Socialism and neoliberalism frame this issue of Catalyst. As Sam Gindin observes in the opening essay, socialists are committed to building a new society, but they often refuse to describe their design for it. Of course, this is an obstacle to winning people over, since they are asked to join a movement whose goal remains vague and undefined. But as Gindin notes, the reluctance to discuss socialist institutions also sustains a great many illusions about what will and will not be feasible. Any viable socialist movement has to take up the question of institutional design, if for no other reason than to check if its varied goals are at least mutually consistent. Gindin’s essay is a notable advance in this direction.
At the other end, Lea Ypi reviews a recent book by William Edmundson on the greatest contemporary liberal philosopher, John Rawls. As Ypi notes, socialists often denigrate liberal morality as a sophisticated defense of property and inequality. But Edmundson shows that Rawls was at best a reluctant defender of capitalism, and in his later years declared that liberal principles of justice were in fact incompatible with capitalism. Ypi explores the implication of Rawls argument, and Edmundson’s able defense of it.
One of the central points Ypi makes is that while Rawls advanced our understanding of the basic principles of justice, he didn’t contribute nearly as much on the issue of social agency — or how to get from here to there. That, of course, has been the strength of the Left in our time. Jane McAlevey unearths a tract, long forgotten, from the 1920s, which served as a manual for labor organizing in those heady days when the American left was growing by leaps and bounds. McAlevey urges that while the pamphlet is more than seven decades old, its basic lessons remain intact today.
Of course, any revival of the socialist movement will require a sober and careful analysis of neoliberal capitalism — its basic structure, pressure points, and perhaps most importantly, the coalition of interests that sustain it. Over the past few years, a number of historical and sociological works have examined the origin and politics of neoliberalism. Much of this scholarship has been influenced by what is known as the “cultural turn,” an approach that sees ideology and discourse as the prime mover in politics, over the role of interests and power. In his article, Aaron Major examines some key works in this trend and shows that while they offer much useful descriptive material, their analytical and strategic conclusions are unconvincing. Major shows that even their own evidence affirms that neoliberalism has been driven by economic and political interests, which are expressed in discourse, but not created by it.
The materialist approach recommended by Major is on display in Chris Howell’s analysis of the French road to neoliberalism. A half century after May 1968, when France was rocked by a massive student and worker movement, Howell analyzes how the Left resurgence, which seemed at the time to promise a tectonic shift in French politics, proved to be only temporary. Reaching its peak in the ill-fated Mitterrand experiment, French politics swiftly coalesced around a liberalizing economic agenda, with the labor movement rapidly enfeebled.
We round out the issue with David Calnitsky’s response to Alex Gourevitch and Lucas Stanczyk on the politics of universal basic income (UBI) grants. ubi will remain a hot topic on the Left for some time to come. We hope the Catalyst debate will help advance the discussion among socialists. We intend to host more such debates on progressive reforms in future issues of the journal.