By Matt Stoller, the former Senior Policy Advisor to Rep. Alan Grayson and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can reach him at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.
A post I wrote two weeks ago, How Ron Paul Challenges Liberals, created something of a stir. It was the most commented article on Naked Capitalism, ever. And it kicked up a series of arguments among Democrats and civil libertarians. Glenn Greenwald, who has been talking about these problems in prominent forums, followed up with this remarkable post (and then this one), and has taken many insults as a result. This in and of itself is worth noting – the slurring of those who critique the structure of modern liberalism is an essential tool in the preservation of the status quo. I’m going to highlight a few of the reactions here without much of a rebuttal, because I think the reactions themselves illustrate the struggle that boxes in traditional partisan Democrats.
First, let’s go back to the idea of the piece. The basic thesis was that the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety. Liberals supported national mobilization in favor of warfare and the social safety net during the New Deal and World War II (and before that, during the Civil War and WWI), but splintered when confronted with a wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The corruption of the financial channels and the destruction of the social safety net now challenges this 20th century conception of liberalism at its core (which is heavily related to the end of cheap oil). Ron Paul has knitted together a coalition of those who dislike war financing, which includes a host of unsavory and extremist figures who dislike icons such as Abraham Lincoln and FDR for their own reasons. But Paul, by criticizing American empire explicitly and its financing channels in the form of the Federal Reserve, also enrages liberals by forcing them to acknowledge that their political economy no longer produces liberal ends.
I’ll be describing in much more detail the shifting of the social contract underlying this failure, which has nothing to do with Ron Paul and would exist with or without him. For now, I think it’s useful to chronicle the multiple reactions from partisan Democrats.
A fairly common reaction has been to misrepresent the thesis, and argue that those exploring Ron Paul’s ideas are necessarily Ron Paul supporters. That is how, on this blog post by a regular community member at the Democratic blog Daily Kos, Naked Capitalism was called “a home for all sorts of Bircher nonsense.” (In the comment thread, there are ardent defenses of the Federal Reserve…. UPDATE: This post was originally put up at the People’s View, and it was later cross-posted to Daily Kos) Katha Pollitt makes a similar argument titled “Progressive Man-Crushes On Ron Paul.” More interesting, I think, are two blog posts at the liberal site Hullabaloo, one by the well-known blogger Digby and one by a Democratic Party activist by David Atkins. Let’s start with Atkins, who is wrestling with what liberalism is. Here’s his remarkable description of his ideology.
Liberalism is and has always been about intervention. It is the opposite of libertarianism, and always has been. Liberals understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Left to their own devices, people with weapons and money will always try to exploit and dominate people without weapons and money unless they are stopped from doing so. It is not because we are taught to do so. It’s just innate human nature. If this were not the case, libertarianism would work as an ideology. It does not, and never has at any point in history.
When the government steps in to stop a corporation from dumping noxious chemicals into a stream, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. When the government steps in to enforce desegretation in schools, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless.
When Abraham Lincoln and the North decided not to allow the nation of the Confederacy–and make no mistake, it was a separate nation with separate laws and an entirely separate culture–to secede from the Union, in large part because the North had an interest in ending slavery in the South and in striking down a competing agrarian economic system, that too was intervention by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. To this day, many Southerners feel that their land is being occupied by an illegitimate and invading power, and theirs a Lost Cause that will rise again.
This is what liberalism is. It is unavoidably, inescapably paternalistic in nature. It is so because it understands the inevitable tendency of human beings to be truly awful to one another unless social and legal rules are put in place–yes, by force–to prevent them from doing otherwise.
Conservatives use force of government as well, of course, but not in defense of the weak and oppressed, but rather to maintain the power of money, of patriarchy and of the established social pecking order. Where the oppressive hand of government helps them achieve that, they utilize it. Where libertarian ideology helps them keep power in the hands of the local good old boys, they use that instead.
But a liberal–a progressive, if you will–is always an interventionist, because a liberal understands that society is constantly on a path of self-perfection, in an effort to use reason and good moral judgment to prevent insofar as possible the exploitation of one person by another.
The division between liberals lies in how far to intervene, especially in foreign wars. Almost all would agree that intervention in World War II against the Nazis and Imperial Japanese was the right thing to do. Most would agree that intervention in Kosovo was the right thing to do to stop the ongoing genocide there. Certainly, conservatives at the time opposed involvement in either conflict. Some liberals believe that America should use its power of intervention to help the oppressed around the world by use of force if necessary. Most others understand that such moves, even if well-intentioned, cause more problems and harm than they solve. But there will always be disagreements between liberals about whether, how much and where to intervene in the world in order to stop bad people from doing bad things that either threaten America, or simply threaten to oppress the poor and the weak. Not, of course, that America’s war machine is always or even usually used with such good intentions; quite the contrary. It is usually used for the conservative purpose of exploiting and destroying people and resources for the benefit of the wealthy. But here we speak only of liberal ideology and its relationship to the use of military force.
Similarly, liberals have a conflict when it comes to economic intervention. A few on the left choose to pursue a very hard line of intervention toward economic egalitarianism, leading to a vision in line with Communism. More of us tend to see the need for substantial economic intervention on a capitalist substrate, and lean more toward Democratic Socialism. Others see the need for some intervention, but are wary to stepping too far into the middle of the “free market,” which makes them more Neoliberal. But in all these cases, the question is only a matter of degree.
