Liberalism and Socialism Are Both in Crisis

The fire last time. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter is a place for attention-addicted depressives to mine dopamine from pixels. So, it’s never been the happiest app on Earth.

But in recent days, as the Delta variant spread through bastions of anti-mask identity politics like an anthropocentric wildfire — and the IPCC released its latest politically impotent prophecy of the coming ecological eschaton — the mood in Twitter’s left corner grew especially dour. For U.S. progressives, maintaining faith in humanity’s capacity to avert catastrophic climate change was challenging enough before the pandemic. “Optimism of the will” has proven even harder to muster while watching ICUs overflow as vaccines expire.

It was in this gloomy context that the leftist historian David Austin Walsh posed a question to the Twitter-verse: “Who is the most thoughtful liberal intellectual of our time?” He then clarified that, by “thoughtful liberal,” he meant one who is “genuinely trying to come to grips with our broader global social, political, and economic crises.” The socialist commentator Jeet Heer replied, “Trick question — you can’t be aware of the extent of the crisis and be a liberal.”

Some liberals might have taken exception to that remark. Matt Yglesias wasn’t one of them. In a much-discussed newsletter, Yglesias argued that Heer was almost right: Liberals of his ilk are not fully aware of “the crisis,” because it doesn’t actually exist.

In what he billed as a “case against crisis-mongering,” Yglesias wrote that the “notion that we are living through some acute ‘global social, political, and economic crises’” is “fundamentally false.” In reality, he contended, we are living through problems that are “serious and difficult” but “not necessarily any more serious or more difficult than the problems of the past, and certainly not serious in a way that should cause one to doubt the basic tenets of liberalism.” In fact, our age is a relatively peaceful and prosperous one; global poverty has fallen massively over the past half-century. Writers who ignore this reality while yammering on about “crises” do so primarily out of “parochialism” and “boredom.” And their “self-involved” catastrophizing threatens to inspire overreactions analogous to America’s Global War on Terror, while undermining the prospects for incremental reform.

This is not a comprehensive summary of Yglesias’s post (he also suggested that American democracy is pretty secure and that the threat of right-wing authoritarianism has been overhyped, arguments that stand in some tension with his own past commentary). But it covers the arguments I’m most interested in interrogating here.

I think Yglesias makes some fine points. In today’s “attention economy,” there really are strong incentives for partisan commentators to engage in alarmism and ahistoricism. I know that I’ve overreacted to the news cycle’s ephemera on more than one occasion. And it is also true that life for humanity as a whole has been getting better, not worse, over the past four decades, and that this reality often gets short shrift in the left-wing discourse of post-industrial countries.

But none of these points are inconsistent with the notion that the world is facing a profound, historically novel crisis. I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to attribute left Twitter’s agitation to ennui alone. We’re living through both an unprecedented ecological emergency and a globe-spanning resurgence of reactionary nationalism. Liberalism has yet to prove itself equal to either of these scourges. And that fact calls the viability of the liberal vision of progress into doubt.

This said, I don’t think liberalism is exceptional in its plight. And I have trouble seeing how an alarmist reading of contemporary conditions would necessarily lead one to embrace socialism, as I take Heer to be implying. If Matt Yglesias’s formula for human flourishing has seen better days, Karl Marx’s has too — and for many of the same reasons.

Just because the world is getting better doesn’t mean it isn’t ending.

We are indeed living in the golden age of human civilization. We are also on the precipice of an unprecedented global catastrophe.

For the bulk of our species’s history, nearly half of all people died by age 15. In 1950, that figure still stood at 27 percent; today, it sits below 5 percent. Between 1981 and 2019, the share of the global population living in “extreme poverty” fell from 42 percent to 10 percent. Human existence remains a trying experience for all, and a waking nightmare for many. And there is something to be said for declinism: We have reason to believe that the advent of agriculture was a catastrophic mistake, and that the median prehistoric hunter-gatherer was happier than the median 21st-century industrial laborer. Nevertheless, by post-Neolithic standards, 2021 is fairly close to “as good as it gets.” (Although, 2019 was, of course, quite a bit better.)

But that doesn’t mean things aren’t about to get incalculably worse.

