The varieties of leftism and the social democracy of fear

I linked below to this great post by Russell Arben Fox, which is in turn a riff on this post from Crooked Timber’s Chris Bertram. The original post identified four streams of left-wing politics and mused about what direction the European left should go in. Russell takes Bertram’s typology and applies it to the U.S. He notes a similar set of groupings:

–The neoliberal technocratic left: This is basically the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Its basic tenets are managed economic growth and sufficient redistribution to ensure a relative degree of equality. In the U.S. neoliberals are distinguished from older (paleo?) liberals by their greater embrace of market capitalism and relative skepticism toward old-school big government welfare programs, nationalization, regulation, etc. Post-Reagan Democrats we might say.

–The populist/nationalist left: This is a group that isn’t really represented among the political and pundit class, but could potentially have a significant grass-roots support. This would be, I think, your classic pro-union/working-class coalition. This is a group that is sometimes alienated from the first group in virtue of both its greater mistrust of capitalism and its greater degree of social conservatism. As Russell points out, these days populism and nationalism are more commonly found on the Right and almost inextricably bound up with anti-immigrant sentiment.

–The eco-left: Russell identifies this with a sort of free-floating mélange of Greens, anarchists, localists, pacifists, and other independent-minded lefties. In outlook it’s generally decentralist and participatory, both localist and cosmopolitan, small-d democratic, and small-l libertarian. These are the kind of people who tend to make up activist movements and local movements for change outside official political channels.

–The old/hard left: Pro-socialist if not outright communist, this version of the left has a pretty marginal presence in American life. Although, as Russell notes, democratic socialists like Michael Harrington have had a significant (and generally salutary) effect on the broader stream of American liberalism.

In my heart of hearts I probably would identify most with what Russell calls the “eco-left,” although I have significant sympathies with the pro-union outlook of the populists. (Like Russell, I don’t think these are necessarily mutually exclusive.) My ideal polity would probably be a lot more decentralized, pacifistic, small scale, green/agrarian, localist, participatory, and small-l libertarian than the current U.S. However, like a lot of people in the broadly left-of-center camp, in practice I support and vote for neoliberal Democrats (like, say, Barack Obama) who, when you really break it down, I don’t have all that much in common with ideologically.

Partly this is pragmatism, but I also think it has to do with the fact that I’ve become more tempered in my localist and libertarian sympathies. I’ve become more convinced of the need–at least for the foreseeable future–for the national government to play a significant role in ensuring basic entitlements, a robust social safety net, and a strong regulatory state. Partly this is because calls for “local control,” “decentralization” and the like are often covers for eviscerating the safety net and the regulatory state. But also it’s because I’m not sure what entity apart from the national government is actually capable of putting some kind of democratic fetters on industry and capital and curtailing the abuse of private power. I’m definitely interested in thinking about ways of balancing the public good with private power that don’t rely on an overweening and bureaucratic state and that are more democratic, localist, and participatory. But at the same time, when pillars of the post-New Deal welfare state are under increasing attack, which threatens the already tenuous position of some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society, it seems urgent to muster at least two cheers for big government liberalism. This is largely the spirit of what the late social thinker Tony Judt called “the social democracy of fear“:

If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

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2 thoughts on “The varieties of leftism and the social democracy of fear

  1. Excellent write-up, Lee–and thanks for the link!

    I’ve become more convinced of the need–at least for the foreseeable future–for the national government to play a significant role in ensuring basic entitlements, a robust social safety net, and a strong regulatory state. Partly this is because calls for “local control,” “decentralization” and the like are often covers for eviscerating the safety net and the regulatory state.

    I agree, which makes the balancing act for anyone on the left in America these days particularly hard. (The Affordable Care Act is monumentally problematic in its design–too much power to private insurers!–and its execution–too much authority to the central government!–and yet, it is an absolutely necessary step, if any kind of egalitarianism in regards to the looming health economy crash is going to be maintained.) In my fantasies, this is part of the reason why group #2 is so important: they are a locally and/or culturally grounded group, directly participating in their own economic lives through unions, etc., and yet their whole raison d’etre is maintaining some general evenness in the economy. But of course, at the present time, #2 isn’t very powerful, and is getting less powerful by the day, which means there is that much less balance to neoliberal centralizers doing whatever they think best, confident that all us leftists will still vote for them…which we probably will.

  2. Pingback: Why Leftists Should Embrace (Some) Charter Schools — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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