It is no accident that the most fervent economic interventionists on the left have also turned out to be the most imperial and bellicose (e.g., the Soviets and the Chinese.) They believe most in the necessity of force to prevent exploitation by the holders of capital, and see no reason why that necessity should stop at their own borders.
Contra Stoller, there is indeed a conflict within liberalism, but it is precisely this: a matter of how much intervention is necessary. It is not a fundamental conflict of ideals.
For Atkins, liberalism is dominance, with liberals holding the dominant position. Mankind’s nature is brutal and exploitative, liberalism restrains it using equally harsh methods. Atkins furthermore equates support for Democrats with policies that benefit the middle class, in a nod to Cold War era liberal anti-communism. This kind of alpha-beta mindset implies that criticism and rejection of Barack Obama, the chief alpha of the Democrats, is a threat to Atkins’ version of liberalism itself.
On to Digby, who throws up her hands at the question.
I have to admit that I don’t fully understand Stoller’s thesis although I do find myself instinctually rejecting the idea that liberalism is based upon a contingent relationship between finance and war making — but perhaps that’s just because of the very unpleasant historic resonances in that conspiratorial premise. Considering that war has been omnipresent since humans emerged from the slime, I find it hard to see this correlation as anything more than coincidental, but it’s possible that I’m being obtuse. In any case, I was more confused by it than anything and that’s probably my own fault.
Admitting that, I will simply say that I define my own liberalism as a belief in egalitarianism, universal human rights, individual liberty and social justice, all tempered by a pragmatic skepticism of all forms of power, private as well as governmental. I prefer democracy because it provides the best possibility of delivering on those desires while keeping authoritarian power at bay even though it’s ridiculously inefficient and often corrupt.
I have been against every war of my lifetime but I would have supported intervening in WWII. I rail constantly against the encroaching surveillance/torture state (at all levels, not just the federal)but I do not recognize that states, property or corporations also have “rights” which may supersede the individual. (And in that respect I’m more supportive of individual liberty than many of the so-called libertarians.) I’m also against rapacious capitalism and discrimination, both private and public, and believe in a reasonable redistribution of wealth for the common good. I think the challenges of the environment require not just collective national effort, but collective global action.
Digby writes that she does not understand the thesis, but instinctively rejects it as conspiratorial nonetheless. Her response as to what she believes in suggests not a coherent system, but simply a menu of concepts she finds pleasing. She lists off a set of concepts, like a consumer at a shopping market, picking and choosing what she wants. Oh, I’ll have the human rights, the egalitarianism, some social justice, and a side of, oh that looks good, “pragmatic skepticism of all forms of power, private as well as governmental.” Oh, and democracy, that too. Yummy. Having such an attitude requires ignoring the historical links between the oil industry, war-making, and the New Deal. It requires believing that infrastructure like highways and airports were built because good liberals were in charge, instead of the very obvious point that this stuff made the oil industry a lot of money while spreading prosperity to the middle class.
Calling this history conspiratorial is consumer liberalism speaking. Fundamentally, consumerism is about being averse to power and desirous of someone else to run the system for you so you don’t have to look at how it works. Just buy the sausage in the suburban supermarket, and don’t look at how it’s made. For instance, Kevin Drum, another consumer liberal, says that Ron Paul is never worth having as an ally, then throws off this aside when discussing how he agrees with Ron Paul’s non-interventionism, except when he doesn’t. ”If Iran seriously tried to mine the Strait of Hormuz, for example, I’d fully expect the U.S. Navy to put a stop to it, even if that meant sinking a few Iranian vessels.” Drum throws around a war with Iran with a cavalier attitude as to the economic consequences (let’s leave the moral consequences aside for now). It is unclear whether Drum understands the difference between warfare and the images he sees on television that are called warfare. He just wants his sausage to come in nice neat plastic containers.
Now, I do not mean to pick on these people specifically. It’s just important to recognize that these attitudes, as well as those of Greenwald, are marbled throughout our elite institutions. I don’t want people to get the idea that there is no debate happening – there’s a reason Greenwald is widely read, and why Naked Capitalism has impacted the financial debate the way it has. But by and large, the recognition that the old liberal order was built on certain alliances and structures that have collapsed and turned malevolent is still not widely understood.
People sense that something is deeply wrong, but that is still just a feeling, an unpleasant tickle in the mind, not enunciated or acknowledged. The intellectual deficit is there, frightening to look at, even as this winter (so far) is one of the mildest and driest in recorded American history and the Eurozone teeters and our current order comes nowhere near even considering how to solve these problems. It’s not our fault, there’s nothing we can do differently, etc, is still the order of the day.
But political ideologies are systems. They have to be financed, there has to be an energy model so you can fuel things, they have to display internally consistency so they don’t break down, people have to run the machinery, the programs have to work, the people that manage and implement have to have ethical, social, and financial norms, there must be safeguards,etc. You can’t just randomly choose a bunch of stuff you want and call it an ideology. As the New Deal era model sheds the last trappings of anything resembling social justice or equity for what used to be called the middle class (a process which Tom Ferguson has been relentlessly documenting since the early 1980s), the breakdown will become impossible to ignore. You can already see how flimsy the arguments are, from the partisans.