Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Liberalism Is Not Working, And Jonathan Chait Doesn't Understand Marxism

Jonathan Chait and Karl Marx (Chait photo credit MSNBC, taken from Salon. Marx taken from
Note: See Update Below

Over a year ago, I wrote a response to a piece by Jonathon Chait called "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say." While there were some examples of "political correctness" that I thought Chait unfairly treated as unreasonable or oversensitive when they were anything but, the biggest issue I had with the article--in fact, what really made me decide to respond to it--was his awful, horrifically inaccurate, pseudo-historical account of how the worst examples of "political correctness"--censorship, self-righteousness, disregard for the rights of others--are supposedly representative of the far-left as it has existed through history. I won't rehash my argument here, but suffice it to say, Chait's account of leftism throughout history was shamefully wrong. And now, he's treated us with an article called "Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed." The contents are, not surprisingly, unimpressive.

For those who might wonder: I'm not a Marxist. I would never apply a label to myself that contains another person's name right in it--as Noam Chomsky says, that sort of thing belongs in the realm of organized religion, not in any sort of scientific field (and politics is a sort of science, when you get down to it). But even that aside, I have my disagreements and my issues with Marx's ideas. So my problem here is not that Chait criticizes Marx or Marxism--it's that his criticism is hackish drivel, the sort of thing that could have been spat up by a paid propagandist. Which, in a certain sense, is what Chait is. But let's get to the substance, shall we?
Yesterday, President Obama visited Cuba at a moment when his presidency is at an apogee, and international communism is mired in a long, terminal decline. Obama has revived the liberal project, implementing center-left reforms to end the Great Recession, reduce carbon emissions, regulate financial markets, and expand access to health insurance (health care notably having long been perhaps Cuba’s only conceivable advantage relative to the U.S.). Yet, in the United States, liberalism faces greater pressure from the left than at any time since the 1960s, when a domestic liberal presidency was destroyed by the Vietnam War.
We are already dancing the realm of falsehoods. Obama hasn't governed from the center-left, in any meaningful sense of that term. Bernie Sanders is center-left. Obama is center-right--to the right of Nixon, who was hardly any sort of leftist. But Chait's claims of what Obama's reforms, center-left or not, have accomplished is misleading in more important ways.

The recession, technically speaking, has indeed ended. But its effects are still being felt, as many people remain unemployed or underemployed, and wage growth remains slow. The Great Recession has not ended in the way that the Depression had by the time the US had immersed itself in World War II--it's left a scar that has yet to heal. And probably won't before the next recession hits, for that matter.

Obama's regulation of financial markets is another fleeting fantasy--the biggest banks are bigger than ever, and Dodd-Frank is a toothless joke of a reform bill that no one takes seriously. If this is the bold, effective center-left reform Chait has in mind, he's totally delusional. But then, we knew that.

While, again, Obama has put into place limits on carbon emissions, he's also pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would allow companies to sue any participating country for any environmental law that cuts into their profits. For that reason, a slew of environmental groups have condemned it.

And as for health insurance, Chait fails to note the tens of millions who remain uninsured or under-insured. That casts some doubt onto the idea that the US is really at the point that it can boast of having a better healthcare system than Cuba, where everyone has insurance and access to the treatment they need.

