“Liberal” may be the most elastic term in American English. Even pushing aside its use as a right-wing slur or a cultural stereotype, the capaciousness of “liberalism” is almost imperial in its breadth and scope. Is a liberal a partisan of the Democratic Party? A proponent of international law and the Bill of Rights? A believer in human rights and the humanitarian role of the United Nations? An advocate of secularism? Exponent of scientific rationality? An environmentalist? A student or patron of the liberal arts? A champion of gay marriage, reproductive rights, and medical marijuana? A liberal might be all, some, or conceivably none of these things in practice, and still be a liberal.
Limiting ourselves to the liberal understanding of government or economic policy is hardly more bracing. Neo-Keynesians like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are certainly liberals, but dedicated neoliberals like Larry Summers and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein no less so. Many outspoken civil libertarians are liberals, but so is Attorney General Eric Holder. And as for military adventurism, from Vietnam to “AfPak” the less said about liberals and war the better.
Taking the longer view only expands the horizon, since the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries is as foundational for Milton Friedman as for Bill Maher (or if you ask him, Noam Chomsky).
In recent decades, the primary line of division between liberal and conservative has been drawn on the battlefield of the culture wars: here at last solid ground emerges beneath our feet. We know that the religious right, with its rhetoric of family values and tradition (and its practices of intolerance, misogyny, and bigotry) is illiberal and conservative. While the secular “left,” with its rhetoric of equal rights and tolerance, is liberal.
What this means in practice is that a liberal can be anything from an admirer of Nordic social democracy (or what remains of it) to an apologist for private health insurance and an advocate for charter schools. In the United States of America, if you don’t hate gays, you believe the earth is more than 4000 years old, and you’re not a registered Republican, you’re probably a liberal.
As with any target so wide, venturing some criticisms of liberalism as a political practice is not difficult. Most significantly, the neoliberal economic program, with its free trade, financial deregulation, cuts to social services, and so on, has been a thoroughly bipartisan affair. As much Bill Clinton as Ronald Reagan (the “Washington Consensus” was an apt term).
And so today we have a cleavage, a rift, in liberalism, between the left-liberal critics of the Democratic establishment, exemplified by popular figures like Chris Hedges or Rachel Maddow, and so-called moderate or centrist liberals, who run around like little independent Press Secretaries (“Obamabots“), defending Obama and the Democratic establishment from the so-called “professional Left.” The left-liberals hope to act as a moral and ideological counterweight to the neoliberal establishment. Yet, if we were to rewind the newsreel a few decades, we’d find an arch conservative bogeyman like Richard Nixon proclaiming himself a Keynesian, while today poor Paul Krugman is locked outside the corridors of power, publishing newspaper columns of “conscience.”
The reasons for liberalism’s seeming abandonment of Keynesian or quasi-Keynesian economics are seldom contemplated by liberals in my experience. And to do so in any serious way takes one beyond liberal economics to an examination of systemic economic contradictions: declining profit rates, the capital-to-labor ratio, excess industrial capacity, global competition… problems Marxists aptly term the “internal contradictions of capitalism.” This is something I’ve addressed briefly here, elaborating in the comments thread. (For an engaging 11-minute introduction to such “internal contradictions” see David Harvey’s viral animated video.) But rather than a digression into the nature of a systemic crisis that emerged more than three decades ago, I want to jump to a more fundamental point about liberalism that holds true for all its iterations, from FDR and LBJ to BHO. And this is it:
Liberalism is and has always been, at bottom, a defense of capitalism. Whatever the slipperiness of its meaning, usage, or connotation over time, this is an immutable if embarrassing fact about liberalism and liberal politics.
Liberals and their social democratic brethren of course prefer to see themselves as the principled reformers and civilizers of capitalism, guardians against its raw “unfettered” form, not its dutiful stablemen. But note how critics like Chris Hedges invariably stress adjectives rather than the noun itself: we must fight corporate capitalism or crony capitalism, but not capitalism itself. Such qualifications are intellectually vacuous, if we know the first thing about the history of joint-stock companies and their relation to the State, from the 17th-century Dutch East India Company to General Electric, from the Robber Barons of Mark Twain’s Gilded Age to today’s Wall St plutocrats. It was was ever thus. To speak of “crony capitalism” or “corporate capitalism” is to tacitly invoke some fantasy of “true” capitalism, to dream of a pastoral land of cottage industry, perhaps, but in any case to engage in ideological mystification.
For what is capitalism? It is of course a very complex organization of social and material relations, reliant on a State legal apparatus enshrining a particular form of property rights, defined by socially generalized wage labor, driven to technological innovation by competition and profit, and so on. But as a system, capitalism has only one logic or goal: the generation of more capital. The commodification of everything — be it human capacity (“labor”), soil, or water — for exchange. It is not a system whose aim or purpose is the fulfillment of social needs any more than it is concerned with individual potential. Capitalism is a system that generates capital, for the sake of generating more capital. We can examine the system in myriad ways — temporal, spatial, historical, or sociological — but this is its defining systemic logic: commodification and accumulation. That is capitalism.
