The Rise of the Neoliberal Left

The title is intentionally a bit of an oxymoron. Here’s an interview with the always insightful Adolph Reed, Jr.:

Right, and my friend Walter Michaels has made this point very eloquently over and over again . . .  that the problem with a notion of equality or social justice that’s rooted in the perspectives of multiculturalism and diversity is that from those perspectives you can have a society that’s perfectly just if less than 1 percent of the population controls 95 percent of the stuff, so long as that one percent is half women and 12 percent black, and 12 percent Latino and whatever the appropriate numbers are gay. Now that’s a problem. ….

I think where we are now is, from one perspective, the result of either 30 or 60-plus years, depending on how you want to count it, of a left that has been able to take only what the other side would make available . . . would permit them to take. And what that’s meant is that our political strategies…I’m not saying this to fault activists; you can only do what you can do, but the political strategies and understandings that have constituted the Left have come increasingly to accommodate with neoliberalism. And the only place that that’s a conspicuous problem is in the labor movement because that’s the one interest group that basically can’t be accommodated to neoliberal economic policy. ….

I wrote a progressive column on this 20 years ago or close to it. And it just seemed somewhere in the mid-’90s almost like I didn’t set my alarm one night and woke up and the rules of being on the left had changed. Everyone was focused on electoral politics. That’s a phenomenon that’s like cause and symptom. It’s certainly a symptom of not having any other kind of traction in the social-movement world as a left. And once again, I acknowledge there are all kinds of people out there doing all kinds of good stuff. Who are trying to make people’s lives better. And to the limited ways it’s possible to succeed, succeeding. But there is not a left social movement that’s got any capacity to do anything. That has any institutional capacity. And most of all, that has any capacity to alter the terms of political debate at the national level, or for that matter even the local level.

So in the absence of that, what can you do? Well, voting has come to seem more important as a form of political practice. We’ve lost the capacity to do anything else. And when you think about it now we’ve got at least a generation of people who never had any experience with any other kind of politics. …

So in effect, and I think this gets to the point I was making in the article, that the choice is between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them. …

The last time I actually talked to Chris Hitchens we got in an argument about this at a bar on Dupont Circle. It was during the Iraq War and I kind of stopped him in his tracks, which didn’t happen often, I said to him, “There’s no place in the world that’s been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne, not even Fayetteville, North Carolina.” … It’s horrible. I used to work down there. Although my son, who was actually born there when I was working there, pointed out to me that it was the 82nd that JFK sent to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962 to quell the riot after James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, where among other things they confiscated the arsenal from cheerleader Trent Lott’s frat house. So that’s the one place in the world that has been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne. …

My father used to always say that ideology in one sense is the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you like to think you hold with what advances your material interest. Then he would say something like, “I’ll bet you that God has paid off so well for Billy Graham that he probably even believes in Him by now.”

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