The Difference Between Liberals and Leftists

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Living as they do in a bipolar political world where politics consists of Democrats and Republicans and no other ideology is real, media corporations in the United States use left, liberal and Democrat as synonyms. This is obviously wrong and clearly untrue—Democrats are a party, leftism and liberalism are ideologies, and Democratic politics are frequently neither left nor liberal but far right—but as Orwell observed after you hear a lie repeated enough times you begin to question what you know to be true rather than the untruth. Sometimes it’s useful in this postmodern era to remind ourselves that words still have meaning, that distinctions make a difference.

Let us now delineate the difference between liberals and leftists.

Bernie Sanders votes and caucuses with the Democratic Party, campaigns as an independent and self-identifies as a “democratic socialist”—an ideology without a party in the U.S. but that draws comparisons to Scandinavia. His stances on the issues are left of center but American politics have drifted so far right that he’s really a paleo-Democrat—there’s no daylight between Sanders 2020 and McGovern 1972. No wonder voters are confused!

Liberals and leftists want many of the same things: reduced income inequality, better working conditions, more affordable housing and healthcare. There are differences of degrees. A liberal wants the gap between rich and poor to shrink; a communist wants no class differences at all. They’re very different when it comes to foreign policy: liberals support some wars of choice whereas leftists would only turn to the military for self-defense.

Reading the last paragraph it is tempting to conclude, as I used to and many people still do, that there is enough overlap between the two to justify, even require, cooperation. Liberals and leftists both want to save the planet and the human race from climate change—why not join forces to fight the polluters and their allies the denialists?

The Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is the ultimate liberal: a professor at Columbia, ex-chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and former chief economist for the World Bank. An op-ed he recently published in The New York Times provides a perfect illustration of why a lasting working relationship between liberals and leftists will always be a pipe dream.

As is often the case with screeds by smart liberals, there is a lot to like in “Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron.” (Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes it is.)

Stiglitz correctly identifies the problem: “Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity.”

He correctly apportions the blame on “wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking),” businesses like hedge fund management that do not create anything but profits and the legacy of Reaganism: “Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities,” Stiglitz writes. “We relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.”

Then: “We could and should have provided more assistance to affected workers (just as we should provide assistance to workers who lose their jobs as a result of technological change), but corporate interests opposed it. A weaker labor market conveniently meant lower labor costs at home to complement the cheap labor businesses employed abroad. We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.” Boom! This.

Liberals like Stiglitz and leftists like me part ways when the discussion turns to solution. As Lenin asked: What is to be done?

Stiglitz answers: “It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve.”

“Government action is required,” he says.

We need “a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed,” he says.

Follow the link. Read the whole thing. I’ve included all the meat.

Stiglitz knows what is to be done. Mostly, he’s right. What he wants might not be enough. But it would do more good than harm.

What he does not know is how to make his proposals happen. Like the politics of all liberals, his is a toothless musing, a vacuous fantasy.

He said it himself: “Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.” This late-capitalism death spiral will not cure itself. There is no world in which corporations and their pet politicians and corrupt media propagandists will “recognize the vital role of the state.” They will not regulate themselves. They will not create “a new social contract.”

They are rich and powerful. The rich do not wake up one day and say to themselves, “Time to stop being a selfish ass, I’m going to redistribute my income.” The powerful do not care that the weak are miserable.

Money gets taken away from the rich one way: by force. The powerful are divested of their privileges the same way: when they have no choice.

Liberals and leftists identify many of the same problems. Only leftists understand that real solutions require serious pressure on the ruling elites. The credible threat of force—for example, a peaceful protest demonstration that could turn violent—may be enough to force reforms. But reforms always get rolled back after the left stops watching. Ultimately the rulers will have to be removed via revolution, a process that requires violence.

Liberals do not demand change; they ask nicely. Because they oppose violence and credible threats of violence, they tacitly oppose fundamental change in the existing structure of politics and society. Unlike leftists they are unwilling to risk their petty privileges in order to obtain the reforms they claim to crave. So, when push comes to shove, liberals will ultimately sell out their radical allies to the powers that be. And they will run away at the first sign of state oppression.

