The intellectual dead end of liberalism

The vacuous concept of the “third way” having degenerated into neoliberal idolatry, modern liberalism has reached its end. Sweeping pronouncements are ordinarily to be avoided, but the revelations of not only the Obama administration’s extraordinary spying campaign but the Democratic Party marching in lockstep with Republicans to celebrate it ought to be the coup de grâce.

(I’m using North American terminology for today; readers in the rest of the world can substitute “social democratic” for “liberal.”) Some difference remains between Democrats and Republicans on social issues, but that gap is shrinking and exists at all only due to social activism. Without pressure from below, that difference might not amount to much, either. The difference arises from the extraordinary social extremism of U.S. conservatism, unique among the mainstream parties of the world’s advanced capitalist countries.

PentagonNorth American liberals and European social democrats have a long history of capitulation — we see the same patterns, whether it is Bill Clinton (and now Barack Obama) in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, Jean Chrétien in Canada & etc. There is something much larger at work than President Obama’s lack of resolve. The sobering conclusion is that his world view is not so different from that of George W. Bush. Democrats have much in common with Republicans.

But, but, but — what about Washington’s notorious gridlock? The rewards of office are at stake and, just like professional athletes, professional politicians who make it to the top levels are highly competitive. They like to win, a rather human emotion, and with a distinct lack of seriousness in tackling any real issue — political, economic or environmental — winning is about the only thing that matters. Fight, team, fight!

The Obama administration’s record

Liberalism has ceased to possess ideas, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. A partial list of Obama administration “achievements” makes for depressing reading:

  • Not simply keeping the Guantánamo Bay gulag open but force-feeding prisoners (torture by any realistic standard).
  • Stepping up the war against dissent through violent suppression of the Occupy movement organized by the Department of Homeland Security, waves of arrests and harassment of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest and harsh reprisals against government whistleblowers, among other offensives.
  • Widespread collection of telephone calls.
  • The gargantuan collection of personal information from online communications.
  • A president arrogating to himself the right to unilaterally kill people anywhere in the world, without a pretense of legal procedure.
  • A continual weakening of women’s fundamental rights to control their own bodies, often by making unilateral capitulations to Republican demands before negotiating.
  • A total failure to reign in “too big to fail” banks and a total failure to prosecute any financial industry executive for the chicanery that precipitated the financial collapse of 2008 and the ongoing stagnation.
  • Unquestioning acceptance of financial industry perspectives on economic matters.
  • Elevation of corporate maximization of profits above all other human considerations, embodied in a steady stream of one-sided trade agreements, the most dangerous one yet the Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated in secrecy, with only corporate executives privy to the text.

Let’s not pin this on the personality of one person. Each fresh outrage by the Obama administration is met by a shrug of the shoulders or outright support by Democrats. They are nearly unanimous in their approval of the National Security Agency. They are already united behind policies that exist, regardless of the ideology attached to them, to funnel ever more wealth upward. These two tendencies are not independent of one another.

There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to social democracy, it is trapped by a fervent desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

The political and intellectual leaders of liberalism believe they can discover the magic reforms that will make it all work again. They do have criticisms, even if they are afraid of saying them too loud, but are hamstrung by their belief in the capitalist system, which means, today, a belief in neoliberalism and austerity, no matter what nice speeches they may make.

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority but have the mass media, an array of institutions and the money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

Suppressing dissent is big business

And let us not be fooled by libertarian opposition to government spying; libertarians are among those most strongly rooted in the system. Although any opposition to the National Security Agency’s Stasi state is welcome, libertarians are motivated by an irrational hatred of government — they would rather have the market decide all social questions. But the market is merely the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Moreover, the market has already weighed in — security is big business, a high-profit sector worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year that exists solely as the result of government largesse.

City police departments are now equipped as armies; a web of federal agencies works closely with local law enforcement focused on squelching dissent; and seemingly bottomless sums of money are doled out to finance a network of spying agencies, a proliferation of cameras in public spaces and the militarization of police departments and investigatory agencies.

That is big business, indeed, as a quick summary demonstrates:

  • Lockheed Martin, a military contractor, earned US$2.7 billion on revenues of $47 billion. More than 80 percent of its revenue comes from the U.S. government, mostly from the Department of Defense.
  • Northrop Grumman, a military contractor, earned $2 billion on revenues of $25 billion. Most of its business is with the U.S. government, with much of the rest from various other governments.
  • Boeing, a producer of military aircraft and missile equipment, earned $3.9 billion on revenues of $81 billion. The U.S. government is a primary customer.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton earned $219 million on revenues of $5.8 billion. One-quarter of its revenue came from work for U.S. spying agencies and 98 percent of its revenues comes from work for the U.S. government. Booz Allen had employed whistleblower Edward Snowden.

U.S. government military spending for fiscal year 2014 is projected to account for more than $1.3 trillion, or 47 percent of the federal government’s budget, according to an analysis prepared by the War Resisters League. (The War Resisters calculation includes past military spending not counted toward the regular military budget by the government.)

A government is not an abstract entity; it is an expression of the social forces within a society. The U.S. government — the Obama administration, past administrations and the “permanent government” of the security apparatus and the various bureaucracies — is the enforcer for industrialists’ and financiers’ dominant institutions — corporations — and many of those corporations profit handsomely from the equipment, materiel and services they sell to the government that provides their muscle. This is bankrupt, whether the liberal or conservative version.


