The Mass Psychology of Liberalism

Stanley Aronowitz Jul 22, 2011

(Credit: Marlena Buczek Smith)Presidential politics is sport and spectacle alike. Unlike European countries, which devote a few months to mostly publicly financed national elections, the United States’ privatized presidential race is a brain-numbing, two-year process. Since the November 2010 midterm poll, many Republican hopefuls have tossed their hats in the ring, and the campaign is now in full swing. In re-election mode, President Obama has been racing around, assuring us that the economic recovery, although slow, is progressing despite the 25 million jobless and underemployed, and despite his steadfast refusal to craft a jobs program. We have 16 months of spin, speeches, scandals and wedge issues to go before November 2012, but the spectacle cannot hide the fact that there is little difference between the two parties.

In reality, the ideological divide between the Democrats and Republicans is between the two historic branches of liberalism.

Liberalism is the dominant capitalist ideology. But like most dominant ideologies it has several variants. The 18th century doctrine rests on three pillars of freedom: the “free market” — freedom from government regulation; “freedom from coercion” — the individual negative liberty of freedom from central powers either of law or custom; and “freedom of association,” which entails freedom for groups and parties to organize, assemble and seek elective office under the capitalist state.

Of course, the free market has never really existed. For centuries business has sought and secured the financial, political and legal support of the state, but resists according the same privileges to the rest of us. Private capital avoids shouldering the risk of building roads, ports, power systems, waterworks, airports or public transport. On the flip side it relies on government to provide communication mediums, courts, police and emergency services, zone land, issue currencies, set interest rates and monetary policy and regulate — and repress — labor. And when everything blows up, as it inevitably does, from finance markets and foreign relations to oil wells and nuclear reactors, it needs government to assume the liabilities, clean up the mess and restore the profit-making order.

In recent decades, free-market liberals have become known as “conservatives” even though they are no longer conservationists or environmentalists like their Republican predecessors. They insist against all logic and science that the market will take care of climate change and oppose regulations aimed at slowing down the coming disaster.

The second variant is modern liberalism (or progressivism). It has no substantive disagreement with the pillars of the free market, freedom of association and freedom from coercion. Modern liberalism took shape in the post-Civil War era, insisting that small business needed government protection with the rise of the giant trusts, and it advocated for a central bank, leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913. Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat packing industry in The Jungle along with the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire in Lower Manhattan, in which 146 women workers were killed, led to federal and local laws regulating workplace safety and consumer goods (and building upon standards for deadly tenements).

The underlying premise of modern liberalism is that small business, workers, women and racial minorities need some protection from uncontrolled market forces. But under no circumstance, except perhaps economic crisis or wars, should the state own or operate productive property. The New Deal reforms — Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, unemployment and workers’ compensation, minimum wages and the 40-hour week — represent the apex of the achievements of modern social reform. Apart from Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, and the regulatory burst under Nixon, incremental change, the signal motto of modern liberalism, has ground to a halt. The age of reform ended in 1938, but liberal reformism remains the leading edge of a dubious left in American politics: Dubious because the prevailing left does not oppose the capitalist system but holds that it can be sufficiently reformed to secure a measure of social justice.

In this respect, since the 1930s, the American Left organized in and around the Communist and Socialist parties can better be described as “left-liberal. With few exceptions, they refuse to openly discuss, let alone agitate for, alternatives such as socialism and communism. Even most of the so-called revolutionary socialist parties and formations have confined their activities to economic struggles within trade unions, austerity fightbacks, organizing opposition to U.S. imperialism and racism, and supporting the liberal defense of reproductive rights and civil liberties. There is a scattering of socialist education institutions, notably New York’s Brecht Forum, and study groups have mushroomed, mainly to read Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

What is lacking is any public perspective beyond liberal reformism. Sharing the liberal aversion to new thinking, the self-designated Left has spurned utopianism, without which radicalism remains a series of anti-capitalist rants. The American Left, sadly following the pattern of most of the European Left, is the party of protest and resistance. Therefore we are in the historical moment of one-dimensionality. Major distinctions between the liberals and the Left are purely tactical.

The liberals are devoted to working within the system, but have lost their taste for incremental change. The Left proclaims that the system is rotten, but seems to have lost its taste for ideas.

