Tag Archives: Katha Pollitt

Why Did Liberals Support the Iraq War?

25 Mar

In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally.  By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…

• • • • •

It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.

Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?

Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?

Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday’s activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.

Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences–some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States–theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than to install a “summum bonum” (highest good). Reversing Augustine’s dictum that there is no such thing as evil–evil being only the absence of good–today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.

Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush’s empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.

Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today’s liberals are inspired by fear. This “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today’s liberal believes in fear as an idea–that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism “rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”

Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a “sleeping terror” of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like “the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey.” The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.

Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. “What liberalism requires,” according to Shklar, “is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights–which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles–but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.

Today’s liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. “Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal,” Shklar wrote, “moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument.” Once liberals realize that they are “more afraid of being cruel”–and of others being cruel–”than of anything else,” Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.

How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don’t just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who’ve spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?

The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill’s adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:

 When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.

The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties–an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were “a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”

Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France’s Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on… Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: “No one loves armed missionaries.”

Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks–and their fellow fliers on the left–have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:

 On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration…. here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…. On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation’s Spanish Civil War. Berman’s own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain’s civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender’s words, “a very personal involvement.” But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain’s foreign fighters “knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about.” Yet all Berman can do is talk… and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.

But the real reason Berman’s analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday’s progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war–”if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed” for “the peoples of color” at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, “the war for democracy will not be won” abroad–Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.

Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad–or New York–is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil–and the fear it arouses–the basis of all politics.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the “contempt” that broken revolutionaries “acquire for the very convictions and passions” that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels “turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish–their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.”

Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom–that other sometime watchword of the left–is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the “androidal” complexion of sixties sectarians, with their “short haircuts” and “flabby muscles,” their “flat tones” of Marxism so “oddly remote from American English.” Others wince at the left’s lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.

Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. “Fear,” he wrote, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty.” And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria–and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.

So has it been with today’s liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism’s conquering thrusts abroad–and assaults on the left at home–that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left’s failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision’s periodic appearance at moments like ours–one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s–it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.

If Oscar Wilde is right–that you can’t reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into–it’s not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats’ defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won’t cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?

For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea–too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.

No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights and sexual freedom–each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.

Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America’s greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism’s promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism’s earliest armies marched against the personal–and physically coercive–rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea–of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us–is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.

Even America’s most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It “prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop.” Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that “it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet,” that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as “the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs,” which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have “safe housing…healthy diets, doctors, fresh air…well-stocked libraries open all week”–Sweden itself.

There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites’ resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe–just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march–and heads would have to roll–to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.

Liberalism’s radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America’s old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism’s only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.

Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for “the cause of all mankind.” Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy–and wild implausibility–of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what’s a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?

Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America’s most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. “Go where you may,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, “search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but “part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”

America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.

Liberalism’s past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it–not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it’s because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could–successfully, we now know–to destroy them.

It’s true that there are democratic movements today–in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia–that deserve and receive progressives’ support. But there’s always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and–until something fundamental changes in the United States–tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.

So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks–who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on–it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.

A Sinking Ship? 2 politicians jump, there may be a 3rd.

5 Feb

More news on the Brooklyn/BDS controversy:

1.Yet another signatory to the Lewis Fidler letter, which threatened to punish CUNY by withholding funds, has rescinded his signature.

Today on Twitter, City Councilman Stephen Levin announced:

With Letitia James, two out of the 10 signatories have now removed themselves from the Fidler letter.

2.  I have it on a very good source that yet another member of the New York City Council who signed the letter is going to make a public statement tomorrow, distancing him/herself from its contents. Am not at liberty to say who. But that would make 3 out of 10.

3. My chair, Paisley Currah, has written a very powerful piece for The Chronicle Review, explaining his position on the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event. In addition to revealing some details that folks don’t know or have ignored, he makes an important point about the value—and limits—of the idea of balance and debate as the only model of learning and discussion:

Debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention. Focusing on one idea at a time does not entail the suppression of opposing ideas. It’s a very limited vision of education to imagine that it should take the form of a tennis match, with ideas truncated into easily digestible sound bites.

4. Katha Pollitt has a characteristically crisp evisceration of the balance=thought position:

Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism? On every campus, dozens of panels and lectures take place every week, hosted by student groups, academic departments and programs, endowed lecture series and so on. If over the course of a year every side gets its turn, why isn’t that good enough?

5. The Center for Constitutional Rights has written a lengthy, substantive letter to President Gould on this issue; it’s got some excellent context and cases.

