[OPE] The Financial Times says the Left haven't got a clue

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@tiscali.nl)
Date: Thu Mar 27 2008 - 15:46:33 EDT

Jerry, you asked:

The serious question is: should radical economists, at the present time, be trying to jointly develop an "alternative economic strategy" in response to the economic crisis? 

In general I am a bit reluctant to "advise" US radical economists, it's not really my turf. You can comment on some things, but you have to be a bit careful about how you do it, mainly because the people that actually live in a country know the most about it, not you as an "outsider". 

In the Socialist Party of the Netherlands for example we don't go around "telling other countries what to do", we might just advise if they specifically ask us for advice, or we might encourage them where relevant. The touchstone of the validity of our foreign policy is our domestic policy. You can sort of go speechifying about internationalism but the first question is what your attitude is to immigrants in your own country for example, how you practically deal with that (and a lot of practical problems arise). Or, if we are talking about e.g. environmental issues, what foreign policy can we recommend, given our domestic policy on that? The idea is that if you are rational, you have to be consistent, you cannot go around recommending policies to other people that you don't practice yourself, because otherwise you get criticised for not practicising what you preach yourself. If you don't have that basic integrity, you do not build a firm leadership and a politics that is anything more than fly-by-night. It has to be deeply rooted in what people actually do. Maybe you have to to grapple with life's contradictions, everyone has to, but beyond some "grey areas", large inconsistencies reduce your credibility.

That aside, my own alternative inquiries, pursuits and antics in my private life (what's left of it) are often a bit difficult for other people to follow anyway, at present, and therefore I stay out of "representing" other people as much as possible except for what I need to do in my job, I just state my own point of view on particular topics or attempt some critique. My aim is to just convey what I think are essential elements to understanding what it is about (and I could be wrong). On a number of issues I don't agree with majority policy, in part because I have to think not just about what happens now, but about what happens next. You get into very complicated kinds of reasoning (or dreams) here, and often you're better off not saying things, because people aren't ready to accept that stuff at all, they think it's over the top or something like that. For most people, "seeing is believing" and they'll believe it only when they see it.

That being said, I would make the following observation: there are several sorts of interpretations of an alternative economic strategy - 

1) Workers (employed or unemployed) should simply help each other to a better life as they are able
2) Alternative economic strategies should be projected in leftwing journals
3) Alternative economic strategies should be part of trade union policy
4) Alternative economic strategies should be part of building a political party
5) Alternative economic strategies should be asserted within the government apparatus
6) Alternative economic strategies are really irrelevant, because we should not be concerned with economics, but with people's development.

These options are not necessarily incompatible, except if you argue that alternative economic strategies are intrinsicaly wrongheaded. What stance you take on these kinds of options (not necessarily covering the full spectrum) depends a lot on:

- your own position in life, 
- how far left you are (how you interpret the difference between revolutionism and reformism, and how you interpret radicalism). 
- your idea about the epoch we live in, and what you can achieve in that epoch.

Very clearly, The Nation does propose an alternative economic strategy: they argue for a New Deal, that is to say, a renewal of the "social contract" in the US with about six main points which represent a sort of leftwing of the Democratic Party, or an argument at its periphery. The main drawback of such an alternative economic strategy is that the people in power might say "hey, that's a great idea and we will borrow that" but they don't actually adopt the strategy as a whole or the substance of it. In that case, all you have done is to volunteer some fresh ideas, which other people use for purposes you don't intend, or they modify them in a way contrary to your purpose or spirit. That could be very frustrating, rather than gratifying or flattering.

Which is to say, that the efficacy of an alternative economic strategy really depends on what sort of political clout you have. You can always moot an idea, but in politics, what counts is how that idea is actually used, and for whose benefit it is used. So many radicals argue, that getting political clout comes first, and alternative economic strategies are relevant, where appropriate, only as a means to get political clout. But this raises the question of why you want to get political clout in the first place, what your true motivation is.

