One of the recurring criticisms of my recent post on neoliberalism was that I didn’t offer a clear alternative. The implication being, I think, that the absence of an articulated alternative made my essay just worthless bellyaching. I couldn’t help but think of Thatcher’s famous dictum: “There is no alternative.” Discussion over.
As for the critique, it was only partly true. A good many of neoliberalism’s failures could be remedied simply by reversing some of its constitutive policies. Achieve full employment again, re-regulate the financial sector, put the law—and the federal government—back on labor’s side. In the present environment, with the present configurations of power, none of these things will happen. But they’re still a political agenda.
At the same time, they’re all reactive. That’s the reactionary’s game. We on the left are supposed to— and should—offer something wholly different, something that can stand alone, something that isn’t directly derived from, contingent on, or framed in the right’s terms.
I’ve argued before that the left needs to crystallize the dichotomy on democracy: The right doesn’t like it, we do. We view it not merely as a system of government or a necessary evil, but as an egalitarian, potentially emancipatory force that should permeate society and structure our relations in various spheres. In their more candid moments, conservatives will acknowledge their antipathy toward popular democracy. And (right) libertarians—well, many of them absolutely trumpet their disdain for democracy. They pen books called the The Myth of the Rational Voter, take umbrage at the curtailing of the boss’s prerogative in the workplace, and concoct conceptions of democracy which evacuate the term of all meaning and substance.
The democratic left should seize on this fissure, expose it, and widen it. Deepening democracy should be one of our core commitments, reflected in our programmatic prescriptions. When evaluating individual policies, one of the cardinal questions should be: How does it/ will it affect participation, attitudes toward the state, and existing power relations?
A couple years back, two political scientists, Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman, published a fantastic paper [PDF] entitled “Political Consequences of the Carceral State.” In it, the pair argued that a major drawback of mass incarceration had been overlooked: its deleterious effect on political participation, especially voting. When one’s most “frequent, visible, and direct contact with government” takes the form of a “prison, court, or police station, rather than a welfare office, state capital, or city hall,” it’s no surprise that many will adopt a jaundiced view of the state and opt not to vote.
Here, Weaver dukes it out with Heather MacDonald on Bloggingheads:
Mass incarceration, it should go without saying, is abhorrent. It would be abhorrent even if it somehow increased political participation. My larger point is, though, participation and democracy should enter the equation whether we’re talking about mass incarceration or unionization.
If we begin to think and talk in these terms, the left can craft a viable alternative to the neoliberal consensus.