Monday, February 28, 2011

The Socialism of the Future?

Right Democrat has an excellent post on worker-owned cooperatives. While I understand that there are still many people on the Left who find the idea of worker-owned cooperatives as an alternative to corporate capitalism to be a left-libertarian pipe dream, I still contend that cooperatives must be a component of any kind of socialism of the future. Soviet-style central planning proved to be a failure on a number of levels while purely "parliamentary" social democracy suffers from the fact that as long as private capitalists can take their profits to spend on think tanks, lobbyists, and political campaigns, there will always be the threat of a resurgence of right-wing economics. Indeed, this is pretty much what happened in many countries starting in the 1970s. Right-wingers built up a powerful network of think tanks, publications, and other institutions and when chinks in the Keynesian armor began to appear, the Right pounced and brought us neoliberalism. Some form of guild socialism just might be the answer to some of the problems traditional social democracy has faced in the past.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not My Conservatism

Lord Keynes has a great post on the recent election in Ireland, and it looks like the Irish are definitely rejecting the austerity straitjacket. However, there are still plots afoot to impose austerity on other parts of Europe and the United States. The United States has already experienced a kind of “stealth austerity” at the local and state levels, but it can still get much, much worse, especially if the most “conservative” Republicans get their way.

The reality of austerity, including the destruction of livelihoods, the forced emigration, and especially the toll austerity takes on family formation among the young, makes one wonder about the state of modern conservatism. Conservatives are always complaining about low birth rates and the decline of marriage in the West, but one look at Latvia, the austerity poster child and the neoliberal model that we are all supposed to follow, and we can see that the reality is very different. Indeed, more and more I am convinced that what John Kenneth Galbraith said about modern conservatism is definitely true: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Older forms of conservatism, whether the British tradition of Edmund Burke or the Continental tradition represented by Joseph de Maistre and others, had the benefit of being about more than just fighting for the most powerful capitalists in society. Indeed, many traditionalist conservatives, such as the Vicomte de Bonald, were very much opposed to capitalism as it was seen as a kind of anti-conservative, revolutionary force. To be sure, the traditionalist conservatives had their faults, certainly, but at least they held onto some principles that can be translated into support for the common people and opposition to turbo-capitalism. How can you really support the Throne and the Altar when you worship at the stock exchange and bow before the throne of Mammon?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shock Doctrine, U.S.A.

Paul Krugman writes on how the Republicans are taking the opportunities created by the Great Recession to attack labor unions and give more of the commons over to vulture capitalists. A must read.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Anti-Populist Tea Party

Tina Dupuy has a good piece on how anti-populist the Tea Party really is, and how the real populists are the union members protesting neoliberal attacks on the rights of workers. Please give it a read.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Open Letter to Social Conservatives

News has it that the Obama Administration will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Obama has already helped to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, which barred openly gay or lesbian people from serving in the U.S. military. As a social conservative, I don’t agree with any of this, but I understand that many people, especially in the Democratic base, are delighted by these decisions. But what about the other sectors of the Democratic base? What about workers? Where is the big jobs bill? Where is the modern WPA? Where is the tough financial regulation? Where are the efforts to at least renegotiate NAFTA?

The reality in America is that our elite class does not care much about defending social traditionalism. The Republicans will put up some kind of a fight over Obama’s actions regarding DOMA, but it probably won’t amount to much in practical terms. A good portion of the GOP’s “Tea Party” base is not even interested in social/cultural issues. They are more worried about economic issues like government spending and union contracts. By and large, the American elite supports social liberalism and economic neoliberalism. The fusionists can write all the weepy books about family values and the free market fitting together like a horse and carriage, but those who are awake recognize that the GOP uses social/cultural issues to whip up some parts of its base during election time, and then once in office, fights hard for plutocracy. For the last thirty years, the Democrats have been playing the same game, only with their economically populist voters. Democratic politicians on the campaign trail will speak eloquently about “Two Americas” or “Benedict Arnold Corporations” but will also support plutocracy when they get into office, although perhaps not as zealously as the Republicans. 

It is very likely that we are looking at a future where the population is ruled by a permanent oligarchy that exercises a soft form of consumer totalitarianism. You can get married to practically anybody you want, have all kinds of stimulating entertainment at your fingertips, and have some basic level of animal comfort, just as long as you don’t particularly care about challenging the economic order. 

