FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

American Elections: A Dialogue on the Left between Arato & Fraser

Arato: Nancy we have had a conversation about the elections a week ago in Great Evremond, Mass, and one thing you said really struck me. If I can paraphrase you, you said something like ” the worst thing about this election is that because of Trump’s wild claims and assertions, and the attacks that focus on these, we are now completely neglecting the genuine issues that have merged with his candidacy, and with that of Sanders previously. What exactly did you have in mind? Can you outline what these issues are or were?

Fraser: Yes, you’ve captured my point exactly. I am struck by the sharp contrast between the invigorating debates of the primary season, which challenged the reigning neoliberal commonsense, and the lockstep moralizing of the present, which has shut down all such questioning under the guise of the need to combat the “grave danger” represented by Trump. I find this both demoralizing and infuriating. It is true, of course, that Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, serving up an unending series of provocations, each more outrageous than last, and providing the defenders of the present order with an inexhaustible supply of pretexts for evading the issues that surfaced during the primary campaign. But it’s the reaction of the political class and “right-thinking” elites that most upsets me. This is the real “political correctness,” not the stuff on campuses that exercises conservatives. It’s the calculated effort of the Clinton campaign to run out the clock and truncate the political agenda. They are whipping up moral outrage over Trump in order to ensure that there is no space to talk about the “rigged economy,” the need for a “political revolution,” the social costs of neoliberal “free trade” and financialization, the extreme maldistribution of those costs, and US foreign policy, including “regime change,” “the war on terror,” and the future of NATO. And they are shutting down all talk of such things at just the moment when people all over the world are proclaiming in various ways (Brexit, Podemos, etc) that they are fed up with the present order and ready to contemplate the possibility of changing it. This, far more than Trump himself, is what is really getting my goat right now.

Arato:  I certainly agree that the discussion of most important issues, perhaps aside from immigration has now stopped, I would add as in most American type media dominated campaigns.  You rightly say that there was such a discussion during the primaries. But almost all the important issue areas were raised either by Sanders or Trump, or in some cases both.  Trump I think correctly discovered that the other Republican politicians did not represent the needs and interests of perhaps most of their voters, and very cleverly used trade, the rigged political system and foreign policy to appeal to those on their side who were left out or even felt to be victimized during both Republican and Democratic administrations. Whether anything principled was involved I tend to doubt. There were such principles behind Sanders’ discourse, also very effective. But Clinton was not as weak as the Republican “stars”, plus the DNC gave her some needed help. In any case it was primarily the vote of African-Americans that led to Sanders’ defeat. So, except to the extent that Clinton incorporated a few of his ideas, that are in that form no longer challenged on the Democratic side, discussion went out with his campaign. Trump now needs to appeal also to more conventional Republicans, and thus has to go easier on trade, rigged politics, unfair taxes, and even foreign policy unless he must revive the issues against Clinton. Ok. That is in my view why the earlier discussion you refer to was cut short, rather than the politically correct coordinated media blackout on behalf of several vested interests, above all the Clinton campaign. But let us assume you are right concerning all that. Here is my question. Why does Sanders himself not renew his earlier arguments, and direct them mostly against the Clinton campaign and Clinton friendly media as you do? He could dominate the discussion in the blogs, if not in the mainstream media that also could not afford to silence him altogether. If things are as you have it, he must see and understand the same thing. On my part, personally, I very much admire his “ethic of responsibility”, perhaps because I also fear what he seems to fear most of all, a Trump victory. Have you no great fears in that regard?

Fraser: You make some good points about the process that led to the current shutdown of critical debate. And you raise an interesting question about what lies behind Sanders’s decision to mute the themes that inspired so many people throughout the primary season. You may be right that he has opted to forgo pursuit of the “the best” in hopes of avoiding “the worst.” I really don’t know what he is thinking. But I have doubts about that strategy, in any case. The trouble is, it doesn’t address the conditions that have enabled the rise of Trump. Those conditions include what Sanders succinctly called “the rigged economy,” which has been redistributing wealth and income upward on a massive scale for the last 30 years, in part by destroying unions, precarizing work and sucking value from households through predatory debt. It also includes the rigged political system that supports and protects that economy, as Democrats and Republicans conspire to squelch every proposal for serious structural reform, even as their other battles saturate the public sphere and suck up all the oxygen there. That strategy, of conniving to mute the whole problematic of redistribution while loudly engaging that of recognition, has worked surprisingly well until very recently. But now the lid is off. And what has emerged is a populist rage that frightens liberal elites and their supporters, while driving many others, however reluctantly, into Clinton’s camp. But that rage will not go away by defeating Donald Trump at the polls in November–especially since Hillary’s close ties to Wall Street ensure continuation of neoliberalization under her Presidency. On the contrary, support for Clinton simply ratifies and further entrenches the “redistribution/recognition” scam as the “right-thinking” people close ranks against “the deplorables.” In fact, the rage felt by many Trump supporters is quite legitimate, even if (much of) it is currently mal-directed toward immigrants and other scapegoats. The proper response, I think, is to validate it and try to redirect it to the systemic predations of finance capital. That was precisely how I understood the project of the Sanders campaign. And I am disappointed that that project has apparently been shelved. Especially since there is another, far better option: I mean the longstanding leftwing tactic of critical support for a candidate who is deeply problematic. Critical support means coupling a recommendation to vote for that candidate in swing states with vociferous criticism of her policies and explicit campaigning for Sanders-type alternatives. It is a “pull-no-punches” strategy that looks beyond November to the ongoing struggle to build a new American left.

