The Devil and Larry Summers

May 26, 2020

photo: Larry Summers seated at the White House – Reuters

By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America

Larry Summers is a recurring motif in American politics, rising to prominence every few years. Recently, he has been meeting with Joe Biden. This should come as no surprise. Summers is the economic guru, par excellence, of the Democratic Party donor class; a trusted council to Presidents and Party nominees alike. 
However, to the progressive base of the party, Larry Summers is something less flattering: the undead anti-hero of a zombie ideology, neo-liberalism.  
That both descriptions are accurate portends trouble (somewhere down the road) for the Democratic Party.  It also points to a larger issue facing the country and the world – how, pray tell, will we ever move beyond this economic system, in which almost all the wealth flows into the coffers of the elite investment class?
This question and Mr Summers role is especially significant now that the global economy has (once again) collapsed. Last time that happened, Summers and his pals led the response, doing whatever necessary to rebuild the broken system and maintain the status quo. Now, once again, the people in power – who will determine the response to the current crisis – are disproportionately Mr Summers’ fans rather than his detractors. 
This is not promising for the vast majority condemned to a life of struggle and strife under neo-liberalism – and those were the good ol’ days. Can anything be done?
Well, a few years ago I had an interesting encounter with Mr. Summers that I believe is illuminating.

When I was reporting on the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa I went looking for the Occupy-affiliated protesters to get their take on the proceedings. I reached their camp in the early evening just in time for a street theater production of a musical called Mr. Satan Goes to Wall Street. It was an excellent show; well performed, politically resonant and full of laughs – and, as you’ll see, deserving of a revival.

The story begins with Satan getting downsized out of his job. God explains that the Devil’s old school style of temptation is now obsolete. Humanity has devised an economic system which necessitates that everyone screw over everyone else continually. The Devil pleads to God for one more chance. He’ll ascend to earth and prove that he can still “out-evil” the worst of the mortals. Satan asks for a name. God tells him to look up Larry Summers.
The plot has some marvelous twists, beginning in the next scene when the Devil confronts Summers. Instantly, Satan recognizes he’s no match for the great power broker of this realm. Desperate, he agrees to do Summers’ bidding by infiltrating Occupy Wall Street in exchange for “a good word” from Summers to God on behalf of the bullied and belittled Lord of Darkness.
In this regard, Satan is like any worker or common person today – powerless against the forces that control all the essential resources in our society and hold the balance of political power as well. 
Many felt that the financial collapse of 2007-08 would signal the end of the neo-liberal era. There was, after all, a near-complete implosion of the economic system predicated by the malfeasance of the central sector of a neo-liberal system, finance capital, in its drive to maximize profits. Many on the left all-but-assumed a more equitable economy would emerge from the ruins. However, they failed to take something into account: the neo-liberals held political power. 
Contrary to widespread belief that neo-liberalism prioritizes the market over the state, the reality is that neo-liberalism relies (in all of its variations) on a strong state to establish the conditions for the desired “free” market. So, back in late 2008 and ’09, neo-liberals like Summers took full advantage of their political control to put humpty-dumpty back together again; complete with a steady dose of austerity for the ungrateful masses.
In the absence of a powerful electoral left in any of the major countries around the world, there was no significant response until Occupy. 
In the second act, Satan proceeds to infiltrate, disrupt, and help dismantle Occupy – by undermining the fragile alliance between New Deal liberals and anti-capitalist anarchists. However, at the last moment, Satan sees himself in the defeated activists and realizes Summers is their common enemy. They join forces and march on Summers lair. 
Until Bernie Sanders in 2016, no one was able to bring Occupy’s critique into the realm of electoral politics. When he did, it caught fire. Four years later, Sanders is no longer an isolated figure in Washington; and the base of the Democratic Party overwhelmingly supports the tenets of his anti-neo-liberal program. However, Bernie lost again this year; and progressives remain a minority among elected Democrats in Washington and across the country. Larry Summers, meanwhile, is courting Joe Biden.
Summers also manages to flip Satan once more in act three; and still more twists and turns follow – all punctuated by marvelous musical numbers – in a production that was two parts Brecht, one part South Park (the movie), and worthy of five stars. In the end, Mr Satan Goes to Wall Street celebrates the value of radical protest while recognizing its limits. At the time, influencing public policy seemed about as likely as gaining control of the means of production.
Herein lies the great lesson for our current moment. Back in 2011, we tried direct action. While the entire country came alive for a few magical weeks, it petered out shortly thereafter. In 2016 and 2020, we tried to win the Presidency and, while we came closer than we previously had imagined possible, we lost. Now, with the world economy set to be re-designed in the coming months, we must combine the two strategies. 
Unlike in 2011, we now have powerful elected allies; and, even more importantly, a coherent anti-neo-liberal policy template familiar to the entire country (the Sanders platform). Measure by measure, we must insist on a new direction for the economy, one in which increased fiscal spending goes to public institutions and projects that build a social democratic America – that is, a prosperous middle class society with zero poverty and greatly diminished wealth inequality. 
How do we do this without a supportive Administration or legislative majorities?  Through direct action, whatever form that may take given the pandemic, starting on January 21, 2021 (aka 12121). Our direct action should be backed-up by a fully coordinated national effort by left progressives to challenge every neo-liberal incumbent, regardless of party, in 2022. However, we should start organizing now with the goal of building a protest movement so strong that it can sway the incoming congress and administration.
Is it a big ask? Yes, but we’ve never seen a social crisis of this magnitude. We must have an answer that matches the scale of this catastrophe. 
We have every reason to believe the neo-liberals will attempt to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. We have to stop them this time; and seize the opportunity generated by the crisis to set America on a new and more just course. No one thought Occupy would happen. No one thought Bernie Sanders would challenge for the White House. Let’s do the truly unthinkable: demand and win a new non-neo-liberal economy in America, one in which we share the wealth of society together.
Lastly, as for Larry Summers, I encourage everyone to sign this petition calling on Joe Biden to remove Mr. Summers as an economic advisor.
I understand that Mr. Summers has claimed a more progressive posture in his recent writing. (Or perhaps not.)  Here’s the thing. If Summers wants to re-create himself, he’s free to do so. I’m sure his articles will attract a certain audience. However, as far as Larry Summers running the world again, I don’t think so. There’s no basis for trust, Larry.  You’ve tricked the devil before; and 99% of us got burned. We can’t let that happen again.