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Reforming the left?

So, unfortunately I haven't had any time to check in with recent QueerToday posts until now, and I stumbled upon a great post made a couple weeks ago on "reforming the left." I wanted to follow-up by spewing a couple of thoughts it conjured up.

The problem identified was how we can get the political left in the U.S. up to progressivist par with other countries such as France. One of Wingy's suggestions included, "the rejection of the conservative notion that social progress slows down economic progress." I want to really take this point a couple steps further.

First, I totally agree that this is one of the core setbacks for an effective left-progressive politics in the U.S. We must come to fully understand that 1) social progress does not inhibit economic progress, but also, somewhat more controversially perhaps, that 2) social progress and economic progress are not in any way separable, despite a relentless discourse that this is indeed so.

social vs. economic progress? economy & culture under neoliberal order
For issue #1: The 'conservative' notion that social progress impedes economic progress is actually, quite unfortunately, not at all exclusively conservative. It is a widely and passionately held tenet that cuts across a diversity of political camps, including liberals and mainstream/reformist LGBT folk. What it is, however, is neoliberal. Most of you I'm sure are aware of the term, but just in case someone is not, neoliberalism refers to the economic, cultural, and political tendencies since the late 1970s that have stressed the dismantling of the welfare state, limited government interventions, the opening ("freeing") up of markets---and in areas where there are no markets, the actual creation of markets---and a mass privatization of the public services sector. The turn to neoliberalism (with the Reagan administration in the U.S., though in development for years prior) coinciding with (and facilitating) globalization and transnational capitalism has had DRAMATIC effects obviously on the world's economies, wealth distributions, but more important for this discussion, and not generally considered, it has had dramatic effects on cultural politics, our left-progressive politics, and very much the mainstream LGBT movement.

the magically disappearing public
The biggest effect neoliberalism has had on social progress is a huge privatization of public services and a massive withdrawal of funds from the social welfare system. Neoliberal logic has it that public institutions can do a whole lot better when they are privately competing on "free" markets, as the "freedom" to compete and participate in globalizing markets will be most productive. By out-sourcing public services over to profit-maximizing private corporations, these self-interested corporatations will, as the story goes, be more efficient and through competition exhibit better results. If you want to know what these results are, just look at the health care system in the United States. HMOs were invented out of the rise of a neoliberal state---these "free" corporate entities are a neoliberals' capital dream machine. The effects, as we all are very aware, are tragic. These entities are redistributing wealth--upwardly--into the hands of a few while those on the bottom are not only being massively extorted, but not receiving adequate care and services, and in the most unfortunate of cases, are literally being killed off while the uppercrust is moneypocketing what remains from the lack of funding available to them. More broadly, neoliberalism has induced a spiraling decline of the social safety net and widespread funding lapses for all sorts of social services. We are all feeling the dwindling of social security and public services in our lives (except the very rich). Private households are being stripped of resources while the responsibilities that should belong to the public sector are being thrown onto them.

When we talk about the belief that "social progress impairs economic progress," what we're really talking about is neoliberalism. Social progress, translating into social services and public funding, according to neoliberal ideas, is contrary to the "national interest," putting the U.S. at danger. Public funding and social security means slowing down the profit soaring of U.S.-based corporations and surrending U.S. global market control over to foreign enterprises. In a globalized capitalist new world order in which we readily compete across huge transnational markets, economic efficiency, limited market interventions (just allow everyone to compete and voila!), good fiscal policy, and privatizing everything under the sun so it is thrown into "free" markets is all that matters----public funds, social progress, etc. are old-school inefficient structures that literally put the United States at risk. Instead, these are privatized, which in turn, once in the hands of profit-maximizing private corporate bodies, results in heinous care and an upstream flow of capital towards the very top (for instance, HMOs). It is not surprising why some call neoliberalism a big capitalist "class restoration" project, seeking to restore all the world's wealth to the very rich. So, to say that "social progress impairs economic progress" is a conservative belief is being too optimistic--instead, it is a neoliberal way of thinking in the minds of conservatives and liberals alike. Neoliberal discourse, not conservative beliefs, is what is making tons of progressives push for an emphasis on "economic issues."

