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Rocking the boat

from David Ruccio

As I argued a couple of days ago, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. In short, they’ve rocked the neoliberal boat.

The question is, where does this leave us?

Thomas Edsall thinks it means we’ve reached the end of class-based politics. I’m not convinced.

Yes, the response to the problems with neoliberal globalization has challenged and cut across traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters, in the United States as in Western Europe. But that doesn’t mean the differences between the Left and the Right have disintegrated or that class politics have become irrelevant.

To take but one of Edsall’s examples, just because there’s no one-to-one correspondence between people who have lost and gained from existing forms of globalization and those who voted for or against Donald Trump doesn’t mean class has declined in political importance, much less that it’s been displaced by a simple “globalism versus nationalism” opposition. Plenty of voters in economic distress voted for Trump and for Clinton—in part because of their different ways of framing class issues, but also because class politics have always been overlain with other, salient identities, resentments, and desires. The 2016 presidential election was no exception.  

What this means is battles take place not only between political parties, including newly resurgent ones, but also within those parties. Thus, for example, the mainstream of the Democratic Party was and remains wholly committed to a liberal version of neoliberalism, and its inability to respond to the “economic distress”—the class grievances—of large sections of the American working-class led to its loss last November (which means, of course, the battle inside the Democratic Partyhas become even more intense). Similarly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric—although certainly not his actual economic and social program—galvanized many who were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in Washington. And, of course, the response to those different positions was affected by the framing of the issue of globalization (for example, Trump’s focus on job losses versus Clinton’s call for more education and reskilling), race (Trump’s dog-whistle invoking of the “inner city” and the need to build a wall in contrast to Clinton’s calls for diversity and inclusion), and much else.

But, in contrast to what Edsall sees, the future of the American left does not lie in mimicking Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of France’s National Front. While Macron’s campaign did represent a rejection of the “racialized and xenophobic politics” that served as one of the pillars of Trump’s victory, there is nothing in Macron’s proposed domestic policy reforms that represent anything other than a French version of “left neoliberalism,” and therefore a real threat to the French working-class.

No, we’re going to have to look elsewhere for an alternative common sense.

Espen Hammer suggests we return to the “rocking of the boat” that has been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture.

It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.

It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.

Finally, Bhaskar Sunkara suggests that the history of socialism suggests the way forward.

Stripped down to its essence, and returned to its roots, socialism is an ideology of radical democracy. In an era when liberties are under attack, it seeks to empower civil society to allow participation in the decisions that affect our lives. A huge state bureaucracy, of course, can be just as alienating and undemocratic as corporate boardrooms, so we need to think hard about the new forms that social ownership could take.

Some broad outlines should already be clear: Worker-owned cooperatives, still competing in a regulated market; government services coordinated with the aid of citizen planning; and the provision of the basics necessary to live a good life (education, housing and health care) guaranteed as social rights. In other words, a world where people have the freedom to reach their potentials, whatever the circumstances of their birth.

As I see it, that conception of socialism—an expansion of democracy that capitalism promises but simply can’t permit—is capable of satisfying both Edsall’s aversion to a “racialized and xenophobic politics” and Hammer’s utopian “rocking of the boat.”

It’s the start of something new precisely because, in Sunkara’s words, it “allows so many now crushed by inequity to participate in the creation of a new world.”


It should perhaps come as no surprise that Sunkara’s view of the contemporary relevance of socialism, appearing as it did in the New York Times, should invite a backlash reminiscent of the kind of red-baiting and ahistorical analysis that socialists and Marxists were often subjected to during the Cold War. In this case, Jonathan Chait [ht: sm] uses Venezuela as his whipping-boy, decrying the authoritarian elements of the left-wing governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, without any mention of the upper-class roots of the contemporary opposition or of the crisis in Venezuelan society (exemplified in El Caracazo, in 1989) and the subsequent election of Chávez a decade later. No, Chait can’t let actual political and historical analysis get in the way of his broad-brush indictment of what he, echoing generations of liberal anticommunists, considers to be “the inherent authoritarianism that is embedded in an illiberal thought system.”

