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Debt Ceiling: What Really Changes on August 3?

Henry Farrell Argues Against Left Neoliberals Like Me...

Henry Farrell:

The Limits of Left Neo-Liberalism: There is a real phenomenon that you might describe as left neo-liberalism in the US - liberals who came out of the experience of the 1980s convinced that the internal interest group dynamics of the Democratic party were a problem. These people came up with some interesting arguments (but also: Mickey Kaus), but seem to me to have always lacked a good theory of politics.

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action.

I see Doug [Henwood] and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is. Of course I may be wrong – and look forward to some pushback in comments...

Henry's theory of politics is that successful and beneficial long-run politics can only be accomplished by a political party that is the political arm of a universal class--a self-confident, organized group whose material interest is in fact the public interest.

Adam Smith saw the improving landlords of Britain as the universal class. The merchants and manufacturers each had an interest in monopoly--they should be kept as far from power as possible. The urban and rural laboring classes were short-sighted and uneducated--they would sacrifice the future for the present. The crown, the aristocracy, and the executive were too interested in playing the negative-sum game of imperialist war and conquest--they needed to be curbed. Only the landlords, whose rents rose with general prosperity and fell with general penury, had the brains, the organization, the far-sightedness, and the material interest to pursue policies to better the condition of Great Britain. Thus the landlords should rule.

Karl Marx, of course, saw the industrial proletariat as the universal class in embryo.

Henry Farrell doesn't say what his alternative proposed universal class is. Perhaps it is composed of, in rough order:

  • Unions
  • Public employees
  • Technologists
  • Celebrity entertainers
  • Trail lawyers

But the argument that the Democratic Party should adopt the strategy of pursuing policies to enrich those six groups and hope that it all adds up to (a) the public interest and (b) long-run political dominance seems to me to be relatively weak. Left neoliberal policies may well not produce. But it is not clear to me that Henry's alternative would produce either...