Between liberalism and Leftism Part 2: Marginilia Interview with Jamie McAfee

This interview was spurned by a series of internet debates, some of which involved Ben at MARMALADE  and some involved Jamie as well as other disillusioned Democrats and left-liberals. This interview took place during the days just after the Oakland General Strike and the Greek back and forth on the referendum as this background context is necessary as some of the comments seem dated already only a few days later. 

Skepoet: You and I are both on the left.  You on the liberal left, and I am the left Marxian tradition.  Now to cut by ideological jargon, this means that I have Marxist sympathies that fundamentally distrust state power of any sort. I am distrustful of representative Democracy and tend to favor worker control of the means of production ideally.   I, however, realize that I do not live in that world so I work with liberal and left groups.    You are well-versed in the discourse communities, so to speak, and cultural tradition of the radical left, but you consider yourself a non-partisan left-liberal?  What do you see as the fundamental differences between the radical left and the left liberalism?

Jamie McAfee: I’d stress first that I’m talking here about left liberals. Not anybody in the mushy, not very cohesive (or effective) coalition that you might call “American liberalism.” There are plenty of people in that coalition who are in it because they are decent, not particularly politically minded people who are concerned enough to be for things like tolerance, environmentalism, and secularism and against the radicalism of the right. Just as, I would guess, a lot of people who vote for the GOP and identify as conservatives are decent people for whom a discourse of traditionalism and self-reliance makes sense.

I started with that because think it’s really important to distinguish between left liberals, who tend to have somewhat coherent, or a least reflexively complex (I’m not sure my own politics are coherent, but I’m not sure the world is either), politics and who have politics that are deeper than just worrying over civility (although we do that too) from people who identify with the left out of what is really identity stuff. I might be no-true-scottmanning a little, but I don’t think so. People have lives to lead, and politics is distasteful. I take it for granted that most people will always affiliate themselves for tribal reasons. There are a lot people of my generation in the South who were driven to the Democratic Party by the religious right.

So what distinguishes actual left leaning liberals from radical leftists? I think, based on my experience of being a left liberal who’s fumbled around with Marxian texts, at times almost ended up identifying as a radical, only to land on “cultural studies,” and based on my experience talking to and reading people who landed on the radical side of the line, that there are two big differences.

1. “I realize I do not live in that world and so I work with liberal and left groups” is where an important hinge is. From what I can tell, radical leftists think it’s important to maintain that sense of distance from the system (both in terms of political hegemonies and in the sense of actual institutions that have power) whereas left liberals don’t. When I say “that sense of distance,” I mean in terms of discourse, in terms of the kinds of targets for criticism we choose, and in terms of how we describe the chessboard of political actors.

I don’t really trust representative democracy or the capitalist state to work as I’d want them to, but I don’t see a feasible alternative, and so I don’t see the point of using that distrust as a starting point. I’m even less inclined to do so since those same positions are shared by libertarian parts of the right. I know the difference between what you mean when you describe your distrust (something like “capitalist interests and hegemony corrupt democracy”) and the reactionary fantasy that enable the right to take apart the safety net. Yeah, I know, “safety net” just protects capitalism. Remember, we’re skeptical. Perhaps temperamentally conservative. But that’s temperament, not ideas. But in the climate we’re in, where those fantasies about the evils of the state have a lot of sway, I’m not sure I can viscerally get with the radial left version of that, even though I understand it’s different.

. . . which leads us directly to the second answer. . .

2. We are more acutely concerned with the damage that the right has done and wishes to do still. I don’t mean we are MORE concerned, but that we are more specifically concerned. In practice, that’s meant that we’ve been playing defense mostly, even against people on “our” party. I’m not sure it’s a great strategy, but I’m not sure that abandoning it is a great idea either.

One last thought: one aspect of left liberalism that shouldn’t be forgotten is that it does tend to be critical of the people it elected. We are different from the right in not mistaking engagement for partisanship.

Skepoet: I was wondering about that since most leftists see left liberals as apologists. Do you see this problem as being rooted in the fact the radical leftists are disapproved by the nearly constant concessions to the right?

Jamie McAfee: I would guess the concessions to the right stuff is why the radical left uses “liberal” a pejorative. Were there a unified, effective popular left wing liberals would have a better case to make for the political process. Remember though, that left liberals don’t like it either. We see the solution, though, through some kind of political realignment that would change the priorities of government. We aren’t necessarily optimistic about a saner hegemony emerging, but we don’t see a real alternative to fighting on those grounds.

I see what I’m doing by saying we accept a certain kind of hegemony, by the way. That’s probably anathema from a radical perspective. The liberal perspective is, though, I think anyways, that there’s always going to be class struggle, always exploitation, always inequality, etc., and always ideology to incorporate those injustices into some justification. I think liberals are too often accused of naivety by radical leftists because we keep coming back to a process that lets us down. Pessimism, I think, is a better description. What we want is a state to provide recourse for injustice and to mitigate the damage capitalism can do with rules, some redistribution, and a safety net.

Skepoet:  I often the operating principles aren’t actually the same. For example, my ideal world is not to maintain meager gains made by prior that were supposed to be progressively increased. This seems hard to maintain in ALL the Western countries. Do you see this as a legitimate criticism?

Jamie McAfee:I ‘m not sure anybody thinks that’s ideal. It’s more of a response to the political pressures from the right, the increased skill with which capitalism atomizes and disenfranchises, and the holes in the system that have emerged from the economy changing. For example, the liberal take on health care reform is, honestly (I supported it and haven’t given up on it), weak tea. But it’s a defensive posture against a particular reality. For all that Obamacare didn’t do, it made some of the worst practices of the insurance industry illegal. Or that’s what’s supposed to happen. We’ll see. That’s unsatisfying, of course.

It’s a very legitimate criticism of the partisan aspects of the political process, as my Obamacare example probably illustrates. I voted for Obama, and probably will again if there isn’t a good third party option. What left liberals want is a lot more than what the process is giving us right now. What to do about that we don’t know.

I would, by the way, much rather there be a political landscape where technocratic state capitalism had to compromise with a mobilized leftist working class than the present reality, which is crony capitalism justified by a robust ideological project against a disorganized liberalism. I really do want a powerful, organized radical left. One problem we’ve got though is I don’t think we really know what the radical left’s got to say beyond criticism. We’re unhappy about this stuff too, but we’re still trying to worry about governance. That’s certainly unfair, but that perception is a problem for the radical left. It’s a problem for the left liberal who thinks we need a radical left also.

Skepoet: I have a sincere question: If the left-liberals do this why do think the radical left should work with them? I’ll go back to the Obamacare example, while it did make some of the worse practices of the insurance companies illegal, it actually is likely to REDUCE the ability of the poor to get healthcare.  That is definitely the result of the Massachusetts plan which Obamacare is primarily based.  That’s not weak tea: that’s a mislabeling.

Jamie McAfee First of all, I don’t think mean to say that radicals should necessarily want to engage liberals, except in the case of specific causes or protests when you might be able to use us to get something you want. I think what radicalisms (even right wing ones) are good at is pointing out how the system itself benefits those with privilege. Liberals ought to listen to those critiques and be responsive. What I think left radicals should do better though, is to distinguish themselves from other people who make similar complaints about state capitalism and to talk more about policy and process stuff. More emphatically left and less emphatically radical.

As for the specifics of healthcare reform, I think that’s a good example of how policy issues are complex, confusing, and filled with unintended consequences. I’m not sure an unintended consequence (if that bad news pans out) is the same thing as a mislabeling. One problem with reforming the system is that piecemeal changes produce can produce bad outcomes. That’s a critique often made by libertarians which is a good critique. The liberal response, I’d guess, would some sort of Band-Aids to fix those new problems. One hand, that’s lame, and it doesn’t address the underlying structural issues, on the other hand, increasingly complex technological networks require maintenance, and that maintenance is going to be done by some combination of profit seekers and government, and it seems like liberals are making effort toward vigilance. If you make a policy, there will be bad as well as good consequences. Then you have to deal with those. The sort of management/technocrat perspective I’m talking about is, I think, a pretty liberal point of view.