Liberals today are in the grip of the Great Fear. They are afraid of losing their comfortable berths in the professions, the unions and the universities. Some have gone over to the enemy, but the larger trend is that activists have gone into political retirement. Among the still active, that fear has produced considerable bad faith: at some level liberals know better, but manage to convince themselves of positions that contradict their beliefs. For example, in 1996, some greeted Bill Clinton’s signing of the welfare reform legislation, ending the only guaranteed income program in American history, as a valid move toward making the poor more self-reliant.

Even liberal fealty to social reform has been relegated to nostalgia. They claim the mantle of the New Deal, but have little will to fight for its unfulfilled programs. Most liberals inside and outside of Congress sided with Obama’s healthcare plan — a huge gift to for-profit insurers — instead of insisting on a single-payer plan that would put these companies out of business. On foreign policy, most liberals support Obama’s pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan at a snail’s pace even as private military companies pick up the slack and the occupations continue without end. As for new wars, liberal Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin argues that the White House should acknowledge that the United States is engaged in “hostilities” against the government of Libya, seeking congressional approval under the War Powers Act. But Durbin hastens to assure his colleagues and Obama that he would oppose cutting off funds for the Libya war.

Liberal institutions, a few major journals of opinion, feminist, civil rights and labor organizations, and intellectuals such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Kuttner nip at the edges of social and foreign affairs by, for example, urging the confirmation of Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and calling on the administration to address the crisis of 25 million jobless and underemployed Americans. But as the two-year-long presidential campaign wears on, liberal commentators, with exceptions such as Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer, carefully elide direct criticism of the Obama administration’s record of right-wing policies. The liberals direct their fire to the Right but are in the throes of their own capitulations. They are stuck in the thrall of hope that Obama really means to change things, that his compromise and parry is prologue, not definitive policy. Lurking beneath these sentiments are the twin specters of Right and Left. Beyond Obama lies the abyss. What is the basis of the great fear?

Since the 1936 election, when the proto-fascist Liberty Party emerged in the face of the Republican collapse before the dazzling success of the New Deal, the liberals have attached themselves to the Democrats, sanctifying them as savior of the people and shield against the right. This fecklessness was reinforced by the grim McCarthy years, an era initiated during the Truman administration with loyalty oaths, the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, the firing of suspect government employees, the Communist trials of 1949 and 1950, and the persecution of countless radicals with jail terms. In the 1950s, most unions, the media and liberal and agricultural organizations purged their staff of Reds, and Hollywood blacklisted many of its major talents.

With a handful of exceptions, liberals fled from their own civil liberties principles and politics itself. Most kept quiet as liberal democratic rights were trampled because they were glad to be rid of radicals and terrified to oppose the authorities. Some intellectuals rationalized their collaboration with McCarthyism by arguing the Communists were not a legitimate political party but agents of the Soviet Union, a conspiracy masquerading in the garb of democracy. Others quixotically celebrated what they perceived as the expansion of freedom for anti-communist intellectuals in the 1950s, turning their heads from the spreading state terror that prompted the government to engage in deportations, some radicals to flee their own country, and others to go into hiding. The eminent liberal critic Lionel Trilling led the pack of “New York Intellectuals” in “choosing the West” as the lesser evil in a bipolar world. Some, like philosopher Sidney Hook, and Partisan Review editor William Phillips actively collaborated with the CIA in purging Communists and independent radicals from cultural organizations.

The state terrorism perpetrated by Democratic and Republican administrations from the late 1940s to the 1960s may seem to be over. However, the political repression remains an underlying force in American politics. We dare not openly debate alternatives to a capitalism that embraces the permanent war economy. The word “socialism,” when pinned to publicly financed healthcare, sends many of its supposed advocates into compromise or denial.

Partly due to the deprivations of the Great Depression, but also because of economic and political uncertainty, few radicals are willing to risk living a public life that carries with it potential costs. There are many radicals and Marxists “of the (comfortable academic) chair” but few who are prepared to put their voices where their ideology is. They teach and write scholarly works, but disdain open opposition to the system. The prevailing tendency, among liberals and the general population as well, has become the quest for security, for certainty where tomorrow is no worse than a repeat of today. There is little tolerance for visionaries, for people willing to plunge into the unknown. In fact, as the epidemic of mental illness and prescription pill-popping attests, tens of millions are seeking refuge from the banality of everyday life. We want no movers and shakers to disturb our mental tranquility, even if that peace is an artificial escape.

