What’s Left?: The State of Play

When the world plunged into a severe economic recession a few years ago, it appeared as though there would be a major shift in the U.S. political landscape. The Democratic Party, well into ascendance following the 2006 midterm elections, had already profited from an unpopular Bush presidency, its disastrous foreign policy and a Republican Party mired by scandals. Reforming Wall Street moved to the top of the political agenda, prompting newly elected President Barack Obama to urge the financial industry to “learn the lessons of Lehman” and embrace rather than resist a regulatory overhaul. U.S. leaders echoed the pronouncements from the United Kingdom and France that they would no longer blindly trust in the ethos of laissez-faire capitalism.

Three years on, the political crosshairs have moved on from the “banksters” to “big government.” The Dodd-Frank Act – which was supposed to be a “bold” and “sweeping” introduction of major government oversight over the market – has lingered in limbo for over a year, 80% of its regulations unfinished, 90% of its rules incomplete and seven studies it mandated undone. Republicans, galvanized by the grassroots conservative Tea Party movement, neutered the bill as much as they could, and have since successfully shifted the economic narrative away from excessive deregulation to the enormous U.S. debt figures. The desperate need for spending cuts quickly has replaced the desperate need for stimulus, culminating in the copious buzz that surrounded Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” plan when it was released in April. The Ryan plan called for swapping Medicare with a voucher system, proposed drastic cuts to the vulnerable and disadvantaged, and placed most of the debt repayment burden on the poorest Americans. It never stood a chance at becoming law, but it aided in extracting future budget concessions amounting to $917 billion in spending cuts over a decade.  It is widely understood that the cuts will primarily target “entitlements” – in other words, the social safety net extended to the impoverished and vulnerable among us.

That Obama and the short-lived Democratic majority in Congress would falter against the neoliberal consensus rather than challenge it comes as little surprise. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt clung to an orthodox approach to the economy that advocated balanced budgets and spending cuts, and had to be prodded and pulled into accepting the radical program now known as “The New Deal.” That program embodied in many ways the global Keynesian consensus that dominated the economy for the next four decades (even under Nixon), although the government rarely extended the welfare state. When it dared to do so, such as during L.B.J.’s Great Society endeavor, financial analysts hollered about inflation and recession. When these twin demons did appear in the 1970s, severe supply shocks were to blame, but the Right used the opportunity to declare Keynesian approaches wrong and Friedman, Hayek and von Mises right. Reagan and Thatcher may have ruling from Washington and London, but their economics came from Chicago and Vienna. The Western Left, still receding from its high water mark of agitation in the 1960s, found itself in disarray, divided and discredited.

When the Left finally did return to the political arena decades later, it did so by proceeding along the so-called “Third Way.” This ideology-without-an-ideology claimed to embrace whatever worked, but more truthfully accepted whatever was conventional wisdom. That wisdom portrayed “tax and spend liberals” as odious and naively optimistic, and insisted government interference in the efficiencies of the market was a greater threat than any shady business on trading room floors. To his credit, Bill Clinton attempted a more humane form of capitalist society by bringing back public services, although Clinton’s attempts at a health care overhaul provided more disaster than delivery. On welfare reform, however, Clinton had few qualms about working with Newt Gingrich and other Republicans to vilify the poor as lazy fraudsters, driving them into low-paying jobs in the guise of “welfare-to-work.” In terms of deregulation, Clinton signed the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act into law in 1999, effectively repealing the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act and enabling the rise of the mammoth “too-big-to-fail” banking institutions that caused the recent crisis (and have yet to be held to true account for it). Obama framed his electoral narrative as offering a genuine alternative to this trend, yet it became readily apparent to perceptive observers that the administration contained little in the way of either new personalities or new ideas. In terms of his economic team, this was evident by the prominence of Larry Summers (Clinton’s last Treasury Secretary) and Timothy Geithner (a protégé of Summers’ predecessor, Robert Rubin). “Change” served its purpose as a useful rhetorical device, even when there was no substance to it.

What is interesting is that it is coming back again, but this time during an election when Obama is not railing against a disliked incumbent and an unfair status quo as an ambitious, unknown challenger. He is the incumbent; he represents the status quo. Yet last month Obama delivered a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas that harkened to the progressive ideals of Teddy Roosevelt. More recently, he took the uncharacteristically brazen step of appointing the head of the new Consumer Protection Agency without seeking the official seal of approval from Congress. What pushed this typically reticent president to, at the very least, posture as a more aggressive and reform-minded leader, in contrast to the “compromise-at-all-costs only-adult-in-the-room” image he so eagerly wanted to present himself as during the budget fight?

