Unconventional Wisdom: An Interview with Doug Henwood
Brooklyn-based Doug Henwood has been among the few articulate voices on what Perry Anderson likes to call “the vanquished left.” Doug has been publishing an irreplaceable newsletter, Left Business Observer, which examines politics and economics with a scientific rigor and without the moral exhortations or hyperbolic spasms of his contemporaries, since 1986. He also hosts Behind the News, a syndicated weekly radio program that features economic commentary and interviews with activists, journalists and academics. Henwood was gracious enough to field a wide-ranging interview of his own for The Activist this month.
BHASKAR SUNKARA: What’s going on with New York’s home for 9/11 conspiracy theories and alternative medicine [and thankfully Behind the News with Doug Henwood], WBAI?
DOUG HENWOOD: A mixed bag. It was very nice to get rid of the toxic regime led by program director Bernard White, who presided over a long decline in the station’s quality, audience, and finances. But aside from that sense of relief, there’s no real new direction. The finances have stabilized, but by hysterically pitching some dubious health quackery and conspiracy premiums. We’re not able to ask for money in a dignified fashion on the strength of our own programming. And while the chemtrails and cure-your-diabetes-in-a-week stuff can make the phones ring, the fulfillment rate on the pledges is alarmingly low. Our fundamental problem is that we’ve lost too many sane and/or solvent listeners. I don’t buy the idea that terrestrial radio is dying, but we’ve largely been unable to take advantage of the potential global audience reachable through the Internet. We need more professional, serious, intelligent programming to attract listeners who are put off by the empty corporate slickness of NPR, but it’s hard to know where to start even.
BS: What electoral policies should the U.S. left be pursuing? Or are we already focused too much on electoral efforts?
DH: I’d say we’re focused too much on electoral efforts. To me, the most promising thing would be to organize around very specific issues, like living wage or single-payer campaigns – things that have great potential appeal and can unite a lot of constituencies in a common struggle. I wouldn’t rule out electoral politics, of course – you don’t want to give up on the state. But nothing higher than the House. When you get to the Senate, and especially the presidential level, you’re on the bourgeoisie’s terrain. None of the third-party or insurgent Dem campaigns – Jackson, Nader, Kucinich, McKinney, whatever – has ever broken away from the cult of personality trap and become an occasion for a real national organizing effort. A presidential campaign just isn’t the place to do that sort of thing, something that the last 20 or 30 years has pretty conclusively proved. It’s best to organize independent movements and parties that might, if we’re lucky, force the higher-ups to take notice. I was impressed, in reading that debased bit of political gossip Game Change, to learn how bent out of shape Hillary Clinton was by the complaints of the antiwar movement. She was really concerned, and her husband spent hours in the King David Hotel, of all places, writing a devious letter on her behalf, meant to defuse the opposition’s threat. It was all bullshit, of course, but it shows that an active left can have an influence even on the most centrist of Dems. That lesson seems to have been lost, at least until now, in relation to the Obama administration, whose various offenses have been denied, excused, or indulged by unions, peaceniks, greens, and other people who should be behaving better.
BS: You’ve been publishing your quasi-monthly Left Business Observer for more than 23 years. Do you have any insights on the viability of traditional print publication versus online-only models for the left?
DH: Actually monthly, now, please! Thanks to my wonderful wife and counseling editrix, Liza Featherstone. And LBO comes out via Acrobat as well as on paper. As for medium, I haven’t solved the problem that plagues everyone in the media these days: how to deal with an audience that now expects to get everything for free, even though it costs more than nothing to produce serious news and analysis. LBO is doing pretty well, but the circulation is still small. While there are some good online outlets, too many of them are just parasites on the newsgathering efforts of the old media, and when those old media die, it could devolve into a giant circle jerk. We all have to figure out how to sustain professional journalism in a post-print world.
BS: Accumulation and its discontents: is there a specifically Marxist understanding of the current economic crisis that you subscribe to?
DH: Mine, of course, which is that the bourgeoisie launched a successful war on a troublesome working class in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That assault – wage-cutting, speedup, deregulation, outsourcing, union-busting, cutbacks in the welfare state, all the familiar stuff gathered under the name of neoliberalism – created a problem for a system dependent on high levels of mass consumption both to maintain aggregate demand and to secure its political legitimacy. Why put up with the volatility and tsurris of American life if there’s no promise of plentiful gadgetry and upward mobility? So the answer was to counter the downdraft of falling wages with rising borrowing, via credit cards and mortgages. That model seemed to hit a wall in the recent economic crisis, but there’s no real recognition of that fact, and no new model for accumulation. In orthodox terms, the U.S. would be ready for a serious austerity program, but our ruling class is afraid to push too hard on that, at least for now. So I think we’re going to stumble along for some time until some new economic and political model emerges. Or if one doesn’t emerge, maybe we’ll just fall apart.
BS: Is the U.S. economy in permanent decline? What of “late” capitalism in general? Can leftists even make such pronouncements anymore?
