Are liberals useless? A further meditation on Chris Hedges’ piece

Published online 20 December 2009.

I know, this Chris Hedges piece came out nearly two weeks ago.  This is a further exploration of the “liberals are useless” meme in political conversation.  Here I will suggest that liberals, progressives, etc. may be useless, but they can’t be dismissed outright.  Thus we need the building blocks of a more proactive stance.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

On a first read, Chris Hedges’ piece “Liberals Are Useless” from two weeks ago looks like another complaint about ineffectual political sellouts.  Let’s take a short look at what Hedges says:

Liberals are a useless lot. They talk about peace and do nothing to challenge our permanent war economy. They claim to support the working class, and vote for candidates that glibly defend the North American Free Trade Agreement. They insist they believe in welfare, the right to organize, universal health care and a host of other socially progressive causes, and will not risk stepping out of the mainstream to fight for them.

Same old complaint.  But then I started to see a lot of echoes of it elsewhere, especially as regards the run-up to the coming vote on “health insurance reform.”  Here, for instance, we have a campaign contributor who pledges to stop working for the Democratic Party after feeling sold out on a number of grounds.  And then you have Rahm Emanuel, who said: “Don’t Worry About The Left.”  Why not worry about the Left?  Because they offer no source of political resistance.  (And, yeah, this apparently applies to supposed “socialist” Bernie Sanders as well.)   This message was corroborated (in a sense) by the White House staffer who said that Howard Dean was “irrelevant to the entire health care debate.”  And then of course you had thereisnospoon’s diary of last week, which tells us that “no one is going to save you fools,” and urges you not to trust your politicians.  Do you catch my drift?

So are liberals, progressives, etc. “useless” or “irrelevant” to politics as played in DC?  Let’s take a look at Jeffrey Feldman’s piece, outlining Rahm Emanuel’s strategy: “Get ’em, then gut ’em.”  Here is the puzzle Feldman sets out as regards the “liberals are useless” meme:

Given the likelihood that elected Democrats would rather stiff arm activists in their own base than be publicly accused by their own President of blocking health care reform–meaning that the current health care bill will likely be signed into law rather than killed–what can the base of the Democratic Party do to guarantee they have more end game influence in the next legislative battle?

This should be considered in light of David Waldman’s speculation in yesterday’s Orange that Reid has enough votes at this point to grant America a national Romneycare.  And, gee whiz, who can fault Romneycare, except maybe for the fact that 21% of Massachusetts residents still forgo necessary medical care, or that Romneycare has failed to rein in medical costs.  From the PNHP report:

The plan does nothing to control skyrocketing health care costs. Even before the health reform, health costs in Massachusetts were among the highest in the world, approximately 25% higher than the U.S. average. Since the reform’s passage, premiums have continued to escalate. The costs for the four (subsidized) Commonwealth Care plans rose 9.4 % in 2009, significantly higher than increases in inflation or wages. (p. 13)

Spare me the counter-arguments about how this is “better than nothing.”  If we do a half-baked job of pressing Congress for “reform,” and Congress only save a small portion of the lives it could have saved, we have nothing to be proud of.

Okay, so here’s the proactive part.

Folks, if America’s progressives had really been serious about politics, they would have asked something like Feldman’s question decades ago.  Yeah, this one — “what can the base of the Democratic Party do to guarantee they have more end game influence in the next legislative battle?”  So where was progressive “end game influence” in, oh, any number of legislative (or for that matter, political) battles over the last three decades?  The fact of the matter is that the political class is united against the public, and in favor of stewardship of the neoliberal state.  Kees van der Pijl outlines this on a global scale in the abovecited link, “The Aesthetics of Empire and the Defeat of the Left.”  The money quote:

As a cadre entrusted with the day-to-day management of politics and administration, the ‘political class’ of each state is an internally cohesive force, and the particular sources of the entitlement to occupy state management posts such as the class struggle of the labour movement, have increasingly been left behind by that part of the cadre which entered politics as representatives of the working class aspirations for socialism.

What politicians care about, then, is each other, and not you or me.  Paul Rosenberg calls it the “Versailles Dem Mind.”  In this political climate of collusion amongst the political class, moreover, the progressives have given up their political clout for the sake of various “lesser of two evils” campaigns, for various tenets of progressive ideology, and for all kinds of other excuses to rationalize their powerlessness while pretending to continue to “play politics.”  And the politicians have treated them like children caught eating dinner at the grown-ups’ table.  Here’s what they tell progressives: “We’ll fix the legislation later.”  Uh-huh — here’s slinkerwink’s idea of that.

Of course, if the progressives disappear from the political process entirely, like they did in failing to influence the reprehensible No Child Left Behind Act (Senate) (House), then things just get worse.  NCLB, if you recall, turned America’s schools into test prep organizations, minions of McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Harcourt General; as Gerald Bracey points out, NCLB is the Administration’s favored regime for those who simply can’t afford a good progressive private school.

Progressives, then, may be “useless,” but dismissing them and relying upon another demographic segment of the American public would probably not be the best course of action at this time.  So that’s where we stand.

What should we do?

Here’s where it gets personal and, well, it’s not up to me to tell everyone what to do.  It’s especially not up to me to tell you what to do.  First off, although I may be with you on “the left,” and on health care, and maybe even on education, I’m not a progressive.  Secondly, I don’t place my organizational faith (or despair) in an entity called the “Democratic Party,” which holds its members together in a “Big Tent” philosophy which is supposed to unite its members behind various vague and unspecified goals.  Lastly, I’m not a “realist” or an “incrementalist” — I don’t think that respect for the delusional character of much of mainstream American society will amount to anything good, and I do think that drastic, sudden change is quite probable given world society’s heedlessness toward its environmental substrate.

Oh, sure, I understand the realities of power, but I don’t think of power only in the narrow, political sense.  There are plenty of other types of power, the “powers of the weak,” which need to be activated if a better world is to be achieved.  I certainly don’t kid myself about the power of money over the political process, to the point where I’m voting for politicians who give away the store to moneyed interests “but they’re better than the Republican” on some minor point.  I may know less than you do, but I do try to acquaint myself with life-knowledge that counts.

As regards the “health insurance reform” issue, progressives might have done well to heed the advice of letsgetitdone over at Firedoglake and exercised the “progressive power of ‘no‘” a lot earlier, and a lot more often, than they have done so far.  As it is, they haven’t used this power, they won’t use it, and as a result they have no real power over the bill, and so they will pass it without meaningful complaint.  The teabaggers understand the power of obstruction better than the progressives — if anyone in this era is going to take to heart Mario Savio’s famous incantation about how “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part,” it will probably be some reactionary fool.

I can’t quite place a name on my own philosophy, but I suppose “ecosocialism” is as good a label as any.  You might also look at “historical materialism” as something in which I believe.  I think that if we are to have profound political change, it will not appear to us as the success of a hobby we might pursue, or as a side-project we engage while we climb the corporate ladder, but rather as a transformation of our ways of life.

Now, despite what they say about us in DC, we are in fact all grown-ups now, and can therefore think for ourselves.  Thus I’m sure you can glean through this diary and through your other sources to find moral principles which will allow you to pursue a politics which won’t make you “useless.”  Perhaps you’ve already done so.


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