Whatever the virtues or faults of such a system, it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to understand something very simple about it: it is a system which by its very nature, in order to exist, grows and expands. During an Occupy Wall St teach-in at Zuccotti Park last fall, author and professor John Bellamy Foster outlined this as plainly and simply as I’ve heard it expressed:
We live in in a capitalist society, which means a society in which the accumulation of capital, i.e., economic growth carried out primarily on the terms of the 1 percent at the top (the ruling capitalist class), is the dominant tendency. It is a system that accumulates capital in one phase simply so that it can accumulate still more capital in the next phase — always on a larger scale. There is no braking mechanism in such a system and no social entity in control. If for some reason the system slows down (as it is forced to periodically due to its own internal contradictions) it enters an economic crisis. That may be good temporarily for the environment, but it is terrible for human beings, particularly the bottom portion of the 99 percent, faced with rising unemployment and declining income.
Overall, capitalism is aimed at exponential growth. It cannot stand still. The minimum adequate growth rate of the system is usually thought to be 3 percent. But this means that the economy doubles in size about every 24 years. How many such doublings of world output can the planet take?
Speaking before the catastrophic failure of the Durban climate conference in December, Foster referred to a recent study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, outlining the emissions reductions necessary to avoid a global temperature increase of 2° C (3.6° F). With Durban behind us, we know the intransigent developed nations (led by the “liberal West”) insisted on putting off any meaningful coordinated action until 2020. As such, leading climate experts now admit there is no hope of keeping the global temperature increase at a mere 2° C. With a record 42 million people displaced by natural disasters in 2010, entire island nations set to depopulate themselves, and record drought in Africa, the climate disaster is well under way, and there is surely worse to come. Here’s Nigeria’s leading eco-activist Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, on the meaning of the Durban conference:
Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions… An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.
If the Obama Administration’s defenders are correct, it is the best (the “least worst”) government possible for the world’s most scientifically advanced industrial country. According to them, any more progressive and/or principled leader and campaign could not have taken office. This is the best liberal democracy can offer.
I think we should take these claims seriously.
If we do, we must accept the conclusion that “the least worst” system possible is a failure of catastrophic global proportions. The “least worst” is a historically indefensible disaster.
In this time of deepening social inequality and desperation, with its concomitant crisis of democratic legitimacy, principled left-liberal critics like Chris Hedges decry how “the foundations of the liberal state have been degraded or destroyed.” They look back nostalgically to the so-called “golden age” of capitalism, the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But Hedges’ training is in theology, not political economy, and his jeremiads about greed, however righteous, are unhinged from historical reality. He and his readers seldom seem to contemplate the unique brew of historical forces that fueled the super-duper economic growth of the postwar “golden age.” Let’s take a look at the ingredients of that growth:
(1) the buildup of consumer savings during the war;
(2) a second great wave of automobilization in the United States (including the expansion of the glass, steel, and rubber industries, the construction of the interstate highway system, and the development of suburbia);
(3) the rebuilding of the European and the Japanese economies devastated by the war;
(4) the Cold War arms race (and two regional wars in Asia);
(5) the growth of the sales effort marked by the rise of Madison Avenue;
(6) the expansion of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate); and
(7) the preeminence of the dollar as the hegemonic currency.
“Financial Implosion and Stagnation” John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review Dec 2008
Even if we could replicate or approximate a similar concoction of economic steroids, only someone with a fully fascistic disregard for human life itself would care to. And as for the ecological sustainability of automobilization, suburbanization, furious industrial consumerism, and a permanent war economy, well, it’s in large part the delivery system by which we’ve arrived at this climatic precipice in the first place.
So where does this leave liberals? My argument is that they are left with a belief system, an inheritance of hollow customs and habits, faith-based assumptions and nostalgic attitudes that are unfit to address 21st-century earthly reality. As David Harvey has said, “compound growth for ever is not possible, and the troubles that have beset the world these last thirty years signal that a limit is looming to continuous capital accumulation that cannot be transcended.”
Will aged liberals in future decades, like Good Germans, tell their grandchildren that no one could have predicted the Anthropocene and the subsequent Ecocaust? Will they fail to recollect that in the same week that President Obama crowed about quadrupling the “number of operating rigs to a record high” and adding “enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some,” news outlets across the world heralded the onset of earth’s sixth mass extinction?
If we are serious about understanding and addressing the reality of anthropogenic climate change, we have to get serious about moving beyond the political edifice and ideological justification for unlimited economic growth. Carrying with us its greatest gifts and attributes but abandoning its retrograde politics and debunked assumptions, it is long past time to move forward beyond liberalism and beyond social democracy. There is no turning back and, together, we can and must look to a different horizon than the scorched earth guaranteed by capitalism.
What that future might look and feel like, we can only sort out in the process. If you see Chris Hedges around, let him know God is dead, and it’s time to move on.