That’s not to say that left liberals are happy with the compromise that came out of the process. I want a government single payer system, as do most of us. The compromise that was reached was with the for profit health care industry. I’m not sure that they were legitimate stakeholders.

Again, none of this is anybody’s ideal. It’s what liberals think is the reality we have to respond to.

On the other hand, if left radicals make it their policy to ignore the political process; I’m not sure how they can expect anything but the worst. Again, I’d love to see a powerful left wing movement. I’m not sure what it would look like or where it would come from, which is why I’m not signed on to it. Some of the currents I see are distasteful. Some of the American anarchists milling about in some of the online left wing groups I pay attention to seem pretty juvenile. If left radicalism isn’t defined enough to exclude that, I’m not sure what kind of direction a left radical movement would go. That may be a perception problem more than a reality, but it’s a reason I don’t feel particularly inclined towards radicalism. I don’t quite even know what it is these days beyond critique.

I’m not really critiquing, just sharing my own feelings, by the way. I’m sure that’s unfair, although I can’t really nail down why.

Skepoet: I am going to ask you a serious question if everyone engaged the legitimate political process as sanctioned by the existing state, would there even be a United States?
Jamie McAfee: I don’t follow. You if literally everyone engaged, would the U.S. disintegrate or radically change or something? Or do you mean something else. I don’t follow.
Skepoet: Furthermore I am going to press you on something:  The results of the Massachusetts were public knowledge by 2009 and they were supposedly studied by the Obama team.   It is clear the results were known if they were being honest about that. There are some differences, but they are not necessarily serious enough to truly neither be cost cutting nor insure low income people actually get care.

Jamie McAfee: I think the idea, at least as it was sold to me, was to get a foot in the door and to work on cost cutting and expanding insurance using the new system, which was the best that was politically possible, as a base. Is it going to work? I don’t know. Certainly not without pressure from the left to keep working on the problem. It was to be the start of a process rather than a finished product. It certainly doesn’t address some of the most serious problems with the health care system.

Skepoet: How are some juvenile activists different from liberals on forums saying things like “Obama cares about ALL Americans, Republicans do not and leftist complainers do not.”  That seems like a failure of focus and a form of interacting with people you find distasteful and then tarnishing about movement because of it.
Jamie McAfee It’s certainly no less juvenile. That’s tribalism for you. There is a difference, though, in you are comparing the fuzzy tribalism and defensiveness of mass politics to the desire to hash out ideas in close quarters with fringe actors you don’t like and have little in common with. On one hand, you have the routine idiocies of partisanship. As asinine as that can be, it’s the way the world is. If I’m going to abandon the realistic/pessimistic choice to participate in a process with those guys in favor of an outsider movement, I’m really going to be able to have to be able to identify with it.

The other problem is the word “movement,” which does not seem to describe, for me anyway, a collective of people united by their dislike of state capitalism. Where you moving to? I don’t know. If there’s a movement afoot it hasn’t been very well defined. I’m not an insider to the radical community, but I think I’m exposed to it enough that I should at least be able to understand what it wants exactly, but I don’t.

Skepoet: I am also going to challenge you on this: “The sort of management/technocrat perspective I’m talking about is, I think, a pretty liberal point of view.”  I find this interesting because there are far left economists (Richard Wolff, Andrew Kliman, tons of the World Social Forum) working on these issues. In fact, technocratic movements tended to reject so wonkism in its day too.   Of course, the people in power have plans for how to manage the situation.   They are in power. The activists on any side generally don’t.

From my vantage point, there has been a discussion by radicals on serious issues of management. There is an entire field of Marxian economic and sociology as well as anarchist sociology and anthropology devoted to it.  We can’t get people to even hear those guys out until the people on the street get enough of a percentage listening to hear that. But it’s out there; blogs like Naked Capitalism are devoted to it as are the Marxist Humanist Institute for Marxists and Zcommunication for anarchists.   Most liberals, left or otherwise, don’t know these things even exist. In fact, I’d suspect many radicals don’t either.  Part of the problem is, I suspect, that the more “serious” radical thinkers have been hiding from first Red baiting then the culture war in Academia.
Jamie McAfee I think you are right about the situation. I’m dimly aware that there are Marxist policy wonks out there. The radicalism I see looks like protest without remainder though. I think you probably have a point about red baiting, but I think the immaturity of some of the activist community is at fault as well, at least for the left leftist community. I want me some wonkiness and some, well, coherence is unfair perhaps, but some idea of where the radical activists would take us and how their ideas differ from what left liberals have got. (This isn’t what we get, mind you. Don’t confuse what left liberals want with what the Democratic Party delivers.)

Skepoet: I am going to ask another pointed question, but I hope for your response on the above as well:  Do you think left-liberals and left radicals actually share values?  I am unsure. In a recent debate with a “progressive libertarian” friend who said my belief that values were fundamentally different was “communist inspired” which I thought was odd since I take values pluralism to be part of a frame inherited from Isaiah Berlin, arch-liberal.   I content that the values are actually fundamentally different which is why many of us see so much of left-liberal activism as both naive about power and too conservative–and I mean this in conserving moderate gain sense.
Jamie McAfee: Good question that I don’t have a good answer to. I think we do, but we are probably not in complete alignment. I think the bigger difference is a worldview thing rather than a value thing. I think both sides of the divide think the other side is naive about power. (Not me about you, by the way.)

What would you say radical values are? Left liberal values would be the belief that the economy should offer everyone a decent standard of living, a belief in change should happen through a political process, the belief that we have the responsibility to maintain a state that protects individual rights, and a strident belief in secularism.

Right now we aren’t getting those things, but angry liberals aren’t necessarily going to become less liberals.

Skepoet: I also want to ask you what to you think of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine?

Jamie McAfee I have mixed feelings about it. It’s been a while since I’ve dealt with it, but I thought about it for some reason recently. I think it’s a bit conspiratorial. I want to like it more than I do, actually, but I’m skeptical about the far reaching claims, particularly since I’ve read persuasive drubbings of some of her specific cases she makes. I don’t know the history of much of it to make much of an independent judgment but the thesis seems a bit like confusing an interesting metaphor with a robust political theory.

I think a ramped down version of the argument- that as of late, crises tend to resolve themselves in ways that bring the world into alignment with the interests of global capitalism and of the wealthy rather than the interests of the people as a whole, is sound. We’ve got a mild version of it in discussions about the federal deficit in this country. We have a looming crisis (or at least the perception of one), and the bulk of political will is for shifting responsibility from the wealthy to the working class. Or look at anything referred to as “austerity measures.” That tendency, well, it might be something of a rule, which the privileged are first in line during times when others are most acutely suffering is fucked up, and that’s a serious topic.

I thought the part about Iraq was ludicrous. I was very much against the invasion, very angry at the abusive private contracting, and very skeptical of the whole strategy and the interests who influenced it. That doesn’t make her version any more helpful. (I don’t remember it that well, but that was my response. I’m not prepared to offer much in the way of what I objected to at present.)

Skepoet: I just bring up Klein because that Shock Doctrine, while written by a left liberal more or less, was really damning of the Liberal Establishment in Eastern Europe and in Latin America as well as during the Clinton years.  That does seem like bad faith to me.   So how do you work with that system exactly?

Jamie McAfee: Beats the shit out of me. Change is hard. That’s not meant to be a cop out. I really don’t see a way to untangle foreign policy or fiscal arguments from corporate interests. Or at least, I don’t see a clear path. I don’t necessarily disagree with radicals about the liberal establishment, and I suspect that other left liberals agree. My own left liberalism comes from a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities for radical change, not out of any great love for they world we live in now. I’m almost tempted to go off on a rant about original sin or something.