10 comments on “The intellectual dead end of liberalism

  1. Alcuin says:

    Now, if only more people would read and learn from your posts. A wholesale rejection of the entire capitalist system is in order but 99.99% of people are wedded to the idea of capitalism as being the best we can do. It is not. I’ve been exploring the commons movement and am finding a lot of food for thought there. One site, in particular, has a lot of very interesting articles. I’m also exploring how art can create community, however temporarily.

    If we are to make any progress at all, it is time to stop focusing on the distractions in our lives and instead focus on what we, each one of us, at an individual level, can do to change our communities. Easy? Not in the least. But we have to do something in addition to trying to understand how we got to where we are. Yes, it is critical to develop an anti-capitalist critique, but then what? We need to act on that critique in such a way as to not bring down the forces of repression upon us. Think carnivals, street art, community-building and empowerment activities of any kind. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, be aware of how easily we can be co-opted and marginalized and resolutely march forward. Our future and that of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

    • The impression that “99.99% of people are wedded to the idea of capitalism as being the best we can do” is depressingly common in left-liberal circles — depressing because it’s simply not true. A less generous way that I’ve often heard folks express the same attitude is that “people are too stupid to know what’s good for them.” Or, paraphrasing the old American Communist Party slogan, “People need to feel more pain before there’s any major change.” In other words, people are too stupid to know that they’re suffering; they need to suffer enormously before they’re going to do anything about it.

      There are (at least) two reasons to be disturbed by such an attitude: one, it’s not based in reality, and two, it’s alarmingly elitist.

      On the first point, just take a glance at public opinion polls, for instance, and anyone can see that the population is way off to the left of government policy, on nearly every major issue: health care, education, military spending and so on. More to the point, a Pew study in 2010 (before the Occupy movements, remember) found that among certain groups, such as youths and Blacks, there was a more favourable reaction to the word “socialism” than to the word “capitalism.” I think overall it was nearly 30% of the population that reacted favourably to “socialism.” That says something, if we care to listen. (And if you’re actually connected to working people, or talk for any length of time with ordinary people, once you peel back the layers of propaganda and indoctrination, which don’t run very deep, you’ll know that there’s a tremendous amount of desire for systemic change — it’s just not often put in such terms.)

      Which leads to the second point. If we don’t care to pay attention to the preferences, needs and aspirations of the general population — and instead we merely rely on our our own (often self-serving) attitudes, “theories”, and intuitions, then we’ve already taken the first step toward separating ourselves from the population. We’ve already said, in essence, “I already know what everybody thinks and feels — I don’t need data to prove it. I know best; they don’t. I’m brilliant; they’re stupid.” It’s a horribly and destructively elitist stance to take. And as mentioned above, it has little to do with reality.

      • Thank you, Andre. I agree completely. That large numbers of people know that the system is not working for them, even if they don’t necessarily articulate it that way, was demonstrated by the explosive growth of the Occupy movement. There is a reason why the state cracked down so heavily on it.

  2. Alcuin says:

    Something else to consider – I found this site via Margaret Wheatley. The Two Loops Video is really interesting.

    • The Abundant Community web site you linked to above looks interesting; the specific article linked was a nice summary of the cooperative movement. I agree that a wholesale rejection of the capitalist system is what the world needs and that we need to act on our critiques. We’ll need all the courage we can muster because, no matter how non-violent we may be, the state is going to use force to maintain the system. So not only do we need a plethora of tactics, as you correctly suggest, but as many numbers as can be massed — the more of us, the more difficult it will be for us to be repressed.

      As to the “Two Loops” video, the concept that “as one system culminates and starts to collapse, isolated alternatives slowly begin to arise and give way to the new” has commonalities with dialectics, which posit that no system is permanent, that as contradictions build up, newer and higher forms arise from those contradictions. Cooperatives, in particular enterprises under the control of the workers, are the type of “isolated alternatives” we need to nurture. We can’t reform the unreformable.

      • ” So not only do we need a plethora of tactics, as you correctly suggest, but as many numbers as can be massed — the more of us, the more difficult it will be for us to be repressed.”

        There are many bloggers who are with you on that. We understand that the status quo cannot continue, but we also acknowledge that alone, we cannot make a difference. We will simply be squashed and that is why so many of us are blogging on the same issues and we are trying to brainstorm to come up with new ideas as we know that both the republicans and democrats are in cahoots. Neither have the peoples best interest at heart. We understand that greed rules the day, profit over people. We have only to acknowledge that we have entered the age of austerity here in the U.S. And now with this government shutdown, that just adds insult to injury. We speak of the ‘Hunger Games’. That will look like a cakewalk with where we are headed. I just thought that I would let you know that there are those of us who are aware and not simply ostriches with our heads buried in the sand trying not to look up and see that the sky is about to fall. No pun intended, but please check out Skywanderers blog at: if you feel so inclined.

        Thank you for another thought provoking blog post! I will be following this blog!

        • I always appreciate tips from readers, Shelby, so I did read the Skywanderers post. Our path to a better world starts with an understanding that reforms are not a solution. I would never oppose a reform that makes a tangible improvement, but reforms can, and will, be taken away as three decades of neoliberalism have amply demonstrated. A better world would be a world with a humane economic system, based on cooperation not all-against-all competition.

  3. […] they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s