Yesterday I caught up with last week's New Yorker on a plane ride. The issue contained two fascinating articles on left-wing politics, written from entirely different perspectives. The first, by Jelani Cobb, discussed a North Carolina minister and civil rights activist named William Barber, who wants to build a multiracial coalition of poor blacks and whites in the South. The second, by Caleb Crain, reviews a new book by the economist Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? In this piece I will be contrasting Barber's views, as related by Cobb, with Kuttner's, as related by Crain. The two men are both leftists in the current context and both, it seems to me, are concerned about the same trends and want to see similar changes in our world. Yet they represent very different traditions. Kuttner and the earlier thinkers he discusses at length in his book--the early twentieth century economists Karol Polanyi and John Maynard Keynes--are very firmly in the Enlightenment tradition and take a scientific approach to discovering what is wrong and how to fix it. Barber--a remarkable and admirable man, who has also waged a long struggle with painful and debilitating illness--represents a Christian tradition of activism, leavened with the spirit of the late 1960s and the radicalism of the last years of Dr. Martin Luther King, who died when Barber was only four years old. Barber's kind of activism and the world view behind it, I would argue, has increasingly dominated the left on campus and among activists over the last half century. Unfortunately, it has been utterly unable to stop, much less reverse, the economic trends that Kuttner focuses on, which have created a new plutocracy in the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Kuttner's book is evidently about the political impact of free-market global capitalism. He does not seem to aware of Strauss and Howe, sadly, but he has a fine understanding of long-term economic and political trends and he recognizes the parallels between the 1930s and our own time. There is one huge difference which Crain's review, at least, does not mention. In the 1930s, the world economy had largely broken down; today it is generally thriving. In both cases, however, profound economic changes had wreaked havoc among the lower classes of society in various parts of the world, causing significant hardship and anxiety. And in both cases, many voters reacted by turning to strongmen or, in the 1930s, totalitarian movements. In a scary reversal, today we have a somewhat anti-democratic strongman in the United States, while western European democracy, while threatened with right wing movements, remains intact. In the 1930s dictators ruled Germany, Italy, and Spain, but Franklin Roosevelt presided over a robust democracy in the United States.
While discussing Kuttner's book, Crain refers to Thomas Piketty, but not to Piketty's most fundamental insight: that the natural tendency of capitalism is to produce inequality, because capital accumulates more rapidly than the economy grows as a whole. That, we should note, is true regardless of the degree of free trade and globalization at any particular moment. If globalization increases economic growth overall--and it evidently does--it will increase inequality more rapidly, but capitalism itself, not globalization, causes inequality--unless something is done to reduce it. That is what happened in the middle decades of the 20th century, as Kuttner obviously understands.
Several things combined to reduce inequality. First of all, the First World War and the Depression both wiped out a great deal of wealth. The financial crisis of 1929-32 led to very tight regulation of financial markets in the United States, and there were no major panics or banking crises for a full 60 years after the Second World War. The two world wars led to the imposition of extraordinarily high marginal tax rates--91% on the highest incomes in the United States, until 1964. After the Second World War, western societies compensated their veterans and their families with a whole host of benefits. The experience of the Depression and the Keynesian revolution in economic thought convinced governments that they could and should take fiscal steps to insure the highest possible employment. The rights of labor, and unionization, were at an all-time high. Economic equality increased through the 1960s.
Partly under the economic pressure of the Vietnam War and partly because of oil shocks, the postwar economic system (including fixed exchange rates) broke own in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inflation soared and the Keynesians had no remedy. As Kuttner points out, conservatives led by Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman saw their chance for a counterattack and pushed a return to the free market. That led, first, to the return of draconian monetary policy to stop inflation, and then to the beginning of a long series of tax cuts under Reagan. By the 1990s the Democratic Party had jumped onto the free market bandwagon. Inequality began to increase, and increased still further after the deregulation of financial markets. The American and European working classes were hurt, not helped, by globalization. By the 2010s large numbers of them were voting for extreme right wing parties or candidates--including now-President Donald Trump. And in the United States, the leadership of both parties was firmly allied with the most powerful new economic interests on Wall Street and in the tech sector. Kuttner argues, essentially, that political authorities will once again have to intervene in the market to halt and reverse these trends. I shall return later to how this might happen.
