U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Race & Postwar Liberalism Interview Series, Part II: Malcolm McLaughlin

Last week I began running a series of interviews with scholars producing new, innovatively critical work on postwar liberalism. We continue this week with an interview with Malcolm McLaughlin. McLaughlin received his PhD from the University of Essex, and is currently a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book, The Long, Hot Summer of 1967, deals with the urban rebellions of the late 1960s and the attempts of the Johnson Administration to respond to and control them.

For Part I of the series with Mical Raz, see here. 

Q. What brought you to your project in The Long Hot Summer of 1967?

Originally, I came at this project convinced that I would find evidence that all sorts of local insurrections were growing in militancy during this period, becoming nationally aware and tending towards a revolutionary movement. I did find something close to this in the pages of “Harvest of American Racism” of course, but that was as much a figment of the imagination as my own original presuppositions—an imaginative projection based on limited data, that is. In fact my project became far more interesting as I discovered that the concept of “revolution” in the mid-Sixties was not describing an emerging political reality but constructing an idea of reality. There was a kind of pareidolia in this, patterns discerned in what were quite disparate events. What sustained my interest in the project, then, was the intriguing prospect that historical events were being driven by misrecognition, in effect; by the imposition of order upon events that were not directly causally related, and the subsequent reading of meaning into that conceptualization of events.

Q. There is a lot of discussion right now about the political impact of violence. It is common in liberal circles to focus on the backlash produced by something like urban rioting. How would a perspective informed by the dynamics of the long, hot summer contribute to these debates?

My book played up the lack of coherence in these events, and suggested that the whole idea of a long, hot summer was imposed on top of disparate events. I would suggest that if we look at the situation today, the challenge for liberals is to seize the initiative and impose a contemporary liberal narrative on episodes of urban rioting, one that can knit desperate members of black communities together with sympathetic liberals.

So, liberals: bind the disaffected into liberalism, don’t scold them. Sympathize with those who behave recklessly—who respond to police confrontation with redoubled confrontation and aggression—and seek to understand their motivations. If you truly believe that your creed can offer them hope, then explain how. Be prepared to be told that you have it wrong, that you don’t understand what they want. Listen to them, and if liberalism can still accommodate them, be willing to adapt your program. American liberalism has in the past been pragmatic and adaptable and should be prepared to be so again today. Avoid the temptation of authoritarianism. There is no silencing people in the long run. Never say that rioting produces a backlash. Backlashes exist before riots, and are the political obstructions that make violence more likely (King understood this). Above all, never hand the initiative to the authoritarians by suggesting that the disaffected have caused a backlash, rather insist that the backlash has produced the disaffected.

However, as I will explain below, I am not sure that when we talk about liberals today we really mean just liberals. More typically we have in mind a coalition of routed old-line progressive liberals, civil libertarians (who can flip either rightwing or leftwing), and a constellation of interest groups ranged around overlapping identities, which exist in an unstable relationship of accommodation with each other, and which claim the mantle of the left today, and sometimes are identified as the core of liberalism in this context. So, to which of these factions do I address my advice?

Q. In your book you critique Great Society liberalism but seem to hold out hope that some other version of liberalism could have incorporated the radical aims of the 1960s left. What is your understanding of the relationship between liberalism and radicalism in this time period?

Here the concept of “revolution” was important, to my mind. It signified a leap beyond the existing political economy, beyond existing institutions, but deferred the business of determining the shape of the new order, and any practicalities. It did however succeed in knitting together assorted and sometimes incompatible claims.

The Great Society set out to incorporate the poor and the marginalized of black communities into the liberal order, which meant into the pattern of middle-class life established for skilled blue-collar workers and technical and administrative white-collar workers by the New Deal and Fair Deal. Liberals approached this task as a process to be done to the poor: in at one end of the Great Society programs go the poor, and out the other end come solid citizens. But what happened pretty soon was that a certain portion of the black urban poor (especially) decided they would not like to be done to in this way and would rather shape their own destinies. Liberals failed by that measure to establish themselves sufficiently as part of the communities they sought to uplift, but neither could they imagine their way through the deadlock that developed in their relationship with those communities. Radicalism in that context meant the expansion of democratic representation, and the implication was that communities would determine their priorities for themselves through new institutions. At least this seemed to be the tenor of political rhetoric as I saw it.

Q. How does your interpretation of Great Society liberalism differ from others? Where do you see yours fitting into the historiography?

