The American Bear


Debt and the Decay of the Myth of Liberal Individualism | Philip Pilkington

[…] The myth of the unbounded individual, the lone merchant with the devil-may-care attitude toward his fellow men allowed [Adam] Smith to conceive of a society in which men might live without close ties to one another and yet a society which would not descend into barbarism. Emotional distance, a lack of love or compassion, need not descend into violence and murder, according to Smith, because of the principles of disinterested commerce and exchange which he thought that he had uncovered in Man.

This is the legacy that Smith has left us today. Not just in the field of economics, but also as a sort of moral or mythic code by which we arrange our social intercourse in mass society. When we step into a shop and purchase a good or a service we are acting as Smithian individuals. We see ourselves as unbounded to those around us and free to make whatever decisions we please. And we believe that once the transaction is complete we can wash our hands of it.

The problem is that this is not true and it probably never has been. Today, instead, we see all too clearly the importance of debt. Debt is what ties us together. We may be in the position of creditor or in the position of debtor – or we may even be in the position of neither – but debt affects all of us. Even those of us that balance our books perfectly and do not engage in any form of lending nevertheless rely on banking systems and systems of government founded on the simple and timeless principles of debt. And it is these principles that bind us together.

We are not, in any way, “men who owe no obligation to one another”. Our entire social system is founded on obligation and interconnectedness. This was likely true even in Smith’s time, but his genius was to have hidden it from view and in doing so to construct the founding myth of liberal individualism as it exists in modern times.

Yet today the debt issue explodes once more. And because Smith’s mythology cannot contain it we see all around us anxiety together with its attendant primitive emotions such as envy, anger, spite and malice and, in countries such as Greece, a general collapse of the entire social economy. We see politicians obsessed over government debt sending their countries into ruin simply because they adhere to a redundant mythology. In short, we see the chaos that terrified Smith of a society in which, in his words, injustice prevails.

What Smith gave to humanity in his founding of economics was a great lie with which to structure our newly forming nation-states and mass societies. But it was a lie that was in many ways quite fragile. And it is this lie that we see cracking up all around us today. The question is whether we, as a species, will continue to live within this crumbling fiction or whether we can construct a different mythological system founded on principles that are a closer fit to our really existing circumstances. [read whole]

We choose to see ourselves as innocent victims of an escalating right-wing fanaticism. But too often we serve as willing accomplices to this escalation and to the resulting degradation of our civic discourse. We do this, without even meaning to, by consuming conservative folly as mass entertainment.

Liberals Are Ruining America. I Know Because I Am One. | Steve Almond

Almond continues:

This slavish coverage of conservative scoundrels does nothing to illuminate policy or challenge our assumptions. On the contrary, its central goal mirrors that of the pundits it reviles: to boost ratings by reinforcing easy prejudices. These ratings come courtesy of dolts like me: liberals who choose, every day, to click on their links and to watch their shows.

But the real problem isn’t Limbaugh. He’s just a businessman who is paid to reduce complex cultural issues to ad hominem assaults. The real problem is that liberals, both on an institutional and a personal level, have chosen to treat for-profit propaganda as news. In so doing, we have helped redefine liberalism as an essentially reactionary movement. Rather than initiating discussion, or advocating for more humane policy, we react to the most vile and nihilistic voices on the right. Liberals Are Ruining America. I Know Because I Am One (via azspot)

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Why America Needs the Left | Eli Zaretsky

[…] The country has always needed, and typically has had, a powerful, independent, radical Left. While this Left has been marginalized (as it is today) and scapegoated (during periods of national emergency), the Left plays an indispensable role during the country’s periods of long-term identity crisis.

The United States has gone through three such crises: the slavery crisis culminating in the Civil War; the Great Depression precipitated by the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, culminating in the New Deal; and the present crisis of “affluence” and global power, which began in the 1960s. Each crisis has generated a Left – first the abolitionists, then the socialists, and finally the New Left – and together, these movements constitute a tradition.

