Facing the Democrats in the age of Occupy
Part 2 of 2 | Part 1
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.