A lot of it is the usual election year bluster. Still, Occupy Wall Street deserves some credit. This rare, genuine widespread social movement demonstrates that the Left is not dead, and more importantly, that young people today are not the depoliticized, apathetic perpetual adolescents society often makes them out to be. Granted, not all of us are so self-aware, and many prefer following Jersey Shore to Zucotti Park. Yet you can only burden a generation with so much student debt, so many dim employment options and so many threats of austerity and sacrifice before it begins to see the raw deal it is facing and starts to fight back. Unlike our parents, we are not just rebelling against a government that has lost its claim to respect and dignity, or against a senseless war predicated on a lie – although we are living with those things as well. We are perturbed primarily by the realization that we will have to work harder than past generations to enjoy the things they enjoyed, and that it is very likely that our children may never even have them. We – and our progeny – may not have the “luxury” of retirement at a reasonable age or the “comfort” of social insurance against market failures and social injustices. Already we are widely encountering the emptiness in the “promise” of a good education, the mantra that studying hard and cultivating intelligence would be sufficient to get us not just the good jobs available, but the jobs we wanted. This anxiety, this fear for the future, fueled the passion witnessed throughout 2011, when protestors were faced with repression and derision – beaten by the clubs of the police and mocked by the words of the press – yet sustained their anger and their energy.

Still, the weakness of the Left is evident. There is no clear organization behind Occupy Wall Street, and while it has been quick to diagnosis the problems within the system, it has come up short on prescriptions. There is no unifying ideology to believe in, no alternative economic arrangement to implement. The end of the Cold War has meant that, essentially, there is only one ideology, only one system available: market-oriented bourgeois democracy. Fukuyama’s “end of history,” derided as it has been in academic circles, contains a kernel of truth, and this absence of choice has left nascent dissidents with a distrust of institutions, of programs, of politicians and parties. They are too jaded to work within the system, yet not adequately revolutionary to overturn it. As such, there is a constant danger that those in the parks and streets today will retreat from their zeal and, like the protestors of the 1960s and 1970s. As their elders, they will find solace in the cynical wisdom that, simply, the system cannot be changed, it has always been corrupt and always will be, and that while freedom and equality sound nice as democratic principles, they do not really work in reality. This sort of “wisdom” has probably defeated more protest movements than brute force has ever done.

The farther we get into 2012, however, the more cause we have to be guardedly optimistic that we are not entirely past the high water mark of an activist Left. It does not seem, after all, that change will come from anywhere else but the grassroots. For all their agitation and placard-waving, the Tea Party will be rewarded with a presidential nominee in the form of Mitt Romney, a blatant political opportunist whose principles shift with opinion polls. Meanwhile, the punditry class eagerly wrote off Ron Paul, the one candidate with a consistent record of promoting the Tea Party’s penultimate goal – federal government on a Lilliputian scale – as not just a “long shot” but as someone who simply could never reach the White House. Similarly, no matter how many speeches he gives, Obama will be unable to hide the millions he took (and will take again) from banks and corporations, the sweetheart deals he made with Big Pharma on health care, or the naked sell-outs he made to the G.O.P. opposition or his Wall Street benefactors. Leading Democrats may pay lip service to the Occupy protestors, but they also will not deign to meet with them and hear their concerns. At a time when so many Americans are politically conscious and antsy about what the future holds, it would be reasonable to assume that a lot would be riding on this election. In truth, however, the upcoming contest will very clearly be between two personalities sanctioned by the Establishment owing to their marketability and inoffensiveness to vested interests. Few can look at this election and say it represents a meaningful choice for a highly polarized electorate; the democratic façade is slipping.

Hopefully, this will mean a rejection of the carefully scripted party conventions, photogenic rallies and soundbite-laden stump speeches. If the frustration felt everywhere persists and economic growth remains sluggish, it is feasible that activists on the Left will resume their work outside the official political arena, summoning the spirit of 1968, filling the avenues and once more forcing a confrontation with elites. I will not predict that, even if such a confrontation were to take place, that the people would emerge victorious. Yet what is certain is that no change will come if the people expect someone else to bring it to them on their behalf. If a triumph for the Left is coming in 2012, it will have to come in the streets.

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