Theory and the Left

In my introduction to The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay , I concluded with this: “I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice.” After several days a commenter questioned my certainty. I think his comments raise important points about my long-term project, and so rather than continue the conversation on an old post, I am hoisting the comments so far into this post, edited for punctuation, spelling and readability. Also, I shortened mine. My thanks to Hubert Horan for raising this issue.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm
Why do you firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice? You and other individuals might personally benefit from deeper analysis of theory and history, but I see no reason to belief that much broader groups (especially groups as broad as “the left”) could ever establish coherent theories that would make their politics stronger and more effective.

1950s conservatives felt hopelessly outnumbered by the “liberal” consensus of the day, and put in massive effort to create an “intellectual”/theoretical grounding for the movement. (Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement is a good starting point but there are many others) All of the various efforts were logically incoherent, as the effort to produce some kind of pure theory were always polluted by emotional/tribal biases (upper class elitism, love of hierarchy and status, poorly disguised racism, misogyny, etc).

Where in history has there ever been “rigorous intellectual political theory” that didn’t end up as an attempt to build a quasi-religious utopian ideological faith? Remember the huge role of ex-Leninists/Trotskyites or devout Catholics and Evangelicals in the development of movement conservatism. The real challenge they faced (as leftists do now) is purely political, which by definition means combining the interests of a lot of groups whose worldviews could never be coherently reconciled. With the conservatives–in the 50s as well as today–this meant putting libertarians, hard social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists, uncompromising militarists (anti-communists then, anti-Muslim today) and a few other groups under the same tent.

Conservatism grew when people with political skill and charisma (Buckley, Reagan) were able to finesse the differences between groups, and the increasing potential for political power got people to forget about theory and principles and focus on gaining more power. Despite all the effort and pretense, none of the successes of movement conservatism have anything to do with the theories put forth in past decades.

20th Century “liberalism” (from progressives through New Deal/New Frontier through 60s civil rights/antiwar through the collapse in the 70s) was never driven by widely known intellectual “theories” –it was always politically focused. Minor groups like 1930s communists excepted, it was never utopian or quasi-religious and battles were over political turf and tactics, not over ideological purity. There was plenty of searching for ideas about how to solve key problems or reach broader audiences, but very few wasted time searching for the One Great Unifying theory that the masses would line up to support. As with the conservatives, emotional biases (elitism, virtue signaling, desire to protect narrow economic interest, etc) caused lots of problems, but this wasn’t going to be solved with more rigorous theory development.

I find some of these theoretical/historical issues fascinating, and best of luck with your research. I could imagine it might help establish a small faction within “the left” but I can’t see how it could have a powerful impact on “the left” as a whole.

Ed Walker says:
June 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm

This is a great comment. I generally agree with your history, but not necessarily with your view of theory. You neglect the role of neoliberal theory in the rise of conservatism. I’ve gone over a lot of this in other posts, many of which are centered on Foucault and Mirowski, here and earlier at the late lamented FireDogLake. There is a nice history in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Again, your comment is an important reminder that theory is not decisive. And believe me, I have not the slightest hope that what I write has a chance of effecting change by itself. Ideas, unlike wealth, do trickle out into the world, though, and therein lies my hope.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 10:12 pm

No disagreement with any of your points about neoliberalism. The next historian of postwar conservatism after Nash I would have mentioned would have been Mirowski.

The difference, perhaps semantic, is that I don’t think anything supporting modern neoliberalism rises to the stature of “theory.” My guess is that the major conservative theorists of the 50s and 60s (Burnham, Kirk, Chambers, Rusher, Meyer, et. al) would have recognized modern neoliberal advocacy for what it is–faux-analysis to feed the propaganda needs of wealthy plutocrats. They certainly would have recognized that it was not “conservative” or theoretically rigorous.

Yes, there was a transitional period where some legitimate intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek) laid important groundwork for what later mutated into neoliberalism. Little of Friedman’s serious academic analysis served the neoliberal agenda, but most of his popular tracks did. Conservative “theorizing” had major impacts only after they abandoned the model of independent academic analysis for a propaganda model serving the political objectives of their paymasters.

