No, I’m Not Tom Frank’s Doppelgänger—and Other Clarifications

I’ve been meaning to link to, and clarify, my recent piece at Jacobin.

Posted last week, the essay is on Occupy ‘s aversion to politics and it is, I’ll concede, quite critical of the movement. To be honest, I feel like a bit of a curmudgeon, dumping on Occupy as they do vital work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I was in New York City last weekend and helped out in Staten Island, an area with a minimal Occupy presence compared to the Rockaways. As a result, I wasn’t able to get a sense of what the post-hurricane resurgence might mean, if anything, for the democratic left more broadly. Instrumentalist metrics aside, though, this is the time when mutual aid, overtly political or not, is most beneficent.

So if my affection didn’t come through in my essay, let me state it here explicitly: I still love Occupy, foibles and all, and Sandy has only reinforced that. I don’t want to be thought of as Tom Frank’s dismissive doppelgänger. I retain a visceral affinity for Occupy, the kind of affinity that develops when you see a previously moribund, dejected left awakened and people’s lives transformed in a few short months.

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Ezra Klein and “Substance”

Bhaskar Sunkara takes on one of his favorite targets, Ezra Klein:

Klein is the archetype for modern American liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He’s a centrist technocrat, obsessed over policy, ignoring politics, honestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel sheet. When he told Alec MacGillis that “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do,” he was just embodying a new center-left commonsense: liberals are anti-political.

Unfortunately, anti-political proclivities are present across the political spectrum (even on the radical left, as I argue in a forthcoming Jacobin essay). Sunkara is right, though, to pay special attention to the “solution-oriented” strand of American  liberalism, of which Klein and company are avatars. Because of their prominence, they’ve had an appreciable impact on American political discourse, and perceptions of the left.

Klein defines himself as a classic positivist would: “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.”

Even in his days as a liberal, he adopted a similar attitude, derisively dismissing principle-based debates. Here’s Klein talking with an exasperated Will Wilkinson nearly six years ago. (Bonus: watch the rest of that conversation, and you’ll get to see Klein associate himself with the proletariat and describe himself as “about as close to a democratic socialist as you come in America”!)

Klein casts himself as the pragmatist, running the numbers while Wilkinson’s head is in the sky, focused on immaterial things like Rawls’s theory of justice. Wilkinson is no man of the left, but he’s correct in this case: you have to establish the ends before you can determine the efficacy of the means. Values and principles aren’t self-evident.

Often chided for its abstract philosophizing, the left has to lucidly articulate a compelling set of moral principles if it’s to advance a viable political project. Discussions of principles can quickly become abstruse, but there has to be a happy medium between Klein-style policy pragmatism and esoteric theorizing. Theory can be divorced from practice, but the reverse is a danger as well.

To me, the most insidious effect Klein et al. have had is this: Those who want to be considered relevant and substantive basically have to comport themselves in the same way.

If you aren’t citing a graph, you’re either a partisan hack or an irrelevant academic.

Why White Papers Aren’t Enough

In his 2006 work On Political Equality, the great Robert Dahl tells us why:

“I want to suggest instead that what actually drives the search for fairness is not pure reason but emotions and passions. Reason may serve to guide action toward justice. It may (and I believe should) assist us in choosing the most efficient means to good ends. But what impels action are emotions like those I’ve already named, which range from compassion to envy, anger, and hatred.”

Some Thoughts on the Frase-Sunkara Plan

Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara, two of the brightest minds the young left has to offer, call for federalizing and expanding the social welfare state in this month’s issue of In These Times:

This might seem like a poor moment to call for expanding the welfare state. But the timing has never been better. Austerity has only worsened unemployment and stagnated wages, and only a concerted effort to employ idle workers and boost purchasing power can revive growth and restore employment. Despite fear-mongering about the effects of budget deficits, the government is still able to borrow money virtually interest-free. And contrary to right-wing claims of out-of-control spending, taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. We can, and should, ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, a secure retirement and a livable income, regardless of labor market uncertainties.

Most on the Left would agree with these goals—the question has always been how to achieve them.

We think we have an answer. We propose a new anti-austerity coalition united by the immediate demand that certain social spending burdens, currently borne by states and municipalities, be federalized. Almost all states are legally required to keep balanced budgets, making it unfeasible for them to employ deficit spending to address to a cyclical economic downturn. Even if these laws were changed, states would still face far more difficulties in this arena than the federal government. States could never borrow money on as favorable terms as the United States can, and they haven’t been printing their own currencies since the Articles of Confederation.

Simply put, without centralization, true social democracy in America is impossible. Once achieved, progressives could pursue policies that not only immediately improve working-class lives, but also lay the groundwork for more radical reforms in the future.

They continue:

For too long, liberals have focused on technocratic policy analysis, seeking granular remedies to isolated problems. Such solutions lack the kind of sweeping political vision that wins and sustains policy reforms. Conversely, radicals have for too long made rhetorical appeals without any grounding in political realities. The plan outlined below is a corrective to both trends, written with the understanding that policy and politics are inextricably linked.