6. This is from a few days ago, but Scott Lemieux does a hilarious send-up of the “balance” argument.

The threats to Brooklyn College’s funding over their decision to invite a world-class scholar to discuss issues of major import, as I have noted, seem to involve some ad hoc principle about “balance” that is a “principle” in the same sense as the equal protection holding in Bush v. Gore.

But, at any rate, let’s pretend that this is a serious argument for a second. I have an example of this new principle being violated! Brooklyn College President Karen Gould:

“You have asked that I state unequivocally the college’s position on the BDS movement, and I have no hesitation in doing so. As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally.”

Personally, I find this statement unobjectionable. If one were to take the newly minted Sacred Principles of Academic Balance being used to attack academic freedom at CUNY, however, Gould should be robustly criticized for expressing a view on a controversial issue on behalf of the college. Is she now obligated to issue another press release from a supporter of BDS for the sake of balance? I find these new Sacred Principles very confusing.

6. Barbara Bowen, the president of my union, which represents 25,000 professors and staff at CUNY, issued a tough call to the “progressive” politicians who asked the president to have our department withdraw its co-sponsorship: “We call on you immediately to withdraw the demands of your letter and to communicate to the Brooklyn College community your support for President Gould’s position.”

7. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough report on the controversy.

8. Andrew Sullivan had a nice link to this blog, which he quoted at length. The title of his post: “The Self-Appointed Policemen of the Israel Debate, Ctd”.

9. There are multiple petitions to sign. Make sure to sign this one, which began circulating two days ago and already has over 2000 signatures, and this one, just out from the Nation.

10. Make sure to check out this post about the massive hypocrisy of Christine Quinn.

11. It’s now been four days since my department posted our call for requests to co-sponsor other panels, representing any and all points of view. Despite the claim that we’re shutting our doors to views we don’t like, we still haven’t gotten a single request for co-sponsorship. I’m beginning to wonder whether our critics really care about balance or presenting opposing views after all.

What Katha Said

19 Apr

Katha Pollitt writing in the Nation about the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney fracas:

But the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s injudicious remarks is not really about whether what stay-home mothers do is work. Because we know the answer to that: it depends. When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself.

So there it is: the difference between a stay-home mother and a welfare mother is money and a wedding ring. Unlike any other kind of labor I can think of, domestic labor is productive or not, depending on who performs it.

 

Love for Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises

15 Feb

From Marx…

In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.

President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.

98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.

…to Mises

Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.

All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.

Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)

But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.

It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.

Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.

Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.

Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”

Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)

Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.

The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it.  Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”

Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left

1 Aug

This morning, my Facebook page exploded. It all started when I posted this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald about Obama and the debt-ceiling deal. Greenwald says that those who think Obama is weak and lacks backbone, or that he got suckered by the Republicans or is somehow being held hostage, are full of shit.  With a few exceptions, Obama got what he wanted.

Greenwald has a lot of evidence to back up his claims, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. So I put the question to my FB friends.  Is Obama politically inept or does he want these massive cuts? And if he wants them, is it because of political calculation? Is he a true believer in neoliberal economics? A hostage of Wall Street?

 To my surprise, lots of people weighed in, many of them leading voices and scholars on the left: Katha Pollitt, Adolph Reed, Josh Cohen, Tom Sugrue, Rick Perlstein, and more. With their permission, I’ve reprinted the discussion, almost verbatim (I had to leave out a few comments from people who didn’t get back to me, and I edited some comments for context and flow).

Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.

What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.

So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?

The “he’s weak” line mystifies me

Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.

Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?

Rick Perlstein‎: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.

Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining.  Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.

Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital…that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.

Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.

Corey: Katha, what do you make of all the evidence Greenwald amasses, arguing to the contrary? Genuine question, as ordinarily I tend to be more in your camp; I just can’t square that with the evidence Greenwald has and some of the stuff Doug and others have been saying.

Doug: The “he’s weak” line mystifies me. Why should we see a guy who had a near-overnight rise, blessed by the Dem establishment, be assumed to be lacking in political skills and understanding? He said all along he wanted entitlement reform and budget balance. The mix may not be what he wanted, but he had plenty of rhetorical, legal, and political possibilities to change the discourse and he didn’t. Occam says he didn’t want to.

Jodi Dean: I’m not sure moderate right fits someone to the right of Nixon and Reagan. I don’t think he is a playing an electoral pollitics game. He seems to think of government in the service of markets, where markets mean primarily financial markets (but also insurance markets and others). So, my basic read is: never the progressive or moderate Democrat that progressives and moderate Democrats wanted or fantasized him to be; always the state as an instrument of the ruling class. But what gets me: his last debt ceiling speech went on about shared responsibility when that was not at all what he was going to do or what he actually wanted. Differently put, I sign on to the “not weak just a bad guy capitalist” interpretation. Yet this is rooted in taking him at his word (and not thinking that he deceives or is manipulated). So the glitch is why he would present his preferred solution/plan as other than what it was. Maybe the only difference now between Tea Party crazy and mainstream conservative (Obama) is the willingness to embrace the becoming-Mad-Max-future-of​-the US v. lip service to the fragile veneer of governance/sociality still holding something like everyday life together.