That’s the discussion so far. The point about whether neoliberalism is a theory requires a response. Philip Mirowski might agree to some extent with Horan’s point. But I don’t. I think neoliberals accept at least the following ideas as foundational to their project.

1. Freedom means economic freedom.
2. Private property must be protected at the expense of every other interest.
3. The only valid way to allocate resources is through markets.
4. There are absolute truths. The first three points are examples of absolute truths.

Each of these four is subject to being interpreted in two ways, one way for the funders and one way for the rubes. Neoliberals tout economic freedom in health insurance, arguing that people should be allowed to buy insurance against specific diseases, or not, or specific limits on coverage or not. What that means is that poor people can buy whatever they can afford, whether or not it has value. In general, you are free to buy whatever you can afford, and that’s their definition of freedom. Meanwhile rich people can buy full protection from the costs of health care, because that’s freedom.

We see this form of argument all the time. Here’s Megan McArdle explaining why not installing sprinklers in public high-rise buildings is a plausible money-saving idea, and argues that markets should make safety decisions. Here’s Matt Yglesias explaining why Bangladesh might not even bother with building safety. In both cases, the only issue of interest is economic freedom.

On the idea of absolute truth, at one level, this sounds like an endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity. At another, we need to know who decides what that absolute truth is. The rich might let fundamentalist preachers decree dogma, because ti doesn’t bother them or their kids and it sedates people. But when it comes to economic matters, including much foreign policy, we can be sure they ignore all that Christian stuff about the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Loaves and the Fishes, and all that redistribution stuff.

Modern philosophy raises serious problems with the idea of absolute truth, valid for all times and in all places. Critical Theory also rejects the idea of absolute truth, and with it the idea that social problems can be solved permanently. We’ll see how that works out as we go forward in this book.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

14 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Neoliberalism certainly has an elaborate framework. It began primarily among academics. But even at the beginning, it was heavily dependent on robber baron money (DuPont’s) for its existence and aims, first for its academic conferences and papers, then its academic homes in Europe and Chicago, then “independent” think tanks and other attempts to dominate the cultural and social landscape. It has succeeded to the point where competing economic interests have become peripheral, non-serious, virtually illegitimate.

    Neoliberalism extended its reach when, after a generational shift in the late 1960s that left the postwar consensus in the dust, it allied closely with the broader corporate culture, expressed through trade groups such as the powerful, arch-conservative US Chamber of Commerce and more elite associations such as those limited to chief executives.

    Neoliberalism has always had a double helix structure: its billionaires and their corporate and foundational vehicles, on the one hand, and academics, lobbyists and other articulate courtiers on the other. The venues through which those interests are expressed have varied, but the message has been consistent, persistent, and dominant. That suggests strong if inconsistent theoretical underpinnings, forming the lens through which elite interests articulate their objectives and distance themselves from them in order to disguise their selfish, partisan origins and the process through which they are developed and articulated. .

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I think you can plausibly collapse the first three foundational ideas of neoliberalism.  Economic freedom is the most important freedom, private property the most important interest, and markets are the sole arbiter of “choice”.

    Fundamental to each is whose freedom or interest is at stake.  It is always the freedom or interest of the wealth elite.  Other freedoms or interests may exist, some benefit might trickle down to water others, but only to the extent that they do not diminish the power and choice of the wealth elite.

    “Markets” are acceptable as the sole arbiter of choice for two similar reasons.  Few participants matter.  Their choice sets hard limits on what others may choose.  Obligating all to kowtow to the markets, really to their strongest player(s), is meant to keep government – which regulates the existence and purposes of corporations, which regulates the scope of their conduct, which provide essential, communal cost-based services – chained and toothless.

    Choice is not determined, as in theory, by the sum of all anonymous co-equal transactions.  It is determined by a small number of players.  As with IBM before the 1980s, and Microsoft and Amazon and Google today, choice is determined by the monopolists or a cadre of the largest participants.

    Competition, that essential underpinning of capitalist theory and the lubricant that keeps the theoretical machine from freezing up, is ignored and often hated.  (The most hated competitor is government, in part because it is both referee and player.)