I think Frase and Sunkara might oversell their plan—it’s less a “sweeping political vision” than a proposal to overhaul important parts of the American state—but it’s still a compelling strategy that is, indeed, mindful of the interplay between policy and politics. I support it.

My critical thoughts on the essay, then, are addendums, caveats, and minor quibbles.

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Full Employment and Easy Money

Over the weekend, Matt Yglesias was nice enough to respond to my post on full employment; Elias Isquith has since offered a riposte to Yglesias.


“Yglesias isn’t wrong to focus so much on full employment. Any left-of-center person should consider it a paramount goal. Where he (seemingly) missteps is in his explanation of why America had a generation of full employment era and how it can do it again. Monetary policy is no doubt important, as is infrastructure, education, and so on. But none of these universally beneficial ends can be reached simply through journalists, experts, and professional do-gooders begging through their respective media platforms. You need muscle to steer the ship of state. You need unions.”

This is a common critique* of wonky liberals, of which Yglesias is an exemplar. They can throw graph after graph at you, but they draw a blank when you ask them how they’ll get their shiny, unimpeachable policy proposals passed. Instead you’re offered statements of action like this: “Full employment policies are great and we ought to be demanding them from our macroeconomic stabilization policymakers rather than accepting excuses about how it’s hard.”

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The Awesomeness of Full Employment

Full employment: Rarely has a policy aim with such radical ramifications appeared in such a wonky, stolid package. The subject of a dispassionate Brookings white paper, yes. But a way to dramatically reorient power relations in the workplace? Couldn’t be. I mean, Matt Yglesias, a bête noire for the anti-neoliberal left, relentlessly pushes the idea for god’s sake.

But its wonky exterior belies its transformative potential, as Chris Maisano explains in the current issue of Jacobin (the piece is print-only, but you should be a subscriber anyways):

“We want full employment precisely because it weakens the disciplinary powers of the boss and opens up possibilities for less work and more leisure. A full-employment economy raises the bargaining power and living standards of the working class in the short run and erodes the social power of capital in the political economy as a whole, opening up possibilities for radical social transformation.”

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Democracy, Participation, and a Left Program

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.

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The Failures of Neoliberalism

When confronted with failure, there’s a familiar retort that emanates from both extremes of the political spectrum: their prescriptions simply “haven’t been tried.” There were some complicating factors which scuttled the whole thing, or the prescribed measures weren’t enacted in full, or they weren’t given enough time to work. Therefore, it would be unfair to appraise the political project in question.

One iteration of this defense was the attempt to absolve actually-existing Communism of its sins; apprised of the litany of neoliberal failures, the right’s remonstrations are taking on a similar form. Just as the objective preconditions weren’t satisfied in the case of Soviet Communism, government retrenchment hasn’t been severe enough for neoliberal purists. If we just cut more and imposed more austerity, growth would take off, and all would prosper.

The argument of inchoateness could be true, of course. It’s possible that the regulations and social programs and institutions we’ve established merely distort the market and prevent us from living in a better world: Unions don’t really enhance the pay, dignity, autonomy, and bargaining power of workers. In actuality, they help union members and hurt everyone everyone else. They put the breaks on that ineffable vehicle of prosperity, the free market. Once these impediments are swept away and untrammeled neoliberalism is triumphant, all will be right with the world. This is all very possible, if highly implausible.

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Richard Rorty, “Leftists,” and the CTU Strike

I just finished reading Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, which consists of a few of the late philosopher’s lectures. It doesn’t take long to realize Rorty’s use of the term “leftist” is dissimilar from the conventional application of the appellation. His conception is more expansive. We should dispense with the leftist-liberal distinction, Rorty contends, and affix the “leftist” label to all denizens of the left (Conor Williams uses the same terminology).


“A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurter and John L. Lewis. W.E.B. Du Bois and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice. They will all be seen as having been ‘ on the Left.'”

What unites us is more than what divides us. Claiming purity or drawing clear lines between ideological segments of the Left is petty, schismatic, unhelpful. On one level, I appreciate Rorty’s opposition to sectarianism, a disease that has long afflicted the left. But, to bring it up to present-day struggles, isn’t there a difference between, in Rorty’s language, pro-CTU strike leftists and anti-CTU strike leftists? Is it really sectarian to observe that many on the center-left quickly adopted right-wing talking points when a union with a little power and a little chutzpah went on strike? Aren’t these differences in support for the labor movement real and of more consequence than latter day skirmishes over “social fascism” and the like?

Even if one shares Rorty’s desire to overcome gratuitous distinctions, it’s clear to me why some internecine distinctions need to be made. I reject Rorty’s use of the word because I reject indiscriminate, overly capacious taxonomies that have a tendency to muddy more than clarify. (In his eagerness to elide difference, Rorty also whitewashes history. He conveniently forgets about liberals’ role in suppressing their fellow “leftists”. Still, this is an improvement over Sean Wilentz’s view.)

Polarizing moments bring out latent differences. The CTU strike is over, but we still know which side some “leftists” were on.