I would say though that a belief in liberalism is not support for the liberal establishment. You might say it’s an inability to imagine a different way of doing business. Is that bad faith? I don’t know.

I think my pessimistic left liberalism is a lot like some people’s conservatism, actually, and I think I’m maybe more upfront about it than others. I feel in some ways stuck with politics. I’m not going to wax eloquent about it. I’m on a spectrum though. Left liberal journalists tend to be pissed off a lot.

Skepoet:  But the very process with created America was rupture. A successful one arguably.  Do you see the dilemma in that?

Jamie McAfee: There was some rupture, but a lot more continuity, at least in the short term, it seems like. The American “Revolution” was a misnomer, I think. It was revolt founded on political beliefs that really weren’t meant to apply to everybody. Over time people fault to expand the significance of the revolt (and responded to economic exigencies) until it turned into something more significant than that, but it was rooted in what already was. (My knowledge of it is thin. Not compared to the average person, perhaps, but it’s not a special interest.)

To some extent, that “response to agencies” vision is perhaps how I see people acting in history. Agitate and organize and build, but ultimately I’m skeptical about how much power we have outside of specific opportunities.

Let me just go one record as saying I’d love some radical change, I try to be supportive of and receptive to people who work to figure out what it might look like, and I have the deepest respect for dissidents who are conscientious and honest. For me though, the best they are going to accomplish is to redirect and reinforce liberalism. I’m not at all against people working outside of the liberal paradigm, and to the extent that they manage to accomplish things through alternative means and grassroots networking, great. Left liberalism doesn’t say that radicalism shouldn’t exist alongside or that it doesn’t have contributions to make. It just thinks that giving up on the political process is a mistake.

Skepoet: You seem to think there is more continuity than it appears. I remember you mentioning this in a discussion about Latour?

Jamie McAfee:  Yeah, I’m probably overstating the case, but “revolt” I think is a better description than revolution. That was historically during a period of major intellectual upheaval and just before major economic upheaval. Again, not my specialty, but I do have a hard time drawing a parallel between the turmoil of a colony breaking away and an internal, class struggle-oriented upheaval.

Latour’s shtick that I was talking about is to criticize the idea that there was a modern “break,” or at least, to argue that it was a social change or a pretense rather than a meaningful intellectual change. Modernism, for Latour, is defined by a separation of the social, the discursive, and the physical. So biologists have to look at facts; the moral order that fact might imply doesn’t count. This, of course, is all wrapped up in Cartesian dualism and it creates massive problems for philosophers. It also permits massive expansion of technological cultures. Latour essentially says that we have to understand the Modern world anthropologically, so that the practices of science and technology (which he blends together) are understood as social practices and as nodes on networks that incorporate text.

This is relevant for talking about capitalism because if we understand capitalism as a technology, defined by immediate pragmatism and framed with deliberative rhetoric, we can perhaps more easily talk about it’s expansion. We can talk about American expansion or colonization (internal or overseas) the same way. Sort of a “Guns, Germs, Steel” approach to the problem. Capitalism pretends to be value free and it functions like a technological network. Latour talks about “quasi objects” that ontologically are  nature/matter, textual productions, and cultural artifacts. A corporation seems like a good one to think about.

I’m stretching Latour a bit to use him this way, but it makes sense to me, and that notion of Modernism as a epistemological phantom that allowed us to do do magic tricks so we could expand networks of technology is a lot better than a model of historical rupture. One reason I am a cultural studies Marxist dude and not a revolutionary Marxist dude is the teleological stuff in Marxism. I don’t know enough about contemporary revolutionary Marxists to know how they deal with that stuff, but Marx certainly has a strongly narrative sense of history. That doesn’t make sense to me. Consider also that as somebody with more than a little postmodern bent, the kind of narrative approach you’d have to adopt to talk about ruptures doesn’t make sense to me. Latour claims to hate postmodernism because it’s a decayed late Modernism that’s become narcissistic. I think he’s teasing a bit though.

Now I’m all off on my own tangent, so I’ll stop and leave it messy.

Skepoet: What do you think that implies for radicals and left-liberals then?

Jamie McAfee: Yeah, I’m probably overstating the case, but “revolt” I think is a better description than revolution. That was historically during a period of major intellectual upheaval and just before major economic upheaval. Again, not my specialty, but I do have a hard time drawing a parallel between the turmoil of a colony breaking away and an internal, class struggle-oriented upheaval.

Latour’s shtick that I was talking about is to criticize the idea that there was a modern “break,” or at least, to argue that it was a social change or a pretense rather than a meaningful intellectual change. Modernism, for Latour, is defined by a separation of the social, the discursive, and the physical. So biologists have to look at facts; the moral order that fact might imply doesn’t count. This, of course, is all wrapped up in Cartesian dualism and it creates massive problems for philosophers. It also permits massive expansion of technological cultures. Latour essentially says that we have to understand the Modern world anthropologically, so that the practices of science and technology (which he blends together) are understood as social practices and as nodes on networks that incorporate text.

This is relevant for talking about capitalism because if we understand capitalism as a technology, defined by immediate pragmatism and framed with deliberative rhetoric, we can perhaps more easily talk about it’s expansion. We can talk about American expansion or colonization (internal or overseas) the same way. Sort of a Guns, Germs, Steel approach to the problem. Capitalism pretends to be value free and it functions like a technological network. Latour talks about “quasi objects” that ontologically are  nature/matter, textual productions, and cultural artifacts. A corporation seems like a good one to think about.

I’m stretching Latour a bit to use him this way, but it makes sense to me, and that notion of Modernism as a epistemological phantom that allowed us to do magic tricks so we could expand networks of technology is a lot better than a model of historical rupture. One reason I am a cultural studies Marxist dude and not a revolutionary Marxist dude is the teleological stuff in Marxism. I don’t know enough about contemporary revolutionary Marxists to know how they deal with that  stuff, but Marx certainly has a strongly narrative sense of history. That doesn’t make sense to me. Consider also that as somebody with more than a little postmodern bent, the kind of narrative approach you’d have to adopt to talk about ruptures doesn’t make sense to me. Latour claims to hate postmodernism because it’s a decayed late Modernism that’s become narcissistic. I think he’s teasing a bit though.

Now I’m all off on my own tangent, so I’ll stop and leave it messy.

Skepoet: What do you think that implies for radicals and left-liberals then?

Jamie McAfee: My messy Latour brainstorm?

I think it implies that we need to be a lot more careful about thinking about managerial structures and other technologies when we talk about ideology. In some ways that’s a traditional “left” idea- that context and structure is what we have to think about to understand behavior, but I think Latour might lead to some re-framing of how we should discuss those things. There are philosophers (or theorists or whatever you want to call them), who’ve moved in that direction, but I don’t see the people or journalists in the radical or liberal communities who think that way. I don’t think Donna Harraway, for example, is widely read by people who aren’t particularly concerned with feminist theory or techno-science theory.  I wonder if she might be helpful.

I think some of my inability to articulate how political process could have the ability to lead to substantial change might be, not solved, but helpfully reframed with some “non-modern” thinking about how corporations and governments function. I similarly think that some of what I see as naive antagonism in some of the radical people I interact with might become more usefully articulated to how power actually functions with a dash of that stuff. Class struggle is still a relevant concept, but it seems incomplete without a discussion of how the complexity of the organizations of contemporary institutions.

Or not. One theme that’s emerged from this exercise has been a lot of dissatisfaction on my part with the remedies offered by traditional left liberalism and a lot of skepticism about how useful the observations of the young radical community actually are. I identify myself as a left liberal and not a radical because as unsatisfying as the system is, I still think we have to engage with it, and because I just don’t identify with the the radical community that I’ve been exposed to. I think some reframing is in order, for all of us. Talking more about institutions as technologies is a shot in the dark, really, but it’s an example of the kind of thing I think might help.

