worker empowerment

Freddie deBoer’s eloquent-as-always debut at Balloon Juice claims to ask the fundamental question, defining a great divide on the left as being between the “pity-charity liberalism” endorsed by the “wonky, think-tank-and-establishment-media blogosphere” that is fundamentally oriented around the social safety net, and those who are “fundamentally in the business of empowering workers and the poor, as well as improving the material condition of their lives.”

Not to deflate Freddie’s balloon (no pun intended) but I think once you define this divide as “technocrats” and “populists” it doesn’t seem quite as relevatory or as stark a choice. In fact, I would argue that Freddie is so right, he’s wrong. When you empower workers, what do they agitate for? Pity-charity liberalism! Not exlcusively, of course – people also want safe working conditions, paid vacation and sick days, generous pensions and medical care, etc, and sometimes they demand those things directly from their employer as opposed to being enforced by regulation. But a lot of the time organized labor will support a political candidate, that candidate gets elected, appoints smart technocrats to building programs that support poor, working-class and middle-class people, and those programs are usually redistributive. See FDR, LBJ for more on this.

In fact, technocrats and populists on the left are mutually dependent – organized people provide political power that combats organized money, and the political power is delegated to elected representatives and their stable of technocrats to best enact a policy agenda that further empowers workers and improves their material conditions. Freddie is right to the extent that a solely technocratic left is impotent, but a solely populist left would be a lot less able to turn empowerment into an agenda without lawyers and academics.

And like E.D. Kain, I am definitely excited to see Freddie at Balloon Juice where he fits in nicely. But unlike E.D. Kain, I see Swedish unionization density and Swedish welfare statism less as one the cause of the other and both being enabled by Sweden’s ethnic homogeneity.