Liberalism, aka ‘the left’ in the US?

5 minutes to read
Column
Christian Chun
23/04/2019

In my 2017 book, The Discourses of Capitalism: Everyday Economists and the Production of Common Sense, I elaborated what Antonio Gramsci, a philosopher, activist, and journalist jailed by Benito Mussolini for 10 years in part for his involvement in organizing workers in Turin, Italy, meant by common and good sense:

“In Gramsci’s (1971) view, philosophizing about everyday life, social relations, and society is not solely the province of professional writers, intellectuals, and scholars; it is also enacted by ‘ordinary’ people, for “everyone is a philosopher” (p. 323). In what he called a “spontaneous philosophy” of everyday people, these views and practices can be categorized in three domains: 1) language, “which is a totality of determined notions and concepts”; 2) popular religion including folklore beliefs, superstitions, and opinions; and 3) common sense and good sense (p. 323). Gramsci distinguished between common and good sense in that the latter is more akin to the English language meaning of ‘common sense’, meaning a practical common sense; for example, the proverbial admonition that saving for a rainy day makes sense for working people. In contrast, Gramsci’s theory of what he called “common sense” are the commonly shared ways in which people espouse their sometimes contradictory and inconsistent views. As Hall and O’Shea (2013) defined this idea of common sense, it is “a form of ‘everyday thinking’ which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world” (p. 8). For Gramsci (1971), for any critical engagement, or philosophy of praxis to occur, “the starting point must always be that common sense, which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude” (p. 421).” (pp. 35-36).

Mistaking liberalism for socialism

In 2003, the author and filmmaker Michael Moore published a book entitled, Dude, Where’s My Country? In it, he seemingly alludes to Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) notion of common and good sense when he argued that the term ‘liberal’ has gained too many negative connotations in the US context (e.g., raising taxes on the middle class, excessive government spending, enabling so-called ‘welfare entitlements’), and thus proposed an alternative term: “common sense majority” (p. 180). Moore writes:

Is it common sense to have 75 million people go without health insurance for most, if not all, of the past two years? Of course it isn’t; that makes no sense. Is it common sense to let just five companies own all the major sources of information and news in America? Absolutely not. Is it common sense to see that every person has a job and makes a livable wage? You bet – that makes good sense. What decent person wouldn’t be for these things? We need to set the common-sense agenda and start calling the shots (p. 180). 

The first seeming confusion Moore makes is conflating liberalism with “the left.”

Moore then proceeds to give advice to the reader on “how to talk to your conservative brother-in-law.” Among other things, he counsels that one should “first, and foremost, assure your conservative friends or relatives that you do not want their money” (p. 187); that “every political argument you make must be about them and for them” (p. 187); “tell them what you like about conservatives” (p. 188), such as how dependable they are, they can fix things, and they are “organized, on-time, efficient, well-groomed, and consistent” (p. 189); and “admit that the left has made mistakes” (p. 189). 

His advice is interesting for its several assumptions, or rather, confusions. The first seeming confusion – although this discourse is quite common in the US – Moore makes is conflating liberalism with “the left.” This is in the context of US politics in which policies attempting to alleviate the worst aspects of economic inequalities by advocating a raise in the minimum wage, promoting universal health care, and raising taxes on the 1% are deemed ‘socialist’. This misattribution of ‘socialism’ in describing these policies and those who support it is quite common and by design.

Liberalism is not socialism

The efforts to remedy capitalism’s systemic excesses – periodic economic crises resulting in depressions which lead to widespread unemployment and resulting increase of poverty – was originally proposed by the British economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s during the depths of the Great Depression affecting many countries including where it originated, the US, and then spreading to the UK and Europe. His book,The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, advocated direct government intervention in remedying the economic depression by increasing deficit government spending in funding state-sponsored programs to hire workers in building infrastructure for the public good.

Yet Keynes was no socialist and neither was any of the politicians who implemented his policies.

In the ensuing years of the social welfare state, this policy was enough to sustain the economic growth for the majority of the population. However, with the inevitable downturn in the US and UK economy in the 1970s, this gave rise to neoliberalism embodied in the Reagan and Thatcher discursive framings of Keynesian policies as ‘socialist’. Yet Keynes was no socialist and neither was any of the politicians who implemented his policies. As Resnick and Wolff (2013) astutely observed:

“Most current leftist solutions to capitalism’s crisis – including many that are labeled Marxist – are actually Keynesian combinations of reforms, regulations, and state deficits. Having little to do with moving beyond capitalism, their solutions are little different today from what they were in the 1930s, establishing an economy capable of providing its workers with full employment at good real wages and benefits. Laudable aims, but they hardly amount to Marx’s legacy. The overriding purpose of Marxism today and yesterday remains much the same: not one of constraining or expanding investments and jobs but rather one of eliminating class exploitation from our lives. To say the same thing in much simpler terms, Keynes is no Marxist” (p. 155).

Thus, liberals ain’t no leftists.

Liberals, leftists and socialists

The second assumption Moore makes is his characterization of conservatives as “organized, on-time, efficient, well-groomed, and consistent.” This inadvertently plays into the neoliberal discourse that in order to become an entrepreneur of oneself in the individuating of society, one must be efficient in multi-tasking, producing ever more outputs (in academic parlance now appropriated from corporate-speak), organized, and of course, on time for whatever it is – your job, appointments, and presumably even meeting up with friends or dates.

So people on the Left (pun intended) are disorganized, habitually late, incompetent, inconsistent, not dependable, and haven’t had a haircut in years? This plays into the proverbial image of the hippie from the 1960s – the layabout sponging off the parents while castigating the government and society. 

His third assumption is that in making any political arguments to conservatives, in order to appeal to them you must frame it as being “about themand for them.” Who exactly is “them”? This is where the main confusion lies, for not only those who identity as liberals, but also those who identify as leftists or socialists. 

(to be continued in the May column)

References

Chun, C. W. (2017). The discourses of capitalism: Everyday economists and the production of common sense. London: Routledge.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks.(Q. Hoare & G. Nowell-Smith, Trans.) New York: International Publishers.

Moore, M. (2003). Dude, where’s my country? New York: Warner Books, Inc.

Resnick, S. A., & Wolff, R. D. (2013). Marxism. Rethinking Marxism, 25(2), 152-162.