Bhaskar Sunkara’s recent essay in The Nation, Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical, argues persuasively that American liberalism is “practically ineffective and analytically inadequate” to the twin political tasks of mobilizing supporters and generating policy. Sunkara blames the crisis of liberalism on the fact that, “Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power,” which leads liberals–Sunkara specifically cites Obama–to treat
politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. . . [in which] the best program … is assumed to prevail in the end…[and] political action is disconnected … from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.
Admitting that liberalism is “a slippery term” Sunkara defines it in terms of the two dominant species of Washington Democratic insiders, which he defines as follows:
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.
Both sorts of liberalism, Sunkara argues, have failed analytically and politically, though in different ways and for different reasons. Nevertheless, Sankara has the same prescription: “the solution to liberalism’s impasse lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”
What would that look like? The first task is that
Socialists must urgently show progressives how alien the technocratic liberal worldview is to the goals of welfare-state liberalism—goals held by the rank and file of the liberal movement. … Broad anti-austerity coalitions, particularly those centered at the state and municipal levels like last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike, point the way toward new coalitions between leftists and liberals committed to defending social goods.
But anti-austerity is not, of course, the full program, but
just one example of the kind of class politics that has to be reconstituted in America today; surely there are many others. The Next Left’s anti-austerity struggles must be connected to the environmental movement, to the struggle of immigrants for labor and citizenship rights, and even, as unromantic as it sounds, to the needs of middle-class service recipients.
Although Sunkara’s essay, like his groundbreaking publication Jacobin Magazine, is an important attempt at creating bridges between liberals and radicals during a time of onslaught by the corporate Right, even as it demonstrates the analytical weakness of liberalism, it suffers from some of the very same analytical inadequacies of liberalism itself, especially its lack of a dynamic theory of power.
Specifically, Sunkara’s categories of analysis are rooted in politics and ideology, with no moorings in the social formation beyond a few statements about working class support for social welfare liberalism–statements which fail to recognize the accomplishments wrought via American working class and subaltern self-activity. In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising–though it ought to be–that a self-described “young radical” had no place in his analysis for a discussion of capitalism as an exploitative economic system whose nature is at the root of or contributes greatly to every one of the social problems liberals profess to care about.
American Liberalism and the American Working Class
American liberalism is difficult to understand, not just because the word came to mean the opposite of what it had meant the prior century, but also because the modern version is genetically incapable of analytical consistency or rigor because it is based on half-truths about capitalism, which are the only truths the system allows into discourse about itself.
Specifically, modern liberals understand that capitalism creates class and other forms of conflict, but rather than seeing that conflict as inherent to the system and an engine for change, they seek to defuse its oppositional energy and channel what remains into policy proposals that preserve the status quo of capitalist relations. Given that, how could liberals do anything other than become, if not the enemies, then the unwitting enabler of the enemies, of the working class?
To be radical is to get to the root (Latin: radix=root) of things, to understand not merely their appearance but their underlying structures and dynamics. To understand American liberalism, we need to understand its history from the past forward, not start with a bestiary of newspaper pundits and then work back.
American liberalism originated during the New Deal, but the energy underlying it came not from FDR and friends but from American working people, not from above but from below. FDR came into office on a conservative platform of cutting the federal budget, and the centerpiece of his First New Deal (1933-34) was the NRA, a corporatist scheme that allowed big corporations to collude on production and prices as a way to replace “ruinous competition” with rationality.
Even the liberal accomplishments of the Second New Deal (1935-36), which included Social Security, rural electrification, etc., came about not because of liberal leaders but because of pressure from below. Consider the case of labor law.
The NRA had a landmark provision granting workers in NRA Code industries the right to organize labor unions–which was inserted only because of pressure from Labor leaders and rank and file members. After the Supreme Court struck down the NRA, labor law reform took the form of the National Labor Relations Act, which the FDR administration supported only belatedly and under political pressure.
But the Wagner Act itself well illustrates the inherent conservatism of liberalism. New Deal liberal leaders, including bill sponsor Sen. Robert Wagner, were equally disturbed by the militancy of working class strikers (especially the Sit Down strikers) and the violence of anti-union goons hired by employers.
As a result, the purpose of the NLRA was to rein in both sides, as though both labor and capital were equally to blame for the violence of the era’s labor struggles. Most particularly, labor unions were reduced to contract negotiators and managers, limited to engaging in collective bargaining on behalf of their members at a particular employer and then enforcing that contract. Unions were even made responsible for strikes that take place outside of the bargaining context, thus making the unions into enforcers against their own members.
Because they subscribe to orthodox economics, which holds that equilibrium is the natural state of capitalist markets and thus capitalist social formations, liberals are and always have been unable to conceive of social conflict as anything other than a social malady to be cured, and thus always wind up on the side of establishment institutions against those seeking to change them.
The Collapse of Liberalism
During the Great Prosperity of the Pax Americana-Sovietica, American capitalism dominated the world, US manufacturing capital reaped huge profits, and American workers used their union power to share in the prosperity. As corporate profits began a long-term decline in the late 60s-early 70s, however, capital began the process of reneging on what Sunkara rightly terms the Fordist compromise of the Boom era.
The macro-economic side of liberalism–the aspect of the ideology that was supposed to use Keynesian tools to ensure continuously rising GDP, i.e., a bigger economic pie–began to fail in the 70s, and the emergence of stagnant growth with inflation gave the right the opening it needed to turn its anti-labor ideas into policy, and liberalism became a dirty word in American politics.
Reconstituting a Broad American Left
The solution is not for liberals to become socialists, nor for them to adopt a Marxist analysis of capitalism, although those would be great of course.
I suggest that liberals and radicals can come together by focusing on and actively supporting those elements of the US working class–including many working people who identify more strongly in racial or ethnic terms than in class terms–that are engaging in rights’ struggles. We should be looking to them for guidance on the issues, on emerging organizational forms of struggle, and much more.
Fast food workers, for example, are not simply demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Like Occupy, the fast food workers are pioneering new forms of worker organization, largely out of necessity imposed by the nature of the fast food industry. The collective bargaining model of the NLRA simply does not apply to fast food, with its very small units of production and high employee turnover, and workers are responding by making demands that do not fit within that paradigm. Consider also the struggles of the Immokalee, Florida, workers, whose innovative campaigns have succeeded in breaking the usual labor mold.
This means that liberals would need to reserve pre-judgment of worker demands as excessive or outside the box or too radical, and that radicals would need to likewise reserve pre-judgment of demands as too conservative or beside the point of class struggle. Mostly, for those of us who are writers and/or activists, it means listening to those who are most often ignored with open minds.