The Problem with Liberalism is Liberals

Some time ago, I posted or commented about the fact that the liberal establishment was failing politically because it no longer shared the practical concerns as most Americans and was therefore irrelevant to most voters.
Chris Hedges has an essay on Treason of the Intellectuals over at Truthdig. It is typical Hedges: succinct, passionate and to the point.

The power elite, especially the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power, personal advancement, foundation grants, awards, tenured professorships, columns, book contracts, television appearances, generous lecture fees and social status. [ ] And they will, should their careers require it, happily sell us out again.

The man on the street knows the .5% is out to screw him. He accepts that. What really pisses him off is the pseudo-supportive claptrap from the lefist camp: sympathy but no empathy; lip service rather than a helping hand; theories based on ignorance of what his life is really like.

…it is only when we are not in pursuit of practical aims or material advantages that we can serve as a conscience and a corrective. Those who transfer their allegiance to the practical aims of power and material advantage emasculate themselves intellectually and morally.

I take issue here with Hedges’ lumping ‘practical aims’ and ‘material advantages’ together as precluding a useful and honest role for liberals. There is a place for a stance of pure ‘concscience’ but by itself, it is limited. Someone has to use it as guidance and motivation for action. The problem isn’t that liberal intellectuals are liberal or intellectual – it’s that that’s all they are. Noam Chomsky has a lot of balls and speaks truth to power, as does Hedges, but Cesar Chavez accomplished more ‘on the ground’. Chris et al have put themselves at some risk career-wise, but striking miners put their lives on the line. Until the Liberal Establishment is willing to do that – inspired by a sense of decency and common humanity – it is doomed to remaining meaningless to most people.

And bottom line:

Those who doggedly challenge the orthodoxy of belief, who question the reigning political passions, who refuse to sacrifice their integrity to serve the cult of power, are pushed to the margins. They are denounced by the very people who, years later, will often claim these moral battles as their own. It is only the outcasts and the rebels who keep truth and intellectual inquiry alive. They alone name the crimes of the state. They alone give a voice to the victims of oppression. They alone ask the difficult questions. Most important, they expose the powerful, along with their liberal apologists, for what they are.

34 Replies to “The Problem with Liberalism is Liberals”

  1. Well, anyone who keeps repeating mantras, such as “we need to do what FDR did,” is not a liberal, which means someone who is “not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” Being a liberal would tend to requiire the ability for original thought, not a merely Democratic version of spouting talking points.

    More specific to politics, the British liberal espouses “ideals of individual especially economic freedom and greater individual participation in government.” I don’t know how these ideas a promoted by things like welfare programs, and WPA-type programs and taxing the rich. I daresay I will be demonized over the last one, but…

    Seems to me liberals would be better engaged in corporate, labor and election reform.

    1. And it is a triumph of modern politics that the party in power can ape meeting the “ideals of individual especially economic freedom and greater individual participation in government” and still produce political outcomes that are definably more conservative. Seen both Liberal and Conservative (Canadian political parties) governments do this over the past 20 years from a distance of approximately three feet.

      I’ve become not a very big believer in the notion that liberalism (or conservatism) is well defined by desired end states – seems to me that it’s more about how the processes work. Which means that it isn’t something that is particularly easy to state simply and it requires a significant degree of insight into the workings of government on specific issues.

      1. It’s mathematically impossible to have minimal liberty and social choice, let alone avoiding catastrophic collapses. Say’s Law is wrong in both theory and practice, and this has been known for 80 years.

        1. What we have seen in Canada over the past, oh 15 years or so, has been systemic shifts in the political consultation process to downplay the role of intervening organizations in favour of direct citizen participation. At the same time, the primary focus of civil servants has been shifted from program development to program administration (with program development being arrogated to the political echelon). The net effect of this has been something that can be superficially sold as greater individual participation in government, but has ended up producing ever more conservative program/policy.

          1. Participation only matters to the extent that there is power. If the first assumption of every political debate is “whatever we do the rich must get richer.” the politics becomes a series of fights over a zero-sum economy, and which social give aways will smooth feelings enough to get people to vote against their greater economic interests.

  2. Don’t have much time before running out the door, but any discussion of liberalism and populism needs to examine the failure of their respective social systems. Liberals can write a book on why populism shackles them, and what they mean for the most part is why bottom up structures fail, populists can write books on why liberals betray, and about half of that, is why technocracy is bloodless and reptilian.

