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Blindspots, Leftishism, and LGM

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A bunch of thoughts on Freddie DeBoer’s thoughtful post on the progressive blogosphere and leftism. I’m going to divide this post into “serious thought” and “navel gazing,” so feel free to skip the second half:

1. There’s some risk in conflating leftist political thought (as DeBoar appears to be conceiving of it) with the American labor movement. It’s obviously a long and complicated discussion, but the relationship between institutional labor and leftist thought in the United States in the 20th century was deeply strained at times. DeBoar is a touch shifty on this subject, but what he does say in one update is that he’s looking for a “pro-labor union presence online.” I think that the questions of support for organized labor in the progressive blogosphere and the question of dissent from the neoliberal consensus are related, but aren’t precisely the same.

2. Since its birth, when the progressive blogosphere has been pushed to make a choice between the “fight” and the advocacy of identifiably leftist policies, it has tended to choose the former. The choice of the progressive blogosphere in 2004 was centrist Howard Dean, rather than either Kerry or Edwards, in spite of the fact that both of the latter were identifiably to the left of Dean on most economic policy issues. In this sense, I don’t think we’re really seeing anything new in the problems that DeBoar identifies. In personal terms, I’m reminded of the attack that Erik Loomis was subjected to a few years back when he took a position on the continuance of the Iraq War that was fully in accord with that taken by Howard Dean during the election, but had become at odds with the consensus in the progressive blogosphere. This was particular interesting because Erik had been a committed leftist blogospheric voice in precisely the terms that DeBoar is asking for (pro-labor, anti-neoliberal consensus), but the only time he received much attention at all was when he strayed slightly from the latest approved progressive position on the war. These days Erik doesn’t write much on labor issues, largely because no one in the progressive blogosphere seems to care.

3. Regarding his specific critiques of Yglesias and Klein, I found his case against the latter so formless as to not merit much of a response. I think he has a much more interesting argument about Yglesias, because Yglesias has self-consciously made a “turn” in what would appear to be a neoliberal direction. I can’t find the original post, but Yglesias made the argument at one point that with the success of the ACA, the basic foundations of the American welfare state were set, and we could start thinking about government regulation in different terms. There are ways in which this statement is correct, but it certainly has some strongly anti-progressive implications for people concerned about specific rights and protections for workers, consumers, etc. And so in this sense I think it’s correct to take Yglesias to task over his general approach to regulation.

That said, I think that much of Yglesias more recent work on specific regulations has been quite good. Yglesias has identified an obvious problem; in a political framework that systematically favors capital, actual regulations are just as likely (or more likely) to favor particular factions of capital as they are to protect workers and consumers. This conclusion seems painfully obvious to me, and is in fact pretty consistent with a left-wing interpretation of the role between capital and the state. Yglesias catches lots of unwarranted flak on this because his arguments seem to accord with libertarian arguments about the same subject and OMIGOD THE OVERTON WINDOW!1!!11, but the case is fundamentally different than that put forth by the Tea Party.

4. DeBoar is absolutely correct that the relationship of the contemporary progressive blogosphere and leftist political thought is not satisfying. The elements of the progressive blogosphere that are most associated with “the left” (FDL, for example) are certainly making some “leftist” arguments; I’m thinking in paticular about the work on mortgage relief at FDL, Wheeler’s work on organized labor, and so forth. At the same time, I think that the FDL-led faction of the blogosphere has become preoccupied with the fight against the Village/Beltway Elites/Cool Kids etc., a battle which has often been characterized in self-consciously non-ideological terms. When you’re trying to assemble a coalition that could conceivably include Grover Norquist, it’s difficult to pursue specifically leftist ideological programs. That said, FDL has consistently been good about supporting the most left-wing electoral candidates, pressed for an identifiably leftist alternative to the ACA, and so forth. Obviously, it’s complicated.

And on to the navel-gazing:

LGM occupies an interesting space with regards to these questions. We self-consciously established LGM as a politics and culture blog that would offer some specialized content in legal, foreign policy, and labor/environmental areas. I think it would be fair to say that Scott and I, at least, self-identified on the right side of our academic community, while Dave would probably have fallen just slightly on the left side of the divide. I also think that on most issues I conceived (and conceive) of myself as slightly to Scott’s right. That said, the UW polisci grad student community was pretty far left on the spectrum of American politics, and all three of us had been somewhat active in the UW graduate teacher strike.

Nevertheless, some quickly declared us to be “Lawyers, Guns, and Centrists,” and it’s not clear that the appellation was quite unfair. Over time, our initial positions have become translated into the language of the progressive blogosphere, and it has turned out that we haven’t actually done all that much work on the subjects that DeBoar discusses. For my part, this is partially because my own inclinations are toward the left side of the neoliberal consensus. Scott can speak for himself, but I guess he’d fall in roughly the same position. I think that Dave could have been (and still could be) a very interesting voice on these questions, but then life interferes. Of course, the progressive blogosphere is also a market; it made sense for Scott and I to offer specialized commentary on foreign policy and legal topics rather than broad economic criticism because this is where our strengths lay, and this is where we could carve our niche.

Since the Days of Yore the blog has obviously changed a lot, but I’m not certain that the ideological tenor has shifted that much. Noon, Campos, Carpenter, and Kaufman were all consumers of LGM before they were contributors, and unsurprisingly found our broad ideological approach in rough accord with their own work. Noon and Kaufman have both very much been “fighters” rather than self-conscious advocates of a particular ideological program, although both also have specialized interests. Campos and Carpenter have been more interested in particular issues than in either the “fight” or the development of an ideological position per se.

And so, in some sense, we’re still wearing the jacket we came in with. Participation in any community changes the participant as much as it does the community, but I don’t think that LGM itself has become more or less neoliberal in orientation since June 2004. In part, as I suggested above, this is because our content hasn’t really much been about the neoliberal/socialist divide; there hasn’t been much fodder for change in evolution. But this, in part, has been because of the very problems that DeBoar identifies; there’s just not much of a market within the progressive blogsophere for that kind of blogging.

