Are liberals useless? A further meditation on Chris Hedges’ piece

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I know, this Chris Hedges piece came out nearly two weeks ago.  This is a further exploration of the “liberals are useless” meme in political conversation.  Here I will suggest that liberals, progressives, etc. may be useless, but they can’t be dismissed outright.  Thus we need the building blocks of a more proactive stance.

(Crossposted at Orange)

On a first read, Chris Hedges’ piece “Liberals Are Useless” from two weeks ago looks like another complaint about ineffectual political sellouts.  Let’s take a short look at what Hedges says:

Liberals are a useless lot. They talk about peace and do nothing to challenge our permanent war economy. They claim to support the working class, and vote for candidates that glibly defend the North American Free Trade Agreement. They insist they believe in welfare, the right to organize, universal health care and a host of other socially progressive causes, and will not risk stepping out of the mainstream to fight for them.

Same old complaint.  But then I started to see a lot of echoes of it elsewhere, especially as regards the run-up to the coming vote on “health insurance reform.”  Here, for instance, we have a campaign contributor who pledges to stop working for the Democratic Party after feeling sold out on a number of grounds.  And then you have Rahm Emanuel, who said: “Don’t Worry About The Left.”  Why not worry about the Left?  Because they offer no source of political resistance.  (And, yeah, this apparently applies to supposed “socialist” Bernie Sanders as well.)   This message was corroborated (in a sense) by the White House staffer who said that Howard Dean was “irrelevant to the entire health care debate.”  And then of course you had thereisnospoon’s diary of last week, which tells us that “no one is going to save you fools,” and urges you not to trust your politicians.  Do you catch my drift?

So are liberals, progressives, etc. “useless” or “irrelevant” to politics as played in DC?  Let’s take a look at Jeffrey Feldman’s piece, outlining Rahm Emanuel’s strategy: “Get ’em, then gut ’em.”  Here is the puzzle Feldman sets out as regards the “liberals are useless” meme:

Given the likelihood that elected Democrats would rather stiff arm activists in their own base than be publicly accused by their own President of blocking health care reform–meaning that the current health care bill will likely be signed into law rather than killed–what can the base of the Democratic Party do to guarantee they have more end game influence in the next legislative battle?

This should be considered in light of David Waldman’s speculation in yesterday’s Orange that Reid has enough votes at this point to grant America a national Romneycare.  And, gee whiz, who can fault Romneycare, except maybe for the fact that 21% of Massachusetts residents still forgo necessary medical care, or that Romneycare has failed to rein in medical costs.  From the PNHP report:

The plan does nothing to control skyrocketing health care costs. Even before the health reform, health costs in Massachusetts were among the highest in the world, approximately 25% higher than the U.S. average. Since the reform’s passage, premiums have continued to escalate. The costs for the four (subsidized) Commonwealth Care plans rose 9.4 % in 2009, significantly higher than increases in inflation or wages. (p. 13)

Spare me the counter-arguments about how this is “better than nothing.”  If we do a half-baked job of pressing Congress for “reform,” and Congress only save a small portion of the lives it could have saved, we have nothing to be proud of.

Okay, so here’s the proactive part.

Folks, if America’s progressives had really been serious about politics, they would have asked something like Feldman’s question decades ago.  Yeah, this one — “what can the base of the Democratic Party do to guarantee they have more end game influence in the next legislative battle?”  So where was progressive “end game influence” in, oh, any number of legislative (or for that matter, political) battles over the last three decades?  The fact of the matter is that the political class is united against the public, and in favor of stewardship of the neoliberal state.  Kees van der Pijl outlines this on a global scale in the abovecited link, “The Aesthetics of Empire and the Defeat of the Left.”  The money quote:

As a cadre entrusted with the day-to-day management of politics and administration, the ‘political class’ of each state is an internally cohesive force, and the particular sources of the entitlement to occupy state management posts such as the class struggle of the labour movement, have increasingly been left behind by that part of the cadre which entered politics as representatives of the working class aspirations for socialism.

What politicians care about, then, is each other, and not you or me.  Paul Rosenberg calls it the “Versailles Dem Mind.”  In this political climate of collusion amongst the political class, moreover, the progressives have given up their political clout for the sake of various “lesser of two evils” campaigns, for various tenets of progressive ideology, and for all kinds of other excuses to rationalize their powerlessness while pretending to continue to “play politics.”  And the politicians have treated them like children caught eating dinner at the grown-ups’ table.  Here’s what they tell progressives: “We’ll fix the legislation later.”  Uh-huh — here’s slinkerwink’s idea of that.  

