First published here.
The professional "left" in the USA, the left of intellectuals, professors, lobbyists, and "progressive media" is now mostly a suburb of Libertarianism - a suburb that has preserved only certain habits of speech and some historical myths from the old left. By way of illustration consider Corey Robin's 3500 word essay on Federal budget deficits posted in the "center left" Crooked Timber blog. The essay was written in the middle of an election campaign in which virulent racism against the Democrats was underwritten by a whole lot of money from the heights of finance capital but Robin's main point is the usual Trumped up demeaning of President Obama:
So here we are, entering a campaign with Obama begging the media to recognize him and the Democrats as the party of austerity—for being willing to make difficult and deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security
The use of terms like "begging" is a fundamental part of progressive rhetoric where the African-American President is always described as being "on his knees", "bent over", "cowering" and so on while the white and right is always portrayed as strong and dominant. But aside from incorporating these standard themes of domination into his rhetoric, Robin's essay makes no mention of either class or race. Instead Robin draws much of his material from Bruce Bartlett - one of the intellectual leaders of the libertarian Republicans (he worked for both Ron Paul and Jack Kemp). Bartlett takes the right wing demand for smaller government at face value and then traces some of the development of Republican financial policy from an emphasis on balancing budgets to the debt heavy approaches of the Reagan and Bush administrations. For Bartlett, the GOP switched to tax cuts and debt financed spending in an effort to "starve the beast" - to cripple government spending. For Robin, the Democrats then picked up the role of champions of the balanced budget. Despite what Bartlett and Robin claim, the real significance of the deficit in US politics was explicitly described by Lee Atwater.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The right codes racial resentment in the language of deficits and "big government". The deficit is an issue mostly because it can be used to mobilize white voters against blacks and immigrants. Thanks to decades of marketing, the deficit has come to signify a transfer of funds from "hard working" white citizens to entitled "takers" - no matter the illusory nature of that transfer. At the time Robin's essay was published Mitt Romney's adverts attacking the President for supposedly weakening work requirements on welfare assistance were filling the airwaves and Romney had explained the unfriendly reception he received from the NAACP as follows:
"I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff,"
And yet, in 3500 words on the deficit, this left critic of the administration does not mention race at all. Even more peculiar, there is no discussion of economic class. Certainly one is not going to get discussion from Bartlett of the role of tax-cuts (tax expenditures) in protecting incumbent elites but the progressive left is not interested either. Robin cites Marxist authorities like Doug Henwood and David Harvey for support:
it’s hard not to see how the Democrats have come to play the same role in the contemporary political order that Republicans once played under the New Deal.[..] Democrats have become the party of austerity. (Doug Henwood, Josh Freeman, and David Harvey have shown that that process actually began in 1975, during the New York City Fiscal Crisis, when Wall Street Democrats successfully pushed for drastic cuts in government spending. But it was the Mondale campaign that crystallized the shift at the national level.)
This is all bullshit, no more accurate than the black people on welfare idiocy of the crystal meth right. The New Deal mythologizing and false story about the NYC financial crisis are bad enough, but here's something from Walter Mondale's remarks when he accepted thenomination:
First, there was Mr. Reagan's tax program. What happened was, he gave each of his rich friends enough tax relief to buy a Rolls Royce - and then he asked your family to pay for the hub caps.
Then they looked the other way at the rip-offs, soaring utility bills, phone bills, medical bills.
Then they crimped our future. They let us be routed in international competition, and now the help-wanted ads are full of listings for executives, and for dishwashers - but not much in between.
Then they socked it to workers. They encouraged executives to vote themselves huge bonuses - while using King Kong tactics to make workers take Hong Kong wages.
So there was Mondale explaining how the upper classes were using the tax code and intimidation to devastate the working class and Comrade Professor Robin sneers and cites Jack Kemp's brain trust as the source of his "left wing" counter. Kind of dizzying, ain't it?
There are two reasons why Democrats became interested in deficit reduction. The first is that they needed to counter the success of the Republican strategy of tying the deficit to racial resentment. That is, the Democrats had to credibly sell themselves to white working class voters as careful stewards of public money and not as spendthrift limousine liberals giving the taxes of hard working people to welfare cheats. In a development that has apparently been lost on the "left", Ronald Reagan and others broke the New Deal electoral coalition. To win again, the Democrats had to change. But there is a second reason, one that Mondale raised in his acceptance speech - deficits are an actual real economic problem. Government debt service is a diversion of government funds from programs to rent. In 2010, the Federal Government paid $185B in interest. Contrary to Bartlett, the Republicans are not interested in reducing the size of government, they are interested in reducing the economic and political power of the middle class in favor of the wealthiest. Deficits that crowd out spending on, for example, college grants, are good from that point of view. And those interest payments mostly go to wealthy investors - a direct transfer of tax dollars to the rich. Finally, putting the government more and more at the mercy of the bond market is a good way to increase control of government policy by the investor class. But we're certainly not going to see libertarians provide an analysis of how government policy protects elites - even if the libertarians believe themselves to be leftists.