Arato: I agree with the last sentence, as to what should be our long term goal. And I think you are making interesting theoretical as well as strategic points, with which I agree but only in part. As to the theoretical diagnosis, it is true that in the last epoch struggles for status equality played the major role, and equalization of economic position as well as political power have been neglected, indeed adversely affected as you say. I don’t think this is so much the function of anyone’s grand strategy, as of the rise and proliferation of identity oriented movements and initiatives. It is true, “neo-liberal” economic consensus has made it much more easy to win “recognition” rather than “redistribution.” More importantly however, I do not think that the distinction between recognition and redistribution well captures what is involved. First of all the line between them is not sharp. Recognition of legitimate identity demands logically, and probably empirically demonstrably, leads to the economic improvement of the status that is enhanced.  Also, improvement of economic position and bargaining power enhances status. Equally important, even if Polanyi’s historical typology of reciprocity-market and redistribution remains interesting, under modern economic conditions the last category captures what egalitarians should and do demand only partially, when economic development does not have a zero sum character. Rousseau has already warned against equalization through confiscation or expropriation. Social democratic policies do not mean confiscation, whatever the right claims, because they have a developmentally positive dimension. Infrastructure for example, financed through taxation benefits all, not just the poor. More generally, taxation and social policy can mean and often does mean a positive sum game, by enhancing consumption and limiting predatory behavior with irrational consequences for capital as well as labor and consumers. So, if you mean by redistribution social policy and political regulation, and not simply taking from the rich to give to the poor, I agree with your stress, but I think a different category should be used. And certainly, we of all people should not criticize the supposedly only liberal struggles for recognition, that have had even in the last epoch dramatic consequences for the lives of many of the mobilized identities. As to your strategy, I have one concern. Attacking Clinton in battleground states, even if we announce our “critical support” is bound to hurt her vote totals. Voting for Stein even in safe states, that admittedly you did not argue for, enhances the status of a spoiler given the character of American electoral rules, and this can add to her totals even in battleground states. We should recall Nader and not only in Florida in 2000, and given the increasing closeness of the election we should choose a different strategy. In my view, we should support Clinton by emphasizing her recent adherence (genuine or not) to several of the Sanders themes: high minimum wage, infrastructure spending, student support, and re-negotiation of some trade deals, along with her own stress on a new immigration policy, appointing judges who will reverse Citizen United and protect affirmative action and the freedom of choice. She may be ready to abandon some of these planks, and we must be equally ready to hold her to them now or later. Equally important, we should do exactly what Sanders and Warren are doing, by fighting for more Democrats to be elected to both chambers of Congress. This is especially important, because given the likely closeness of the election, Clinton more and more tries to appeal to “moderates?!” within the Republican party. She may try to govern later by relying on them, and we do not know if many would co-operate. The only way we can avoid the formation of a new center right is to change the balance of at least one Chamber. That minimally should allow the all-important choosing of liberal SC justice(s), but could also block a center right from setting policy as it chooses. Admittedly, only if both chambers were democratic could a renewed left use its influence to positively steer policy. But since a Clinton landslide is pretty unlikely now, such a full re-orientation may be possible only in 2018. We should start working for it now.