At the same time, many liberals are still afflicted by the memory of the 1960s New Left that directed its fire at liberals who, they perceived, had forsaken the fight for a just world. Former radicals who had drifted to the center like Daniel Bell, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset made it a special project to repudiate the Left, calling its minions immature and irresponsible. They even engaged in red-baiting when some student activists declared their support for the Vietnamese Communists.

In fact, the harbingers of mass radicalism, the New Left, parts of the student movement and the militant wing of the black freedom movement that ended by the early 1970s, was the last concrete moment that evinced an outburst of liberal rage. For the first time since the 1920s a visible Left that released a vast quantity of libidinal energy, surfaced.  In addition to committing acts of resistance such as civil disobedience and occasional violence against objects of capitalist and military power, it advanced concepts such as participatory democracy, genuine equality in sex as much as the economy, communal living, the revolt against alienated labor, guaranteed income and socialism that raced through the hearts and minds of young people like a contagious disease.

Liberal faculty at Harvard, Columbia, Michigan and elsewhere recoiled at the rebirth of student activism. They saw little reason for university reform, distanced themselves from the teach-ins against the Vietnam War, and turned their collective backs on black student demands for academic programs addressing their history and culture. The liberals became some of the most forthright defenders of the universities even as these institutions were moving towards corporatization. Liberal intellectuals insisted the universities were bastions of liberty and the New Left was an authoritarian movement bent, perhaps unintentionally, on its destruction.

The ambiguous classic liberal slogan of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — enjoyed a rebirth in the 1960s. But the liberals were not pleased. Having discovered their fealty to the status quo, and in haste to avoid the taint of radicalism, many embraced compromise with the conservatives as a new principle.

Today, we are witnessing variations on traditional liberal ideology. The time-honored concept of equality has been replaced with the slogan of diversity. What R.H. Tawney termed “The Acquisitive Society” in his 1920 book, may permit a plethora of identities, but it has nullified the aspiration for more equality. Once-liberal ideas of redistributive justice, higher taxes on the rich to correct the inequalities of the market and community control of key institutions such as schools, have all but vanished from the modern liberal’s lexicon. The notion that the state can level the class playing field has no high-profile supporters. And while liberals mutter about jobs, the self-evident idea that shorter hours would produce more jobs than any program of government spending has been stricken from the conversation. Even the labor movement — the folks who brought us the weekend — has abandoned its most subversive demand: less alienated work. In the recent struggles around the public sector budget crisis, unions have granted draconian cuts in wages and benefits in order to preserve jobs. Nowhere has the program of shifting the burden of the crisis from working people to the Wall Street and the upper middle class been advanced as a serious alternative.

There has been a steady rightward drift among intellectuals since the 1960s. Tenure, once a system to prevent arbitrary firings, has become a reward for adequate scholarship and teaching. Its erosion over the decades has occurred during the endless fiscal crises of education and the state, producing an underclass of disenfranchised part-time teachers and untenured full-time faculty who observe silence lest their political views and activities jeopardize tenure prospects. The mostly liberal tenured faculty keeps its collective nose to the grindstone, especially in the few hundred elite colleges and universities where relatively ample amenities encourage complacency. The rise of union activism among part-time and some full-time faculty in chronically underfunded institutions carefully presents itself in the garb of conventional trade unionism. Few are willing to step beyond the boundaries of acceptable action, at least before Wisconsin’s public sector teachers, professors and their student allies broke the mold when their backs were to the wall.

We live in a time when liberal reform is dead. Not just because capital waged a successful war on labor and the social welfare state, but also because the liberal opposition is fragmented, their organizations shriveled, their leadership intimidated by the attacks and huddled into corners of impotence. We are at a moment when the liberals will offer the terms of surrender to their adversaries: “cut back Medicare and Social Security, but modestly raise taxes on the wealthy as a symbolic gesture so that we can save face.” They have permitted the Right to seize the initiative and, exceptions by unions notwithstanding, are still plagued by the ghost of the radical movements that still send them into the arms of the neoliberals. In fact, the distinction between the welfare liberals and neoliberals has all but vanished. Despite signs of organized discontent, we are still plagued by a mass psychology of fear. The risk-takers have been relegated to the margins, their numbers overtaken by those seeking security, conformity and compromise. The decline of the radical imagination hobbles attempts at resistance, let alone creating alternatives.

The system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population and the conformity of its intellectuals who, to a large extent, are subjugated to the great fear.

Stanley Aronowitz is a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of more than 25 books, including Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future.

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