Portents of a bleak tomorrow are in the air, literally and otherwise. In recent weeks, California suffered wildfires so massive, their smoke made breathing difficult for East Coast asthmatics. Similar conflagrations swept across Turkey, Greece, and Siberia, as heat wave after heat wave tormented the Northern Hemisphere. The new IPCC report confirms that this confluence of natural disasters was neither coincidental nor strictly natural. The evidence that humanity’s burning of fossil fuels has increased the prevalence of extreme weather events is now overwhelming.

Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement’s signatories are not transitioning off fossil fuels at anywhere near the rate necessary for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. And that official target is itself arbitrary. We do not actually know how hot is “too hot” for averting a tipping point that irreversibly exacerbates ecological conditions. Already, a large part of the Greenland ice sheet is “on the brink” of entering a self-reinforcing melting process, while climatologists are seeing signs that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. Even in the best-case scenario, the coming decades will witness displacement on an unprecedented scale. In 2017, 22.5 million people were uprooted by “sudden onset” weather events. By 2050, the World Bank expects that 143 million residents of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa will be displaced as a direct result of climate change.

Humanity’s collective technical capacity is vast. It remains quite possible that our species will be much better off in the future than it is today. Advances in biotech (such as mRNA vaccines) are poised to eradicate a wide array of medical scourges. Renewable energy and battery technology could allow us to enjoy the benefits of industrial society without inhaling little bits of poison all the time. But all utopian visions for the 22nd century are contingent on decarbonization in the coming decades of the 21st.

And it’s not at all clear that we’ve got a handle on that globe-spanning collective-action problem. At present, the forces of eco-cosmopolitanism appear less potent than those of reactionary nationalism. In the world’s most powerful nation, the OECD’s most unabashedly pro-carbon party has secured itself a large structural advantage in national elections. In the world’s largest democracy, the ruling Hindu supremacist party appears more concerned with consolidating its power and persecuting Muslims than with greening its economy. And in the world’s most populous country, an increasingly authoritarian, more-or-less genocidal one-party state is preparing to add 247 gigawatts of coal power (or nearly six times Germany’s entire coal-power capacity) to its grid.

In my view, all this means that we live in a time of “crisis”; or, in the words of good ol’ Merriam-Webster, “an unstable or crucial time … in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.” This crisis also seems unique in kind (humanity has never confronted these ecological, economic, or geopolitical conditions before) and at least potentially in severity (humanity is at risk of irreparably degrading its collective quality of life).

Liberalism and its discontents.

I’m not sure that Yglesias would actually contest much of the above. The dispute between the SlowBoring blogger and his leftist interlocutors is ultimately about ideology, not semantics. Whether we should describe the world’s contemporary problems as a “unique crisis” is of less concern than whether those problems constitute a crisis for liberalism.

And it’s hard for me to see how they don’t.

The word liberalism has acquired a wide range of conflicting meanings over the course of its long life. But in the American context, it generally describes a governing philosophy that prizes freedom of expression, pluralism, due process, democratic elections, and a mixed economy comprised of a large private sector, flanked by a social safety net, regulatory state, and system of labor protections. Or at least, I think this is what Yglesias means when he uses the word (he offers no definition in the piece).

These are trying times for liberalism in a few different respects. For one thing, tensions between the creed’s disparate commitments are high and rising. In the wake of the 2008 crash, Barack Obama disavowed bank nationalization on the grounds that “private capital” should be responsible for “fulfilling the core investment needs of this country.” In so doing, he articulated the main principle that divides American liberalism from democratic socialism. Yet reconciling this principle with liberalism’s concern for social welfare and political democracy has grown increasingly challenging.

As Thomas Piketty famously demonstrated, the capitalist mode of production has a penchant for generating ever-greater inequality. Liberalism managed to keep this tendency in check for a good portion of the 20th century (with the aid of a couple wealth-eviscerating world wars). Today, however, the postwar period of shared prosperity looks distressingly anomalous. Over the past four decades, income and wealth inequality have increased in capitalist nations the world over (albeit at quite different rates). In many national contexts, this development has reduced social trust — and with it, support for redistribution. Rising inequality also appears to be implicated in the authoritarian right’s global ascent. A 2014 analysis of survey data from 40 different countries found that “higher levels of economic inequality reduce support for democracy amongst all social classes.” A 2016 study from Michigan State University yielded similar findings. Beyond eroding popular satisfaction with democracy, wealth inequality also threatens to nullify its substance by enabling monied interests to dominate policy debates through campaign spending, lobbying, and the cultural prestige they derive from their wealth.