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  • norbizness

    Everytime I see one of these, I think of:

    Wife: Honey, you have a problem, and it won’t get better until you admit it.
    Husband: I admit this… You better shut your big yap!
    Wife: Oh you shut up.
    Husband: No, you shut up!
    Wife: No shut up!
    Husband: Oh shut up!
    Wife: Shut up!
    Husband: Shut up! [little kid enters the bedroom]
    Kid: Why don’t you BOTH SHUT UP?!

  • I’m glad you highlighted this post, because I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but found it hard to vocalize what I was getting at.

    1. Regarding the union = left part, I think there’s some merit to DeBoar’s larger point here. While the union movement hasn’t always meant the same thing as the left, that’s largely a legacy of the Vietnam War where the union movement was for a long time part of the pro-war, anti-Counter Culture/New Politics crowd, and had divided over civil rights between the UAW types and the building trades.

    That really doesn’t describe the union movement anymore. But…you’ll notice that there’s no shortage of left-leaning blogs that cover foreign policy, culture, racial justice, feminism, or gay rights, but there’s a very small presence of blogs that cover issues of social justice, industrial democracy, or class – and lefty economists can’t really make up for that. That’s the role that the labor movement has always played within the left, of keeping class in our field of view, and it’s not there on the left blogosphere.

    One side effect of this is that one of the things we quite often see is liberal bloggers occasionally buying into anti-union rhetoric, especially when it comes to education reform and public employees. More on this in point 2.

    2. You’re absolutely right on the partisan vs. policy issue. Witness DeBoar calling Kos a leftist; he’s not, as Kos’ “liberaltarian” flirtation shows. What Kos is, is a 100% unapologetic partisan and advocate of party discipline, which puts him on the partisan left of the blogosphere.

    3. It’s not just regulation; take a look at some of Yglesias’ stuff on unions in relation to education reform especially, or his advocacy for regressive taxation (to be spent on social policy, to be true), for cutting Social Security benefits for the better off, that income taxes act as a disincentive (associated with his VAT advocacy), and so on. You can find similar things on Klein’s slate. Personally, I think this has to do with Yglesias and Klein both working from an Econ 101 background – they don’t have a grounding in historical or institutional economics, or Marxism, so they tend to revert back to old certainties when confronting tricky questions.
    http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/whats-progressive/
    http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/what-now-for-big-government-liberalism/
    http://realignmentproject.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/in-defense-of-public-sector-unionism-part-1/

  • mpowell

    I don’t see much discussion of modern labor union type issues that much, and I guess I would be more interested. For someone who is on the left side of the neoliberal consensus but not that much of a leftist, there is certainly a tension there. I understand that in a general sense labor has done poorly in the last 30 years and I think we should take steps to correct this. On the other hand, the tactics and goals of existing unions don’t seem to be valuable enough to merit that much of my support. Speaking personally, I am somewhat familiar with the employment conditions of people working similar jobs as myself in places like France. They get things like a year’s severance if they are laid off. But I make up the difference in 3 or 4 years of pay. So, no thanks. But it’s an issue I think I need to gain more information about to see where the opportunities for improvement in the circumstances of more average-type labor actually lie. At least so I have a better idea of what I support politically.

  • John

    Yglesias catches lots of unwarranted flak on this because his arguments seem to accord with libertarian arguments about the same subject and OMIGOD THE OVERTON WINDOW!1!!11, but the case is fundamentally different than that put forth by the Tea Party.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that Yglesias is making a similar argument to the Tea Party. That’s a bit of a straw man, as is the “OMIGOD THE OVERTON WINDOW!1!!11” business.

    My issue with Yglesias’s libertarianish regulatory arguments is that they often seem dogmatic rather than pragmatic, and that he doesn’t seem interested in counterarguments. An example: during the GM Bailout debate, Matt would keep posting stuff about how we should just let the American auto industry die, and then intelligent commenters would post long discussions of why this was a terrible idea. There were also other bloggers posting long posts about why this was a terrible idea. From what I can recall, Matt basically never made any notice of reading such arguments, and would, a day or two later, post some slightly different ingenious argument for why we should let the American auto industry die without any indication that he’d even considered the counterarguments other people had proposed.

    Many of his libertarianish posts are the same way. His argument against licensing barbers and plumbers, for instance, meets with pretty frequent informed and convincing blowback in his comments section (and yes, I know Matt’s comments section is full of awful trolls who don’t say anything worthwhile; they do also have a number of intelligent people who offer good critiques of Matt’s arguments). Yglesias, once again, never acknowledges this (or if he does, does so in a totally strawmannish way), and will then, a month or two later, make the same post again.

    Basically, my problem with Yglesias is that he seems well on his way into the path of complacent contrarianism.

    • Murc

      Exactly what John said.

      I like myself some Yglesias. I really do. (It’s part of why I ‘hate’ on him sometimes; I want him to be BETTER than he is.) And I agree that a lot of criticism about his hobby horse is unwarranted. Regulatory capture by entrenched local interests and licensing cartels being deployed to the detriment of workers? Hey, that sounds like an important but little-heralded issue that could use some high-profile advocates, eh?

      Only it never works out like. Matt uses the language and constructions of libertarian hacks when talking about things way, way too much, and its only under duress you can get him to unpack his arguments into those of the technocratic left. That’s BAD. It’s poor communication; it cedes power to the framing devices of your ideological enemies and helps legitimize them, while at the same time antagonizing your allies, those best positioned to help amplify, spread, and support your arguments.

      And when you pick specific examples that turn out to be WRONG and then ignore the blowback generated by them, you look like a douche. You ARE a douche, in fact.

      As I said earlier, I cut Matt a LOT of slack when it comes to engaging with his readership because of the really, really awful nature of his comments section. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place; big enough and prominent enough to attract the truly, truly batshit insane, while simultaneously not big enough and lacking the time and resources to REALLY police them the way they need to be.

      But he has a number of insightful people who comment there regularly who he just flat-out ignores, as opposed to, say, here, where even Brad and Joe (Joe on his bad days) can get the personal attention of at least ONE dude named Scott.

