This needs to be read sideways

It’s a long blog post by Ron Radosh on what two of the more heavy-duty liberal intellectuals are saying about the direction of the United States under Obama. It largely revolves around what has been said about the development of the U.S. over the last century by the Leftist historian Martin Sklar, what John Judis, an editor at The New Republic, is saying about Sklar, American socialism, and Obama, and then what Sklar is saying about Obama.

Let me say that I reject Sklar’s premise (as recounted by Radosh) about why the U.S. has been so successful. What is interesting here is how excited Judis is by the full-blown return of socialism under Obama and then how Sklar sees it. I will agree with Sklar this far: the existing capitalist-socialist “mix” was certainly sufficient, although where he notes success, I note success in spite of.

Radosh, starting at the fourth paragraph of the post:

Months ago, on this blog, I talked about the theoretical analysis of historian Martin J. Sklar. In his book, The United States as a Developing Country, Sklar argued that at the turn of the century, the United States saw the emergence of a new “corporate capitalism” that mixed together elements of both populism, capitalism and socialism. The modern American state evolved into a system that mixed public and private, socialism and capitalism- “A Mix,” Sklar calls it, that has made the United States not only stable and dynamic, but the most progressive of any nation in the world.

And the above passage led me to the essay appearing in the May-June issue of Foreign Policy , written by TNR senior editor John B. Judis. He begins by quoting a contribution he made to a forum back in 1995, where he argued that once Soviet communism was laid to rest, “politicians and intellectuals of the next century will once again draw openly upon the legacy of socialism.” Now Judis believes that he was prophetic. After our economic collapse, he notes that the “specter of socialism” has reappeared. Socialism, he proclaims, “has made a startling comeback.” Is it a remedy, he asks, for today’s crisis?

His answer, as if he is writing to prove Goldberg correct, is that what he calls “liberal socialism,” – as distinct from the Cuban or Soviet totalitarian version, “has a lot to offer.” And he writes: “As the historian Martin J. Sklar has argued, these [Western European] economies represent a mix of socialism and capitalism; that mix has increasingly titled toward socialism.” ( my emphasis )

This is not the first time Judis has cited Sklar as a mentor and inspiration; a man whose scholarly work has informed his own concept of how our economic and political system works. He also wrote a few columns for TNR on line elaborating about this. In one of these, he writes: “A decade ago, I might have been embarrassed to admit that I was raised on Marx and Marxism, but I am convinced that the left is coming back.” And he recommends to his readers a list of books that informed his outlook, including Marx’s Das Kapital, and books by the late sectarian Marxist -Maoist economist Paul M. Sweezy, his colleague the late Paul M. Baran, and others in his old collective at the journal Socialist Revolution. And he writes, “I got my introduction to economic history from the historian Marty Sklar, who was also a member of that collective.”

So I thought it pertinent to find out what Sklar says about socialism and capitalism today, and what he thinks about the direction Obama is moving our country in. The results will prove surprising, especially to John Judis.

First, Sklar- who coined the phrase “corporate liberalism” that became a mainstay of the New Left in the 60’s and 70’s- disagrees with Judis’ belief that the “mix has increasingly tilted toward socialism.” His argument, to the contrary, is that for decades, America has had an appropriate mix that already incorporates elements of what is traditionally called capitalism and socialism; that is why it is a mix. Sklar, like Judis, defines himself as a man of the Left, and in an article he has been circulating, titled “A letter to a Long-time Friend and Fellow Left-winger,” Sklar shakes things up. Sklar considers himself to be a “Freedom Leftist” who believes in a pluralist-democratic and “publically accountable left” as opposed to Obama who he considers a “left sectarian doing his mass work.” At his core, Sklar writes, Obama’s “world view is ‘Third-Worldist’ sectarianism.”

More surprising for a man of the left, Sklar believes that “Bush has been one of our more effective and progressive-left Presidents in domestic and international affairs.” Sklar believes that Obama’s economic proposals are based on high-tax, protectionist and a slow-growth program. Bush’s in contrast, was based on a lower-tax, low-cost energy, “high-growth/job stimulus” program, and was not “ensnared in the green business/academia lobby agenda of high-cost energy,” which would work to both restrict economic growth and workers’ incomes.

Moreover, Sklar is concerned, as he writes, that Obama will make “central to his presidency” what he calls “proto-statist structures characteristic of fascist politics- that is, ’social service’ political organizations operating extra-electorally and also capable of electoral engagement,” that will lead to “party-state systems…in which the party is the state.” Thus, he notes that during the campaign, Obama favored armed public service groups that could be used for homeland security, that would tie leadership bureaucracies to him through the unions and groups like ACORN.

Radosh, it should be noted, made his theoretical bones as a Leftist and is conservative now really only in the sense that he is a fugitive from the Left. From comments not quoted, and from knowing his work in general, I don’t get the sense (actually, I just don’t know) that he really accepts what is essentially Hayek’s critique of socialism, which is that it is essentially worthless and cannot be maintained in any sort of “balance.” It is always destructive. It generates politics that will always go for more of it.

Earlier this year I said that it appeared that Obama had called the bluff that conservatives had used for a quarter century to stem another tidal wave of socialist entitlement programs: Milton Friedman’s (Reagan’s) “politically acceptable deficits.” By allowing deficits to run high and debt to accumulate new entitlements were boxed out of consideration. Friedman warned that there was nothing more dangerous to the free market than a balanced federal budget, because that was when the visions of socialist sugar plums started dancing out of the Left’s heads and into reality. Obama called that bluff and ran the deficits into the stratosphere, and hasn’t yet stopped. More recently I concluded that his plan is to leverage a new economic paradigm off of the world productivity explosion. That converges with Sklar’s analysis in this way: it would turn the U.S. into a third-world country, although perhaps Sklar and I wouldn’t agree what that would mean, even with the same concluding facts in front of us.

Sklar’s comments on Bush should send Lefties screaming into the night. There are a lot of conservatives who would agree with Sklar about Bush, however. I think that’s a very dark glass through which to see Bush, although I do agree he had centrist fixations that were inherent to his nature. Hence his reputation as a big government conservative, not wholly undeserved. I’ve always thought that Bush’s big failure was his failure of imagination on Social Security reform. I’ll wait to see what the first serious historians and biographers say, and what he himself might say, about whether or not he feared that a major financial upheaval and market collapse was coming and thought it wasn’t the time to tie a revised Social Security plan to the markets. Although I’m not sure how the collapse of the golden goose makes an unfunded Ponzi scheme like Social Security look any better.

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