Skepoet: Do you think OWS has brought out the tensions between Liberals and Leftists?

Jame McAfee: I think it has brought out tensions between liberals and some radicals, but I don’t know if they are specifically “leftist,” and I think that’s going to get worse. The really remarkable Oakland strike involved some confrontations between some black bloc folks and police last night. I don’t think you’re going to find many liberals who won’t say that that sort of thing is very bad for the legacy of OWS. Nobody, I think, who’s anywhere left of center approves of the typical overreaction of the police when that sort of thing happens- putting protecting property BEFORE the safety of protesters is asinine and dangerous, but I think the liberal framing of that kind of confrontation is going to be “a minority of hoodlums are giving us a bad name.”

I don’t toe that line (I really don’t), but I do think that kind of violent confrontation is absurd and counterproductive. Huffpo’s picture today that linked to the story about the Oakland Strike was of a guy wearing some kind of black steam punk getup with a fire blazing behind him. The NYT lead paragraph was about the “100 or so” young men who stormed a building and started some fires. Considering the amazing accomplishments of the protest, framing the story around those incidents of violence is absurd, but there’s a lesson there. The promise of the occupy movement is that it doesn’t fit into the partisan narratives that generally frame our discourse. If you make it look like a riot, that’s a much easier story to tell. Rioting anarchists are sexy villains and good copy.

I think the issue is whether the occupy movement is a protest or an insurrection. Civil disobedience and revolt, I think, aren’t the same thing, and I think considering the difference is a useful way to distinguish left liberals from radical leftists. I’m probably oversimplifying about the radical left. I hope so. I’m not sure how it helps us to think about how the occupy movement could blossom into some real change by reducing it to very literal challenges to specific authority figures.

One issue here is that I’m not sure I can comfortably equate the “insurrection” point of view with any sort of “left.” The lack of clarity that I’ve mentioned earlier is rearing its head. I suspect there are answers to be had for my confusion, but I’ve followed this stuff much more closely than most folks, and at this point if I’m confused, I suspect most liberals might write off “radicals” protesters as a motley collection of undisciplined hippies.

I’m not saying any of this is fair. I’m just saying that as somebody who sees this as a protest, and therefore a rhetorical activity, I think it’s a very serious danger for the occupy movement. I think that concern is a liberal, rather than a radical, concern.

I want to chip in that I’m trying to sort out the differences, not necessarily to defend my liberal point of view, since I understand that to be the point of this activity. When I saw that Huffpo pic, my first thought was “you fucking idiot,” and my second though was “man, Huffpo sucks.” I think it might be important for anybody concerned with the occupy movement to consider that I reacted in that order. I think I’m way more sympathetic to that guy than most of the 99%.

I’m perfectly aware, by the way, that some folks are of the opinion that the police were looking for excuses to use violence. I think there’s some truth to that. The militaristic approach we’ve seen at some Occupy protests are certainly disturbing. All the more reason to take the high road. Of course, that opinion doesn’t work if this isn’t a protest.

Skepoet: Here’s the problem, Jamie, the left-liberals involved aren’t  going to have an outlet and they don’t see to have thought it through what they are doing either.   Shutting down the port has more effect on supply lines than you think.  It’s serious, and that more than anything would be why the police were involved. You know because the sheer volume of police involved was coordinated prior to the event as was the timing of their involvement.

But the high road to what, Jamie?  This has been my question for left-liberals and they have no answer.  No one is asking for a new party and very few of my liberal friends are even really dealing with the fact that the Democratic mayors are the ones who have been given to the strongest police violence. Why?  Because they know that the left-liberal base with vote for their party regardless because of fear of Republicans.  This is a pattern, one your analysis offers no real solution about.

So whining about property damage by anarchists seems like its all public relations. Now, at this point, such actions are counter-productive and honestly there were several times on the live feed where it looked like there were agent provocateurs in the crowd. Given the history of things like Haymarket riots, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Yes, HuffPo sucks. But what are going to offer us?  The current Greek situation did not happen because everyone was willing to place nice and worried about the immediate image of the protestors. They had a goal and now their government is trying to do something about it. Something that could possibly unravel the Eurozone so that at minimum Greek’s can stabilize their free-fall like Argentina did after its massive default.

That doesn’t happen because of liberal’s holding hands.  That happens because liberals realize that if they don’t push for something, they’ll have a revolution on their hands.  That was written about OPENLY in several British papers, and it is spreading like wildfire.

Yes, you are more sympatric.  Yes, the property violence incidents, particularly ones aimed at Shops like Tully’s closed in solidarity are stupid.  I’d even go far to say that I am not an ends justifies any means kind of guy.  I am not.  But the HuffPo situation really puts it forward for me in a different way.

What do left-liberals have without the Democratic Party?   Good public relations, the ability to sway public opinion?  During the anti-war movement, you did that. It still took the Iraqis themselves refusing a terrible status of forces agreement for most of the troops to come home.

Honestly, this is the point where I am going to ask, seriously, when liberals tell us to be serious and mature, work through traditional means either within the less militant Unions or within the Democratic party.   Furthermore, while OWS was started primarily by activists and anarcho-liberals, it was not started by left-liberals even though I’ll admit they make up the vast majority. The fact that left-liberals have not pushed the organization towards co-option or George Soros is admirable.  Seriously, but there is already talk of a crack down on all anarchists not just those in the black bloc.

So, Jamie, since the 1960s, working with liberals has led to us being purged from organizations such as unions encouraging the unions to accept things like the Taft-Harly act which forbids them in participating in a general strike.  It led to weakening of the McGovern campaign; It led so many running to the Maoist parties and then sectarian battles of the late 1970s.  Every step of the way, Democratic Presidents has been having the “Nixon to China” moments on most of the liberal compromises of the past.

If the split is more dramatic, then what options do we have? Seriously.  As a liberal, this should scare you because if we aren’t working with you and the situation on the ground gets hotter. What are you going to do?

Oakland was not a revolution. It was just a wildcat strike.  But taking a port, wow.  That’s fairly radical.  The left-liberals were involved in that.  Yes, the anarchists may have made everyone a target, but the real issue at hand was handing over the port today. This was done, and actually does weaken the situation.  So I ask you again, if left-liberals don’t even have a decent handle of the narrative at HuffPo, which is not an arm of the Democratic Party, what do they have?   As a British journalist said, OWS has power because it shows there are still threats to ignoring electoral will, and if the situation is not improved people will take action on their own. He however said another point, its because the people behind that if it doesn’t work have much nastier iconography that a ballerina on the bull.  Gandhi doesn’t work with Nehru’s nationalists, the all-Muslim league, and the Indian Communist Party prepared to rip the British raj’s throat out if Gandhi fails.

Secondly, very, very few leftists are fond of the black bloc attacking things like Tully’s. Even the black bloc itself is unhappy with that.
So if this used for left-liberals to purge actual leftists, even ones not sympathetic to the propaganda by the deed, which Marxists and
syndicalists traditionally aren’t, then you’ll be just as powerless as you rendered us.

Sorry for the rant, you know, it out of respect, but there really seems to be a very selective perspective here.

Jamie McAfee: I did not mean to imply that I had a problem with shutting down the port. Striking is a legitimate form of protest. That’s just fine with me. It’s some of the specific behavior of a small group of people that happened later in the evening I’m talking about.

To your question about what high road and why? I think my answer above might answer this as well. I have no qualms with disciplined civil disobedience, even disruptive stuff like striking or stopping business. I’m not at all saying that participation in elections alone is enough for dramatic change. I’m saying that activism needs to be ultimately concerned with persuading people to use the system differently, and in the context I used it “the high road” referred to behavior at protests. Fighting cops and setting things on fire is not useful. Peacefully marching on  the port with the help of thousands of other people might be.

