04 June 2013

Liberalism with Teeth?

The June 10/17 double issue of The Nation features a "Letter to the Nation From a Young Radical" asking "Has Liberalism Failed?" Bhaskar Sunkara is a self-styled Jacobin -- he edits a publication of that name -- and has long seen himself as a radical rather than a liberal. In Sunkara's view liberalism "seemed, even at its best moments, well-intentioned but inadequate." At those best moments, "liberalism once had teeth." Too often, however, liberalism seems willfully toothless. As Sunkara explains:

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. 

By way of illustration, Sunkara mentions President Obama's "inclination to sit the health insurance companies down at the table rather than confront them head-on." The distinction is unclear; if you've sat them at the table, aren't you confronting them head-on? The difference depends on the meaning of "confront." Sunkara's preference for radicalism may clarify things, but the Nation article doesn't really help that much. In it, Sunkara describes two categories of liberals: welfare-statists and technocrats, neither of which has "moored their efforts to the working class." Sunkara regrets the absence of a true "labor" party in the U.S. and notes that the Democratic party is unlikely ever to become one because it "has no ideological requirements for membership" and few ways, under American election law, to exclude anyone from registering. Sunkara notes, however, that the Republican party does seem to have ways of enforcing ideological discipline. He holds the GOP up, in this regard, as the model for a radical party that may emerge after radicals "smash the existing liberal coalition." Sunkara advises that "a schism will have to be forced through actual struggle," by which he means waging campaigns against the Democratic party establishment and, if necessary, against the Democratic party. That recommendation is guaranteed to catch him hell from some Nation readers who'll blow right past Sunkara's criticism of lesser-evilism and accuse him of guaranteeing Republican rule by dividing the anti-GOP forces. If Sunkara is really radical, Republican resurgence may not trouble him; he may look forward to it forcing the necessary crisis instead.

My problem with Sunkara's letter is that he implies things without spelling out the implication. What does he mean, for instance, by a "dynamic theory of power?" In context, he clearly has something more in mind than the politics of rhetorical persuasion. But what does he mean beyond staging working-class demonstrations? What are the "teeth" that liberalism once had and radicalism should acquire? What does it mean, really, to "confront" your antagonists?

The distinction between radicalism and liberalism is twofold. Sunkara stresses the radicalism of ends. Liberals aspire to reform, to ameliorate the ills of society, while radicals by definition demand fundamental change, preferably from the ground up. In his closing paragraph Sunkara makes his radical priorities clear.

Socialists aren’t just doctors with remedies for liberalism’s ailments. We’re members of a movement with aspirations distinct from it: a society free from class exploitation, a democracy extended from political spheres to social and economic ones, a world dramatically transformed. This means pushing struggles beyond the limits of liberalism, or even the boundaries of a single nation. It means a pitched battle for supremacy within the broader progressive movement

The divide grows deeper when we consider the radicalism of means. This radicalism is what most people, I suspect, mean by the word itself; think of the alarms sounded at the thought of a Muslim becoming "radicalized." Meanwhile, liberalism is identified above all with a refusal to justify means by ends. The stereotypical liberal doesn't believe in coercion; tolerance of dissent or deviance may be his supreme virtue, in his own eyes. The radical, convinced of the necessity of fundamental change, must grow impatient with even principled objections to his demands. Sunkara hints at radical impatience with the socio-political order in general and with the Democratic party in particular. How impatient is he? How radical is he, really? How radical does he -- do we -- need to be? His letter to The Nation raises more questions than it answers.


Anonymous said...

The difference between "confronting" and "sitting them down at the table" is that when the President sits the health insurance magnates down at the table, pretty much he wants to cajole them into providing lower costs for the benefit of the people. A confrontation would be he sits them down and tells them point blank if they want to continue doing business and making money in this country it will be by submitting to his (or the people's) will.

The problem with the whole fantasy of the "Republic of Letters" is quite simply human nature. Those with wealth and power are loathe to give them up simply because it is arguably the "right" thing to do. Because those who acquire wealth and power are generally lacking in morals and/or ethics to begin with.

You will never have a true socialist state without coercion. The way I see it though is that once the "revolution" is won; once the "enemies of the people" have been eliminated, the revolutionaries must give up power to the people or they simply become the next generation of despots.

This is why neither Russia nor China were or are truly communist states. On a side note, it makes me wonder why so few leaders of any "labor movement" are actually working class people. Most of them seem to be intellectuals rather than workers.

Samuel Wilson said...

Paragraph by paragraph:

1. A liberal President like the current one probably doesn't feel he has the right to "confront" businessmen the way you propose. Present-day liberals wouldn't make such threats and couldn't imagine how to back them up.

