Letters

Paul Krugman and the Grand Inquisitor

According to Krugman’s latest column, the difference between Sanders and Clinton is this: Sanders believes that all evil stems from big money; Clinton believes that big money is one evil, but there are also other evils like racism and sexism. How stupid does Krugman think his readers are to hand them whoppers like that? Let’s think this through a little more carefully.

Both Sanders and Clinton are descendants of the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, so we have to understand those upheavals to distinguish their approaches. This, in turn, requires that we understand the New Deal.

The New Deal turned America from a society run by “robber barons” into a democratizing, working class society, which was committed to providing schools, housing, jobs and health care to all of its citizens. In the 1960s no one doubted that ongoing project and everyone understood its central lesson– the need for government to guarantee basic security to its citizens in order to counterbalance the destructive effects of the market. The New Left was an effort to radicalize the New Deal further, through an emphasis on civil rights, on women’s rights, gay rights and on democratic participation. Unlike right wing liberals like Ira Katznelson, who describe the New Deal as racist, and therefore see the sixties as a total break with the New Deal, figures like WEB DU Bois, CLR James, Ralph Bunche and A. Philip Randolph were part of the New Deal– they were its left wing and in that way the progenitors of the 1960s revolts. The same is true of feminists like Betty Friedan. So, the question posed in the 60s was not the frankly idiotic one– is money the only evil or are racism and sexism evils too?– but rather how to continue the achievements of the New Deal while expanding them into full rights of participatory democracy and social equality xfor African-Americans, for women and for gays. Two different answers were given.

People like Bill and Hillary Clinton believed it was too hard to hold onto both the New Deal and the new understandings associated with anti-racism and anti-sexism at once. In place of that effort they created a new politics that combined anti-New Deal, pro-market economics– “the era of big government is over”– with meritocratic — but never egalitarian– support for racial and sexual equality. That is, they created neo-liberalism, the dominant politics of our time. In 1992, Bill Clinton made Robert Rubin, Chairman of the Board of Goldman Sachs, the Secretary of Treasury and with Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, the Clinton Presidency instituted the financial takeover of the US economy, with results that we are all familiar with. Obama followed Clinton’s policies. Krugman is the defender of this tradition; working class women and Blacks are among its greatest victims. Sanders, by contrast, was one of the minority left over from the sixties– the losing side– which believed that advances on the racial and sexual front and advances in taming capitalism and bending it to popular ends were linked.

Once this is understood Krugman’s animus becomes clear. Sanders represents the bad conscience of the neo-liberal turn, just as Christ became the bad conscience of the Catholic church. Just as the Grand Inquisitor told Christ that the Church had to be practical and make compromises, so Krugman tells Sanders that in the real world we need to accept the fact that money rules, and that this is not so bad since its only one evil among many. If we follow Krugman’s advice, the question of which evil– plutocracy, racism and sexism– will rule will be moot; symbols aside, they work together very well.

Eli Zaretsky

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