Giuseppe Dossetti warned Italy’s Christian Democrats that consumerism, not communism, would destroy Christian Italy. Dossetti turned out to be correct, not just about Italy but about the entire West. For too long, social conservatives have been stuck in the Cold War mentality that sees everything as a titanic struggle between Christianity and atheistic communism. Now that communism has been defeated, social conservatives have found out that the system they have spent decades defending has always been the secret enemy. Trying to return to a laissez-faire golden age, however, is not the answer. Social liberalism is really the byproduct of modern economic development. Bringing the First World’s population down to Third World standards of living via fanatical free market policies in the hope that it will “toughen” people up and return us to an age of puritanical morality is both wrongheaded and cruel. 

Instead, social conservatives need to develop a unified worldview that promotes socially conservative goals while also respecting pluralism and democracy. It may be true that we cannot turn the clock back on some issues. However, there are ways to win some victories even if we cannot get everything we want. To a certain extent, this reality is what drives me to push the economic issues so hard. I hope I am wrong, but it may be true that social conservatism is likely to see many more defeats in the First World, at least in the short term. Voting for mainstream conservative parties does not seem to halt the progress of social liberalism, but it certainly advances the cause of economic neoliberalism. Essentially, this is a lose-lose scenario. 

By focusing on destroying the individualistic, materialistic, and utilitarian foundations of economic liberalism, social conservatives can then make the case that without some respect for social traditionalism we will have a repeat of the hippies-turned-yuppies debacle of the late 20th Century. At the very least, we will have helped working-class families obtain the economic base to allow them to hopefully cultivate a private traditionalism. And that would be a significant victory all by itself.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Divide and Conquer

Robert Reich has an excellent piece on the Republican Party's strategy to destroy solidarity and pit regular Americans against each other, all for the benefit of the super-rich minority. Please give the article a read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Giovanni Gronchi and Catholic Laborism


Part Three in a series of pieces on the Italian Social Catholics.

Following the end of World War II, the left-wing of Italian Christian Democracy was intellectually dominated by the former anti-fascist partisan Giuseppe Dossetti and his circle, including Giorgio La Pira, Amintore Fanfani, and Giuseppe Lazzati.  Known collectively as the dossettiani and sometimes as the “Little Professors” because of their relative youth and academic backgrounds, the Dossetti circle is the best known of the left-wing factions of Democrazia Cristiana (DC). However, there was also a vibrant Catholic labor movement in Italy, often called the “white” labor movement to distinguish it from the “red” labor movements associated with socialism or communism. Perhaps the most prominent Italian Catholic laborite of the post-war era was Giovanni Gronchi, whose own ideas about Catholic social action are an important chapter in the history of Italy’s Social Catholic tradition. 

Giovanni Gronchi was born on September 10, 1887 in the town of Pontedera in the Tuscany region of Italy. He received an education in literature and philosophy and spent the years from 1911 to 1915 teaching Classics at secondary schools in various Italian towns. Gronchi’s earliest political experience came with the Christian political movement of the Catholic priest Don Romolo Murri, a man who pioneered Catholic political action at a time when many Catholics were opposed to any kind of cooperation with the government of the Kingdom of Italy, the same government that had deprived the Pope of the Papal States. After serving in the Italian military during World War I, Gronchi helped to found the Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI) or the Italian Popular Party, along with Don Luigi Sturzo and Alcide De Gasperi, in 1919. While Gronchi had a successful political career (he was elected to parliament in 1919 and 1921), it was Gronchi’s work with Catholic labor unions that would define his career. 

Gronchi was made director of the Confederation of Christian Workers in 1920 and his success in the labor movement eventually earned Gronchi the attention of the new Fascist government of Italy. In 1922, Gronchi was appointed Undersecretary of Industry and Commerce under the new regime of Benito Mussolini. However, Gronchi would only stay in this position for a year, eventually resigning in 1923. Gronchi resumed his work with the Catholic labor movement, a dangerous position as the Fascist regime violently suppressed the independent labor unions.

During the period of Fascist oppression, Gronchi argued strongly against Catholic cooperation with Mussolini’s regime. Gronchi made his argument from the point of view of the poorer members of society. Gronchi maintained that if Catholicism became identified with Fascism, it would lose the support of the peasants and workers who were suffering under Fascist oppression. However, unlike the Catholic liberals, Gronchi also noted that many peasants and workers in Italy had already become alienated from the Church because of the perception that it was a vehicle for reactionary politics. Gronchi maintained that Catholic politicians must oppose both hopeless reaction and violent revolution. 