At the core of each of these Lefts is a challenge to the liberal understanding of equality – the formal equality of all citizens before the law. In the first case, the abolitionists, the issue was racial equality. In the second case, the socialists and communists, the issue was social equality, the insistence that democracy requires a minimum level of security in regard to basic necessities. In the third case, the New Left, the issue was equal participation in civil society, the public sphere, the family and personal life.

Indeed, more than the struggle between Left and Right, the struggle between the Left and liberalism over the meaning of equality is at the core of U.S. history. Without a Left, liberalism becomes spineless and vapid; without liberalism, the Left becomes sectarian, authoritarian and marginal. In contrast, the Right is merely a reaction to the Left.

But the difference runs deeper still. Behind the Left’s commitment to equality is a passion for emancipation from entrenched forms of oppression. Criticizing forms of domination that liberals tolerate or ignore, the Left stands not only for equality, but also for an enhanced concept of freedom. [read]

Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom | Corey Robin

Writing at The Nation:

Instead of confronting the allure of the free market, as conservatives understand it, liberals have tried to co-opt the discourse of traditional values. Painting themselves as the new Victorians, they’ve claimed, We stand for thrift and family, God and country. We put people to work rather than on welfare. We don’t spend recklessly; we reduce the deficit. We provide security: not just the physical security of cops on the street, crooks behind bars and troops in Afghanistan but the economic security of shared risk and protection from risk. We stand for responsibilities over rights, safety over freedom, constraint rather than counterculture.

This strategy might have something to recommend it if it worked. But it hasn’t. When right-wing ideas dominate, we get right-wing policies. After the midterm elections in November, it seemed the most natural thing in the world—to the right, the media, Obama and parts of the Democratic Party—to freeze the pay of federal workers and extend the Bush tax cuts for two years. Incoherent as policy—the first presumes that the deficit is the greatest threat to the economy; the second, the lack of consumer spending—it makes sense as ideology. The best (and only) thing the government can do for you and the economy is to get out of your way.

There’s a second reason conservative ideas are still dominant. Many liberals have failed to overcome their sense that however much they might question the bona fides of the other side, they lack the intellectual wherewithal to manage the economy. Roosevelt’s Brain Trust had a self-confidence born of the widespread belief that the business class had discredited itself, and a conviction that it had the answers where the businessman did not. That will to power, rooted in ideas, is hard to find on the left today. When it comes to the economy, too many liberals agree in their heart of hearts with conservatives: let the men of money decide.

Read the whole thing

Is Libertarianism Fundamentally about Competition? Or about Property?

Liberals should recall that fair competition is the driver, the engine of our cornucopia. The source of the wealth that made social progress possible. And libertarians need to pause, amid their dogmatic, “FDR-was-Satan” incantations, and recall that the word “fair” is the only thing that can make competition last.

Ironically, government can play a role there, if carefully watched. e.g. by ensuring that all poor kids get the care and education needed to become adult competitors! By ensuring that social status - whether poor or hyper-privileged - is never the prime determinant of success or failure. In other words, a sane libertarian who loves competition does not scream “Socialism!” at every state intervention. Instead, that grownup libertarian calmly judges every intervention by one standard. “Will this help to increase the number of skilled, vigorous competitors?”

And by that standard, suddenly, liberals and libertarians have something to discuss. Without a scintilla of doubt, measures for civil rights, sanitation and public health, infrastructure, childhood health care and… yes… the vast increases in literacy wrought by public education… vastly increased the number of citizens capable of independent engagement in markets and innovative goods and services.

(Source: azspot)

Why does [Ron Paul disdain] the Fed, and the relationship between the Federal Reserve and American empire (and implicitly, why don’t liberals)[?] If you go back and look at some of [Paul’s] libertarian allies, like Fox News’s Judge Napolitano, they will answer that question for you. Napolitano hates, absolutely hates, Abraham Lincoln. He sometimes slyly refers to Lincoln as America’s first dictator. Libertarians also detest Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing.