    Monopoly power is the pursuit. Ask Tom Watson, Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos.  Their choice counts and is the bottleneck through which they make “choice” available to others.  Real choice, be it choosing from among unbundled cable channels or universal health care or a politics of the left, is absent and derided as “unobtainable”.

    The commandments of neoliberalism may vary, but they are rigid.  Its priests do not lightly tolerate their violation.

  3. Ed Walker says:

    Hubert Horan was unable to post this comment, so I am posting it for him, with a couple of minor edits for ease of reading.

    He writes:

    Thanks for picking up the conversation Ed.
    “The Left needs a political theory as well as a political practice” This begs a couple questions:

    1. Recognizing the imprecision in any kind of taxonomy, how would one clearly distinguish the “theory” category from the “practice” category? In simplest terms, “theory” suggests intellectually/logically coherent arguments about how to enact major long-term change under somewhat ideal conditions, while “practice” suggests a gumbo of claims/ideas from multiple sources (that could include coherent “theories”) assembled on an ad-hoc/pragmatic basis with a greater focus on near-term change within less than ideal near-term conditions.

    2. What actually works? Looking at history, can one point to examples where the development of “theory” directly led to major political changes substantially greater than a gumbo/pragmatic “practice” could have achieved? I suggested focusing on the post-war right, but the New Deal-Great Society left might provide clues as well.

    My initial supposition was that there was little historical evidence that coherent “theories” accomplished much of anything because logical coherence precluded what’s needed to power a broader movement. Logically coherent “libertarian” theories went nowhere, but bits and pieces of those theories were incorporated (incoherently) into broader right-wing movement slogans. New Deal era “theoreticians” may have gotten tenure at Harvard, but only bits and pieces of their theories influenced 60s Democratic movement politics.

    This is not to criticize anyone who wants to “think hard about political issues” but is just to suggest that the evidence suggests that the hard thoughts about “practice” (assembling the gumbo) have proven more useful than the hard thoughts about “theory.” My gut feel is that hard historical data is much more important than “theory” but I’m totally open to contrary evidence.

    Next question on the table: is “neoliberalism’ a “theory” or a “practice”? I’m with Mirowski’s view of this as a “thought collective” which is to say a gumbo with a lot of flour added to make the disparate parts stick together more than they might otherwise. The flour came from two different sources—political compatibles willing to put aside “theoretical” differences in order to come out of the political wilderness and (rather more importantly) people with large sums of money who saw the potential to pay many of these theoreticians to serve their “practical” interests.

    Look at the three neoliberal points you mentioned. They are elements of propaganda, and all are totally divorced from anything remotely like theory. Neoliberal propaganda about “freedom” is designed to echo libertarian theory but the practice builds corporate prisons and police states. Propaganda about “property” echos vaguely Lockean/Jeffersonian theories conservatives have used where personal property serves as a bulwark against the encroaching state and socialism, but ask the folks who lost their homes to the foreclosure fraud designed to prop up the banks what this really means. Propaganda about “markets” echoes economism, but the practice has absolutely to do with mechanisms for maximizing the efficient allocation of resources.

    As Mirowski pointed out a long time ago neoliberalism could never have spontaneously emerged (thus it was always in conflict with theories of freedom and markets), all of the conditions had to have deliberately constructed. The basic concepts of freedom and markets had to be reengineered to yield the outcomes neoliberals wanted.

    What you (and many others) call “neoliberalism” I would call “a political movement to establish maximum power for capital accumulators”. There were lots of disorganized, inconsistent threads of conservative “theory” kicking around in the 70s. Plutocrat funding brought these into the orbit of various think tanks where political messaging that served the interests of capital accumulators was honed, and the rest was thrown out or converted into propaganda where few of the words or ideas retained their original meaning. I think all of this falls into the “practice” category. No one has articulated a public theory supporting massive wealth transfers from labor and productive business to capital accumulators. The Mcardles and Yglesias’ of the world are not political theorists with a quasi-religious conviction they have found the truth, they are minor functionaries in the capital accumulators’ propaganda bureau.