2. A blanket judgment about "those who acquire ... power" makes any revolution like the one you suggest in the next paragraph problematic.

3. The danger with revolutionary leaders on the left is that they identify themselves with the people. Leninists especially assume themselves to be more representative of the people than the people themselves. Ideally a movement that does without idolized leaders in the first place can seize power -- but can they?

4. The usual explanation is that workers don't have the spare time to educate themselves or take part in agitation. Marx confronted this difficulty because, by his own standards, his own background was bourgeois and he was an intellectual by any standard. According to Sperber, he equated bourgeois radicals like himself and Engels with the enlightened aristocrats who sided with the Third Estate during the French Revolution. Whatever he said, there'll always be grounds of suspicion that vanguard intellectuals will see themselves as Leninists do, as more "People" than the people.

Anonymous said...

1) By way of illustration, Sunkara mentions President Obama's "inclination to sit the health insurance companies down at the table rather than confront them head-on." The distinction is unclear; if you've sat them at the table, aren't you confronting them head-on?

I am simply attempting to clear up the distinction.

2) In this case, I am referring to the corporations/big business who acquire political power through lobbying. Political power they have no constitutional right to and wealth that they "acquire" through the effort of the labor class.

3) As I've stated before, the people are the state; the state is the people. Revolutionaries are a part of the people. But as I've also stated, to prove that they are only attempting to secure power in the name of, and for the "people", once their revolution is won they must step down and allow the people to exercise that power through free elections.

4) That excuse doesn't wash with me. I consider myself an intellectual because I read and think a lot. But I am also working class. It's a matter of whether you are willing to dedicate your free time to bettering yourself and the world around you, are drinking yourself into oblivion. People who aren't willing to better themselves through intellectual discourse, etc. are a waste of existence and an impediment to creating a better world.

Samuel Wilson said...

re point 4: Once upon a time workers in the old workshops would hire someone to read to them while they worked. Many of them got radicalized that way. Circumstances radicalized others. Historically, however, intellectuals (accredited or self-styled) have felt it necessary to take the lead, perhaps because, counter to Marx's belief, the proletariat did come up with specific demands (minimum wage, shorter workday, etc.) short of wholesale revolution that pragmatic employers and governments could satisfy. The question would then become whether intellectuals can assert an imperative duty to play the Leninist vanguard role.

Anonymous said...

I think an pure intellectual really can't identify with the needs/desires of the labor class unless they have been part of the labor class.

Unless you have been treated as a replaceable number in some accountant's ledger book rather than a human being, you can't truly understand what it is like to be working class. From my perspective, the left should be all about ensuring that labor has a voice in corporate decisions that affect their lives. If not by communism (workers control the means of production) then by democratizing the corporate system - either by force of government (laws/regulations) or by general strike until those at the top are forced to compromise.

Again, I feel I must reiterate that corporations have no patriotism, no sense of loyalty to the nation they are based in. Their loyalty is profit. Their motivation is profit. They are not accountable in the least to the people whose lives they affect with their decisions. Corporations are the antithesis of true democracy and the enemy of patriotism.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon wrote: "I think an pure intellectual really can't identify with the needs/desires of the labor class unless they have been part of the labor class"

This pretty much shuts out Marxism, though Marxists would argue that Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels, who was actually an employer rather than an employee,refutes your argument. But it boils down to what workers want vs. what intellectuals want. Workers don't necessarily want communism, but they usually want more democracy in the workplace than bosses do. They may not believe they should own everything, but they probably would agree that the transactions that define their lives should be subject to laws determined by the people instead of laws asserted in textbooks. To the extent that the IWW believed in some sort of communism, they (as more workers than intellectuals, as far as I know) probably come closest to your ideal in U.S. history.

Anonymous said...

I would say it shuts out Marx and Engels as political leaders in a communist society, but it doesn't make Marx' theory bad or false.

From my perspective, it's the idea, the words that matter, not who says them. Which is why I have a certain attitude when people start quoting a specific person, rather than emphasizing the thought that person was trying to get across.

Samuel Wilson said...

That's a fair distinction, especially considering that Marx's theory really covers a lot more ground than the workplace. Once he became convinced that the proletariat was necessary to make his political vision a reality, Marxism's dilemma became whether to cede the initiative to the proletariat or to claim an intellectual right to tell the proletariat what its real interests are. Maybe Marxists ideally should be Merlins to proletarian Arthurs, but the intellectuals too often (though often understandably) want the throne for themselves.

Anonymous said...

The problem is - there should be no throne, especially when a round table ought to suffice.