May 23, 2013
Doug Henwood on Robert Kuttner’s ‘The Squandering of America’
Posted on Jan 10, 2008
By Doug Henwood
But stoking such a threat is the last thing on Kuttner’s mind. (Granted it’s not the friendliest of times to be writing from the far left, but it’s not as if the mainstream is taking notes on Kuttner’s agenda either.) How little has changed over the last 20 years: In “The Life of the Party,” Kuttner took pains to differentiate himself from the disreputable extremes. He contrasted the “hermetic” Nation magazine, written by and for the left, with his then-employer, the “feisty” New Republic, which sought to “influence the mainstream debate from the left.” (One thing that has changed in the last two decades: TNR is of shrinking physical heft and political relevance, and afflicted by frequent journalistic scandals; its circulation is now a fraction of The Nation’s, which has grown enormously.) But would there have been a New Deal without the CIO, the CPUSA or the USSR? Would social democracy ever have been established in Western Europe except as a milder version of the socialism that unions and political parties were agitating for?
None of that is present in our politics today. But Kuttner nonetheless imagines that a full-throated populist appeal could win the Dems millions of votes. The only things stopping them are their timidity and their donors. Unlike many liberals who complain about the Democrats’ alleged lack of spine, Kuttner is fully aware of the influence of big money on their vertebral integrity. But he repeatedly forgets that influence to land in some kind of unspecified hope that the party will just come to its senses. And like many liberal analysts, he underestimates the appeal of laissez-faire economic policies to many white Protestants, who view the market as an admirable and tireless system of punishment and reward, perfect for a fallen humanity given to shirking and freeloading.
It’s not clear who the audience for this book is. At times it reads like it was written for policy wonks (who really cares about the second take on the Basel Capital Adequacy standards?—and I count myself as someone who should). At others it seems pitched to Democratic strategists. The liberal netroots maybe? But they’re less ideological than Kuttner and they don’t read books anyway. Some inchoate popular formation? A popular formation organized around what?
If you read a book like this, you might think that polarization and financial recklessness are recent innovations in American economic life. But the U.S. financed its industrialization in the late 19th century in large part through securities fraud—and Keynes coined his observation about the casino in remarking on our 1920s. You might also think, after reading this book, that vote rigging and repression were born in the Bush years—this in the country that brought us Jim Crow, the Palmer Raids and McCarthyism. And you might think that the dominance of business interests in the Democratic Party is some recent, post-Reagan innovation. But as a European analyst once put it: “The divergence of interests even in the same class group is so great in that tremendous area that wholly different groups and interests are represented in each of the two big parties, depending on the locality, and almost each particular section of the possessing class has its representatives in each of the two parties to a very large degree. ... The apparent haphazardness of this jumbling together is what provides the splendid soil for the corruption and the plundering of the government that flourish there so beautifully.” That was Friedrich Engels writing in 1892, during the First Gilded Age. The name of Engels can make certain people squirm, and the language sounds a little antique—but how much of that description would you have to change today?
Doug Henwood edits the Left Business Observer, www.leftbusinessobserver.com, and is the author of “After the New Economy” (New Press, 2004) and “Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom” (Verso, 1997, now available for free download at www.wallstreetthebook.com). He also hosts “Behind the News,” www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html, broadcast on WBAI, New York. He is working on a book on America’s modern power elite.
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