DH: I always thought “late” capitalism was an overly optimistic term. The system is remarkably resilient. But I do think that the U.S. is somewhere along a long decline, at least relative to the outside world. It’s something that’s going to play out over decades, however, and there doesn’t yet look to be a plausible heir to the hegemon position. China’s still too poor, not to mention politically, militarily, and culturally weak. And the Greek crisis has shown that the EU isn’t really ready for prime time either. It’s been amazing to watch Germany being unable to step up to the role of imperial leadership in Europe, much less on a world scale. To be dominant, a power has to spend, and Germany is too anally retentive to do that.
BS: The populist Main Street, Wall Street dichotomy is all the rage these days. What to make of it?
DH: Mixed bag. There is an opposition between the masses and the financial elite, of course, but there are many complicating factors. First, as the excellent Sam Gindin likes to point out, a crucial part of neoliberalism has been bringing the working class into the circuits of financial capital, through increased reliance on things like 401(k)’s and other defined-contribution retirement schemes, replacing the traditional defined-benefit kind. (If you’re lucky – about half of American workers have no retirement plan at all.) And second, that dichotomy has no room for real “productive” capital, the economy of goods and services, like office work, manufacturing, or retail. Because workers are paid less than the value of what they produce, that kind of labor generates profits for capital that are the ultimate roots of the games that finance plays. I’m old-fashioned enough to call it exploitation. Since populism depends on a bogus notion of a “fair” profit, and just disdains unfairly high (measured how, I don’t know) returns, there’s little room for a class-based understanding of accumulation through unpaid labor.
BS: Your take on Walter Benn Michaels’ controversial critique of identity politics and the erstwhile anti-discriminatory spirit of neoliberalism?
DH: I think that Walter Benn Michaels doesn’t always phrase things to his advantage – he aims to provoke, which is an impulse I deeply understand, but he may end up putting people off who should really listen to what he has to say. The valuable core of it, to me, is that capitalism need not be racist or sexist – equal-opportunity exploitation is theoretically possible, and even a reality in some instances. Big capital usually supports affirmative action and is deeply committed to workplace diversity. Neoliberalism prides itself on at least a verbal commitment to an economically borderless world, and the free flow of people and ideas as well as capital. What capitalism can’t live with is an end to class exploitation. So you could have half the CEOs of the Fortune 500 be female, 12% or so black, etc., and you’d still have a massively lopsided distribution of income and power. That’s not to say that racism and sexism don’t exist, far from it, but it is to say that they’re not capitalism’s fault in any profound sense.
BS: Any prospect for a revitalized, not-awful-politically, domestic left? Or are we to just watch the Empire collapse without any force capable of rebuilding something in it’s wake? Objective reality seems to lend itself to cynicism nowadays.
DH: I can’t say there’s a lot of inspiring stuff going on. The left, such as it is, is divided and weak. Having Obama in the White House has, if anything, made things worse, as otherwise decent people twist themselves into apologetic postures. Maybe this kind of weakness and confusion are symptoms of a society that’s falling apart and there’s not much we can do about it. I hope not. Now that I’ve got a kid – something I came to fairly late in life – I take it more personally now.
BS: Put much stock into the notion of left regroupment?
DH: I’m not really sure what it means. I know what the words mean, of course, but I don’t see how anything in the present terrain could be improved by better mixing and matching.
BS: You mean unify the sects and you just end up with a slightly bigger sect, the size of like the SWP in the United Kingdom, the same problems and not a truly “revived” left?
DH: Yes. Exactly that. That whole party model still seems stuck on trying to replicate the success of the Bolsheviks, which is a doomed cause in a rich country in 2010. I’m not at all opposed to building left parties – quite the contrary – but the very word “regroupment” suggests an unhealthy allegiance to a dead model.
BS: Back to the Obama-era’s effect on the left. Has it been good for shattering illusions and politicizing young people, or generally corrosive?
DH: I’d hoped that the shattering of illusions would be productive, but it’s happening rather slowly, and maybe causing people just to give up. All the energy, at least for now, is coming from the right. It’s like all the crazy paranoid shit that Hofstadter wrote about is coming back to life with more numbers and force than in a few decades. It’s amazing that a neoliberal president who subsidizes nuclear power, bails out Wall Street, and escalates imperial war is somehow seen as a treasonous socialist. But those loons make the liberals more inclined to defend Obama, to preserve us from the fascist threat they love to invoke. I can hear my inner Trot saying, “Break with the Dems, people!”
BS: It’s been years since you, Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti teamed up to write the excellent “Action Will Be Taken,” which critiqued what you called “activistism,” reminiscent of Adorno’s critique of “actionism” in the New Left. Have we progressed any since then?
DH: No, not much. The intellectual level, if anything, is devolving. I hate sounding like an old fart, but all the new media gadgets are now almost serving as a substitute for activistism – now all you need is to broadcast banalities in 140-character servings to think you’re building a movement. Fewer people than ever seem to be interested in thinking about how things work and how to go about changing them for the better.
BS: Speaking of those two, Liza and Christian are both speaking at the YDS national conference in NYC in March, you coming out?
DH: Don’t think I can – I have to watch our lovely kid while Liza’s speaking. I do want to say that YDS looks pretty impressive to this aging outsider. You seem to have some lively and thoughtful people, which isn’t something I can say about many other precincts of the left.