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Monday, January 09, 2012

Matt Stoller takes aim, misses wildly

by David Atkins

Matt Stoller decided to take take on his critics today, singling out my post in particular for lengthy comment. He prefaces the quotation by calling me a "Democratic Party activist" with veiled contempt, I suppose in contrast to real bloggers. It's worth noting that I started writing at DailyKos in 2005 under the pseudonym thereisnospoon and have been very active in online progressive circles for the better part of that time--a fact well-known to Stoller, who has clashed with me in those circles before. I have only been involved in official Democratic Party activism for less than three years as a result of seeing the limits of online activism, and out of a desire to bring the culture of online progressivism into the Party. So Stoller's chosen label for me is a subtle but pointed attempt to characterize a "good progressive activist" versus "bad Dem Party operative" dynamic that doesn't really exist here.

But it's Stoller's mischaracterization of my argument that is most remarkable. He says this:

For Atkins, liberalism is dominance, with liberals holding the dominant position. Mankind’s nature is brutal and exploitative, liberalism restrains it using equally harsh methods. Atkins furthermore equates support for Democrats with policies that benefit the middle class, in a nod to Cold War era liberal anti-communism. This kind of alpha-beta mindset implies that criticism and rejection of Barack Obama, the chief alpha of the Democrats, is a threat to Atkins’ version of liberalism itself.

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that it's hard to know whether Stoller really doesn't understand liberalism, or is being disingenuous. His argument is reminiscent of those made by creationists who claim that science is its own religion, and that there is a battle afoot between the followers of Darwin and the followers of Christ.

Like the scientific method, Liberalism is not a creed seeking dominance but a system of thought that attempts to alleviate oppression and exploitation wherever possible, providing equality of opportunity and a minimum standard of living to everyone, thus ensuring basic human dignity and the ability to better one's station in life. If providing those things were possible without the use of force or even laws, that would be fine. In cases where human behavior is self-guided and does not create oppression over others (e.g., mutually consenting sexual activity, the right to choose, marijuana usage, etc.) liberalism stands aside, shattering the use of force or law that curtails human freedom.

Where human behavior does inevitably create oppression (and it most certainly does), liberalism seeks first and foremost to implement laws, legitimized by the consent of the governed, to regulate against that oppression. The use of force is a last resort, and is only necessary to enforce the law, or to act in the most egregious circumstances of oppression where domestic law will not reach.

Dominance is not part of the liberal program. Far from it. Remember the basic dictum: power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Dominance corrupts, even liberal dominance. That's part of what went wrong with totalitarian communism: too much dominance by ostensibly leftist ideologues who were allowed to maximize their own power at the expense of others. The program of liberalism is not about putting dominant people in charge, so much as about creating self-regulating systems of government that function for the benefit of people regardless of the who is temporarily in charge.

So liberalism does not seek to correct human exploitative behavior with "equally harsh methods." It seeks to do so with systems of legal and social intervention. The use of force is only a last, if sometimes necessary, resort. Liberals need not hold a position of dominance, if the proper systems are in place to check the power of those who would seek to exploit others. That, in fact, is what the perfection of civilization is supposed to be all about.

Only libertarians on the right and the left have such a positive view of human nature that they believe the use of force should never be necessary at any time.

Moving on, Stoller makes a weird claim that defending the middle class is somehow a nod to anti-Communism. I have no idea what he means by that, unless he somehow conflates the middle class with Marx's bourgeoisie, implying that by defending the middle class, liberals ignore the plight of the poor and, I suppose, the implicit need for some sort of collectivist action. Collectivist action that Stoller thinks could presumably happen without dominance and the use of force? It's hard to know how even to defend oneself from this charge. Bringing all individuals down to the same standard of living is a bad idea, and has been a bad idea everywhere it has been tried. Social democracies everywhere in the world have creation and expansion of the middle-class as their goal, while maximizing the safety net and the opportunity for advancement of anyone who is left behind. That program has a long track record of success, in contrast with programs of forced equality. So I guess in that sense, Stoller's attack is accurate, but irrelevant. He might as well have accused me of thinking the sky is blue. So what?

But it's the last charge that is most preposterous.

There is no sense in which attacks on President Obama are a threat to liberalism. I have been a very frequent of the Obama Administration myself, and (commenters here notwithstanding) in most left-leaning circles have been characterized a frequent critic of the Administration, not a defender. A google search of references to my posts here turn up more critics of my work from Administration defenders lumping me in with Greenwald and Hamsher, than the other way around.