So, along with an inaccurate description of Obama as "center-left," Chait has thrown in a series of technically true but incredibly misleading statements that ignore the serious failings of the president's supposed accomplishments. But then again he wouldn't be much of a Democratic Party mouthpiece if he mentioned those.
While socialism remains highly unpopular among the public as a whole, Americans under the age of 30 — who have few or no memories of communism — respond to it favorably. The Bernie Sanders campaign has introduced once-verboten questions about the market system into Democratic Party politics — a challenge Hillary Clinton has beaten back by relying on the residual loyalties of her base rather than mounting a frontal ideological challenge. Meanwhile, Jacobin magazine has given long-marginalized Marxist ideas new force among progressive intellectuals. It seems impossible at the current moment to imagine Marxists exercising power at the national level. But it also seemed impossible to imagine New Deal–hating conservatives — then just a faction within a party — exercising national-scale power after their standard-bearer was routed in the 1964 elections. Yet, a mere 16 years later, their time had arrived. So, on the theory that it’s never too early to start planning the counterrevolution, it is worth reiterating that Marxism is terrible.
Given that Marxists are not at all a presence in high-level US politics (is there a single Marxist senator or congressman?) and New Deal-hating conservatives were, the comparison seems dubious. But we won't linger on that. Let's look at Chait's doubtlessly brilliant arguments against Marxism.
Sanders’s success does not reflect any Marxist tendency. It does, however, reflect a generalized hunger for radical solutions, discontent with the Obama administration’s pace of progress, and a generational weakening of the Democratic Party’s identification with liberalism over socialism.
Sanders's solutions are far from radical--they're the sort of center-left reforms Chait wrongly thinks Obama has enacted. His politics would be completely mainstream in any number of European countries.
It has never been exactly clear what Sanders means when he calls himself “socialist.” Years ago, he supported the Socialist Workers Party, a Marxist group that favored the nationalization of industry. Today he endorses a “revolution” in metaphorical rather than literal terms, and holds up Denmark as the closest thing to a real-world model for his ideas. But, while “socialism” has meant different things throughout history, Denmark is not really a socialist economy. As Jonathan Cohn explained, it combines generous welfare benefits and high-quality public infrastructure with highly flexible labor markets — an amped-up version of what left-wing critics derisively call “neoliberalism.” While Denmark’s success suggests that a modern economy can afford to fund more generous social benefits, it does not reveal an alternative to the market system.
Neoliberalism is an ideology opposed to social welfare programs and corporate regulation, so any ideology or system that values these and promotes them is by definition against neoliberalism. But otherwise, Chait is correct here--Denmark still operates as a market economy. Nor would any Marxist think of Denmark as representing their final goals for society, of course.
It is on politics, not economics, where the influence of Marxist ideas has been most keenly felt. Enough time has passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to allow Marxist models to thrive without answering for communist regimes. In his fascinating profile of Jacobin, Dylan Matthews notes, “The magazine is not going to defend Stalin's collectivizations or Mao's Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of ‘actually existing communism.’” But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.
It is a fact worth looking into that every Communist country has been a repressive dictatorship--"nightmare" is a subjective term that conveniently ignores that a number of these countries certainly look better under Communism than they did under their previous system--if Chait wants to know about a "repressive nightmare," he can just research the Batista regime that Castro replaced.

But the reason that Communist countries have been dictatorships is ultimately pretty straightforward. The first country to turn Communist was, of course, Russia, under Lenin. Lenin promoted new ideas far from Marx's original thoughts--"professional revolutionaries," and a ruling elite that serves as the vanguard of the revolution. These modifications were condemned early on as dictatorial by orthodox Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, who were harsh critics of the resulting USSR. But Lenin's success seemed to lend a certain credibility to Marxism-Leninism, which is why all your favorite Marxist revolutionaries--Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh--subscribed to it.

There are ways in which one can argue Marx's ideas lent themselves a little too easily to authoritarianism--the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" was a poor choice of words, in retrospect--but the real culprit when it comes to the authoritarianism of Communist countries is Lenin, not Marx.

Chait, not surprisingly, has a different explanation.
Many Marxist theorists have long attempted to rescue their theory from its real-world adherents by attributing its failures to idiosyncratic personal flaws of the leaders who took power (Lenin, Stalin, Mao … ). But the same patterns have replicated themselves in enough governments under enough leaders to make it perfectly obvious that the flaw rests in the theory itself. Marxist governments trample on individual rights because Marxist theory does not care about individual rights. Marxism is a theory of class justice. The only political rights it respects are those exercised by members of the oppressed class, with different left-wing ideological strands defining those classes in economic, racial, or gender terms, or sometimes all at once. Unlike liberalism, which sees rights as a positive-sum good that can expand or contract for society as a whole, Marxists (and other left-wing critics of liberalism) think of political rights as a zero-sum conflict. Either they are exercised on behalf of oppression or against it. Any Marxist government immediately sets about snuffing out the political rights of parties or ideas deemed reactionary (a category that also inevitably expands to describe any challenge to the powers that be). Repression is woven into Marxism’s ideological fabric.
At this point, even Chait's characterization of Marxist governments is questionable. Did Salvador Allende, democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, really "[set] about snuffing out the political rights of parties or ideas deemed reactionary" and "trample on individual rights?"

Chait's claim that Marxism doesn't care about individual rights is, once again, wrong. Marx himself wrote a work defending freedom of the press, and Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, vehemently defended "general elections...freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly...[and] the free battle of opinions." She also stated that "Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters." Does that line up with Chait's picture of Marxism?

Marx did critique the prevailing idea of individual rights, but that wasn't because he preferred tyranny, it was because he thought the standard idea of liberal rights emphasized separating and protecting people from one another, whereas he believed the greatest freedom came from people interacting and cooperating with one another, not existing in an isolated fashion. He did, however, note that "Political emancipation [i.e. ensuring individual rights] is, of course, a big step forward."