    For me the most interesting historical issue is how the “left” (broadly defined) totally missed the changes of the 70s and subsequent decades. As people who have seen my Naked Capitalism series on Uber know, I have spent my career in transportation, with first hand experience with the transport deregulation movement that later spawned financial deregulation. Transport deregulation was a fully cooperative bipartisan “liberal-conservative” effort. Conservatives had written rigorous, solidly empirically grounded analysis of how regulatory regimes put in place in the days of steam engines and DC-3 were no longer increasing economic welfare in a world with Interstate Highways and 747s. Liberals knew that New Deal programs designed to deal with the Depression needed major restructuring, and that many had been captured by very narrow interests.

    Like anything that comes out of Congress, transportation deregulation was imperfect, but in the shot/medium term it led to massive improvements in consumer welfare and industry efficiency. Everyone agreed on the basic necessity of government oversight, especially in areas like safety, consumer protection, labor law, antitrust and the like, but maybe regulatory staff shouldn’t micromanage short term pricing and capacity decisions.

    Fast forward several decades. “Deregulation” now means “eliminate any rules protecting consumers and workers that might possibly inconvenience capital accumulators” including protections against systemic financial risk. I think it is clear how conservatives of the 70s sold out to plutocrat interests and abandoned any concern for the greater public interest. But the “liberal” media and academic/professional elite remained totally oblivious to these massive political changes and continued to write articles and conduct studies thinking that data and reason would lead the world to better outcomes. Yes, some “left-neoliberals” went to work for Wall Street, but even people like Summers and Rubin were far from fully aligned with the capital accumulators thought collective, and many elite liberal professionals actually cared about things like inequality and social programs.

    I don’t think you can talk about the political ascendancy of the neoliberal capital accumulators without also explaining the complete political malfeasance and collapse of the liberal establishment. Financial industry money and the power of the capital accumulator propaganda machine explain some, but not all of this.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As Mirowski pointed out a long time ago neoliberalism could never have spontaneously emerged (thus it was always in conflict with theories of freedom and markets), all of the conditions had to have [been] deliberately constructed. The basic concepts of freedom and markets had to be reengineered to yield the outcomes neoliberals wanted.

    Yep.  One of the most stunning examples was post-Allende Chile, where deliberate construction required the point of the gun.

    Fast forward several decades. “Deregulation” now means “eliminate any rules protecting consumers and workers that might possibly inconvenience capital accumulators” including protections against systemic financial risk. I think it is clear how conservatives of the 70s sold out to plutocrat interests and abandoned any concern for the greater public interest.

    Double yep.  I would include those who were already sitting on considerable amounts of capital in the group you call “capital accumulators”, or just call them rentiers.  The abandonment of pursuing any public interest to me is key, which required vastly expanding the propaganda machine to disguise it.  Trump is a natural and logical consequence of that development.  He never met a working stiff he didn’t cheat, but he hides it well behind his the political imagery.