  1. July 19, 2017 at 9:44 am

    It’s interesting to note that during the height of the “red scare” of the 1950’s and the anti-communism of Presidential administrations from Truman to Obama socialism flourished all over America. Electric cooperatives were founded and expanded, credit unions and community banks continued to operate and expand, and farmer, consumer, and manufacturing cooperatives operated successfully all over the US. Medical cooperatives operated. And, of course long-standing communist cities and towns existed in many parts of the US (both religious and secular). Also, city-owned, and operated utility service providers were common. So why did these not fall under the glaring eye of HUAC, the FBI, DHS, etc? I suggest they did not because they were a long-standing part of American life, but also because most looked at them as Americans exercising their right to organize to take care of themselves. And, unlike labor unions they weren’t perceived to threaten either the profits or continued existence of private business. Even today so-called “freedom caucus” members find it difficult or impossible to successfully attack these institutions. Supports my contention that capitalism isn’t necessary for the existence of a successful economy. Only top to bottom democracy.

    • robert locke
      July 21, 2017 at 8:21 am

      As a good historian, scoot back, to the red scares of A Mitchell Palmer, W Wilson’s son-in-law, who sought, as attorney general, to wipe out the red menace, at a time when socialism was thriving in America. The National Security League did its best, in congressional investigations to ferret out the reds, but, bottom up democracy was not crushed. The pessimists of our day should not be such men and women of little faith.

      • July 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        Robert, I try to keep my faith up. American business and industry has been anti-communist and anti-labor since the 1870’s. The two were conflated into a single “menace.” Add to that the rise of “international” communism in the USSR, China, etc. after WWII, and the tense relations among all the Allied nations after the War. Voila capitalism and democracy are conflated and economics becomes the defender of that union. Except for perhaps Bernie Sanders all major politicians in the US today support and defend this union. Despite that capitalism and democracy are distinctly different ways of organizing and explaining human society.

      • robert locke
        July 22, 2017 at 8:05 am

        What you note, Ken, (that capitalism and democracy are conflated and economics became the defender of that union”) should be a constant theme in the conversation about the politization of economics on this blog. It is not.

        As for economics as a “science”, there is an assumption that it established itself as a “science” (perhaps the triumph of neoclassical economics in economic university studies after WWII is the claim), but that is also not true. Thirty years ago, in the mid1980s, I wrote two chapters in my book (Cambridge University Press, 1989) about the efforts to establish neoclassical economics, economics, as a science, and how that effort failed. That was thirty years ago.
        Even the people who tried to establish the validity of neoclassical economics abandoned the task. In the first chapter in that 1989 book, I use D McCloskey’s writing to show how neoclassical economic principles were used to change our interpretation about the “failure” of the late Victorian entrepreneur.” (In the Chapter “The New paradigm”); In the second chapter, The New Paradigm Revisited, I use D McCloskey’s essay on the Rhetoric of Economics to demonstrate how she reversed herself about economics as science. When I wrote that 30 years also I surmise, most of the people now writing to denounce the scientific pretention of economics had accepted it as science. But there is a long historical record of those who never did. Welcome to the club your latecomers.

  2. July 21, 2017 at 11:22 am

    “It is a tradition, beginning with Thomas More, that involves not only thought experiments, of what might be, but also—and perhaps even more important—a critique of the existing order, and therefore what needs to be changed.”

    What a delight to find someone who has actually read “Utopia” and therefore understands that while part 2 may be wishful thinking, Part 1 was serious (indeed seminal) critique of the existing order. Marx has a lot to answer for in helping the Liberal establishment trivialise this.

    Ken, your survey is indeed interesting: you at your best, laying out your own case as against putting down others. I wish what you say had been true of Britain post 1980. Thatcher’s mob abolished our local communities’ “right to organize to take care of themselves”, privatising our utilities and requiring local government to have its everyday work done by contractors.

    • July 21, 2017 at 1:25 pm

      Dave, Trump and his folks have a plan to do in the US what Thatcher did in the UK 30 years ago. Opposition to this is fierce but may not be strong enough to stop it.

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