). These were revolutions in and through the State, and from there decrees (against the opposition of traditional elites) for universal suffrage, agrarian reform, the organization of trade unions and the regulation of formal sector work rules, and so on.

Later, in the 1970s, starting with the Chilean coup of 1973, the “exhaustion” of import-substitution ushered in a period of authoritarian regimes and neoliberal political economy, based on a complex alliance of social forces (from a domestic capitalist class demanding to “open up” for access to foreign markets and foreign capital to State technocrats, often with degrees from U.S. universities, attempting to solve the “fiscal crisis of the state”). If the goal of import-substitution industry was to shift the center of gravity from agriculture to industry, from feudal latifundistas to capital, from rural peasants to agricultural and industrial wage-laborers, and from independent artisans to a middle class employed in both the private and public sectors, neoliberalism was an attempt to shift the center of gravity from the State to the private sector and from traditional manufacturing to services, finance, and lowest-cost exports (to finance increased imports).

My argument was that the rise of neoliberalism did not represent a new set of passive revolutions but, instead, a revolution within the revolution, a “passive transformation” (to use, again, Gramsci’s language), a transformation of the existing hegemony but not a new hegemony. Nor, for that matter, did the crisis of neoliberalism lead to an alternative hegemony. Rather, what we have seen is a “losers’ alliance” or “alliance of the excluded” that has been able to elect nominally anti-neoliberal governments. However, without an alternative hegemony, it’s been impossible to enact a program of economic and social transformation beyond neoliberalism. Instead, they’ve been stuck with ensuring the rules of the neoliberal game, with each group trying to get some piece of the economic and political pie. “I’m going to get mine”—which leads to the expression of corporate interests and corruption and not the universalization of a working-class project.

Thus far, this has been the trajectory of left-wing governments in Latin America. But it is not their ultimate fate, no matter how “large and terrible and complicated” the world actually is.

*So, quickly, the project spiralled out of control and, unfortunately, other pressing projects prevented me from finishing it.

I’ve been reading Alexander Cockburn’s columns and journalistic essays for, it seems, forever—first in the Village Voice, then in the Nation, and most recently on Counterpunch. More than once, I found myself disagreeing with his views (on issues as varied as global warming, Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns, and Senator Bernie Sanders), but I have always respected his unapologetic left-wing political views and trenchant criticisms of all those (from Henry Kissinger to Christopher Hitchens) who either represented the corruptions of empire or chose to find their place within empire.

Now, Cockburn is gone, and Jeffery St. Clair has written a fitting tribute.