  5. GKJames says:

    (1) Nothing wrong with theory (however defined) per se, but if it doesn’t tangibly—and realistically—relate to something practical in people’s lives, doesn’t it remain just that? Nice to have, I suppose, and pull off the shelf every now and then for a rousing debate among cognoscenti, but I suspect it’s broader appeal would be limited.
    (2) Could it be that the “left” / “right” paradigm is long past its shelf life, assuming it ever had a usefulness beyond short-hand for (i) self-identification; and (ii) denigration of the other side? Each side has its internal contradictions, with “leftists” resenting one kind of state intrusion into people’s lives while advocating others, and “rightists” doing the same thing; it’s in the flavor of their hypocrisy that they differ. That said, using either label, intellectually flabby as it is, sure is a convenient, efficient way of classifying complicated issues in one’s own mind; it beats the hard work of thinking.
     (3) Whether what either side offers amounts to theories, or a set of principles or guidelines, I don’t know. But each side certainly has a solid record of ignoring real-world facts in order to shoe-horn reality into them, then blithely ignoring some very real and adverse consequences felt by quite non-theoretical people. The release (this goes back decades) of mental patients because of the abysmal conditions in the institutions in which they were housed took the “patients’ rights” to a point where they weren’t getting the help they needed while the surrounding communities were inundated with homeless mental health cases. On the other side, of course, we have the war on drugs and its one-note, tough-on-crime Johnnys, notwithstanding the evidence.
    (4) I’ve always found it impossible to separate advocacy of political theory from the sense that someone’s selling me something. They’re looking for adherents. And, as with much commerce, the sellers (talkers) and doers are usually not the same people. Practically, it means that talk is ALL that the talkers do. More specifically, it means that they’re less likely to come face-to-face with the grubby consequences (assuming, of course, that they’ve managed to get enough folks to buy in to suffer them). For me, the epitome of this is the chasm between the spit-shined suited types in Washington spouting geopolitical theory nonsense to gullible and/or ignorant elected representatives on Capitol Hill, and the blood-splattered, splintered bodies—theirs and ours—thousand of miles away. And we don’t do that just once or twice; it’s generation after generation that we have fervent advocates of some cockeyed theory running wild here at home. Curiously, they’re never in the same time zone as the shrapnel. Nor are they to be found when the PSTD cases show up here at home.
     (5) Maybe it all comes down to the basic duality in human nature, with “theory” merely a way of lending the exercise intellectual heft, and doing it in a way that tailors the theory to the two pre-existing versions of that nature. We all look at the world a certain way, reflecting our respective—and widely varying—biologies, environments, and experiences. Would you rather falsely convict a few in order to help the state get most of the guilty, or let a guilty one walk in order to preserve the liberties of the many against the state? Even if I myself never owned a slave, am I willing to have the community as a whole put its thumb slightly on the scales of justice to undo slavery’s (racism’s) pernicious effects? And is the regulation of markets an impermissible interference with my right to make as much money as I want however I want to do that? The articulation of organizing principles around questions like this seems a reasonable proposition, suggesting that the problem arises not so much with the construction (or even legitimacy) of the theory but the implementation. Doing the doing is hard, especially in a mess of a democracy with countless interests pulling in countless directions.
    (6) For what it’s worth, I lean “left,” but it’s not on account of some political theory. I do think, though, that as misguided and goofy as some “leftist” notions might be, motive and intent do count for something.  Acceptance of the idea of a social contract, of a collective, of a civilized justice (vs. the jungly kind), of the rule of law (vs. what you can get away with) and, yes, equality of opportunity are central features of that. How to get there is the debate to be had. On second thought, maybe that IS a theory. 

  6. MaDarby says:

    I would not want to imply that your efforts here are not of some value, however I would challenge any notion you might have that there continues to be a “left” in the established sense of what represents, the same, of course, is true for the “right.”  The center has collapsed or at least is now collapsing, there is nothing to be to the left or right of.

    We now find ourselves with a full fledged insurgency at the center of power – unknown to the president he is the result of a vague and undefined leaderless insurgency against  ALL institutions of Neoliberal power.  So, yes the country is polarized but not left/right it is your for the insurgency or you are for the Neoliberal status quo that’s the divide.

    The solutions necessary for what is coming with AI and quantum computing relationships are changing in ways only those who own the knowledge are likely to prosper.  Today 85% of all stock trading is done by bots, any price of a stock next Wednesday can be achieved by setting out a bot to execute all the trades in advance.  The markets are all private now.

    Right now knowledge is being privatized no more Einstein’s offering understanding to the world and all mankind, now those discoveries are being made privately and protected.

  7. herme says:

    Wow the word theory seems to be getting a bit of a beating around here! I am particularly confused by Horan’s overly sharp delineation of “theory” and “practice”. Don’t you need an idea about what will happen if you put something into practice? Is there a reason why you are putting something into practice? Might you even say you have a “theory” as to why you are doing something, and why you think doing it will work to achieve your goal?

    I think the “theory” pooh-pooh’ers doth protest too much. Perhaps the point is that calling something “theory” is overly intellectualizing the process that is politics (setting aside the specific history of “critical theory” that Walker outlined on the last post), but if that was the point I can’t see why the things itself should be any sort of bone of contention. So some people find it important to think things through more thoroughly (and generally the idea seems to be, including when talking about “critical theory” specifically, to avoid mistakes from the past). Does the fact that other people may not be interested in such thoroughness leave it without value?

  8. Ed Walker says:

    I think some of the problem surrounds the definition of theory, and it’s relation to political practice. Rather than respond to each of these thoughtful comments, here are some quotes from the book.