The tendency has been to explain or more rarely mitigate the failure of the Great Society, often with the specter of Vietnam in the background. Dollars better spent in the inner city were diverted into a war in a far-away country. This is crudely the tenor of Unger, Bernstein, for example, writing in the Nineties. My book sees failure structurally built into the Great Society. It plays up the managerial qualities of the Great Society—liberalism as social management. There is a sideswipe at European social democracy and liberal corporatism (which was an influence on the various UK Labour governments between 1945-1979) there too, which again has struggled to adapt to demands for a greater degree of individual autonomy and liberty since the Sixties, and which also became identified with a remote, white, male, patriarchal authority. Here I’m sympathetic with a broadly left-libertarian line of argument on managerial social democracy.

Of course those programs did deliver real gains in quality of life for poor communities, and so I would restrict my criticism to the ineffectiveness of liberal strategy, and especially the failure of liberals to reimagine and regenerate their strategy successfully when they hit an impasse in the Sixties.

Specifically, I would flag up the failure to develop adequate mechanisms for democratic inclusion so that local priorities and aspirations could be accurately registered and acknowledged and acted upon, which might have built trust, confidence and political legitimacy—and which might have provided the space for new thinking. Of course, this is a big deal, not just a minor mishap. The reason why liberals were insensitive to the needs and demands and aspirations of those communities was because they were primarily concerned with social management, and their concern for the predicament of “the poor” should be understood against that priority.

There are moments when I reconstruct events on the ground, but the overall framing is a national one. This actually bucks the trend of most recent historiography, which has delved into local contexts in order to add complexity or to offer a contradiction or complication which might cause us to re-evaluate established narratives. There’s been a lot of great work on the Black Power movement the past decade and more along those lines, (e.g., Robert Self’s work on Oakland; Woodard’s work on Newark) and my reading of history here is a reappraisal of Great Society liberalism in that light. It is an attempt in that respect to learn the lessons of recent historiography and to offer a perspective on the national picture with that in mind.

My reading of liberalism in is in part consistent with Van Gosse’s framing of the Sixties—although I do not agree with his conclusions about subsequent developments, and offer a less optimistic picture I’m afraid, and one I think is probably more realistic about the growth of coercive state power.

Q. I really enjoyed your analysis of the Kerner Report. As you discuss, it opens up with sweeping acknowledgments of racial injustice, but ends implying that the American system as a whole is benevolent. How should we understand this disconnect, so common in liberal politics at this time, between their acknowledgment of racial inequality and their conclusions about the American political system?

Thank you, that is kind. For me, the Kerner Report was a 400+-page admission of the failure of liberal strategy, and also a failure of liberal imagination and nerve. Great Society liberals proposed that existing institutions could be made to work for all Americans, and so the Kerner Report had to validate that core thesis. Inconvenient evidence to the contrary could not be admitted, and had to be ruled beyond the realms of the possible.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that the American system as it was known was by then about fifty years old, the result of a fairly rapid process of change since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and the gradual construction of the institutional basis of cooperation between big business and government (including national government). The question posed to each generation had been whether to increase (“liberal”) or decrease (“conservative”) the degree of government involvement in the management of the economy for growth and social outcomes—including the incorporation of marginalized peoples socially, politically, economically, and culturally into the mainstream of that system. I would see this as the dividing line in the period of roughly 1900-1970, and I would characterize it as one within a broadly defined “liberalism of corporate capitalism managed by national government” (which included those we refer to as “liberals” and “conservatives”).

So, my contention is that this broadly defined liberalism described a consensus over the need for management of the corporate economy, with internal differences over the extent to which government needed to prioritize social outcomes as part of that. Hence, “liberals” and “conservatives” within a broadly defined liberalism of managed corporate capitalism. For “liberals” to have admitted that this same political system could not accommodate the demands of key black communities at the center of the riot investigation would have been to admit that the “liberal” project for the American system had reached the limit of its potential to incorporate marginalized groups, and so the end of its purpose. Some reassurance that the Great Society would address all of these problems was therefore absolutely necessary.

At the same time, the thought that a radical step beyond those limits might be needed was suppressed, as this raised the prospect that a wholesale rethink of the institutional basis of the American system as it had come into being since the Progressive Era might be needed: the arrangements for democratic representation and for the planning of infrastructure and economic activity; for the priorities of big business; for patterns of ownership and the distribution of capital; the organization and discipline of labor as a class; for the organization of urban space; and so on and so on. Begin to unpick it and the mind boggles. The question, from a practical point of view would be how to determine answers and then also where to draw the line, and not least how to establish transitional arrangements.

Of course, the way I am addressing this presupposes that it would be liberals organizing this radical reform. The point was of course that there were voices being raised at the time proposing that “the people” should take control of that process as well as set its priorities. One has to sympathize on a human level. No wonder liberals preferred the fiction of the Kerner Report.

