Matthew Yglesias waxes sarcastic about the lack of content of my critique of neo-liberalism, and (on Twitter) ‘underpant gnomes theories of social democracy.’ And in so doing, misses the point quite completely:
Having read this and various people agreeing with it, I have no idea what it is that we’re disagreeing about. Neoliberals on this telling, favor progressive taxation. Non-neoliberals criticize this agenda as not politically workable in the long-term. And they counterpose as their alternative, more workable agenda, . . . what? … The moment someone comes up with a workable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.
He seems to be muddling three very different things together – “policy proposals,” “theories of politics,” and “actionable programs to rebuild the American left.” “Policy proposals” are clearly what he’s most comfortable with – proposed institutional or regulatory changes that would lead to attractive policy outcomes. And they are obviously good and important things to debate.
But equally obviously, they are not the whole of politics nor anywhere near it. Policy is not made, in the US or anywhere else, through value-neutral debate among technocrats about the relative efficiency of different proposed schemes. Hence, the need for a theory of politics – that is, a theory of how policy proposals can be guided through the political process, and implemented without being completely undermined. And this is all the more important, because (on most plausible theories of politics) there are interaction effects between policy choices at time a and politics at time a+1. The policy choices you make now may have broad political consequences in the future. Obvious examples include policies on campaign spending, or union organization, which directly affect the ability of political actors to mobilize in the future.
Finally, we come to “actionable programs to rebuild the American left.” At the moment, as Kevin Drum says, no-one really has any good short term proposals.
Put simply, the middle class simply doesn’t have any kind of big, persistent, institutional representation in American politics any more, and that’s left the field open for corporations and the rich to increasingly dominate economic policy. They know where their interests lie and they aren’t afraid to fight for them. Unfortunately, answers to this dilemma are thin on the ground, and Obama certainly hasn’t figured out an answer. He’s just trying to muddle through somehow. I don’t know the answer either. But as I said a few months ago, “If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.” It still is.
A theory of politics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the answer that Kevin is looking for. If you don’t have a theory of politics, you don’t know where to start. If you do, you may not have any immediately attractive answers (first – spend a couple of decades building grassroot organizations …), but at least you can ask the questions that might lead to an answer.
More immediately and practically, a theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives). This is not to say that politics should rein supreme over policy – it is to say that there are often tradeoffs between policy benefits and political sustainability. As Max Weber says, politicians need to hold the ethic of ends, and the ethic of means in their head at the same time if they are to fulfil their vocation – in this instance they not only need to think about the abstract desirability of a policy, but whether it supports or undermines the coalition that makes this and other desirable policies possible. Sometimes, a politically costly policy measure is worthwhile (after all, politicians are elected to do something while they are in office) – but unless you have some theory of politics, you can’t begin to think about the pros and cons.
Hence, it’s a problem if neo-liberalism doesn’t have a theory of politics. This not only means that it can’t think about long-term change in any coherent or useful way; it means that neo-liberals have difficulty thinking about the interactions between short-term policy proposals that they like and the political conditions that might make these and other proposals achievable, and sustainable after they have been brought through.
All theories are flawed – but they provide a necessary guide to action. Lefties have a clearly discernible theory of politics, which has to do with collective action, and the building and sustenance of mobilizing organizations. Netroots-style partisans also have a theory, which has to do with the expansion of party structure and organization, and the punishment of politicians who deviate needlessly from the party line. But neo-liberals – not so much, apart from a historical belief in the power of technocratic discussion to reshape politics. This not only means that they are less effective than they should be, but that they may push for policies that do long term political damage. Neo-liberals’ dislike of labor unions in the 1980s was doubtless partly justified – but they didn’t seem (as best as I’ve read the debates) to be at all interested in the question of whether strong unions helped alleviate inequality, sustain the political conditions of embedded liberalism usw.
Back in the 90s, if you’d asked me what my political persuasion was, I probably would have said I was sort of a neoliberal (in the American, Charlie Peters-ish sense of the word). … I got steadily off that bus over the years, partly because the whole neoliberal project was based on the assumption that moderation from Democrats would prompt similar moderation from Republicans that would eventually turn down the temperature of the culture wars and produce better overall governance. Needless to say, that’s not quite what happened … More recently, though, I’ve moved even further away from the neoliberal persuasion because my nose has been rubbed a little too firmly in the fact that it simply doesn’t work politically. The world is a messy place governed by messy interest groups and messy countervailing powers, and if you absent yourself from that world you’ll get steamrolled.
I don’t think that many neo-liberals believe any more that moderation from Democrats will produce moderation from Republicans – that theory has been comprehensively falsified. But I don’t see that they’ve come up with any replacement theory of politics that is at all convincing. And until they do, they’re liable not only not to get very much done that is useful, but sometimes to play a role that is actively politically harmful (since they don’t have any good account of the relationship between policy and politics). I may of course be misjudging them – I am not aware of all neo-liberal traditions. But if there’s evidence to the contrary, I’m unaware of it (and would love to see it).