      If you’re a professional communicator, which Matt IS, you should communicate better.

      • One wonders if he couldn’t hire someone to moderate his comment thread.

        • Malaclypse

          Exactly. If Boing Boing can have paid moderation, Matt should be able to.

          • Halloween Jack

            Are the BB mods paid these days? The current mods are longtime commenters, and the initial experiment in “professional” moderation (Teresa Nielsen-Hayden) was kind of a fiasco, especially after the Violet Blue thing.

            • Malaclypse

              I thought they were, but could be wrong.

            • Scott Lemieux

              I didn’t know that TNH had left Boing Boing.

        • Or maybe he could read them. Or maybe admit when he is wrong in a blog post so people don’t have to post 1000 comments in frustration about his ultra-wrongness. He is not described in hyperbolically baroquely negative terms for nothing.

          Crooked Timber posted the hand-wringing troll last month concerning “why oh why does Matt Y have such negative comments!” when he doesn’t interact with his commenters and he doesn’t seem to care to be responsive, even when he is 100% wrong.

    • joejoejoe

      I think Yglesias is skeptical by nature and made honest comments about the possible downside of the bailout of the auto industry. He’s been honest about how the bailout turned out better than expected and chronicled all manner of positive developments in the auto industry since his initial skepticism.

      MY, 5/27/09: “I think it’s entirely appropriate to be spending money to help people working in the auto industry and, more generally, people living in the “Greater Michigan” zone where the decline of auto manufacturing jobs is causing huge problems. But there’s little reason to believe that propping up GM in this manner is the best way of getting assistance bang for the taxpayer buck.”

      That’s fair, no?

      I don’t think Matt Yglesias is ever going to be a big booster of any popular opinion after getting Iraq wrong hard out of the box in his young writing career. He’s been vocal about HOW he made his own mistakes and a lot of his value now comes from taking the other side of a popular position in a heated discussion. I don’t think it’s neoliberalism so much as he was burned once and isn’t going to be burned again.

      • John

        No, that’s completely wrong, actually. It was absolutely the right call to bail out GM, and that’s already been demonstrated.

        But that isn’t really the point. Everyone’s entitled to be wrong once in a while. The point was that plenty of people were, at the time, explaining in detail why Matt was wrong about the auto industry, and Matt never took that into account at all. I don’t know exactly what point in the debate the quote you outline comes from. But that’s because all of Matt’s posts on the subject were exactly the same – blanket dismissals of the idea that an American auto industry was worth saving.

    • Michael Drew

      If you think Yglesias sounds more dogmatic than pragmatic, you need to expand your own overton window somewhat, just to have an idea what those of us who consider ourselves on the near-left side of the neo-liberal consensus but think it worthwhile to forthrightly engage those on the other side of that consensus are dealing with in terms of argumentation and rhetoric regarding regulation and the role of government. I’d recommend starting with the group blog The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, which De Boer co-founded and resigned from shortly before exiting the blogging life altogether. It will give you a different perspective on Yglesias’ approach.

    • David M. Nieporent

      His argument against licensing barbers and plumbers, for instance, meets with pretty frequent informed and convincing blowback in his comments section

      Well, if you consider “OMG Something bad might happen!” to be informed and convincing, which it is if you’re the liberal equivalent of Pam Geller and her reaction to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

  • Kal

    I think it’s worth noting the contrast to the British blogosphere, where Lenin’s Tomb, just to pick a favorite of mine, gets far more traffic than anything equivalent in the US, regularly appears on lists of the top British political blogs, has exchanges with Labor Left blogs, etc. Who’s got similar politics and writes a blog in the US? Doug Henwood? Dennis Perrin? Louis Proyect? These guys have far smaller audiences and are far more isolated (at least online). There’s Angry Arab, but that’s a pretty exclusively foreign policy focused blog.

    I wouldn’t argue that liberals have a duty to scrounge up some good leftist blogs for the US, but stuff like Yglesias’ claim that there really isn’t a missing left voice because he thinks his preferred policies will in practice lead to a more egalitarian outcome than socialism is just ludicrous (and ingenuous).

    • Malaclypse

      Who’s got similar politics and writes a blog in the US?

      Arthur Silber. Chris Floyd.

      • Kal

        IOZ, of course…

        • The master of the hilarious anti-MattY hyperbole of course. This seems to happen because he is not responsive to criticism, so it becomes over-the-top. Insidious albino woodchuck or some such.

      • Bill Murray

        Pedant alert: Doesn’t Chris Floyd write from Russia, although often about the US — he certainly used to be based in Russia

    • John

      Emphatic agreement to the last paragraph. That was just unbelievable ridiculousness.

  • Since this post is partially about me, let me make a point or two.

    I have often fretted over the fact that not only does the left blogosphere not care about labor issues, but young progressives really don’t either. I have written about labor at Global Comment, but on my site, I know that a labor post is never, ever going to get any comments, nor will it ever get picked up by another blog. There’s a realization among many that unions are necessary for GOTV when it comes election time, but that’s the only time they matter.

    For someone like Yglesias, who certainly has not been pro-labor in his writings, and many others bloggers of the broadly defined left, there’s a strongly held belief in the inevitability and benefits of globalization and neoliberalism that have marginalized labor unions, making them seem irrelevant and outdated. And regardless of whether that’s true, there’s a deep disconnect between the progressive blogosphere and working-class issues writ large.

    Without question, people like Klein know that the lack of universal insurance hurts working-class people. But I’m not sure how many members of the progressive blogosphere actually know working class people. Yglesias and many others come from privileged backgrounds and I don’t think have done a lot of work to get a sense of how the other half lives, even if they do see themselves as on the side of the working-class. So the working-class are in the background of much progressive writing, but not front and center nearly often enough

    So as a writer on a site that, as Rob points out, I’ve never been able to draw attention to except for being attacked by Steve Gilliard over a statement I made about the Iraq War and which only gets any traffic at all because of LGM links, I focus on my expertise other than labor–environmental issues, which people do care about. What can you do? Especially with the ossification of the blogosphere after 2005 which makes it almost impossible for new voices to rise without a) extremely specialized and unique skills that no one else offers, such as Nate Silver or b) be connected to the current progressive writing elite through schools, internships, or personal connections.