Fraser: We agree on many points, Andrew. But there are differences, and these seem to me to turn on what is meant by “critical support” for Clinton. Your interpretation, as I understand it, focuses simultaneously on defeating Trump and on “pushing her to the left” on issues like the minimum wage, “free trade,” and student debt. Although that approach is certainly honorable, I nevertheless consider it inadequate, because it allows the pitiful electoral choice that has been put before us to define the terms of left politics. I prefer to be guided by a long-term objective that is grounded in a critical analysis of the present conjuncture. What should frame leftwing thinking, in my view, is the faltering (if not yet collapse) of the neoliberal project and its overt rejection by significant strata in the US and elsewhere. That project, hegemonic since the 1970s, brought not only a near-meltdown of the global financial system, an exacerbation of global warming, and a massive rise in inequality and precarity, as I already said, but also some gains for women and minorities, although many of the latter are more symbolic than material for all but the professional-managerial classes and far less substantial than the gains that an egalitarian social order would deliver. In any case, it is the prospects opened by this overall situation, and not the options now on offer by the two-party system, that should be the starting point for efforts to define a new left politics.

I propose that we take our bearings from the epochal transformation of capitalism that began in the 1970s and is now unraveling. The structural aspect of that transformation is well understood: whereas the previous regime empowered states to subordinate the short-term interests of private firms to the long-term objective of sustained accumulation, the current one authorizes global finance to discipline states and publics in the immediate interests of private investors. But the political aspect is less well understood. I would characterize it in quasi-Polanyian terms. Aiming to foster growth through a nexus of mass production, mass consumption, and public provision, state-managed capitalism represented a creative new synthesis of the two projects that Polanyi considered inherently antithetical: marketization and social protection. But they teamed up at the expense of a third project, never mentioned by Polanyi, which I call emancipation, because the whole edifice rested on ongoing (neo-)imperial predation of the Global South, on the institutionalization of women’s dependency through “the family wage,” and on the racially motivated exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from Social Security. By the 1960s those populations were actively mobilizing against a bargain that required them to pay the price of others’ relative security and prosperity. And rightly so! But their struggles intersected fatefully with another front of struggle, which unfolded in parallel over the course of the subsequent decades. That second front pitted an ascending party of free-marketeers, bent on liberalizing and globalizing the capitalist economy, against declining labor movements in the countries of the capitalist core, once the most powerful base of support for social democracy, but now on the defensive, if not wholly defeated. In this context “progressive new social movements,” aiming to overturn hierarchies of gender, sex, “race”-ethnicity, and religion, found themselves pitted against populations seeking to defend established lifeworlds and privileges, now threatened by the “cosmopolitanism” of the new financialized, postindustrial economy. The collision of these two fronts of struggle produced a new political constellation: proponents of emancipation joined up with partisans of marketization to double-team social protection. The fruit of that alliance is a “progressive” neoliberalism, which celebrates “diversity,” meritocracy and “emancipation” while dismantling social protections, expropriating hard-won working-class savings, and entrenching widespread precarity. Hillary Clinton is the very embodiment of this constellation. Is it any wonder that partisans of social protection, who rightly sense themselves outgunned by this new alliance, are hopping mad? Abandoned by those who have redefined emancipation in truncated, market-friendly terms, they find a voice of sorts through Trump, with accents of ressentiment and chauvinism. What I referred to earlier as the “redistribution/recognition scam” is shorthand for this analysis. Far from proposing to take from the rich and give to the poor, I am using this expression to clarify the political dynamics of the contest between Clinton and Trump. It is a contest, in my view, between a “reactionary” party of social protection, on the one side, and a “progressive” party that covers an orgy of debt-fueled marketization with a truncated, meritocratic version of emancipation, on the other.

Now here is my bottom line and the core difference between us: In my view, the Left should not take sides in this fight! Rather than accepting the terms presented to us by the two-party system, we should be working to redefine them by drawing on the vast and growing fund of social revulsion against the present order. In a nutshell: rather than siding with marketization-cum-emancipation against social protection, we should be focused on forging a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against runaway marketization. And we cannot do that by working to defeat Trump and to elect Clinton. Far from “pushing her to the left,” that “honorable” interpretation of “critical support” only reinforces the current constellation, while placing our longterm objectives on the backburner. Personally, I am unwilling to see left objectives backburnered every four years out of fear of a Bush or a Trump–all the more so given that what is supposed to save us from the worst only fertilizes the soil that germinates new and ever more dangerous bogeymen, which in turn justify further deferments–and on and on, in a vicious circle. (And that is not even to mention that what is supposed to save us from the worst this time around may itself be worse on foreign policy.) So I interpret the idea of critical support in a way that prioritizes the project of building a new American left by allying the forces of emancipation and the forces of social protection, as opposed to defeating Trump. And I guess that is our principal disagreement.

