Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Left, Liberalism and the Blogosphere

The United States is currently in the midst of a historic shift away from the neo-liberal and neo-conservative doctrines that have dominated US politics for the last thirty years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. So far, the main consequence of this shift has been a return to Keynesian liberalism. It’s possible and, for the sake of the American working class and the victims of US imperialism around the world, necessary that this shift not stop with liberalism but give rise to more radical social movements.

Since Obama's election, we’ve already seen what could be the beginnings of such a development in the
Republic Windows and Doors occupation, the demonstrations against Proposition 8 and the Israeli assault on Gaza, the growth of the Israeli BDS movement, and the student occupations at the New School, the University of Rochester, NYU and the University of Vermont.

The main proponents and political beneficiaries of this turn toward liberalism are of course the Democrats and their allies. However, not all Democrats are happy with this development. The Democratic Party has liberal and conservative wings (a fact that isn’t always recognized on the Left) that have been fighting for control of the party since the beginning of the Bush administration.

The current battle began over how to respond to Bush’s popularity after 9/11: either cravenly submit to Bush's every demand, which a majority of Democrats opted for, or put up some level of resistance, however minimal, which only a small minority of the party elected to do. This split reflected the balance of power at the time between conservatives and liberals within the Democratic Party.

The struggle between liberals and conservatives has continued in the Obama era over the question of whether to seize the chance presented by the collapse of conservatism to make a real push for a return to liberalism, or to govern as Republicans lite. Obama won on a liberal platform, but he has faced heavy resistance from conservative congressional Democrats on every major measure he has proposed, from the stimulus bill to health care to cap-and-trade to EFCA, all of which were or are being delayed, watered down and/or gutted by conservative forces within the Democratic party.

Like virtually the entire contemporary Republican Party and the institutions associated with it, conservative Democrats do not have any arguments worth seriously engaging with: the correct response to their ideas is almost always to debunk, not debate them. Conservative Democratic thought is generally very easily explained, since it is always guided by the same basic impulses: delivering the goods to their corporate masters (e.g., Bear Sterns, AIG and the horrific bank bailout) and scuttling any serious efforts to improve workers’ quality of life (e.g., homeowner bailouts, EFCA), while disguising themselves in the cloak of moderation, responsibility, national security and family values.

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is a different story. The current batch of liberal intellectuals have developed a set of foreign and domestic policy proposals and political analysis that represent the most advanced thinking currently available within mainstream US political discourse. Their ideas are providing the intellectual foundation for the newly ascendant liberal movement, so it's important to understand what they're saying.

Within the contemporary liberal establishment, the blogosphere occupies a central position. When Forbes magazine ranked the 25 most influential liberals in the media in January, eight of them—Arianna Huffington, Josh Marshall, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, Matthew Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum—were full-time bloggers or blog proprieters. Another four—Paul Krugman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Gerald Seib and James Fallows—blog in addition to their other writing duties. If you take into account that six of the supposed liberals on Forbes's list—Fred Hiatt, Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Chris Matthews, Christopher Hitchens and Maureen Dowd—could only be seen as liberal by the standard of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives (i.e., Forbes magazine), then nearly two thirds of the actual liberals
on the list are bloggers, a rather astounding fact given that blogging is still considered vaguely disrespectable in some quarters of the media.

Since the blogosphere represents a key segment of contemporary liberal thought, its arguments need to be taken seriously by the Left. If we're ever
going to rebuild the Left in the United States, we're going to have to make a serious effort to win the best layers within liberalism to a more radical politics. This is something I know about from personal experience since it happened to me.

Up until about a year ago, I was a card-carrying liberal Democrat. Then I met activists in the International Socialist Organization at Brooklyn College, where I was teaching at the time. I had read some Marx and Marxist philosophers like Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser and Henri Lefebvre in college and graduate school, but I had never been exposed to politically active Marxists, or indeed active leftists of any kind. I also knew next to nothing about revolutionary history and labor history, despite the fact that I was fairly left-leaning and read a lot about politics and history.

I think this is pretty typical of Americans, even politically aware ones, because any political options to the left of the Democratic Party are pretty much excluded from public discourse
in the US. This is why it’s so key for the Left to penetrate contemporary liberal discourse, within which blogs are the most accessible entry point: there is almost certainly a layer of liberals out there who would be open to radical arguments if they knew they existed. If nothing else, my case is proof of that.

My goals for this blog are twofold. The first is to exert a leftward pull on the liberal blogosphere by making arguments to bloggers and their readers and hopefully eventually winning a layer of them to radical politics. At the very least, I hope to introduce some revolutionary arguments into the liberal blogosphere, which currently lacks any awareness that there are even any leftist ideas out there that are worth grappling with. There is no reason things have to be this way. The best liberal bloggers don't limit themselves to debating conservatism, they also regularly engage with libertarian and social democratic arguments. The radical Left, on the other hand, is almost entirely missing from this conversation. You almost never see liberal bloggers discussing well known leftists such as Naomi Klein and Robert Brenner, or even left-liberals like Amy Goodman.

The second goal is to give leftists a better idea of what is going on inside liberalism. Leftists generally don’t pay close attention to the different strands within liberalism and the Democratic Party, but this is going to be necessary if the Left is eventually to challenge the dominance of liberalism.

Lastly, a note on sectarianism: I'm a revolutionary Marxist and a member of the International Socialist Organization, but I'm going to try to keep this blog as non-sectarian as I can in order to make it amenable to as large a swath of the Left as possible. As I've observed while organizing my fellow CUNY students in defense of our educational rights, sectarianism is rampant on the Left and is highly destructive. While I believe in the importance of debating strategy, tactics and theory, different groups on the Left need to retain their ability to work together while engaging in these debates. The Left is not big enough at this stage to accommodate splits without falling apart, so for better or worse we need to learn to work together. Maybe we can even learn something from one another in the process.


No comments:

Post a Comment