It is interesting that some of the cities that have had the strongest responses have left liberal bases, but I’m not sure correlation is causation in this case. The very troubling history of police brutality in Southern California, for example, is it’s own thing with its own history. The “because” in that statement is seems a bit dicey considering the complexity of how a city functions. You may have a point, but I’m not convinced.

Certainly the “liberal” mayors of these cities have failed to defend activists in any meaningful way.
You’re right that protests are about civil disobedience. It is a protest. It is, in part, public relations. Breaking laws is fine so long as you are careful about which laws you break. As for agent provocateurs, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d be astonished if the majority of the shenanigans were not exactly as they appear.
If the occupy movement is so successful at something that resembles insurrection that liberals start acting more like I want them to act, then more power to ‘em. I’m skeptical that it will be. I’m skeptical; for one thing, that the percentages of the people in the really popular protests are radicals who are thinking that way is very large. I could be wrong. I get that idea from accounts of crowds trying to talk the anarchist youngster out of breaking the law, from both mainstream media reporting and from a couple of anarchist blogs that I’ve seen through FB.

I agree that more than public opinion is necessary for political activism and the last decade has proven that public opinion has been as import as we used to assume. I’m not sure how the fact that left liberals don’t often get what they want is an indictment of anything. Radicals don’t often get what they want either. I’m not trying to be flippant, by the way. We tried and failed. A lot of radicals have failed to get their way also. Unless your point is that disillusionment with the system should lead people to try to overturn it. Sounds like a great principle, but I don’t see the way forward.

When you asserted that “Honestly, this is the point where I am going to ask, seriously, when liberals tell us to be serious and mature, work through traditional means either within the less militant Unions or within the Democratic party.   Furthermore, while OWS was started primarily by activists and anarcho-liberals, it was not started by left-liberals even though I’ll admit they make up the vast majority. The fact that left-liberals have not pushed the organization towards co-option or George Soros is admirable.  Seriously, but there is already talk of a crack down on all anarchists not just those in the black bloc” I have something to say about that. Remember when I said I wasn’t sure radicals and liberals necessarily needed to work together all the time? There’s a good example.  As for “cracking down” on anarchists, I don’t quite follow what you mean. (Like specifically what kind of tactic are you talking about?)
I agree with you with the problems of Democratic rightward movement and the liberal engagement with that. The point of left liberalism is to figure out how to change that. I don’t claim to know how to do it. It’s very difficult.

The rant is fine, and I appreciate the perspective, but you’ve gone way beyond the scope of the exigencies that I’m going to be facing anytime soon. Where I’m not following you in the partisan way you’re talking about this. As for purging anybody, I’m not sure where you would get the idea that I’d want to do that. (I’d maybe come up with strategies to get the hell out of the way of the black bloc people.)

If I’m following you here “As a British journalist said, OWS has power because it shows there are still threats to ignoring electoral will, and if the the situation is not improved people will take action on their own. He however said another point, its because the people behind that if it doesn’t work have much nastier iconography that a ballerina on the bull,” you are suggesting that there is a real chance for these protests to escalate into a real visceral threat to power. I disagree. It’s not that I disagree about whether that should be a goal of the protests. I don’t think that’s going to happen. If the protests get scary enough, America is going to turn its back on them. I’m not saying I’d like for that to happen. I’m predicting that’s what would happen.

I’d be fine with being proven wrong, by the way.

One quick comment on that last comment: the issue is, in part, that American populist anger has such a strong history of right wing orientation that’s its really difficult for me to imagine the larger left embracing anything resembling what you are talking about. It’s just such a strong part of our recent history, and our longer history also. I just don’t have any hope of any meaningful leftist militancy taking hold outside of some little bits of fringe. The one exception was the labor struggle, which took decades of combat against well defined enemies. Power has gotten a lot more subtle since then.

Skepoet: Material history is not all about public relations and rhetoric, and I think liberals generally forget this. America will turn against radicals if they are the targets. If it is businesses like Tully’s then it’s bad, but direct action is about violating the law. They work because they are illegitimate and illegitimatize those who are its targets because it shows how tenuous power really is.  That port taking was a breach of a federal law, and the reasons why there were so few unions involved in the strike is that a wildcat strike is illegal under the Taft Harley act. That’s not a sanctioned strike with nice permits and free speech zones.

I doubt most of them are radical either.  People don’t start as radicals.  At one point in my life, I pretty much agreed with you.  When it was an intellectual exercise, I thought about this totally in terms of public relations.   Furthermore, I am not advocating that we silence anyone, or violently attack anything. However, for direct action to work, that’s got be a real possibility.  Non-violence only works when people are made to be moral.  That means two things: they are actually afraid of public opinion or they are actually afraid for their lives.  The Ned Turners in the world enable the Federick Douglases  With employment rates as high as they are things are different and you’re analysis seems to come the 1990s when employment was low and anger was about other people who we merely empathized for.  That was even the case in most of 1960s.  That is not the case now.

As for your analysis about reactionaries, I have several two word phrases for you: Bleeding Kansas, Shay’s Rebellion, Haymarket Riots,  The Colorado Miner’s strikes. The entire period just before World War 1.   It is an illusion of reading the past through the lenses of the 1990s that militancy has been right-wing in America or would it be a particular historical deviation. Even in the 1970s, there were about 80,000 known members of groups like the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the Socialist Workers party, etc.   The reason for their ineffectiveness was partly sectarian splits and partly lack of tactics.  Furthermore, the idea that America is somehow unique in history as the world’s eternal center-right nation is Reaganite bullshit that even most liberals seem to believe.   The liberal love affairs with “reasonable” conservatives like Andrew Sullivan seem to illustrate this. In the 1920s it’s hard to know how large it was.  In the 1930s, you have massive membership in the CPUSA, SPUSA, and even the Technocrats.   Reading literature from the time, not just Marxist literature, but even fairly mainstream stuff and conservative stuff: there was a real fear that capitalism was over.  It morphed of course. Through a mixture of Keynesianism, managerial revolutions, the rise of the limited liability as the dominant form of capital, and Fordism stalled things and the destruction of capital during the war saved it.

However all of those theories had a time limit, the 1970s stagflation indicated that Keynes’s patch isn’t a low term fix.  The right is actually quite right about that, and that’s something liberals don’t want to hear.   That means, basically, that  crisis theories of capital seem more and more right in the global perspective.  That’s bad yet but we are looking at systematic structural unemployment which liberals in our current congressional Republic can literally do nothing about.

Liberals have studied the right for so long to figure what happened they have assumed that the morbidity of the left that we experience now is somehow a long tradition in the US. That’s historically ignorant.  But then again, liberals seem to be afraid of teaching the history of left-radicals in schools partly for fear of be tarred with the same brush and partly because they don’t those ideas to challenge the loyalty of the left. I don’t even think this is entirely conscious, but history does bear it out.

Secondly, power hasn’t gotten subtle.  That’s a problem with post-modernism in my opinion.  A tendency towards reification dominates it.  Tactics have gotten more subtle, but so have the communication mechanism to counter-act.
You still did not answer my question though: what do liberals have to offer us?   So far, I see bad policy driven from a lack of principle.  Confronted with the fact that even the establishments that left-liberals do not listen to them. They make up more of the general public if you ask about values than about the brand, but they only make up about 20% of the Democratic base.  Most of them are not in parties anymore.  Furthermore, outside of Moveon and DailyKos which both have been pretty much arms of the Democratic party but have been remarkably consistent the last few months and remarkably angry with Obama, even HuffPo and Rachel Maddow don’t really seem to be entirely sympathetic to direct action.