Under pressure from the Fascist government, Gronchi eventually had to end his formal political career and even his career as a schoolteacher (Gronchi refused to join the National Fascist Party or to swear the oath to defend Fascism, as was required of all teachers in Mussolini’s Italy). Instead, Gronchi made his living as a businessman until 1943, when the Fascist regime collapsed and Gronchi returned to active politics. 

Gronchi quickly resumed his position as a left-wing Christian politician and labor union leader. He made alliances with Giuseppe Dossetti’s left-wing faction of the newly-formed Christian Democratic Party. While an ally of the dossettiani, Gronchi’s major power base was the Catholic labor movement, resulting in the Gronchi faction having a less academic and more purely laborite view of politics. Gronchi’s Catholic laborite faction had its own journal Politica Sociale, which ran alongside the Cronache Sociali of the dossettiani. Gronchi’s faction tended to be less aggressive than Dossetti’s, but the two shared many similarities. Gronchi, for example, supported an “opening to the Left” and opposed the ejection of the Socialists and Communists from the national government in 1947. Gronchi also favored Italian autonomy in foreign policy and opposed a tight alliance with the United States, as did Dossetti. 

Much of the rest of Gronchi’s political career was spent trying to end the paralyzing polarization of Italian political life.  Having spent most of his political career working in the labor movement, Gronchi understood the attraction many workers felt toward socialism and communism. Gronchi believed that Italians could avoid both neo-fascist reaction and left-wing revolutionary violence only by building a functioning Italian democracy, and this would require bringing the Socialists and Communists into the government, “taming” them, making them less revolutionary and more reformist. An opening to the Left would also hopefully detach the Italian Left from the Soviet Union and help make Italian autonomy in foreign policy more feasible by breaking out of the dualism of the Cold War. 

In 1955, Gronchi was elected President of Italy with the support of left-wing Christian Democrats and the Socialists and Communists. Gronchi would continue to serve as President of Italy until 1962, and during that time he would continue to work to heal the divisions caused by the Cold War, including taking a trip to the Soviet Union in February of 1960. Gronchi’s early attempt at an “opening to the Left” and the development of a democratic Italy autonomous in foreign affairs was a precursor to Aldo Moro’s later attempts toward largely the same goals during the 1970s. Giovanni Gronchi passed away in Rome on October 17, 1978.

Giovanni Gronchi’s experience among the workers and peasants who made up Italy’s labor movement provided him with important insights into how the Church was perceived by the mass of ordinary laypeople. Gronchi understood that for the Church to maintain its reputation as the defender of the poor, it had to take actions to avoid being branded as reactionary by left-wing opponents. This meant taking seriously the plight of the poor and workers and fighting on their behalf against injustice. Gronchi’s thought went hand in hand with his work with the Catholic labor unions. Catholic social thought and action were united in the person of Giovanni Gronchi and in the labor movement he pioneered. In today’s world of anti-worker austerity, we would do well to look to Gronchi and the spirit of Catholic laborism.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Giorgio La Pira: The Saintly Mayor


Part Two in a series of pieces on the Italian Social Catholics.

On April 26, 2004, Italy celebrated the centenary of Giorgio La Pira. On that occasion, in a meeting with representatives from the National Association of Italian Municipalities, Pope John Paul II praised the former mayor of Florence as a man who “set forth with firmness his ideas as a believer and as a man who loved peace, inviting his interlocutors to a common effort to promote this basic good in various spheres: in society, politics, the economy, cultures and among religions.” Eighteen years earlier, in 1986, the formal process for the cause of the beatification of Giorgio La Pira began.

Even before his death, Giorgio La Pira was already considered a living saint by some in Italy.  His clothes were alleged to have miraculous healing powers. Amintore Fanfani, La Pira’s friend and fellow Christian Democrat, was reported to have used an old hat of La Pira’s to cure minor illnesses suffered by his children. Who was this man?  

