What’s the Matter with Liberals?
They are fine
Unless something very strange happens, I believe Hillary Clinton will be elected President of the United States later this year. She is — despite what Bernie Sanders might say — among the most qualified candidates to ever run for the office. Clinton represents and has explicitly promised the most continuity between elected executives we’ve seen in at least 25 years. The nation is, at this point, almost certainly headed for more of the same, a third Obama term. Even if there’s a slight chance that Donald Trump assumes the office, compared to past cycles we should be anomalously sure of what kind of president we’ll have next year.
If liberalism is what it says it is, then everything should be fine. President Obama’s strategy on major policy issues was pragmatic compromise, and even if the GOP base hates Hillary even more than they hate Obama, her experience in the Senate makes me think she’ll probably be at least as effective as Obama was at seeing those compromises through to fruition. With a huge prospective mandate for Clinton and public attention on racial, gender, and economic inequality, progressives should feel relatively confident about the next four years, and everyone else should know what they’re getting.
This is the argument Clinton supporters have been pushing, but it doesn’t seem to be working does it? There is a general sense of panic that is disproportionate to the level of imminent change we can expect in our political leadership. Between the right-panic candidate Trump and the left-panic candidate Sanders, panic has done shockingly well considering how badly it’s going to get blown out in November. We have a few explanations that I think are all true to one degree or another: Some Americans can’t handle the idea of a woman president; white nationalists have successfully organized open racial resentment in a way that contradicts the progressive narrative; it’s literally getting hotter outside. But the question itself (“Why are Americans freaking out even though the political system has everything under control?”) is based on a misunderstanding.
To liberals, liberalism is the political expression of a set of Enlightenment values. Representative democracy restricted by a constitution is how we maintain and manage our rights and freedoms as citizens. If the public doesn’t like the way things are going in the country, we can elect someone different to change it. And if that’s not enough, we have protest, petition, the press, the courts, and protections for civil disobedience. If a veteran of two recent administrations gets 60 percent of the vote, that should indicate things are on the right track.
I am not a liberal. As a Marxist, I don’t think elections are the engine of history, and I don’t think liberalism is about eternal values. Here’s what the Communist Manifesto says:
Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class…. the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.
The capitalist class exercises its “exclusive political sway” through the liberal state, and has for hundreds of years. This is why you might hear Marxists referring to the American or French revolutions as “bourgeois revolutions,” not as a way of saying they’re bad or shouldn’t have happened, but to cite the class that revolted and took power.
If you’re not convinced by the theorizing of left-wing radicals from 160-something years go, there’s some recent empirical-ish evidence Marx and Engels were right. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of the American Political Science Association (not a communist organization by any stretch) by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page looked at 1,779 American policy issues for divergence between elite, interest group, and average citizen opinions and compared the outcomes. Here’s what they found:
“Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Those features that we do enjoy are what a Marxist might call “bourgeois freedoms” — that is, they’re rights that are protected by the capitalist class insofar as the popular exercise of those rights can’t possibly dislodge them from power. Despite Americans enjoying speech, association, franchise, etc., we are generally unable to meaningfully influence the political process. If we could, the Iraq War wouldn’t have happened.
Think about free trade. Many Americans on the left and the right oppose our trade deals for various reasons. And yet, from Obama to Bush to Clinton to Bush, American presidents across the spectrum have shepherded these agreements. Both Trump and Clinton say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and yet I have a sneaking suspicion that the deal or some version of it will go through anyway. They will find a way to get it done because that is their job: not enacting the “will of the people,” but managing the affairs of factory owners.
When frustrated Americans complain about there being “no difference” between Trump and Clinton or Republicans and Democrats, I understand it along these lines. If you think in terms of class conflict between workers and owners, Trump and Clinton represent the same side. That’s why you have Trump giving the Clinton Foundation $100K and the once and future first couple attending his wedding. None of it’s that complicated and I think most people understand it intuitively.
(There are other safeguards as well. If somehow the American people rose up and elected Bernie Sanders in a spectacular write-in campaign, there’s no doubt in my mind the legislature and the courts would rein him in hard. And if a wave of populist fury swept a whole party of anti-capitalists into power — as in Greece — there are supranational organizations of capitalists to break their back — as in Greece.)
So liberals (or neoliberals, whatever you want to call the present political organization of the capitalist class) look to be in great shape. Even though many Americans are angry and frustrated about the ways things are going, the candidate who promises more of the same will probably get a huge percentage of the vote. Clinton has in fact been a prohibitive favorite the entire time as far as the bookies have been concerned. I fully expect many Republicans— and not just “moderates,” I mean Georges W. and H.W. Bush — will vote for Clinton. Given the choice between a proven representative of the capitalist class and a single capitalist who seems to be running on his own personal behalf, my guess is they’re with her. Our long partisan nightmare is finally over. So what’s the problem?
The problem is there is no problem. Liberalism is working great. Profits are up, labor’s share is down. For the 1% in whose interest the state operates, things couldn’t be going better. The neoliberals have done such a good job breaking organized labor that workers have no reliable collective mechanism with which to fight for their interests as a class. What unions exist are hemmed in by anti-strike laws. But no problems is itself kind of a problem.
In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe capitalist society as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” The productive forces that capitalism calls into being are too great to serve one class (“the conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”) Think about automation: Reducing the amount of socially necessary labor should be overwhelmingly exciting — more time for everything else! — instead we’re worrying about whose jobs the robots will take. The system tends toward the reduction of necessary labor, but instead of shorter working hours, we have rich people bidding up the price of land. As JW Mason has pointed out, capitalists are actually slowing the process of automation in favor of stuffing their pockets.
We have an economic system in permanent crisis, and a political system that isn’t sweating. This disconnect is frustrating. If the state were acting in the interests of most people, politicians would be racing to come up with ways to channel these new productive capacities toward the collective interest. Never mind Obamacare, single-payer would obviously be much better for almost everyone, but not for anyone who owns a healthcare company. The government isn’t tackling the big problems that most Americans face in the 21st century. We need to release and reintegrate hundred of thousands — millions — of prisoners. Energy companies own rights to way more hydrocarbons than they can possibly dig up without seriously fucking up the planet. Any government “for the people” would already be well under way with expropriating Exxon’s reserves to make sure they stay in the ground. Instead we’re fighting a horrific proxy war in Yemen, and no one with any power is suggesting we do anything substantially different.
Liberalism is maintaining capitalism, even as capitalism tends to overwhelm itself. That’s what liberalism is for, and it’s doing a very good job. I have little doubt the people who took the streets in Ferguson, Missouri would have overthrown their local government if the national guard hadn’t been sent with tanks and guns to prop it up. Those are the same tanks and guns that sit between us and any meaningful change to the American class system, and we’re going to vote for them again because there’s no one else to vote for.
None of this is so complicated it can’t fit on a bumper-sticker, but the only solutions are unspeakable so here we are.