Trying to define relative position on a left-right political spectrum is wasted effort. It’s fair to say, though, that I have a set of beliefs that are not quite in tune with John Cole, most of the Balloon Juice crew, or what I take to be the consensus of the commenters around here. But I am consistently encouraged by the insistence around here not just on what is good for workers and the lower classes but what empowers them.
There’s a troubling form of liberalism that is increasingly found in the wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere that is so influential these days. I’ve called it, in the past, globalize/grow/give progressivism. Mike Konczal of Rortybomb has referred to it as pity charity liberalism. (I hope you all are turned on to Rortybomb; it’s essential reading.) Whatever you want to call it, this vision of the liberal project defines itself through the social safety net. Its orientation is towards expanding and protecting a redistributive social welfare system. Meanwhile, it is at best uninterested in (and often downright hostile towards) worker organization, unions, regulation, and other attempts to empower workers in relation to capital and poor people in relation to the rich. The idea is that, if you get the economy going well enough, you can redistribute enough money to the poor that they’ll be alright, even while you’ve undermined their ability to collectively bargain, raise the value of their labor, and exercise power.
Obviously, this tends to come with a lot of other ideological and policy baggage, usually oriented towards “free market” reforms and antipathy to regulation and unions. I don’t want to refight the neoliberalism wars. Whatever the particular content of the policy preferences that come along with this kind of purely redistributive liberalism, I think it’s a huge mistake. You can’t meaningfully divide people’s welfare from their power, and you shouldn’t ask them to.
The first problem with pity charity liberalism is that the people advocating it tend to be far more optimistic about getting the social welfare state they want than they should be. I’ve been using the example of health care reform: a decent health care system has to be a part of a minimally fair social welfare system. We had a president with a serious mandate who campaigned explicitly on health care reform, majorities in both houses of congress, a uniquely favorable political moment, and an objective that broad majorities of Americans have supported for years. We just barely got a compromised bill through, and it is under perpetual legal and political threat. If those are the conditions that we’re going to have to defend the welfare state under, I don’t see how anyone can be confident in purely redistributive liberalism.
Contrast that with the history of the American labor movement. Check the record: on every issue of worker rights and protections, workers went first. They didn’t ask politicians to give them safer conditions, cleaner conditions, higher wages, shorter hours, more bargaining power, and a better system to redress their grievances. They demanded those things from the bosses, and they did so with the threat of shutting the whole operation down. Only after they had won those things did they eventually become codified in law. (It’s for this reason that May Day– a joke here, I’m afraid, but celebrated passionately in much of Europe and South America– is specifically a celebration of Haymarket square and American unions.) If we’ve lost those gains since, it’s been because of a very well-funded, coordinated and consistent effort by people in power to undermine unions and refuse to enforce existing labor law.
Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.
Forgive the Marxian cant, but politics is about the competition for power, and economics the competition for scarce resources. Democracy doesn’t presume some cordial relationship between people of different social classes and levels of power; it sets them against each other in balance so that no group captures the process. Giving up all checks on the moneyed classes won’t satisfy them. It will only ensure that there is nothing to stop them when they decide to take more.
It’s impolite to say, but I have to think that these well meaning young wonks (and they are well meaning) believe in the long-term viability of pity charity liberalism because of their own inexperience with material need. They are, for the most part, well-to-do, educated and upwardly mobile young white people. They can’t imagine the problem with the social safety net as the endpoint of the liberal project because they’ve never experienced the daily, grinding fear and degradation of living at the burden of the state. They also know that this is a condition they’ll never have to labor under themselves.
If the left is not fundamentally in the business of empowering workers and the poor, as well as improving the material condition of their lives, it not only has no business calling itself the left; it has no business, at all. It might as well close up shop. And for all of the many issues that confront the left– liberal, progressive, whatever– this is the most fundamental, most paramount one. Do we proceed on a basic philosophy of empowerment and dignity for those on the bottom? Or do we want to pursue redistribution as a substitute for self-determination, control over one’s own life? Some say we don’t have a choice, that an empowered workforce is a relic of the past. The beauty of Wisconsin is that it shows, win or lose, that things can change when people finally get fed up and organize to control what’s theirs. It’s worth fighting for.
Now, to endear myself to the passionate Balloon Juice community, here is a picture of my dog, Miles.