Arato: I think it is time to end this interesting discussion, since we are making longer and longer statements. The stage model you suggest is not without interest: market and protection, second stage, market and emancipation third stage, and then the imagined next one: protection and emancipation (without markets?).  I myself never believed in such theories of history, even when influenced by Marx and Lukacs, even though I did not think them “vulgar”. I have no problem with a movement aiming at emancipation, and protection as long as we do not imagine we can in modern society eliminate the fundamental economic role of markets.  Is that a stake in this election?  Indirectly, perhaps.  Must we choose between two strategies? The first enthusiastically supports Hillary, on the premise that she is more likely to be open and being influenced by strategies and initiatives of protection and emancipation than Trump. The argument is not very persuasive, given the likely reliance of a President Clinton within a divided government on the Republicans, who already feature prominently among her supporters and in her ads.  I seemed to advocate something like this in the last round, but I must confess without any optimism, and relying on the now unlikely prospect that enough Democrats can be elected to end divided government. The second argument, assuming that the choice is between equal bads, defines critical support as not making the choice at all, hoping that this would contribute somehow to the building of an imagined left. Even without much hope in the latter prospect, I could support this if the choice were between two equally bad alternatives. But it is not, not because Clinton is so good, but because Trump is so dangerous.  You don’t and cannot see this, because I think you are taken in by the themes of anti-globalization that he occasionally plays with, and because of his support among the victims. He seems to you better on protection, Clinton better on emancipation, thus you see a normative draw.

Sorry, I do not. Even in these terms, Clinton wins advocating raising minimum wages, a different approach to trade, support for university tuition, plus forms of “recognition” that have “redistributive” implications. But this is not the main point. Trump is part of a veritably international movement to reverse the democratization processes that began in the 1970s and continued into our time. You are I know a vociferous reader of Károly Polányi and rightly so. So try to recall what he describes as the historical outcome of the crisis and collapse of the first globalization. The New Deal (and the Keynesian state) was one outcome, but there were two others much more dominant and likely at the time: Fascism and Stalinism. Importantly, radical lefts strongly co-operated in these two outcomes, each of which by the way combined left and right dimensions. The common element in each case was the refusal to support democracy (because of hatred of liberalism), the refusal to really make choices, whether in the case of the party loyalty of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union (see Victor Serge’s Memoirs) or the KPD’s “social fascist” line in Germany. History of course does not repeat itself. What you and others very confusingly call the “neo-liberal order” has not collapsed, though it is in crisis. Trump is not Hitler, nor even Mussolini. But the historical movement against liberal democracy is very real: from Correa and Maduro to Putin, Orban, Erdogan and Sissi, with Brexit and various strong right wing populist movements in between. Trump is part of all that; the line between right and left populism is easy to transcend, as in Laclau’s floating signifier. We must avoid all forms of left populism on our side. Obama’s explainable weakness as president should not make us think that the American president is without power. The Republican party is in shambles ideologically at least, and if Trump wins he will be indisputably their leader with two chambers and, soon enough, the Supreme Court behind him. Would the formation of a new “new left” under his presidency be a likely prospect? I seriously doubt it. We do not know how he would govern, that is exactly the problem with all populisms.  But there is a very good chance that he would opt for a right wing, mobilizing option, ruining the economy and requiring subsequent repression.

You say you refuse to accept the terms of the American two party system. Voting for Stein or Johnson, or not making the choice between Trump and Clinton will only confirm it. There are things however one can do, like fighting for well organized new candidacies on the state level, and, intellectually, making the argument for proportional representation, for removing money from politics, abolishing the current form of redistricting in most states, as well as developing plausible programs for new parties, that even Sanders did not have. Throwing the vote to Stein or Johnson is voting for Trump within the existing system that will be the system until it is changed. I mean reformed, because the concept of political revolution introduced by Sanders is either nonsense or is equivalent to significant reform.

I am not in the least enthusiastic about Clinton, a very unattractive candidate who with her husband used status and power to become incredibly wealthy, and who remains too close to the interests we should weaken and control. Thus I could not have written an enthusiastic piece in her support. Yet, this being politics, and given the softness of Clinton’s support on the left, that may very well be the kind of piece we should write if we assumed that what we wrote actually mattered. Your language of not making the choice would help Trump, and my warnings about Trump are not likely to discourage leftists bereft of historical knowledge to vote for the dramatically much lesser evil.

Fraser: Yes, Andrew, you are right. Our replies are indeed getting longer, but that’s because the discussion is deepening and the issues sharpening. So I can’t resist one last comment, although I agree we should wrap this up before we settle in to watch the debate this evening.