    One more quick point–one of the weaknesses of the blogosphere is the emphasis on personality. Rather than focus on issues, we talk about Yglesias or Kos or Hamsher. And that’s unfortunate, even if I’m as guilty as anyone.

    • Malaclypse

      So as a writer on a site that, as Rob points out, I’ve never been able to draw attention to except for being attacked by Steve Gilliard over a statement I made about the Iraq War and which only gets any traffic at all because of LGM links

      For what it is worth, while I rarely comment there, I always read.

      • And I really appreciate that you do. And I know other LGM readers do too.

        Frankly, it’s been hard to keep writing over the years. I’ve put a lot of energy into the site and it never seems to pay off. That explains the occasional absences–sometimes I just can’t do it anymore. If there were some potential for payoff, to write at more prominent sites, etc., I’d be all over it all the time. Not trying to whine here–I think it’s a burden a lot of people bear, many of whom have quit because of it.

        • mark f

          I’ve often considered commenting on posts at http://alterdestiny.blogspot.com/ (let’s just put the link out there for LGM readers who may not know it) where I don’t really have anything to say just to let you know that someone is reading. And I really appreciated the list of labor books you put together at my request.

        • mark f

          Oh, and I’m also really looking forward to your own book.

          • Maybe someday it’ll come out! Now that I am starting a tenure-track job in the fall, that’s become much more pressing….

            • mark f

              Well, congratulations. Good luck with both.

        • I read and enjoy your writing and love the Image of the Day (FWIW).

          • You have no idea how much I appreciate hearing that.

    • mark f

      I have often fretted over the fact that not only does the left blogosphere not care about labor issues, but young progressives really don’t either . . . There’s a realization among many that unions are necessary for GOTV when it comes election time, but that’s the only time they matter.

      Well, yeah. Their primary contact with labor has been reading Tom Geoghegan’s Where the Fern Grows For the Aspiring Liberal Pundit and having their heartstrings pull in all the right places.

    • Yglesias simply isn’t a progressive, so maybe when we stop calling him that we might be able to find people that do care about labor. Yglesias is the epitome of a self-supposed technocrat pragmatist. Other humans are probabilities to him. Perhaps his goal is to increase probability of certain net positive progressive outcomes, but it usually is expressed without even a theatrical hand-wring for collateral damage. Put this together with an increasingly libertarian view of government and regulation, and this is bad news bears for longstanding liberal principles.

      • RobW

        Thanks, PP, for saying it before I could and no doubt better. I’m also confused by the allegation of separation from the working class, considering that’s one of the primary criticisms progressive bloggers make of the conventional corporate media.

        I don’t know how Eric Loomis defines either “progressive” or “working class” but many of the bloggers I read could be described as both. Educated perhaps, but hardly bourgeois, let alone wealthy. I mean, sure, Greenwald’s a lawyer and there’s more than a few professors and economists in the mix, and this place of course. But it’s also a lot of folks like Roy Edroso, Digby, Amanda Marcotte, all the folks at Shakesville and Crooks and Liars, etc. (Digby in particular constantly discusses class issues, though not necessarily union issues specifically.)

        People who work at writing generally are working class, especially those whose bills are actually paid by a day job, yes? Or does education and erudition automatically change one’s economic class regardless of how little one is actually paid?

        Are academics, like school teachers, working class or not? It’s so hard to keep track these days.

        • larryb33

          I’m guessing the bulk of MY’s income is taxed at the capital gains rate, so: not really working class.

  • Anonymous

    Out of curiosity, what sort of concrete policy differences would characterize the gap between the left edge of the “neoliberal consensus” and what lies just slightly beyond it?

    • Brad Potts

      Neoliberals tend to pile on regulation to stabilize markets. Go slightly farther left, and they prefer nationalization.

      See health care and financial reform.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Actually, neoliberalism is all about market deregulation and global trade. It was a reactionary movement which rejected Keynsian economics theory. Brad Potts, despite his snark, would be the very definition of a neoliberal.

        Generally, I think Brad DeLong is placed on the left edge of neoliberalism for his support of international trade policies, although he and Krugman tend much more toward the Keynesian support for government intervention in macroeconomic policy. Such positions could be considered “centrist” in that they were the dominant political reality in the US between The Great Depression and the era of Reaganomics. These days, as Brad demonstrates, It’s seen as to the left of Marx.

        • Brad Potts

          Actually, neoliberalism is all about market deregulation and global trade. It was a reactionary movement which rejected Keynsian economics theory. Brad Potts, despite his snark, would be the very definition of a neoliberal.

          It appears I need clarification just the same as anonymous, so would you mind being more specific and answer the original request posed:

          what sort of concrete policy differences would characterize the gap between the left edge of the “neoliberal consensus” and what lies just slightly beyond it?

          A couple of examples if you want them would be financial and health care reform.

        • djw

          This is closer to how I used to understand neoliberalism, as a sort of deregulating, tax/social service lowering, globalizing post-Keynesianism associated with, amongst other things, IMF-promoted structural adjustment schemes. In recent years, it’s seemed to encompass a lot more than that, and been used to describe a sort moderately positive attitude toward markets. It’s pretty clear it means different things to different people. The academic uses of the term are all over the map–some people use it as essentially a synonym for ‘liberalism’ which seems powerfully wrong to me. I’m increasingly of the mind that its use–particularly to capture a range of views on a two-dimensional political spectrum–isn’t particularly helpful or enlightening.

          • Brad Potts

            I thought of it as an ideology that sought to use the power of markets, so to speak, rather than being particularly free market. It seems neoliberals don’t particularly want free markets, whereas they just want to ensure that corporations can step in to provide services without much restriction and count on them to provide the best distribution of resources.