Of course, if the progressives disappear from the political process entirely, like they did in failing to influence the reprehensible No Child Left Behind Act (Senate) (House), then things just get worse.  NCLB, if you recall, turned America’s schools into test prep organizations, minions of McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin, and Harcourt General; as Gerald Bracey points out, NCLB is the Administration’s favored regime for those who simply can’t afford a good progressive private school.  

Progressives, then, may be “useless,” but dismissing them and relying upon another demographic segment of the American public would probably not be the best course of action at this time.  So that’s where we stand.

What should we do?

Here’s where it gets personal and, well, it’s not up to me to tell everyone what to do.  It’s especially not up to me to tell you what to do.  First off, although I may be with you on “the left,” and on health care, and maybe even on education, I’m not a progressive.  Secondly, I don’t place my organizational faith (or despair) in an entity called the “Democratic Party,” which holds its members together in a “Big Tent” philosophy which is supposed to unite its members behind various vague and unspecified goals.  Lastly, I’m not a “realist” or an “incrementalist” — I don’t think that respect for the delusional character of much of mainstream American society will amount to anything good, and I do think that drastic, sudden change is quite probable given world society’s heedlessness toward its environmental substrate.

Oh, sure, I understand the realities of power, but I don’t think of power only in the narrow, political sense.  There are plenty of other types of power, the “powers of the weak,” which need to be activated if a better world is to be achieved.  I certainly don’t kid myself about the power of money over the political process, to the point where I’m voting for politicians who give away the store to moneyed interests “but they’re better than the Republican” on some minor point.  I may know less than you do, but I do try to acquaint myself with life-knowledge that counts.

As regards the “health insurance reform” issue, progressives might have done well to heed the advice of letsgetitdone over at Firedoglake and exercised the “progressive power of ‘no‘” a lot earlier, and a lot more often, than they have done so far.  As it is, they haven’t used this power, they won’t use it, and as a result they have no real power over the bill, and so they will pass it without meaningful complaint.  The teabaggers understand the power of obstruction better than the progressives — if anyone in this era is going to take to heart Mario Savio’s famous incantation about how “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious-makes you so sick at heart-that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part,” it will probably be some reactionary fool.

I can’t quite place a name on my own philosophy, but I suppose “ecosocialism” is as good a label as any.  You might also look at “historical materialism” as something in which I believe.  I think that if we are to have profound political change, it will not appear to us as the success of a hobby we might pursue, or as a side-project we engage while we climb the corporate ladder, but rather as a transformation of our ways of life.

Now, despite what they say about us in DC, we are in fact all grown-ups now, and can therefore think for ourselves.  Thus I’m sure you can glean through this diary and through your other sources to find moral principles which will allow you to pursue a politics which won’t make you “useless.”  Perhaps you’ve already done so.


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  1. cassiodorus
  2. jamess

    The Democratic National Platform

    We need to reference it.

    We need to demand it.

    And we need to re-write it —

    to more strongly encapsulate

    today’s Progressive Values and Goals.


  3. dkmich

    compared to the race to the top.  One strategy is to vote Republican.  We’ll lose, but so will they. That’s makes us even, and puts us miles ahead of where we’ve been for the last 3 years.  

  4. jeffroby

    Haven’t heard of Mario Savio for a long time!  But your quote only goes so far.  Then there’s the part:

    “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

    In a piece from ( Friday ), I wrote:

    we need something more immediate.  Maybe have thousands of the unemployed storm congressional halls, call it the six-packers.  Sit-downs at phony jobs fairs.  Surround the homeless shelters or welfare centers.  I really don’t know exactly.  Some of this may sound outlandish, but December 3 Bloomberg reports, “senior Goldman people have loaded up on firearms and are now equipped to defend themselves if there is a populist uprising against the bank.”  I do know there are going to be a lot of pissed-off people out there with nothing to lose, and I don’t believe we can’t come up with something.

    I don’t exactly agree that liberals (I cried when they shot Medgar Evers) are useless.  Rather, they are gutless.  Fact is that the White House and the Rahm Emmanuels and the institutions that hand out JOBS can exert more pressure than we can.

