Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Left Blogosphere, If It Exists

The talk of the progressive blogosphere this week has been Franklin DeBoer's post on the lack of a truly left-leaning blogosphere. Attacking the neoliberal consensus that dominates the supposed progressive blogging elite of Yglesias, Klein, Chait, Drum, and a few others, DeBoer bemoans the lack of a labor-left blogging presence and the marginalization of truly leftist views.

Reactions have been mixed across the board. Yglesias says that there can't be any meaningful blogosphere to left of him because he agrees with the principle of redistribution of income. This is patently absurd but not surprising from the next David Broder.

Klein calls himself pro-labor but his argument shows the progressive blogger disconect from actual working-class issues. Normally, Klein demonstrates deep policy knowledge about issues. But here, he provides nothing more than squishy platitudes about how unions are important and that worker representation is a good thing. Where's the actual policies to make this happen? Is Klein calling for a the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act? For an activist National Labor Relations Board? For news laws demanding that U.S. companies pay high wages to workers if they open factories abroad? If so, I haven't seen it.

Neither Klein nor any other leading progressive bloggers center working-class people in their analysis. They are in the background--after all, a lack of health care primarily hurts working-class people. And I respect Klein for his energy in pushing these issues. But where is the attempt by any leading young progressives to understand working-class people? The issues important to them? Where are the voices of people who grew up as members of the working-class, did not go to prep school or attend Yale, did not even know internships at fancy institutions existed not to mention apply for them, and did not have connections that would help them become major progressive voices while in their mid 20s? They don't exist. And while I might be unfair to those who simply used the advantages they were born with, this situation is emblematic of how left-leaning leaders are more disconnected from the poor than anytime in this nation's history.

I think the biggest problem here is that most young(ish) progressives accept neoliberalism. Most openly admit it. As Rob Farley describes himself in his thoughtful response to the DeBoer's piece, "my own inclinations are toward the left side of the neoliberal consensus." They can try to smooth over the rough corners of globalized capitalism, but they fundamentally accept it as a good thing. They haven't conceptualized what a labor movement should look like within neoliberalism; they bemoan its decline, but mostly shrug their shoulders at its inevitability.

It's no different with most of my progressive students. They have no clearly articulated economic ideas except that capitalism is mostly good, even if sometimes it treats people bad.

So you have two "legitimate" sides within the economic debate--one that is dominated by true believers who also have access to money and power and another that agrees with 2/3 of the other side and provides little more than squishy critiques. Can  you guess which side is in the ascendant?

The world is very different on social issues. While I worry about the long-term health of abortion rights, very good things are happening on other social issues. We are moving toward acceptance of and legal rights for gays relatively rapidly. We are moving toward decriminalization of drugs. Interracial relationships become more accepted every year. In these ways, life is getting much better in this country. And the reason is that the left has clearly articulated positions sharply defined against conservatives. We can make strong arguments from both moral and policy perspectives on the need to recognize gay marriage and not throw black people in prison for 20 years because they have an ounce of cocaine on them.

So long as the left side of the blogosphere (or whatever the popular intellectual media of the future looks like) believes in the benefits of global capitalism and its leading participants are unwilling to criticize the entire system of neoliberalism, it's highly unlikely any real change is going to happen.

From this, I feel isolated. I know I am not alone, but I am sad nonetheless. A truly left blogosphere does not exist. If the left side of the neoliberal consensus is as far left as respectable policy makers and writers are going to get in this nation, I have no chance of ever making a difference through my own writings. Because the things that I call for--the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States through a combination of penalizing companies for moving factories outside the country and working with other nations to make hard decisions about which industries and products to protect and which to trade freely on the international market, forcing companies to pay high wages and follow U.S.-style environmental legislation if they move their factories abroad, deconnecting housing prices from measurements of economic growth, full employment as a human right, etc., have no chance of ever being taken seriously, even by people who I should ostensibly be allied with.

It is my strongly held belief that the current neoliberal economic system is both a short and long-term failure. It is environmentally unsustainable. We are flat running out of rare earths that are desperately needed for modern technology.  Climate change is already causing problems in some localities and nations. The nation's commitment to letting corporations rule the country has only increased since 2007, despite the fact that their actions are what drove us into financial collapse. It's almost impossible to put people back to work in the face of a long-term economic depression (not necessarily this one) because we have destroyed our industrial infrastructure and allowed capital to become fully mobile. I could go on.

But even if progressives agree with all of this, they still like the idea that they can go buy a Kindle. And hell, there's no question that I as an educated white male have benefited from the system, even if I grew up in a family that definitely did not. Do I like being able to travel and sit here on a computer writing about these issues and not working 12 hour shifts in a plywood mill? Yes, I do. One doesn't have to reject capitalism to reject the current model of capitalism and actively work to shift capitalism's benefits back to the working class, however one wants to define it. But that really isn't happening either. And for those of us who try to articulate such opinions, well, we never get hits from bigger blogs or are taken seriously by anyone.

In his response, Farley notes that I rarely write about labor anymore. And that's true. It bothers me. But I know that no one cares. No one will ever respond to or comment on a labor post. Maybe this one will be different because it's so meta. But if I talk about changes at the AFL-CIO, no one gives a shit. Which is true of the unions in general until progressives need them to get out the vote every 4 years.

There's a related issue also worth briefly addressing. DeBoer talks in labor-left language. He wants to connect vigorous labor unions with left politics. I want that too. But in the modern context, I wonder if we don't marginalize ourselves by thinking about labor unions in their mid-twentieth century manifestations rather than thinking about issues from a broader working-class context. I don't mean to sound semantic here. I do think there's a significant difference. Right now, something like 7% of private sector workers belong to labor unions. That's a very small number. Even given that a large percentage of those other 93% are in some sort of management or making a lot of money, there's an awful lot of people who fall outside of the union purview. They deal with shitty temporary jobs, frequent unemployment, shrinking benefits, and higher health costs. Even in teaching labor history, I now cast it as "Working-Class History," which I think makes a lot more sense in thinking about modern issues of work. It also allows us to include non-unionized workers of the past, including slaves and domestic labor. Given the sad reality of union demise, I don't see much utility in not trying to adapt a new framework to the current world.