            Take the current health care reform, for example. I took the way it turned out to be essentially neoliberal: protect the established business interests and count on them to manage the delivery of health care.

        • chris

          It was a reactionary movement which rejected Keynsian economics theory.

          In that case, Yglesias definitely isn’t a neoliberal. He agreed with Krugman early in 2009 that the US not only needed Keynesian stimulus, but a bigger one than was being contemplated, and since then, has made the point that the stimulus helped but a bigger one would have helped more.

  • Brad Potts

    I can’t access the link currently which is disappointing, but I have a couple of things to throw out:

    There’s some risk in conflating leftist political thought (as DeBoar appears to be conceiving of it) with the American labor movement.

    I’m not sure how far DeBoar went into conflating the two, but even you seem to be understating the differences.

    In part, as I suggested above, this is because our content hasn’t really much been about the neoliberal/socialist divide; there hasn’t been much fodder for change in evolution.

    This is the most disappointing aspect of this blog, in my opinion. There is far too much intelligence and expertise on this blog for half of the front page to be devoted to Tucker Carlson, Jennifer Rubin, and the intentions of house republicans.

    I guess you gotta balance content with readership in mind, but that is some serious slumming for you guys.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    The real left in this country (by which I mean people like those writing for, e.g. Lenin’s Tomb in the UK) is systematically marginalized…not least by those on the so-called “left,” who engage in nearly as much hippie punching as the President….but just choose a different group of “hippies.” While this is certainly a problem in the blogosphere, it is not only a problem in the blogosphere. Rather this is an instance in which the blogosphere reflects larger facts about our national political conversation.

    The funny thing about LGM is that it’s actually to the left of a lot of other mainstream “left” blogs (e.g. dKos). And one sign of that is the honesty with which Robert describes himself as not that far left. (I suspect part of arriving at such an honest assessment of oneself is being in an academic community in which there are actual leftists.)

    I agree with a lot that Robert writes above, especially the complicated relationship between advocacy for the agenda(s) of organized labor and challenging the neoliberal consensus. As Robert suggests, there’s a lot of overlap here, but these two things are not identical. And lurking in the background is the ugly history of the actual relationship between organized labor and the (real) left during the last period in which the left was actually a part of the national conversation, i.e. the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    But I also feel that there’s something odd about having this conversation on a blog that (pretty openly, at least in the case of Robert) has no interest in challenging the neoliberal consensus. This makes the conversation, at best, pretty theoretical.

    Neoliberals cannot and should not be expected to challenge neoliberalism.

    So why am I reading you guys again? ;-)

    • I would actually very strongly question how many “actual leftists” are presently in the academy of 2011.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Fair enough, Erik. I think the left’s presence in academia (which, in the interest of full disclosure, is my home base, too) is wildly exaggerated. Still, leftists are unquestionably more welcomed in (or at least less banished from) academia (or at least some parts of it) than in other powerful social institutions in our country…which, along with non-stop Horowitzian witch-hunts, helps account for non-academics’ impression that the left is stronger in the academy than it actually is.

        • I just feel like the leftists of the 1960s are retired while most tenured academics in their 50s are mostly worried about their stock portfolios and home prices. While they are almost universally progressive on social issues, leftist economic perspectives are usually listened to with polite silence, at least in my experience.

          As for the mass of academics not on the tenure-track, there’s a sad lack of class consciousness about the issue which to be is reflective on modern young progressives more broadly.

          • wengler

            All this really means is that academia is reverting to its pre-WWII conservative roots.

            • John

              Surely genuine conservatives are not particularly more common in academia than leftists? I would agree that there aren’t very many genuinely leftist academics at this point. But there aren’t very many conservative academics, either. At least in my field (history), the mainstream liberal wing of the Democratic Party is where virtually everybody is politically. There are outliers to left and right, but both are somewhat unusual. My sense is that that’s more or less the case in most of the humanities and social sciences at least, and that pure scientists also trend left of center.

              Engineering and business faculty are probably more reflective of the body politic as a whole.

              • Right–I’m also a historian but I don’t see the mainstream liberal wing of the Democratic Party as leftist. So maybe it’s definitions.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks

                As yet another historian, I agree with John and Erik about history.

                But I don’t think that distribution it typical of all the social sciences, however. Economics and poli sci both have much larger conservative contingents of various stripes.

              • elm

                It’s certainly true that Poli Sci is more conservative than history, but the gap between these two disciplines is nowhere near as large as the gap between Poli Sci and econ, where most of the faculty are libertarians of some stripe and someone like DeLong or Krugman is about as left as you’ll get.

                Like history, I’d say most poli sci professors are mainstream liberal Democrats, but I’d guess there are more “centrist” Democrats and fewer radical leftists in poli sci than in history or, say, sociology.

    • wengler

      It’s a seemingly very comfortable thing in this country to step to the right and declare everyone to the left of you as some sort of terrorist-loving traitor. It’s as if there is some sort of deep regret or failing among many leftish commentators out there that they were unable to swallow the swill on the right wholesale and be a good little Republican.

      There are very few uncompromising and unapologetic prominent leftist American commentators. And the very few that are close get cut to pieces by their so-called allies(Michael Moore’s movies are faked and he apologizes for rapists like Julian Assange, etc. etc.).

      • mpowell

        There are some prominent liberals for whom this is really true (Does Brad Delong deserve some sort of prize for being the worst about this?), but with a lot of less name brand writers, I don’t really see this much at all. There’s plenty of fighting about whether we should continue to support Obama or not, but the “I’m going to stop supporting Democrats because they’re not left enough” isn’t a position that people who are serious about politics should take seriously. At least I’ve never seen any decent arguments that it will actually lead to better outcomes. On the other hand, I don’t really see all the hippie-punching on actual policy issues that allegedly exists. What I think you mostly see is just not that many links from left-of-center blogs to fully leftist views. But other than that, I’m not sure I buy it.

        • wengler

          The first paragraph applies more to TV pundits/elected officials. Many of whom are pulling six and seven figure salaries.

