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Kinds of Left Practice

In the law school context, and more specifically in the U.S. law school context, because that’s the only place I have any idea of what might be possible, my sectarian thought is that there are two kinds of left practice to focus on.  One is producing polemical but tightly reasoned analysis and alternatives that are clearly to the left of what American liberals are now willing to contemplate.  The other is to help students resist and colleagues resist cooptation into the training machine of the American regime.

The first requires the analysis of the larger society’s political dynamics, which include things like the war but also like the incarceration rate for African Americans in the United States.  It includes things like the fate of minimum-wage workers and illegals.  Not just those things: absolutely every policy issue on which there is a division and as yet no well argued left position, or just one position where there should be several left positions.

At this level, the idea is to develop policy alternatives and classroom materials and teaching protocols that will reinforce the liberals, and also establish a presence on their flank to keep them honest.  This is a classic left intelligentsia role, which we can play in the United States, and in a few other countries, just by virtue of the relative centrality of law schools in the policy apparatus of the regime.(Of course, there are many places where it’s not a meaningful option.)

We can play a second counter-hegemonic role, because we are situated not just within a policy generating apparatus, but also within a cadre training operation.  The complexly oppressive American system, with its enormous power to draw people into it, is also based on the training of its elites.  Law school is not a site for mass movements; law school is a training ground for the elites who manage and develop and produce the system that we are against.  Law school is training for hierarchy; law school is a place where the Hessian mercenaries train to carry arms against the revolutionary forces.  At the same time that it’s a source of policies, it’s a source of personnel.

It builds consciousness, a way of being that makes you a willing participant.

It makes you a bought-in person who is doing the work of the system and enjoying the rewards of rulership, administering disastrous policy for yourself as well as for other people.  That is a psychological enterprise; it inculcates a way of being in relation to the state; a way of being in relation to power in general, and it’s taught in law school classrooms.  Not today in the brutal Socratic mode of the 1960s but in a much more seductive, in fact, mind-numbing mode.  The new, nicer mode is just as much a mode of recruitment, of intra-elite solidarity, as the old hazing mode was, and we can resist this one, too.

—  Duncan Kennedy, Teaching from the Left in my Anecdotage



The Slow Boring of Holes into Hard Planks

I just can’t stop talking about the fate of the left, I guess!

Matt Yglesias comments on what we have to do to push American politics further to the left, and pretty much hits the nail on the head: “If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing.”

I’d go one step further and argue that it’s not only important to be replacing some Congressmen and Senators with even slightly more left-wing Congressmen and Senators, we need more left-wing mayors, more left-wing city council members, more left-wing school board representatives, more left-wing transportation commissioners, and on and on and on. As Yglesias notes, the right has been able to create a lock-step party machine due to decades of ideological discipline and encouraging takeovers on every level. Pat Robertson protege Ralph Reed once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members.” It’s a shame that the Religious Right has come to understand the strength of grassroots organizing better than the Left.

As we all know from the fight over school curricula, those right-wing school board members are really paying off.

On the level of institutional fixes, a third party is still less optimal than some other strategies. It’s better to propose a switch to a form of representation that’s more likely to yield stronger left-wing outcomes in places where that’s likely. This means an embrace of alternative voting schemes like proportional representation in municipalities and if we want to get really radical, a switch from a bicameral assembly and governor system in a state like California to a parliamentary system where we could cement a left-wing majority.

With that said, a third party could make sense in local elections in heavily left-leaning areas (like the Bay Area), and also could act as a credible threat to the center-left Democratic Party in smaller elections to force the Democratic candidates to move left to capture more votes. I don’t think this dynamic makes a lot of sense on the national stage, though, where the race between Democrats and Republicans is so close.

A Concrete Agenda

Not enough words for you on intra-left bickering? Here’s more!

While I believe that we all play our own part, this is not to say that there aren’t things that Yglesias and other political commentators could be doing more to build left-wing institutional strength.

1. He could be reporting more frequently on the specific struggles of ordinary people in the US, and asking his readers to give their attention and money to these struggles.

2. He could be pushing for bigger institutional “fixes” in our political system that would change the way the game is played, such as propositions for alternative voting, smarter campaign financing, and a more democratic system of representation (to his credit, he does this a little).

3. He could push for a re-evaluation of the underpinnings of our society – property laws, zoning regulations, the boss-worker relationship, and so on – to see if rules that we adopted long ago still make sense for advancing human welfare today (to his credit, he is very good about housing and zoning issues on this count).

4. He could beat the drum louder on “payment transfers,” or what everyone else refers to as wealth redistribution from the rich to the rest. He always says he believes in explicit payment transfers, but a casual reader of his blog would be hard-pressed to discover this from the way he buries it in the last paragraph of a post on barber licensing or whatever. Direct distribution of money from rich people to poor people is an idea that falls outside of the window of mainstream American political discourse, and a relatively prominent blogger like Yglesias could go a long way toward normalizing it.

5. When he calls for more participation on the part of his readers, instead of suggesting that they write to their congressman he could suggest that they volunteer with an organization they like, show up to city council and development board meetings, and donate time and money to important causes. This both deepens democracy by creating more direct social-civic bonds among people, and will probably amount to a greater impact on the whole. The NGO outpost in which I worked simply wouldn’t have been able to function without volunteers, interns, and donations – and they do great work which directly helps hundreds of thousands of people, and have a broader effect by indirectly raising awareness about refugee issues.

While we shouldn’t invest too much time in second-guessing ‘technocratic’ solutions vs. ‘collective-action’ solutions, it is still worthwhile to reflect on what we’re doing to see if there are ways that Dudes on the Internet can deepen and strengthen democracy on the ground. Since Yglesias, Professor DeLong, and others are like people with megaphones in a sea of chatterers, they could bring their name-power to bear behind these issues in a way that many others can’t.

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.