Letter to 'The Nation' From a Young Radical
When I was growing up, the dinner table in my household was full of extremes. My immigrant parents encouraged intemperate arguments. Depth of knowledge was no barrier to entry, and only one rule applied: don’t be boring. It was an easy environment in which to loudly proclaim oneself a socialist.
Things were different at the dinner tables of my childhood friends. Maybe it was because the conversations were kept to reasonable volumes or more cutlery was used, but I found myself wishing for different convictions. The chatter would inevitably turn to politics in conventional terms: Kerry or Bush, liberal or conservative, pre-emptive bombing or targeted sanctions? There was no “none of the above” on the menu. When pressed, I would meekly call myself a socialist, all the while regretting that I couldn’t just utter the word “liberal” instead.
“Like Sweden?” I would be asked. “No, like the Russian Revolution before its degeneration into Stalinism.” It’s a wonder I was ever invited back. But liberalism—including in the pages of The Nation, save for a few redeeming essays and columns—seemed, even at its best moments, well-intentioned but inadequate. It’s a feeling that I haven’t been able to shake.
Maybe I wasn’t alone in looking for alternatives. A Pew Research poll from 2011 shows that more Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism. We don’t know exactly what they mean by “socialism,” but it certainly reflects a discontent with what’s on offer in the political mainstream.
And yet, the decay of liberal reform traditions has been nothing to celebrate. Real wages have stagnated, indebtedness is on the rise, and the deregulatory “free market” revolution has not only fostered massive new disparities in wealth and power but a historic recession. If liberalism once had teeth, that memory has faded. Many in my generation who found voice in the Occupy protests had no knowledge of the way that strong liberal administrations, backed up by vigorous social movements, forced concessions from capital throughout the last century.
To radicals, the sad state of liberalism comes as no surprise. It represents merely the re-emergence of flaws embedded deeply in its roots, making so much of the social policy that The Nation supports difficult to revive. American liberalism is practically ineffective and analytically inadequate—and a jolt from its left is a prerequisite for its resurgence.
Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.
Barack Obama’s inclination to sit the health insurance companies down at the table rather than confront them head-on is a useful example of this def iciency at work. You didn’t have to be a Marxist to realize this was a doomed strategy; plenty within the liberal ranks knew it at the time. Liberalism has evolved and incorporated views of politics that were traditionally associated with the socialist movement. But this development happened only under the influence of the left, and now the dominant currents in the liberal movement, especially in the Democratic Party, are forgetting lessons learned from radicals in the past.
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Some clarifying is in order. “Liberalism” has always been a slippery term, but to the extent that we can assign coherence to the ideology, two main camps of modern American liberalism are identifiable: welfare liberals and technocratic liberals. The former, without the radicals they so often attacked marching at their left, have not adequately moored their efforts to the working class, while the latter naïvely disconnect policy from politics, often with frightening results.
Welfare liberals remain committed to the New Deal paradigm: equality of opportunity, collective-bargaining rights, an expanded social safety net. They call for higher marginal tax rates, want to restore union density, oppose austerity measures and support the struggles of public sector workers. More inclusive and progressive than their predecessors on social issues, they nevertheless form a continuum with the past. Elements in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, dominant tendencies within labor and much of The Nation’s output are true to this tradition.
For all their admirable qualities, welfare liberals not only fail to account for the welfare state’s crisis in the 1970s; they have struggled to imagine what political forces could return it to its previous dominance. Without strong trade unions and a visible center-left reform movement—linchpins of the New Deal coalition—austerity has been hard to resist as a solution to the current economic crisis. These measures, in turn, have further undermined the social basis for progressive politics in America.