        • John

          Is this a “neoliberal” program? Well, this is one of these terms that was invented by its critics so I hesitate to embrace it though I recognize that the shoe fits to a considerable extent. I’d say it’s liberalism, a view recognizably derived from the thinking of JS Mill and Pigou and Keynes and Maury “Freedom Plus Groceries” Maverick and all the rest. I recognize that many people disagree with this agenda, and that many of those who disagree with it think of themselves as “to the left” of my view. But I simply deny that there are positions that are more genuinely egalitarian than my own. — Matthew Yglesias

    • “The funny thing about LGM is that it’s actually to the left of a lot of other mainstream “left” blogs (e.g. dKos)”

      I thought LGM was pretty left when I started reading it. Maybe that says something about the current state of the political divide in the US. Or maybe because I’m from Indiana.

      If Farley wrote more about planes and less about battleships, I could probably even persuade my Republican father to read here.

  • Dave

    All the evidence suggests I will never regret ignoring Matthew Yglesias.

  • Evan Harper

    You spelled Freddie DeBoer’s name wrong.

    • elm

      That was surely an intentional attempt to subtly show his support for Yglesias by mimicking his penchant for typos.

  • SEK

    So I take it this means more posts about comic books, no?

  • For someone who is on the left side of the neoliberal consensus but not that much of a leftist, there is certainly a tension there. I understand that in a general sense labor has done poorly in the last 30 years and I think we should take steps to correct this. On the other hand, the tactics and goals of existing unions don’t seem to be valuable enough to merit that much of my support

    Yes, this. As a young progressive who is left-ish on economic issues, I recognize that the one time historically when we had anything approaching the kind of economic setup I would favor, organized labor was ascendant. And that as soon as labor weakened, we lost it. Obviously we need organized labor or some force like it to get back to those sorts of conditions.

    However, I feel like labor didn’t just fail because of the big, bad Right and corporate power. They were also unable to adapt to integration, women in the workforce, and the multicultural, socially liberal society that was emerging as they declined. They also couldn’t figure out a way to organize workers in a postindustrial, mobile/flexible economy, and I haven’t seen much evidence of systematic efforts to try.

    As product of the world those changes created, I have a hard time imagining being a union worker in the old sense. I can’t imagine having to ask someone else’s permisission to do a job, or get in line for one when I could be seeking out one I actually want and am interested in. I can see the advantage of that approach under industrial conditions where much work was fairly interchangeable, but I’ve never worked in an industrial-type economy. I recognize that many people still do, and a more robust old-school union structure could probably be of help to them, but I don’t think it would be sustainable or politically effective without some kind of cross-class and cross-professional solidarity that doesn’t seem to be in evidence.

    Even in an academic environment, stuff like grad student unions feel more like a nostalgic hearkening back to the leftist forms of the past or cred-asserting posturing to me than a real solution going forward. I’m open to the idea, but when I try to participate it just feels like a going-through of the motions with no real life or future to it. The game is especially given away when you look at the sorts of penny-ante things they actually tend to demand when they do have a strike. There is a lot of theatre and playacting but not a whole lot of systemic substance or willingness to put it on the line and demand real systemic or structural changes at the end of the day.

    A whole new structure and conception of labor and organizing needs to evolve, and it probably needs to be cross-profession, cross-class, and global. I have no idea really what that would look like in a practical sense, but I do wish that more of us were thinking and writing about what it could be and making steps in that direction instead of occasionally looking wistfully backward out of a sense of obligation at the now-failed institutions of the mid 20th Century, shrugging our shoulders, and moving on.

    • wengler

      When talking about big 20th century labor movements, we are almost always looking at large industrial unions. It’s pretty apparent that there is less relevance today since the US is intent on destroying its industrial economy for the benefit of the top 2 percent.

      At this time, there should probably be a lot more focus on creating smaller, more democratic unions that nonetheless can come together on big issues. Unions could even be less based on alike work and focus more on giving someone continuity in terms of healthcare and retirement, especially if they do a lot of contract or temp work.

    • I think a more fundamental problem is the widespread acceptance among progressives of a mobile/flexible economy as both a)good and b)inevitable as opposed to a series of concrete decisions made by people who very much stood to profit from said decisions.

      And it’s one thing to say that unions should be thinking about how to organize in this new economy but it’s quite another to be serious about how they are supposed to do this when the government and corporations have combined to undermine the sheer ability of unions to survive through mobilizing capital.

      I think that if we are serious about reviving unions or labor organizing of some sort or another, we need to provide serious policy options for labor, rather than simply accepting that workers are going to sink or swim in the new economy.

      If we don’t provide the attention to labor issues as we do to gay marriage or health care or foreign policy, we are for all intents and purposes admitting that we really don’t care about working-class issues.

      And I’m not seeing much attention paid to these issues on the progressive blogosphere at all.

      Which leads me to think that most people, in the end, don’t give a shit.

      But I do very much agree with your last sentence.

      • Malaclypse

        I think a more fundamental problem is the widespread acceptance among progressives of a mobile/flexible economy as both a)good and b)inevitable as opposed to a series of concrete decisions made by people who very much stood to profit from said decisions.

        This. It was possible for my grandfather to buy a house 3 miles from where he worked, and live his entire life without owning a car. Not only was that possible, but it was amazingly eco-friendly, in an era when nobody thought about these issues. I will never have the luxury of knowing that my work and my residence will be near each other for any length of time.

        When gasoline hits 8 bucks a gallon, driving to work will be a problem for people, and I don’t see how you get around that in a flexible economy.

        • Brad Potts

          Just remember how contingent the modern flexible economy is next time you find yourself wanting to mock me for wanting to return to the shire.

          After energy, food, and health care have outpaced wages by 300% over the next couple of decades, I think our opinions of what our social structures can and should look like will be very different.

          There is a very good chance that “community” will be coming back, as people will be more and more drawn back into proximity with productive factors.

