This first Dispatches constitutes the first part of a multi-part analysis of the situation in which we find ourselves today — especially in the United States of America.
Part 1 examines the threats posed by neoliberalism, a system which values markets, private property, and free trade above all else (over democracy, social justice, and envionmental sustainability). As explained below, the organized Left is the only social force which truly threatens neoliberalism.
Part 2 will examine our current historical conjuncture with greater attention to the major players in the struggle over neoliberalism, and the uncertainty regarding the shape of our future socio-economic structure.
The U.S. Left: Opportunities & Responsibilities (part 1)
Steve Kasner • 10 September 2015
“Contrary to the neoliberal perspective,” Pierre Bourdieu explains, “all social gains have historically come from active struggles.”1
These are the struggles of the Left.
These are the struggles to expand democracy, equality, and freedom; to reverse climate change and stop mass species extinction; and to create new modes of production compatible with our personal, social, and environmental needs.
In the United States, these struggles are waged by the volunteers and staff at progressive social movement organizations and advocacy groups. Over 1,000 of these organizations have offices with paid staff. They are found in every state, and their numbers are growing.2 Erica Payne explains:
Over the past several years, progressives built an array of new organizations — think tanks, legal advocacy organizations, watchdog groups, leadership development efforts, civic participation vehicles, and media organizations — to challenge conservative dominance. During the same period, leaders of established organizations began to transform their institutions, developing fresh strategies and innovative tactics for a new political moment.… Anyone who threw up their hands after the 2000 election has missed one of the most invigorating periods of renewal and growth in progressive political history.3
With this organizational infrastructure, we on the Left are in position to confront and defeat neoliberalism in the United States.
And do this, we must.
Neoliberalism vs. Democracy
Neoliberalism is destroying American democracy by replacing democratic values and methods with business values and methods.
Within the neoliberal paradigm, citizens are no longer encouraged to participate in the give-and-take process of policy formation. Instead, as Wolfgang Streek explains, neoliberalism encourages “citizens to perceive themselves, in their relations with state bureaucracies, as customers.”4
Under neoliberalism, citizens are increasingly passive consumers of government policies, rather than producers of government policies.
In regard to American democracy and culture, Zbigniew Brzezinski provides a succinct description of the neoliberal ideal: “The political system is not democratic, but society remains so. not in terms of exercising fundamental choices concerning policy-making, but in the sense of maintaining certain areas of autonomy for individual self-expression.”5
Neoliberalism vs. Nature
Neoliberalism is also destroying the planet. The centerpiece of neoliberal thought — free-market fundamentalism — subverts every effort in the United States to mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Without mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, runaway global warming will ensue. James Hansen (Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) argues that runaway global warming would cause California's Central Valley to become impossible to irrigate within a few decades. Over the long run, Hansen concludes that runaway global warming would wipe out 20% to 50% of the species on Earth, and threaten human civilization itself.6
If private interests continue to trump common interests, our future will be a grim one indeed.
The Left vs. Neoliberalism
The only hope — “the only wild card,” as Naomi Klein puts it — “is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide an alternative to this grim future.”7
With our extensive organizational infrastructure, progressives in America can, in fact, turn this tide — and once again reshape the future.
What we must do, according to Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava, is “put movement building and recruitment at the center of [our] ambitions, without giving up on our principles or engaging in internecine conflict.” Hardisty and Bhargava continue:
While the United States in many ways remains a conservative country, changing demographics and a maturing and savvy progressive movement could even the political playing field as never before. With a clear and realistic reading of the country and a humility not often associated with the Left, progressives could carry the day for decades to come.8
Now is the time for thoughtful progressives to make this happen. The opportunity will not last forever.9
1. Pierre Bourdieu, interview by Günter Grass, “The ‘Progressive’ Restoration: A Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March-April 2002): 66, http://newleftreview.org/II/14/pierre-bourdieu-gunter-grass-the-progressive-restoration. ↩
2. The estimated number of organizations is derived from the total number of U.S.-based employer websites monitored by Changeworks Press in recent years. This number includes progressive labor organizations; it does not include organs of the Democratic Party, or outsourced canvass operations. ↩
3. Erica Payne, The Practical Progressive: How to Build a Twenty-first Century Political Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 11. See also In These Times (July 2006), 20-31. ↩
4. Wolfgang Streek, “Citizens as Consumers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption,” New Left Review 76 (July-Aug 2012): 39, http://newleftreview.org/II/76/wolfgang-streeck-citizens-as-customers. See also Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press, 2005), 37-59; and Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 34, no. 6 (Dec 2006): 690-714; and Brown, Neoliberalism and the Undoing of Democracy (forthcoming). ↩
5. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in Daniel Bell & Stephen Graubard, eds., Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967; MIT Press, 1997), 52. Citations refer to the MIT Press edition. ↩
6. James Hansen, “Game Over for the Climate,” New York Times, 10 May 2012, New York Edition, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html. ↩
7. Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” The Nation (28 November 2011): 19, http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate?page=0,4. ↩
8. Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava, “Holding the Center,” The Nation (19/26 July 2010): 26, http://www.thenation.com/article/36872/holding-center. ↩