Q. Although your book focuses on a specific year, it’s a year highly relevant to the course national politics would take in the next several decades. What is the relationship between Great Society liberalism and the rightward drift of American politics that would follow?

One reading of my book is that when Great Society liberals hit the limits of their strategy they reluctantly concluded that force and violence would be needed to contain disorder. On one level this was a rational (its ethics is another question) conclusion for them to draw, as they wanted to protect property, made the judgment that it would in the final analysis be morally and legally right to protect the lives of those who were not in a state of revolt at the expense potentially of those who were, and believed that it was necessary to hold firm in order to preserve the authority of the rule of law and institutions of government. But it was an admission of defeat. Whereas liberals had hoped that economic management for both growth and social outcomes for marginalized peoples would ensure order, after the Sixties there was an increasing reliance on scientific policing methods and paramilitary force and violence in order to maintain order.

Now, the use of national government to support local law enforcement (through the supply of paramilitary equipment and expertise in this case) was actually an example of liberal problem-solving in the mode familiar since the Progressive Era (i.e., the application of scientific method and expertise). I would, then, see the period after the Sixties as one in which there was a modification of the relationship between “liberalism” and “conservatism” within the twentieth-century American system rather than a break from it. The “liberal” commitment to national action remained present in American politics, but increasingly took on the form of authoritarian and coercive social management.

At the same time, the weakening influence of “liberal” arguments for economic management for social outcomes in order to benefit marginalized peoples changed the essential function of national government in a key respect. Strip away the commitment to economic management for social outcomes, and what was to remain of the American system was essentially a project for the promotion of economic growth through state support for big business, with material benefits flowing to employees and communities more haphazardly than had been envisaged by “liberals” before the 1970s, or probably anytime since the New Deal.

The outcome was, then, close to the state of affairs in favor of which opponents of the New Deal’s expansion of the progressive principle of government had argued over many years (i.e., the “conservative” position which saw the mode of economic management and the social priorities of the New Deal and Fair Deal and successor projects as government over-reach). But I see the commitment to national action as key to understanding this development. It effectively invented the political system we know today as neoliberalism. And in that respect it is possible to characterize the drift of American politics since the Sixties as rightward.

As a postscript to that, I want to bring into consideration the rhetoric of “revolution” that developed during the long, hot summers, and which stood outside of the post-Progressive Era American system. Look at the Sixties, and we see the defeat of “liberals” as their program reaches its strategic limits, and folds. However, look at subsequent developments, and things take on a different complexion. The net effect of the triumph of “conservatism” in the 1980s, symbolized by the two election victories of Ronald Reagan, was really a consolidation of liberalism around the politics of business growth—but there was also if anything a remarkable strengthening of the national powers organized for force and violence (police and military). Opposition to that political project after 1980 had to come form outside of (broad) liberalism, because the “liberal” liberals had been strategically defeated in the Sixties, and fatally weakened, so they could not wield power themselves. It was “conservatives” and neoliberals (national government + big business + police coercion + strong military) who held sway, and “liberals” had to accommodate themselves to that new balance of power. Hence the drift of American life through Bush-Clinton-Bush II. Hence the ambivalence of Obama (who I think sought to be both inside the House of Liberalism and outside in the street, and whose presidency is yet to be fully digested).

Q. Do you think neoliberalism is a useful term for understanding this drift?

I think on reflection that neoliberalism became too loaded a term during the Nineties and Noughties to be of use today. The populist-nationalist turn of recent months has complicated its legacy as well. The Trump movement has mobilized white supremacists, neo-Nazis and all sorts of odds and ends and eccentrics behind a hybrid of neoliberalism and nationalism. This could make the neoliberalism of the Nineties and Noughties variety seem all the more ambiguous in retrospect. It was after all internationalist (bourgeois internationalism is still a variant of internationalism), and it opened wide spaces for discussions about multiculturalism (bourgeois multiculturalism is still a variant of multiculturalism). Travel bans and border walls make it easier to forget it was also the political order that brought us the privatisation of public space, the driving down of labor conditions and wages and job security, the tilting of power towards corporate capital and away from institutions of democratic accountability, and so on. It might lead us to forget that Ronald Reagan had benefited from the rallying of the far right in 1980. And it makes it possible to overlook the extent to which populist-nationalism reinvents much of the neoliberal agenda in new circumstances.

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  1. I would agree that Trump-Brexit type populism among parties of the right make “neoliberalism” of less value for describing them today. But, I think it’s still valuable for center-left parties of the US and abroad today, and was valuable on both sides of the coin until recently. I don’t think the word, or the idea, is dead.

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