Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fraser, Harris, and the memory holes of contemporary history

The prose in this piece is sufficiently smooth that one might almost be carried away by its perhaps slightly-too-clever argument that "limousine liberalism" -- to blame for many current woes -- is finally meeting its comeuppance.  The piece's message is that the real villain is not liberalism, limousine or otherwise, but the capitalism that it has served.  Consider this passage:
Brave and audacious as they were, rarely had the rebel movements of the fabled sixties or those that followed explicitly challenged the underlying distribution of property and power in American society. And yet if liberalism had proved compatible enough with liberty, equality, and democracy, capitalism was another matter.
A case could be made that some of the sixties movements did challenge "the underlying distribution of property and power in American society."  But since Fraser in this piece never bothers to define capitalism, he is free to argue, or at least to imply, that the only movements in recent years that have challenged "the underlying distribution of property and power in American society" have done so under an anti-capitalist banner.

The implication is, at best, dubious.  In 1976, Sen. Fred Harris ran for the Democratic presidential nomination on the message that what was needed was "a fairer distribution of wealth and income and power."  Harris framed that message in terms of left-populism rather than (explicit) anti-capitalism.  Bernie Sanders has framed a similar message against the backdrop of a stated commitment to democratic socialism.  But that commitment has been mainly a matter of ideological self-labeling rather than program, since, as Fraser himself notes, Sanders's proposals have been mostly a left-tinged version of the New Deal, not anything notably more radical.

Btw, this is not to deny that Sanders is a socialist: within certain wide limits, a socialist is anyone who calls himself or herself that, and Sanders, who joined the Young People's Socialist League as a student, has long embraced the label.  But Fraser the historian, in ignoring Fred Harris and his left-populist presidential campaign -- one that occurred after the New Left had burned itself out and when 'limousine liberals' for their part were somewhat in retreat -- can reasonably be faulted for having fallen into one of the memory holes of recent history.         

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