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Left Neo-Liberalism vs. Grassroots Liberalism


Over at Crooked Timber, Henry has a really interesting commentary to this Doug Henwood piece attacking the neoliberal left. Henry:

Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. To put it more succinctly – even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics.

Progressive change in this country (at least after the Civil War) has almost always happened through mass movement politics eventually electing politicians to office to enact desired changes or forcing reluctant politicians to go along. Think Civil Rights, environmentalism, or the labor movement. Today, the gay rights movement is succeeding because of collective action changing people’s minds and making politicians realize that supporting it is good politics.

I think I and left neo-liberals all more or less want the same things–a more robust economy, better jobs, universal healthcare, sensible transportation policy, a vigorous fight against climate change, etc. But it seems that left neo-liberals sometimes feel that mass movements are outdated and irrelevant for creating this change. Certainly they are right that we need smart people working in think tanks and creating policy, but Henry is right that this does not create a self-sustaining politics.

Does policy follow grassroots politics or can successful policy be created without a grassroots base? I’d argue for the former–being right about policy rarely matters in American politics. It’s about how many people you can get out to support you, regardless of a position’s merits. Conservatives understand this well. The Tea Party supports terrible policy on nearly every issue. But that hasn’t stopped it from moving the nation significantly to the right.

Where does this disconnect between left neo-liberalism and grassroots liberalism come from? A couple of suggestions. First, the failure of the anti-Vietnam movement to stop the war seem to have convinced many that putting bodies in the streets isn’t going to make much of a difference in Washington. That the anti-Iraq protests faded so quickly in 2003 suggests that many people believed that sustained protests weren’t going to do anything positive. Second, as Henry notes, the liberal interest group dynamics of the late 70s and 80s created squabbling that precluded much useful from getting done. Combined with the fizzling out of the labor and civil rights movements in the face of revived conservative opposition and perhaps it seemed that grassroots politics were not the route for policy-oriented liberals to create change.

It’s not that left neo-liberals and grassroots liberals can’t come together. The Obama campaign was an amazing grassroots campaign, where you had left neo-liberals ready to support all sorts of policies with their technocratic expertise and millions of Americans (or at least hundreds of thousands) waiting to do what their president asked to see universal health care, job creation, immigration reform, etc.

And then after the election, Obama and his team allowed the grassroots movement to slip away. Obama, clearly never comfortable with being the head of a mass movement, preferred the politics of the Beltway to that of the street. Like so many other left neoliberals, he failed to understand what both labor unions and right-wing activists know well–politics are primarily won in the street, next to the water cooler, at the local bar, and on the airwaves, not in meetings of intelligent people.

So to sum up–being right about policy is often irrelevant unless you have a mass movement of people behind you ready to engage in collective action to see those policies enacted. And I don’t think left neo-liberals often understand that. This is why I get so outraged when, for example, left neo-liberals support education “reform” that weakens teacher unions. We probably all agree that there are bad teachers out there and it would be great to get rid of them. But by weakening the one educational institution that can best mobilize people to protect our schools from conservative attacks, these reforms often further right-wing politics even if they theoretically achieve a left neo-liberal policy point.

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