Doug: Jodi, I suspect that in an ideal world he’d like to see modest upper-bracket tax increases and somewhat less dramatic spending cuts, but didn’t want to go to the mat for them. Plus, he needs Wall Street money for a billion-dollar re-election campaign.

Doug: Jay, “If he were in the thrall of capital”? In who else’s thrall is he?

Jodi: Doug–so your version of “not weak” still includes the fact that even if strong he has to make some compromises; that makes sense to me (so, it answers my question about the speech).

Katha: You know, none of us know what is in his head. However, he did say, as recently as last monday, that he wanted tax hikes on the wealthy. He wanted the Bush tax cuts to expire, which is not in the current deal. I don’t exactly disagree with Doug — clearly, he is Wall St’s man –but I think a more skillful politician, one less in love with being above the fray, could have handled this a lot better and gotten more on the other side. I mean, asking people to call their congressperson? Pathetic.

He’s a One-Trick Pony

Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us.

Corey: Jodi, moderate right is a term relative to the political spectrum. It doesn’t make sense to say Nixon was to the left of Obama without some reference to the political circumstances. Nixon was constrained by a still vibrant New Deal regime; Reagan came into destroy it, and did so somewhat successfully, but he was still encumbered by it. Obama operates in a different political world. As for taking him at his word, he’s said a lot of words. Sometimes he’s quite explicitly signaled a desire to break with the Reaganite consensus; not just in the campaign but early on in his presidency. So the words are murky.

Doug: Adolph, I mostly agree with you, but he is standing up for the freedom and power of capital. That’s not unprincipled, though it’s not our principle, nor that of many of the febrile sorts who promoted him back in 2008.

Corey: Adolph, I find that persuasive. That supports the notion that he is both a political performance artist, in which the main ideology is one of reasonableness without any content whatsoever, and he’s kind of like the 19th century progressives Jay talked about above.

Doug: Jodi, sure. He had to get something through a divided Congress. But there were arrows in his quiver he chose to leave there.

Corey: Doug, Adolph: Your last two comments to each other really do mark a genuine question I have. I tend to think people like Obama really don’t believe the bullshit they preach; what they do believe is that moderation is the mark of maturity and that Wall Street types are smarter than the rest of us. But that is a fairly apolitical reading of them, which doesn’t look at the real and substantive impact neoliberal ideology has had on such folks. I toggle back and forth between those two views. Obama reminds me so much of people I went to college with, who just hitched themselves to a cart that told them this is where success was, and that intelligence is demonstrated by breaking with the crazy left. After a while maybe they start believing their own bullshit, but I can’t help thinking that if careerism is your motivation, you’ll basically go with wherever you think the career incentives will take you. Of course, all this gets into the kind of armchair psychologizing that is totally besides the point. But I do wonder how these ideological formations happen.

Adolph: Note that his posture toward health care, economic policy, the budget crisis, etc has been to sit back and position himself to work the Grand Compromise. (Note as well his bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation; James Oakes has pointed out that Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.) Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment. I imagine he feels, if he even looks that far, that that aptitude will re-elect him in 2012. At that level, who knows what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything beyond the moment and having another piece of paper showing that he’s gotten something done. I take Doug’s “I told you so” point to heart (not like he and I haven’t talked about it for a while anyway). All I’d add is that it’s intriguing from the standpoint of ideology-critique and more than exasperating from the standpoint of concern with building a serious left to see how many people who should have known better got swept up in the utterly, transparently bullshit hype about Obama either sanitizing their pasts or tying themselves into more and more convoluted knots trying to rationalize what should have been obvious about him from the very beginning.

Doug: Corey, the personal angle with O, I think, is the fact that he was nurtured from an early age by elites – fancy universities and foundations and then the Dem leadership. He’s in awe of them, and grateful for all they did. Cf. FDR, who emerged from the elite and had the confidence to challenge them. That, plus the times are different. But that’s how I see the personalities meshing with history. I also wouldn’t go too far with the contentlessness of his reasonableness: it’s always about loyal service to power. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s extremely useful to the bourgeoisie to have a mixed race, cerebral Democrat imposing the austerity program. I’m reminded of Dinkins telling Wall Street skeptics, who thought he didn’t have the balls to impose austerity after the 80s went poof, back during his first campaign: “They’ll take it from me.”

