Published on
The Guardian/UK

Beyond the Crisis of Liberalism

There is a groundswell of popular resistance to the forces of reaction, but the left must break out of its defensive posture

The problem of liberalism is that in the US – and this is true of all advanced industrial societies – there has been no significant reform of the existing of economic system for decades. In the United States, since the great era of reform in the 1930s, with the New Deal, the last major reform was the establishment of Medicare in 1966. In the UK and other countries, the main period of reform followed the second world war, with the consolidation of the welfare state.

In the US, Medicare was the last serious political advance; there has been nothing significant since. On education and the environment – which have both been more recent targets of liberal reform – we have gone nowhere, or even regressed. So, given the current configuration of world capitalism, it is apparent that what I define as the liberal reform – that is, reform within the capitalist system – has reached a dead end.

To be sure, liberals will call for a return to the politics of the New Deal or the Great Society: if we could cut the military budget, they say, or if we had a progressive tax system, we could restore greater equality and fairness in society and more prosperity for all. But it's not about this proposal or that proposal; the problem is that we don't have a political force that is pushing for fundamental change.

To make qualitative advances on what we have, especially on the environment, would require a radical change in the economic system. Even to solve unemployment, we would need to cut hours and have major intervention by government. The private sector is never going to manage that. And to get this sort of change would involve taking on Wall Street and other entrenched economic interests.

I'm not sure anyone is willing to do that. Liberals say we have to get people to vote and we have to get them to vote for good people. The moralism of US politics gets in the way here, and that is how liberalism presents the opposition. In reality, it's not about whether the government is being run by good guys or bad guys; it's structural change of the economic and political system itself that we need.

With the decline of unions in private sector and the battle in Wisconsin over the move to decertify public sector unions, we're stuck in the position of defending what little we still have. But we're not going anywhere with that: we've seen the failure of the concessionary approach before. You give ground to the right; they just come right back at you and demand more.

The collective bargaining battle in Wisconsin is a classic example of symbolic politics: you don't need law, making law comes second; it's about power. In the history of labour movement politics, it was outside the law that things were achieved. In the 1930s, the pressure for change came from sit-down strikes and industrial action in 1936 and 1937; they didn't have the law on their side. The law was made after the fact – in fact, then to regulate labour relations, to control them.

But the old compact of labour relations is breaking down, because the right is attacking it. The right is engaging in its own symbolic politics, and right now, they're winning. The left is stuck in this defensive position, where restoring collective bargaining rights is this most minimal of demands – and they could well still lose.

If anything good is to happen now, it will have to be because people have decided they're going to take on the system. Wisconsin has created some momentum, which is rippling outwards: a spirit of rebellion, particularly among young people from whom the American dream has been abrogated in so many ways. There's a lot of unrest and that's where the hope is, in young people taking direct action.

I don't see it coming from the Democratic party or the Green party. The first attempt to reform the Democratic party was in 1890 and they've been trying it – and failing – ever since.

So far, the most militant, most dramatic struggle around cuts in public services took place in France. But it was clear that after weeks of that mobilisation, there was an impasse. The socialists and the left were still in defensive mode. No one had any vision; no one was articulating for people what might be a new configuration of "the good life".

We have to offer a vision of change in place of this crisis point that liberalism has reached. There isn't a significant proposal on the table to address poverty, to address the lack of healthcare for millions of Americans. Poverty in the United States is defined as a household income of $22,000 for a family of four. That measure doesn't even work in Mississipi. The government says there are 35 million people in this country who are poor; I would double that. There are 70 million people who are making less than $50,000 for a family of four. US income inequality is among the highest in the developed nations, and the middle class and the working class are bearing the overwhelming burden of taxation.

Liberalism has no agenda to tackle any of this. That is why this is a watershed moment, which only structural reform of the system can address.

Stanley Aronowitz

Stanley Aronowitz is distinguished professor of sociology at the graduate centre of the City University of New York (CUNY). Among his many books are How Class Works (2003), Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future (2006) and The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2008). He is currently working on a book about C Wright Mills

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