Understanding liberals versus the left

Elizabeth Bruenig
Jul 17, 2017 · 5 min read

*Note: If you’re getting here via Jacobin, please understand that this article is not and is (clearly, I thought, being a tiny medium post) not intended to be a distillation of the total difference between liberalism and leftism: it’s a distillation of what is meant by the terms ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ in our particular, post-2016 historical moment here in the USA, specifically in a series of recent articles. It is not and was not intended to be exhaustive; that it was interpreted that way is as baffling to me as it is to you.

Sometimes when a debate is confusing it’s because the ideas in question are confusing. Sometimes it’s because the language used to describe the ideas is confusing. In this case, it’s both.

Recently there have been a spate of pieces about the post-2016 American left versus American liberals. Per Nikil Saval’s New York Times piece, “For the committed leftist, the ‘‘liberal’’ is a weak-minded, market-friendly centrist, wonky and technocratic and condescending to the working class.” Per Jon Chait’s New York Magazine piece, “ The “neoliberal” accusation is a synecdoche for the American left’s renewed offensive against the center-left and a touchstone in the struggle to define progressivism after Barack Obama.” That essay itself appears to be a protracted response to a Corey Robin post and Jacobin article, in which Robin describes neoliberalism as “…a program to roll back the welfare state and social democracy, to revalorize capital and the capitalist as a moral good, to proclaim the ideological supremacy of the market over the state (the practice is more complicated)….” And so on.

2016 exposed divisions among (let’s say, for clarity’s sake, and to not muddy the waters even further, or rehearse arguments from last year’s Democratic primaries) committed non-Republicans when it comes to a whole host of issues normally debated by people who are decidedly not on the political right. The group agitating for dramatic changes to American political economy (usually a more European model is proposed) have begun calling themselves leftists, and have begun criticizing those less interested or confident in dramatic changes to American political economy liberals or neoliberals.

This part of the debate is just an instance of policing the boundaries of ideology. Those getting called ‘liberals’ or ‘neoliberals,’ like Chait, have reasons to reject the suggestion that they’re not truly members of ‘the left.’ Those reasons aren’t worth getting into here, but suffice to say their being labeled simply ‘liberals’ or ‘neoliberals’ is a polemical move meant to emphasize and underscore the difference between these two adjacent groups, and the degree to which that difference exists and/or matters is politically meaningful.

Okay, so that’s one element of the confusion: Why some people are objecting to a label that more or less seems to fit them. (Chait himself is open about being an anti-Marxist, pro-Liberal capitalist. This isn’t a slur, it’s just how he feels, by his own account!) It’s because the labeling is part of a larger argument members of the not-Republican constituency are making about the nature and purpose of their group.

The other element of confusion is linguistic and it is this: Almost everyone involved in the not-Republican constituency, be they ‘leftists’ or ‘liberals’, is actually a liberal in probably two distinct senses:

  1. The first sense in which almost every non-Republican is a liberal is that they are all liberal in the sense it’s colloquially used — to mean someone who is not an American conservative. In that sense, a liberal is someone who strongly favors anti-discrimination politics, civil rights and liberties, diverse multicultural societies, and so forth. When Rush Limbaugh complains about liberals, this is what he means, and it describes the furthest left and furthest right reaches of, say, the Democratic Party.
  2. The second sense in which almost every non-Republican is a liberal is that they all agree with the tenets of liberalism as a philosophy: that is, the worldview that champions radical, rational free inquiry; egalitarianism; individualism; subjective rights; and freedom as primary political ends. (Republicans are, for the most part, liberals in this sense too; libertarians even more so.)

Things get unclear here because there have been and still are anti-liberal socialists. (Here is Mao going after liberalism; also Stalin; perhaps more maddeningly altogether, there were also plenty of non-Marxian Victorian socialists who also had more Romantic beefs with liberalism.)

But we shouldn’t assume that today’s American socialists — the likes of DSA or Jacobin, or to put a finer point on it, the people Chait is generally arguing with— are anti-liberal in the sense of some of those socialists listed above. Rather, today’s socialists tend to approve entirely of the norms of liberalism — like liberty, rational inquiry, egalitarianism, and so forth — they just feel that the economic aspects of liberalism (free or freeish market capitalism) create material conditions that actually make people less free. Their argument is not, generally, that liberalism’s aims are bad; it’s that the economic application of liberalism prevents people from actually being free persons expressing and developing their capacities.

So everyone involved in this debate is almost assuredly a liberal. And everyone involved in it sees themselves as members of ‘the left,’ as the american left consists of that big, fractious group even the slightest tick to the left of the right-Republican caucus. The effort to draw distinctions here is a political one, with the pro-radical-change-in-political-economy group trying to distinguish itself from the remainder in order to argue against its most proximate barriers to power, i.e., the not-so-pro-radical-change group.

As all this confusion hopefully demonstrates, it seems a little ridiculous at this point to reject a distinction between these different factions altogether. Doing so is only creating a rhetorical black hole where words are losing and gaining meanings in unhelpful ways, and people have a hard time following important arguments as a result. If the US had a parliamentary system where smaller parties with less dramatic but still relevant political differences could name and define themselves, this might not be a problem whatsoever. To ease up the confusion, I’ve begun thinking of our two party system as sort of a sham myself; there are really at least four to six parties there, forced to caucus together.

Call them whatever you like.

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