Michael Walzer Tells Haaretz: Blame the Liberals for Social Inequality

An interview with the former co-editor of Dissent magazine on social democracy and the role Big Money plays in U.S. and Israeli politics.

Guy Rolnik
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Guy Rolnik

The following is an interview I conducted with leading American intellectual Prof. Michael Walzer during the President's Conference in Jerusalem this year. In the interview, Walzer, who until recently served as the editor of the magazine Dissent, discusses the role of social movements and Big Money in American politics and relates them to the situation in Israel. The following transcript of that interview has been condensed for space.

Until a month ago, you were an editor of Dissent magazine and you are a social democrat, an American social democrat. We don't have many of those here at this conference and we don't have many of those in the United States, do we?

Not many. There is a political tradition of people who are in ginger groups [informal political groups that seek to influence policy] on the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is I guess where I live. Or, I could say that I live on the left, but that I fight with many of my neighbors.

Can you tell us in your words what you think social democracy is? Also, in economic terms, what does it mean?

Well, I think I am an egalitarian. Not someone who believes that all economic returns or that all social positions should be the same. I actually believe in markets and in competition and rewards for meritocratic performances in the academy as well as the economy. But I believe that we have allowed the development of a kind of radical inequality in the United States and Israel, too, which is not only unjust, but in the long run it is not the way to a stable and decent society.

Let me ask a provocative question: Is the United States a democracy or is it rather a plutocracy — a country that is run by the rich and for the rich?

It is a democracy with, at this moment, very strong plutocratic, oligarchic tendencies, which need to be resisted. One of the puzzles of American life today - and perhaps also in Israel - is that there is a very large number of people in economic trouble, and people who may well be in economic trouble soon, because their situation is precarious, and they are not forming a political force to change the policies of a neoliberal, and you could say a plutocratic, government. Why that is so, I am not sure. In the United States, 50 percent of the population does not participate in elections, and those 50 percent include the people in the greatest economic trouble.

If many people, maybe 50 percent of the population, isn't really aware of how the game is constructed and who really rules the economy and who really structures the economy, what is the role of leaders, of media or public discourse? Are there many media outlets in the U.S. that talk about the issues that Dissent magazine writes about or social democratic ideas?

Not many. The Occupy Wall Street movement of about a year, year and a half ago raised these issues and got, according to public opinion polls, a surprisingly strong sympathetic response in the United States, but it didn't build a social movement. And what we need in the United States now is an old-fashioned social movement; An effort to organize, to mobilize, the people who are currently disenfranchised, not legally disenfranchised but effectively disenfranchised by the education they get, by the media to which they are exposed and the sense of vulnerability in their own lives.

Can we really organize and mobilize those people when on the other side they are very organized, very focused small special interest groups?

Well, we have done it in the past. The anomaly of American life today is that we have had very, very strong transformations brought about by social movements in the areas of racial equality, gender equality and sexual equality. These were very successful social movements: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement and these movements have succeeded at the same time as inequality grows and grows.

So maybe it is easier to tackle racial issues, instead of tackling issues related to Big Money and financial interests?

I think that's true. Capitalism, obviously, can more easily adjusted to accommodate blacks, women and gays and lesbians than it can accommodate really strong labor leaders.

So maybe it's our fault, the liberals, that we have been focused for so many years on those issues and that we have not been looking at the way the economy is constructed. Maybe being liberal became just your opinions on what you think about racial issues and gender issues, and we forgot about that maybe being a liberal is also about what kind of inequality we have and the politics that we have and how money and politics are mixed?

I think that is exactly right. Identity politics has served certain important, human purposes. The United States is better for being more open to blacks and women and gay people. But the leaders of these movements have not paid attention to the poorer members of their own groups, let alone the general issue of inequality in the United States.

You know some people would argue that in Israel we have something of a similar story because many of us have been focused on the Palestinian issue, the peace process for 20, 30, 40 years and one day we saw that we ignored what is happening inside Israel, what is happening inside society. Things that are not only related to the occupation, but the inequality in Israel, the way money buys politics in Israel, and because we are in conflict with the Palestinians we neglect to see what is happening in other parts of society.

That may be right, although I don't think you can ignore the occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians. Watching from far away, I thought that Shelly Yacimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, made a big mistake in her campaign when she tried to walk away from the issues of the Palestinians and the occupation and to focus on social issues. But I agree that that focus has permitted the oligarchy to establish itself here.

Before we end, what is your prediction for the United States? Are we going to see a different politics? Are we going to see the adopting of a new path?

American politics is more divided and more partisan than it has ever been in my lifetime. A lot of the fierce attacks, for example, on [U.S. President Barack] Obama and Obama's healthcare program came from the far right. Now because of the NSA (National Security Agency) electronic espionage he is being attacked from the left. I think we will be very lucky if we get the implementation of the healthcare program and perhaps some degree of immigration reform opening citizenship to the illegal immigrants in the United States. I don't think anything more is going to happen in the next four years.

An Occupy Wall Street protester in 2011. Credit: Bloomberg

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