And whose fault is this direct action?  People of my and your Jamie became voting age during the late Clinton and Bush Administrations. We’re used to defeat as are most of the Generation X people above us. These people just a few years younger than us came of age in a time when they finally won, and what did they get for it?  A neutered healthcare bill.   That’s it. They have crushing debt as scholarships went away. They were told their entire lives that working hard in school and going to a good college would enable them to get work. They busted ass for it. Now the same people that told them to do that are mocking them for not having jobs.  They won an election in their view and got almost nothing for it. Furthermore, Generation X and company are laid off in mass and underemployed.  Democrats are not politically able to do anything in our current system about that.  They couldn’t even do with the largest majority in modern history while the Republicans had no problem with bankruptcy reform, wars, what have you. What do you expect will happen?  You’re answers are skirting that question.

So if all you have to offer is “I think these protests will be defeated” and you also have no real answer to how to work within the system.  Then what, at all, does liberalism have to offer?  I don’t mean to challenge you personally, but if liberalism is just a cult of defeat against reactionary forces which will always have the advantage of popular opinion. That far more necrophiliac in character than even the leftists who are salivating over a return to the conditions on the grounds like in the 1930s.

As for cracking down on anarchists, the Occupy is policing itself and there has been talk of expelling the anarchists in Oakland.

Jamie, I hate to say this but the case you’re making is the reason why most left-wingers see left liberals as both weak like the ancient regimes in the past and much more of a threat to us than right-wingers.  We may need each other to avoid the worse, but you don’t even really believe in the possibility of direct action changing things and you admit the systematic relationship to power of the Democratic party has even sapped left-liberals, you’re going to hard pressed to keep the liberals in the OWS  in your ranks.  And as things get worse, you see left radicals taking more and more direct tactics as well as increasing victories for the right as leftists and even left-liberals will feel no one represents them.  I know you honestly don’t want to make that case and I sincerely believe you.  But for a long time my brother, no radical, has made the joke “Democrats are the party of no ideas and Republicans the party of bad ones.”  At the moment, it seems like liberals are at a total loss.  OWS broad support sort of proves that.  Whether it stays or not is another question.

Two years ago radicalism was almost dead even in the worst recession in modern history.  That’s not the case now.  That’s a liberal failure of epic proportions.  I suppose I am asking you, what do you see as a possible way out of that? And if you don’t see a way out of that, what do you think the failure is.

Jamie McAfee: I think your points are sound, and I don’t think I’ve said anything that would imply disagreement with some of them.

As for the question of whether or not America is ready to embrace, in numbers that matter, left wing insurgency, your longer view of American history is useful, and you may be right that the grounds for populist anger are shifting. I don’t see the potential for that yet.OWS is encouraging, but I think that for much of the country, the enemy is government. Not in the sense of authoritarianism or state sponsored capitalism either. I’d love for that to change, but it’s very hard for me to imagine that it will. That might be a limit of my own historical perspective, but you haven’t moved me from that opinion. (Although you make a strong case.)

Material history is not about discourse. But enrolling people into a cause is exactly about that. History provides exigencies that might be taken advantage of through effective communication that might enroll people into your cause. I’m thinking about the “public relations problem” as a classical rhetorician, not as a postmodernist. I worry you think that I think politics is a war of ideas. That’s not what I mean to say. I think it is a struggle to articulate a worldview through which people can recognize themselves and then act. I do not recognize myself in the images of black hooded young men smashing windows, and I don’t think very many other Americans will either.

I understand what the port protest was and that it was illegal, and I, again, support it. When I am talking about civil disobedience, I mean to describe calculated, specific lawbreaking designed to bring attention to a point of view. I chose “civil disobedience” for that reason. (Is that my  stepping outside of a liberal paradigm?) Symbolic lawbreaking that is unintelligible to those outside of a specific fringe community is pointless, unless you think that you actually have the ability to frighten the powers that be. You’ve returned to that point several times, including the Nat Turner allusion here. I’m not optimistic about that happening anytime soon. You mention Nat Turner, but a more useful model for effective insurrection might be John Brown, whose action shifted popular opinion. I don’t see the potential for that to happen in the occupy movements. (I don’t mean to denigrate Nat Turner by the way. That’s as legitimate an insurrection as can be imagined.)

Your points about the inefficacy of left liberalism are well taken, and I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t think liberals have much to celebrate of late. I’m not sure that anybody who isn’t of the paranoid right persuasion thinks American liberals have gotten any bang for their buck during the past few decades. I think left liberalism is in something of a crisis. We’ve defined ourselves in opposition to the right for much too long. During the past two years, the fact that our representatives don’t have much of an idea what they stand for besides has become increasingly obvious. There was a joke about Obama’s election that I remember: “Sure. Now the black guy has to come clean up the mess the white people made.” If we remove the racial element of the joke (which is what makes it a joke at all), that’s not much is it?

There is a difference, though, in pointing out that the particular failures of a political coalition and abandoning the idea that ultimately, a legitimate goal of politics is to make institutions better. I do not have the answers that you seem to want about how to get American liberalism out of the mess its in, but I’m not ready to abandon that distinction.
“That means two things: they are actually afraid of public opinion or they are actually afraid for their lives. The Ned Turners in the world enable the Federick Douglas.” This formulation, in one form or another, seems to be a theme in how you are describing the relationship between liberals and radicals. I’ve done it to. (I think I said something about how I’d be happy to see a scary left militarism that would give left liberals more leverage in an earlier episode of our conversation.)

Here’s the problem though. That posits that the point of radicals is serving as boogiemen or martyrs that allow liberals more leverage. If that’s the frame you are using, then liberals have nothing at all to offer radicals other than an eventual betrayal when the radicals manage to gain enough support that they scare people.

I certainly don’t like that formulation, and if that’s the point of radical direct action (to intimidate the powers that be), than I don’t think we have anything to offer other than a abandonment or eventual betrayal when the radicals get scary enough to make power compromise. I don’t want that.

Besides the uncomfortable Machiavellianness (how’s that for spelling?)  of it, that’s just the same old expansion of what we have. Incremental change and compromise to ward off something more serious. That is the best outcome I can see for radicalism. I understand that radicals have bigger plans.

I would rather see the next evolution of capitalism (or from it, ideally) to be engineered by the left. Somebody is going to do it. Resistance might affect that process, but it isn’t going to replace it. Nobody with any sense would disagree that the phase we’re in has a shelf life that’s drawing near, and your sense of looming crisis is one that I think most people who think about these things share. I think there is a place for direct action, but that doesn’t replace the work of recreating institutions and engaging with traditional politics.

What the looks path forward looks like, I don’t know. It’s THE question for people of my political persuasion, though, isn’t it?

Skepoet: Well, I am left with two thoughts.  One is that your refusing to abandon something that is obviously not working seems like a text book definition of a ideological blinder. Particularly in light of complete failures even by your own standards. Without a substantive standard to defend liberalism,  then the reactionaries and the far left will continue to get your numbers.   Let me put it in another way, right now the Greek prime minister under pressure from the socialist government abandoned him after he was taken to task by the center-right politicians in the E.U.  Now if he does that 60% is likely to literally rebel.

I don’t think that’s the function of the left.  Honestly, I don’t know that we need liberalism or that, to be honest, liberalism ISN’T now the problem.   I have been having a long form discussion with another blogger about this topic and frankly, while conservatives are reactionary in goals, they are actually progressive in tactics.  Liberals in operation until the OWS were reactionary.  Just trying to conserve past gains and often at the cost of things they would not accept from an opponent group. The Greek example is one of them.  Clinton and welfare is another. Obama and entitlements.

