Liberalism without the left

Lately – and probably in no small part due to the US presidential race – I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the robustness of liberalism as a political ideology depends on the forces pressuring it from the left.

Today, when pressed on questions of economic justice, many liberals respond with tired market dogma, redbait, or simply wilt. Some try and conflate a caricatured “political correctness” with “cultural Marxism”, as if class politics are just an organic extension of the cultural politics found today on many campuses (or vise versa).

In the 1960s liberalism was deeply engaged with questions of economic and distributive justice. The patron saint of liberal political theory, John Rawls, wrote a hugely influential book on the subject which even conceded some ground to socialist theories of public ownership (revealingly, Rawls’ second major book – published more than two decades later – virtually abandoned economic issues and instead attempted to reconcile liberal and communitarian identity politics).

The political and economic backdrop for Rawls’ thinking was very different from what exists today: the US (and most liberal democracies) still had relatively powerful labour movements; the civil rights and antiwar movements loomed large; New Deal welfarism had yet to collapse; Keynesianism was still the economic orthodoxy du jour; a good portion of the world was officially committed to communism and Western socialist parties were still present as both a political and ideological force.


The British general strike, 1926

By the 1990s liberals no longer had to engage with communism, socialism, or social democracy out of necessity and responded to the right instead. The resulting political settlement combined the neoliberal economic theories ascendent since the 1970s with a cultural politics that broke with conservatives in some respects around issues of pluralism and identity, while globalization and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth continued apace. The social bases and institutional structures that had sustained and empowered the left for generations, so brutally and effectively assaulted by the right throughout the 1980s, withered.

In other words, liberalism seems to be at its most robust when it’s been forced to grapple with a strong and mobilized left for an extended period of time: In the absence of one, it sets itself in opposition to the right (a much easier and more comfortable task); when suddenly confronted with one (as it’s starting to be now), it is unprepared and retreats into tired old truisms and cliches.


Nothing left

Thanks to the emerging debate (if you can call it that) among the American liberal punditry prompted by the Bernie Sanders surge, I’m reminded of this evergreen passage of Adolph Reed’s from his Harper’s cover story “Nothing Left” (written in 2014):

If the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive” — and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former — now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.

Watching the liberal commentariat (and the Clinton campaign) spin tales about how Sanders’ plans are “unrealistic” – while all the while claiming to fidelity to the ideals they represent – is like witnessing a re-run of the “third way” politics that dominated the 1990s and early 2000s.


Politicians like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton didn’t oppose their own bases outright, because that would have been too obvious. Instead they claimed, in increasingly absurd terms, to be broadly supportive of social democratic goals while all the while chipping away at their institutional and ideological foundations. This was very often done on electoral grounds: i.e. “We have to triangulate to win, and winning is the only way to preserve the things we care about…”.

The result was predictable.

The “Overton Window” – which describes the frame inside which political debate is permitted to play out in mainstream discourse – shifted ever further to the right.

The Clinton camp’s latest line of attack is that pursuing a new healthcare goal- as Sanders wants to do – will be “divisive” and put the Affordable Care Act at risk because the Republicans will resist. The implication is that, even at an early stage in the primary season, the DNC and its base should dilute their aspirations to more or less whatever the right will permit in some unknowable political future. (It’s an especially ironic position, since defenders of the ACA’s inadequacies often claimed it would be a stepping stone to true universality, but I digress…)

If your actual goal is to make life qualitatively better for people – even gradually – conceding your opponents’ arguments before the fight has even begun is not a constructive position: it’s downright reactionary.