          Kudos for drawing my attention to Eric’s statement as

          I think a more fundamental problem is the widespread acceptance among progressives of a mobile/flexible economy as both a)good and b)inevitable as opposed to a series of concrete decisions made by people who very much stood to profit from said decisions.

          may be the most insightful comment I have read on here, as it is absolutely important that the policies enacted right now must not create disparities in the powers of negotiation of future individuals.

          • Malaclypse

            Just remember how contingent the modern flexible economy is next time you find yourself wanting to mock me for wanting to return to the shire.

            I never knew wanting to limit employment-at-will and strengthening unions were libertarian positions.

            After energy, food, and health care have outpaced wages by 300% over the next couple of decades, I think our opinions of what our social structures can and should look like will be very different.

            I agree with this. I just suspect we disagree on how to get to a better place.

    • chris

      They were also unable to adapt to integration, women in the workforce, and the multicultural, socially liberal society that was emerging as they declined.

      I think they weren’t so much unable as unwilling. Working-class white males were a key demographic for every Republican win of the last 30 years, i.e. the same people who have beaten unions into the ground and destroyed workers’ rights, because too many of them wanted to turn back the clock on identity politics issues (where just being white and male meant you had someone to look down on, regardless of your economic position) more than they wanted to protect their rights in the workplace, or even their own pensions.

      And now those same people are working-class *old* white males, the most reactionary demographic outside the actual rich.

      (I should qualify this by saying that like any demographic statement, it doesn’t apply to every individual in that category. But I’m sure most people who read this thread have encountered one or more older white male blue-collar workers with highly reactionary attitudes on social issues, and most of those probably vote Republican.)

      • This is true enough, but is also unfair. There are specific historical reasons for all of this. This all reeks of the 60s critique of labor unions which helped split the New Deal Coalition. It’s somewhat unfair to single unions out for criticism for the sexism and racism that plague our entire society.

        • djw

          It’s also worth noting that white working class men who are also members of labor unions have been quite a bit less culpable in Republican electoral victories. They may hold the same unfortunate views on racial integration, women and gay rights issues, and so on, but it doesn’t drive their vote as much.

          • Mr. Trend

            This. I grew up in Northeastern Ohio, which (as part of the broader rust belt) still had a heavy union presence relative to much of the rest of the country. My friends’ parents were union members, and many of my family on my dad’s side were in manufacturing and active in unions. They were some of the more bigoted and sexist people I’ve met, but they consistently voted Democrat because (at least in the 1980s) they believed (more or less accurately, I think) that Democrats would represent their labor interests much better than Republicans would. Indeed, Dennis Kucinich became the local hero in no small part because of the stance he took in favor of unions when U.S. Steel threatened to leave Cleveland (ultimately going through on its threat). Union members in areas like the Rust Belt may be pretty conservative on social issues, but those don’t drive their votes; the labor issues do, and they consistently vote democrat. (And I’m sure it’s been pointed to before, but Colbert hit upon this excellently in his trip to the 2004 DNC ).

            • mark f

              This is true of my family too, whose Union membership spans generations and includes everything from teachers to carpenters to Teamsters. Views on race or gay marriage or abortion or whatever vary but every single one thinks it’s idiotic to vote Republican.

      • Linnaeus

        I should qualify this by saying that like any demographic statement, it doesn’t apply to every individual in that category. But I’m sure most people who read this thread have encountered one or more older white male blue-collar workers with highly reactionary attitudes on social issues, and most of those probably vote Republican.

        Interestingly, I read somewhere (but can’t find the link) that the only segment of the white male electorate that votes in majority numbers for Democrats is that of union members. So even the more socially conservative or reactionary white male working-class voter is still more likely to vote for a Democrat if he is a union member, I’d wager.

    • Linnaeus

      I’d like to comment on this particular paragraph, in both a specific and general sense.

      Even in an academic environment, stuff like grad student unions feel more like a nostalgic hearkening back to the leftist forms of the past or cred-asserting posturing to me than a real solution going forward. I’m open to the idea, but when I try to participate it just feels like a going-through of the motions with no real life or future to it. The game is especially given away when you look at the sorts of penny-ante things they actually tend to demand when they do have a strike. There is a lot of theatre and playacting but not a whole lot of systemic substance or willingness to put it on the line and demand real systemic or structural changes at the end of the day.

      In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I am a member of an ASE (academic student employee) union and I also work for said union.

      I would respectfully disagree that an ASE union is a mere throwback or that forming one is only an exercise in posturing. Sure, you do have people who get involved in them who treat the whole thing as such, and the degree to which this happens varies from place to place, but in the end, I’d say they get formed because they’re pretty much the only available vehicle by which workers can, collectively, assert some power in the workplace and have some say over their working conditions. And it’s easier in many ways to make use of existing institutional forms than create them de novo, especially when the existing forms are enabled to do what they do by a legal foundation (like, say, labor law).

      A union operates on a couple of levels; it is part of a broader social movement that works in concert with other groups, interests, etc. to help enact (usually) progressive change. But it’s also responsible to its members on the local level to enhance and protect their rights via a collective bargaining agreement. The back and forth of collective bargaining is very unsexy and can seem “penny-ante”, but when properly done, it results in very real gains for workers (both tangible and intangible) in a particular workplace. And what is minor and what is major is very much in the eye of the beholder. A union like an ASE union represents a pretty diverse group of interests, and not everyone in it is going to be interested in working for systemic or structural change in the same, particularly if you ask members to take certain risks in order to do so. Or some members may simply prioritize the bread-and-butter issues that get hashed out in contract negotiations. Point being, as a democratic organization, the local union has do a pretty challenging balancing act in order to maintain solidarity; some do it better than others, to be sure.

      One way to help forge cross-class alliances is for unions to make some headway in white-collar workplaces like academia (especially among ASEs, who provide a lot of labor for relatively cheap prices). The challenge in doing so is that you’re dealing with audiences who have little to no connections to labor and in some cases may have learned to be hostile to it, either for ideological reasons or because they’ve accepted the view that unions are “in the past” and that we’ve figured it all out and don’t need them in our nice clean offices, labs, etc.