Let me begin with two smallish clarifications before joining the main argument. First, when I spoke of historically shifting alliances between the forces of marketization, social protection, and emancipation, I was not offering a “stage theory” of history. Rather, I was introducing an analytical device for parsing social conflict in capitalist societies. In effect, I was transforming Polanyi’s idea of the double movement into a triple movement. The latter device better clarifies the making of hegemony through various alliances of two-against-one. But it does not imply any dialectical sequence through which history must necessarily unfold.

Second, by continuing to use Polanyi’s term “marketization” to name one pole of this triple movement, I am no more committed to abolishing markets than he was–no more  than I am to abolishing social protection or emancipation. As a supporter of democratic market socialism, my concern is not the existence of markets per se, but rather the inherently destabilizing character of “self-regulating” markets (which is really to say, unregulated markets), which trash the world by subordinating nature, society, and human beings to the dynamics of runaway capital accumulation. Against that sort of marketization, the other two poles must have their due. That is the “normative content” of my call for a counterhegemonic alliance of emancipation and social protection against (neoliberal) marketization.

Okay. Now to the main issue: I understand you to be making a bold historical argument with global implications. Let me summarize. You think, first, that Trump is not just a bad US Presidential candidate running against a less bad one, but a symptom or epitome of a world-wide wave of social and political movements that are bent on destroying (neo)liberal globalization. You also think, second, that these movements are at bottom neofascist, even though they parade as strands of populism, left and right. And you think, third, drawing on the calamitous experience of the “first globalization,” that the only way to avoid a fascist outcome today is to deprive those movements of the shot in the arm a Trump victory would provide them by siding with the proponents of (neo)liberal globalization. I agree with the first point, but disagree deeply with the second and third. And I disagree above all with your underlying assumption that the only alternative to fascism is always and ever (neo)liberalism and globalization.

The problem is that, seen analytically, (neo)liberalism and fascism are not really two different things, one of which is good and the other bad, but two deeply interconnected faces of the capitalist world system. Although they are by no means normatively equivalent, both are products of unrestrained capitalism, which everywhere destabilizes lifeworlds and habitats, bringing in its wake both individual liberation and untold suffering. Liberalism expresses the first, liberatory side of this process, while glossing over the rage and pain associated with the second. Left to fester in the absence of an alternative, those sentiments fuel authoritarianisms of every sort, including those that really deserve the name fascism and those that emphatically do not. Without a left, in other words, the maelstrom of capitalist “development” can only generate liberal forces and authoritarian counterforces, bound together in a perverse symbiosis. Thus, far from being the antidote to fascism, (neo)liberalism is its partner in crime.

You are right, Andrew, that the stakes are global. But the real charm against “fascism” (whether proto or quasi or real) is a left project that redirects the rage and the pain of the dispossessed toward a deep societal restructuring and a democratic political “revolution.” Until very recently, such a project could not even be glimpsed, so suffocatingly hegemonic was the redistribution/recognition scam I described before. But thanks to Sanders, Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos–imperfect as all of them are–we can again envision an expanded set of possibilities. The Left must seize this moment and resist the McCarthyite pressure to close ranks with the neoliberals.

Interestingly, Andrew, I believe that you are closer to this stance than you may think, at least performatively, if not ideologically. You are yourself unable to muster the sort of enthusiastic support for Clinton that you say would be required “if we assumed that what we wrote actually mattered.” And so you offer a devastating portrait of her defects of character and position, even while commending her candidacy to others. Why not take another small step and reconcile your real view of her with your public position? Why not couple your critical support for her in swing states with a full-throated critique of neoliberal predation in the name of an independent left?

Also for you:

Nancy Fraser

  • SocraticGadfly

    Ugh on Arato still thinking inside the duopoly box.

    • Andrew Arato

      Ugh. Arato is thinking within the terms of the reality that we find ourselves in. How horrible! It would be good neverhteless if you would inform yourself about the nature of fptp electoral systems, the history of US elections, and the rules of relatively simple logic usually followed by the rational voter. Perhaps you should also consider the sad story of Nader’s role in the 2000 elections. Ask yourself seriously what the point is of imagining a triopoly where you clearly have a two party system, based on plurality first past the post elections. Note that Fraser at least did not contest this part of what I said, and rightly so. She says that performatively, I am “with her”, rather than Clinton. But the reverse is the case. Theoretically she is against Clinton, but performatively she is giving her critical support. I.e. she would vote for her (within a duopoly) in a given state if it was really a toss-up.

      Thanks for your interest, but not the off the cuff (or rather off the wall) reply.

  • Lindsay Parkhowell

    This was wonderful and much-needed, thank you both. I hope the discussion continues in the form of debate debriefings or further debate analysis

    • Rich Jensen

      Or inform the discourse within the nascent post-Sanders organizations. “Our Revolution”, et al.

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