The limits of wonkery

I don’t think I make any secret of my immense admiration for liberal wonks. I put the poor saps on a pedestal, probably to my detriment and theirs. Nevertheless, it always feels weird whenever I criticize a wonk that I hold in esteem.

John Quiggin, an Australian economist who blogs over at Crooked Timber, just posted a piece on “The Three Party System” in which he postulates “three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism.” I think the major mistake he makes is to not include the non-developed (or developing) world. Since the advent of the War on Terrorism – maybe since the end of the Cold War – but certainly in light of the immigration crisis now confronting Europe, it seems clear to me that politics doesn’t quite make sense without considering how realized fully realized nation-states and federations of nation-states interact with everyone else in the world. Politics in the United States is always caught up in the prosecution of wars, it is one of our defining features. And indeed, it seems to me, it is a defining feature of Western politics generally. Parliament, in England, developed as a force to resist the Throne’s never ending desire to confiscate resources for use in wars of foreign conquest. The two greatest US Presidents of the 20th century – FDR and LBJ – both took the country into massive wars (which allowed them to follow far reaching social reforms and income redistribution).

It once occurred to me that the final plague inflicted upon the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus, the killing of the first born, is not really so different than a military draft. One of the primary ways in which Roman culture penetrated barbarian tribes was through military recruitment. The interaction between civilized and uncivilized is always at work and relevant to politics – and military organization is, in some sense, the boundary of civilization itself. (This also demonstrates my attraction to Christianity as a kind of inverted war machine – it is militant, organized peace, or at least, that is what I see as the authentic kernel of the Christian idea.)

Returning to contemporary politics – I think it is a major shortcoming of how US political economy is conceived by the mainstream to think of the US as a closed system with discrete channels of communication and influence (i.e. economic imports and exports). If, tomorrow, you could somehow just throw open the borders of the United States and say to everyone  “Come on in!” you’d have a billion immigrants pile in a week later. And that would, of course, ruin the country in a hurry. But the point is that Americans have this almost bizarre (and yet entirely natural) way of thinking of themselves as an average nation state. Americans have a tendency to think of themselves as regular, average, typical, normal. Not absolutely nor everywhere (the South, I would argue, has a distinct counter-cultural tradition, which has blended with the Northern puritanical culture to produce a sometimes unpredictable synthesis). But the US is not normal. It’s the biggest economy in the world, with the highest standard of living, and the biggest military.

What would it mean if this were not true? Well, South America might look a whole lot different, for one thing. Argentina might have a stable currency, and Chile, democratic socialism, if it were not for US hegemony. In other words, they’d be allowed to make their own decisions. But instead, those countries have endured corrupt governments supported by the US and Western Europe, so that ordinary Americans and Western Europeans could enjoy cheap resource prices. I think the endemic conflicts in the Middle East are even more instructive here: would Saudi Arabia even exist if it were not for the overweening interest of ordinary US citizens (and let us not give ourselves recourse to blame politicians here) to have a continuous supply of cheap gasoline such that they don’t have to think about whether or not this or that trip is necessary. Wherever and whenever they want to go, they just get in their large automobile and go. I remember hearing a radio advertisement for a used car lot specializing into fuel-efficient vehicles making a pitch about how a child might wonder why their father was so enraged at the gas station. To normal people, high gas prices are not about economics, they’re just unfair. And that, I think, is really key to understanding American politics. Americans, by and large, are accustomed to living an almost impossibly wasteful manner of life, and anything that disrupts it, even having to think about what they’re doing, any sort of rationing of resources, is considered outright oppression. Conservatives do not reject global-warming because they are against science, or because they are stupid, but because they reject the idea that anyone ought to be allowed to impugn their god-given right to consume as much as their nominal income should allow.

The label “neoliberal” carries with it connotations of evil, and I think that conception is folly. Neoliberalism is what happened when the old democratic political coalitions fell apart in the US and Europe following the revolutions of 1968. The left keeps trying to differentiate itself, but does not have nearly the fortitude to reject the modern life to which its constituents have all become accustomed. Sure, we want health care for everyone, but its hard to pin down a working definition of “everyone.”

How I think about all this myself, I will try to flesh out at a later time.


Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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