A Challenge to Neoliberal Orthodoxy

Conventional thinkers say Jeremy Corbyn’s election to head Britain’s opposition Labour Party and Bernie Sanders’s surge against Hillary Clinton are passing fancies that will fade as the summer ends, but Nicolas J S Davies sees the hope for an inspiring new politics.

By Nicolas J S Davies

Jeremy Corbyn, the chairman of the U.K.’s Stop the War Coalition, is now also the leader of the U.K.’s main opposition Labour PartyBernie Sanders, the independent socialist Senator from Vermont, is leading in the polls for the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire and the latest poll for the Iowa caucuses.

As Corbyn told the BBC, “politics can change, and we have changed it.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Great Britain's Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Great Britain’s Labour Party.

American socialist Michael Harrington coined the phrase “on the left wing of the possible” to define the most effective position that people of conscience could take amid the corruption of capitalist politics. Harrington had a way with words – he is also credited with coining the term “neoconservative.” But the challenge on the left of U.S. politics has always been to define just what is “possible.”

The Sanders campaign’s failure to stake out strong progressive positions on foreign policy and militarism (in contrast with Corbyn in the U.K.) risks squandering a historic opportunity to build a united front for “a new kind of politics” in the United States, but it is not too late for him to do so.

The rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s succeeded in marginalizing progressive politics for a generation in the U.S. and U.K., reducing most political activists’ view of “the possible” to focusing on single-issue advocacy or supporting the “lesser evil” in actually existing politics – or some ill-fitting combination of the two.

Rationalizations abound to excuse the outrages of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Many Democrats now subscribe to a myth of the Presidency as a powerless office where a fine speech from the “bully pulpit” counts for more than actual policy decisions that bring death or misery to millions – and yet the same people still hold President George W. Bush responsible for his actions!

Such cognitive dissonance is an essential, paralyzing element in the marginalization of participatory democracy under neoliberalism.  People consider themselves sophisticated for accepting the glaring contradictions and compartmentalizations of a “political reality” that is really based on the endless and uncritical repetition of myths and misinformation, much of it deliberately crafted by corporate-funded think tanks and PR firms.

Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin coined the term “inverted totalitarianism” to describe this political system in which traditional tools of democracy like elections and the press have not been abolished but simply co-opted. Wolin explains how this has led to a more effective and sustainable concentration of wealth and political power than “classical totalitarianism” could ever achieve.

But the ability of the wealthy and powerful to define the limits of what is possible in our society is finally being challenged by political developments in the U.S. and Europe.

I had the privilege of working with Tim Carpenter during the final years of his life. After playing a leading role in Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and serving as Deputy Campaign Manager in Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign, Carpenter founded Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in 2004. His vision of being “on the left wing of the possible” was always expansive and creative, opening up possibilities for constructive action where others saw only irreconcilable differences and insoluble problems.

For example, after PDA endorsed Elizabeth Warren for the Senate, she posted a threatening, misinformed position statement about Iran on her campaign web site. PDA members were divided between peace activists who wanted to withdraw the endorsement, something PDA had never done before, and many members in Massachusetts who loved Warren regardless.

As always, Carpenter listened to everybody’s point of view, and then he united PDA in a campaign to educate Warren on Iran and urge her to change her position, which she eventually did. By the time she came to consider the agreement with Iran as a U.S. Senator, she was a firm vote for diplomacy on every whip list.

Tim Carpenter and PDA may have been the first national group to ask Bernie Sanders to run for President as a Democrat, with a “Run, Bernie, Run” campaign that began in 2013. I remember making the case for this campaign to a skeptical PDA steering committee in Miami. The Democrats were putting all their eggs in one basket with Hillary Clinton.

If and when her campaign would implode from the cynicism of her neoconservative foreign policy record, the corruption of the Clinton Foundation or a dozen other liabilities, Bernie Sanders could be left standing as the de facto front-runner for the nomination. Neoliberal power-brokers would scramble to draft somebody else – as they are now doing – but anyone acceptable to them risks taking more votes from Clinton than from Sanders.

Tim Carpenter tragically died of cancer in April 2014 after a long and characteristically courageous struggle. But today’s headlines vindicate his principled and expansive view of what is “possible” in politics: a nuclear agreement to avert war on Iran; the rise of Corbyn, Sanders and like-minded new political leaders in Spain, Greece and elsewhere; a new ceasefire in Ukraine brokered by France, Germany and Russia; huge rallies all over Europe to welcome refugees fleeing U.S.-backed wars; and a world starting to wake up to what is “possible” beyond the injustice, violence and chaos conjured up by the neoliberal wizards of Washington and Wall Street.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

6 comments for “A Challenge to Neoliberal Orthodoxy

  1. dahoit
    September 15, 2015 at 18:44

    Why would any alleged educated and thoughtful person with no ethnic axe to grind,need to be educated on the Iran issue?This is why I have no faith in Warren(her eyes betray her),and Jill Stein?C’mon,,it will be hard enough to get Bernie elected despite his Jewish ancestry,let alone two?Talk about lunacy,and gravitas?(JS)
    Will Bernie shake the shackles of an ethnic superiority cult,and help make peace in this world by reigning in Israel and its crazies?I fervently hope so.I’d vote for him if he articulated reality instead of the rabbit hole surrealism painted by our current rulers.

    • dahoit
      September 15, 2015 at 18:47

      Oh,and go Corbyn.You can tell the measure of a man by his enemies,
      And Gandhi’s? old quote about first they ignore,then disparage,and then you win(sic)is very relevant here,and hopefully here in the states.

  2. Rob Roy
    September 15, 2015 at 13:51

    Jeremy Corbyn has been right on the button on thte mid-east all his life. Bernie Sanders needs educating on foreign policy. If he got the nomination and chose Jill Stein as a running mate, or Sec. of State if he gets elected, he would eventually come on board. Right now he’s nil on Israel. I met Mac Blumenthal the other day and he told me he’s talked to Sanders, but Sanders isn’t ready to listen. If Max can’t change his mind, who can? Let’s all just keep writing to him.
    Kudos to Harrington and Carpenter and all those who’ve gone before and led the way.

  3. September 15, 2015 at 00:31

    ‘Conventional thinkers’ are just extensions of the establishment. And the current one as controlled by multi-national corporations across multiple industries would like nothing better that to see things either 1) remain as is, or 2) watch the concept of countries represent limitations only on its citizens and not them.

    People like Sanders and Corbyn are real threats to said establishment not so much in their own political views, but rather in their ability to unleash the masses in a progressive direction.

    However I do agree with bridget – in order for them to have any real substance, they really need to show they can learn and grow and not get co-opted by the very establishment that would prefer they fade away. They aren’t going to do that on their own – they need to be prodded and reminded constantly.

    Sanders for example needs to show his Mid-East policies for example are really balanced, and not just sided in one direction.

  4. bridget
    September 14, 2015 at 21:45

    Well, where is PDA now with an “Educate Sanders” campaign? Any suggestion that Bernie’s mid-east policy in particular, and foreign policy in general, is less than encouraging is met with defensive retorts citing his few positive actions. For example, right now Bernie is advocating more Saudi military involvement in Syria. What a putz, and bad on PDA for not doing some serious educating.

  5. Ethan Allen
    September 14, 2015 at 19:51

    It is refreshing to read Nicolas J S Davies’ respectful mentioning of the wisdom and determination of Michael Harrington’s efforts to give voice to modern progressive thinking throughout his life; his was an informed and articulate voice that will not easily be found within the current tide of pretended activism.
    “Work is love made visible.” KG
    As Usual,

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