Bhaskar Sunkara’s recent essay in The Nation, Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical, argues persuasively that American liberalism is “practically ineffective and analytically inadequate” to the twin political tasks of mobilizing supporters and generating policy. Sunkara blames the crisis of liberalism on the fact that, “Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power,” which leads liberals–Sunkara specifically cites Obama–to treat
politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. . . [in which] the best program … is assumed to prevail in the end…[and] political action is disconnected … from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.
Admitting that liberalism is “a slippery term” Sunkara defines it in terms of the two dominant species of Washington Democratic insiders, which he defines as follows:
to the extent that we can assign coherence to the ideology, two main camps of modern American liberalism are identifiable: welfare liberals and technocratic liberals. The former, without the radicals they so often attacked marching at their left, have not adequately moored their efforts to the working class, while the latter naïvely disconnect policy from politics, often with frightening results.
Both sorts of liberalism, Sunkara argues, have failed analytically and politically, though in different ways and for different reasons. Nevertheless, Sankara has the same prescription: “the solution to liberalism’s impasse lies in the re-emergence of American radicalism.”
What would that look like? The first task is that
Socialists must urgently show progressives how alien the technocratic liberal worldview is to the goals of welfare-state liberalism-goals held by the rank and file of the liberal movement. … Broad anti-austerity coalitions, particularly those centered at the state and municipal levels like last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike, point the way toward new coalitions between leftists and liberals committed to defending social goods.
But anti-austerity is not, of course, the full program, but
just one example of the kind of class politics that has to be reconstituted in America today; surely there are many others. The Next Left’s anti-austerity struggles must be connected to the environmental movement, to the struggle of immigrants for labor and citizenship rights, and even, as unromantic as it sounds, to the needs of middle-class service recipients.
Although Sunkara’s essay, like his groundbreaking publication Jacobin Magazine, is an important attempt at creating bridges between liberals and radicals during a time of onslaught by the corporate Right, even as it demonstrates the analytical weakness of liberalism, it suffers from some of the very same analytical inadequacies of liberalism itself, especially its lack of a dynamic theory of power.
Specifically, Sunkara’s categories of analysis are rooted in politics and ideology, with no moorings in the social formation beyond a few statements about working class support for social welfare liberalism–statements which fail to recognize the accomplishments wrought via American working class and subaltern self-activity. In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising–though it ought to be–that a self-described “young radical” had no place in his analysis for a discussion of capitalism as an exploitative economic system whose nature is at the root of or contributes greatly to every one of the social problems liberals profess to care about.