    When we can exert more pressure, by making the disparity between their PROFESSED principles and their practice concretely clear, in action, in creating situations where “which side are you on?” means you cross this line or you don’t, then they either join us or openly proclaim themselves part of the powers-that-be.

    The onus isn’t really on them until we can do our part.

  5. bigsurtree

    has quite a few older participants. I am one of them. We need a hell of a lot more younger people to really help form and energize a larger movement. The tragedy is that a huge percentage of them were co-opted by the Obama forces, and probably are wondering what has happened.

    Without question, Obama has done far more harm to the “liberal/progressive” cause and its influence on the Democratic party than could ever have been imagined: He

    literally fractured an embryonic movement before it had any time to coalesce. He has single handedly and profoundly weakened the Orange One IMHO.

    There was just way too much investment in the man himself.

    But it seemed unavoidable, because it was a historic election. Perhaps now, the blogosphere can be used not only for fundraising, political discussion, petitions and

    personal lobbying, but also organizing for mass demonstrations and protests. Perhaps the targets should be expanded to corporations as well as government, with a powerful reminder of who they work for.

    One of the saddest things to see are the college youngsters going deep in debt for a lifetime without any recourse to changing this arrangement. So not only are we making a healthy life harder to get and impossible for many, but also higher education. And we are going deeper and deeper into debt to boot. Not a real good way to compete in this global economy. In fact it’s a f****g recipe for failure.

    Oh well, it’s Sunday evening and I better stop while I’m ahead.

  6. whitewash


    I can be there to help.

    Hopefully, all those crying for government health insurance because they don’t have any can be there too.

    And all these incessant keyboard claquers can set up a hot spot in New Tent City.

    On the National Mall.

    Once they start carting people away, once the sick and uninsured start getting arrested, once President Fuckup has to call to order our portapotties, there might be a shift.

    Until then, everything is just bedpan in the wind.

  7. seabos84

    have overlapped?

    I wasn’t saving the world – just myself. I was cooking in fine dining in Boston (Four Seasons Hotel, ’85 to ’87) feeding the rich slimeballs.

    (did I eat GOOD!)

    I grew up on welfare (we weren’t hungry, just broke broke broke) in a decaying industrial pit, Holyoke, and got the 1st bus out to boston college when I was 18 in ’78 blah blah blah.  My main concerns where making sure I had skills so when I had to beg for employment and when I had to kiss ass to keep my job, at least I’d have something to get me a new job if the fuckers chucked me outta work.

    I volunteered in campaigns to meet the XX persuasion.

    the boston lib dems I met are pretty much like seattle lib dems I met – relatively affluent, able to afford the incessant sell outs and political incompetents disguised as leaders.

    I like Hedge’s piece.

    what to do?

    1. STOP electing fucking sell outs, or political incompetents. I quitely did NOT vote for Maria Cantwell in 2006 – I’m fucking done voting for pathetics (see her pharma vote this week? patty murray too?) cuz there is a fascist on the other side.


    finally, we gotta do something that fucks wiht the machine (PEACEFULLY) BUT it has to be persistent.

    We gotta find a way to gum up the works BUT …

    I can’t AFFORD losing work time to jail,

    I can’t AFFORD to lose my job,

    I can’t AFFORD to lose my shit health ‘insurance’,

    I am NOT mother theresa and I am NOT spending 27 years in jail like mandela – hand cuffs and jail cells suck.

    We gotta find a way to gum up the works …

    use cell phones and twitter tweeter whatever to follow around sell outs and incompetents, 24*7, with embarrassing signs, like the right wing anti whacks do?


    we gotta do something that fucks wiht the machine (PEACEFULLY) BUT it has to be persistent.

    I was part of hte feb 2003? anti war march

    YAWN … what the fuck did it accomplish which persisted?


  8. Jack's Smirking Revenge

    Ten years of us “kids” yelling in the streets about these days of economic peril because the two-parties being paid off by the same corporate pimps that don’t care about us has worked!

    Soooo whenever you’re ready, I got a few ways we can get some stuff done.

    If you’re interested that is.  I know how people like to just say things with no intention of doing anything about it 🙂

  9. banger

    Liberal/Progressives don’t seem able to do either very well. Particularly the “hurt” part. If you can’t do that then you don’t deserve to take part in the political game. You are better off praying. Mind you, I believe in prayer and meditation and I believe in its power but it is not the same as taking part in political action.

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