Other radicals concentrate more on the "art of political intervention". The question there is: how can I put across an idea somewhere so that it has real effect, so that it has real influence? The reasoning is that I can shoot a few barbs or bolts, but I have only a limited number of barbs or bolts I can shoot, so I have to shoot them exactly where they hit home, where they hit the spot, or whatever you like to call it. I may not be able to influence everybody, but I may be able to influence a few key individuals, or one target group or one organization. 

Politics is absolutely no good if it does not make a difference, in particular if it does not make any observable difference to people's lives. If it makes no difference, then people turn off and become cynical and you can hardly blame them, because if you run around politicking and it has absolutely no effect, then it is pretty futile. Hence the notion of the "loony left". In addition, the difference that it makes should be a positive difference, it should make things better for your constituency, and not worse. If you are worse off because of a policy, it is quite possible you may regard politics itself as the enemy, and you may argue that the best way to achieve anything is to stay out of politics altogether, or at any rate avoid it as much as possible. In that case, the argument becomes, whether politics is important as such, what it can or cannot achieve. 

The attitude of Marx and Engels to the whole question changed in the course of time, because the political configurations changed in their lifetime. When they wrote the Communist Manifesto, they did not recommend a communist political party. But when they became involved in the Internationals, the argument clearly was that since workers need to emancipate themselves, they needed an independent political party reflecting their own interests. Marx was very cautious about his utterances in this respect, mindful about where the workers were actually at,  but he felt free to criticize the economic policies of the German social democrats for example. 

So organisational methods are time-bound and context-bound. The conditions that exist in one country may not be at all the same as the conditions that exist in another country - a party apparatus may be relevant here, but irrelevant there. Formal or informal organisational arrangements may be relevant here, but irrelevant there. Whatever the case, the important thing is how you can have a positive effect. An alternative economic strategy can have a positive effect, but the question is whether it really has the effect you intend. 

This kind of framework for thinking about it may seem a bit "abstract" but like I say I am a bit reluctant to make all sorts of recommendations as I do not feel in a position to make them. In a forum such as this, you can discuss the theory of it, or the spectrum of possibilities, but real politics is another story in my opinion.

Barack Obama made a probably very effective speech on economic policy which aims to unite people politically. Of course, then I have to think of who he is actually uniting. It turns out that the question of pulling the troops out of Iraq is a bit of a pseudo-issue, in the sense that they have built a logistical system where they can import or export troops at will, and in the sense that if they pull the troops out, then very likely the Iraq government would invite some back in, whether under a UN mandate, or via some other arrangement. In a real sense, Iraq remains a fledgling "client state". One way or another, rightly or wrongly, the US is committed to some kind of presence. Of course, it is not a pseudo-issue, insofar as it concerns the question of why they have that presence at all, and with what right. It makes a lot of difference whether a sovereign government invites you in for a particular purpose, or whether you go in there (as they originally did), disrespecting sovereignity - at least in the opinion of the Dutch SP (it is a question of legal and political mandate). The core problem is really that any broad consensus about the overall rationale of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations is lacking, morally or practically, and that has to do with the highly questionable reasons for why they went in there in the first place (I don't think I need to repeat what I said about that). 

You might argue a la China Mieville that international law is an ass, but if there is no international law, then a whole framework for evaluating what is done disappears, and therefore an important source of moral learning disappears. Generally I am not in favour of lawlessness, that is my own bias, but not everybody agrees with that - the question for me is what you can achieve with the law to do real justice, and to what extent the law obstructs real justice being done. You may be able to generate an alternative without recourse to the law, but not in denial of the law. But if I reject the law as such, I am not in a position to enter into debate about it, and I cannot appeal to the law to deliver real justice either. In that case, I would be "a law unto myself", meaning everything would exclusively depend on my ability to assert "my law". Well, I don't rate my chances very highly in that respect, except in contexts where the law simply cannot reach, and I can pursue my own inquiry without interference.


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