Power and the Left

I’m going to belatedly respond to TAS comments regular and sometime blogger in his own right Freddie’s crie de coeur for a more seriously left-wing voice in the blogosphere.

A great many points have been made already, so let me content myself with these few:

The left that Freddie appears to have nostalgia for is the 1930s-era left, influenced by Marxist ideas and anchored first and foremost in support for trade unionism. (Or, possibly, he’s nostalgia for an even earlier, pre-World War I left; I’m not entirely sure.) The point is, this left has been gone for a very long time. In both the United States and Western Europe, the major trade unions became part of the political establishment by the 1950s. And in the Soviet sphere, a nominally proletarian ruling party became a self-evidently imperial bureaucracy.

That’s why the New Left went in a very different direction from the Old Left. The 1960s were a heyday of managerial liberalism in America. But the New Left was opposed to that liberal establishment – for a wide variety of reasons, but substantially because of a deep distrust of power as such. The obvious madness of the Cultural Revolution in China could be admired in many quarters, and the primary reason was that this was a revolution that could not be institutionalized into an establishment, a revolution against authority as such.

If you look at the energy on the radical left today, it’s still derivative primarily of the New Left of the 1970s, not the Old Left of the 1930s. It’s animated by a distrust of power rather than a desire to seize power on behalf of the powerless. The folks who protest the WTO or who vote for the Greens don’t want government to nationalize industry for the benefit of the working class. They want to weaken industry. They don’t want a strong government to serve as a balance against global corporate power. They want corporate power broken.

As I said before in a different context, radical critiques can be extremely useful. But they are critiques, not programs in their own right. And I think that explains part of what Freddie observes about the nature of the commentariat.

For a young member of the commentariat, a big part of the appeal is going to be feeling like one is in the arena – having an influence on events through one’s commentary. The powerful radical thinkers on the left – folks like Noam Chomsky – are not especially useful for this, because they are not advancing a program for taking and using power, but rather opposition to power as such. And if one is going to have influence from a position of opposition to power, one is much more likely to be effective as a vituperative liberal like Glenn Greenwald, whose most powerful attacks involve bringing a liberal political order face to face with its most egregious violations of its own purported ideals.

Guys like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are the proper heirs to the confident managerial liberals of the 1960s establishment. They want to see a strong government serve as a check on massive corporate power. They want to build a “great society.” They’ve internalized the 1970s-era criticisms of right-wing-liberals toward that managerial state – a preference for market mechanisms over command-and-control solutions, danger of regulatory capture and self-dealing by managers, etc. – but with a view to making that state work better.

And Barack Obama is cut from similar cloth. It’s worth meditating a bit on Obama’s career, because he started out as somebody asking questions not dissimilar to those Freddie is, implicitly, asking. Obama’s orientation, throughout his life, has been toward power: how does it work, how can it be captured, how can it be wielded. Alinsky’s whole body of work revolves around this question: how to organize the powerless so they can acquire power and wield it on their own behalf. And Obama’s initial political experience was working for an IAF affiliate organization.

He was not, in other words, a New Leftist of the sort I described above, critical of power as such. But what he appears to have learned from his IAF experience is that organizing is insufficient. The amount of power to be had by organizing poor housing project tenants was insufficient to even achieve much for those tenants, to say nothing of actually changing the distribution of power within society as a whole. So he set out to join the managerial state, in the hopes of making that state work better. But, of course, once you join the managerial state, you must operate according to that state’s rules and assumptions.

If Freddie objects to the specifics of, say, Matt Yglesias’s policy preferences, but accepts his overall political orientation – a progressive liberal who wants to make the managerial state work better – then there’s really no reason for strong language. But what I think he objects to is Matt’s comfort with the managerial state as such. In which case, I have to ask: is Freddie a New Leftist or an Old Leftist? Does he object to the managerial state because it is simply another wielder of overweening power, inevitably serving the interests of the dominant class? If so, he shouldn’t be surprised that the liberal commentariat doesn’t see it that way, nor should he expect them to change. But I think there’s plenty of room on the internet for thoroughgoing radical critiques of the sort he might prefer.

If, on the other hand, he’s something of an Old Left nostalgist, then the question is: who out there in the real world is advancing a program for the 21st century that mirrors the goals of the Old Left, to seize and wield power on behalf of the people?