Corey: Doug, did you ever see David Bromwich’s piece (maybe in the LRB or on Huffington Post) about Obama’s infatuation with elites and his comparison with FDR? Very interesting. Though again too much focus on character, for my tastes, not on politics.

Doug: No, Corey, didn’t see that Bromwich piece. The “politics” of it all seem crystal clear to me. What’s going to be interesting, in a sick voyeuristic car wreck kind of way, is watching the pwogwessives rationalize this and get ready for 2012.

Adolph: Doug, of course you’re right about his standing up for the freedom and power of capital. I intended to mention that not only does he believe that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us; they’ve also bankrolled him up to his eye teeth in 2008 and now. They started getting behind him about 20 minutes after he was elected to the US Senate. And, if lefties of a sort didn’t have such a ridiculous soft spot for the black guy of the moment, more people might have noticed that that element and maudlin Fulfillment of the Dream fantasies — Pritzker, the Daley crowd — was always where his effective political base was, from the beginning of his political career or that he had never weighed in on any live conflict bearing on inequality, ever, except, of course, in that abstract, Kang and Kodos cum overblown eloquence style of his. He’s a vacant tool, but he’s capital’s vacant tool, not ours, and he never has been. All the crap about his “better angels” that the Nation crowd and others persist with is either the equivalent of not wanting to admit having been wrong in their idiotic slurping in the first place or pathetic clinging to the baseless hope that he’ll listen or toss a face-saving bone. Hell, he told you during his campaign that he wasn’t a progressive and that his skill is in making people believe that he’s with them.

Corey: By the way, it looks as if Social Security is off the table in terms of the trigger mechansm. As is Medicaid. Medicare, though, is not.

Doug: He’s not unlike Jerry Brown – a fundamentally conservative guy who can convince pwoggies that he’s one of them. As J.D. Lorenz, the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance who spent a few months working for Jerry and wrote a fine book about him, his strategy was to create “an ambiance of possibility that gave the viewer space: space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry….” They both come off as thoughtful and cerebral, more reflective than your standard issue pol. This is what gives the pwog audience space to project fantasies: he must be one of us!

Doug: They’ll play COLA games with SS, won’t they?

Adolph: Corey, apropos of your comment that BHO reminds you of people you went to school with. I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to the POCs; Arne Duncan and others proceed on the same basis. But take a look at Yalie Jonah Edelman, spawn of Peter and Marian Wright, boasting alongside Crown family scion and financier James Schine Crown at the Aspen Institute about how his ed reform non-profit (also funded by investment bankers, hedge fund operators, Walton Family Foundation, etc) went after Illinois teachers’ unions: http://j.mp/oytHI7 See 6ff, and esp. 8ff.)

Doug: Marx: “The better able a ruling class is to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, the more solid and dangerous its rule.” By that measure the American ruling class is doing just fine.

Corey: Funny, Doug, that’s 1/4 of my theory of counterrevolution right there; had totally forgotten about that quote from Marx, which must be where I got it from. Love that pairing of solid and dangerous, which are ordinarily not words we associate together.

Corey: Yeah, Adolph, I know exactly what you mean. But as you know and say, it’s a phenomenon that totally transcends race. Except for that part about telling themselves that they embody the victory of the civil rights movement. Though I’ve seen a version of this among Jews and other sorts whose grandparents were one step removed from the farm or shtetl or whatever: that their arrival constitutes another step in the long march of justice.

Doug: My god, I missed this a couple of weeks ago: http://www.time.com/time/n​ation/article/0,8599,20829​71-2,00.html. So this has all been scripted for weeks? And Obama rejected Boehner’s $2.4 trillion – to get $4 trillion?These dollar amounts are big, but the discretionary caps amount to 0.4% of GDP over the next 10 years, and what the magic commish is supposed to come up with is another 0.6% of GDP. Maybe this isn’t quite as awful as it looks, though it’s awful. Of course it could always get worse, and they haven’t started the COLA game yet.

Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial.I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)

Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.

Joshua Cohen: ‎1. I think BHO’s political views are in the neighborhood of Cass Sunstein’s: pretty centrist, with different leans on different issues. But much less conventionally left than some supporters painted him as being. Part of the reason for the painting was the poetic rhetoric, but that rhetoric (hope….change….etc etc) was always VERY VERY abstract, not tied to policy.

2. BHO has shown a willingness to be reasonable with the unreasonable: which is an invitation to being exploited by the unreasonable. People smell weakness: and they treat a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, esp. when you compromise right out of the box. That is who BHO is: he does not have a back-up political style.