Moving on in Chait's piece:
Political correctness borrows its illiberal model of political discourse from Marxism, and it has mostly played itself out on university campuses and other enclaves where the left is able to impose political hegemony. (This is why some liberals who don’t agree with political correctness, but also don’t want to criticize it, dismiss it as nothing more than harmless college prankery.) Just this week, Emory University’s president promised to use security cameras to track down and prosecute students who wrote “Trump” in chalk — chalking being a normally acceptable medium for sloganeering — after student activists pronounced the word a threat to their safety.
I've already addressed Chait's arguments about the association between political correctness and the far left, so I won't rehash that. The example he cites at Emory University does seem, from what I've heard about it, to be a silly instance of political correctness, so I won't disagree with Chait on that.
Of course, since students can easily access hurtful campaign news with more modern communication tools than chalk, the application of p.c. logic to the presidential campaign requires action beyond the walls of the ivory tower. Trump’s campaign has given the illiberal left the chance to import its methods to the broader stage of a presidential campaign. Left-wing groups have set out to prevent Trump from delivering public speeches. The tactic first appeared just over a week ago in Chicago, where several hundred University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members signed a letter asking the university to cancel Trump’s speech, and a demonstration planned to, in its words, “#‎SHUTITDOWN.” There is some dispute as to whether the demonstrators caused Trump to cancel his speech, or whether he used them as a pretext. What is indisputable is that a faction of the left has made shutting down Trump rallies its goal. A version of the tactic reappeared in Arizona, where activists blocked highway access to a Trump rally, though police managed to clear them. Sanders, to his credit, has decried such efforts, but influential left-wing intellectuals have defended the practice in essays with headlines like “How the people of Chicago silenced Donald Trump.”
While I disagree with the petition (I don't want to empower the people running a public university to decide which candidates they will allow to use their facility based on ideology), shutting down Trump's rallies through protests is not anti-free speech. Trump is running for president, and he could win--and he would be an awful president. Furthermore, the movement he's created has led to people being hurt by Trump supporters--which Trump has never really disavowed. Trump is not the only candidate I would like to see encounter this degree of protest, but he certainly deserves it, and if it takes disruptive protests and blocked highways to keep Trump from becoming president, it's entirely worth it.
The efforts to shut down Trump reflect the growing influence of Marxian politics, and these ideas merit study. A Jacobin column defends “impair[ing] the circulation of Trump’s hate-filled message.” What about free speech? Well:

