C. Wright Mills Explains the End of Liberalism
C. Wright Mills wrote that in an essay, On Knowledge And Power, for Dissent Magazine in 1955. He explains that liberals responded to the attacks of the political gangsters defensively, only trying to preserve the accomplishments of the New Deal, and the formal aspects of Civil Liberties, but not advancing on any new fronts, and not exercising their Civil Liberties to call out the demagogues and the shouters of their day as cowards and thugs.
As the administrative liberalism of the Thirties has been swallowed up by economic boom and military fright, the noisier political initiative has been seized by a small group of petty conservatives, which on the middle levels of power, has managed to set the tone of public life. Exploiting the American fright of the new international situation for their own purposes, these political primitives have attacked not only the ideas of the New and Fair Deals; they have attacked the history of those administrations, and the biographies of those who took part in them.
On the one hand, we have seen a decayed and frightened liberalism, and on the other hand, the insecure and ruthless fury of political gangsters.
There never was a serious left in America; there was a loose alliance of liberals, socialists and Communists inside the Democratic Party. Mills was being kind about the left. Starting during the Second World War, the Democratic Party ruthlessly drove out every one of those people: every single person who didn’t swear allegiance to the One True Capitalism; every person who had any trace of radical, or even worse, novel, ideology; and especially every person who stood for a fair shake for all Americans.
The New Deal came to pass because of what we would call grass roots efforts, thousands of local groups making demands, pressuring politicians through public meetings and voting. They constituted a public in John Dewey’s sense, a group in a democracy which has identified a problem and is working to solve it within the bounds of civil society. Once the liberal program was in place, that public dissolved and went back to its usual pursuits. With the connivance of the elites of the Democratic Party, those groups dried up, and the few remaining liberals found themselves working in DC, dependent on the largesse of the government and wealthy supporters.
Mills says that while the noisy word battle between the screamers on crazed right and the self-defeated left raged, the silent conservatives won the ideological war by default. It is their priorities that have controlled both the economy and the discussion of the economy. Only those with the proper obeisance to Capitalist Orthodoxy are allowed to participate in any serious discussion or policy-making.
Things have only changed for the worse since Mills wrote this essay. Liberals are required to prostrate themselves before the consensus about the wonders of the free market, especially the freedom of mega-banks to act as they will regardless of the damage done to the nation. Today they have no ability to imagine an alternative to financial sector domination of an oligopolistic economy. As a simple example of that oligopoly, you just have to look at communications. The phone/internet/cable market is dominated by just a few participants who can charge high prices for low service, and use their profits to prevent the public sector from competing against them. In France, you get phone, internet and television for a base price of about $38. What are you paying?
Even in the aftermath of the Great Crash, only one or two professional politicians argued that the banksters should be at least investigated, if not sent en masse to jail for their crimes. President Obama and his administration get a complete pass from Democrats in Congress, and are reviled by the petty conservative howlers for their efforts to add a bit of stiffening to the regulations governing the financial sector.
At the same time, our knowledge class, which passes for an intellectual class in the US, has nothing to offer. One need only look at Larry Summers to see our pretend intellectuals for the courtiers they are. See, e.g., his defense of his Harvard colleagues Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, which I discussed here. The few relatively independent economists have little to offer but ideas from the past, worked over until they are an incoherent pudding, and even then they get no traction in the public discourse. Just look at the fate of the new ideas of the Modern Money Theory economists; reduced to jokes about the Trillion Dollar Coin.
There cannot be improvements in an economy without innovation. In the same way, there cannot be progress in our understanding of ourselves as individuals or as a society or our understanding of the way our economy works without innovative intellectual progress. That isn’t going to happen in the US: our intellectual class is barely differentiable from other self-marketers trying to turn their ideas into money.
And why would we change if we don’t have a reason to think the changes will make things better?
Photo via Wikipedia.