Bhaskar Sunkara sees both challenge and opportunity for the far left in an era of disillusionment with the status quo:
For many in my generation, the ideological underpinnings of capitalism have been undermined. That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism at least signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.
At an intellectual level, the same is true. Marxists have gained a measure of mainstream exposure: Foreign Policy turned to Leo Panitch, not Larry Summers, to explain the recent economic crisis; and thinkers like David Harveyhave enjoyed late career renaissances. The wider recognition of thought “left of liberalism” – of which the journal I edit, Jacobin, is a part – isn’t just the result of the loss of faith in mainstream alternatives, but rather, the ability of radicals to ask deeper structural questions and place new developments in historical context.
Now, even celebrated liberal Paul Krugman has been invoking ideas long relegated to the margins of American life. When thinking about automation and the future of labor, he worries that “it has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism – which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is.” But a resurgent left has more than worries, they have ideas: about the reduction of working time, the decommodification of labor, and the ways in which advances in production can make life better, not more miserable.
I don’t think Sunkara is wrong about this – but mainly by default, because conservatives, instead of trying to rein in a corrupt capitalism, have been defending its excesses as principles, and just ran a Bain executive as its nominee, for Pete’s sake, after an era in which reckless financial oligarchs nearly destroyed the entire global economy. What we have now is not democracy, properly understood, but an oligarchy on the take and a justice system designed to convict rather than try. Conservatism should be on the forefront of reform here – as Disraeli and Bismarck and Lincoln were – because it is our beloved free market economics and representative democracy that are being discredited for at least two generations.
And not because a free market doesn’t work when government regulates it right, when the tax code is simple enough for every citizen to understand, and when government tax-expenditures do not infiltrate every nook and cranny of our economic life. The GOP needs to propose and fight for a return to real capitalism and opportunity, radical tax reform, an end to all deductions, serious long-term cuts in entitlements that Obama won’t touch, prison reform, breaking up the big banks, ending the drug war, and turning the permanent war department back into something recognizable as “defense.” That doesn’t include intervention in fricking Mali, by the way. Or picking yet another military fight in the Middle East with a land invasion and air-campaign. Or thinking that torturing defenseles prisoners is some kind of strength, when it is, in fact, proof of our lost way.
Marxism in its classic sense cannot come back. It was proven wrong. Collectivism, however, always has a future. In my view, it is at worst a necessary evil from time to time (defensive war, a social safety net against the hazards of life), and at best a vital resource for liberal democracy in crisis (see FDR and Obama). But it is much more avoidable if real conservatives do their duty all the time, and attend to corruption in capitalism diligently, regulate lightly but firmly and without favors, fight the military-industrial complex and keep the lid on domestic spending.
But in America, the Republicans haven’t done this for decades. They’ve forgotten entirely what their reformist tradition requires of them. Now.
(Photo: dude with major beard who inspired some of the worst mass-murderers in history.)