    <blockquote>One of the crucial questions raised in the ensuing analysis was the relation of theory to practice, or more precisely, to what became a familiar term in the Marxist lexicon, praxis. Loosely defined, praxis was used to designate a kind of self-creating action, which differed from the externally motivated behavior produced by forces outside man’s control. Although originally seen as the opposite of contemplative theoria when it was first used in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, praxis in the Marxist usage was seen in dialectical relation to theory. In fact, one of the earmarks of praxis as opposed to mere action was its being informed by theoretical considerations. The goal of revolutionary activity was understood as the unifying of theory and praxis, which would be in direct contrast to the situation prevailing under capitalism. P. 4.</blockquote>

    To understand theory, here is a quote explaining an idea that was part of the training of the members of the Frankfurt school.

    <blockquote>As Horkheimer would repeat over and over again during his career, rationality was at the root of any progressive social theory. What he meant by reason, however, was never easy to grasp for an audience unschooled in the traditions of classical German philosophy. Implicitly, Horkheimer referred more often than not to the idealists’ distinction between Verstand (understanding) and Vernunft (reason). By Verstand, Kant and Hegel had meant a lower faculty of the mind, which structured the phenomenal world according to common sense. To the understanding, the world consisted of finite entities identical only with themselves and totally opposed to all other things. It thus failed to penetrate immediacy to grasp the dialectical relations beneath the surface. Vernunft, on the other hand, signified a faculty that went beyond mere appearances to this deeper reality. P. 60. </blockquote>

    And here’s something from Security, Territory and Population by Michel Foucault:

    <blockquote>What socialism lacks is not so much a theory of the state as a governmental reason, the definition of what a governmental rationality would be in socialism. That is to say, a reasonable and calculable measure of the extent, modes, and objectives of governmental action. P. 91-2. </blockquote>

    As I see it, the role of theory is to seek below the surface to more general and hopefully more workable ways of understanding society, working from there to an understanding of what constitutes a good society, and then to constructing a governmental rationality of the form Foucault describes.

    At present, we are in fact governed by the neoliberal rationality, which is bankrupt. The economic theory of neoliberalism is based on Bentham’s Utilitarian theory in large part, and it isn’t working in an age of extraordinary wealth inequality. Neoliberalism has driven us into the destructive shape of capitalism we have in the US today. There isn’t a theory to replace it, and it’s not clear how to fight it without a replacement. That’s the project. I hope Critical Theory will offer tools to work on that project.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Neoliberalism is thoroughly destructive of the common good.  By design.  It rejects the entire notion.  To neoliberals and their patrons, there is only “my good”.

    To those not blessed with DuPont or Rockefeller or Bezos levels of wealth, “common good” is how we get along and raise ourselves and our children up.  It’s what gives us not just armies, but universities, first responders, bridges and roads, parks and land set aside for enjoyment rather than commercialization.

    The common good is not necessary for the handful of people that can pay cash for a hospital, a university, or a state and its government.  It is necessary for everyone else.  Neoliberalism, however, seeks to destroy the legitimacy of the common good – and those it benefits.  It is a competing center of power with which it might have to compromise.  The common good is so threatening as an idea and an aspiration that neoliberalism feels compelled to destroy its cultural existence.

    Ed’s right.  We need a framework to sustain the fight for the common good.  That requires a set of ideas that ground, direct and sustain action for generations.   Failing Apple levels of ready cash ($250 billion, offshore, at last count), we need the support of lots of people moving in the same direction.  That needs constant nurturing to achieve and sustain.  It’s what neoliberals have themselves done and the thing they would most like to keep their opponents from having.

  10. Hubert Horan says:

    Again, one of my concerns is your claim that neoliberalism is grounded in some kind of theory that could be defined, articulated and explained in rational terms, even if historical events demonstrated that the theory didn’t work very well in the real world. I disagree. Post 1980 neoliberalism is not something derived logically from utilitarianism or anything else with a logical structure. The fact that some neoliberals make arguments using words and slogans that evoke utilitarianism (or libertarianism, or economism, or any other -ism) does not make it a “theory”. It is a political movement strictly focused on maximizing the political power of its advocates. The public claims made on its behalf are part of a comprehensive propaganda program that (very effectively) supports the political movement. As with any propaganda program the words you hear are designed to obscure the real meaning and motivations of its advocates.

