Radical Left

Meet the New Left, Same as the Old


The Next Left: The History of a Future, by Michael Harrington, New York: Henry Holt, 197 pages, $17.95

For Michael Harrington, as for Phyllis Schlafly, the world is a fearsome place. It is always changing. It is, quite literally, out of control.

Change in the world is caused, though not designed, by the choices of millions of individuals. When they choose nontraditional lifestyles, Schlafly and her allies on the right are disturbed. When they choose nontraditional jobs and economic arrangements, leftists such as Harrington worry that the sky is falling.

The Next Left, despite its future-oriented title, is a paean to the 1950s, the high point of an economic system that Harrington (following the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci) calls "Fordism." While this system is never really defined, it is described as "mass production for mass consumption," which required "a new type of man, conforming to a new type of labor and production process." Stripped of the jargon, long-time socialist Harrington pines for the days when every red-blooded American man worked in a factory. (Wasn't there a time when leftists attacked the "alienation" of the assembly line?)

But the Fordist era is over. You see, "the nature of economic growth has changed. Investment can now create more national product but not more jobs, or at least not more jobs of the kind essential to upward mobility."

Here Harrington has taken up the current leftist wailing about the rise of the service economy, in which jobs are said to pay less than in manufacturing. This is not the place to go into a critique of that argument, which rests on decidedly shaky—and sometimes outright dishonest—empirical evidence. But it should be noted that manufacturing output as a percentage of GNP has remained very stable; manufacturing jobs have declined because firms are producing that output with fewer workers. This has freed workers to move into other jobs, most of them generally designated "service." But service jobs do not necessarily pay less than manufacturing jobs, they often offer better working conditions, and they reflect a wealthier economy's ability to satisfy more consumer needs.

The most important thing to note is that economic change is a constant in modern society. The greatest economic change of the past century is the declining number of farm workers—from 53 percent of the work force in 1870 to 11.8 percent in 1950 to just 2.7 percent today. These workers found better, more productive jobs—and so will displaced manufacturing workers, if we only allow markets to work.

An interesting subtheme of this book is its treatment of war planning. Like many other leftists, Harrington doesn't like the killing entailed by war, but oh boy does he love its domestic effects. He writes, "World War I showed that, despite the claims of free-enterprise ideologues, government could organize the economy effectively.…The First World War also convinced militarists and governments that, on grounds of national security, they could not tolerate bad health on the part of a population that had to supply a conscript army."

He hails World War II for having "justified a truly massive mobilization of otherwise wasted human and material resources" and pouts that the War Production Board was "a success the United States was determined to forget as quickly as possible." In yet another section of the book, he writes, "During World War II, there was probably more of an increase in social justice than at any [other] time in American history. Wage and price controls were used to try to cut the differentials between the social classes.…There was also a powerful moral incentive to spur workers on: patriotism."

Harrington is not unique on the left in his view of war as a great way to whip society into shape. Asked in 1982 for an example of socialism in practice that could "serve as a model of the Britain you envision," British Labour Party leader Michael Foot replied, "The best example that I've seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war. Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody a job.…The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it. It was a democratic society with a common aim in which many of the class barriers were being broken down."

Harrington and Foot don't really want war; they just want what William James called "the moral equivalent of war," discipline and nationalism without all the dying. They know, as Randolph Bourne put it, that "war is the health of the state."

What exactly is the new program for the next left that Harrington proposes in light of these fundamental economic changes? It turns out to be…just what the left has been proposing for decades. More welfare, welfare for housewives, child allowances, day care, government jobs, foreign aid, and of course planning (but democratic planning).

I hope he had a special key on his word processor programmed to type "the government must provide funds for"; it would have saved him hours. And where will the government get these funds? From society, he says at one point—not exactly an illuminating suggestion. More often, he demands that business and the rich be made to pay their "fair share," but never once is that leftist mantra defined.

Since we now know that the 1981 income-tax cut resulted in the rich paying a higher share of total tax receipts, would Harrington like to reduce the top marginal rate further to seduce the rich into earning more and paying even more in taxes? Or would he rather raise their tax rate to punish them even at the cost of lost tax revenue? In which case—and this is the real point—he would have to raise taxes on the middle class to provide funds for all these middle-class entitlements he wants to establish.

In other words, to paraphrase the rock group The Who: Meet the new left, same as the old left.

David Boaz is vice-president for public policy affairs of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.