3. I also think that critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)

4. Huge factor in contemporary politics is extraordinary disarray of mass politics on the left. Unions at 6%, no peace movement, and no jobs movement of any consistent and public visibility. It is much easier to talk about Obama than to talk about this HUGELY important fact.

5. Given point (2) above, and despite (4): I think BHO has not done as well as he might have at, in particular, keeping a focus on jobs.

So I kind of agree with Tom Sugrue….esp. on the Roosevelt point.

Joe Lowndes: I’m with Adolph here. I would add though that nevertheless, Obama continually craves – or rather demands – progressive credentials. Beyond mere triangulation, it’s as if he understands his signal accomplishment to be the translation of progressive desires into neoliberal politics, and he thus can’t understand why we don’t see the flawless logic of his having done so. It’s the Obama of the Iowa victory saying, “They said this day would never come” that is necessary to make his conservative commitments meaningful. In foreign policy it is his supposed unique ability to empathize with Muslims oppressed that rationalizes militarism. In education he just wants better for failing students in the poor communities he knew as an organizer. He is visibly petulant towards LGBT activists who can’t seem to see that he has been their best ally since he was in the State Senate. On and on.

Neolib, Neocon, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Thad: Why is he a neoliberal and not a neoconservative? I really so no daylight between his and both Kristols’ politics.

Joe: You’re right, Thad. I was thinking of economic policy when using that exhausted term. He is a total neocon in both foreign and domestic politics.

Corey: Actually, Obama is far more enthralled with capitalism than Kristol Senior was. Remember Kristol could only offer two cheers for capitalism; Obama would more than happily offer three.

Thad: Corey, are you referring to Kristol Sr.’s dislike of the hedonism and cultural chaos produced by capitalism?

Corey: Its deleterious effects on the martial spirit; the fact that it is a completely ignoble way to organize public life (his words, not mine); that anyone who would privilege money over other values like glory is an ant. Kristol was never that concerned with cultural chaos, if by that you mean immoral or libidinous values.

Thad:  We basically agree on Irving K. But hasn’t BHO always been a powerful proponent of the martial spirit and critic of the “ignoble” products of capitalism? Remember his argument for a national service? He and McCain agreed that America should always look like it did on 9/12. And during the campaign he went out of his way to attack black men who watch ESPN, kids who wear baggy jeans, and all of us who “engage in childish things, who are more concerned about what they want than what’s good for other people.” And how many times has he referred to the military as representing the “best” and “highest” of who we are.

Corey: That’s what makes the neocon position that much more interesting and ultimately frightening. I could be wrong — haven’t studied BHO to the extent I have Kristol — but my sense is that Obama doesn’t attribute these cultural things he complains about to any notion of capitalism. Kristol did. And while that didn’t lead Kristol to call for capitalism’s overhaul or anything like that, he did see an antidote to it in militarism. Obama doesn’t endorse militarism in the same way.

Thad: I think it’s only a difference in emphasis. But Obama — like his heroes TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK — has essentially the same love of a regimented social order as Kristol. Check this out: http://articles.cnn.com/20 ​08-09-12/politics/candidat​es.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar​ ack-obama-common-ground-sa​rah-palin?_s=PM%3APOLITICS

Thad: Put it this way: I am sure that if Kristol’s argument were presented to Obama, he would agree with it. No?

Corey: Kristol didn’t like a regimented social order. He liked a warrior social order. There’s a big difference. It’s not the authoritarianism of the military; it’s the extravagant glory, the blood-curdling, artistically executed violence, the way it delivers us from the tedium and ennui of a market society — so, no, I don’t think Obama would agree with that. Certainly not in public, and I suspect not even in private. As Josh said above, Obama has a Cass Sunstein view of the world; that’s different from a Carl Schmitt view of the world. At least in some respects.

Thad: I think you’re splitting hairs here, Corey. One of Kristol’s big causes — now enacted in Obama’s ramped-up version of No Child Left Behind — was the establishment of a hegemonic, unified, national culture. No better model for that than the 82nd Airborne, which is one reason the great liberals have always loved the military and the draft. Speaking of which: http://www.nytimes.com/201​1/06/16/opinion/16kristof.​html

Alex Gourevitch: Josh, I think point 4, ‘the disarray of mass politics’ begins pointing this thread in a wider, and possibly more important direction. We can debate Obama’s ‘real’ politics all we want – FWIW I basically agree with Adolph/Doug/and Co. But Obama did not end up here alone. The Democratic Party has been decidedly weak during this whole affair. Moreover, especially under New Democrat leadership, it has spent the last decades setting the table for a budget debate in which deficit spending is seen as irresponsible, in which the argument for progressive taxation has severely waned, and in which the state is seen as having a much more limited role – basically correcting market failures. I think we fool ourselves if we think the major problems here are just a) right-wing Tea Party populists with an ideological backbone and b) an opportunistic President who is happy to be the respectable patsy of certain class fractions. It is also a so-called left wing party that has been itself the party of austerity for at least twenty years. They created the environment in which massive spending cuts when on the verge of a double-dip recession can seem like a reasonable thing to do. And we’re talking here just about the Democratic Party, never mind the other elements that go into the ‘disarray of mass politics.’