Giorgio La Pira was born on January 09, 1904 in Pozzallo, a town in the province of Ragusa in Sicily. Born the eldest of six children, La Pira’s family was not wealthy. His father, Gaetano, worked in a packing house. However, like many Italian children, La Pira was brought up in a Catholic household that valued education. After moving to Messina to live with an uncle, La Pira received both a traditional education in the Classics as well as a business education, receiving a degree in accounting. Law school was the next step in an academic career that would eventually see the cheerful Sicilian awarded the Chair of Roman Law at the University of Florence in 1933. 

While beloved by his students, La Pira eventually ran afoul of Italy’s Fascist regime. Having helped found the anti-fascist magazine Principles in 1939, La Pira became a target of Mussolini’s police, prompting La Pira to seek refuge in the Vatican City where he worked for L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See. After the end of World War II, La Pira played an important role in shaping the future of the Italian Republic. As part of the Constituent Assembly, La Pira helped craft the new Italian constitution, standing firmly in favor of the legal indissolubility of the family and championing the authority of fathers within the family. In 1948, La Pira went to work for the government of Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi as Undersecretary of Labor in the Ministry of Employment and Social Insurance.

During his period in the national government, La Pira became associated with the left-wing of the Christian Democratic Party, along with Giuseppe Dossetti, Amintore Fanfani, and Giuseppe Lazzati. Known as the “Little Professors” because of their impressive academic credentials and Christian idealism, the friends founded the journal Cronache Sociali, a left-leaning journal of Christian social thinking. La Pira’s writings on economics were heavily influenced by John Maynard Keynes and other British sources including Stafford Cripps and the Labour Party in general. For La Pira and many of his allies on the left-wing of the Christian Democratic Party, Clement Attlee’s Labour government in Great Britain was the model that post-war Italy ought to follow on questions of economics. 

When La Pira became Mayor of Florence in 1951, he brought with him many of the economic ideas he developed while writing for the Cronache Sociali and working in the national government on problems of unemployment and other socio-economic issues. These ideas would be put to the test in a concrete fashion when La Pira was faced with a city suffering from high unemployment and a housing shortage. Wasting little time, La Pira’s administration burst into action, developing a number of public works projects designed to alleviate the city’s unemployment problem. Under La Pira’s watch, bridges destroyed during the war were rebuilt, water works and public transportation systems were repaired or built, low-cost public housing was constructed for the homeless residents of the city, and various artistic and cultural programs were developed. La Pira’s vision for Florence was a city of self-sufficient neighbourhoods with a vibrant cultural life. 

Of course, La Pira’s administration is probably most famous for its extensive policy of municipalisation that earned him the love of workers and the hatred of many industrialists. In 1955, La Pira’s city government took over a failed foundry and turned over its operation to the workers, allowing them to elect their bosses from among their own ranks. In response to changes in national government policy that allowed evictions from rent-controlled apartments, La Pira requisitioned old Fascist buildings and even the villas of wealthy Florentines for the purpose of rehousing evicted tenants. 

In perhaps his most famous action as Mayor of Florence, La Pira saved hundreds of jobs at the Pignone industrial plant, which at that time was making cotton-spinning machines for the textile industry. Due to a slump in demand in the textile business, Pignone was being closed down by its private owners. However, the workers refused to leave, sleeping and taking meals in the factory and continuing to work the machines. La Pira joined the workers in attending Mass and worked with the union leadership to find a resolution to the problem of the plant’s closure. Eventually, La Pira was able to convince Enrico Mattei, the head of ENI, Italy’s powerful state-run energy corporation, to take over the factory and place it under public ownership, thus saving more than one thousand jobs. 

La Pira’s generosity with the public treasury was only matched by his own personal attitude toward those in need. It was not unusual to find the Mayor of Florence walking about with no shoes, no coat, and no umbrella, because he had given away his clothing to the poor. La Pira, who was a Dominican tertiary, lived in an unheated monastery cell in the Basilica of San Marco, although he sometimes lodged with a doctor friend when it was especially cold outside.  His behaviour caused him to be dubbed “the Saint” by the people of Florence. Indeed, despite the fact that he was hated by many businessmen in Italy, their allies in the Christian Democratic Party could not afford to replace La Pira with another candidate as he was seen as the only person who could defeat the Communists in left-wing Florence. 

After La Pira served his final year as Mayor of Florence in 1964, he largely devoted himself to the cause of international peace, working to bring an end to conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East in particular. His work in favour of disarmament and Third World development also merit mention, and the bespectacled Sicilian even travelled to Chile to try to prevent the coup d'état against President Salvador Allende. 