Furthermore, given the compromises liberals have made in the past, I have to say that it puts the liberal not only in a conservative mode against different sides that have real plans.  In the past, we actually were the liberal think tank. We changed orientation, moved forward, liberals’ compromises so that there would be no complete rupture with the past.  Now, I see a problem with this: I am not opposed to pluralism or certain kinds of compromise.  Political systems come out of realities on the ground, but liberals have to so concern about temporary set-backs that they really have lacked complete vision.  An ideological construct–I am not using this in the Marxist sense at the moment–is only useful if it still generates new ideas for the situation.  Yet, since the red scare, left-liberals have wanted to look like they were as strong as conservatives so they take just as hard stances on war when in office, they have wanted to seem realistic so they make compromises.  Yet lately these compromises have not even been effective Band-Aids.   If you don’t do something about this: liberalism will be on the dust-heap of history as anything other than a personal orientation.  It will be like feudalism or mercantilism something that hasn’t entirely gone away, but is completely irrelevant to the current.

So what do you see give liberals new ideas?   Right now, I honestly am not seeing any: even the Obamacare was essentially a Republican plan fro 10 years ago.  Keynesianism DID lead to stagflation, Jamie, so when you bring that up I sort of snicker.  The Republicans are right that doesn’t work. What they are proposing will destabilize the economy and is a return to social Darwinism with more upward transfers of wealth, but most liberals are proposing isn’t even a viable stop-gap.

So where do you see a new liberal vision coming from?

Here’s another irony:  while I think the U.S. actually was always a liberal society in a sense. I don’t entirely agree with Latour that it wasn’t a something different.  Many have pointed out that why primitivism and radical traditionalists are against modernity in the absolute, the Marxian left has been modernity’s loyal opposition.  I think, however, the classical liberalism of the 18th century is not the liberalism after World War 2.  So it seems like my modern standards, liberals are trying to stop-gap an essentially illiberal system and that contradiction isn’t lost on them when they are honest about the constitution for example. The contradiction has always been part of American society, but it seems acute now.  For example, to defend a progressive tax system most liberals neglect to point out that the entitlement taxes are essentially regressive on the poor.   The poor may no income tax, but they pay tons of payroll taxes as percentages of their earnings. Many liberals defend that. They defend the VAT that is popular in Asia and Europe which are also HIGHLY regressive.  So when you look at that contradiction, do you see it?  How do you respond to it?

Jamie McAfee: My response to an awful lot of what you are saying is that you are conflating left liberalism as a point of view with the specific policy choices of liberal governments. It’s worth nothing that one of the defining feature of the left, which we are both broadly a part of, is dissatisfaction with what is. Pointing at a bunch of stuff to be dissatisfied about is a good argument against complacency, but not an argument against my notion of liberalism. You are doing a great job of describing an agenda for someone like me to be concerned about.

I think the best radicalism might do would be to light a fire under left liberals, call attention to how unjust our system actually is, and pull a lot of the complacent center toward the left. The worst it might do would be to inspire a huge backlash. One theme I see on your side of the conversation is that there’s a lot of turmoil coming down the pike. This is obviously the case. Until I think it is very likely that radicalism has any outside chance to become wildly successful, the way I’m going to frame this turmoil is going to be through left liberalism. I’m not sure that a pragmatic opinion about what’s possible, particularly one that attempts to account for popular opinion, is “ideological.” I suppose there are definitions of ideology that would include that way of talking, but I’m not sure how helpful those are for our purposes. I want to emphasize that I’m not really able to be moved from left liberalism, for the time being anyway, not out of preference or theoretical construct but because I haven’t been convinced there is a realistic path for radicalism to succeed. In the past you’ve pointed out that I’m inconsistent for sticking with a left liberal political perspective while sympathizing with radical analysis. I’m not sure that analysis and prescriptions should fit together in that way.

Where do I see a new liberal vision coming from? Realistically, I don’t know. We are in a turbulent time, and our politics are decayed. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.
I’d LIKE to see a new liberal vision coming from a wonky appropriation of the goals of the far left. I worry (I really do) the lack of clarity that I see over that I see over there and about the degree to which the radicalism I see defines itself strictly through antagonism. Those are the mistakes that have defined liberals for three decades now. That’s why we’ve been playing defense, and why we’ve ended up being the small c conservative point of view as of late. I’m not sure that fate is in store for radicalism, but I think what ultimately will emerge from these crises is a reincorporation into something other than the teleological goals of radicalism. I think radicals can work with an eye toward participating in that future or they can let themselves be marginalized.

I am, of course, talking about how liberals can benefit from radicals and not the other way around. I leave it up to you to figure out what we an do for you. I wonder if you are right to suspect “nothing” for the time being. But stay with me a second. . .

As for the model of Greeks being so volatile that the government can’t acquiesce to center right:  I would welcome with open arms an American populace who were that dangerous to institutions that did not put economic justice first. I think radicals, as they think about how to make that happen, can be careful to consider popular opinion, to think about what institutional power looks like (but opt out of you want), and to engage in resistance with an eye toward future participation rather than let themselves be marginalized. Radical boogiemen were very useful for the right in the 70s and 80s. They are useful now. One of Barack Obama’s political problems is that some of the Americans who are most disgruntled with institutional power think he is a communist. I think you underestimate how much right wing sentiment is a part of the seeds of American radicalism. It’s a reason I’m not totally comfortable with the total antagonism toward the system inherent in radicalism. That could turn ugly in a way neither of us would like.

I’m not sure that fate is in store for the radicalism that is recognizing the exigencies of the moment, but I think what ultimately will emerge from these crises is a reincorporation into something other than the teleological goals of radicalism. (If I thought differently, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.) It’s that reincorporation that worries me. It worries me because liberalism is not very well equipped, at present, to deal with that. I think radicalism is less equipped. But I hope we can learn from each other. But, you know, whip our asses. It might be a perfectly useful thing for radicals to center their attention on liberals. I think we probably need it. What I ask is that you do so carefully, with an eye toward the future.

Skepoet: My closing word.  You seem to think radicalism is inherently teleological.  I think liberalism is an in a crisis from which it would will not emerge in any way recognizable to itself.  That makes liberalism the current traditionalism in my mind, and historically a thing in the decline. That does not mean the type of thinking or human temperaments in the liberal mindset will go away.  The temperaments that make up the liberal, the conservative, and the radical are human universals since the development of abstract thinking in my view, but the ideologies that those ideas are articulated are contingent. My response to your assertion that I am conflating left-liberals with the liberal establishment:  you are dangerously close to no true Scotsman fallacy there.

For years, liberals and conservatives alike have tarred radicals with the failures of the past by the same logic:  we produced the Jacobins, Stalin, Pol Pot, the farming failures of Mao, the Spanish civil war, etc.  To counter that I will point out that the anti-communism and white guardism has a very, very hit body count, and much of that anti-communism was done by liberals Presidents. But that is largely irrelevant: barbarism is barbarism and we do not need to rely on the tu quo que fallacy to make that point.  The real issue at hand is liberals consistently do one thing when in power in the current epoch of neo-liberal capitalism that is because they cannot transcend the system they wish to reform and indeed must maintain even the illiberal elements of it to survive at all.   I caution friends of a liberal persuasion to abandon their faith in the apparatus and parties currently developed under the guise of liberal modernity and to think anew:  you may not want OUR revolution, but unless liberalism itself undergoes a revolution, it will be outflanked on one end and radicalized on the other.

I think your warning about cautions of absolute systems and teleologies are well-taken.  We do not what the future looks like no theorist can tell us that no matter how radical or how empirical or how well-versed in the dialectic.  Perhaps compromises are needed, and a voice of caution is always needed.  However, that voice of caution cannot act merely as an ideological reformulation of the current.   My challenge to you simple: the left got lazy, sectarian, and forgot about material history. Indeed, perhaps, they believed too much that ideology itself produces the revolution against material circumstances as Gramsci once argued.

We have not been a force in politics really since the 1980s in Europe and have hardly even been one in the North America.  This, I hope, is changing.  We too have our own failures of vision to content with.

