The political debate in America is a mess in part because of the duopoly and the media’s fixation on it, yes. What is most frustrating to the left-wing is that Democratic Party partisans refuse to see themselves as either as neoliberals or petit libertarians, and thus do as much work as the right does in dragging America’s policy and legal regime rightward.
Chicago’s experience here is instructive. Mayor Rahm Emanuel prides himself as not being ideological, but more concerned with solutions. It just so happens that all of his solutions privilege the freedom and unfettering of capital to solve social problems. In turn, Democratic Party partisans find themselves supporting what are essentially neoliberal, or outright conservative, policies that harm the working classes, exasperate income inequality, and weaken the autonomous institutions that are capable of challenging capital’s supremacy in all of its relations. There’s no question that Emanuel is hostile to organized labor and community organizations to the precise degree that they demand autonomy. That Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is hostile to them for existing is a slight matter of degree; Emanuel and Walker are on the same side. The entire Democrat/Republican debate, particularly at the national level, is essentially the same: both agree on fundamental principles, but quibble over degrees. The result is that fundamental reorganizing of social relations, as occurred over the course of the Revolutionary, Radical Reconstruction, and Progressive-New Deal eras, becomes impossible.
Neoliberals, whether they call themselves libertarians, Third Way centrists, or the new trend, “left Neoliberals,” essentially hew to this: capital is the only force that can, through “spontaneous order,” create wealth and distribute it without undue restrictions on personal liberty or exposure to rent-seeking. Therefore, capital freedom, through the mechanism of consumer choice, should be the architecture of all of our social institutions. Our public schools should introduce capital and consumer choice; our infrastructure, from energy to the internet to highways, should do the same.
The problem then is obvious: this fundamental agreement as between Emanuel and Walker is not between the “left” and the “right”; it is between Democrats and Republicans. The two don’t overlay one another, and more importantly don’t move together. Just because the Democrats move rightward doesn’t mean basic left-wing principles move with it. It simply means institutional and media attention moves with it. And this in turn is due to the fact that both parties are funded and supported by the agents of capital. This is not only in the form of direct campaign contributions. It is also through issue campaigns, the funding of think tanks that distort media coverage, the ownership of media institutions itself, and through capital strikes or slowdowns. Capital in other words engages in direct action against policies and actors it opposes, as well as flooding campaign coffers.
On a material level, this means that activists and political professionals are wasted on defending a political party that is ever marching rightward, on the pretext of political sophistication. That is where the damage is really done: the left is wasting now its second generation of human capital, its greatest resource (since it will always have a monetary deficiency), defending policies that still fundamentally serve capital. That they are serving the political objectives of capital to a lesser degree than right-wing activists will plainly do little to change the persistent problems of income inequality and mass political disenfranchisement. And it puts them in a position of instinctually opposing movements to their left, because of their institutional relationships (which define their professional value) and the psychological implication of admitting that they haven’t actually be working on behalf of “working families” (i.e., the working class) at all.
The left accuses libertarians of being cronies for wealth, but that isn’t either correct or fair. Libertarians genuinely believe that freeing capital will redound to the benefit of the working classes so long as the working classes are willing to work. Rahm Emanuel and Scott Walker sincerely believe that eviscerating or obliterating workers organizations will ultimately help the working class through the magical powers of liberated capital.
It is a principle of the left not only that worker organizations are desirable for moral reasons, but for practical reasons, too. But for now a second generation of Democratic Party activists, who mistake themselves as left-wing activists, principles like this are evaporating, and the incentive to resist them–or mock them, as we saw with the first few weeks of the Occupy movement–becomes deeper. I am certain the pendulum will swing back, and we’ll see today’s Democratic Party activists and professionals articulating Reagan/Gingrich/Bush conservative arguments while declaring themselves to be “liberals” and “on the left.”
This is a shame, but it is why the left needs to hasten its disconnect from the institutional Democratic Party. The sooner left-wing organizations cut their ties to those institutions, the sooner the perverse incentives that pull activists rightward are watered down, and those professional and activists who give themselves the psychological cover of being “liberals” while advocating against working class priorities are faced with a more stark choice.