In 1976, Giorgio La Pira returned to active politics at the request of the Christian Democratic Party. Despite ill-health, La Pira stood for election and won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. La Pira’s last actions as a politician reflect the changing problems of the world he lived in. La Pira was a vehement opponent of abortion and fought against its legalization, with L’Osservatore Romano running his article “Confronting Abortion” on its front page on March 19, 1976. La Pira also spoke out against the increasing violence and materialism of modern society, connecting his opposition to abortion to his support for disarmament and world peace. 
On November 05, 1977, Giorgio La Pira passed away. His funeral was unsurprisingly well attended, and the attendees included the thousands of workers whose jobs he saved at the Pignone factory and elsewhere.

Perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Democratic Left, La Pira actively embodied the ideals of a Christian version of social democracy. La Pira put into action his statement that every person was entitled to “a job, a house, and music,” even if it caused many people within his own Christian Democratic Party to accuse him of statism or “spurious Marxism,” as the venerable Don Luigi Sturzo, one of the founders of Italian Christian Democracy, put it. La Pira responded to Don Sturzo by describing the dire unemployment situation in Florence, particularly among the young, and asking him what he would do if he were mayor. In our own age, when so many people are left out of work, when so many young people cannot start families because the market cannot provide enough work to form the economic basis of family life, Christians cannot shrink in fear from accusations of statism or Marxism. Giorgio La Pira provides us with a bold example of political action in favour of peace, family life, and social justice (including justice for the unborn) with real meaning, not just words.

Keeping Things Civil

The always-excellent David Lindsay has a great post on the issue of civil partnerships. Please give it a read, it is a great piece.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Karl Naylor on Michel Houellebecq

Karl Naylor has a very interesting post on the French author, filmmaker and poet Michel Houellebecq. While I am not familiar with Houellebecq’s work, Mr. Naylor touches on some very important ideas in his post and it is definitely worth a read for some insights on how neoliberalism has damaged human relationships.

The Invisible Poor

The excitement in the West over the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East has been a revealing exercise in vicarious democracy. As with the 2009-2010 election protests in Iran, many Westerners have come forward with an outpouring of sympathy and support for those who took to the streets. Again, as with the Iranian protests, large amounts of real and digital ink has been spent writing about how the burgeoning revolutions in the Middle East are fueled by social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While I do not deny the importance of social media in helping to connect and organize some people, the huge role played by labor unions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia has largely been ignored by much of the media. The major reason for this state of affairs is the anti-labor bias of much of the media establishment. While one could go on and on about corporate media magnates and their right-wing agendas, I do not believe that the major problem is on the Right. Indeed, the denizens of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have largely been focused on Islamism and what organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood mean for the interests of the U.S. and Israel if they manage to get a taste of official power.  

Instead, I posit that the real culprits behind the media silence on the role of unions in the recent protests in the Middle East have been the well-educated, white-collar progressives who often dominate the staffs of newspapers and other media outlets. To the progressive professionals who work in the media industry, the story that revolutions are being made by well-educated young people Twittering or messaging each other on Facebook is a very attractive narrative. It validates the netroots narrative of the Obama campaign which claims that real political change can happen through the click of a mouse. 

Additionally, I do believe that there is a class bias against unions and working-class people among progressive professionals which has helped to bury the stories of labor activism in the Middle East. For many progressive professionals, labor unions are dinosaurs from an age before globalization and the Internet. Even worse, they are often made up of seemingly unattractive people who work in dirty jobs and probably hold conservative social views, especially in developing countries. Worse yet, they might even be religious! For the progressive professional journalist, it is much better to focus on attractive, tech-savvy students, as they did in Iran, while ignoring the other sectors of the population. In the Iranian case, this led to a refusal to accept Ahmadinejad’s victory, which was secured by the votes of the poorer sections of Iranian society, precisely the people ignored by the Western media. 

