Calling All Liberals: It's Time to Fight | The Nation


Calling All Liberals: It's Time to Fight

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September 11 offered a brutal tutorial in the meaning of interdependence: our enemies from “without” actually came from “within,” blurring the difference between “domestic” and “foreign.” Al Qaeda is a malevolent NGO, and old-fashioned national frontiers and armies are of little relevance to its threats. The 9/11 attacks yielded the crucial modern dilemma precipitated by interdependence: the fundamental asymmetry between our challenges and our remedies; between global twenty-first-century problems like terrorism and eighteenth-century sovereign state solutions rooted in territorial jurisdiction, national prerogatives and secure borders.

About the Author

Benjamin R. Barber
Benjamin R. Barber is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and president of its CivWorld initiative.

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A response to Jon Wiener's “Professors Paid by Qaddafi: Providing ‘Positive Public Relations.’ ”


We have increasingly substituted opinion and prejudice for science and reason.

Terrorism and war are hardly the only interdependent challenges, however. Crime, drugs, prostitution, runaway markets, unprecedented planetary diseases, weapons of mass destruction, unregulated cross-border movement by capital and labor, and—especially daunting—climate change and environmental deterioration are equally perilous. Yet US politics right and left remains fatally parochial. Nowhere are the dilemmas of interdependence more evident than in the two leading crises of our time that most concern liberals: the double-dip global economic recession—precipitated by runaway financial institutions, imprudent lending and linked global markets—which has defied national efforts to stimulate jobs, salvage sinking economies, regulate banks and financial capital, or avert the consequence of a near American default; and climate change, apparently far too inconvenient and politically expensive a truth even for liberals to address. Many liberals and the president seem more concerned with the benefits of oil drilling, shale fracking for natural gas and corn-based ethanol than with their environmental costs or than with fighting for energy independence from foreign sources by seeking alternatives to fossil fuel or by modernizing the grid.

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To succeed in a changed world, a new liberal vision will have to be as interdependent as the challenges it faces, operating across borders and among peoples, focused less on what is good for America than what is good for the planet—which happily also defines what is good for America. It must push out temporal horizons beyond the shrunken limits that define quarterly profit statements and daily political calculations. It must be cosmopolitan rather than parochial, long rather than short term, focused on public goods pertinent to a planetary public rather than on private liberty and personal property. This is a tough sell, but in the long run our fighting creed must insist that liberalism is not just by and for Americans. We must refuse to pit American advantage against global public goods.

What about jobs? When Marx exhorted, Workers of the world unite! he meant they ought to prefer their economic to their national and religious interests. They have no choice. This is the brutal logic of the marketplace, which mandates that if they fail to unite, workers will secure neither their rights nor their jobs one nation at a time. Who benefits when poor nations use low wages and an indifference to environment and safety to lure jobs from rich nations, only to have rich nations fight to get them back (though at lower pay, with no pensions or healthcare so the jobs are “competitive”) with tariffs and boycotts and novel trade barriers? Or with stealth attacks on social justice via a “conditionality” approach to investment and loans that forces poor nations to sacrifice social welfare programs to receive the aid they require to create jobs. The result is a race to the bottom in which neither developed nor developing nations prosper, and in which the inequality within nations comes to mimic the inequality among nations.

The only way for liberals to break this sinister logic is to insist on cross-border strategies in which “workers” means all workers everywhere, not just those lucky enough to belong to American unions; and in which the global economy includes not just free markets in capital but free markets in labor, with workers as free as capital is to cross borders. This is already happening in practice, despite ineffective national laws forbidding “illegal” immigration, with firms in the United States and Europe looking the other way as undocumented workers cross from Mexico or North Africa to take jobs not available in their own countries. Global market logic here trumps sovereign national law, and the only way to address “illegal” immigration is to globalize law and regulation. International financial institutions like the IMF and the WTO push for global regulations, but on behalf of the interests of global corporations. Liberals need to be fighting for transnational democratic institutions to assure democratic outcomes in the global public interest.

Above all, a fighting liberalism must address radical marketization—a narrowly conceived capitalism that achieves productivity and profits without creating jobs. Liberals must widen the horizon: don’t just bash the banks but make the case for employment at home and abroad as a public good, valuable not just in its economic contributions to productivity but in what it does for individual dignity, civic empowerment and healthy human community. Otherwise, jobs will continue to be downsized, outsourced and disappeared. Economists label as “externalities” those values not immediately part of the economic calculus. What is external to economics narrowly construed, however, is internal and absolutely essential to human happiness. The social dimension of employment may be an externality, but it is crucial to why work matters and should be at the center of a fighting liberal vision. It also explains why liberals should propose a new metrics that includes indicators of social goods and human happiness when we measure, for example, GNP. Why are the creative contributions of artists, teachers and scientists not part of national product? Why aren’t environmental costs a debit? The current system in effect socializes the invisible public costs of capitalism, spreading them across the backs of taxpayers while privatizing the visible profits. This is not capitalism but corporate welfare—socializing risk for the rich and powerful while leaving the poor to the social Darwinism of a pitiless marketplace.

As with unemployment, climate change cannot be addressed one nation at a time. Cities, NGOs and citizens have proven far more able. Take, for example, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group of megacities working across borders to reduce carbon emissions despite the reluctance of governments. We can also do more than just push (or curse) politicians on such modest measures as cap and trade on emissions or a fossil fuel tax or offshore drilling restrictions; we can protest the Keystone XL pipeline with Bill McKibben, support Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project or state- and city-based initiatives to ban fracking, like the ones in Easton, Pennsylvania, and New York State; and help establish farmers’ markets in poor inner-city areas where fresh vegetables are scarce and obesity rampant. In these efforts, civil society is as important as government.

The Internet also beckons liberals to engage directly. We know well enough that corporate ownership of traditional media is pernicious to democracy, but we are more naïve about its hold on new media. The web’s democratic architecture and disposition to interactivity and interdependence are undeniable: in Berlin the web-inspired Pirate Party just won a significant share of votes, and in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park alike the new media have proved their democratic organizing potential. But the Internet, too, is subject to the power of money. Liberals may love the web, but sometimes they seem delusional about issues of power and ownership. They do not always recall that we protect speech in order to protect democracy and equal access to civic and political power rather than to protect commerce. Having become adept at using the Internet for conventional electoral purposes, as Howard Dean and Barack Obama did, liberals conclude that a web dominated by commerce, games, pornography and social media isn’t a problem.

With the web (and media generally) it is not enough for liberals to insist (contrary to Citizens United) that corporations are not people; they also must insist (contrary to Buckley v. Valeo) that money is not speech, and recognize that the web is a public utility whose privatization and subjugation to money have diminished it as an instrument of democracy. Private ownership corrupts democracy because money skews power rather than equalizing it. For new media to be potential equalizers, they must be treated as public utilities, recognizing that spectrum abundance (the excuse for privatization) does not prevent monopoly ownership of hardware and software platforms and hence cannot guarantee equal civic, educational and cultural access to citizens.

So we come full circle, to the dream liberals want to rebuild, the dream in whose name young protesters are once again marching. It is a dream that rests on the reality that freedom is public—a shared product of strong democracy. Langston Hughes said, “There is a dream in the land/With its back against the wall…. To save the dream for one/It must be saved for ALL.” Our liberalism today must fight to save the dream for all. For today “all” means not just our country but our ever more interdependent and badly hurting world.

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