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Why there has been no outlet for anger on the left

wuming's picture

Last week, Yves Smith put up a blog post asking "Why is there no political outlet for anger on the left these days?" The purpose of my post will be to explain why an actual outlet for anger on the left is something that could only have been developed in the last decade. Then, I will sketch out how we can utilize our understanding of this to effectively communicate with people about MMT.

The main reason that the American left was not able to successfully oppose the neo-liberal assault of the 80s and 90s, is because racism prevented it.
One of the key elements of a genuine leftist politics is the idea of a commonwealth or a collective good. People will not accept the idea of a collective good at the nation-state level if they feel that not everyone in the nation-state is part of the same community.

And, that is exactly what happened in the United States after the relative triumph of the civil rights era, post 1968. Rick Perlstein has published on the subject of declining support for the New Deal during the end of the 1960s. His work was based in part on his review of correspondence from Chicago area political figures. While there are still people who reject the idea that people with a different skin color are Americans and could participate as equals in a commonwealth, they are a declining group in the United States. As a Californian, I find it particularly hilarious when people like Pat Buchanan try to claim that only white people built America. This is because in California a significant chunk of the economy was built on the backs of Mexican and Chinese labor before California was even a part of the USA. California would today have a much larger Chinese American population if not for the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the systematic ethnic cleansing conducted during the end of the 19th century.

Overseas, in Europe, it seems that the socialist/mixed economies of Northern Europe are experiencing their own issues with the idea of a common good, as there is an increasing backlash against non-white residents and citizens.

Returning to the United States, the overwhelming popularity of President Barack Obama during his campaign and after, shows that many people do respond positively to the ideas of a more inclusive America. This is especially true of the younger generation, despite the best efforts of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers. It is not a surprise that the Tea Party is heavily middle aged and older. With their constant screams of "Marxist" and "communistic," even the rhetoric of the Tea Parties invokes a Cold War that fewer and fewer Americans find relevant. Now, be that as it may, President Obama has clearly not acted in ways that are beneficial to the majority of Americans, and has, as Correntians have chronicled, failed to rein in the FIRE sector and deliver the real change for which the electorate voted. However, his enduring popularity demonstrates that there is a significant audience for the idea that Americans of all skin colors count as Americans.

What does this have to do with MMT? MMT, as I understand it, posits that a sovereign, fiat currency issuing government cannot run out of money, and is operationally limited only by real resource constraints. Realistically, it means that since the government can purchase any resource it wants on the market, then ultimately government purchasing/spending decisions reflect the desire for shared prosperity and a common good. If the left today can develop a shared orientation around a common American identity, then we will see greater acceptance of the concepts put forth by MMT. Furthermore, it is an effective rhetorical strategy for the left to be able to say that we speak for ALL Americans, that is, everyone who lives within the United States, and that we seek an increase in economic prosperity for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

That phrase works nicely to support the idea of a Jobs Guarantee, an idea that I know is popular amongst Correntians. For example, when discussing the Jobs Guarantee, one can say that all we are asking for is that people be given a chance to work hard and support their families, and to do something good for the country. Naturally, there will be some people who will object to the Jobs Guarantee on the basis that some of the federal jobs might go to undocumented immigrants. For legal reasons, naturally, a JG program is going to require the same things that other federal jobs require, namely, a work authorization check. Therefore, it is a non-issue. There will probably be Tea Party types who flip out and demand that we develop new and deeply invasive programs to "guarantee" that "not one illegal immigrant receives one dollar of American money."

The proper response to that is to say that no program can guarantee 100 percent compliance. And, to ask the questioner if he is willing to add significant red tape and delay to the process of getting the American economy back on track. Ask him if he'd rather see the American economy continue to go down the tubes and employment numbers shrink, just to gain a marginally more effective work authorization program. If he says yes (and some people will of course) then you tell him that he just doesn't care about the well being of the American people. Furthermore, when some undocumented workers do end up in the program, as long as they are working hard and paying their taxes, what's his problem? Since there is a job available for everyone who wants one under the JG, it's not like the hypothetical undocumented worker is going to be taking someone's job.

Now some people might say that kind of rhetoric has no place on the left. Well it does, because it is the truth. If someone is willing to bog down a program like the JG just to satisfy his desire to wreck vengeance on Mexicans, then he is objectively working against the best interests of the American commonwealth. We have to call people out on that.

The reason there has been no political outlet on the left is that, until very recently, a strong leftist movement could not have existed in the US because of deeply entrenched racism. But, man people's attitudes have have changed and we now have a genuine opportunity to build a leftist consensus in the United States. Let's make sure that we do it ASAP.

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Submitted by lambert on

what would they find?

I think that in Europe, just like here, there's a vocal minority (LePen, and whatever the German and British equivalents are) of people who have exactly those issues.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Hi Gmanedit,
I should have been more specific.I had classmates in the 1990s who were from Germany and Austria (yes, on reflection, Austria is more Central Europe, my apologies). They were ethnic Chinese and they were very much unhappy with the treatment they received there, which they characterized as "extremely racist." Several of my Swedish classmates had indicated to me that there was simmering ethnic tension between the ethnic Swedes and the newer immigrants, mostly Muslims from North Africa.