    I’m sure if you parse the writings of early Mont Pelerin members from the 60s and 70s you would have found cases that fit this definition of “theory” but each case would have been highly inconsistent with the others. There is no basis for claiming that 21st Century neoliberal “theory” fits this definition and directly evolved from Mont Pelerin era theory, any more that you can claim that public pronouncements out of the 1980s USSR constituted a logical theory that directly evolved from Marx’s writings.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I think neoliberalism is incoherent and silly, but that doesn’t make it any less of a theory on which the Republicans claim to govern, and which is a strong motivating force in the Democratic party especially among its elite politicians and donors.

      I should have mentioned in addition to the four points on which they generally agree, that they have a theory of human beings: that they are utility-maximizing creatures, and a theory of society as a dog-eat-dog fight for survival. The former comes from Bentham, the latter from Hobbes, I suppose, or maybe Malthus.

      These views, coupled with their belief in absolute truth, and perhaps some others, are maddening and stupid. They are also dominant among their voters in both parties. For a detailed discussion, see Coming Up Short by Jennifer Silva.


  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Neoliberalism may have inconsistent or changing rationales for its objectives.  It has sustained, large scale backing for ideas and programs that benefit an excruciatingly narrow elite, while they damage the vast majority of people in America, Britain and around the world.  Another discipline would call it a social pathology, a parasite so effective it threatens the existence of its host.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    This excerpt from Herman and Chomsky’s 1988 classic, Manufacturing Consent, might help make clear the importance of Ed’s point. That is, that the left requires a theory to unify itself, to guide its political action, to distinguish itself from its opponents, who have a marvelous, persistent, and superbly funded propaganda machine. In many respects, it illustrates how little has changed over the years on the political and social battlefield.

    The excerpt also highlights the importance of media such as EW, which fosters an “alternative value system and framework for looking at the world.” That’s essential in a world in which a president attempts to dominate the culture through privileged 140-character inanities, and whose supporters seek to dominate by acting in secret (healthcare legislation) and seem prepared to use any manner of lies in order to do so (climate change denial, Russia, tax policies).

    From Herman and Chomsky:

    “In their analysis of the evolution of the media in Great Britain, James Curran and Jean Seaton describe how, in the first half of the nineteenth century, a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world, and because it “promoted a greater collective confidence by repeatedly emphasizing the potential power of working people to effect social change through the force of ‘combination’ and organized action.” This was deemed a major threat by the ruling elites. One MP asserted that the workingclass newspapers “inflame passions and awaken their selfishness, contrasting their current condition with what they contend to be their future condition-a condition incompatible with human nature, and those immutable laws which Providence has established for the regulation of civil society.” The result was an attempt to squelch the working-class media by libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs. These coercive efforts were not effective, and by mid-century they had been abandoned in favor of the liberal view that the market would enforce responsibility.”

  13. Rayne says:

    IMO, theory should be to politics what it is to science — a place from which we begin to observe and test ideas. The problem with politics is that it treats theory as unchanging bedrock (like a ideological faith as Horan suggests above) instead of a point of beginning. Theory is sticky, taking on a nearly immortal life though it may look more like a rotting zombie than a desirable truth.

    Take the theory of “trickle-down economics.” Conservatives and neoliberals clung to its corpse since the 1980s as supply-side economics even though one of its key proponents has since acknowledged it’s DOA.

    At some point this theory should have been observed and measured and the results of its practice examined in order to refine or reject the theory and work from a new and different tack. But unlike science and the scientific method, this doesn’t happen. The people are guinea pigs stuck in an unending death march, treading the mill ad nauseum, expecting different results as politicos continue to bang on the same dead theory. This is the very definition of insanity.

    We need theory, but needed equally is a different approach to its application. We must collaboratively define failure, mutually acknowledge when we see it, and use failure as a sign it is time to rejigger theory and begin again. Rid ourselves of the walking dead of political theory.

Comments are closed.