The problem with the Obama Administration has always been that it is not doing enough to implement a social contract that will prevent economic exploitation, bound by rule of law and the implied threat of force to enforce it. Rather than embodying liberalism in his persona, it is the Obama Administration's failure in many cases to implement a liberal agenda that is the problem.

Where the President himself has aided and abetted breaking the rule of law and creating a more unaccountable Executive Branch with increased power, that's a bad thing and those critiques are also accurate. One can argue the particulars of the NDAA and question whether a Presidential veto would actually have resulted in less damaging legislation or not (I think Congress would have overridden his veto in both chambers.) One can argue whether the President should have responded to Congress's refusal to try to Gitmo detainees on U.S. soil by simply releasing every prisoner (probably a bad idea.) One can argue whether the President should have risked sending a SEAL team into Yemen to capture Al-Awlaki as opposed to others like him, simply because he happened to have been born in the U.S. (Constitutionally required, but showing the fraying limits of the nation-state model.) One can argue whether the situation in Libya rose the moral level of potential genocide required to justify military intervention. But the collective weight of the President's actions on these matters have left him open to very valid criticism from civil libertarians. These critiques are also not a threat to liberalism, which seeks to constrain the limits of absolute power. They are a benefit to liberalism.

There is no sense in which liberalism demands an unquestioned dictator in pursuit of dominance, as Stoller implies. Far from it. Liberalism demands social systems that restrict and limit the influence of any individual leader, be they liberal or conservative, from causing too much damage to the social services and systems of governance that allow for shared opportunity and human dignity.

No, the danger to liberalism comes when individuals become so single-mindedly upset with the current state of affairs that they begin to make irrational arguments about the warlike nature of the Federal Reserve, or to put libertarian whackadoos on a pedestal.

Humans have been warlike for a very long time. America itself has a very bellicose history that predates the Civil War, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of what might euphemistically be called the "opening" of the West knows full well. Andrew Jackson was perhaps America's most brutal and warlike President, and it seems doubtful that he was acting at the behest of the nonexistent Federal Reserve or any other central banking hierarchy, or that he was testing out new weapons systems against Native Americans on behalf of the flintlock-industrial complex.

Digby, whom Stoller insults as child in an ice cream store too confused to understand his brilliance, was too kind to say it outright. But conspiracy theories involving the Federal Reserve have a long and ugly history of anti-Semitism, and it's a little disturbing to see supposed progressives latch onto such theories in order to explain militaristic tendencies that long predate the creation of strong central banking authorities.

It's especially disturbing when Federal Reserve conspiracies are tied to the ravings of racist and anti-Semitic loon Ron Paul. Ron Paul has attracted a number of young followers of various ideological orientations. Some are drawn to him by his anti-drug-war policies, some to his anti-war stance, and many others to his libertarian Objectivist economics.

But unlike a Kucinich or Gravel in 2008 who made anti-war and anti-drug-war arguments from the left, Paul's presence in the race only serves to attract the unwary into his Objectivist libertarian ideology. It's particularly problematic because Ron Paul comes to his stances not for the right reasons, as Stoller claims, but for the wrong ones. Paul doesn't believe in intervening on anyone's behalf to help anyone else, or in preventing self-destructive behavior of any kind. Ron Paul (and apparently Matt Stoller) would simply allow Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz without taking any action beyond, I guess, the sanctions and diplomacy that have worked so well in past. On drugs, Ron Paul would legalize heroin, and then eliminate funding for rehab centers and just let things sort themselves out from there. The presence of that sort of ideology being taken seriously is not a positive thing for liberalism. It's an unqualified negative.

Stoller closes by talking about the need for explanatory political systems:

But political ideologies are systems. They have to be financed, there has to be an energy model so you can fuel things, they have to display internally consistency so they don’t break down, people have to run the machinery, the programs have to work, the people that manage and implement have to have ethical, social, and financial norms, there must be safeguards,etc. You can’t just randomly choose a bunch of stuff you want and call it an ideology.

But it's impossible to tell from his writing what sort of universal systemic thinking about human nature and the proper form of government guides his own ideology. That might be more helpful than grossly mischaracterizing the views and motivations of others.


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