Lisa Garcia Bedolla: I can’t really say it better than Robert Reich did in his Berkeley blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/​2011/08/01/ransom-paid/. It continues the fallacy that our individual desires (esp. if we’re wealthy) should trump the public good. The Dems have not been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate an alternative vision. They just jumped on the GOP bandwagon (I blame more than just Obama).

Shane Taylor: Others have ably commented on the Obama’s chronic underestimation of Republican intransigence, his pursuit of compromise for the sake of compromise, and his desire for “entitlement” reform (the White House affirmed their commitment to this cause to David Brooks back in March of 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/opinion/06brooks.html. I, too, see those as features of this administration. However, there was something different about this episode. I suspect that Obama has an inflated sense of his talent for eleven-dimensional chess, but in this round, the president lost control. Last week the president was pleading with the public to plead with Congress to make it stop. Twice. Something seemed to have gone horribly wrong, and I think John Kay made the appropriate analogy: it was like a dollar bill auction. As Yves Smith said, there was a toxic “bidding” dynamic. http://agonisticliberal.com/2011/07/30/lost-in-the-strategery/

Update (August 2, 12 pm)

This debate has been pinging around the various spheres of the internet.  It’s been sent into the strato/twittersphere by Glenn Greenwald, Joan Walsh, Jeff Sharlet, Mike Konczal, and others, who’ve tweeted it to their, between them, 100,000 some-odd followers.  It’s been picked up by Digby. It’s brought more traffic to this site than anything I’ve posted.

Two pieces came out this morning that I want to give special mention to.  First, this blog post by Alex Gourevitch, amplifying his comment above, is among the smartest I’ve seen and pushes us in a genuinely new direction—away from the individual focus on Obama to larger questions about party formation and comparative political economy. Don’t miss it.

Second, this piece by Matt Taibbi, well, need I say more? As always, Taibbi says and sees things more clearly than the rest of us. Again, not to be missed.

Update (12:45 pm)

More voices have joined in, which I wanted to include. First, this from Anne Norton, who participated in yesterday’s FB discussion but whose comment I wasn’t able to include in the original blog post.

Anne Norton: Adolph’s characterization of Obama’s commitment to performing the reasonable, judicious statesmen is directly connected to his progressivism: both in the endorsement of a particular ostensibly passionless elite expertise and in the priority of process over results. To my mind this shows the ease with which progressivism moves into the service of capital, especially finance capital, which also understands itself as the realm of passionless elite expertise. Our analyses are too cold as well. What is lost in this are the basics: equality, democracy, hunger and profit. I confess it: I expected better.

Then this FB message from Dorian Warren.

Dorian Warren: Hey Corey. I was in a meeting all day yesterday so couldn’t weigh in on the debate on your FB page. How excellent and exciting!! Although I’m a bit glad I didn’t; I can only take so much psychologizing about what BHO thinks and who the “true” BHO really is, especially devoid of context, history and constraints. Obama wasn’t the sole player in the debt debacle. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze his strategy, ideology, etc. But we pour so much energy into a) assessing his true inner state, again and again and again, and b) never get to the implications of those kinds of narrow analyses. Okay, so now what? Primary challenge him? Any “Democrat” president that wins would do the same, white or black, male or female. At least that’s my prediction. I think Josh Cohen and Alex G. were pointing the conversation towards a more constructive direction that’s more comprehensive in an analysis of the current moment, of political and party structures, of large ideological shifts, etc.

I just came back from a union conference in England over the weekend where most of the Europeans I spoke with spoke not of Obama in personality terms but rather of the fact that the “US”, structurally, is about redistribution to the top from the bottom, and that the country has been this way for 30 years. Quite a different starting place relative to us, which is surprising…

And then this email from Rogers Smith.

