What is to be done?

There’s been a barrage of posts recently on “left neoliberalism” and the paucity of neoliberal ideology for winning victories for the left. For those who haven’t been following the discussion, Matt Yglesias (who identifies as ‘neoliberal’ on his Facebook page, but I think of more as a regular left-liberal) contributed to The Atlantic’s job creation “debate” with the idea that the Federal Reserve should change inflation targets to help create jobs. Political theorist Corey Robin responded with some skepticism about the policy tweak, and a more wide-ranging critique of what he described as “the Reaganite temper of our times.” This spurred comments all across the Internet left-writ-large, ranging from Will Wilkinson and Brad Delong on the neoclassical liberal end, to Doug Henwood and Henry Farrell on the social left end.

There’s probably not much I can add of substance to the debate on the level of ideas, but I’d like to see this discussion through a different lens that might help to bridge the gap between the two sides. Yglesias believes comments against him are maddeningly devoid of any substantive recommendations. Farrell believes that Yglesias is trapped in the realm of mere policy prescription and has no workable theory of politics, which he believes is necessary for building coalitions and moving the ball up the field toward the utopian endzone. Yglesias agrees with Kevin Drum (and by proxy, Farrell) that building strong left-wing institutions/coalitions is important, but doesn’t see how Farrell’s critique is relevant to a “concrete agenda” for doing so.

Both sides are talking past each other. What’s at stake is not neoliberalism vs. social democracy; it’s a division of labor problem.

What creates social change? To me, it seems that “progress” is frequently an overdetermined phenomenon, created by a concatenation of structural factors, social movements, and technical/policy changes made by having the right actors in the right place at the right time. We need all of the gears in motion on every front in order to achieve real change. It is not a matter of mere policy changes, but it is also unnecessary to bite at the heels of a political blogger like Yglesias simply because he doesn’t focus on the bigger organizational picture.

Yglesias plays his role as a technical commentator on political issues. An organizer for Make the Road NY plays her role as a person who gathers, educates and mobilizes people to pressure people in power. A direct service provider for a humanitarian NGO plays his role by directly reducing human suffering, even if on a very small scale.

JW Mason has a great blog here where he frequently provides astute analysis, and he weighs in on this discussion with the exact right point: “But while Yglesias did miss the point, I don’t think it’s just a personal failure on his part. We have to acknowledge that policy debates are suited to the online world in a way that practical politics is not…When “what is to be done” is a question about policy, there’s not too much trouble over who’s doing the doing—it’s the state or some well-defined subset of it. But when it’s a question of political strategy, the actor is much murkier.” He goes on to tell us the hard truth: if we believe in leftist politics, we need to get off the internet and go do something that helps real people.

But can we fault Yglesias – a technocrat by nature who does all his work online, writing – for sticking to policy alone? I don’t know. His attitude is out of place in the trenches, where I am now, but shortly I will have left my gig as a direct services provider and advocate and be a pointy-headed student and researcher again myself. Who is to say one approach should trump the other?

We need both.


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