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.

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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.

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23 Comments

  1. I’m afraid I have to agree with Doug’s pessimism regarding the corrosive effects of new media technology on intellectual life generally, and I think that they have an especially adverse effect on the prospects of the left. It’s pretty hard to communicate an alternative vision of the world through media that trivialize the culture even further and facilitate reduced attention spans. Regis Debray had a pretty interesting article in New Left Review a couple of years ago on the relationship of socialism to print culture. I think Debray might lean a litle too far toward technological determinism, but I think that he’s defnitely got a point. Here’s the link: http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2676

  2. D. Henwood’s LBO analysis and his radio program are really excellent resources. I purchased a copy of his Wall Street book (now available for download free from his site) when it was in print and found it the best explanation of finance around- it certainly needs a postscript now.

    Henwood says: “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…” I think he’s set his sight too high – I’ve found that once you get to the House level, the same nice guy who would swerve into a ditch to avoid hitting a squirrel will vote for billions to slaughter other people’s children on the other side of the world.

    I don’t agree with Henwood on certain things; his personal aversion for Nader is (maybe) understandable but misses the point of Nader’s prophetic example and his uncorrupted message. It’s not Nader’s fault that prodding people to civic involvement, and appealing to their better instincts, doesn’t work at this time (even Nader himself now looks elsewhere). Of course Ralph still can’t bring himself to call capitalism the problem – but that’s not who he is.

    Nader’s 2000 campaign showed me the opposite of what it showed Henwood – I saw that there is real value to a national campaign. It also exposed a root problem of the psychology of ideology – the thrall of binary ( D or R) thinking ingrained in (even) those who should be rejecting wage slavery, empire and slaughter. Instead, they support it (Obama), and by doing so, insist that is the way to end it.

    • I think you’re completely overestimating the impact of Nader’s 2000 campaign. He didn’t even get 5% of the vote, and no lasting organization came out of the campaign. And since then, the Green Party has drastically waned in significance, and has lost ballot status in a number of states, including my own (New York). National campaigns do not help to build a movement. They are short-term substitute for movement building, a short circuit. The same holds for Jesse Jackson, Barry Commoner, etc. etc.

      • Chris is correct and this third party nonsense is so stale. I honestly can’t believe we even still talk about it. No serious organization or movement on the left is interested in building a third party outside of fusion states. The incredible weakness of social movements, unable to enact almost any decent reforms these days begs the question: why one would want to spend even more energy building an independent electoral movement. If we can’t even pressure 60 Democratic senators into the public option, how are we going to elect anyone else on a massive scale?

        This is all such a false dichotomy. The binary is not the Democrats vs. Republicans. These two organizations are really paper parties that represent two mass and very different coalitions of interests (yes, with some crossover between the two). Most things we can’t stand about Obama would have been just as bad or worse under McCain-Palin. At least some of my Cobra will be covered thanks the ARRA – no thanks to all those Nader voters.

        My last point is: show me something real, not cute or “uncorrupted.” It’s harder to admit that social movements are weak and that’s our fault than it is to just blame the Democrats – whatever that means or represents is different to everyone. I am about making serious change, not grandstanding.

      • The problem with the Nader 2000 campaign was that it disappeared after the election. But the super-rallies that were part of the campaign were great events. People forget that Nader filled arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. These were festivals of progressive politics that drew large, enthusiastic crowds. If only the left had the ability to do that now. I fault Nader for abandoning efforts to organize a left alternative with staying power; his last two runs have been more about a cult of personality than about building something for the future. But those super-rallies were a great idea that needs to be revisited. Events like the Left Forum are only for academics and hard-core activists. Nader’s rallies had the ability to engage with the citizenry; at this time, the left has nothing like that at all. There was an anti-war demonstration in D.C. on 3/20, and Nader was there. He might not be willing to call out capitalism as the disease, but he’s still effective at enumerating the symptoms in a way that resonates with many.

  3. I think a movement coming out of the Jackson ’88 campaign could have been sustained had Jackson not been such a control freak where the Rainbow Coalition was concerned. He couldn’t control it so he destroyed it.

  4. the comments from #3 on are a pretty pathetic gruel of rehashed ‘leftish’ opinion. I’m surprisd no has said Nader is to blame for Bush.

    Chris, if you’d look into it, you’ll find it was the greens who did not want to be successful who tanked the party, not Nader, who lent his considerable reputation to front the campaign.You can ask Chomsky, Henwood, West, et al. why they backed Nader in 2000. Electoral campaigns can be a real part of a mass movement – it’s not one or the other.

    I can understand Henwood’s position – he just didn’t think Nader’s campaigns after 2000 would lead to anything, but at least he didn’t back Obama.