Despite the important differences between the protests in Iran and the more recent protests in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, one major lesson can be learned from all of them: the Western media is increasingly hell-bent on ignoring the poor and working-class, especially when they engage in independent political action. At best, the poor are depicted as unfortunate people in need of charity. While this is an admirable sentiment, it avoids the issue of social justice, and as we know, charity is not a substitute for justice. Furthermore, this trend in media reporting reflects not only the increased corporate domination of the media, but also the transformation of the “Left” in much of the West from a vehicle for the economic interests of workers to an almost completely elitist movement concerned with advancing causes that many working-class people do not care about or are actively opposed to. A Left without workers is not any kind of Left at all.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Before Ronnie, There Was Jimmy

Mention former-President Jimmy Carter’s name among a group of American conservatives and you will invariably get a hostile response. To many conservatives, Jimmy Carter represented all of the worst aspects of American liberalism. Carter is seen as an incompetent do-gooder, a naïve man who could neither rescue the economy nor effectively fight the Soviets or the Iranians or other enemies of the United States. Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election signaled the end of the dominance of New Deal liberalism and the rise of Reagan Conservatism. Where Carter failed, Reagan succeeded. Reagan rescued the faltering American economy by cutting taxes and freeing the markets from onerous regulations. Reagan also got tough with America’s enemies and was eventually responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes in Eastern Europe.

However, as Michael Lind notes in an excellent article over at Salon.com, Jimmy Carter was in many ways the first “Reagan Conservative.” To put it in broader terms, Carter was the inaugural president of the neoliberal consensus, with Republican President Gerald Ford being the real last of the New Deal consensus presidents.  Just to give a few examples from Lind’s article, Carter was the president who really started the deregulation ball rolling when we deregulated the various major transportation industries. Carter also had a hand in bringing supply-side economics to prominence.

While we could recite more facts about Carter’s presidency and how it helped set the stage for the dominance of neoliberalism, it is perhaps more important to ask ourselves why the New Deal consensus collapsed in the first place. First and foremost, as Lind notes in the article, many white Southerners and white Northern ethnics left the Democratic Party over racial and cultural/values issues. Continued urbanization and development in the post-war decades changed America and made her a less rural, less traditional country. This is a process that has played out in practically all of the modern industrialized countries, and I do not think social liberals can be “blamed” for these changes, at least not entirely. However, many Democrats did take more liberal positions on racial and social issues, partially for philosophical reasons, partially for political ones. The modern Democratic Part still reflects this shift, as two of the key constituencies for Democrats are racial/ethnic minorities and (often quite upscale) social liberals. On the other hand, white Southerners have largely embraced the GOP and many Northern white ethnics have also done the same.

The second issue was economic. In the 1970s, Keynesianism came under increased attack due to the impact of stagflation and the other economic problems of that decade. Much of the battle over the future of economic policy took place in academia and prominent policy-making circles. However, the hardship of average Americans, especially the inflation-induced pushing of more Americans into higher income tax brackets, despite being no wealthier in a real sense, helped to create a population ready for an anti-government, anti-tax message. Combined with anger over racial and cultural/values issues, the economic landscape of the 1970s created a perfect storm that finally destroyed the New Deal consensus.

Jimmy Carter rode into the White House on the backlash tide. Unfortunately for Carter, he was probably too honest. Carter’s calls for Americans to be less consumeristic were well-meaning and probably correct in the long term. However, politically speaking, they were ill-conceived. To working-class and middle-class Americans struggling with economic difficulties, Carter’s words seemed like an attempt to blame regular Americans and take pressure off of a failing administration. On the other hand, Carter’s opponent in the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan, promised a bright future for Americans, and the GOP has been running on a ticket of sunny, debt-fueled consumer optimism ever since.

Now that neoliberalism has met its own crisis, one would expect a major change in politics, another shift among the political elites and the great mass of citizens. Unfortunately, there seems to be little chance of this happening anytime soon, at least in the United States. The massive redistribution of wealth to America’s richest citizens and corporations has returned politics to the Gilded Age, where wealthy interests rule statehouses and Washington with little opposition. Indeed, with Americans increasingly alienated and alone, it seems less likely that we will see the rise of major grassroots movements as we did with the original populist, labor and farmers’ movements. Fox News and other neoliberal media outlets have done an excellent job convincing regular Americans to fight and despise one another.  Today I was speaking with a retired police officer who is deathly afraid of his pension being cut or even demolished entirely, yet all of the rage he could muster was directed at lazy minorities who are supposedly getting rich off of government handouts.