In so much as left liberals are well-meaning, I think there is promise that many of you will start radicalizing yourselves even if merely a radicalization of the present.  Weak liberals are not good for leftists and neither are weak conservatives prior to a true rupture with the current.  Right now, I see a political spectrum awash in decadence and anti-philosophy.  That is not promising because that means no one has a real voice to challenge the current even if increasingly most of North America, Europe, and the central Asia are screaming for it.

I’d invite you to your closing thoughts. Thanks for your time. I told you this was going to be an interview, but it ended up more of a debate.  I suppose I’ll quote title of a Zizek essay, “philosophy is not a dialogue” but sometimes dialogues are necessary.

Jamie McAfee: Before I close, I want to make one quick comment. What I intend in my complaint about your conflating liberalism with liberal governments is the opposite of no true Scottsmaning. I’m conceiving of liberalism as being very broad. Because I do not agree with the Democratic party doesn’t mean I’m not a liberal or that the Democratic party isn’t liberal, just like the fact that very few contemporary Marxists agree with Stalin doesn’t mean that they aren’t Marxists or that Stalin wasn’t a Marxist. Small point that may or may not be convincing.

And thank you for your time and for your useful provocation. I think that the work you are doing through your blogging is challenging and useful, and while I think this installment isn’t going to flatter my point of view very much, I’m honored to have been involved. Actually, I’m particularly proud to have been asked to do this BECAUSE you’ve done such a good job of calling me to task. As I’ve said pretty consistently, we’ve got problems. I think that the best hope we have of righting ourselves is to listen more seriously to the left.

The conversation did evolve into something of a debate, and I think that might have been an appropriate exercise. The first time you interviewed me, it was about a narrow corner of thought, a particular intersection of Marxian theory and humanist thought, in which I have some expertise and, I hope, something of an original contribution to make. I’m hardly a respected authority on either post-Gramscian Marxism or rhetoric, but I’m in the early stages of writing a dissertation on those topics. Having a venue for sharing my somewhat undisciplined ideas about broad applications of my work was a lot of fun, and I hope it was provocative.

This time was different. I not an expert in political science or the history of liberalism; I’m a somewhat-more-informed-that-average left liberal who was trying to be honest about why I’m not ready to abandon liberalism. I made a point early on to show my cards. My strategy for debating was to defend my position, but to do so in a way that was dialogic, or perhaps psychoanalytical. My idiosyncrasies, biases, and ignorances (I’m sure somebody could fact check my contributions here and find them wanting) are my own, but to some degree I understood the point of this to be something like ethnography. THIS is what left sympathizing liberals are like. I’m a disenchanted Democrat whose Marxism comes through the humanities. I’m not a particularly qualified spokesman for my political position. I’m just a somewhat representative example of the species.  (Although. . . . speaking of idiosyncrasies, I spot three metaphors drawn from professional communication theory in that paragraph. I am who I am.)

We agree, for the most part, about the state of liberalism. I hope that hearing my concerns about how capable the radicalism of the present might be to help fix things is helpful to you and to the community who reads your blog. I am, in some ways, on of the audiences that radicals should be thinking about. My distaste for tactics and/or rhetoric that seem undisciplined, romantically unrealistic, nihilistically antagonistic, or out of touch should be taken very seriously. I am sympathetic to the frustrations with the system and to the anger that fuels those attitudes, but embracing them is narcissistic and reckless. The dismissiveness and disinterest in engagement I see sometimes in self identified radicals seems petulant, or in some cases, like militaristic fantasy. That worries me a lot.

Having said that, I think that by and large, radicalism would be ill-served by acquiesce to liberalism as it is. That does not mean we can’t respect each other or talk to each other. Whip our asses. Seriously. But do so with an eye toward helping us get our shit together. Nothing would make me happier than to see the radical left become an important voice in America. I hope you give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that. I really mean it. Your best point, and a persistent theme of our conversation: “I caution friends of a liberal persuasion to abandon their faith in the apparatus and parties currently developed under the guise of liberal modernity and to think anew: you may not want OUR revolution, but unless liberalism itself undergoes a revolution, it will be outflanked on one end and radicalized on the other.”  If that is how things filter out, I’ll certainly on your side, but I don’t think our chances of getting what we want will be very good. Not, at least, if “radicalized” doesn’t evolve into something more emphatically humanist and responsible.

But I’m in danger of debating again. I think we’ve said what we have to say. To the extent that I’m right, I hope I’ve been persuasive, and to the extent that I’m wrong, I hope I’ve provided a useful demonstration of my thought process. Best wishes.

The first in the between liberalism and leftism series is here.  

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found herehere, here, and here. 

My first interview with Jamie McAfee on populism can be found here. 

About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on November 7, 2011, in conservatism, Economics, ideology, Interviews, Left-turn, Marxism, news, Philosophy and Politics, Socialism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I enjoyed reading this interview/debate, but it took me awhile to get through the whole thing.

    There was a lot of substance on both sides. As an independent left liberal, I found myself divided, sometimes agreeing with one side and then the other and sometimes seeing truth on both sides simultaneously. I have love for liberalism, but I have no love for the Democratic Party. It’s because of my liberalism that I admire left-wingers more than I admire Democrats.

    I ended my reading of this feeling a bit uncertain in my own position. Mainstream liberals who have allied with the Democratic Establishment have certainly failed, but on the other hand left-wing movements have failed. Neither working within the system nor working outside of the system can by itself solve the problem. There needs to be a coalition of those working in both sectors. Liberals and left-wingers need to work together or both will continue to fail.

    I don’t know what that specifically means for US politics. And I don’t know where that ends up leaving me in our present quagmire.

    I was talking to my conservative dad. He is a rational guy and moderate in some ways, but he has a bit of a radical right-wing side that comes out at times. He said that he will vote for anyone who has the best chance of beating Obama. I pointed out that Democrats are always telling me to vote for the candidate who has the best chance of beating the Republican candidate. I explained to him that, if everyone is voting against something, then know one is fighting for what they believe in. What is odd is that, however, my dad wouldn’t vote for a moderate Republican even if it meant beating Obama, and so his radicalism actually is greater than even his partisanship. He would rather Obama win than allow to win a moderate Republican (a RINO, a secret Democrat).

    This division between the parties is also a division between moderates and radicals, independents and partisans on both sides. Moderate Republicans get no support from right-wingers and right-libertarians fight against the theocratic fundies and neocons. On the other side, Democratic liberals and independent liberals fight each other, liberals in general are constantly in conflict with more radical left-wingers, and left-wingers are divided by sectarianism and disagreements about tactics. Everyone is divided. This division of the public only leads those in power to stay in power. As an independent left liberal, I would like to see a more left-leaning vision to have influence in this country and in the world. However, the question then follows how to get all the various left-wingers and all the various liberals to work together to some minimal degree, something the right did well until recently (largely through Cold War rhetoric).

    One problem became clear in this discussion. It seems both of you were willing to admit that both left-wingers and liberals had responsibility in the recent decades of failure. However, there was conflict over how to overcome this failure and who should do it. Maybe neither liberals nor left-wingers should try to lead the other. Neither side has all the answers. I realize I’m giving this a liberal slant, but maybe the two sides should collaborate in a very genuine way rather than mere tactical collaboration that is temporary and distrusting, maybe the two sides should put the seeking of improving society above merely pushing their particular group toward victory. Maybe there is no single party or ideology or tactic that will be able to overcome our shared problems. This, of course, would require a larger inclusive vision of what is possible (shared vision guiding shared solutions to shared problems). It’s either this or else we continue to fail. There is no third choice.

    Even talking to my dad, we can come to agreements about some of what needs to be changed. Like me, he agrees that gerrymandering is bad, that financial gambling of big banks is bad, and that CEOs having more power than investors is bad. Heck, we both agree that Bush was bad despite the fact that my dad voted for him twice. If I can find this much agreement with an often partisan and often pushed far right Republican, then as an independent left liberal I should be able to find common ground between Democratic liberals and more radical leftists.

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