Free speech, while an indispensable principle of democracy, is not an abstract value. It is carried out in the context of power disparities, and has real effects on peoples’ lives. We can defend freedom of speech — particularly from state crackdowns — while also resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.
Free speech is for people on the wrong end of “power disparities” — which is to say, the oppressed and their allies, or, put more bluntly, the left. Free speech is not for a candidate who “scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed.” Importantly, this principle denies the right of free speech not only to Trump but also to the entire Republican Party (whose analysis of poverty, crime, terrorism, and so on constitutes scapegoating of the oppressed) but also large segments of the Democratic Party as well. It is highly unlikely that the illiberal left gets its hands on the machinery of the federal government within our lifetimes, but if it does, repression would be a foregone conclusion.
This is a wildly inaccurate summary of the article, which explicitly opposes state censorship, including in the excerpt Chait quotes. In case that example wasn't clear enough, here's another quote from the article:
If anything, the protesters who nonviolently shut down Donald Trump should be heralded as guardians of democracy. They did not call for the state to prevent Trump from speaking, and rightly so.
And yet Chait goes on to fantasize that the "illiberal left" would engage in harsh repression of dissent if they got their hands on "the machinery of the federal government."
In the meantime, obviously, Trump poses a far more dire danger than his would-be censors. But it is important not to succumb to the panic that the far left is inculcating around Trump. Trump would threaten American democracy if elected, but all evidence suggests his election is highly unlikely. Trump is disliked by a massive, landslide majority. A majority actually fears him. There is no strategic reason to believe that preventing Trump’s election requires direct confrontation or anything other than normal campaigning.
"Highly unlikely?" According to RealClearPolitics, Clinton leads, on average, by 11.2 percent. That's a decent margin, but it could easily change--Michael Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by seventeen percent in a poll released after the Democratic National Convention in 1988, and went on to get trounced in the election. Toward the beginning of this month, Clinton's lead was only three percent, and there's no reason it couldn't decrease again. Chait ignores that Clinton, too, is widely disliked and has seen her unfavorable ratings continually increase. Plus, she is not a good campaigner--while Sanders's spirited and energetic campaign helps explain his rise in the polls, undoubtedly he's been able to gain ground because Clinton has failed to convince people that she, like Sanders, is serious about change. It's hardly impossible for Trump to win the election, particularly if we have an economic downturn or terrorist attack, neither of which is impossible.
In fact, there is more reason to believe that confrontation helps Trump than to believe the opposite. A poll found the Chicago conflagration made Republican voters, on net, more rather than less likely to support Trump. A reporter I know on the trail met two voters who told him they switched from John Kasich to Trump in response to Trump canceling his speech. That reporter also conveyed the same impression described by Seth Stevenson: Trump’s barking ejections of protesters at his rallies are their emotional apex, the one point in the generally rambly and often boring soliloquies where Trump can demonstrate the atavistic qualities of command. It stands to reason that supplying evidence for Trump’s claim to be the victim of political correctness helps rather than hinders him.
The protests may help rally Republican primary voters behind Trump, but he needs Independents to win the general election, and people who are looking for a president that would unite the country are not likely to back someone whose rallies are widely protested. Protests can help bring attention to issues, and if voters fully realize how damaging Trump's rhetoric about Muslims and immigrants is, many will be reluctant to support him.
But the efforts to shut down Trump are not the product of calculation — or, at least, not a calculation to prevent Trump’s election. The justifiable fear Trump engenders provides the far left, which has no immediate prospects of enacting its program democratically, with the thrilling opportunity to bring the struggle from the ballot box to the streets. “Sometimes a combative scrum — not the marketplace of ideas — is the face of democracy,” exults Jacobin. “Severe threats to equality often push people to act militantly, marshaling their own speech to ward off their authoritarian foes.” It even admits that blocking Trump by electing his major-party opponent is not the point, urging on “a fight for real democracy — not just trusting [the] candidate who supports the very neoliberal policies that helped birth Trump.” Matthews may credit Jacobin with “winning the war of ideas on the left,” but Jacobin’s notion of winning this war seems to be a bit more literal.
One wonders how Chait knows that the protestors are not calculating how to stop Trump's election--is he a mind-reader, perhaps? And Chait seems to clutch his pearls at the idea of any sort of fight that involves the masses, but that's how change happens; the Civil Rights movement involved disruptive protests, and riots, in fact, which went much further than what we've seen against Trump. Like many mainstream liberals, Chait doesn't understand that when institutions are failing the people, the means to correct course are often messy and unruly, and always have been. His reaction is reminiscent of the "white moderate" Martin Luther King addressed in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Nor do realistic advocates of social and economic equality have any reason to share or accept the left’s desperation. The popular, sitting liberal president has enacted the most important egalitarian social reforms in half a century, including higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures.
Is that so? Funny, then, that we haven't seen some steep decrease in income inequality--in fact, it's gotten worse under Obama. Clearly, Chait's liberalism is not enough to correct the nation's course.
All of this has happened without the alliance with white supremacy that compromised the New Deal, or the disastrous war that accompanied the Great Society. The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism — i.e., liberalism — has never been stronger than now. What an odd time to abandon a successful program for an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried.
Chait is truly out of touch to think the liberal program is successful at this point. After almost two terms of Obama, including two years where he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we still have a serious problem with income inequality that does not seem to be getting better, despite Chait's rosy assessment. Further, Obama is currently pushing a massive trade deal that would empower corporations to challenge environmental laws and labor laws by suing countries that enact them and taking them to court in front of a panel of unaccountable appointees. This is part of the great liberal program that's going to save us?

And, of course, Chait doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to Marx's ideas. There are certainly countries where socialist reforms that go far beyond what American liberalism endorses have had a positive impact, such as in Latin American countries. Even the most purist form of socialism has had its shining moments of success in Catalonia during the Spanish revolution, where it lasted until it was crushed out by force.

Marx's ideas are certainly flawed in places, and his predictions have often failed to come true. But in terms of moving toward public ownership of the means of production, he was absolutely onto something, whether Chait likes it or not--and Chait's beloved liberalism is not working, at least not for much of the population. We need at least some steps in the direction Marx was talking about, even if it's just a few baby steps like Sanders proposes (i.e. moving toward social democracy as exists in some European countries). Otherwise, someone like Trump--or someone much worse, even--might be inevitable--someone who could kill not just liberalism, but democracy and the idea of rights themselves.

Update--I have revised my opinion on protests that aim to shut down Trump rallies; I now agree with Chait that these are both ineffectual and problematic from a free speech perspective. However, his critique of Marxism is still without merit, and his attempt to associate protests motivated by backlash to Trump's own anti-free speech tendencies and racism with Marxism is baseless. 

No comments:

Post a Comment