Matt Stoller | Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals

DISCLAIMER: to both Rondroids and Paul haters, Rep. Paul happens to be in agreement with some of my own politics regarding civil liberties and war. This does not mean I endorse Ron Paul, nor does it mean that I am a libertarian. Please read the entire article for clarification. (That I have to write this is sad.) - TAB

Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals | Matt Stoller

[As] I’ve drilled into Paul’s ideas, his ideas forced me to acknowledge some deep contradictions in American liberalism (pointed out years ago by Christopher Laesch) and what is a long-standing, disturbing, and unacknowledged affinity liberals have with centralized war financing. So while I have my views of Ron Paul, I believe that the anger he inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.


Modern liberalism is a mixture of two elements. One is a support of Federal power – what came out of the late 1930s, World War II, and the civil rights era where a social safety net and warfare were financed by Wall Street, the Federal Reserve and the RFC, and human rights were enforced by a Federal government, unions, and a cadre of corporate, journalistic and technocratic experts (and cheap oil made the whole system run.) America mobilized militarily for national priorities, be they war-like or social in nature. And two, it originates from the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam era, with its distrust of centralized authority mobilizing national resources for what were perceived to be immoral priorities. When you throw in the recent financial crisis, the corruption of big finance, the increasing militarization of society, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of the moral authority of the technocrats, you have a big problem. Liberalism doesn’t really exist much within the Democratic Party so much anymore, but it also has a profound challenge insofar as the rudiments of liberalism going back to the 1930s don’t work.

This is why Ron Paul can critique the Federal Reserve and American empire, and why liberals have essentially no answer to his ideas, arguing instead over Paul having character defects. Ron Paul’s stance should be seen as a challenge to better create a coherent structural critique of the American political order. It’s quite obvious that there isn’t one coming from the left, otherwise the figure challenging the war on drugs and American empire wouldn’t be in the Republican primary as the libertarian candidate. To get there, liberals must grapple with big finance and war, two topics that are difficult to handle in any but a glib manner that separates us from our actual traditional and problematic affinity for both. War financing has a specific tradition in American culture, but there is no guarantee war financing must continue the way it has. And there’s no reason to assume that centralized power will act in a more just manner these days, that we will see continuity with the historical experience of the New Deal and Civil Rights Era. The liberal alliance with the mechanics of mass mobilizing warfare, which should be pretty obvious when seen in this light, is deep-rooted.

What we’re seeing on the left is this conflict played out, whether it is big slow centralized unions supporting problematic policies, protest movements that cannot be institutionalized in any useful structure, or a completely hollow liberal intellectual apparatus arguing for increasing the power of corporations through the Federal government to enact their agenda. Now of course, Ron Paul pandered to racists, and there is no doubt that this is a legitimate political issue in the Presidential race. But the intellectual challenge that Ron Paul presents ultimately has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with contradictions within modern liberalism.

Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion? (Part 2) | New Left Project

In the second of a two-part review of Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso 2011), Ed Rooksby challenges Lorsudo’s central contention that liberalism is defined by a logic of exclusion and develops a rival account of the nature of liberal ideology.

Part I is here. That should be read first, obviously, as this is a counter. - TAB

Losurdo’s argument is certainly striking. Even those familiar with radical critique of liberalism and, indeed, with the historical crimes committed in liberalism’s name, will find some of the practices and political positions uncovered by the author shocking. Certainly, as counter-history, as a broadside against liberal hagiography, the book is highly effective. Furthermore, Losurdo’s core argument – that, more than anything else, liberalism is defined by an internal logic of inclusion/exclusion – is original and audacious. It is, in a sense, an inversion of the prevailing view in relation to this political tradition. Liberalism, for Losurdo, is not, at its heart, a doctrine of universal normative principles, but an exercise in separating the legitimately free from the legitimately unfree, masters from servants, ‘us’ from ‘them’ and thus it is fundamentally an ideology of domination. This is a powerful argument. Nevertheless, while I am sympathetic to much of what Losurdo argues I am also unconvinced by much of the book. […]

