Anarcho-Liberals, Utopian Keynesians, and ActBlue Jacobins

by Ben Campbell on October 28, 2012

This month’s cover story for the left-liberal In These Times was contributed by Jacobin editors Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase. Jacobin is a magazine that mixes an eclectic but predominantly left-liberal politics with radical posturing and the excellent visual design of Remeike Forbes – a combination that seems enough to qualify it as the most appealing publication of the moribund left.

It is unclear why Sunkara and Frase didn’t publish their “manifesto on building social democracy” in their own magazine; I suppose the juxtaposition of Toussaint Louverture’s visage with such a conservative political vision would have been too much for even their inflated sense of irony. For my first thought on reading their article was that rarely has the word “manifesto” been deployed for something so uninspired (I would have went with “policy paper”):

This might seem like a poor moment to call for expanding the welfare state. But the timing has never been better. Austerity has only worsened unemployment and stagnated wages, and only a concerted effort to employ idle workers and boost purchasing power can revive growth and restore employment. Despite fear-mongering about the effects of budget deficits, the government is still able to borrow money virtually interest-free. And contrary to right-wing claims of out-of-control spending, taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. We can, and should, ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, a secure retirement and a livable income, regardless of labor market uncertainties.

Most on the Left would agree with these goals—the question has always been how to achieve them.

We think we have an answer. We propose a new anti-austerity coalition united by the immediate demand that certain social spending burdens, currently borne by states and municipalities, be federalized.

Sunkara and Frase go on to lay out a platform of federal pension and education funding and single-payer health care. What would liberals do without such radical voices pushing the Overton window leftward?

Ross Wolfe posted a thoughtful response:

But I don’t really view a reformist platform as any more viable in the present than a revolutionary platform. Reformism and revolutionism seem equally utopian today (and I would say that their apparently equidistant impossibility is related). Though I’m sure Bhaskar and Peter would insist, following André Gorz, that they are simply advocating a series of “non-reformist reforms.” Rosa Luxemburg had a much more accurate formulation for this, but one I think the authors would reject: “revolutionary reforms,” or demanding what reforms were available while constantly insisting upon the need for dramatic social transformation. And in fact the reason so many reforms were acquired in the first half of the twentieth century was symptomatic of the fact that social revolution seemed to be a concrete possibility. Unapologetic neoliberalism is only possible where there is no fear of revolutionary reprisal.

Unfortunately Wolfe seems correct in his pessimistic assessment. The vision of Sunkara and Frase qualifies as utopian as it is unmoored from several fundamental realities.

The Economic Crisis. Like the “progressives” who share their politics, Sunkara and Frase ignore the realities of the global debt crisis. I will post one of my favorite graphics, created by Steve Keen:

The idea that the current Washington discourse is just “fear-mongering” about budget deficits is nonsense. The last several decades have been fueled by borrowing, creating a massive debt bubble which has finally begun to burst (in most countries, but see Canada and Australia). While the political discourse surrounding debt is undoubtedly tendentious, runaway debt levels are currently the biggest impediment to renewed capitalist growth. Economic plans that imagine there is money out there to spend, or that governments can easily borrow more, are dangerously misleading. Austerity hawks tell the truth when they claim that debt levels need to be reduced for renewed capitalist growth, and the liberals who deny this simply serve to reinforce the notion that There Is No Alternative.

This is not meant as an endorsement of Keen’s (or for that matter David Graeber’s) equally utopian call for a debt jubilee. But if you’re going to make demands you have no realistic plan for achieving, you might as well make them inspired.

The Strength of the Anti-Austerity Opposition. Given that debt needs to be eliminated, we have entered into an economic period of overt class struggle, in which the corporate class attempts to offload the responsibility for the accumulated debt onto the shoulders of the working class. While the working class has begun to show signs of awakening from their slumber, the strength of resistance to austerity remains quite weak (at least in the United States).

Frase and Sunkara’s manifesto is thus particularly unrealistic, as we do not currently have anywhere near the political mobilization necessary to salvage the current scraps of the welfare state against the coming bipartisan onslaught, yet alone make new demands on it. As much as I supported and was active in Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult to take seriously the idea that “Occupiers”, the labor movement, and policy-makers (i.e. left-liberal Democratic think tanks) currently form a powerful movement for an historic advance of the welfare state.

I certainly agree with Frase and Sunkara about the need to form a strong anti-austerity coalition immediately. Yet there is merit to realizing when you are playing defence. Forgive my Canadian upbringing, but when you’re on a 5-on-3 shorthanded, it’s a good idea not to delude yourself into thinking you’re going to score a hat trick.

The Democratic Party. While a naive reformism is far from the worst politics imaginable, the most dangerous part of these DSA-inspired politics are the illusions about the Democratic Party. Sunkara has elsewhere described the Democrats as “a party of the center, with quasi-social democratic wings.”

Sunkara is free to refer to himself as he pleases, but for me one of the defining features of Marxism is a recognition of the class character of the state. As the Democratic Party is one of the major institutions of that state, I have a hard time taking seriously any “Marxist” analysis in the post-Citizens United era that does not recognize the Democratic Party as an institution of corporate rule.

