The political world

There’s a pretty interesting, although a bit unwieldy, discussion going on right now in a little corner of the left-blogopshere over whether left-leaning neoliberalism is politically sustainable; and, if it’s not, what alternatives can its discontents propose? It’s not really anything that this scene hasn’t combed over already, but I agree with Kevin Drum when he says that, “figuring out how to [reinvigorate the mass-movement politics] that powered earlier eras of liberal reform…is the central task of the new decade”; so it’s ground worth treading over a few times, at least.

To recap [warning: lots of block-quoting to follow]: This iteration began, more or less, with this Doug Henwood post, criticizing Matt Yglesias for focusing so much on changing the Fed’s inflation target as the “single-best” way to combat unemployment. Henwood finds this annoying, and indicative of what he sees as a great flaw in left-neoliberal thought:

Back to the more theoretical level. Orthodox types—and I’m including Yglesias, who describes his political leanings as “neoliberal” on his Facebook profile page—usually prefer monetary to fiscal remedies. Why? Because they operate through the financial markets and don’t mess with labor or product markets or the class structure. A jobs program and other New Deal-ish stuff would mess with labor and product markets and the class structure, and so it’s mostly verboten to talk that way. From an elite point of view, the primary problem with a jobs program—and with employment-boosting infrastructure projects—is that they would put a floor under employment, making workers more confident and less likely to do what the boss says, and less dependent on private employers for a paycheck. It would increase the power of labor relative to capital. I’m not sure that Yglesias understands that explicitly, but it’s undoubtedly part of his unexamined “common sense” as a semi-mainstream pundit.

In response, Henry over at Crooked Timber writes the following:

Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. To put it more succinctly – even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics.

Yglesias responds, as he tends to in these discussions, with some passive-aggressive sarcasm — but in essence complains that, with these debates, there’s not enough There there:

Having read this and various people agreeing with it, I have no idea what it is that we’re disagreeing about. Neoliberals on this telling, favor progressive taxation. Non-neoliberals criticize this agenda as not politically workable in the long-term. And they counterpose as their alternative, more workable agenda, . . . what? […]

The moment someone comes up with a workable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

Farrell responds today, writing:

He seems to be muddling three very different things together – “policy proposals,” “theories of politics,” and “actionable programs to rebuild the American left.” “Policy proposals” are clearly what he’s most comfortable with – proposed institutional or regulatory changes that would lead to attractive policy outcomes. And they are obviously good and important things to debate.

But equally obviously, they are not the whole of politics nor anywhere near it. Policy is not made, in the US or anywhere else, through value-neutral debate among technocrats about the relative efficiency of different proposed schemes. Hence, the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. Obvious examples include policies on campaign spending, or union organization, which directly affect the ability of political actors to mobilize in the future. […]

More immediately and practically, a theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives). This is not to say that politics should rein supreme over policy – it is to say that there are often tradeoffs between policy benefits and political sustainability. As Max Weber says, politicians need to hold the ethic of ends, and the ethic of means in their head at the same time if they are to fulfil their vocation – in this instance they not only need to think about the abstract desirability of a policy, but whether it supports or undermines the coalition that makes this and other desirable policies possible. Sometimes, a politically costly policy measure is worthwhile (after all, politicians are elected to do something while they are in office) – but unless you have some theory of politics, you can’t begin to think about the pros and cons.

In this, Farrell is echoing Erik Loomis, who wrote yesterday:

I think I and left neo-liberals all more or less want the same things–a more robust economy, better jobs, universal healthcare, sensible transportation policy, a vigorous fight against climate change, etc. But it seems that left neo-liberals sometimes feel that mass movements are outdated and irrelevant for creating this change. Certainly they are right that we need smart people working in think tanks and creating policy, but Henry is right that this does not create a self-sustaining politics.

Does policy follow grassroots politics or can successful policy be created without a grassroots base? I’d argue for the former–being right about policy rarely matters in American politics. It’s about how many people you can get out to support you, regardless of a position’s merits. Conservatives understand this well. The Tea Party supports terrible policy on nearly every issue. But that hasn’t stopped it from moving the nation significantly to the right. […]

So to sum up–being right about policy is often irrelevant unless you have a mass movement of people behind you ready to engage in collective action to see those policies enacted. And I don’t think left neo-liberals often understand that. This is why I get so outraged when, for example, left neo-liberals support education “reform” that weakens teacher unions. We probably all agree that there are bad teachers out there and it would be great to get rid of them. But by weakening the one educational institution that can best mobilize people to protect our schools from conservative attacks, these reforms often further right-wing politics even if they theoretically achieve a left neo-liberal policy point.

Allll riiiight. Phew.

So a couple of thoughts on this. [Another warning: this, too, is a bit unwieldy]

For one thing, I think that to some degree you’re seeing this division as a consequence of people on the nominal left approaching politics with maybe not entirely but nevertheless significantly different modes of thought. Yglesias, DeLong et al are more policy-minded and (for lack of a better word) math-y people. Loomis, on the other hand, is a historian; Farrell is a political scientist whose work I’m not especially familiar with, but whose book has a decidedly historically-minded tilt. It would be an oversimplification to say that we’re dealing with wonks vs. historians, here — but probably not a gross one.

True to form, my own education and areas of expertise (to use a self-aggrandizing and questionably-deserved word) tend decidedly towards the historical; and while I think Yglesias is right in complaining that, to some degree, we’re not focusing enough upon something he can really survey and, if necessary, defend, I also find Farrell and Loomis’s critiques of left-neoliberalism to be important and in significant regards persuasive. Policy, obviously, is very important. But the politics of politics is not some tawdry after-thought; or at least it shouldn’t be, if the generally shared goals of leftists and left-neoliberals are to be achieved.

And the unwillingness or inability on the part of some left-neoliberals to recognize that political theory matters — even if it can’t be quantified or even necessarily systematized — is not, to my mind, a minor or primarily aesthetic difference. Because until there is a greater recognition on the part of the institutional left in America that politics is not solely or even primarily the province of philosopher-kings — as well as a concomitant understanding that a successful political movement will have to accept, grapple with, and eventually implement power — I seriously doubt that liberals and progressives in America will be able to address the challenges before us.

I have my theories about where this disconnect comes from (largely influenced by Theda Skocpol, a former professor of Yglesias’s) but this post is already too long as is; so I suppose I’ll save them for another time. What I’d like to emphasize here is that those especially wedded to the highly technocratic view of politics perhaps fail to remember that politically successful movements have never relied solely or even primarily upon their eggheads and deep thinkers. No one doubted Adlai Stevens’ erudition; many considered FDR to be of questionable intellectual heft. But which one would you say was a better liberal pol?

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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