Posts Tagged ‘left-wing’


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.

One of the strangest aspects of the Second Great Depression has been the rise of right-wing market populism.

The question is, why, after an economic crash caused the policies inspired by free-market fundamentalism, was populist anger captured by the Right and not the Left?

Thomas Frank, just as he did in his bestselling book What’s the Matter With Kansas? provides at least part of the answer:

Somehow the right captured the sense of anger. They completely captured it. You could say they had no right to it, but they did. And one of the reasons they were able to do it was because the liberals were not interested in that anger.

I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it.

So, the Right was able to champion a campaign against the ruling class, by holding up the market as an ideal. That’s the essence of utopian market populism.

The idea that the free market represents a revolt against the political and economic elite is, of course, preposterous but it took the Left almost four years to develop and act on a different analysis of the crisis, which culminated in Occupy Wall Street. The key to the future of the Occupy movement is to combine an attack on the 1 percent elite who created the crisis with its own utopian moment, an alternative that rejects both the right-wing conception of the free market and the liberal idea of merely regulating markets.

That will be an anger both conservatives and liberals will have to deal with.

Michael Kazin is mostly right, about the long years of organizing that took place before the Left had a significant presence in the American political debate during the Great Depression.

Perhaps what really matters about a movement’s strength is the years of building that came before it. In the 1930s, the growth of unions and the popularity of demands to share the wealth and establish “industrial democracy” were not simply responses to the economic debacle. In fact, unions bloomed only in the middle of the decade, when a modest recovery was under way. The liberal triumph of the 1930s was in fact rooted in decades of eloquent oratory and patient organizing by a variety of reformers and radicals against the evils of “monopoly” and “big money.”

And, of course, the Left will only have a renewed presence if it gets its act together and, following the advice of Joe Hill, stops mourning and organizes people across the country.

The only problem with Kazin’s analysis is his argument that, in the past, progressives “seldom bet their future on politicians.” What Kazin leaves out of his analysis of the 1930s is the vast and significant political work of the Communist and Socialist parties and the organizing their members did among the employed and the unemployed, the homeless, young people, urban and rural workers, black and white, and so on. The fact is, they were creating their own politicians, instead of merely deciding on which of the mainstream politicians to support.

It’s a piece of history Kazin and those who dream of a new American Left would do well to remember.