This comment by Yglesias is on target: “the TNR staff editorial on the subject [of OWS] feels distinctly like an op-ed penned eleven years ago about anti-globalization protestors, put on ice, and then re-animated with a hasty rewrite that fails to consider the actual political and economic circumstances.”
The staff editorial itself is not so important. What’s important is that, once upon a time, there were debates about trade ‘liberalization’ – globalization – that used to divide neoliberals and liberals and progressives. Basically, the neoliberals were gung-ho for trade on the grounds that the alternative was protectionism that amounted to shooting your own foot, and didn’t do any good for the poor in the Third World. And the progressives saw jobs being outsourced, labor unions weakening. Liberals were those caught in the squishy middle, per usual. We’ve had some debates on Crooked Timber of late about what ‘neoliberalism’ means. I’ve not participated because, honestly, term’s more trouble than it’s worth, worrying what it means. (I have other terms that are more trouble than they’re worth to worry about that I worry about. As a philosopher, I need to limit the number of such that infest my mental life.) The thing is: in the current situation, there is not – and should not be – anything analogous to the neoliberal side of the trade debate. No one sane thinks that this whole 99/1 business might be like NAFTA, i.e. something we have to go for, in an end-justifies-the-means spirit.
This is Matt’s point. He considers himself a neoliberal and sees, correctly, I think, that anyone committed to that market-oriented outlook is more or less committed to sympathy for the core grievances expressed by the OWS protesters. Neoliberalism was always in favor of markets as means, not ends. Neoliberalism was never – or was never supposed to be – the view that being in favor of trade liberalizaton means market fundamentalism in everything. Neoliberalism says market liberalization should go hand in hand with progressive taxation and appropriate regulation so the pains that buy the gains are mitigated and borne equitably. Spread the gain, to spread the pain. If liberalization means making the 1% richer and everyone else poorer, you shouldn’t take the deal. Only (some) conservatives and (some) libertarians should be willing to take that deal.
We can now, if we like, refight old battles. Were neoliberals wrong all along, or is it the case that, like ‘pure’ communism, neoliberalism has never really been tried? (We never tried to conjoin market liberalization with appropriately fair and equitable taxation and regulation schemes, so we don’t know that it wouldn’t work.) Were progressives right to try to draw lines in the sand against liberalization, or was that picking the wrong fight, strategically or philosophically or for whatever reason? And that’s why they lost? Whatever the answers to these and other questions, here and now it’s obviously the case that everyone from a compulsively Clintonian neoliberal triangulator to an unreconstructed communist ought to agree, at least, that ‘we are the 99%’ has both its heart and its head in approximately the right place. The protesters say there is unjust inequality, and they are right. Only (some) conservatives and (some) libertarians could deny it.