Beyond the Crisis of Liberalism
There is a groundswell of popular resistance to the forces of
reaction, but the left must break out of its defensive
By Stanley Aronowitz
March 15, 2011
The problem of liberalism is that in the US - and this is
true of all advanced industrial societies - there has been no
significant reform of the existing of economic system for
decades. In the United States, since the great era of reform
in the 1930s, with the New Deal, the last major reform was
the establishment of Medicare in 1966. In the UK and other
countries, the main period of reform followed the second
world war, with the consolidation of the welfare state.
In the US, Medicare was the last serious political advance;
there has been nothing significant since. On education and
the environment - which have both been more recent targets of
liberal reform - we have gone nowhere, or even regressed. So,
given the current configuration of world capitalism, it is
apparent that what I define as the liberal reform - that is,
reform within the capitalist system - has reached a dead end.
To be sure, liberals will call for a return to the politics
of the New Deal or the Great Society: if we could cut the
military budget, they say, or if we had a progressive tax
system, we could restore greater equality and fairness in
society and more prosperity for all. But it's not about this
proposal or that proposal; the problem is that we don't have
a political force that is pushing for fundamental change.
To make qualitative advances on what we have, especially on
the environment, would require a radical change in the
economic system. Even to solve unemployment, we would need to
cut hours and have major intervention by government. The
private sector is never going to manage that. And to get this
sort of change would involve taking on Wall Street and other
entrenched economic interests.
I'm not sure anyone is willing to do that. Liberals say we
have to get people to vote and we have to get them to vote
for good people. The moralism of US politics gets in the way
here, and that is how liberalism presents the opposition. In
reality, it's not about whether the government is being run
by good guys or bad guys; it's structural change of the
economic and political system itself that we need.
With the decline of unions in private sector and the battle
in Wisconsin over the move to decertify public sector unions,
we're stuck in the position of defending what little we still
have. But we're not going anywhere with that: we've seen the
failure of the concessionary approach before. You give ground
to the right; they just come right back at you and demand
The collective bargaining battle in Wisconsin is a classic
example of symbolic politics: you don't need law, making law
comes second; it's about power. In the history of labour
movement politics, it was outside the law that things were
achieved. In the 1930s, the pressure for change came from
sit-down strikes and industrial action in 1936 and 1937; they
didn't have the law on their side. The law was made after the
fact - in fact, then to regulate labour relations, to control
But the old compact of labour relations is breaking down,
because the right is attacking it. The right is engaging in
its own symbolic politics, and right now, they're winning.
The left is stuck in this defensive position, where restoring
collective bargaining rights is this most minimal of demands
- and they could well still lose.
If anything good is to happen now, it will have to be because
people have decided they're going to take on the system.
Wisconsin has created some momentum, which is rippling
outwards: a spirit of rebellion, particularly among young
people from whom the American dream has been abrogated in so
many ways. There's a lot of unrest and that's where the hope
is, in young people taking direct action.
I don't see it coming from the Democratic party or the Green
party. The first attempt to reform the Democratic party was
in 1890 and they've been trying it - and failing - ever
So far, the most militant, most dramatic struggle around cuts
in public services took place in France. But it was clear
that after weeks of that mobilisation, there was an impasse.
The socialists and the left were still in defensive mode. No
one had any vision; no one was articulating for people what
might be a new configuration of "the good life".
We have to offer a vision of change in place of this crisis
point that liberalism has reached. There isn't a significant
proposal on the table to address poverty, to address the lack
of healthcare for millions of Americans. Poverty in the
United States is defined as a household income of $22,000 for
a family of four. That measure doesn't even work in
Mississipi. The government says there are 35 million people
in this country who are poor; I would double that. There are
70 million people who are making less than $50,000 for a
family of four. US income inequality is among the highest in
the developed nations, and the middle class and the working
class are bearing the overwhelming burden of taxation.
Liberalism has no agenda to tackle any of this. That is why
this is a watershed moment, which only structural reform of
the system can address. (c) 2011 Guardian News and Media
Limited Stanley Aronowitz
[Stanley Aronowitz is distinguished professor of sociology at
the graduate centre of the City University of New York
(CUNY). Among his many books are How Class Works (2003), Left
Turn: Forging a New Political Future (2006) and The Knowledge
Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating
True Higher Learning (2008). He is currently working on a
book about C Wright Mills]
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