Everyone’s writing about Freddie deBoer’s piece “the blindspot.” The piece names names, and calls people sellouts, so it’s easy to miss what is the actual critique. I want to recast the discussion slightly and think of it as a left-wing critique of political policy wonk blogging, a type of blogging which this blogs does often. This one will probably be a little-navel gazing; my financial markets readers might want to skip it.
Edward Banfield thought that policy wonks created problems, not solutions. These problems will naturally lead to the conclusion that the scope and nature of government should change from one of statesmanship to one of technocratic problem solving. Freddie deBoer thinks that policy wonks create solutions within the context of a neoliberal capitalism, solutions that reify the naturalness of the current economic order, and that ignore the real problems. These solutions broadly fight for scrapes that are left over from what the elites divide up, and don’t address more fundamental problems existing within our economic order.
The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere…That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention…No, the nominal left of the blogosphere is almost exclusively neoliberal….
All of this sounds merely like an indictment, but I genuinely have a great deal of sympathy for those young rising politicos and bloggers who are constitutionally disposed to be left-wing. What they find, as they rise, is a blogging establishment that delivers the message again and again that to be professionally successful, they must march ever-rightward. That’s where the money is, after all. For every Nation or FireDogLake, there is an Atlantic or Slate, buttressed by money from the ruling class whose interests are defended with gusto by the neoliberal order. I have followed more than a few eager young bloggers as they have been steadily pushed to the right by the institutional culture of Washington DC, where professional entitlement and social success come part and parcel with an acceptance that “this is a center-right nation” is God’s will.
There’s a lot more at the post. A couple of random thoughts, because I’m still thinking of what a progressive critique of policy wonk work would look like.
1. I think it is useful to consider what the strengths of wonks are. Starting a socialist overturn of the capitalist order is not one. What I’ve seen is that they are good at the beginning and at the end of a political process. They are particularly good at creating policy ideas, and the best are those ideas that have a vision of liberal governance embedded in them (the public option, the CFPB). And they are particularly good at dissecting and making arguments that frame events that are occurring over time for people who don’t follow them closely or as experts. Wonks don’t have campaign donations or voters; they create narratives. Freddie wants wonks to be agents of wide-scale change, but it isn’t clear how you get from here to there.
Glenn Greenwald has arguably been the best in terms of a strong liberal agitating the powerful, making an argument that Obama has expanded the Bush-era civil liberties violations associated with the War on Terror. Despite all of the concerted efforts to argue otherwise on behalf of Very Serious People, Greenwald’s argument is winning out, and that has major consequences for how people view the President and the national security state. (As opposed to Freddie, I’d like to see an additional dozen people do what Greenwald does, rather than discuss inequality, if I had to allocate scarce resources of wonks.)
You saw this when Obama has either joked or blown up over the progressive critiques of the health care bill and the financial reform bill – these narratives matter to the administration, and they matter because bloggers are out there making themselves relevant through explaining these actions to the public.
2. The argument of the veal pen is important and Freddie doesn’t bring it up; how should liberal groups engage with liberal politicians? Are they arms of the liberal candidates, units of messaging and co-ordination, or are they accountability mechanisms, designed to hold politicians feet to the fire? To use the organizing idea, do we support candidates or do we support ideas? This is going to become even more relevant if 2011 becomes a year of austerity and center-moving.
I don’t think Obama is focused on the long-term building of a liberal movement and instead has pushed for both compromise and a collapse of potential movement building. And I think the accountability part of this has broken down. Matt Stoller:
Obama continues this trend. It isn’t that he’s not fighting, he fights like hell for what he wants. He whipped incredibly aggressively for TARP, he has passed emergency war funding (breaking a campaign promise) several times, and nearly broke the arms of feckless liberals in the process. I mean, when Bernie Sanders did the filiBernie, Obama flirted with Bernie’s potential 2012 GOP challenger. Obama just wants policies that cement the status of a aristocratic class, with crumbs for everyone else (Republican elites disagree in that they hate anyone but elites getting crumbs). And he will fight for them.
There is simply no basis for arguing that Democratic elites are pursuing poor strategy anymore. They are achieving an enormous amount of leverage within the party. Consider the following. Despite Obama violating every core tenet of what might have been considered the Democratic Party platform, from supporting foreclosures to destroying civil liberties to torturing political dissidents to wrecking unions, Obama has no viable primary challenger. Moreover, no Senate Democratic incumbent lost a primary challenge in 2010, despite a horrible governing posture. Now THAT is a successful strategy, it minimized the losses of the Democratic elite and kept them firmly in control of the party. Thus, the political debate remains confined to what neoliberals want to talk about. It’s a good strategy, it’s just you are the one the strategy is being played on.
I’m not sure where to go in this realm, other than to provide a different set of arguments and a different narrative about what is happening and push them aggressively as I can, and think medium-term.
