07 November 2011

Politicians have principles too

Facing the Democrats in the age of Occupy
Part 2 of 2 | Part 1
If the portrayal of the Democrats as corporate puppets is too simple, then how can we understand their insouciance in the face of the opportunities offered by the Occupy movement? The approach we’ve been developing on this blog, I think, allows for a more complete explanation. Neoliberal ideas proved appealing to Democrats not simply because they brought campaign contributions along with them, but because up until 2008 they seemed to make sense of the economy better than the progressive alternative and they demonstrated greater efficacy when pursued as policy.

Compare the path of Chicago and Detroit under neoliberalism. Under Fordism, both were thriving industrial manufacturing cities, but the restructuring of the global economy in the 1970s and 1980s undid these economic foundations. Chicago already had an important financial sector that the city’s political and economic elites transformed into the basis of a new, but deeply uneven, prosperity. Detroit had no such economic engine to fall back on and was destroyed.

Now we all know that Daley II was a corporate tool, that the Loop and residential areas for those who work there have prospered while large swathes of the West and South Sides have descended into horror. But if a progressive movement had somehow risen up and pursued a truly egalitarian agenda in Chicago, the outcome would have been capital flight and economic deterioration. The city would have looked more like Detroit than like socialism. Coddling the rich and brutalizing the poor, on the other hand, produced growth.

The point is that neoliberalism as a global system imposed a structure of opportunity on the entire world. The reason that neoliberalism as a policymaking toolbox (free trade, free movement of capital, currency convertability, reducing regulation, encouraging “entrepreneurship”, distributing privileges to capital and repression to labor) came to predominate is because it was able to grasp the contours of this structure more efficaciously than rival frameworks.

I want to emphasize efficacy here. The ideological apparatus underlying the policy options that worked in the neoliberal setting never did a very good job of understanding the world. It hypostasized features of neoliberalism as features of human nature, indulged in fantasies that free markets alone would lead to universal economic development, and perhaps most fatefully, excluded the conceptual tools that could make sense of the evolution of neoliberalism as a system. Thus politicians and economists were shocked when the whole edifice collapsed in 2008, even though the obvious imbalances in the global economy that were the outward signs of systemic dysfunction had been growing for some time.

Yet the efficacy of the policy up to 2008 made the underlying ideology compelling for a whole generation of politicians and academics. Ideology is not so supple as capital flows, and we’re now suffering through a long period of adjustment to the collapse of neoliberal subjectivity. Everything that made sense of the world and gave satisfaction to life, from common sense to moral codes, aesthetics to investment strategies, will have to be reshaped to the new conditions. But in the midst of crisis, these conditions are still extremely fluid. Amid so much uncertainty, the temptation to fall back on the old certainties is even greater for those who, like successful politicians, are given to decisive action rather than thoughtful investigation.

All this leaves aside the electoral pressures on politicians, which I’ve indirectly addressed before. It may be that the effects of the crisis are finally inducing cracks in the hegemony of the neoliberal politics that has dominated the last thirty+ years, but politicians who all their lives have been elected on a particular formula are unlikely to throw it away when a bunch of hippies show up to protest, even if the polls do show a massive unmobilized force standing behind the hippies.

Does this really make a difference to our politics? What does it matter if the Democrats ignore the progressive majority because they’re bought and paid for, or if they do the same thing because of the stubborn hold of neoliberal ideology or inertia in their electoral strategy? Well, if the former, then there really is no alternative to outright rebellion. The electoral arena and more traditional pressure tactics targeting elected officials must be abandoned: the outcome has been predetermined by the money pulling the strings. The only political actions that make sense are escalating displays of civil disobedience or fantasies of secession from the “corporate economy”.

On the other hand, if the Democrats are bound as much by anachronistic ideas and strategies as they are by their corporate funders, then hope remains that they will begin to change as the manifest inadequacy of their assumptions begins to dawn on them. In that case, the most productive approach might not be rebellion against the Democratic Party but an attempt to refound it on the basis of a revived progressivism.

The corrupting touch of governing is anathema to many radicals, who would prefer to see the Democrats destroyed or at least to maintain a strict separation between them and us. Yet even in its current pathetic form, intellectually crippled and organizationally hollowed out by the disintegration of the unions and the pursuit of corporate campaign cash, the Democratic Party still offers huge advantages. Any position taken by the mainstream of the party immediately becomes highly visible. The fragmentation of the left under neoliberalism has left us organizationally powerless to advance the sweeping changes that are required; inhabiting the corpse of the Democratic Party could offer a shortcut back to organizational coherence. And not least, despite the fantasies of many involved in the occupation movement, direct democracy is simply not a viable way to organize our society. Breathing democratic life back into established mechanisms of representation is not only useful for changing policy, it should also be an end in itself.

I’m not suggesting that we all become machine hacks, or that we attempt some sort of sectarian-socialist-style takeover of the Democrats. But engaging with the Democrats – on our own terms and through confrontation as often as through support – seems to me something worth exploring. This is only a tentative suggestion, and I’m interested in hearing responses. As someone who has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate and having spent many years viciously criticizing them, it doesn’t come naturally to me. But I also think we need to recognize that the collapse of neoliberalism will open up a wide range of possibilities that were mere chimeras before 2008. We should not allow prejudices formed under the old order to prevent us from seizing the new opportunities.


  1. There is a great deal which could be said about the historical trajectory of the Democratic Party, from the party of slavery which created a murderous bond between the slavocracy and Northern (pre-1900 mostly immigrant) labor, a role it maintained until the 1960's with the disintegration of Jim Crow as the Dixiecrats finished their mass exodus to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party only became the part of social liberalism as it shed its attachment to labor. Black, female, Latino, and GLBT representation did not find a welcome place in the Democrats nationally until the 1970's and even the 1980's, and even then really only in more urban and Northern settings.