Some of the most damning passages and quotations that Losurdo uses to illustrate the dark history of liberalism are gathered from figures probably better categorised as conservative than as liberal – Calhoun, for example[2].  The fact that Losurdo is able to present conservative thinkers and their views as unproblematically and straightforwardly liberal indicates a major problem with Losurdo’s definition of liberalism. The definition is so expansive that conservatism is absorbed almost completely within liberalism. A logic of exclusion is not, after all, very difficult to detect in traditional conservative thought and practice. If a logic of exclusion is the defining property of liberalism then it follows that conservatism, which is deeply structured by this same logic, must be a form of liberalism. In the way that Losurdo presents things, then, conservatism is effectively expunged from the political-ideological landscape as a distinct political tradition. It is surely significant that conservatism is mentioned in the book only once, very briefly and in passing. The cursory treatment of this tradition reflects the fact that there is simply very little conceptual space for conservatism in Losurdo’s schema. Clearly there is a very complex and closely intertwining relationship between the two traditions – there is certainly no absolute distinction. It makes little sense, however, to regard the two traditions as wholly synonymous. Amongst the similarities and the positions held in common between the two there are, surely, significant differences as well. […]

Exclusion…emerges as something that has to be continually explained away and rationalised in relation to liberal values rather than as, in itself, a core commitment. One can see the tension between exclusion and principle in the attacks of guilty conscience that occasionally afflict liberal thinkers. Losurdo himself points to such bad conscience on the part of liberals in relation to the oppressive politico-social relations that ‘most blatantly gave the lie to their proclaimed attachment to the cause of liberty’ (p. 278). Here, indeed, Losurdo lets slip liberal attachment to a universal normative principle – notwithstanding the reference to this attachment being a ‘lie’, the mismatch between proclaimed principle and concrete reality seems to be a matter of some importance. The proclaimed attachment is indeed a keenly felt one and the failure to live up to it is seen as a matter of real distress. This sort of bad conscience on the part of liberals is inexplicable if exclusion really is the central commitment at the heart of liberalism. If so, what is all the guilt and embarrassment about?

It is also quite difficult to explain the successes of the ‘struggle for recognition’ waged by the excluded unless we understand that this struggle drew on the normative resources provided by liberalism itself. From where did these struggles draw their moral force and power? The struggle for recognition was not just a matter of force (though that was a crucially important part of it) it was also a matter of shaming social elites and winning support from some of them – a process of moral persuasion and of winning the argument. It is precisely because liberalism proclaims universal values for itself – commitment to liberty and equality for all – that these values provide a kind of ideological-ethical ammunition for struggle on the part of those who are, in practice, subjected to conditions of unfreedom and inequality. Groups who are in reality excluded from the realm of liberal equality and freedom can draw on the stated or implicit universalism of these liberal principles and demand their inclusion.  The ‘struggle for recognition’ Losurdo describes then seems to have been dependent on some sort of universalist ethical and normative core to the liberal tradition over and above its exclusionary practices.

Read the whole thing →

Liberalism: An Ideology of Exclusion? (Part 1) | New Left Project

Political theorist Ed Rooksy examines the original perspective on the liberal tradition set out by Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo in Liberalism: A Counter-History

How do we make sense of this paradox at the heart of liberalism – the simultaneous invocation of liberty on the one hand and the justification and promulgation of severe forms of oppression on the other? The key to all of this, Losurdo argues, is to grasp that liberalism is founded on an implicit logic of exclusion. Only once we have understood this can we start to resolve the seeming inconsistencies. Liberalism has always pivoted, Losurdo argues, on drawing a dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those who are worthy or capable (morally, intellectually, biologically/racially) of the gamut of rights and liberties we associate with liberalism and those who are not. Liberalism was always, of course, centrally concerned with the condemnation and limitation of despotic power and the corresponding assertion of rights to self-government, autonomy and so on – but this struggle was always waged by, and on behalf of, an exclusive section of humanity – what Losurdo terms ‘the community of the free’. The history of liberalism is thus in great part a history of how the particular specification and location of the boundary line between ‘the community of the free’ and the excluded has evolved and shifted.

