By Danny Haiphong
Jun 8, 2016
“An American liberal is the arbiter of a more effective politics of exploitation and oppression.”
If anything, the 2016 elections have exposed the steep descent into bankruptcy of liberal politics in the US. The concluding years of the 1970s began a right-wing, authoritarian process in the US that grew from the roots of a capitalist economic base in decline. Historians and left academics framed this process not as a sign of decline but as a right-wing backlash. The term neo-liberalism was created to describe the backlash. However, "neo-liberalism" was less new than it was an exposure of what has always been true about American liberalism. American liberalism has always been an ideology created by and for the interests of the American capitalist empire, regardless of the period.
To be a liberal in America has meant being a participant in the highest form of opportunism. Liberals have historically championed the freedoms of American capitalist society and defended developments like the enslavement of Africans as a necessary evil. Once these evils become unmanageable, liberals jump ship and look to support more palatable forms of exploitation. For example, during the Civil War, many American liberals did not oppose slavery. It wasn't until the combined force of African rebellion and industrial capitalist development dug the slave-ocracy's grave that many liberals warmed to the idea of abolition.
“It was the bankrupt liberal leadership of the labor movement that collaborated with President Roosevelt to "stabilize" capitalism.”
During the Great Depression, US capitalism was on the verge of collapse. A recovery in the system seemed nowhere in sight. Socialists played a key role in organizing unions across industries to strengthen the position of the working class in this time of crisis. It was the bankrupt liberal leadership of the labor movement that collaborated with President Roosevelt to "stabilize" capitalism. This leadership proceeded to settle for legislative gains and purge socialist elements. And so began the labor movement's descent into the back pockets of the Democratic Party.
American liberalism has thus historically been able to fester and thrive in the US political landscape in periods of reforms in the capitalist order. The transition from chattel slavery to industrial capital, and subsequently from industrial capital to the so-called age of social welfare, gave American liberals political space to adjust their bourgeois principles to fit the needs of the time. In the current period of capitalist decline, this is no longer possible. The rule of capital has reached its highest stage and it must eliminate all that stands in its way of unfettered profit accumulation.
This period of capitalism has stripped liberalism naked of its supposedly "progressive" veneer. US capitalism has no room for welfare politics. The system's rate of profit is falling and its corporate debt is mounting. Finance capital has speculated the economic base of US society into a hole it cannot crawl out of. It is under these conditions that liberalism has revealed itself for what it really is: an ideology rooted in a nation founded upon imperial conquest and rabid capitalist exploitation.
“Finance capital has speculated the economic base of US society into a hole it cannot crawl out of.”
In the US, the home base for liberal politics resides historically in the Democratic Party. During the height of anti-communist hysteria and Black liberation insurgency in the mid 20th century, the Democratic Party was compelled to promote itself as a force of progress. To this day, the Democratic Party takes credit for Civil Rights reforms and anti-poverty programs that were pressured into existence by grassroots movements. However, the wheels of reform have reversed. No longer able to deceive the masses with crumbs, the Democratic Party has become the engine of US imperial rule.
Liberals have been instrumental in this political shift. The Obama era has been the quintessential example of what liberal bankruptcy looks like in the age of neo-liberal, capitalist decline. While Obama intensified imperial war, austerity, and domestic repression, liberal supporters sat on the sidelines and watched. In some cases, liberal forces cheered on Obama's policies (like the intervention in Libya) and decried Republican "obstructionism" as the primary reason for why social conditions continued to worsen under his rule. Yet these same liberals refused to acknowledge that it was Obama who sidestepped a Democratic Party majority in the House and Senate in 2009 and 2010 to push through the corporate Affordable Care Act and dash any hopes of universal healthcare being instituted in the US in the near future.
“While Sanders is no revolutionary force, his brand of liberalism is now outmoded by the world capitalist system that he seeks to manage.”
The case of Bernie Sanders in particular and the 2016 elections have broadly exposed the Democratic Party and its bourgeois liberal base for the agents of Empire they've always been. Hillary Clinton and her supporters have tirelessly attacked Sanders throughout the duration of his campaign. The reason for the attacks is simple. While Sanders is no revolutionary force, his brand of liberalism is now outmoded by the world capitalist system that he seeks to manage. Finance capital cannot back a candidate that calls for universal healthcare, affordable public university, or higher taxation of the rich. These policy proposals run in contradistinction to neo-liberal capital's need to turn everything into a profitable market to ensure its survival.
When one asks what an American liberal is today, it is important to be honest. An American liberal is the arbiter of a more effective politics of exploitation and oppression. The American liberal supports the Democratic Party by waging a fake war with the Republicans while the entire establishment moves ever more rightward. The American liberal is no less an enemy of social progress than the right-wing, Republican oriented populace. The American liberal must be combated or its ideological stranglehold over emergent movements now and in the future will continue to lead them astray.
Danny Haiphong is an Asian activist and political analyst in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.