If you can’t trust your ally, they are no ally at all.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • This late-capitalism death spiral will not cure itself. There is no world in which corporations and their pet politicians and corrupt media propagandists will “recognize the vital role of the state.” They will not regulate themselves. They will not create “a new social contract.”

    You said it, Ted. But unfortunately, violence will not itself guarantee the victory of the left. In your country, from what I read in the newspapers, the result of a violent conflict seems more likely to be an out-and-out fascist dictatorship, as in Germany from 1933….

    What’s the solution ? Damned if I know. Wish I could be more sanguine….


  • Re: “A liberal wants the gap between rich and poor to shrink; a communist wants no class differences at all.”

    It would have been optimal to continue with the “leftist/liberal” pair.

    Now it is not clear if leftist = communist, and only communist, or if communist is one type of leftist, there also being other types, neither named, defined nor characterized.

  • alex_the_tired
    July 8, 2019 9:09 PM

    I think this could be one of the cases where evolution comes into play.
    First, evolution is always there. Whether you notice or not, natural forces (that’s the “natural” in natural selection) shape the animals. Most of the textbooks get it wrong. “Horses evolved …” No! “Horses are evolved by natural forces.” The horse (and the human) have no choice. We can duck around it for a while, using one credit card to pay the minimum balance on the other, but eventually, evolution bats last.
    Second, going from the first point, what we have now is a system out of “natural” balance. People like Mark Zuckerberg are heralded as the apex of intellectual development. Jeff Bezos runs a global hong called Amazon Fulfillment Centers.
    Third, what’s the normal response? From an evolutionary perspective (that is, what would rational people, aware of evolution/natural selection, who were interested in maintaining civilization, do)? Why, bless my soul, it’s what Bernie Sanders a few others are trying to do: rebalance the equation by redistributing wealth, power, and resources.
    But here’s where the very crafty sociopaths that are called “the gamechangers” and “innovators” by the warm, willing holes called the mainstream media make a yuge mistake. See, it takes a lot of support structure to make things nice (that’s why none of those “emerging” democracies ever made it in the 1960s–because you can’t just throw down a superhighway and expect it to bring goods and services across the country). You need a middle class. And that means you need to keep the number of sociopaths to a minimum because every sociopath costs some huge multiple of middle classers and a superhighway with only 40 cars going down it? Nope. Not gonna work. A superhighway with 40 million cars? Yes indeed.
    And that’s where we are right now. All the infrastructure is dying because the middle class is dying. And the superrich thing that they’ll weather the storm just fine.
    Only problem? Give it 10 or 20 more years. When you can’t get a dentist or a doctor because no one could afford to go, and those who could go couldn’t make a living off of it because only six people could afford the fees? And add to that all the maids whose kid sisters are starving because there are no jobs. And don’t forget all the other support staff, like the cook and the driver and the tutors for the hyperwealthy kids. All those laborers will have come from the middle class, and they’ll all have friends who didn’t survive. And the soup will have ground glass in it, the maid will steal your cufflinks, your kids will “accidentally” fall down the stairs, and so on.
    Fourth, all the very rich will have been eliminated by evolutionary forces. And that’s what I find so goddamned hilarious. I can’t change the system because I’m powerless. But because I’m powerless, I understand that there are many things more powerful than I am. So I acknowledge the need for balance. The superrich, however, think they can remake the world in their image simply because, well, because they’re the kinds of amoral, greedy, grasping assholes that can get ahead. Apparently none of them ever watched a B-grade movie on TV: those who play god are, inevitably, bent over and reamed by their creations, whether that’s the animated patchwork of a bunch of cadavers or free overnight shipping via a slave-labor force without union representation.
    Liberals (to put the above in perspective with the actual column content) don’t grasp any of this. They are, in evolutionary terms, the ones who produce the fewer number of viable offspring. In the glorious aftermath of the Baby Boomer age of plenty (for them), quite a few people managed to gather enough scraps to hang on. But now the Baby Boomers, having stolen every single thing they could, are leaving behind a maxed-out system, and all those Gen Xers (yours truly, included) and Millennials are going to see the surprise of their lives in the coming years as the Boomers’ bills are dropped squarely in our laps and affixed there with a few nine-inch nails.
    Lefties, on the other hand, always knew this was how the system was headed. And they’re the ones over at the bar as the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee” watching the frantic ones who think there’s still a chance to get to one of the lifeboats.