As Peter Camejo put it in his memoir The North Star, “The main instrument effectively blocking the development of a mass movement for change is the Democratic Party.” This is the great tragedy of the DSA’s “inside/outside” strategy, which has consistently failed for the thirty-six years since Mike Harrington debated Camejo. The “inside” strategy of attempting to “retake the Democratic Party” (as one young DSA member put it to me), serves to funnel political energies into an electoralism that is the biggest obstacle to creating an effective “outside” movement for social change. That is, the inside strategy completely undermines the outside strategy. Thus, while Sunkara and Frase point out that the disintegration of Occupy underscores the “weaknesses within the anarchist movement”, it is worth remembering who started the Occupy movement. It wasn’t a coalition of social democrats, organized labor, and progressive elected officials. Such groups would have been unable to mobilize Occupy in the first place, as Occupy was an expression of a widespread abandonment of the Democratic Party. Why would anyone camp out in a park if the Democratic Party weren’t broken beyond repair?

Ultimately this is the problem with the Sunkara-Frase manifesto, it has little resemblance to Marx, and much resemblance to Markos Moulitsas. Since their vision is so resemblant of the Netroots Democrats, it is unclear why Sunkara and Frase believe that it will result in anything other than the siphoning of more energies into the Sisyphean task of electing “more and better Democrats”.

The irony here is that Sunkara (writing at the social democratic Dissent) has previously been critical of a reformism that strikes a radical pose:

“The reconfiguration of the Left at the end of the twentieth century created a void. The “anarcho-liberal” filled it… the iconic actor in the “anti-globalization” movement, was forged—a figure in flux between the historic positions of the social democratic and anti-capitalist Lefts.

Take the talented Naomi Klein, the archetypical anarcho-liberal… there’s little separating her and the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, much less many European politicians, in terms of their vision of a just society”

The anarcho-liberal is indeed a strange juxtaposition, as is the ActBlue Jacobin.

Update:
Bhaskar Sunkara’s quasi-response.
Ben Campbell’s follow-up.

  • Arthur

    This a good starting point for analysis of where we are at.

    I think the “hard left” existed within a milieu based on the social democratic left.

    When the mass basis for the latter dried up, the “hard left” lost its milieu and disappeared too, allowing the pseudo-left to emerge.

    I still regard the reformism of the social democrats as within the broad spectrum that could be characterised as “left” since they do, or rather did, provide a natural milieu within which a revoluionary left could emerge, whereas the pseudo-left are just outright reactionaries using “militant” language.

    No solution is offered in the article. Unfortunately that is where things currently stand. So recognizing it is a good start.

    Re “debt jubilee” mentioned in passing as at least more inspiring, I think its quite a plausible outcome of economic crisis. But it would have to take the form of hyperinflation that wipes out debts and there would be nothing “festive” or “jubilee” about it. Historically associated with fascism and war.

    Lenin remarked at the turn of the last century that none of the Marxists understood Capital (because they did not understand dialectics).

    Its about time we started to study it seriously.

  • http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com Ross Wolfe

    “Debt forgiveness” is only ever granted when it becomes clear that a nation, organization, or individual is insolvent and defaults indefinitely. As the old saying goes, debts that can’t be paid, won’t. Even then, forgiveness is usually the result of a situation in which the guarantors of a debt feel confident that they can extract enough value from the debtor nation, organization, or individual until the value of the original loan (plus interest) is repaid.

    Either that or, upon seizing power, a revolutionary government can declare sovereign default. This was the case when Lenin and Trotsky decided to repudiate all national debts:

    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A0DEEDE103FE433A2575BC2A9679C946996D6CF

    This tends not to go over too well in terms of a nation’s creditors, however. In fact, one of the chief motivations behind the Allied Intervention against the Bolsheviks after the war can be seen as installing a government that would pledge to take on tsarist debts.

    Great write-up, by the way. And thanks for the kind mention. Also, this was a particularly stinging line:

    It is unclear why Sunkara and Frase didn’t publish their ‘manifesto on building social democracy’ in their own magazine; I suppose the juxtaposition of Toussaint Louverture’s visage with such a conservative political vision would have been too much for even their inflated sense of irony. For my first thought on reading their article was that rarely has the word “manifesto” been deployed for something so uninspired (I would have went with ‘policy paper’).”

    Ouch.

  • PM

    On the Twitter, Sunkara calls this piece “unworthy of reply” and “poorly written,” and says it “misses just about everything we were trying to accomplish.” So much for the editor of Jacobin, a self-described “magazine of … polemic.” (You scurred, son?) Yet in Sunkara’s intro to his reposted Klein/Anarcho-Liberal piece today, he tacitly, and rather defensively, references Campbell’s piece:

    “My own views remain unchanged, despite critiques from the Left that see the attitudes expressed in pieces like “The Anarcho-Liberal” as being incompatible with recent work like “Welfare State of America.”

    To clarify: I don’t think the welfare state or the coalitions hobbled [sic] together to assemble it are sustainable nor do I think the corporatism that sustains it should go uncriticized. But I do believe that, following André Gorz, certain reforms short of revolution not only improve the conditions of people in the present, they lay the terrain for more sweeping structural changes. It’s not a novel position and should be critiqued on its own terms.

    The ‘democratic horizons’ alluded to in that In These Times cover story are precisely that: a world without masters, a world without the exploitation of person by person, a world without capitalism.”

    http://jacobinmag.com/2012/10/naomi-klein-as-anarcho-liberal/

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