Centrists are fond of quoting Yates’ line about how “the center cannot hold”, implying that left and right have both become unhinged. I’ve always had my doubts about this: David Adler’s 2018 piece in the New York Times indicates that centrists, not extremists, may have the most negative feelings about democracy. So, we should be aware of a troubling trend of realignment: Some liberals are increasingly taking up a pro-corporate line, while a faction of conservatives have been hinting at criticism of capitalism. The center is reforming, and it may not be good for freedom.
In reaction to the Sanders campaign of 2016 and the increasing popularity of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, centrist liberals have been shoring up their defenses. Since the Clinton era, the Democratic Party has been increasingly reliant on white-collar professionals who may be progressive on social issues but are uncomfortable with “big government” and wealth redistribution. Note that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been exploring a presidential run. But CNBC names Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign, as a “key player in Schultz’s growing team”. Meanwhile, a Democratic strategist expressed their contempt of Schultz to The Atlantic: “What’s his value proposition for America? Make America like a corporate chain?” It’s difficult to imagine Schultz as a progressive champion.
Which leads us to another thorny problem: The fantasy of “woke” capitalism and the liberal corporation. Parts of corporate America have woven social commentary into their advertisements, most famously Gillette’s controversial ad calling out toxic masculinity. The ad itself has provoked a familiar controversy, with Fox News’ Tammy Bruce calling for Americans to “stand up and stop this pathological frenzy to marginalize boys and men”, and any number of Twitter liberals congratulating Gillette on their progressive position. Some people bought Gillette product in order to destroy them.
I watched the ad and found its sentiment noble, though the marketing behind it is insanely cynical: capital largely does not care why you buy something, as long as you do. Gillette knew it could make money on this principle, and did so. If the prevailing winds of culture were blowing the other way, and Gillette could make money on promoting far-right ideas, I’m sure it would do so, and we’d be watching a razor commercial that promoted phrenology or anti-Semitism. In this context we are faced with the possibility of a future where our political choices are between corporations with competing – and largely superficial – ideologies.
Here’s another grim potential vision of things to come: While liberals rally to corporate America’s side for being “woke”, some conservatives are attempting to make the right a little less pro-capitalism. On January 2, Tucker Carlson gave a monologue on his program that broke from Republican orthodoxy in a variety of ways. “For generations,” he said, “Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars”. The ruling elite is composed of “mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule”. He’s right, of course, but for the wrong reasons. He, like European conservatives, finds capitalism to be useful only in so far as it promotes traditional values. When market forces run up against those values (see Gillette above), capitalism is to be fought, not supported. But this kind of right-wing populism is largely hollow, and dangerous in its own right.
And here’s where our two stories – That of Schultz and Gillette and that of Carlson – collide: I posit that when liberals teamed up with capital and essentially ceded the idea of widespread economic prosperity, they allowed the rise of a faux “anti-establishment” right that helped give us Donald Trump.
In twentieth-century Europe, this manifested in the rise of fascism, a right-wing futurist ideology that claimed to serve the nation, not corrupt, Jewish capitalism. In practice, of course, this was a hollow promise: Mussolini’s claim that his corporatist system benefited both capital and labor was false, as Italian wealth inequality increased during the 1920s and 30s; Franco’s Spain experimented with “vertical trade unions” that only helped employers. Perhaps this ultra-nationalism isn’t what Carlson has in mind with his brand of European social conservatism. But his hatred for immigrants and ethnic minorities combined with a (theoretical) opposition to economic inequality could spawn a new and odious reactionism.
Benjamin Barber’s hypothesized in Jihad vs. McWorld that the world community would be beset by the inequities of a cosmopolitan global capitalism (“McWorld”), and the reactionary nationalist/religious movements (“Jihad”) that would rise to challenge it. Barber doesn’t see either as healthy for democracy. We’re faced with a similar dilemma today: Right-leaning liberals could come into conflict with “social” conservatives, and neither would restore economic welfare or political freedom.
The only way out of this trap would be the coalescence of an international left along the lines articulated by Yanis Varoufakis. One can see beginnings of such a movement in the popularity aroused by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I hope a widespread democratic left does arise to fight capitalism and nationalism. Because if we leave the future up to the likes of Howard Schultz or Tucker Carlson, our prospects are bleak indeed.