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Adolph Reed Jr.: The Left Has Left the Building

Salon’s Thomas Frank interviews political science scholar and author Adolph Reed Jr. on his essay “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals,” published in this month’s issue of Harper’s. In his essay and in discussion with Frank, Reed lays out how both ineffectual liberals and the corporate takeover of the Democratic Party have not only tipped the whole country over to the right but have vanquished any lingering notion of “the left.”

Reed explains how the self-destruction of the left happened because of a need to accommodate neoliberalism and the evisceration of movements meant to represent the left — such as civil rights and women’s rights — which ended up shifting its focus to comparative parity rather than the notion of equality. He explains that, unlike the right, there is no left-wing social movement in effect that has any type of institutional applicability or ability to alter the terms of political discourse, debate and policy.

Instead, there is a Democratic Party that claims to follow an egalitarian impulse in its efforts, such as in the recent case of gay marriage, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect upper-class economic interests. Democratic liberalism has used such anti-discriminatory displays as a veil to cover a general disregard for economic justice.

In Reed’s analysis, the main implosion of the left happened with the rise of Bill Clinton. As president, Clinton made it clear to the left that he no longer had to take direction from it with prime examples such as NAFTA, welfare reform and banking deregulation. “Clintonism basically polished off the purge of the left wing of the Democratic Party,” he tells Frank.

And when it comes to Obama, like Clinton, our current president is able to demonstrate judicious intellectuality and a capacity to position himself according to multiple sides of every argument, effectively acting as a cypher for powerful interests at work in Washington.

Now, says Reed, as a nation we are left with a choice “between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.”

For Reed, the solution lies in a “vibrant labor movement”:

“I’ve spent upwards of 15 years working in an effort to build an independent political party that’s anchored in the labor movement. I wouldn’t say that a political party is the model. But I think that what’s got to happen is—and this may sound like doubletalk, but trust me, I’m not a University of Chicago political theorist—just as a revitalizing trade union movement is essential for a grounding of a real left, a serious left is important for revitalizing the labor movement. There are a lot of leftists with serious politics in responsible positions in the labor movement. I don’t just mean the rank and file fetishist guys. I mean people who are core leaders. And I’m not talking necessarily about internationals, but at the district level. Big locals, and there are a lot of them around the country, who function in something like that old CIO social movement unionism capacity around the country.

Read Frank’s interview with Reed in full here; subscribers to Harper’s Magazine can access Reed’s essay here.

–Posted by Donald Kaufman

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