      None of this is to say that we can’t think about how to adapt organizing to the changes we’ve seen in society and in the economy over the past 30-40 years. I do a lot of this myself when I want to avoid writing my dissertation and I would definitely think “we” ought to think more and write more about how to do that. But in the meantime, though, I think working with current institutions that offer at least partial solutions (while trying to change them) is better then eschewing them because they may fall short in some way.

      • djw

        I’m glad you caught that; excellent response, Linneas. At Washington, the union movement probably never would have taken off at all had it not been for our benefits being cut rather dramatically. To make matters worse, the cut had nothing to do with budget problems, but incompetence in making a legislative request for funding. And on top of that, we weren’t told about the benefits cuts; we recieved the same information as the previous year, and it eventually came out when our claims weren’t getting anywhere.

        That not only pretty much guaranteed widespread support for unionization, it instilled in many of us that one of the primary benefits of such a goal is not the actual, concrete financial gains (what you dismiss as ‘penny-ante things’) we might make, but the security a contract provides. It demonstrated the fundamental instability of our position, even for those of us who had reliable guarantees of funding from our departments.

    • RobW

      A whole new structure and conception of labor and organizing needs to evolve, and it probably needs to be cross-profession, cross-class, and global.

      http://www.iww.org/

      • As someone whose book-in-progress is largely about the I.W.W., I don’t think it is a useful model for current organizing. In the most general sense, sure it’s great to have One Big Union, but even in the IWW’s heyday, they couldn’t keep their shop in order long enough to run a union even when they succeeded, i.e. Lawrence.

        • Malaclypse

          Maybe, but they had the best songs of any union.

          • Really first-rate propaganda as well. No question that they are fun to study.

  • This all reeks of the 60s critique of labor unions which helped split the New Deal Coalition. It’s somewhat unfair to single unions out for criticism for the sexism and racism that plague our entire society.

    I would argue that those critiques were right (at least in retrospect) and that unions and the New Deal social contract in general as constituted then probably had to die to usher in the civil rights and women’s lib era. Also, that it was probably worth the cost in the long run to put us on what I’m increasingly sure is a permanent path to a vastly more inclusive, fully democratic, and socially tolerant society. Most of those changes aren’t going back in the box, barring apocalyptic scenarios, and the gains were very real and broadly realized.

    The problem is that after we broke those institutions to achieve those worthy goals, we didn’t regroup and build new ones to replace the good and necessary things that they did, and meanwhile reactionaries and capital didn’t mourn their defeats, they organized.

    Also, I apologize for being a bit flip on the grad student unions thing. I think that’s more of a personal distaste that springs from my own narrow experiences than a universalizable thing, and I probably should have left it out. When they work I think they can be both an excellent labor and organizing training ground for white collar / knowledge workers, and a source of solidarity and connection between them and working class employees of the university and in the broader community.

    But, like any campus politics, the aggravations often make it not worth the candle, and I don’t know how often they can work sustainably over time, or how relevant they can manage to be to the larger offcampus world. I think most of all it’s a frustration that we’re treating tuition waivers for art students and recognition of transgender rights and such as paramount issues while the public university is being systematically destroyed all around us.

    Not that those “penny ante” things aren’t important or should be dismissed, but a certain sense of proportion is missing, and to me it often reads as myopic and self-obsessed. At best it strikes me as closing the barn door years after the horses have bolted, and and worst it looks parochial and selfish that relatively privileged grad students are raising a stink over their working conditions. I’m well aware that those conditions can be and often are just as exploitative as any found in the blue collar world, but the optics of things like this are still really bad and there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the need to manage that, or to think bigger and attempt the sorts of initiatives and alliances that might be able to transcend it. But, again, just my own sense from experiences on a couple of campuses, and maybe (hopefully) the larger picture is a lot better and more anbitious.

    • elm

      There’s definitely pretty wide variance in how connected grad student unions are to the broader labor movement. Some of the unions go out of their way to play a role in the labor movement, walking picket lines and helping organize other work forces (on and off campus.) Some focus entirely on their own negotiation with administration and feel no solidarity at all with blue-collar workers.

      Like many other things in the American labor movement, this varies a lot by the particular local. I think its unfortunate that we tend to look only at the national federations when thinking of what unions are doing and not looking more at the locals and the state federations.

  • PTS

    I guess I am confused by the discussion because I don’t know what a “leftist” is.

    I’m a fairly standard, for philosophy anyway, Rawlsian who thinks that the ideal society would be a property-owning democracy where capital was distributed far more evenly that it is today. Like Rawls and Mill, I like the idea of worker’s owned collectives and I am not a fan of welfare state capitalism as it is currently construed. Genuine liberal democracy requires much more than that.

    This ideal would require a radical reconstruction of our society, from top to bottom. However, I am only a socialist on some accounts of the term, certainly am not a Marxist-Leninist or a communist or whatever. Markets are useful ways of efficiently distributing and producing goods in certain contexts, and something like at least functionally equivalent to private property is necessary for human flourishing and freedom.

    Does that make me sufficiently Leftist? Am I part of the neoliberal consensus?

    What’s more, my political instincts are fairly incrementalist. I am no revolutionary, though my vision of where we should end up is.

    So, do I gain entrance into the class of ‘leftists’ or am I simply a milquetoast bourgie neoliberal? Could someone please tell me? I am dying to know….

  • Rob needs to be more precise: at its birth, the real question in the “progressive blogosphere” was “do you or don’t you support the war in Iraq?”

    Meaning this needs some rethinking:

    Since its birth, when the progressive blogosphere has been pushed to make a choice between the “fight” and the advocacy of identifiably leftist policies, it has tended to choose the former.

    Iraq was THE issue that birthed the entire political blogosphere. And it was a very fraught issue!

    Looking back on that time, it seems very strange to me to think, “why, yes, the key question was Leftist Principles or The Fight.” Actually it was more like “Holy shit!”

    I mean… there was a choice?

  • rea

    It all goes back to ’68 and guys in hard hats beating up hippies.

    • Yeah, it’s frustrating that people haven’t gotten over this yet.

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