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.