    Let's put that aside for a moment, however.

    The Democrats of today do not respond to the Occupy X stuff because they have no compelling reason to do so. The Democrats do not now and never have had an interest in mobilizing a mass base. They have acted as a political steam valve for mass political movements, but they have never been so interested in holding office as to create such a movement.

    Insofar as Occupy X holds Obama and the Dems also responsible, Occupy X does not promise to turn into votes for the incumbents, but threatens to disorganize the current DP leadership. Insofar as Occupy X points to problems which could only begin to be addressed by measures that they have neither the will nor the interest in pursuing, the Dems can't make use of the sentiment. Insofar as Occupy X carries no social weight, the Dems can treat however they please.

  2. I think you're right that the Democrats have "acted as a political steam valve for mass political movements", but that doesn't really clarify why they act that way. Is there something structural that produces this outcome, or could the party conceivably be radicalized? Or even just de-neoliberalized?

    I think disorganizing the Democratic leadership would be a perfect goal for the left. I'm not looking for the Democrats to end capitalism, I just want a vehicle for a progressive agenda.

  3. Walker thanks for this post, it's really interesting. The analysis you give for the why neoliberal ideology has been so sticky is very compelling, in fact to a certain extent we haven't seen the really disastrous effects of the continuation of neoliberal policies yet so they haven't needed to be disabused of it (I'm thinking here of the fact that we haven't had a second recession yet and the Euro is still together, not of the devastating impact of austerity on many communities).

    I also think you're right that we need to look to the democrats as a vehicle for moving the center and "common sense" to the left, but I don't think we should devote too much energy to it. As far as I can see the most urgent need to impact of democratic base is to ensure Obama remains in the white house in 2012. I think your post about Rahm shorty after he was elected argues that point well enough. This I think can be accomplished not be directly trying to make the dems more viable mostly because of the lack of viability on the right. It seems possible that we'll have two candidates on the right, at the very least the candidate will be a John Kerry level dud, and so Obama has nothing to worry about (though we'll see how I feel in 6 months).

    Folks in the left can do more by doing exciting, strategic organizing in communities around the crisis. Stronger and growing unions, housing groups, and undocumented/Latino organizing will only help the Dems by raising political awareness and maybe by organizing around local elections (which might have the potential to have interesting candidates). Keeping Obama in office will be a side effect of what working toward our main goal, rebuilding our own infrastructure of organization.

    Coming out of the occupy movement this is what we need to be doing. Already here in Vegas the occupation is falling apart but folks are reforming along more ideologically and tactically cohesive lines that have a good chance of bringing the momentum forward into good organizing.

    As far as getting moving the mainstream to the left I think the occupy movement has shown that a disdain for the democrats can be even more effective. The cloak of silence around organizing has started to disintegrate and more militant and winning work is only going to advance that process.

  4. The Democratic Party is no more a victim of ideology than the Republican Party. It has not remained one of the two parties of the management of capital's affairs in the richest country in the world for 170 years because it is merely "bound as much by anachronistic ideas and strategies as they are by their corporate funders".

    The argument for "why" is beyond the word limit here, but I would like to make one point as unambiguously as possible: the Democratic Party has never been a vehicle for anything other than the absorption of Leftists into an electoral machinery completely and totally dedicated to its own reproduction and the day to day management of capitalist society. I can't think of a single positive instance of what happened to progressive political movements that have turned to work inside the Democratic Party as "a shortcut" or as a "progressive vehicle". Should we look at the Black mayors who won political office coming out of the Civil Rights Movement? Congressional Black Caucus? What about the women who entered? Where is the E.R.A.?

    A commitment to the viability of representational politics does not mean that the Democratic Party is a derelict vehicle you can hijack and give a new content to revive "progressive" politics. The problem is harder and more intractable than that. The search for shortcuts never ends well.

    I'll put it another way: If you think that industrial production, and not merely distribution, is capitalist in form, that modern industry cannot merely be taken over and shorn of its capitalist shell, then why would you think that the political sphere of capitalist society would operate any differently? The state and its parties are not merely empty vessels waiting for a new content, but are themselves also forms in the Marxian sense.

  5. I'm not suggesting avoiding engagement in political institutions, only that it will only possible on the basis of an independent activity. We can't achieve this by seeking a ready-made vehicle of legitimation in the form of the Democratic Party without a mass base, activists entering the Democratic Party will merely be absorbed or chewed up and spit out. Even if it were possible somehow to succeed, it would only further enhance the Democratic Party's legitimacy and thereby alienate people from their own sense of power.

    On one level, I agree with Earl. Self-organization will do more good than anything else. If you want to push the existing political machinery progressively, it is more important to have a or several mass political movements directed at challenging the privatizing power of either civil society or the state. The Verizon strike, like any strike, partially challenges the idea that wages, benefits and working conditions are merely private affairs between employer and employee, but that these are legitimately the concerns of everyone, and the interruption of daily life is what brings this to the public.

    However, I am less sanguine about what organizational forms this will take. There are numerous reasons to treat community organizing with suspicion (such as who determines what is 'the community') and to doubt the viability of union organizing (because they have been in decline since the 1950's for structural reasons.)

    That doesn't mean staying out of struggles, nor does it mean not trying to build solidarity and engage in a lively and critical way with our world, in whatever ways are possible, but the onus for new political forms is not on us.