Yet, despite all of the reasons to be gloomy today, there is a possibility that a strong alternative to rapacious neoliberalism can come into existence, and for all of his faults, Jimmy Carter can provide us with some lessons. Carter’s almost religious style of politics, (which, in my view, was much more honest than that of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, given that Carter has done much good work while out of office, both domestically and abroad) has a strong appeal to much of the American population that is upset about both cultural and economic decline. A social democrat with at least a partial commitment to social conservatism can make a stronger case against neoliberalism than your typical socially liberal progressive.

Indeed, I believe the time has come for a return of socially conservative forms of socialism/social democracy that can repair the seamless garment torn apart by right-liberals and left-liberals, to the detriment of common people all over the world.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl Socialism

Even though I dislike the Green Bay Packers (I am a staunch Chicago Bears fan), I think their community-based, not-for-profit ownership model is great, as Harvey Wasserman discusses in this great article on American football and professional sports in general. It is definitely worth a read.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Libertarian Left

Over at The American Conservative, Sheldon Richman has a very interesting article on the Libertarian Left. I have a lot of sympathy for left-libertarians such as Kevin Carson and others. I believe they are essentially correct in their argument that capitalism has always been “statist” in one sense or another. Capitalists have always been happy to have the state on their side, even if they oppose state intervention for others. Perhaps most importantly, left-libertarians tend to side with the less fortunate members of society and thus avoid the accusation that they are simply court philosophers for the rich, a problem that I believe right-libertarians have despite the fact that they sometimes appeal to populist rhetoric and imagery. 

However, like so many other philosophical traditions, I cannot completely buy into left-libertarianism. First, I cannot subscribe to very strong support for free markets even in the anti-elitist form described and supported by left-libertarians. I cannot completely agree with a philosophical system that might, for example, demand legal prostitution or legal abortion because of a refusal to restrict certain services or individual liberties in a free market economy. Furthermore, I am convinced that in advanced economies, certain industries, such as the post office, libraries, utilities, health care, etc., should be under public ownership. Evidence suggests that natural monopolies are probably best reserved for public ownership or at least heavily regulated private ownership.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, left-libertarianism, like right-libertarianism, Marxism and other philosophical schools coming out of the Enlightenment milieu, has the downside of falling into the errors of economism and utilitarianism. Again, this goes back to the problem of the state and the market, and when the state ought to intervene in the market. If you believe that the economy is ultimately subservient to higher values, then you open up the stage to state intervention. Amintore Fanfani, in his important work Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (1934) noted that capitalism and communism were both guilty of subjecting all of life to the rule of economics and materialism. The various forms of libertarianism pose a similar problem in that they seek to subject all of life to the values of the free market, even if it is the fairer, more egalitarian version of the free market supported by the left-libertarians.

Still, I appreciate much of the work done by the left-libertarians, and I believe their analysis of various topics can be very useful. Socialists, social democrats and populists should be interested in what the left-libertarians have to say, even if they do not always agree with them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

When Growth Is Not Enough

Paul Krugman has made an interesting comparison between different authoritarian regimes and their economic fortunes and concludes that even though Egypt has experienced solid GDP growth, it has not trickled down. Similarly, Annie Lowrey over at Slate notes that, while Egypt’s liberalization and privatization campaign helped to attract foreign investors and spur GDP growth, youth unemployment and underemployment is still very high and high food prices are also a major problem for Egyptians. Again, the gains from economic growth have not been spread equitably, leading to all kinds of social problems.

To critics of growth worship, this should not be much of a surprise. Back in 1999, Professor Charles M.A. Clark of St. John’s University in New York noted in a paper that simple GDP growth was not enough to fight material poverty. Indeed, Prof. Clark went even further and argued that GDP is not necessarily a good indicator of economic progress, writing that:

“[M]any things that are bad for society and individuals, like crime, actually add to growth in GDP. In fact, nothing could be better for GDP than a man going through a divorce and cancer treatment at the same time (both generate large amounts of market transactions, what GDP measures), yet this is hardly economic progress.” (Clark, 1999).

While a critique of GDP does not mean that economic growth is unimportant, it does force us to ask questions about the economy that go beyond mere numbers. Unfortunately, too many academic economists are unwilling to add this kind of moral dimension to their economics. The drive to establish neoclassical orthodoxy as a discipline akin to the natural sciences has resulted in a deformed anthropology centered on human calculators of pleasure and pain. Now is the time to reject this utilitarian ideology and return to a view of economics that is concerned with the whole person and the whole society.