I have spoken to people of North African descent who lived in France and worked professional jobs, and they also seem to have had very bad experiences in France. I don't think it's just a North African thing, the ethnic Chinese population in Paris apparently has become quite active as a result of poor treatment by the authorities, as you can see here:

Again, there are issues here around national identity-- who counts as "one of us," so to speak. For nations founded on a blood-and-soil basis, or divided along confessional lines, where do those of a different ethnicity fit? It is not clear, and I believe, it is a difficult (though not impossible) task for a nation state to undertake.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I agree with you about the power and relevance of MMT to a new progressive movement aimed at the common good and public purpose. But I don't agree about your historical analysis and theory that a left progressive movement couldn't be successful because of racism.

I think that movement never materialized because Democrats gave up on the New Deal when confidence in the effectiveness of Government as well as trust in Government to do the right thing was shaken by the Vietnam War. That gave the Republicans an opening. Then the deaths of MLK and Bobby and Teddy's Fuck-up at Chappaquiddick removed the most promising and charismatic liberal leaders from the scene, opening the way for Jimmy Carter.

Carter was a centrist Democrat. he cared about poor people and Blacks, but he didn't care enough about them to use Democratic stimulus policies to seek full employment, and shelve the nonsense about seeking balanced budgets. he also wouldn't use price controls to handle the oil shock but hired Volcker instead, and ensured that there would be a recession at the end of his term.

Once Reagan took over and began to deficit spend, teh Democrats decided it would be an effective strategy to become the Party of fiscal responsibility, and they've supported that since that time. However, I'm afraid you can't be the party of reducing the deficit and surpluses, and still be left progressive, since that's the old Hooverite program. In short, there has been no left progressive anger against Obama because a lot of the left still accepts the neoliberal ideology, and doesn't view Obama as adhering to a bankrupt political program. Their disagreements with him are matters of implementation, rather than principle.

If we want a leftist progressive movement now it's that image of the Government as a household or business writ large that must balance its budget and not go into debt, that must go. The issuers of currency are not the users of currency. As you say, the US is not limited by budgetary constraints in its spending as long we choose not to be. All the constraints we place on ourselves in this respect are ones that apply to gold standard nations or to nations that owe money in a foreign currency. They are not constraints that apply to us.

So, Obama is fundamentally wrong in his outlook on economic policy and on entitlements. Everything his does is colored by the concern that soon he will have to trim spending and move towards balance. The hcr bill can't be too big. The stimulus bill can't be too big. The infrastructure program can't be too big. The education program can't spend too much, and so on. Progressives will get really, really, angry at Obama when they realize that his concern about budget deficits is needless and is a mere excuse for not using the Government spending power to help us solve our grievous social problems.

That is the state I am in now. I view Obama as someone shackled by his intellect and his ideological blinders. He has problems to solve, and instead of saying yes we can, he says no we can't and talks about the constraints upon him, without once seeming to consider whether those constraints are real. That makes ny blood boil, and leaves me thinking that if Issa gets the chance to impeach Obama, then I will cheer him on.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Hi letsgetitdone,
I am glad that we find agreement on MMT. I began to seriously read Corrente as a result of the Fiscal Sustainability Teach-In/Counter Conference. For me, MMT has become key to understanding the financial crisis, and in thinking about ways to develop alternatives to the current neo-liberal orthodoxy.

I see your point about the shaken trust in government as a result of Vietnam, and of the deaths of so many of the most promising leaders at the end of the 1960s. In speaking to people who lived through that time period, it certainly seems that the death of RFK was really pivotal in people's loss of confidence. Also, while there were positive grass roots developments such as SNCC, SDS, the Nation of Islam, and even, in the early days, the Panthers, too much of the activist left went over the cliff with doctrinaire Marx-Leninism. A lot of smart, passionate people ended up dead, disillusioned or permanently excluded. It seems to me that what survived of the left in the mainstream really moved in the direction of "do your own thing" and highly individualistic/moralistic approaches to life, which makes a certain kind of sense. Unfortunately it is no way to organize an opposition.

Regarding the racism angle, I'm afraid that I continue to disagree with you. I listen to the rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party and it reminds me of how deeply racist the former political majority was. Have you seen Matt Taibbi's new article in Rolling Stone? It is congruent with my experiences, that there are plenty of middle aged and older folks who are fine with government spending on them, but are angry or fearful if it goes to African Americans or Latinos. Previously they were the majority and the ones controlling the levers of power, but times have changed. It's not really acceptable for most of the younger generation, to believe that people different from themselves don't count as Americans.

I have had conversations with older people , recently, who believe that "illegal Mexicans" are "sucking up all the welfare in California and destroying the state," while in the same breath, complaining about all the Mexican people working in construction.