The problems that capitalism poses for liberalism in the present moment aren’t limited to the former’s impact on inequality. When the bulk of investment is entrusted to profit-maximizing entities, a lot of national resources end up being squandered on productivity-reducing social-media apps, financial speculation, and predatory ventures, even as many vital forms of economic activity are inadequately financed or compensated. Of course, no economic system built by mortals will ever be entirely free of waste and irrationality. But demographic and climatic trends are raising the salience of liberal capitalism’s failings. In the coming decades, eldercare will be one of the largest sources of working-class employment in the U.S. It was possible for private firms to provide the blue-collar manufacturing workers of yesteryear with comfortable salaries and benefits, while still turning a profit. But private capital cannot do the same for today’s “pink-collar” working class. The labor of those who tend to non-affluent boomers in their infirmity is both socially indispensable and inescapably unprofitable. For this reason, the 21st-century U.S. economy cannot “work” for its working class unless the state assumes a much larger role in directing investment and income flows than American liberalism has heretofore tolerated.

Such an expansion in the state’s economic role is also necessary for accelerating decarbonization. The scale of investment required for a rapid-energy transition far outstrips private capital’s appetite for green equities. And of course, the private sector also lacks the legal authority for promoting urban density through zoning reform and expansions of mass transit.

Yglesias himself concedes this shortcoming of actually existing liberal capitalism, writing:

We should have had more aggressive mitigation efforts for the past 20-30 years, starting with pricing but including land use reforms and industrial policy and much larger R&D investments. We should have sunk a couple trillion into grid upgrades, wind farms, EV charging, and mass transit rather than into invading Iraq … Every physicist working at a hedge fund rather than on next-generation batteries or modular nuclear reactors is a tragedy. 

Nevertheless, Yglesias insists that this reality does not reflect any “conceptual or technical” deficiency of liberalism. Rather, he suggests it is a product of contingent policy mistakes combined with the voting public’s hostility towards policies that raise the cost of carbon energy. Put simply, whatever they say in opinion surveys, voters demonstrably value the maintenance of their carbon-intensive lifestyles in the immediate term over the comparatively abstract concern of long-term ecological sustainability. There is some empirical basis for this claim. Voters in deep-blue Washington state have repeatedly rejected a carbon tax at the ballot box, and presidential approval has often risen and fallen with the price of gas. And yet, to say that the political economy of liberal capitalism will not tolerate an adequate response to climate change is to name a deficiency in liberal capitalism.

In his case against “crisis-mongering,” Yglesias is most concerned with defending liberalism from its critics on the democratic left. But the most potent ideological challenges to liberalism today comes from authoritarian quarters. The world’s ascendant great power shares liberalism’s affinity for the mixed economy (with Chinese characteristics). What it rejects is electoral democracy.

Chinese state media argues that “competitive, confrontational Western politics” sows social divisions by polarizing the public into disparate partisan camps. “Endless political backbiting, bickering, and policy reversals” ensue, rendering “efficient policy making and implementation impossible.” (This is, incidentally, somewhat similar to Yglesias’s own critique of America’s contemporary political environment. He writes that we are “being torn apart by a hysteria of mutual accusations against each other” that “serves to make it difficult to do normal political things like agree to disagree about some stuff while collaborating on some other common problem.”)

In recent weeks, China has demonstrated the relative “efficiency” of one-party rule by rapidly remaking its tech sector in a manner that advances its national objectives, and antagonizes well-heeled interests.

Of course, Chinese communism has not proven itself to be any more eco-friendly than American liberalism. But if liberal democracies fail to facilitate expeditious decarbonization, an epoch of ever-deepening ecological instability is liable to be a favorable one for top-down systems of government. In times of acute crisis, such as World War 2, liberal states have themselves tended to suspend democratic norms and expand executive power. Much political science research suggests that electorates grow more authoritarian and less tolerant of social difference under conditions of felt insecurity or scarcity. Within the West, illiberal right-wing parties derived electoral benefit from the Syrian refugee crisis. It isn’t hard to see how an unstable climate — characterized by routine natural disasters, agricultural failures, and mass displacements — could put wind in the sails of authoritarian reactionaries, who could in turn ensure worsening climate conditions in a vicious cycle.

