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Neoliberal Incomprehension

January 19, 2011

With remarkable clarity and insight, Freddie deBoer lays out the distinction between neoliberalism and a more genuinely left-wing alternative:

Suppose we were able to pass the ideal set of social programs to ameliorate the downward pressure on labor from globalization. The question is, what about tomorrow? Look, again, at health care reform. We’ve passed an inadequate but genuinely positive set of reforms. But one of our two major political parties and seemingly the combined conservative and libertarian ideologies are dead set on repeal. This is the condition that [globalize-grow-give] progressives ask workers and the lower classes to live under: their material well-being is always subject to the whims of the political process.

You might suggest that there is no alternative, but I would argue that this contradicts history. The history of the American labor movement (and the great gains it secured for workers in the first half of the 20th century) is a history not of securing the blessing of the American political machine but rather of workers taking control themselves. Strikes, sit-ins, and various other forms of direct action were not appeals to the political process but the wresting of actual control of the means of production.

It’s easy to see why Chait and Yglesias were so quick to dismiss Freddie’s critique as irrelevant. Even after the landslide 2008 election, Democrats have faced considerable difficulty in passing what amount to mild reforms — e.g. a health care bill that even Republicans used to support. What Freddie’s neoliberal critics fail to understand is that he is not recommending one set of policies vis-a-vis another so much as a different approach to politics altogether.

So one big obstacle to Freddie’s agenda (and mine) is neoliberal incomprehension. Neoliberals simply take it for granted that politics is synonymous with the political process, and that the alternative to wealth redistribution is more or (in the case of Republicans) less wealth redistribution. The other obstacle, I suspect, is that bourgeois liberals like Chait and Yglesias simply can’t respect or understand the need for direct action.

But that’s all right. We don’t need their approval.

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