Racism is a difficult topic to discuss, and I want to be really clear that I don't think that anyone can actually eliminate it from themselves. A friend of mine does psychology lab research, and he tells me that time and time again they find that people will make racially biased decisions, while at the same time saying that they are not racist. The upshot is that there are areas of our personality to which we do not have any real access. If we want to deal with racism in our multi-ethnic society then we have to be aware that we all have that racist tendency, and then build structures to mitigate it as best we can. A lot of well meaning leftists with primarily humanities training go around trying to "reeducate" people out of their racism, and I don't know how helpful that is, politically. To me, that's more of a personal problem that people have. I'm not asking for a perfect, racism free society, because I don't think that's possible. All I'm asking is that we acknowledge that it exits and always will, and then build structures to mitigate it.

And, one of the main structures to mitigate it seems to be an economic program that uses modern monetary theory to build a full employment economy.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

that the FS teach-In Counter-Conference got you investigating MMT. A number of us here at Corrente did our very best to get that organized on short notice, and even though our attendance was small, those of us who were there know that it was a great success, as a face-to-face event. There are also presentations and audios at selise's site which provide some products from the Teach-In, and there were many blog posts about the Teach-In as well.

I read your reply very carefully and I agree with your points about the importance of racism in American society. The previous and continued existence of racism is undeniable. But this claim:

The main reason that the American left was not able to successfully oppose the neo-liberal assault of the 80s and 90s, is because racism prevented it.

One of the key elements of a genuine leftist politics is the idea of a commonwealth or a collective good. People will not accept the idea of a collective good at the nation-state level if they feel that not everyone in the nation-state is part of the same community.

says that racism was the main reason for the victory of neo-liberalism, and I don't think you've come close to showing that. Consider that during the period from 1945 - 1970, classical Keynesianism was the dominant economic view and informed a good deal of Governmental economic policy on the Democratic side, in spite of the systematic and institutionalized racism of the time. So, racism was constant throughout the whole period we're talking about, but neo-liberalism only prevailed during part of that period.

So what changed? It wasn't racism, so the causes of the neo-liberal victory have to be sought elsewhere. I believe those causes are to be found in Lyndon Johnson's "guns and butter" failure, which undermined the poverty program before it could succeed. the withdrawal from the welfare state by Nixon, aided and abetted by Pat Moynihan (which did have something to do with racism), and Jimmy Carter's failure to understand class politics and to govern the US accordingly, which unmoored the white working class from the Democratic Party and made them vulnerable to Republican symbolic issues, some of which were connected to coded racist appeals.

By the time Clinton took over, the Democrats were thoroughly centrist completely separated from New Deal appeals and traditions.

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Submitted by wuming on

for helping to organize it. I downloaded the audio files after the conference and pointed others to the files. Combined with reading Prof. Wray's book, I think the lecture/panel discussions helped me to understand MMT a lot better.

You make a good point about racism being throughout the period and neo-liberalism being ascendant for only part of it. It seems, though that Western European states were able to continue the growth of the social democratic program throughout the late 1960s until the early 1980s. At the same time, the social democratic program failed in the US. My contention is that when racist elements in the American body politic saw that non-whites were going to get an equal part of the pie, then the racist element bolted from the social democratic fold. Rick Perlstein presents letters to this effect in one of his blog posts. What jumped out at me was this snippet:

"A few years ago I had written you a letter stating how I and my family would welcome the opportunity to vote you in to the highest office in the land--The Presidency. Since that time however your support of the open occupancy bill has caused me to change my support of your candidacy for senator of Illinois, and believe me sir there are many more in my category who are changing in their support of you."

The author of the letter was writing to Sen. Paul Douglas, who, although in favor of "fiscal discipline," had voted for a Socialist presidential candidate, and supported public housing, civil rights for African Americans, and truth in lending laws.

Thank you for a civil discussion; racism is a sensitive topic and I appreciate that we are discussing this with clarity and maturity.

In the end what happened in the 1960s and 1970s is history, so what counts to me today is that we have the first strong signs of a more inclusive American identity.

Submitted by lambert on

on clarity.

The shorter way of saying what you're saying, I think, is that Nixon's Southern Strategy worked for a reason.

And this is a sensitive topic that deserves full exploration.

I'd caution you, just in case you don't already know, that the OFB polluted this particular well by smearing many people who didn't support Obama -- including many of us, repeatedly and personally -- as racists, and that this "any stick to beat a dog" strategy left a lot of wounds that are still open. (I'd also say that, consciously or not, this was a beating driven by class issues, with the charge of racism used as false cover.) So (a) very careful about generalization, and (b) this, too, is part of the history and needs to be included in it.

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

That's why there's no outlet for it.

The only PERMISSIBLE posture for the left is ABJECT SUBMISSION.

That's why Gibbs/Biden/Obama are busily warning the base not to even THINK ABOUT showing anger.

The verbal hippie punching is very much in sync with the FBI raids on the peace activists, and reflects the same intentions - to squelch left dissent. Its real audience is not the base, it's Versaille and the oligarchy, and the intention is to demonstrate that the Ds will have no hesitation in cracking down brutally when what remains of the New Deal (Social Security, anyone?) is eviscerated.