In any case, I agree with Yglesias that there is no reason, in principle, why liberalism cannot mount an adequate response to the challenges of this era. Over the past decade, it has facilitated major advances in green technology. And in the U.S., it is on the cusp of securing a massive increase in climate investment and social welfare spending. Liberalism works in theory. Whether it will work well enough in practice to avert ecological catastrophe — or sustain popular faith in democracy, contain inequality, and keep its other promises to itself — remains to be seen. Regardless, this is “an unstable and crucial time” for the creed.

The left is not alright.

As indicated above (and in some of my other writings), I think liberalism’s finest ideals can only be realized under an economic order that is, at the very least, drastically more socialistic than our present one. This conviction is not based on mere idealism, but also on the considerable economic and social achievements of the Nordic social democracies.

Nevertheless, I don’t share Jeet Heer’s conviction that one cannot simultaneously recognize the “full extent” of the world’s present crises and identify as a liberal. This is not only because, in my estimation, facts cannot dictate values. More critically, I think an unsparing read of present conditions could reasonably lead one to deem liberalism a more viable approach to 21st century challenges than (actually existing) socialism is.

After all, socialism in the Global North faces many of the same headwinds as liberalism: declining social trust, faith in democracy, and civic engagement. Socialists understandably deride nationalism as a force that inhibits transnational, class-based solidarity. In many contexts today, however, national solidarity is devolving into even smaller circles of fellow feeling, be they ethnic, regional, or partisan. Social democratic parties have been a poor bulwark against rising sectarianism. In fact, some have opted to swim with the tide: Denmark’s Social Democrats have waged a brutal crackdown against asylum seekers while forcibly removing nonwhite Danes from their homes in order to prevent any given neighborhood from becoming more than 30 percent “non-Western.”

More fundamentally, the principal agents of socialist change — trade unions — are in bad decline almost everywhere. Leftists can justly blame liberal parties for some of that decline. But today’s political economy is what it is. And as organized labor has receded, working-class voters have drifted sharply right. In many Western countries, the ostensible mass base of socialism is now an actual base of the center-right.

If liberalism has failed to organize ecologically sustainable economic development, the same can be said of socialism. Communist states were and are heavy polluters. Social democratic Norway is currently expanding oil and gas production. One can argue that socialism is a necessary but insufficient condition for rapid decarbonization. And certainly, a robust green transition requires a central state with the power and capacity to engage in ambitious economic planning. But no ideological faction can orchestrate a timely response to climate change without attaining state power imminently. And unlike liberals, democratic socialists have little near-term prospect of commanding national power in any of the world system’s dominant states.

None of this is to say that socialists should learn to stop worrying and love liberalism. My aim here is mostly just to encourage liberals and leftists to try a bit harder to see the world through each other’s eyes. Socialists who decry the state of the world on Twitter are not all bored “crisis-mongers” who are indifferent to reductions in global poverty. To identify as a liberal is not to declare one’s ignorance of the 21st century’s harsh realities.

Ultimately, at least in the United States, the disputes between liberals and leftists are of little near-term political relevance. Tammy Baldwin and Bernie Sanders have very similar voting records. The Squad’s support base and Elizabeth Warren’s are not terribly distinct. If you replaced every single self-identified liberal or progressive in the U.S. Congress with a DSA member, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and the Problem Solvers Caucus would still have veto power over all federal legislation. There is scant evidence that the socialist left has a formula for near-term electoral dominance that liberal Democrats refuse to use. To flip Heer’s thesis, one might say that you can’t be aware of the extent of the crisis and think that liberals are the obstacle to socialist reform in the United States.

So instead of being torn apart by a hysteria of mutual accusations, liberals and leftists should agree to disagree about the means of production, while collaborating on climate mitigation and the Republican Party’s disempowerment. You may wish bourgeois society stood at a different crossroads, but the choice before us is popular frontism or barbarism.

Liberalism and Socialism Are Both in Crisis