“Love, Me, I’m a Liberal”

Maybe it’s time for the commons and liberalism to have a frank talk.  Liberals would seem to be natural allies of the commons; they certainly often profess its values and goals, however superficially.  But the politics that liberals generally deliver -- even in their re-branded guise as “progressives” – tends to be seriously disappointing.   

Consider this little vignette recounted by the New York Times last week.  It was a story about declining sales for soda, the rising popularity of water and First Lady Michelle Obama’s role as a cheerleader for healthy choices.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

“Last month, Michelle Obama heavily endorsed water, teaming up with Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters, among others, to persuade Americans to drink more of it.  Health advocates complained that Mrs. Obama had capitulated to corporate partners by not explaining the benefits of water over the sodas they sell and that her initiative promoted even greater use of plastic bottles when she could have just recommended turning on the tap.”

What could be more quintessentially liberal:  sincere, passionate commitment to a laudable social goal (drinking water instead of sugary soda) but no willingness or courage to fight for the right choice – tap water.  The reason is fairly obvious:  What would the corporate benefactors think?

The corporate backers of the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign are only too willing to bask in the socially minded glow. The brand director for Dasani, the bottled water brand sold by Coca-Cola, proudly declared, “…We are looking to lead in packaging and sustainability because those things also matter to out customers.” 

Yes, let’s sell more bottled water in “sustainable” plastic bottles.

Here we can see laid bare the social construction of the liberal worldview and its backstage political commitments.  The First Lady lauds a healthy lifestyle choice (hooray) so long as it does not significantly inconvenience major corporations or capital.  This lets the Obama Administration earn the backing of the investor and corporate classes.  The latter can then hoist a halo over their heads and strut around as concerned, eco-minded citizens. 

In politics, this is called a “win-win.” The problem is that the “loser” is not mentioned – in this case, the commons. 

You see, the corporate and liberal partnership has tacitly agreed to throw the commons under the bus. The First Lady would prefer that we drink proprietary water rather spend 1/100th of that price on water from our faucets.  She’d prefer that the economic prosperity of Coca-Cola and Pepsi take priority over the vast solid waste stream of disposable plastic bottles.  And of course, this “prosperity agenda” requires that we taxpayers continue to subsidize bottlers – by giving them free access to pristine groundwater supplies that we have kept clean through government regulation and enforcement. 

As for those who can’t afford bottled water, it’s true, municipal water supplies still exist.  But that infrastructure is now endangered by corporate-led cuts to government budgets, and this in turn has led many municipalities, in desperation, to consider privatization.  Goodbye, commons.

I realize that I am not the first to register complaints about liberals.  It’s just that the liberal sell-out of the commons is a systemic issue that deserves greater attention, particularly as the term “the commons” gains greater cachet.  Cheap moral profiteering is never attractive.

All of this reminds of that classic song by Tom Lehrer, the Sixties folksinger, who wrote the song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”  Here are the lyrics to two choice stanzas:   

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers Tears ran down my spine I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy As though I'd lost a father of mine But Malcolm X got what was coming He got what he asked for this time So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

I vote for the Democratic party They want the U.N. to be strong I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts He sure gets me singing those songs I'll send all the money you ask for But don't ask me to come on along So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

It’s worth considering the deeper philosophical assumptions of liberalism (in the classic, 18th century sense of the term) as embodied in the modern state and law.  In this regard, I highly recommend a recent law review article, “The Liberal Limits of Environmental Law:  A Green Legal Critique,” by Michael M’Gonigle and Louise Takeda, both of the University of Victoria, Canada, writing in the Pace Environmental Law Review (Volume 30, Issue 3, Summer 2013). 

As M’Gonigle and Takeda write, “environmental law extends, rather than resolves, society’s underlying environmental ‘problematic.’  This can now be seen in institutional responses to climate change and the ‘green economy.’”  The premise of law is that economic growth can be sustained while ecological decline is arrested.  As the authors explain,  “stable economic management lies at the core of modernist state politics with its attendant need for ever more energy, ever more consumption, and ever more extractions from nature, all at the least possible cost.” 

But this is in fact a hopeless conundrum – which helps explain why the past forty years of environmental regulation have not “solved” some basic quandaries of ecological management.  Instead, they have mostly legalized “acceptable” levels of pollution.  Quoting the public trust scholar Mary Wood, the authors note that the modern “administrative state is geared almost entirely to the legalization of natural resource damage….the majority of agencies’ spend[ing] nearly all of their resources to permit, rather than prohibit, environmental destruction.”

Just as Michelle Obama could not suggest that people use low-cost, high-quality tap water, so liberals (and conservatives, too, of course) fixate on economic growth and capital accumulation, and systemically ignore feasible alternatives.  No surprise that the laws and administrative agencies of the modern liberal state dictate a certain range of "solutions" beyond which we may not explore.  That’s more or less why regulation has failed and why the commons is off-limits.  Respectable opinion does not want to open up a discussion about the inalienability of nature, collective needs trumping private property, and participatory governance (vs. corrupted representative democracy). 

Behold therefore environmental law, a truly diminished thing.  It must “function as an incremental instrument of reform within bounded parameters that themselves undermine the efficacy of reform,” write M’Gonigle and Takeda. 

If we are ever going to get beyond the tinny calls for change that politicians and environmentalists trot out year after year, we are going to have to pierce the veil of liberal self-delusion and the systemic limitations of contemporary law. 

M’Gonigle and Takeda propose the development of a new discipline of “green legal theory” as a useful way to expand the frame of environmental action.  What we need to do is begin to address new arrangements that could open up “vast new conceptual, analytical and practical spaces” that liberalism will not sanction, if it could even imagine them. 

For example, ask M’Gonigle and Takeda, why not consider “radical demand reduction (as compared with incremental eco-efficiency); displacement of capital dependence (as compared with capital growth); substantive project assessments (as compared with price-based assessments) and so on…..Thus, green legal re-form would explicitly work not for energy efficiency for a new generation of hybrid cars but to escape the ‘social economy’ of automobility.”

This is going to be a serious challenge because, as cultural theorist Frederic Jameson has said, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”  That’s why it’s time for a deep and honest dialogue between commoners and liberals.  The fate of the earth may depend on it.