WORKS CITED

Charles M.A. Clark “Does a Rising Tide Lift All Boats? How Poverty Has Become Immune to Economic Growth,” Vincentian Chair of Social Justice, 1999 < http://www.vincenter.org/99/clark.html> (03 February 2011).

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Major Schools of Economics

Lord Keynes at Social Democracy for the 21st Century has a very good overview of the major schools of economic thought. The divisions among the various free market schools are really quite interesting. I found the differences between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan intriguing as well. Lord Keynes contends that Thatcher was indeed the more doctrinaire neoliberal of the two. I agree with this assessment. As Lord Keynes notes, Reagan practiced a muscular form of military Keynesianism which eventually led to huge budget deficits. While I doubt they would admit it, most Republicans still practice this kind of military Keynesianism. I think there is definitely a connection between the Republican orientation of many Western and Southern states and the large amounts of military spending that is funneled to the West and South.

Not Ours To Lose

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh today and noted that he accused President Obama of "losing" Egypt, just like Jimmy Carter "lost" Iran. This is an old right-wing smear against presidents who don’t militarily intervene in every country that is threatened with being taken over by an anti-American regime.  The Right’s assertion that President Truman “lost” China to the Communists was an important factor in Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to fight in Vietnam.  LBJ feared that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists he would be branded a coward and an appeaser and a new wave of McCarthyism would wash over the United States.  Most of all, Johnson feared that a Communist victory would doom his beloved Great Society domestic programs. LBJ wanted to emulate his idol FDR and continue the New Deal tradition of social justice. Unfortunately, as the anti-war protesters used to write on signs in the 1960s, "the Great Society was shot down over Vietnam.”

I wish I could say that President Obama had his own “Great Society" vision. Unfortunately, he has, at best, passed weak stimulus, feeble financial reform, and a health care law that is largely a copy of previous GOP plans and at worst is a giveaway to insurance companies.  So I guess there is not much to be “shot down” over Iraq or Afghanistan.

However, I can’t help but think that the Democrats are still haunted by the ghosts of the Cold War, the same ghosts that haunted LBJ and helped convince him to escalate a hopeless war in a country most Americans had never heard of before. The only way to exorcise these ghosts is to stand up to the destructive chauvinism of people like Rush Limbaugh who think that the United States effectively “owns” the governments and destinies of nations all over the world. 

While it may be true that the opposition in Egypt contains nasty elements, ultimately Egypt belongs to the Egyptians and the United States must respect that. Perhaps if we were better at minding our own business and taking care of our own domestic problems we would not have to worry so much about the composition of another nation’s government.

The Great Blizzard of 2011

The United States is currently being hit by a very powerful winter storm. Here in Chicago, driving is very treacherous, practically to the point of making road travel impossible. Flights out of O'Hare and Midway are being canceled. Schools are closed. Meteorologists are saying this might be the worst blizzard since the 1967 blizzard, the worst in Chicago history. In 1967, the Chicagoland area was covered by twenty-three inches of snow.

This blizzard certainly makes me appreciate all the public services we still have in Chicago. I would not be surprised if we hear some horror stories from municipalities that have slashed their budgets in response to the recession and the drastic drop in tax revenue that resulted. Austerity kills, sometimes literally.

Also, the blizzard has made me seriously question whether America’s car dependency is such a good thing. I am glad that I do not live in an extremely car dependent city such as those in the American West. If I need to go out to obtain goods I can take public transportation, either bus or train. I have bus stops and a train station within walking distance. Indeed, I am lucky enough to also have grocery stores and pharmacies within reasonable walking distance. I cannot imagine how bad it would be to be stuck in a car dependent suburb where one has to drive forty minutes to an hour or more in normal weather just to get to the grocery store or pharmacy. I have generally been ambivalent about the issue of suburban sprawl, but this blizzard makes me appreciate living in a traditional city neighborhood.

Hopefully, this storm will pass without too much damage. This is a good time to pray for those who are alone, especially the elderly, and of course, the homeless. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have warm, cozy homes to stay in should be thanking God right now for our good fortunate. Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t have this luxury, which is why we must do our best to support local organizations that serve the poor and needy. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a good example and one of my favorites, as I have been familiar with it since my parochial school days.