It’s easy to argue that the American left is on the cusp of a great victory. The economic anxieties of the working class have gone unaddressed. The Resistance is passionate and politically engaged. Faith in capitalism is plummeting. Only 42 percent of millennials embrace capitalism, according to a Harvard University poll, while 51 percent reject it.
The Republicans seem to be turning themselves into an aging minority party. Moderate Democrats are no longer a force. There are only two vibrant political tendencies in America right now: Trumpian populism and Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren-style progressivism. As Trumpism loses, progressivism will win.
What can we say about the coming progressive regime? First, it will be a decisive break from the moderate liberalism of Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama. Second, despite some silly recent talk, it will not be Marxist.
A few of the distinctive features of Marxism are: 1. The belief that the problems of the modern economy are inherent to the capitalist system. 2. Capitalism will eventually collapse. 3. There is an alternative system.
My sense is these ideas have been rejected by most on the left. It’s become clear, to those on the fair-minded left, that global capitalism has produced the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The problems with capitalism are more discrete – mostly with the plight of the working class in rich countries.
Moreover, there is no alternative. Economist Dean Baker has argued that it’s silly for people on the left to see the market as the enemy: “This makes as much sense as seeing the wheel as the enemy. The market is a tool, it is incredibly malleable.” It can be structured to redistribute wealth upward, or it can be structured to redistribute wealth downward.
The goal for most on the left is not replacing capitalism, but reforming it to make it work better for all. That would involve two big tasks.
The first would be to rewrite rules to redistribute wealth. In an anthology called “Reflections on the Future of the Left,” Baker imagines ways this might be done: impose a tax on financial transactions to weaken Wall Street’s power; change monetary policies to give full employment priority; shorten the workweek to tighten labor markets; and change corporate law to make it easier to cut executive pay.
The second task would be to ensure economic security for all. This would involve raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, providing universal basic income and having the federal government provide a paying job to all who want one.
I would disagree with this agenda on pragmatic policy grounds, but at least it would be humane. It’s a positive, universalist agenda that aims at social solidarity and national cohesion – we’re all in this together. It would be, as Sheri Berman writes in the left-wing magazine Dissent, enchanted with a radical idealism.
Nonetheless, I don’t think this is the leftism we will wind up with. Tribalism is in the air, on the left as well as on the right. It is based on a scarcity mentality, the idea that life is a zero-sum war between us and them. It emphasizes division and conflict, not solidarity and cohesion. It draws out the authoritarian tendencies in any movement. On the right, tribalism brings us the ethnic authoritarianism of Donald Trump. On the left, it seems likely to bring us the economic authoritarianism of a North American version of Hugo Chávez.
You can see authoritarianism entering the left through two avenues. The first is nationalism. Not long ago, most of the American left tended to think transnationally – partly because problems like climate change are global, partly because it’s hard to regulate a global economy nation by nation, partly because progressives used to be psychologically averse to nationalism.
But national sovereignty is not withering away. Left-wing hostility toward European Union-type multilateral organizations is at record highs. Now a lot of progressive economic thinking is nakedly nationalistic. Bernie Sanders in 2015 derided a more open immigration policy as a “Koch brothers proposal.” It’s the old xenophobia – us or them, screw or be screwed. On trade, the left-wing populists sound like Trump.
The second stream fueling economic authoritarianism is identity politics. It used to be that big political divides were defined by economic interests; now, the cultural dog wags the economic tail. Identity politics defines the core political divides. When many progressives talk about economics these days, they take the habits of mind they developed when talking about identity groups and apply them to economic groups.
It’s the same Manichaeism: oppressor versus oppressed, privileged versus underprivileged, hegemon versus victim. Conflict is inevitable. The apocalypse is near. Preserve the purity of the group. Shut down the other side. It’s sectarian politics to the nth degree.
In Venezuela we saw how a politician used demagogic sectarian rhetoric to establish an authoritarian regime and then destroy a people. I’m sure many of my left-wing friends believe that that sort of tribal us/them mentality won’t hijack and corrupt their own movement. But as someone who lived through the last 30 years of conservatism, I’m here to tell you, it can. Politicians these days have decided they don’t need the thinkers anymore.