The Search for Political Economy
I haven't written much at all about electoral politics because frankly they're not very interesting. The GOP nomination process has had its moments of entertainment, but that's largely a matter of theater, not substance. The Occupy movement got me excited for a hot minute, but outdoor protest tends to ebb in the winter. In today's edition of "doing the pages" I'll write a little ditty about a contemporary political debate within the left that's interesting in it's own right, and explains some of my lassitude.
For anyone on the left, it's been a pretty bad century so far. War and greed and ignorance ran rampant. Even those who had little real hopes for Obama (count me in that number) have still been disappointed in his first term (count me in that number too). Those of us who really believe that politics matters have to confront an uncomfortable reality: that there is no institutional structure in place to advance our goals.
Case in point, there's a story today about a "momentous change" in the White House, the departure of the current Chief of Staff. And I quote. Departing:
Daley, a Commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, a JP Morgan Chase executive and the son and brother of Chicago's two longest-serving mayors, said that he wanted to return to the Windy City to spend more time with his family.
Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, will replace Daley later this month after he completes work on the 2013 budget. Lew, 56, served as OMB director in President Bill Clinton's administration and as a top deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also served from 2006-08 as a top executive at Citibank.
Let's clarify that. The JP Morgan exec/Clinton-era Commerce secretary is out and the Citibank exec/Clinton-era Office of Management and Budget director is in. This is a shakeup! This is momentous change!
This is bullsh*t. It's just infuriating. That's why I'm "meh" oh the whole thing. But about that debate...
What true liberals and progressives are coming to understand is that there's a power-elite (or "1%" if you prefer) which largely controls national Democratic politics; it's firmly in control and openly contemptuous of actual left-wing ideas. They are positioned literally as the lesser of two evils. Still worth voting for — voting isn't falling in love, you make the pragmatic choice — but deeply unsatisfying, and long-term unsustainable.
Into that charged and confusing space comes one of my favorite bomb-throwers, Mr. Matthew Stoller, with a piece about how Ron Paul gives Liberals cognitive dissonance:
...when considering questions about Ron Paul, you have to ask yourself whether you prefer a libertarian who will tell you upfront about his opposition to civil rights statutes, or authoritarian Democratic leaders who will expand healthcare to children and then aggressively enforce a racist war on drugs and shield multi-trillion dollar transactions from public scrutiny...
Stoller isn't suggesting that he (or anyone else) should actually vote for Paul. He's pointing out that the presence of a polarizing figure who — for different reasons that he or me — adopts many of the actual policy positions I would like to see enacted creates a challenge to our ideas, and evokes vehement responses. That's where most of the heat in the subsequent debate comes from: people arguing over whether this is really a "support Ron Paul" piece (it isn't) and then struggling to define what Liberalism really means in contrast to Libertarianism (a worthy seam of discussion).
One of the best summaries of the debate I've seen is Matt Browner Hamlin's:
There is no clean left/right breakdown in the parties. Rather, both parties are conservative and elite serving. Paul offers the rare example of the possibility trans partisan agreement, something that used to be common in American politics. For example, liberal northern Republicans worked towards a civil rights bill for years with liberal Democrats before it finally passed. It is entirely possible for people of different political parties to agree and work together on one issue and disagree vehemently on other issues. That this is considered complicated or controversial is fairly mind-boggling. Tribalism and fealty to party have made this less common and less possible, as we see by the angry reactions to liberals saying good things about some of Ron Paul’s positions.
Indeed, if there were a stronger Libertarian caucus in congress some truly meaningful bi-partisan action might be possible. More's the pity.
However, Stoller's main point, which hasn't really been addressed in the subsequent debate, and which I don't think he actually makes as punchily (in fairness, it's much more complex), is that Liberals are at a crossroads precisely because our political agency has been historically linked with war and war financing, from Lincoln to FDR. According to Stoller this began breaking down in the Vietnam era, and suffered total collapse over the past 20 years with the death of Labor as a political force the embrace of finance-bubble economics, and of course the ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Liberals, Soller is saying, have lost their political economy. We have no theory (let alone practice) by which we envision production interfacing with law and governance. Things are falling apart, and there isn't a credible alternative to "turning on the machines again" and trying to inflate another bubble, maybe invading Iran. Bad times.
To me, this is the important thread. Without a real model for a Liberal political economy that scales globally — or at least a morally acceptable one that works nationally — we're in for a long stint in the wilderness.
I don't have an answer, by the way. It's clever to suggest that "innovation" is the way out, but I can tell you right now that Venture Capital and the "whiz kids" of Silicon Valley are, as a macro phenomenon, not going to get it done on their own. Our best shot is something that upsets the status-quo around the economics of energy production, but the incumbents there are strong and mean (Koch bros, I'm lookin' at you) and it's going to take more than the bauble of 20x returns on early money to underwrite an infrastructure reboot. That's the sort of thing that requires real political economy or desperate necessity (or both) to succeed. Hopefully we get one before the other.