The essay below is in the March Playboy Forum. I’ve received their permission to post so that it could be linked to. So link away if it strikes you.
After a national electoral beat-down like the one Democrats suffered in 2010, there is always hand-wringing over the “future of liberalism.” The anxiety behind such hand-wringing is, obviously, the possibility that liberalism might not have a future, that this time conservatives have really done it, they’ve succeeded in returning us to those days when the Titans of Industry roamed the earth and workers sank beneath their heels.
Unfortunately, the liberal response to this anxiety is never much more than: Compromise the hell out of what you claimed were your values, hope the Republican dummies over-reach, and try to win the next election. What’s pathetic about this response is that no one seems to feel the need for self-analysis. “What are we, exactly?” someone ought to ask. “Are we something that deserves a future?” I propose to help liberalism understand itself even if self-understanding turns out to be something it wishes it didn’t have.
First, liberalism is not about Rachel Maddow or Michael Moore. It is not the expression of sympathy for ordinary folk and disdain for the rich coming from a certain kind of person, a “liberal.” Nor is liberalism the creation of a vast popular movement rooted in the labor struggles from the 1880s to the1930s. Working people did not create liberalism even though the labor reform legislation coming out of President Roosevelt’s New Deal greatly benefited them by protecting the right to collective bargaining and providing national standards for wages and the length of the workweek (all accomplished through the National Industrial Recovery Act).
The peculiar fact is that the creation of liberal social policy between 1933 and 1975 was the work of oligarchs: a small class of people of unwholesome and vastly disproportionate wealth (the notorious “1%”). F. D. R. and the majority of people who helped him to shape the New Deal were a “liberal coalition” within the oligarchy.
This coalition did not create the liberal state out of kind feelings. They constructed the New Deal because they didn’t have a choice. What the oligarchy was slowly forced to acknowledge between 1880 and 1930—forced not by the powerful opposition of “the people” but by a stark reality of their own making—was that their proud creation, capitalism, had magnificently failed. Beginning with the Great Depression of 1873 (which lasted nearly 25 years!) and culminating with the stock market crash of 1929, free market capitalism died. It dug itself a deep hole and threw itself in.
The failure of capitalism was a problem for oligarchs because they still depended on financial markets, property, and the exploitation of labor for the continued maintenance of their wealth, privilege, and social authority. Unfortunately, left to itself capitalism (or “the business community,” as we are now instructed to say) had no idea what to do to restore markets and how to resist all those frightening workers with their awful slogans, like “Kickin’ Ass for the Working Class.” So, the architects of the New Deal had no choice except to create a new economic system more or less from scratch.
The implementation of this system saved large portions of capitalist property, production, finance, and authority, but at the same time it forced capitalism to do something it abhorred: cooperate with a much more intrusive federal government, and with massive, federally protected unions. (The 2009 bailout of the auto industry, accomplished with the full participation of corporate boards, the federal government, and the UAW, was only the most recent example of the strategic planning that has defined our economy since the 1930s.)
From that point forward, we no longer had a capitalist economy, we had a planning economy. The important decisions were no longer made by the owners of industry but by a vast system of bureaucracies in boardrooms, government offices, and union halls. Capitalism became the Management State, and conservatives have never gotten over it. Seventy-five years later, they are still mad as hell.
In the end, what the liberal state sought to manage was something very human. Despair. In the 1930s, the most pressing form of despair was that of abused workers, of the unemployed, and of the poor. The growth of organizations representing these people—especially the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—was threatening to blow the lid off the country. In response, the New Deal created laws (especially the Wagner Act) that protected the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. No more lynching union organizers, and no more massacres of workers (like Rockefeller’s infamous Ludlow Mine Massacre of 1914) by company goon squads.
But this freedom to organize came with plenty of government oversight. So, there was a payoff for the oligarchy as well: they could stop worrying about the Wobblies, the commies, and the threat of broad social unrest. Conservative oligarchs no longer needed to sully their images by using violence; the government was now responsible for managing worker grievances.
The second despair that liberalism has managed for the last three-quarters of a century is the despair of the oligarchy itself when it is punished by the natural destructiveness and instability of laissez-faire capitalism. The oligarchy needs liberal managing because the natural logic of the capitalist is this: “There may be depressions, people may suffer, the corpses may pile high, but I bet that in spite of all this I will profit. In fact, I look forward to the challenge. My survival will be the mark of my superiority, and will justify my privileges. So, let there be blood in the street!”
The primary liberal tool for managing this despair is market regulation. Consider the earnest attention given to banking regulation after the collapse of the financial system in 2008. Was it a concern for the unemployed, the bankrupt, and the foreclosed upon that pushed this reform? No. It was the self-interest of the powerful after witnessing yet another multi-billion dollar bonfire fueled with their wealth. Think about the fear stockbrokers feel when they imagine that the simian economics of the Tea Party might actually run the place. “They want to what? De-fund the Fed? Sell! For God’s sake sell!”
The one despair liberalism has no intention of addressing is the despair created by the nature of work itself. Just like its conservative counterpart, liberalism speaks only in the most opaque terms of jobs. From President Obama to Sarah Palin, they all say, “We must create jobs for working people.” But what do they mean by jobs? Most work in the United States is an expression of contempt for the people who must perform it. Most work is humiliating, stripped of worthy skills, destructive, and tedious. Even the most sought after jobs are places of real human misery: boredom. (As Peter put it in the movie Office Space, “Every day is the worst day of my life.”)
The despair of work, because it is a despair that all oligarchs depend on, is never seriously addressed by liberalism. Even for unions, it’s off the table. If it weren’t, they’d never have gotten a seat at the table in the first place. Instead, we hear: “You’re lucky to have a job.” In the meantime, what Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, called the “dogma of work” makes its way, physically and spiritually impoverishing those who kneel before it.
This is liberalism’s genealogy. But even this pallid thing is too much for those who fondly remember the blood-flung-at-the-wall mayhem of the good old days. For conservatives, the ignominious, whining life that capitalism endures when it is run by liberal management is a shameful thing. Conservative oligarchs and their minions reserve for themselves the right to triumph or catastrophe, taking everyone else with them if that’s the way it works out. They will be all conquering, or they will be nothing at all.
The savvy market player would be wise to hedge that bet.