a great divide and single-issue "cultural" politics
For issue #2: To make matters worse, neoliberalism has had a powerful force in ripping apart our left-progressive politics by creating divisions in "economic"/redistributive and "cultural"/recogntion politics when these had not been there (and are not there). This is mainly attributable to the fact that the neoliberal agenda sees to an "end of the political" where all that matters is economic efficiency. "Freedom" for neoliberalism, the same freedom we might call "democracy," is really a freedom of transnational corporations and free private property owners to compete in ever-opening markets. Some refer to this neoliberal process as a "downsizing of democracy," for the simple reason that freedom, politics, democracy, culture, etc. are all, in a sense, thrown by the wayside for "free" markets. "Cultural" political issues are seen as distinct because they tend to wind up involving the public sector (which is anti-neoliberal as I talked about above) and because they do not directly pump up and free up markets. The results have been drastic. What had been a broad progressive framework has now been replaced by single-issue tunnel-visioned political projects (to some, status-elevating crusades), e.g, gay marriage or abortion. Part of why this has happened is because of the rising notion that on the one hand we have "economic issues"' and on the other we have "cultural issues." This notion has been tragic for a comprehensive progressive movement, because these two types of issues are not at all separable. To start with, the economy is culturally constituted, and "cultural issues" determine how people live out their economic interests. The institutions and entire cultural context that situate the economy are just as important to the conversation of "economic issues" as the economy itself is. The right has been able to succeed because of this schism in the left's neoliberal political ideas.

abortion vs. reproductive freedoms and access to medical care
Let's take abortion. The right has done so well because the left has singled-out this one particular facet of a much wider and necessary political enterprise involving reproductive freedoms, comprehensively. To talk about abortion within the realm of morality, "life or death," and a war of cultures---this single-issue politics is missing the boat altogether. The conversation we need to be having is about access to medical care: preventing unwanted pregnancies, supporting households and childcare, minimizing abuse. Or, talking about the right to have a choice, broadly construed, and the support and safety net in place for households and for childbearing. The right has relied on our singling-out of this "cultural issue" (abortion)---for instance, many churches are anti-abortion based on cultural-religious convictions, yet are comprised of many non-rich people that stand to benefit from (and actually would love to see) a wider installment of reproductive freedoms and services, and more generally, more funding for households and public care. A comprehensive progressive political program would attract and ally up with all sorts of unexpected folk if we re-framed the conservation about what really matters. These churches, comprised of non-rich people, for instance, would find such freedoms appealing, but once framed as a "cultural issue" (abortion), are left to ally with the right on religious grounds.

gay marriage vs. idiographically-defined household and family recognitions
A similar situation occurs with gay marriage or "marriage equality." While the demographic norm in this country shows a steady decline of marriage, the LGBT movement is bolstering up this age-old institution and converging with the right using a rhetoric of 'responsibility' (we are responsible and respectable loving adults that want children and capital!) and backing up a discourse on the exclusive institution of marriage that has ironically been dwindling for a while now. Again here, the conversation should be about how we can idiosyncratically choose a household configuration that works for us, and how we can spread or not spread benefits, assets, and rights to one another in the particular ways we actually live our lives (rather than dyadic conjugal units with dependent children, which is not even a demographic norm). This conversation is particularly important given neoliberalism's increasing destruction of services and funding for these ever-more-pressured households, loaded with more responsibilities. There are a variety of current households and families that stand to benefit from the legal recognition of their configurations. Many of these are currently allied with the right, even though they would find the opening up of a diversity of household recognitions very appealing (e.g., "reciprocal beneficiaries" by, ironically, conservatives). This consituency, however, must ally with the right because the left and LGBT movement has singled-out this issue as a "gay marriage" issue, which is not at all appealing for these folk. Though many are for basic gay rights, e.g., civil unions, when it comes to the "cultural issue" of marriage, they must ally with the right.

The right has succeeded only because it relies on left-progressive politics letting neoliberalism shatter its political thought (and sometimes the right setting the stage for this), separating out cultural and economic politics as if these indeed are separable, coming up with horrible narrow-minded single-issue "cultural" political projects that a great deal of the country cannot align with simply because they're framed in these ways. If we were to take on a broad progressive framework, for instance, re-framing the abortion issue to talk about our access to medical care, right to make choices broadly, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and reproductive freedoms, then we'd actually have a conversation going somewhere and ally with a huge amount of people currently aligning with the right on "cultural" grounds. Just the same, if we were to re-frame the marriage debate and talk about recognition of all sorts of new households that a great deal of us, in the very complex ways we actually live our lives today, stand to benefit from, then we'd be getting somewhere (please see !). And above all, if we were to include in these discussions, the fact that democracy itself is being downsized, the public is shrinking, and neoliberalism and the globalized capitalist new world order are redistributing the world's wealth upward and away from private households, services, and care that we everyday require and will require, then we might be getting somewhere.

