Published October 26, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Leftist or Liberal?
Where Do You Fit?
Modern liberalismgoes back a long way. Let’s start with John Locke in the 17thcentury. He came up with the idea that governments exist to serve the needs of the people. Obvious to us now, but directly opposed to the divine right of monarchs. He was influential even in his own lifetime. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 establishing the supremacy of Parliament, was a Lockian idea.
All contemporary democracies are fundamentally liberal structures. The tension with the authoritarian right visible today in the United States and Europe has more to do with anxiety about who should be part of the polity than what that polity should provide its members.
In the 19th century, tensions emerged with the first industrial revolution. Karl Marx became the icon for those who saw politics as a conflict of power wielded by the owners of capital over those who produce their wealth (workers). That was then. Now, anticipating a “fourth industrial revolution,” it is becoming clear that wealth tends to perpetuate itself – it doesn’t really depend on workers at all! Workers have lost most of the power gained over 200 years of struggle and liberal governance.
Economic prospects seem bleak for all who aren’t plugged into the capitalist wealth machine (mostly residing on Wall Street). It’s the current version of Marx’s alienation of labor. Yet, we’re loathe to divorce ourselves completely from the ideas of freedom and social contract in that very old liberal tradition. The liberal solution to the problem of alienation is based on disincentives for “excessive” accumulation of capital. Primarily, redistribution of wealth via taxation. Real leftists reject this solution as not going far enough to redress the imbalance of political power. And, political power is more than mere economic resources – it’s cultural. Liberals retort that leftists are guilty of “class reductionism.” Liberal societies, after all, allow for social mobility, right?
Class is the focus for the Left in the 21stcentury more than wealth — leave wealth to the liberals, they say. Yes, money is a common denominator in acquisition of political power (especially in the U.S.), but what the Left wants is a reversal of the dynamic behind ascendance of “elites.” Liberals may choose to make everybody happy with more money (Universal Basic Income is the current hot topic in liberal, and neoliberal, circles), but Real Leftists want to throw out the “money people” (Wall Street) from government altogether, feeling that an entirely different class should be in charge. Paradoxically, in the U.S., Donald Trump was supposed to be the kind of person the working class could get behind. Except, of course, he is the bastard child of Wall Street to begin with. Could a Bernie Sanders be the best answer? It’s populism, whether left or right.
Liberals generally counter populism with attempts at making everybody’s life more comfortable. It’s not about power, but comfort. If you give people enough stuff, maybe they’ll go away. Pitchforks come from more than discomfort, says the Left.
If the real contest in democracies is between classes and how much influence they can wield in government, then we should explore what defines these classes – the ins versus the outs. While it sometimes seems that multi-party parliamentary systems have more flexibility in accommodating class struggle, American political history also provides examples of realignments of the two major parties over time.
The Democratic Party of today is a strange (by historic standards) coalition of apparently divergent class interests – Wall Street capitalists find common cause there with communities of color and others who define themselves as marginalized, and with the well-educated minority of the population seeking to protect their privilege. The Republican Party seems to consist of a combination of “self-made” (allegedly) capitalists and culturally conservative religious communities, provincial rather than cosmopolitan in outlook (“people like me” versus “the other”). This bipolar party structure leaves those with strong left-wing convictions no home. It’s usually a story of compromise for American leftists – how much can they stomach to call themselves a Democrat?
So, what do American “leftists” believe? They despise liberals as much as the right-wingers in the Republican Party do. Yet they understand the economic structure of society to be based on exploitation of the labor of people like them. They no longer believe they can achieve “the American Dream” of one day becoming a successful capitalist themselves, probably not even their children. Privilege is so baked into the “elite” classes, who mobilize to protect it, that extraordinary political means are necessary to change it. They don’t want crumbs from the liberal establishment – they want power! How do they plan to seize it?
I have not met a single American Bolshevik – people who believe in a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. If there ever were such animals, they probably all died out, or were co-opted, sometime around mid-century, during that unprecedented postwar prosperity with high participation of organized labor. Racial identifications with the Left persisted into the 1970s. But co-optation, and intimidation via police violence, mostly put an end to that. Women and young people? We’ve seen some organizing success with women recently (#MeToo movement), but young people will likely be co-opted by forgiveness of student loan debt – and higher starting salaries. That remains to be seen.
Anybody still committed to the Left imagines using social media to mobilize large numbers of people behind left-wing political candidates – and, doing it fast enough to save the planet from ecocide. The media message is crucial, but the goal is to ultimately seize victory through the ballot box. They expect great resistance here, however. Voter suppression and gerrymandering of legislative districts present real threats. And the judicial branch of government appears less friendly with each passing year. But seizing power democratically has long been the hallmark of Democratic Socialists and social democratsalike – the latter not necessarily committed to eliminating capitalism, anyway, hence of questionable “leftist” credentials.
Despite all the sniping at the “Democratic establishment” and resentment of “academic elites,” there remains a basic respect for democracy among the American Left – they have bought into the fundamental liberalism of the last three centuries. My bias here tells me that the liberal project is working. The differences between leftist and liberal will lead to a synthesis: a “Left-liberal” or “Liberal Socialist.” More leftists will be co-opted into the elites, convincing others that, given more attainable education, they too can become part of the governing elite.
The only ones left behind will be those who choose entrenched community traditions over current economic/political reality: otherwise known as conservatives. Looking inward and backward always succumbs to looking outward and forward.