With this exclusionary logic in mind we can make sense of the paradoxes of liberal slavery, liberal empire and liberal authoritarianism towards wage labourers and the poor. In each of these three apparent paradoxes we are, in fact, confronting particular instances of the opposition between the justly free and the justly unfree. It is not that the brutal world of slavery, for example, represented a failure or negation of proclaimed liberal values, or revealed the hypocrisy of contemporary liberals, it is that the ‘community of the free’ in which the sphere of liberal rights and freedoms applied did not, and was not intended, to encompass black people. Liberalism, for Losurdo, was never a doctrine of moral universalism. We can see now, how racism and class contempt operated as necessary ideological supports for this system of exclusion. Slavery and colonial expropriation and domination was justified on the grounds that non-white peoples were by definition uncivilised, in a condition of ‘nonage’ (Mill), not fully human or even ‘savage beasts’ (Locke) and were thus rightly excluded from the ‘community of the free’. Similarly, workers and the poor in the metropolis were not intelligent, morally developed or, again, human enough to be admitted into the sacred space of the free community of liberals.

It is not just that liberalism was long characterised by exclusion for Losurdo – it is also that, to a great extent, the liberty of the community of the free has depended on the exclusion and oppression of the unfree. That is, the relationship between the community of the free and the excluded has been one of exploitation in which the privileges of the former have been rooted in the expropriation and coercion of the unfree.

Rooksy’s critique of Losurdo and rival account of the nature of liberalism are developed in Part 2.

In any case, the success of modern Republicanism isn’t all that hard to understand anyway. Rich people like it for obvious reasons. Social conservatives like it for obvious reasons. And the white working class — well, they might not actually like it all that much, but they mostly dislike liberals even more. And this is no surprise. After all, we spend an awful lot of time trying to make them feel guilty. Your hunting trips? It’s a slaughter of innocent animals. Your 15 mpg pickup truck? It’s wrecking the planet. Your sexist jokes? It’s workplace harassment. Your air conditioner? Keep it above 80, pal. That lazy family in the Section 8 housing down the street? Show a little compassion for the less fortunate, will you? There’s good reason for all this stuff, but it’s also understandably irritating. Is it really any wonder that plenty of people are turned off by it? And if there’s a large bloc of irritated registered voters, is it surprising that some political party somewhere is going to take advantage of this irritation by assuring them that heartland values are the real America, racism is a liberal scam, global warming is a myth, and social welfare programs do more harm than good? Deconstructing the Right-Wing Alternate Reality (via azspot)

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Why "Rational Reason" Doesn't Work in Contemporary Politics | George Lakoff

Sarah Palin may not know history or economics, but she does know strict father morality and conservative populist frames. Frank Rich, in his February 14 NY Times column, denied David Broder’s description of Palin as “perfect pitch populism” and called it “deceptive faux populism” and a “populist masquerade.” What Rich is missing is that Palin has a perfect pitch for conservative populism — which is very different from liberal populism. What she can do is strengthen the conservative side of bi-conceptual undecided populists, helping to move them to conservative populists. She is dangerous that way.

Frank Rich, long one of my heroes, is a perfect pitch liberal. He assumes that nurturant values (empathy, social and personal responsibility, making yourself and the world better) are the only objective values. I think they are right values, values that define democracy, but unfortunately far from the only values. Starting with those values, Rich correctly points out that Palin’s views contradict liberal populism and that her conservative positions won’t materially help the poor and middle class. All true, but … that does not contradict conservative populism or conservatism in general.

This is a grand liberal mistake. The highest value in the conservative moral system (see Moral Politics, Chapter 9) is the perpetuation and strengthening of the conservative moral system itself!! This is not liberal materialism. Liberals decry it as “ideology,” and it is. But it is real, it has the structure of moral system, and it is physically part of the brains of both Washington conservatives and conservative populists. The conservative surge is not merely electoral. It is an idea surge. It is an attempt to spread conservatism via the spread of conservative populism. That is what the Tea Party movement is doing.

The debt deal will make things clear. The President is not a progressive – he is not what Americans still call a “liberal.” He is a willful player in an epic drama of faux-politics, an operative for the money power, whose job is to neutralize the left with fear and distraction and then to pivot rightward and deliver a conservative result. What Barack Obama got from the debt deal was exactly what his sponsors have wanted: a long-term lock-in of domestic spending cuts, and a path toward severe cuts in the core New Deal and Great Society insurance programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And, of course, no tax increases at all. James K. Galbraith (via azspot)

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