    Resolving the problems of social implementation are one of the large problems of our time, because the default to no solving them is the iron law of wages (what Smith would call the fall to subsistence, and Marx emmiseration through alienation).

  3. “A liberal is the guy who leaves the room when a fight starts” – Big Bill Haywood

    From the Avocado Declaration by Peter Camej, written during Nader’s Green Party run in 2004 and still completely relevant

    The Democratic Party … acts as a “broker” negotiating and selling influence among broad layers of the people to support the objectives of corporate rule. The Democratic Party’s core group of elected officials is rooted in careerists seeking self-promotion by offering to the corporate rulers their ability to control and deliver mass support. And to the people they offer some concessions, modifications on the platform of the Republican Party. One important value of the Democratic Party to the corporate world is that it makes the Republican Party possible through the maintenance of the stability that is essential for “business as usual.” It does this by preventing a genuine mass opposition from developing. Together the two parties offer one of the best frameworks possible with which to rule a people that otherwise would begin to move society towards the rule of the people (i.e. democracy).

  4. I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and mis-representatives of the masses–you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be
    with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
    — Eugene V Debs

    So Hedges is not addressing a new phenomenon. A couple of trends have exacerbated it. One is the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to denote a package of economic and social beliefs. “Conservative” has come to mean privileging property and controlling personal behavior. “Liberal” has come to mean granting some minimal economic rights to everybody and restricting government from dictating personal behavior. In fact, the packages have split up. Many people consider themselves liberals or conservatives based on the social beliefs, but in fact adopt economic beliefs based on their own economic status. This muddies the discussion.

    Second, the concept of meritocracy carried the day from the seventies onward. This allows, even requires, economic hierarchies. And this essentially cuts any remaining cords between the “leaders” and the rank and file.

    And third is the ever-present issue of the level of information that most people are willing or able to devote the time to get. If they have significant family and community responsibilities and the need to earn some kind of living, they are left more susceptible to the propaganda state’s blandishments, and any state is going to propagandize for the powerful.

    Hedges is right that the liberal elite do not put our welfare first, but no power elite does. I’d suggest that we work on propagating the definition of liberalism rather than primarily going after the liberal elite, who think they’re liberal because they support gay marriage and legalization of marijuana, and think a few more children should have access to Medicaid.

    1. I’m interested in your position of meritocracies requiring economic hierarchies. I see your point, but wonder what’s the alternative? I may be too much a product of my culture, but I can’t even fathom not having some reward for working harder or smarter than the next person.

      1. The old answer in Western Philosophy is that the good life is its own reward, and using ones abilities to the fullest is part of any reasonable definition of the good life (something both Aristotle and Plato actually agreed on, as did Thucydides). The assumption here is that each political unit (polis) is in competition with others, and to prevent being overwhelmed, economically, militarily, culturally, its members have to achieve excellence.

        The reason that monetary reward has become so important, is that there is no generally accepted over arching project worth sacrificing consumption in the present for, hence everything is about who gets what of a pie that may not be stable, but which we cannot increase the size of by any particular means. Once everything becomes about which billionaire gets richer, then the only rewards are those which are bestowed in the present: fame, wealth, ease.

        One reason global warming is such a point of contention, is that it is an overwhelming project which requires shifting effort from consumption, to investment, and externalization of cost is something the market controls poorly.

      2. dk,
        Current culture does in fact define “some reward” as being financial only. It also defines work as a dreary undertaking to be avoided if possible. And all of this in spite of the evidence that external incentives (e.g., merit pay) are counterproductive for any but the simplest task.

        Really, think through your state of mind as you do things. Are you more motivated by money than by sense of accomplishment, contribution to your community, inherent interest in the work? Do you really think, “I’m going to work less and dumber until there’s an opportunity to get more money for making any kind of effort”? Current culture does encourage a sense of grievance based on the “I work harder than all these other people, so I should get more money.” But the manufactured sense of grievance says little about actual human motivations.

        1. Paying people more doesn’t always get more from them, but paying people less gets less. The system we have uses the lottery effect, people are willing to work very hard to be a great deal better off.

        2. My recollection is that the research indicates that the other things that motivate performance for non-widget producing include things like agency, control over destiny, seeing productive contributions to agreed goals, etc. (I’d have to dig a bit to find the definitive list, but it was definitely this type of thing). That does suggest to me that it isn’t only things like fame, wealth and ease.

          1. It’s been a while since I had to do incentivization, but the empirical data was very clear. A chance at a great deal of money motivated a few super-performers, the chance of slightly more money motivated a few grinders. Non-mons topped out, because people realized after 12 months that they were still peons.