Like Martin Luther King,Jr., William Barber finds the roots of his activism in the Bible. Even irreligious people like myself can recognize the Christian roots of leftist economic thought, and the very important role that Christian activism of various kinds has played in European and US history over the last few centuries. Cobb's article suggests, moreover, that Barber's Christian approach allows him to move beyond racial categories. Talking to Cobb, Barber says--as I have many times--that the issue of poverty has become so "racialized" that most people don't realize that the majority of poor people in the United States are white. Barber has established links to what remains of organized labor, and we wants to bring poor white and black voters together. But there is, to me, a serious falw in his reasoning.
According to Cobb, the Bible was only one of the formative books of Barber's youth. Another was that very influential tome---now immortalized in Good Will Hunting--A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. That book argues that every authentic movement for justice and equality in American history came only from the lower classes--and that such movements were consistently betrayed by the upper classes. It has sold so many copies because it captured the spirit of campus activism in the 1960s. It implied that the power structure in the United States has always been oppressive and corrupt, and that only activism outside the system has ever been able to bring about any real change. Those views animated the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and the other revolutionary spin-offs from 1960s campus activism. More recently they have been very influential among the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter. These views rein on campus, where virtue is found only among oppressed groups. It is no accident, in my opinion, that none of those movements have yielded any tangible long-term benefits. They are based on a false understanding of how American politics work.
The great achievements of the mid-century era--including the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965--came mainly from building broad electoral coalitions and enlisting the whole nation to solve huge problems, including building a whole new infrastructure from the 1930s through the 1960s and fighting the Second World War. The NAACP successfully fought a long battle on two fronts, legal and political, to end legal segregation. Its alliances with organized labor, Jewish groups, and mainline Christian churches played a huge role in its legislative victories. Beginning in 1960 civil disobedience generated pressure for legislative action, but it was only one of many factors responsible for success. The Progressive and New Deal eras had created a substantial, bipartisan political class genuinely committed to a better life for all Americans, and the civil rights movement could appeal to them. Those are the very real lessons that most contemporary activists do not understand.
Working in North Carolina--one of the most closely balanced states in the nation, which voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016--Harris has started a weekly civil disobedience campaign, Moral Mondays, to put pressure on the Republican state legislature. He is fighting the power of James Arthur Pope, a convenience store magnate who is to North Carolina politics what the Koch brothers are nationwide. The Democrats managed to regain the governorship of North Carolina in 2016, but the Republican-dominated legislature immediately moved to cut the Governor's power. The same drama will be played out all around the country this year. Will women's and high school students' marches translate into decisive electoral success? If they do, will that success translate into real legislative progress that will at least halt the trend towards inequality? These are huge questions.
Few people, I think, could have finished Jelani Cobb's article without feeling great admiration for William Barber. The tradition he exemplifies reflects the last two years of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., when King decided that both capitalism and militarism were evils against which he had to struggle. That decision deprived him of much of his support and influence among white Americans, even as younger black activists challenged his non-violent approach. Certain evils are definitely inherent in capitalism and militarism, including capitalism's tendency towards economic inequality--but we are stuck with them both, in my opinion, because they have roots in human nature. Capitalism, we found in the last century, can be tamed and regulated for the benefit of all. Military power, as I taught for more than twenty years, can be reserved for rare cases in which its use can effectively meet critical threats and lead to a lasting peace. No antidote for these evils will be perfect, but history tells me that trying to wipe them off the face of the earth will not work. Future generations, I hope, will develop new forms of activism based upon reality. Plenty of historical evidence suggests that such activism can work.