The Limitations of the Liberal Class

Here in New York, the blogosphere has been awash in stories about the Democratic Party primary challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout, due to have its denouement this coming Tuesday. Teachout is running as an alternative to the neoliberal Andrew Cuomo, whose time in office has seen him embrace austerity measures, budget cutting for social programs and the expansion – quite literally – of casino capitalism across the state. Teachout will almost certainly lose, though her running mate Tim Wu apparently has a chance of capturing the nearly-useless position of Lieutenant Governor on the Democratic ticket from Cuomo’s fellow neoliberal, Kathy Hochul. Like Bill DeBlasio last year, Teachout is being touted as a part of a great liberal revival, part of a narrative produced by some in the Democratic Party and media that the party has a soul that must be fought to preserve (though somewhat ironically, DeBlasio is a Cuomo endorser).

Yet a Teachout, or even Wu, victory would not be the triumph of resurgent, New Deal, social-democratic-style liberalism: it would simply be a rearguard holding action made by embattled members of what remains of the labor bureaucracy, a layer of staff at middle class civic activist groups, and an increasingly marginalized group of academic legal scholars, of whom Teachout and Wu are perfect examples. These groups have been increasingly squeezed out of the Democratic Party since the early 1970s, when structural pressures within the capitalist world-system caused the growth of the financial sector as a response to declining, and less lucrative, rates of profit in the non-financialized area of core nations’ economies. Starting in the 1980s, a gusher of cash from the finance and real estate sectors (FIRE) allowed the Democratic Party to slowly detach itself from the constituency cemented together by Franklin Roosevelt in his first two presidential election campaigns, usually called the New Deal coalition, between labor and certain sectors of capital. Because labor had long ago abandoned the idea of its own party, and had fled from vibrant Socialist and Communist Parties of the pre-war era, it was increasingly tied to a Democratic Party that only needed it for votes. As American labor unions are now practically nonexistent outside the public sector, neoliberals like Cuomo no longer need them for voter mobilization. Cuomo has even gone so far as to support anti-union charter schools, which has a quiet logic to it as the Democratic Party establishment would now like to actively purge the last remnants of the New Deal coalition.

Teachout and Wu are a representation of this declining labor bureaucratic/nonprofit activist/academic faction of the Democratic party, what might in more honest times have been called the liberal petit-bourgeoisie. This faction is angry with Cuomo’s neoliberal austerity policies, his unwillingness to pay lip service to good government groups, and disinterest in anything but the most token anti-corruption measures. To be fair, the labor bureaucracy split on the Cuomo question and threw their votes behind him at the Working Families Party convention; as New York allows cross-endorsement the WFP was conceived as a way to give union leaders and nonprofit activist groups more leverage in the Democratic Party. The fear of losing all influence over Andrew Cuomo and any say at the bargaining table with the FIRE sector has caused the pushback which led to Teachout’s candidacy.

Yet a Teachout and Wu victory would hardly delay the inevitable decay of the New Deal coalition’s remnants in the New York State Democratic Party. Even a strong showing is unlikely to shift a Democratic Party which, like the Republican Party, is simply a tool for different sectors of the ruling class to pass favorable legislation. Teachout and Wu push the old canard of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” but in reality the social class segments that are propping up their campaign are unlikely to mobilize for the radical changes in legislative and institutional structure that would be necessary to actually weaken the structure of neoliberalism in New York. International finance capital demands the austerity measures once saved for IMF restructuring of the periphery to be applied to the core economies. Perhaps a Teachout governorship would put a smiling face on austerity, like her counterpart Bill DeBlasio in New York City, or eke out a few more crumbs than Cuomo would have. A Gov. Teachout would certainly staff her office with representatives from the professional liberal nonprofit world and unions as well as listen to their leaders before she makes the call for cuts or tamping down supporters’ enthusiasm for rapid change, and this is likely the point of her candidacy.

An assault on neoliberalism will require moving beyond the illusion any candidate of the anguished professional liberal class has the desire or ability to lead such an attack. It would mean an immediate move to pass a raft of pro-worker legislation that also weakens corporate control: at least a $15/hour minimum wage; single-payer universal health care; either creating worker-owned cooperative enterprises to compete with those privatized in the last 20 years or taking those businesses back into the public sector; establishing a permanent WPA-style public jobs program to build a sustainable-energy future; seizing or breaking up the finance sector, putting its owners on trial, and creating a public bank; collecting a financial transactions tax from Wall St. and instituting a highly progressive income tax structure, which would relieve the property tax burden from municipalities; reversing the trend towards privatized charter schools; making high quality, affordable rent publicly-owned housing a priority in major cities; banning GMOs and prioritizing local diversified farms over giant agribusiness. This would also mean a push to reform the electoral system to favor proportional representation and public financing so as to finally break the stranglehold of the major corporate parties. Yes, it would require mobilizing a broad working class constituency in non-electoral arenas as well. Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for governor, supports these very measures and is polling at 7% even before any debates – though the media’s focus on Teachout would have you believe otherwise. A significant vote for Hawkins might even make the Greens the third party on the New York State ballot, putting a party squarely opposed to corporate control and influence-peddling as the alternative to Democrats and Republicans.

Teachout’s campaign will likely come to an end on Tuesday after the primary, though it is possible that Timothy Wu will create an awkward situation for Cuomo by beating his running mate, Kathy Hochul. If so I expect the professional liberal class not to break with the Democratic Party – which is their lifeblood – but to find a tortured logic for voting in a Cuomo/Wu ticket. Imagining an isolated Lt. Gov. Wu, shut out of all decision-making but happy to be on the “team” is the best image of the professional liberal class propping up the Teachout campaign: it is about access, or perceived access, and not the longer-term interests of the working class, which would require an attack on the Democratic Party and the ossified strategies of the liberal left. Perhaps something miraculous will occur, but when dealing with a materialist analysis of social class and not hope, one tends to see more clearly, and realistically, the limitations of political groups – and in 2014 the limitations of the professional liberal class are great indeed.

Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Science from the University at Albany, SUNY. He is the Secretary of the NY State Green Party and manages Matt Funiciello’s campaign for Congress.

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Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY and is a member of the New York State Green Party’s executive committee. He can be reached on Twitter @votelavenia and at his website, unorthodoxmarxist.wordpress.com.

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