A couple years ago, Adolph Reed published an essential essay on the capitulation of the American left to neoliberalism, austerity, and hopelessness. It followed, as you’d predict, that the New Republic published a hippie-punching piece in response, written by Mike Konczal. With eminent condescension, Konczal explained that in our Fukuyaman world, there’s just no place for actual left politics:
This is a total cliché, but it remains the case: After the “End of History” it’s not clear what will animate genuinely leftist politics. Where liberals have been mildly emboldened by the economic crisis, actual leftists continue to seem lost, unable to turn the middle of the plate pitch of a global financial crisis to their advantage.
And yet if Reed’s piece hasn’t aged well, it’s because he was too pessimistic about the radical left, not because he didn’t embrace an absurd theory of history that has always existed to enforce capitalist orthodoxy.
Look at the United States two years later. We’ve got BlackLivesMatter, one of the most invigorating and necessary protest movements of my lifetime; the Fight for $15 movement, a vital and organized labor movement that has drawn in workers of color like never before; an emboldened campus left, calling for greater racial equality and justice in their own communities; vast throngs of Americans viewing socialism favorably, particularly among the young, who in some polls favor socialism over capitalism in large majorities; a reinvigorated socialist press spreading ideas and speaking to a new generation of radicals; and a presidential campaign by a 74 year old self-identified socialist Jew from Brooklyn who has had remarkable primary success despite opposing the most organized machine politician in our country and despite facing immense obstruction from the Democratic party apparatus and the establishment media. That candidate has absolutely dominated the youth vote, to a degree that is almost unthinkable. Perfectly stodgy old observers are predicting a left wing turn in American politics. That’s where the left is: nothing you can call victory, as precarious as ever in a system designed to stamp it out, and yet vibrant, emboldened, committed, and alive. Alive of necessity, inspired by events and by a system that is unjust by design.
It turns out that after The End of History what animates genuinely left politics is workplace tyranny, poverty, immiseration, racism, injustice, state violence, and all of capitalism’s other monsters. You know: the stuff liberalism has proven it can’t fix.
Liberalism, meanwhile, looks like the rudderless ideology, unable to articulate its basic priorities and unwilling to fight for those it can name. After 8 years of a neoliberal technocrat in the White House, inequality — the issue that Konczal identifies as liberalism’s bread and butter — is as yawning and implacable as ever. The economy has technically been in recovery for years, but for many Americans there has been no recovery at all, with the worst off only getting worse off. However “mildly emboldened” liberals may have been, Wall Street bonuses continued their forever climb, with their total last year representing double the amount of all full-time minimum wage earners combined. Obamacare, the crown jewel of wonk liberalism, is riddled with problems. The highly-touted co-op system has collapsed. Many people now forced to spend money on coverage that they then can’t afford to use. It turns out that a health care law written for the health care industry mostly benefits the health care industry. Meanwhile Obama’s successor to the crown of high chief of American liberalism, Hillary Clinton, openly rejects the kind of single-payer system that could actually fix things. Higher education costs continue to spiral out of control, with the Obama administration making no committed effort to passing broad student loan forgiveness. Clinton, again, has opposed universal free college, further defining liberals as opponents of meaningful change. Meanwhile, our refusal to actually withdraw from our imperial misadventures leaves us embroiled in too many conflicts to count, killing covertly with drones and special forces but always killing.
People like Adolph Reed criticize liberalism because liberalism has failed. It’s failed to restrain our implacable financial sector. It’s failed to slow the tide of income inequality. It’s failed to make education affordable. It’s failed to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. It’s failed to address the problems of the millions of Americans who have been left behind in a winner-take-all economy, or to even attempt to. Worse, it has now gone further than the usual “well there’s Republicans, you know, so therefore we can never do anything” fatalism that is liberalism’s stock in trade. It has now gone full-on antileft, using the occasion of the Sanders campaign to attack treasured commitments of the American left like single payer. In doing so, it leaves itself no place to go, giving us no concrete vision of what the long-term goals of the ideology are beyond more vague cultural liberalism and superficial diversity among the elite. Liberalism has failed.
Or, perhaps, it’s more true to say that liberalism has succeeded, if indeed we take its actual goal as preserving the class hierarchy through different means that conservatism. In this vision, liberalism is not the antagonist to conservatism it’s typically viewed as, but a species of conservatism, one which uses intermittent and inadequate pity-charity programs to placate the exploited masses and keep them in line with capitalism’s desires. It’s “the politics of an ongoing process in which the dominant capitalist class has defused potentially explosive threats to its class power by selectively incorporating the demands of the dominated into its program.” Konczal invokes the spirit of FDR; Roosevelt was indeed an archetypal liberal in the sense meant by this left-wing critique, in that he was a wealthy racist who passed a legislative agenda that had the effect, along with some salutary consequences, of kneecapping the American labor movement that had utterly transformed the workplace in the prior decades. In that sense, liberalism could be said to be working. But working for whom?
What Reed knows is what more and more Americans are coming to grips with: that our problems cannot be reformed away. Inequality and injustice are not an unfortunate error within our system but are instead baked directly into the foundations of our system, which was built by capital to preserve capital’s privileges. And so liberalism comes to seem more and more like a larval stage for politics, a period of arrested development before one decides whether they are bent on preserving the status quo, and thus becomes a full-out conservative, or bent on changing it, and thus becomes a proud anti-capitalist. Today, as obviously as at any point, the question is simple: socialism or barbarism?