  • This deconstruction of Stiglitz standing in for (left-)liberalism eventually reverts to The Question of Violence. Like in his Manifesto, Ted proposes that the answer of the socialist left – or more specifically, communist left – is violent struggle, or at least the credible threat of it.

    There are several good arguments against the left-libera white-washed myth of non-violence ™ – recently instantiated e.g. by Chris Hedges ironically with almost violent zeal. A cursory study of history will showcase that e.g. non-violent disruption as practiced by a faction of the civil rights movement associated with Martin King would arguably not have won concessions from the establishment – without the specter of armed Black Panthers hovering in the background, etc.

    Still, as addressed by Henri below, it remains to be seen which direction(s) violence will take.

    There is a more immediate blind spot of the liberal idea of non-violence: they are trying to unsee the structural violence perpetrated by the state and associated private corporations. Recent movements from anti-war, BLM, prison abolition to protesting ICE concentration camps make this harder for them.

    Ultimately it is the ruling class that needs violence to keep the weak in line when they get uppity. They will resort more and more to it as the more subtle methods of manufactured consent are eroding.

    Apart from meeting it straight on with counter-violence, there may be other ways to make the application of violence by the establishment too costly for them.

    • The Vietnamese resisted the greatest military of its time, largely with small arms.

      But the Vietnamese weren’t informing this Greatest Military on themselves through the internet.

      And the Vietnamese knew the language of the murderous oppressor better than the oppressor knew theirs.

      The oppressor spoke largely on unencoded radio, thus giving English language lessons to the oppressed (and before that, French language lessons) while the on the ground English and French speakers were rotated out and replace by Vietnamese language novices.

      In order to have an opposition it is necessary to have the ability to communicate unobserved by the oppressor. Jurgen Habermas makes this point in a different context in his “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”.

      Americans are so obsessed with individual self-promotion it’s hard to see how an opposition to the oppressor can be formed when the immediate self-gratification of posturing on the internet can so easily subvert the long term goals of social change.

      American soldiers who tired of the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians and recognized that by being forced into this invasion through conscription, they were also being victimized and enough responded with fragging to end the draft and dissuade its use in Iraq.

      Your point about Malcolm X and MLK is well taken, Andrea. The same division and mutual hatred arose in the SDS and the Weather Underground.

      Peaceful marches amount to no more than focus groups, said George W. Bush.

      Without the fear of a violent contagion running though a peaceful march, the march is no more than a saying, in effect that “We are the good and they are the bad” and expecting a great transformation of hearts and minds to take over the Democratic Party Liberals.

  • DaniilAdamov
    July 10, 2019 11:15 PM

    Are you sure what you want is a revolution? It’s just an internal war, and all the more vicious for it. It baffles me a little bit how all those supposedly anti-war people condemn comparatively cleaner wars between nations, but cheer for the outbreak of violence within a nation.

    Besides, as Henri says, the outcome of a revolution will probably not be the one you want. They never, ever work out for the socialist democrat crowd (socialist democracy is far more of an oxymoron than progressive capitalism, in practice). The far right would probably win this if it happened now – remember, what matters most in a civil war isn’t how many people support you, but how many people are willing and able to kill for you, which is how an utterly marginal far left clique managed to take over my country against the opposition of most of the populace. Perhaps the left will have a real chance to win further down the line, but I’m not sure it’d be the kind of left you’d like once you see it up close.

  • DaniilAdamov
    July 10, 2019 11:18 PM

    P.S. “If you can’t trust your ally, they are no ally at all.”

    So Allies weren’t allies at all during WW2? And I guess Germany had hardly any allies in Europe either. I could go on. That’s just not true, because alliances are almost always alliances of convenience, and the parties in them often only trust each other as far as they could throw.

    • Actually, both the Axis and the Allies during World War II knew that they could trust their allies. The Americans and the Soviets did trust each other, for example. Why not? They did not really have conflicting interests at that point.

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