    … and Dave, congratulations on that ARRA – all you had to do was sign off on the slaughter of your sisters and brothers far away. If you are really about ‘serious change,’ I guess you’ll be staying away from DSA.

    Jason, it wasn’t that Jackson couldn’t control the Rainbow – he thought he could barter his influence and found himself rejected (shades of the poor souls who think they can ‘pressure’ Obama). see Amiri Baraka’s inside story.

    Bhaskar, I don’t think a strategy (Fletcher’s) which will lead full circle back to ‘critically supporting’ wage slavery, empire and slaughter (Obama) will move us closer to ending wage slavery, empire and slaughter.

  5. Y’know, it is possible to put forth a third-partyist politics without spewing holier-and-more-radical-than-thou moralistic rants. I have friends who manage it all the time. And without the “DSA sucks” attitude. If that’s your attitude, why are you here? To make yourself feel good? How radical is that?

  6. way to stick with your less-radical-than-thou rants, and amoral posturing, then. I have to explain my presence here? don’t post interviews with interesting people, then.

  7. Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West supported Nader, as did various other DSA “celebrities.” The organization itself took no official stance because the membership was obviously split as to who to vote for. I am not nostalgic for that time, what with all that arguing over a campaign — one I supported — that ended up having no positive payoff whatsoever. If anything the Green Party matters less now than it did in 1999. There may be a viable third party strategy in the U.S., but the GP’s isn’t it.

  8. JP, I’m all for a spirited debate here but your polemical manners are fairly terrible. I think you might help your own cause if you operated under the assumption that we are all arguing in good faith instead of painting people who have a different position regarding the left’s relationship to the DP as having no concern about whether or not people in Afghanistan live or die.

    And for someone who’s supposedly against binary thinking, you’re engaging in a pretty obvious version of it yourself. The fact of the matter is that the American electoral system is far more complicated than you make it out to be. We can’t just write off the Democratic party completely at this point in time because that would mean giving up any kind of contest over who gets to control the state. It sucks and we all wish it weren’t that way, but that’s where we’re at. Short of fairly drastic changes in the country’s electoral/representative structure and ideological composition in the near to medium future, we’re probably going to be in this situation for a while.

    By the way, if I remember correctly, Henwood actually voted for Obama on the Working Families Party line (perhaps someone else or Doug himself can confirm this). So if that’s the case, I suppose you can add him to your list of bloodthirsty advocates of empire and the killing of Afghan babies too.

  9. I’ll stipulate that I have bad manners. As a visitor in your playground, I’ve experienced some of the responses to my posts as pretty poorly mannered. I guess it’s perspective.

    I haven’t given up on the Democratic party completely, at least at the more local, non-lethal levels (see second paragraph of my initial comment) and making connections and working with those who’ve traditional voted D is certainly part of any forward looking strategy. But the left is now in an endless lesser-evil loop.

    I don’t apologize for holding that imperial slaughter is bad, so you are correct that I apply a binary there.

    Anyone care to take a shot at my poorly-mannered question, ’ Would you still support the D’s if they targeted your kids, or the kids across the street, instead of those far-away?’ How about if you got ARRA, or a marginally better supreme court justice?

    • No, your binary is “vote for a Democratic presidential candidate and you are aiding and abetting evil; vote for some person or party that has absolutely no chance of ever winning the presidency (or helping to build a long term political movement) and you are striking a mighty blow for truth, justice, Mom, and apple pie.” Neither or which, of course, is true, and which is not very different from “D = good, R = bad.”

      • but no response on that question? too junior high school?

        I’d vote for a Democrat who would end imperial slaughter (that’s New Left sloganeering; how do they say it nowadays?) – I’ve voted for Kucinich and Gravel in the last two election primaries, and would have voted for either if they were nominated. But they can’t be, since the D’s are not a party that would nominate them.

        Vote for one who promises imperial slaughter and you are aiding and abetting. If you think you’ve got good enough reasons, and can answer the question about other people’s kids, go ahead.

        Regarding your misunderstanding of my position re D vs R, I’ve already stated: “Movement building, third parties, abstention from electioneering – all these are debatable courses. But supporting Kang vs. Kodos?” So I obviously don’t think you have to vote for a third party, or vote Nader specifically, or vote Green, or vote at all. It’s supporting Kang/Kodos

        Personally, I continue voting to set an example for my kids that we should have such power, and I don’t vote for mass murderers and torturers so they can see that the two choices their rulers put in front of them are not the only ones available (and that, by the way, is the real binary). …pretty noxious stuff.