Until then, however, the left isn't making a lot of mileage, sadly.


Wingy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wingy said...

A very insightful response Jon! I pretty much agree with everything that you've said. I do think that it is a big shame that the public has no conception of "neo-liberalism" still. In France, the left there has a good grasp of what neo-liberalism is and its dangers. Given the lack of knowledge on that issue by the mainstream left here, I think there must be a way that makes it easier for one to understand its structural impacts. After all, the ideas of the left are the ideas that are the most beneficial to the public. The greatest challenge, however, is how to repackage the ideas (often complex) into simple attractive ones that someone can glance and agree with. This is important because sadly most people don’t have the time or energy to learn about leftist politics.

Anyway, I applaud you for your post and I hope that this will be a conversation that more leftists join in.

PS. I should've made it more clear of the context in which the social progress impedes economic growth comment was given. In the context of France, it is the conservatives (neo-liberalists) who makes that claim. I completely agree with you that in our US context that neo-liberalism is pervasive.

kat0189 said...

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to rehash something as complicated as a neoliberalism critique into simple bits. In fact, such an undertaking might resemble corporate marketing techniques -- identifying public wants then molding and manufacturing leftist outreach efforts into persuasive and digestible (albeit reductive) small bites. Clearly, this would be a patronizing and exploitative way of recruiting public support.

Alternatively, I want to highlight a deep need for progressive education reforms to better equip the public with the foundation or base to meaningfully engage with political, economic, and socio-cultural affairs. Indeed, most people don’t have the time, energy, or quarter-million dollars of capital to spend in the knowledge/service economy of elite education in order to learn about leftist politics. Furthermore, most education reform up to this point seems to overlook younger demographics of students who are at the whim of ‘diploma factory’ public institutions. These institutions ignore the practical and often more pressing issues that they negotiate on a daily basis, and primarily function to instantiate a dichotomous understanding of life as consisting of two starkly delineated domains: work and play. For most, affirmative action, university financial aid, edgy, critical scholarship, et al. arrive much too late to realistically offset the previous decade+ of ‘miseducation’ -- e.g. white supremacist, heteronormative, patriachal history and literature texts, uncritical positivist science, ostensibly irrelevant and abstract math, and more. It is no wonder why many of them seek refuge under conservative ideologies or values, which seem to offer them more leverage than progressive camps.

I apologize for deviating away from the topic "reforming the left" per se. However, my point is that building a broad, intersecting support base for the left requires cultivating an understanding and appreciation for leftist tenets by infusing progressive perspectives into early public education curriculums through reform. Conventional recruiting runs the risk of capitalizing on uninformed sheep, rather than holistically empowering agents.

Wingy said...


I totally agree with you on the reforms of progressive education.

However, I disagree with you on that reducing neo-liberalism arguments to small bits will lead to an "uninformed sheep" following. I think generally people do agree that neo-liberalism is bad. After all, is there not a movement now that is demanding for a "government for the people and not for the corporations?" Everyone that is fighting under that slogan cannot all possibly be uninformed sheeps. I might even argue that that statement is the core argument against neo-liberalism, except in different words. And it is very effective just in its current small bit size form. It just hasn't been labeled as an anti-neo-liberalism movement yet. But u can see how the essence of anti-neo-liberalism is still in that statement and how much easier it is for someone from the mainstream left to join in this movement.

Given that, it would help tremendously if there is a progressive education reform that stresses critical thinking of ones place in this world. But unless the symbolic groundwork, such as this movement against corporate interests, has been lay down, it will be very difficult for the public to get through other symbolic filters. Fortunately, in this nation, there has a long held symbolic device of the "goverment for the people" in place already in the first line of the constitution. The left just has to make sure to use that to our advantage more often.

Anyway, as I have stressed in my post, I think what the left really needs to to do is to find around 5 unifying core values and rally up behind them. We can still have our minor differences but we cannot let these minor differences keep us from uniting together. Even though Kat and I might have different stances on how to tackle neo-liberalism, we have more in common than differences. It is imperative that the left does not forget about that.