15 October 2011

Resurrection of the liberals?

Two polls that have come out in the last couple days give us a snapshot of where Americans stand on some of the issues we’ve been discussing here. They demonstrate the broad outlines of two very different popular constituencies: those that have been mobilized by the Tea Party and Republican Party operatives and funders organizing it, and those that are sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street and a broadly liberal-Keynesian response to the crisis. The Democratic Party has chosen not to mobilize the second (larger) group, and the efforts of unions and community groups have either been too limited or simply ineffective. This is the “silent majority” of our time. Could it play a historical role analogous to that of Nixon’s reactionary silent majority, providing the popular basis for a politics capable of overcoming the crisis?

As both the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, conducted October 6-10, and the Time poll, October 9-10, demonstrate, Americans are overwhelmingly unsatisfied with the state of the country. Time found 81 percent saying things are on the wrong track and WSJ/NBC had 74 percent saying the same thing. Only 12 and 14 percent, respectively, thought things are going fine. These numbers are roughly the same as those from 2008 October, right after the crisis blew up.

Yet again, we find that a significant minority supports the Tea Party agenda. (Can we please put an end to these polemics that the Tea Party is astroturf?) The two polls found 27 and 28 percent had a favorable view of the Tea Party. A smaller group consistently rejects measures that target corporate power and the wealthy. Time (asking only those who were familiar with Occupy Wall Street) found that 11 percent think Wall Street and its lobbyists do not have too much influence in Washington, 17 percent disagreed that the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, 23 percent opposed prosecuting executives in financial institutions responsible for the financial crisis, and 28 percent opposed raising taxes on the rich. WSJ/NBC found 34 percent support for repealing Obama’s health care reform and 39 percent wishing to reduce the deficit without raising taxes at all. 31 percent opposed raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations and 30 percent preferred to concentrate on reducing the deficit over creating jobs.

So a reliable 1/3 of the population generally supports the Tea Party approach, which we have spent considerable time trying to explain on this blog. Yet a clear majority of Americans opposes that approach. WSJ/NBC found 70 percent saying that job creation and economic growth is their first or second political priority, against 40 percent who said the same of cutting the deficit and reducing government spending. 64 percent want to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Among those who had heard of Occupy Wall Street, Time found 68 percent saying “the rich should pay more taxes”, 71 percent want to prosecute finance executives, 79 percent believe that the gap between rich and poor has grown too large, and 86 percent think Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington.

These are overwhelming numbers, and they explain why the occupation movement has drawn such wide support. Of those who had heard of the protests, WSJ/NBC found 46 percent support against 23 percent opposition; Time found 54 percent had a favorable opinion versus 23 percent unfavorable. Of course, the process of actually formulating demands and building the infrastructure that could win them would tend to erode some of this support, but it still seems clear that this is a force that would outnumber the Tea Party if it could be mobilized.

This raises a number of questions that we have spent too little time trying to answer. First, is there a coherent political subjectivity underlying these statistics? That is, can we locate a particular worldview, common sense, aesthetic, or morality that generates support for a broadly liberal (economic) policy? Or is this rather a fragmented coalition of different sensibilities that can only join together in supporting particular political measures?

Second, how is this subjectivity to be grounded in neoliberal society? I’ve argued that the experience of neoliberalism, by obscuring the social process that actually produces wealth, tends to bolster the idea that one’s income is “earned” rather than allocated by the impersonal mechanisms of the market, and that any conscious redistribution is a form of theft. Yet there is now obviously a clear majority in favor of redistribution. Is this a new phenomenon or something that has persisted beneath the political system’s anti-redistributionism? What is the rationale(s) behind these feelings? What is the social experience that has produced them? (My own thoughts are here.)

Politically, are these liberal sympathies even capable of mobilization? Or has the fragmentation of neoliberalism rendered them mere opinions and frustrations that cannot be translated into political action? If they can be mobilized, what is it about the experience of the crisis that has given rise to the possibility of this kind of politics?

Separately, what kind of obstacles does the sclerotic politics of the Democratic Party pose to such a liberal revival? Is the failure of Democrats to mobilize this sentiment founded primarily, as the class war interpretation would have it, in politicians being bought and sold by the rich? Or is it rather based in a narrowing of vision on the part of politicians and policymakers that has accompanied the experience of economic administration under neoliberal conditions, leading to an ideology and common sense that is unable to grasp its own anachronism now that neoliberalism has entered crisis? What kind of orientation should we have toward the Democrats?

Finally, how could these feelings be channeled or reshaped to support the emergence of a truly emancipatory politics? As we have already discussed (here and here), the Occupy Wall Street agenda of limiting corporate power and redistributing wealth cannot by itself end the crisis, much less take us beyond capitalism. We are witnessing what could be the first broad-based challenge to neoliberal politics since the crisis of the 1970s, yet as heartening as this development is, and even assuming it grows, it remains completely inadequate to the historical moment. We need to understand much more about this phenomenon before we can fashion something capable of confronting the dysfunctions we face.


  1. Typical petty-bourgeois reformist liberalism. "Radicals" no longer seek to revolutionize the foundation of society -- they simply want the same society as we already have (bourgeois liberal democracy, parliamentarianism), only with "more people able to sit at the table." Here one arrives at facile multiculturalism, tokenism, and identity politics.

    As I see it, one of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and the “occupations” in other cities is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Another problem pervasive amongst OWS demonstrators is a general lack of historical consciousness. Not only are they almost completely unaware of past revolutionary movements, but their thinking has become so enslaved to the conditions of the present that they can no longer imagine a society fundamentally different from our own. Instead of liberation and emancipation, all they offer is the vague notion of “resistance” or “subversion.”

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. To this point, most of the protests have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo. In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more adequate understanding of the prevailing social order. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What it Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies

  2. Also, given your previous post on the failure of the Left, I was wondering if you were familiar with the Platypus Affiliated Society, a Marxist organization that seeks to address the problem of the historical defeats of the Left. Since you have a link to Principia Dialectica, I figured you might be aware of them.

  3. "All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it."

    That's fine, but all you're giving us is slogans. I think your arguments suffer from a curious idealism - that if progressives just embraced the right analysis we'd be on our way to the overcoming of capitalism.

    But I think we're all materialists here, so we should all be aware that that sort of polemics will have no effect on infertile ground. The first question should be: why is the actually-existing left so hostile to an adequate analysis? The second question: is the crisis of neoliberalism changing that? The third question: what kind of a (capitalist) society would be necessary to generate a popular consciousness of the nature of capitalism and the possibility of its overcoming? It may be that a neo-Fordist regime of global capitalism is the answer to the third question, in which case the protesters' failure of analysis would be immaterial.

    That point is open to debate, but if we're serious about politics these are the questions that we need to address. I think it's safe to say, when addressing a bunch of people whose main critique is that "society is unfair", that giving lectures on the history of Marxist movements will not get us very far.