  10. Thank you, Chris. Well said. And yes, I remember Doug saying that he voted for Obama on the WFP line. I’d say that at least in the U.S. voting for someone doesn’t much count as “endorsement” — it just means that you hate the other guy more. Certainly where the presidency is concerned, lesser-evilism is pretty much built into the system. Left third party candidates can’t win it and left Democrats have yet to be able to win the Democratic presidential primary. So leftists — and the labor movement — are stuck in a bad place where the presidency is concerned. I wish I knew what should be done.

  11. I don’t see the issue in voting for the party which best fits your political beliefs. In terms of action, the Democratic party can hardly be called a party of the left. Why should anyone feel compelled to support their candidates?

    And far from “Throwing Your Vote Away”, a vote for a smaller party rings loud. I’d rather embolden a leftist with my support than be one more vote in the wholly ignored “Progressive Base” of the Democratic party.

    That said, I am concerned that the Green party has become tainted by 9/11 “Truth” nonsense. They’re pretty much the stand-in for a proper labor or democratic socialist party in the US.

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  14. I’ll predict that Fletcher’s suggested plan results in once again supporting the D’s, despite its ‘anti-capitalist’ characterization. I hope I’m wrong. Movement building, third parties, abstention from electioneering – all these are debatable courses. But supporting Kang vs. Kodos?

    Challenging the binary, D/R thinking that paralyzes the left remains one of the Nader campaigns’ best reasons to exist. The platforms he’s run with have included the minimally acceptable social-democratic reforms any democratic socialist should want. All the talk of ‘pressuring Obama’ is pointless unless there is willingness to abandon him, which the binary-thinking left can’t do.

    When I originally referred to D. Henwood’s ‘personal aversion’ to Nader, I meant just that – reading his material on Nader, it seemed somewhat personal, although Henwood is a cool-headed guy. Nader is not, maybe, an easy guy to like, but he should be easy to admire. Instead, he’s vilified by a left which excuses, or at least coolly analyzes, all its mass murdering favorites. Holding up the mirror is thankless, I guess.

    The point on the Greens is that Nader was immensely instrumental in building it by lending them his name, and doing a lot of local party-building events for which he gets no credit. We have since found that many Greens and most on the left can’t get past the binary mode, so if you want to say the experiment has failed, you are entitled. But Nader himself deserves respect, as do those who made the genuine attempt. To have abandoned that effort for John Kerry, though, requires some twisted ‘apologetic postures,’ as Henwood calls them.

  15. I don’t think that jp has a good understanding of the U.S. electoral system or the Democratic Party. I highly recommend these articles, which have arguments that one should grapple with even if one disagrees:

    http://www.inthesetimes.com/issue/25/06/weinstein2506.html
    http://newpol.org/node/199

  16. As a former, longtime participant and supporter of the ‘embed the left where the working people are’ theory, I’m familar with the arguments, Professor Schulman. I abandoned them after observing that this approach has moved the left inexorably rightward, to the point where it supports Kerry and Obama.

    If 2000 proves that Green strategy doesn’t work, the last 35 years prove ‘moving the D’s left’ is ridiculous – for many of the very reasons used against third parties (just can’t ‘win’, the system is rigged to allow only those with money to win, wasted effort when we should be movement building, etc.). (I’m also a veteran of the Jackson 88 campaign, which was the last opportunity to create a real leftwing of the D’s., and should be additional evidence to abandon this strategy.)

    oh, and please forward your links to D. Henwood – statements by him like “I can hear my inner Trot saying, “Break with the Dems, people!” show that he, too is clearly in need of your tutorial.

    But afraid that your understanding of empire and slaughter needs a little pick-me-up, here’s one for you to grapple with (warning: requires non-binary thinking):
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/world/asia/18afghan.html

    In my ignorance, I would have hoped to left could unite, at least, in opposing those who would pursue such horrific ‘policies.’ Would you still support the D’s if they targeted your kids, or the kids across the street, instead of those far-away?

  17. Since Nader wasn’t actually getting elected, his value was otherwise: putting forward an acceptable platform all the left could unite around and attempting to break the binary. As a bonus, for those who actually think the D’s can be moved left, he pointed out that unless you have a breaking point and are willing to abandon them, the D’s will do to you what Obama is now doing to his ‘critical supporters.’

    Nader’s campaign was itself a seed of a movement, which could have gone somewhere had the left not been paralyzed with D/R toxins. Now we know the poison – what’s the antidote? The left can’t break with a party of wage slavery, empire and slaughter until itsecures 51% of the voting public?

    Non-electoral organizations and movements are fine. I’m not committed ‘to getting a populist quasi-social democrat elected into the White House,’ as you somehow inferred, I simply expressed regret that the left is so vicious about Nader, given the water he’s carried.

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