3. One thing I’ve noticed that separates the people Freddie disapproves of from everyone else is that the ones Freddie disapproves of are primarily journalists. Journalists of policy, of ideological movements and changes, and of institutional day-to-day fighting, but liberal people whose primary career training and arc are one of journalism. A journalistic approach to politics has its strengths and its weaknesses. Its strengths are a solid understanding of the micro elements that move things forward or backwards yard-by-yard. Its weaknesses can be a form of source capture, and a myopia on what is achievable in the short run rather than what moves things in the long run. I don’t think the professionalization of bloggers as reporters has moved them rightward, but it could be argued that it has caused them to focus on the short-term, in part because what the Democrats were trying to be bill-wise required a lot of explanation and in part because journalism requires that.
In its worse form, it becomes what Jay Rosen and others call A Church of the Savvy, where access, the art of the possible, and a healthy disdain for broader scope thinking are all privileged. This is less disdain for socialist or left-wing thinking (which is disdained by all kinds of people) but disdain for outsiders, a broader and more worrisome issue than Freddie lets on.
4. It’s important to realize that the right-wing wonks Freddie seems to respect as building a long-term vision are running under different assumptions of what to do. To them, the problem isn’t thinking of a better solution to a problem, it’s arguing why there is no problem. This comes from an explicit goal to view their project as an ideological one, one that comes out of a Banfield critique that social science is necessarily ideological. This, by definition, orientates towards long-term visions of the possible.
Freddie might want to engage with a left-modified form of the Banfield critique, one that points out when you have a wonk politics hammer every problem looks like a nail. Aaron Bady noticed this with the wonkosphere’s embrace of DIY U and other producitivity related ‘solutions’ to higher ed (also googling that made me realize I stole the title of this from Aaron, sorry!). If all you know are techniques of neoliberalism, then those are the solutions you’ll naturally gravitate towards. That’s different than where Freddie goes, which is one centered around prestige and access.
5. I’ll gladly defend Ezra and Matt on the charges Freddie throws at them. Their key points they raised early over the past two years – that the Senate would become obstructionist not just at a bill level but in a “running down the clock” manner and that would have major consequences (Ezra), that the GOP would not pay a price for their obstruction as people look at their checkbooks when they vote (both) and that the Federal Reserve is a major battlefield for the recovery and progressives/liberals aren’t ready to move, even intellectually, on how to fight for it (Matt) are all major things that happened from the past two years. Ezra in particular has covered the day-to-day amazingly well with a large quantity of work meant to be accessible to a wide range of readers (I write 2 posts every other day and feel like Charles Dickens), and if Freddie’s real critique is that liberals don’t likes unions Ezra has written a lot about how the Obama administration is overlooking them.
As for Matt’s neoliberalism stuff, I read it is coming from his engagement with land use. But to make it clear, I’m in favor of a hella robust regulatory state, but I agree with large parts of his critique. If you worry about why work associated with women is denigrated to second-class work and why women are underpaid relative to men you have to look at why dental hygenists do the same work as dentists for less pay and prestige. If you worry about the carceral state, our policy of putting the maximum number of people within the criminal disciplinary net and high recidivism and subsequent lack of mobility, you have to look at that fact that it can be illegal to hire ex-cons as low-level service employees; illegal to give licenses, and thus hire, ex-cons for things like “barbering, nail technicians, cosmetology and dead animal removal.”
6. As for long-term, I think the issue is recognizing neoliberal governance techniques can be divorced from their current distributional mechanisms and turned towards progressive policy ends. A quote from James Ferguson’s lecture, “Toward a Left Art of Government: From ‘Foucauldian Critique’ to Foucauldian Politics” (~22m in) at this conference ‘Foucault Across the Disciplines’ (mp3s at site) is what motivates a lot of my work:
For the sort of new progressive initiatives I have in mind seem to involve not just opposing the neoliberal project…but appropriating key mechanisms of neoliberal government for different ends…Let me emphasize that to say that certain political initiatives and programs borrow from the neoliberal bag of tricks doesn’t mean that these political projects are in league with the ideological project of neoliberalism, in say David Harvey’s sense. Only that they appropriate certain characteristic neoliberal moves, and I think of these discursive and programmatic moves as analogous to the moves one might make in a game. These moves are recognizable enough to look neoliberal, but they can I suggest be used for quite different purposes than that term normally applies.
In this connection one might think of statistical techniques used for calculating the probabilities of workplace injuries. These statistical techniques were originally developed in the 19th century by large employers to control costs. But they eventually became the technical basis for social insurance, and ultimately for the welfare state, which brought unprecedented gains to the working class across much of the world. Techniques that is to say can migrate across strategic camps, and devices of government that were invented to serve one purpose have often enough ended up through history’s irony been harnessed to another. Might we see similar re-appropriation of market techniques of government, which were, like workplace statistics, undoubtably conservative in their original uses, for different, more progressives, sorts of ends? Maybe not. I’m genuinely open-minded about this, but I think it’s worth considering.
As Banfield noted, postulating problems creates demands for solutions. Techniques once used for factory controls or to wage war can be used for providing a social insurance. The question for me is how to turn the current pieces on the board towards better outcomes.