Rogers Smith: I confess to being too dispirited about current affairs to join in the lively exchange yesterday; but do want to acknowledge that Adolph’s take is looking pretty good at the moment.  On the two questions of political style and substance, I think it has been and is debatable whether Obama’s compromise/community organizer style is better suited to getting something done in the current context than all-out left advocacy: that advocacy is needed to push compromisers, but you also need to win some elections.  On substance, I’ve seen Obama as seeking somehow to satisfy both his belief in Wall Street economics and his identification with black church social justice goals–and hoped the results would be compromises that moved at least some meaningful degree in more egalitarian directions.  Adolph has consistently attacked that kind of view as naive, and at this point it’s hard to argue.  I’m sure Obama is telling himself he’s positioned now to accomplish more in the future, and I’d like to see it, but I’m not predicting it will happen.

Which prompted this further email exchange between Rogers and Anne.

Anne: What troubles me most about Obama is that the unfolding of Obama’s presidency seems to knit together aspects of his policies and persona that point in a less democratic and egalitarian direction.  He seems consistently committed to elite governance -worse, to an elite governance of people drawn from the unelected and irresponsible ranks of finance.  He seems consistently committed to a big state.  I’ve always had suspicions of a big state, but I make allowances for those followers of the big state who see it as providing for the poor, the ill and the common good. I can make common cause with that, in the present circumstances.  This is a big state making war and preserving its credit rating -or not. Obama’s apparent acceptance of the idea that “the economy” is measured by the welfare of the stock market; his failure to insist on measures drawn from the well-being of the people gives the lie to the idea of fundamental change.  His consistent preoccupation with producing elite consensus while remaining indifferent to the popular judgment of that consensus suggests to me that he is not at bottom a democrat, but a Progressive of the old managerial school.

Rogers: Mixes of democratic egalitarianism with managerial elitism are of course characteristic of much Progressive pragmatist thought, which is very much Obama’s thought.  And though today’s American left builds on much in the more left Progressives, most Progressives did prove themselves more managerial elitist than democratic.  So Obama can rightly be seen as a new chapter in an old story–but I’m not sure the contemporary progressive left knows how to build a politics that avoids that (nor do I).  Which is particularly dispiriting.

Update (7:30 pm)

This forum is getting more and more traction. In addition to the folks mentioned above, it’s now been tweeted by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou. Between all the various folks who’ve tweeted it, I think this forum has been brought to anywhere from 150,000 175,000 of the Twitterati.

Our old friend Matt Yglesias has now weighed in.  He takes issue with a comment by Thad Russell above—actually, he says he “kind of choked” over it—but then takes his disagreement in an interesting direction. The argument he makes is actually not that different from Chomsky’s.

We made the “Roundup” post at Firedoglake.

And from what I hear, this post is all over Facebook, generating discussion, getting thumbs-upped (and I’m sure thumbs-downed), and more.

Lastly, Dorian Warren, who was featured in one of our previous updates, writes in again with some further thoughts.

Dorian Warren: Another thought after reading the updates: I think the problem with this conversation is that it’s too high up in the air. All of us are discussing Obama and the “big” policy deals/outcomes from 30,000 feet up. Okay, true, in every case there was capitulation and non-progressive results which now show somehow who the “true” Obama is. Fine, I agree with that as far as it goes, which frankly isn’t far. I think if we were to look a bit more closely and in detail, we’d find empirically that the Administration as a whole is best described as a set of contradictions. Let’s not forget the power of Administrative politics, even though it’s not as sexy as the hot policy issues of health care, financial reform, or stimulus or debt ceiling. But from where I sit, the Dept. of Labor, the NLRB, the NMB have all been doing rulemaking and enforcement as progressively as they possibly can under the circumstances. We can’t simply lump their work into one box of “Obama sellout/neoliberal/neocon”. Why is the FAA reauthorization being held up now? Because the GOP is furious the NMB changed the rule to make it easier for transportation workers to organize last year. Why is there such outrage over the NLRB’s Boeing complaint? Because the Chamber of Commerce is furious the NLRB is enforcing the all-too-weak labor law, and are fearful the pro-labor board will change the rules to favor unions. The DOL is doing incredible wage enforcement work not seen even under Clinton. On the other hand, other agencies have clearly been captured by Wall Street: SEC, Commerce, Treasury, etc. And obviously I’d be the first to criticize BHO for never going to bat for labor law reform, even though he gladly took labor’s money and ground game. But then how do we square the difference between the SEC and the NLRB? Rogers argued that Obama’s political ideology & governing style (characteristic of Progressive thought) is both democratic egalitarianism mixed with managerial elitism. I think that comes close to capturing the Administration’s policy failures *as well* as some of the progressive political outcomes on the non-sexy but arguably very important Administrative politics side.

Update (August 3, 9:30 am)

Our friend Gordon Lafer was late to this discussion, but as always with Gordon, it was worth the wait.