          2. The data that I have seen summarized indicated that effective incentives varied according to the nature of the work. More money for more widgets worked – more money for more types of other tasks didn’t work as effectively as alternative forms of compensation.

          3. I’ve been lucky to work for a couple of great companies in the last 50 years (as well as some less-than-great). Good salary and benefits took raw need out of the picture. What was left and what motivated me to extraordinary efforts was being treated with compassion and respect, feeling the work was important and being given considerable autonomy. I was told what needed to be done but I decided how best to do it and nobody argued with my decisions, even when they sometimes questioned hem. (I’ve never understood hiring a expert, then ignoring his advice or micromanaging him). I was fortunate to be able to work in a ‘money-isn’t-everything’ environment, but that sort of workplace is rare. In most shops, it is ‘all about the money’. That’s one reason I’m not too upset about being retired in a couple of weeks.

            I agree that most of the people pontificating on both sides of most any issue lack the knowledge to pontificate accurately, I would question why those who do have the knowledge either hide their light under a bushel or are studiously ignored by one and all. Either nobody knows what the hell is going on or all those who do know are in cahoots at suppressing the knowledge for the sake of their own agenda, whether that be political, financial or just ego gratification.

            Whether those in power want the facts to be public or suppressed, those who know the truth have an obligation to the rest of the world to share their knowledge.
            When you denigrate those who engage in polemics as under-informed, it sounds like you’re saying that the only people who know the facts in military, political & financial matters are those in positions such that they cannot or will not reveal the truth. If that’s the case, I don’t know why we bother.

            BTW: You are obviously better informed on military/political matters than I or most of the blogosphere, including some well-known figures. I – and probably a lot of others – would dearly love to see you lay out your understanding of the Real Politik of today’s world. Like Churchill, I’m always ready to learn, even if I don’t always like being taught. 🙂

          4. The folks who theoretically going on suffer from the fact that the more they know, the less sure they are. In the policy world, the answer is always “It depends”. Anyone who tells you anything different on anything of any significant complexity doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. They will be passionately sure that they do and they will bitch very vocally about everyone who does not agree, but under no circumstances should they be let near the levers of power.

            As to me, I think you misunderstand my purpose for doing any of this. It’s not to provide answers – it’s to provide insights that might lead to better questions. Answers one has to find for themselves (see the above re. “it depends”) and what’s right in one circumstance is wrong in another very similar circumstance. If one knows how to ask the right question, then one is equipped for tomorrow – if all one knows is answers, well, then one had better hope that tomorrow hews very close to the past.

        3. My follow-up did not distinguish between two separate issues with meritocracy. One is that meritocracy is used to justify large differences in economic reward. That addressed the liberals vs. liberal leaders of the original post.

          The other is that merit pay is counterproductive. I muddied the waters by implying that no one is motivated by money. In fact, many people are very motivated by it, but they are motivated to win the evaluation criteria — quarterly stock prices for CEOs, standardized test scores for teachers, most profitable procedure for professionals such as doctors, financial advisors, et al. The measured criterion displaces the goal that is supposed to be encouraged, and narrows the person’s range of thought. It also motivates flat-out corruption at a very high level.

          I think both points are important. Meritocracy creates the large inequalities that separate liberal leaders from those they’re supposed to be advocating for. Authoritarians think the inequalities harness human nature to desired goals and are good for us all because of the better outcomes. The second point says this isn’t true — the outcomes produced by meritocracy are worse.

          1. I like this Debs quote:

            I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

            he at least acknowledges the sheep like qualities of the masses.

  5. Authentic liberals are not the problem, but many wear the badge and practice something entirely different.

    In my mind, liberalism has little or nothing to do with left or right, but instead tolerance of others and rights and responsibilities of individuals.

    You are your brother’s keeper.

    1. That’s the first definition of liberal that I’ve heard that would actually attract people now. I know a few small to medium size business owners who are very liberal as executives (treat their employees very well) but have more conservative political beliefs, fiscally based.

      It is interesting to see the Republicans don the “liberal” mantle as they backpeddle on immigration and gay marriage. You’d think they were born again, conceived of electoral necessity.

      1. One of my sons defines himself as liberal on social issues and conservative on financial issues and formally calls himself libertarian. The problem with that is that when it the interests of the common people conflicts with the interests of the wealthy, that sort always sides with the wealthy.

