Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Inequality, Inclusion, and Populism after the Election

K. Sabeel Rahman

Last week John Judis published an interesting essay in the New Republic (based on his upcoming book on populism after the Great Recession in Europe and the US), situating the populisms of this 2016 election season in a longer history of populist politics in America.  Judis notes that the revival of populist politics of both left and right evokes a longer historical tradition going back at least to the Farmer’s Alliance of the 1880s and the People’s Party of 1892, championing “the people” against “special interests” and political and economic elites. 

What unites these populisms, for Judis, is their commitment to deep, radical structural transformation, in contrast to the incrementalist politics of conventional liberalism or conservatism.  This radicalism itself is premised on a view that the prevailing social, economic, and political order has collapsed or been ripped apart, prompting the need for more radical transformation.  Today, it is the failure of what Judis calls “market liberalism” that has prompted this search for more radical transformation, starting with the Tea Party and Occupy movements, continuing into this election.

Of course, there are important differences between left- and right-populisms.  For Judis, the key difference lies in why the elites are faulted.  For left populists, Judis argues that the attack on elites is motivated by a sense of the elite corruption and cooption of politics and economy, whereas for right populists, the real offense is not elitism per se, but rather the role of these elites in (allegedly) promoting the interests of third-party out-groups such as racial minorities or immigrants.  These different populisms thus suggest very different pathways for transformation in the aftermath of this 2016 election, as a resurgent racially-charged economic nationalism from the right battles with calls for more systemic economic transformation from the left.

This question of populism, and distinguishing pathological from progressive strains, is presented sharply by the 2016 campaign and its longer-term implications. But I think there is much more to the progressive critique of market liberalism than just a leftward shift on economic issues.  

As I’ve written elsewhere (here, and here), the progressive critique of industrialization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries involved a compelling normative critique of economic power and industrial capitalism, one that has surprising resonance for the contemporary critique of “market liberalism”. 

For thinkers like Dewey and Brandeis, the problem of inequality and industrialization was not just one of income and insecurity, it was more deeply a problem of disparate economic power that manifested in two forms.  First, there was the problem of concentrated private power: the power of managers and owners over workers; the power of monopolies and financial firms over other economic actors, and the like.  Second, there was the problem of structural economic power—the ways in which the underlying rules of the market created more systemic positions of privilege and power on the one hand and insecurity, precarity, and unfreedom on the other.

Critically, both of these forms of economic power and domination prompted to push to develop new forms of political agency, collective action, and popular sovereignty.  The threats of private and structural power were not just substantive; they represented a usurpation of the proper role of citizens and communities as the agents and authors of a (nominally) democratic polity.  And so out of this ferment emerged a variety of experiments in direct democratic institutions like ballot referenda; mass membership based labor, consumer, and economic justice movements; new institutions for governance like municipal Home Rule and regulatory agencies.

The critical limitation even within this progressive critique of the market was over the implicit boundaries over who counted as a member of “the people”.  This was not necessarily limited to what we might now call right-wing or exclusionary populisms; as many scholars have documented, even the New Deal codification of many Progressive Era responses to industrial capitalism hard-wired exclusions of African-Americans, women, and immigrant labor.  This difficulty expressed a longer historical tension over conceptions of economic freedom—between a critique of economic and private power and a thick aspiration to self-rule, simultaneous to a tension over who is a member of the ‘people’. 


It seems that a more central challenge for developing an inclusive, progressive populism after 2016 lies in interrogating this intersection of the critique of economic power on the one hand, and the dynamics of inclusion on the other.  There is another tradition here that goes back not to the People’s Party, but rather to a few key touchstones in all too brief moments attempting to integrate the critique of economic power and aspiration for self-rule with a deep commitment to racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion: from Radical Reconstruction, to the late civil rights and welfare rights movements of mid-century.  

In that vein, it seems telling that many of the most far-reaching structural critiques of market liberalism and 21st century capitalism are emerging from movements that are led by women and communities of color, but also evoking familiar, radical critiques of labor and poverty and inequality.  For example, worker movements led by women and communities of color—like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, for example—are among the leaders in efforts to respond to the concentrated and systematic disparities of power in today’s labor market.  The Movement For Black Lives policy agenda includes far-reaching calls for economic transformation including universal safety nets, basic income, and attacks on concentrated corporate power.

These developments suggest that a progressive populism emerging from the Great Recession might look significantly different even from previous progressive critiques of economic power and aspirations for self-rule.  This moment also affords an opportunity for legal scholarship.   First, scholarship can help diagnose the ways in which economic power is constructed and allocated through law and policy shaping systems such as work, corporations and financial markets, place and urban segregation.  Second, scholarship can help suggest tools and levers through which these systems can be reconstructed in a more inclusive and egalitarian direction.  As I and others have suggested elsewhere, the role of law and scholarship in helping inform a more thorough critique of 21st century political economy—not unlike how the legal realists of a century ago shaped the critique of industrial capitalism and structural exclusions of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Postscript – I would like to thank Jack for inviting me to contribute to this fantastic blog.  I teach administrative and constitutional law at Brooklyn Law School, and my work focuses on questions of democracy, economic power, and the legal construction of 21st century capitalism.  My book on these issues, Democracy Against Domination, comes out later this fall from Oxford University Press. 

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