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The Role of Liberals: Cenk Uygur and “Keeping it Real”

December 4, 2012

As a Marxist, or far-left person of any variety (they’re called ‘political economists’), it can often be difficult to engage in conversation about political issues. It requires frequent suppositions, to put one’s self in a position in which they do not particularly believe that they’re saying, or to argue points that frequently aren’t that persuasive. For instance: there is a great deal of argument for why the US and Europe should be investing in stimulus spending as opposed to austerity. Now on the face of it, while this may fix certain issues in the economy, such as restoring full employment, the fact remains that many of these jobs will not be high-paid jobs, that most Western economies are still heavily structured against the worker, far more than in the post-war era, and that if conditions even did get better they would erode the base of modern economic growth. Yet once one sees economic growth as not a social good but a global negative, it becomes even more difficult to properly ascertain what one is actually arguing: full employment policies are good for workers in a very short-term sense until they begin to destroy the basis of accumulation in the modern order which in reality isn’t such a bad thing because we need to stop growing because of manifold environmental problems yet if the basis of accumulation fails it is the workers who will bear the brunt of it… you see how it can be difficult to faithfully articulate a policy vision when the world operates in a system that you fundamentally disagree with.

Thus why most leftists end up either disdaining or parroting liberals, generally both at different times, particularly those of the new American ‘left’, most frequently branding themselves as ‘progressives’. Now, progressive is a fine label, I consider myself one, and I support much of the agenda of shows such as Rachel Maddow’s, The Young Turks, The Jimmy Dore Show, The Majority Report, etc etc, all the programmes you expect to find on the excellent ‘Best of the Left’ podcast. Despite the fact that most of the people involved are, when pushed far enough, really just moderate economic conservatives, circumstances are hugely important: when your worldview is dominated by the Democrat-Republican dichotomous view of life (in which the answer is always ‘in the middle’ and ‘both sides do it’) it’s pretty impressive to come out of the bubble and ask “wait why are we giving tax cuts to millionaires?” I don’t wish this to come off as condescending, for I do not mean it to be, and I do not feel that self-described capitalists such as Cenk Uygur would take issue with it. Few of them would be socialists, although many would probably refer to themselves as socialists in pragmatic European sense, which belies the actual definition of socialism, which has for its entire history been about worker control of the means of production. Regardless, there is a clear divide between the progressive liberal left and the actually leftist left.

So why do I still listen to the Young Turks, and indeed, far more of the American progressive media than the ordinary person? Well, their extremely podcastable nature helps, but more importantly, they are highly important in contemporary politics. Like Keynes, the grand-daddy of modern liberalism, their intelligence and integrity allows them to provide highly useful critiques of the world, the full implications of which they themselves do not accept. In this sense, what they say and write is often far more useful than the framework in which they operate. Keynes may have thought that free markets are great in the abstract, but his theory essentially postulated that the free market can never truly co-exist with full employment. As he considered full employment politically necessary in the era of communism and fascism (and to his credit, Keynes cared much for the worker’s plight and pushed long and hard for stimulus policies), government was thus necessary in taking up the slack, increasing effective demand which would employ more workers and re-jig the process of accumulation, etc. The increasingly radical critiques of capitalism purported by his followers would never have occurred to Keynes, who simply sought to establish a more equitable and stable form of capitalism, when indeed his entire theory was dedicated to noting its inherent tendencies to self-combust. The case of Keynes is analogous for the use of American liberal media.

For the matter is that these liberals are often highly critical of the status quo. They duly recognise the ridiculous extent of corporate influence in our world – Cenk in particular comments frequently about the merger of corporation and state, which he has no issue with defining as fascism – along with the surveillance state, restrictions on civil liberties, economic inequality, political corruption, a foreign policy of terrorism, etc. On many of these issues, there is frequently little different to their writings and those of genuine leftists: shit’s bad and it’s getting worse. Many if not all recognise that what politicians and corporations say (and indeed power in any form) can rarely be trusted. When breaking down what the subtext of official discourse actually is, Cenk’s old chestnut “look, on the Young Turks, we’re keeping it real” prefaces what is an appropriately scathing criticism of whatever administration is in power. Of course this is not limited to Cenk, but he represents the best example of a man who understands the fundamental truth that what powerful people say is almost always a justification to maintain their own power. The only criticism I make is that how come he does not apply that to all sectors of life? How in liberal editorials do they not realise that this is how capitalism has always worked.

While these liberals may pick apart conservatives for pining for the good ol’ days, in reality they are guilty of it in a different form – pining for the same era, just for different reasons. While conservatives love the social conservatism of the 1950s, liberals love its economic egalitarianism (while very fairly criticising the social elements). And for good reason – the post-war era saw relatively equal gains in income for all. It is not to suggest that it was a worker’s paradise, but it was a good deal closer than we are today. This is the era with which they situate themselves in terms of economic and foreign policy: supporting workers’ rights, supporting human rights, all that jazz. Here is Cenk’s otherwise excellent take of UK and US imperialism vis-a-vis Julian Assange, in which he postulates that he wished that they could support human rights ‘like they used to’.

Except that in many cases, things were little better in the 1950s – one simply needs to look at Korea and Iran for foreign policy abuses (or indeed the entire history of Latin America and the modern Israeli state – hell was the annexing of half of Mexico just an aberration of the US’s otherwise friendly relations with the rest of the world?). Unions may have once had strength, but their power was falling steadily since the 1930s/40s, and certainly provided no major check on corporate power. The idea of labour “checking” capital is a bit farcical when you consider that capital accumulation grew at its fastest rates historically in the post-war boom. Union-busting reared its ugly head only in the 1970s when there was an economic crisis, and when corporate power needed to beat labour with a stick. It isn’t to suggest that real gains haven’t been made in the past, but they have often been made because they have troubled the ruling powers little, or at least were a lower political priority than other goals, such as securing overseas markets and steady resource supplies.

For all the wonk in that last paragraph, it is suffice to say that while things may have been better for certain groups in the past, they were largely a historical abnormality. What people forget about the “Golden Age of capitalism” is that golden ages are the exceptions to rules. Perhaps a particularly conservative socialist could argue that the post-war boom was good for the world, and that then once it was over we should have begun the transition to socialism, but to suggest that higher rates of taxes, more extensive worker protections and better wages would restore the boom of old is to fundamentally ignore how the world has changed since the early seventies. And to assume that a hegemonic alliance of power committed itself to ideals rather than its own power is more than a little naive.

In this sense, it is best to think of these programmes as useful tools with which we can use to provide more wide-reaching critiques about society in general. To put it very, very unfairly, American liberals are the proverbial “useful idiot” (I use that term only for descriptive purposes, and not for its pejorative connotations). While few of them would support a socialist agenda, they are definitely very helpful allies in continuing the struggle towards one. They are no open friends to Marxists (indeed, Cenk’s dismissal of Marxists is frustrating to witness every single time, as the man, for infinite intelligence, dedication and perseverance, simply does not have a very strong understanding of the theoretical framework, nor do I suspect he wants to know), yet they frequently adopt the sceptical tone of a leftist, who trusts governments little and corporations less. Furthermore, it is not as if they are alone in their media bubble; many liberal politicians, political scientists and economists operate within the same mindset – Krugman, Stiglitz, Elizabeth Warren, etc – and again, it is an achievement to recognise the faults of any system you live in, particularly one as culturally hegemonic as the US. Even if they’re liberal, they’re still Americans, but do we really need to agree on Marx’s theory of the business cycle to say that indefinite detention is wrong?

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