        I think Hedges’ anger was directed at the hypocrisy of the ‘professionally progressives’ who adopt liberal postures either after the fact or when it doesn’t matter. It has certainly struck me in recent years that there have been what I might call pseudo-Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama whose party affiliations had do do more with which getting elected than with their actual beliefs. I live in a very Red county and if I had local political ambitions, I would get nowhere as a Democrat.

        1. Could not hit reply on your lower comment so will tag it here:

          ” I would question why those who do have the knowledge either hide their light under a bushel or are studiously ignored by one and all. ”

          “Nobody could have predicted.” Means that if you predicted it, you are a nobody. When the elite want something to be done, they make backing a qualification for continued membership. Example: Iraq. Even among liberal writers who got permanent status, supporting, or at least ineffectual “raising questions” on, Iraq was a sin a qua anonymity.

          The standard now is simple, if it did not cause complete catastrophe, it was OK. That means since disaster is not enough to make change, that is what will happen, catastrophe. Nothing else convinces the gerontocracy, and nothing less will motivate the younger crowd.

  6. Here’s our liberal president and the fruits of his thoughtful governing.

    And to think, we’re being groomed by the corporate media for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the alternative to the Obama fiasco.

    Never has so much been at stake and so little done as under the Obama administration.

    Bush was more directly destructive but we still had a window after him. Now it is being slammed shut by Obama, the phantom of political history.

  7. I’d have a lot more patience with this if it wasn’t so obviously going to lead to more of the same. That demonizing the opposition while casting oneself as the hero? View it through a different lens and it looks an awful lot like the same stuff the folks being excoriated now thought themselves to be doing then. Big problem here? What all of these guys know/knew is insufficient to the task. I remember the arguments for and against and they had one thing in common – they were all very fucking scarce on datapoints.

    The most important question is whether this type of “retrospective” is going to make anyone smarter about this type of thing. Not fucking likely. The big problem with Liberalism / Progressivism? Most people focus more on keeping track of how they’re scoring than they do on doing anything real.

      1. What it refers to is that Hedges says that there was opposition to the war, but then names none of the others who, like him, were opposed. If one wants to make the argument that there was some critical mass of folks who were “right” that were nefariously shut down, then surely they’re worth naming. However, all we get from this is that Hedges was wronged and the few who are named are identified as being systematically pushed to the margins on the Israel issue.

        Me, frankly, I think the big problem is that substantially all of the commentators hugely overreach on just about everything so that they can justify themselves – doesn’t matter whether they’re on the left or the right, whether they were for or against Iraq. The big story here isn’t that some group of intellectuals “sold out” and suppressed others through groupthink. The real story is that the bar for what passes as intellectual commentary on matters as important as war is so low. I see no indication from any of this that any of the folks involved – for or against – are taking any measures that aren’t completely self-interested.

      2. Oh, and politically I would describe myself as a tired pragmatist. I’ve gotten to the point that I don’t worry about politics anymore. The practitioners are almost without exception sub-standard and most of the commentators are amateurs. There are some actual professionals involved, but they have come to be “technicians” primarily occupied with finding issues that they can gain transitory advantage over the technical professionals on the other side – substantially none of those in the ascendancy have any substantive vision sustaining what they do (i.e., it’s purely about “winning” not about being able to implement a coherent vision).

  8. You said:

    The man on the street knows the .5% is out to screw him.

    They do know b.s. when they see it. After six years of the Republican monopoly, the people voted in Democrats in 2006. They waited and voted in Obama in 2008. They waited. Then in 2010, they’d had enough and it was a Republican landslide. Some of that was due to redistricting, the ultimate election fraud. But enough was due to waiting and seeing nothing from the Democrats. The Republican landslide was due to low turnout by Democrats and independents. They knew the score and said, “Why bother?”

    Hedges theme is a good one to streee but, at the same time, it’s well known to the people. The Democratic Party is the foil for Liberals … Just give Obama his second term to sort things out. We’re a year into it and nothing on jobs, more war, one nominee, Hagel, who looks good but will probably be cancelled out by the overwhelming sympathies for endless war, proxy or otherwise.

    To put your post in perspective, consider this. Obama had the most liberal or one of the most liberal voting records of any Senator when he started the primaries. Guess he has some memory problems. What liberal would spend a couple of hours every Friday approving assassination targets (as per the NYT story leaked by the White House)?

  9. Until the Liberal Establishment is willing to do that – inspired by a sense of decency and common humanity – it is doomed to remaining meaningless to most people.

    It’s not meaningless at all. It’s actively harmful.

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