Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The First Step Is to Smash the Existing Liberal Coalition

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It’s no surprise that publications like The Nation, no matter how earnest in their opposition to the worst excesses of the Clinton or Obama administrations, have been prone to paint too many segments of the diverse Democratic Party as good-faith partners with progressives. Case in point: during last year’s labor dispute, in her “Sister Citizen” column [October 8], Melissa Harris-Perry equivocated between the insurgent Chicago Teachers Union and Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Instead of closing ranks and protecting a vulnerable union during an important fight, she pitied the children stuck “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.” There was no deeper analysis of the stakes of the dispute or acknowledgment that the demands of the teachers—geared almost entirely toward student needs—enjoyed high levels of community support. Political conflict itself was painted as regrettable, and perhaps because Emanuel was a prominent Democratic leader, as a kind of fratricide.

Bhaskar Sunkara, Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical.

Which is to say that the left needs a plan—a plan that must incorporate more moderate allies. American radicalism has had a complex and at times contradictory association with liberalism. At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories. Radicals, in turn, have added coherence and punch to every key liberal struggle and advance of the past century. Such a mutually beneficial alliance could be in the works again. The first step is to smash the existing liberal coalition and rebuild it on a radically different basis.

Socialists must urgently show progressives how alien the technocratic liberal worldview is to the goals of welfare-state liberalism—goals held by the rank and file of the liberal movement. The ground can be softened at the intellectual and cultural levels, but a schism will have to be forced through actual struggle. Broad anti-austerity coalitions, particularly those centered at the state and municipal levels like last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike, point the way toward new coalitions between leftists and liberals committed to defending social goods, especially if that means standing up against pro-corporate members of the Democratic Party like Rahm Emanuel.

UPDATE: Malcolm Harris links to this “useful idiots” piece as a retort:

These are points Sunkara recognizes. His cri de coeur hopes that “a new organization would focus on anti-austerity and work hand-in-hand with liberal allies who want to see the welfare state rebuilt.” While his ultimate aim of going “beyond liberalism’s limits” is beyond quixotic, that’s a feature, not a bug, from a progressive point of view. If history is any guide, American radicals end up furthering the objectives they share with liberals, like expanding the welfare state, while failing abjectly to advance the ones they don’t, like the abolition of private property or the overthrow of the constitutional order. So long as radicals eschew the use of political violence, something progressives unflinchingly oppose on both principled and practical grounds, there’s little to fear, and potentially something to gain, from a rebirth of America’s leftist dreamers.

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  1. The largest possible coalition is necessary to reverse the disastrous neoliberal race to the bottom. Agreed.

    But I have to question this passage: “At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories.” It’s actually the other way around — liberal victories came because of socialist and other radical agitation and organizing. Liberal victories are compromises made by the state in order to head off more radical demands.

    I think a major problem is that liberalism is intellectually bankrupt; Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel embody all too well this bankruptcy: They see no alternative to neoliberalism and the conservative assault on society (especially working people) because they share that worldview; they are Democrats because they’d like to soften it a bit around the edges, whereas Republicans are all in.

    Since conservatives believe in their agenda (horrid though it is), they are fierce in working for it, whereas liberals, caught in their contradictions between believing neoliberal capitalism is the only possible way to organize society and their discomfort with the logical outcomes of that organization, are unable to articulate a coherent program. Unable to move independently, inertia propels them down the path led by the more energetic — neoliberal advocates.

    Systemic Disorder

    May 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm


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