Gordon Lafer: I am, of course, in the Adolph Reed camp. I think he’s neoliberal in his heart, but most of all that he doesn’t have a heart besides the desire to be elected. He clearly wants to move 70% of the way to the right on the political spectrum (and that point keeps getting further right as the Koch bros, Ari Fleischer et al (I think it’s impt not to call them “the Tea Party” since there is no such thing, while there are real actors at work here) keep pushing the envelope rightward), in order to leave the R’s no room but the fringe right, and get reelected handily. He doesn’t care how far right that strategy takes him, and it’s the only strategy he has, and that’s the only thing he really gives a shit about. Which gives the total lie to the idea of his being the adult in the room. There’s nothing at all adult about his behavior – weak or strong, this is not about getting the best deal possible for the country under difficult circumstances. It’s just about getting himself reelected, even if it means obviously fucking the country in ways that could have been avoided.

This is one of the moments where it pays to ask “what would W (or a left version of W) have done?” and I think the answer is: he would have announced months ago that he would absolutely veto anything that doesn’t include termination of the tax cuts for over $250k, show absolutely no sign of entertaining any compromise on that. Then as the deadline got closer he would have announced that, if the Congress doesn’t give him a bill that includes making the rich pay his fair share, he will have to invoke the 14th amendment and unilaterally raise (or really, just ignore) the debt ceiling in order to pay the country’s bills. He’d then do it, daring the Rs to take him to court in what would easily be portrayed as a legal effort to destroy the country’s credit rating. The fact that it was Obama himself who took the 14th amendment option off the table, saying his lawyers told him it wasn’t a strong option, as he also was first to put Social Security on the table – shows his priority, which is not actually wanting to solve the country’s debt problem in the best way while protecting citizens and economic growth, but rather to get himself reelected, which he and his advisors believe requires moving right and having a vote that Rs and Ds supported rather than being saddled with raising the debt ceiling on his own. Nothing adult about that.

I also think there’s no chance he really believes this is the road to economic health. I was in briefings by all kinds of mainstream economists who said what Summers too (no friend of the left) said — the deficit is a long term problem that should be addressed in 2013 or 2014; right now what you need to do is MORE deficit spending in order to create consumer demand to spur economic growth. He must have had all those same briefings. This isn’t a principled economic position.

One final thing I’d add is that the other option, other than going as he’s been going on this and everything else, is a big bold option. He already thinks his reelect will cost $1 billion. And that’s with doing the free trade treaties, extending the Bush tax cuts, etc. If he moves more to the left, that cost goes up and the question of where it comes from gets more difficult. You saw this with Dodd-Frank when there started being stories about Wall St bundlers being hesitant about obama – then they made up with Wall St. So the only real option, is to go so dramatically to the left that you generate some kind of mass response that counterbalances the fact that you’re going to drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the opposition. I think that’s do-able, and certainly that it’s the only strategy worth doing, but it’s an all-in strategy, a high risk strategy. And the people in this WH are not risk takers. They’re sneak-through-ers.

Update (11:30 am)

We made it into the Wall Street Journal.

Update (12:30 pm)

The estimable Christian Parenti, whose new book on the politics of climate change is must reading, emailed me this late last night:

Christian Parenti:  Better late than never…. I agree with Doug and Adolph, if I read them correctly….

Pretty is as pretty does.

 Obama is a neo-liberal but his method of arrival at that position is not ideological true belief. Rather it is by way of his endless performance of political sobriety, maturity and “reasonableness.” It is all tactics and no strategy; form and not content.  Were this a socialist dictatorship or a theocracy, he would still be a brilliantly capable, charismatic, highly effective, totally reasonable, cipher  of a completely different ideological stripe. Or to put it another way: Obama is like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Or he is like CLR James’ reading of Ishmael as delivered in “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.” He is a dangerously alienated intellectual, smart and eloquent enough to see how it all works, all the while narrating as if on the outside, seemingly protected from it all by his “critique.” Yet he is so disconnected from the masses that he goes along with Ahab’s totalitarian madness, doing his job without ever endorsing the insanity, yet helping the apocalyptic hunt and the mutual destruction of whale and ship come to fruition.

In other words, he is about having it both ways, always. And it will end in a shipwreck.

 Update (2:15 pm)

Playing off Obama’s reference to himself and his cohort as “the Joshua generation,” Christian (see last update) adds:

 Obama has inspired the invention of a game I like to call “The Old Testament Meets Obama via the New York Times.”

 Exhibit A

And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and fought against it:  and he took it, and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein ; he left none remaining… “while seeking to position himself as a proven voice of reason in an era of ideological overreach.”

Update (August 5, 12:30 am)

The History News Network (HNN) is now plugging this discussion as “a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics.”  HNN further comments that “it does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.”

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