Friday, December 31, 2010
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research…. a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity….
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific/technological elite (Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961).
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967).
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends (Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979).
Words Still Matter
We have become so drugged by politicians that we often fail to reflect on the power of their words. Seeing books on library shelves with titles like “Speeches of Great Americans” culls up in our minds Readers Digest, the History Channel, Sunday morning sermons, and all the crap that passes for political discourse in the 21st century. Even profound speeches, and the lives of profound political actors, are transformed, debased and normalized, such that the power of words or deeds becomes acceptable to ruling classes and even made to have commercial value.
Every once in a while though a politician or activist says something that is rich with theoretical insight and inspiration and begs for action. The power of the words cannot be demeaned, delegitimized or made palatable to all. And, it behooves progressives to revisit those words and use them for practical political work.
The Military/Industrial Complex
When President Eisenhower gave his final address to the nation on January 17, 1961, 50 years ago, he warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of a military/industrial complex. He originally included the word “academic” but later eliminated it, probably for reasons of length. He was alerting Americans to the breadth and scope of military power over the world and American society.
The President’s words constituted a shocking challenge to the soon-to-be Kennedy era defense intellectuals who criticized the outgoing president’s reluctance to spend even more than the $40 billion he invested on the military. Even his direct orders to subordinates to overthrow Guatemala’s President Jacob Arbenz and Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his declaration of the Middle East as a free-world sanctuary was not enough for the 1960s theorists and practitioners of “modernization,” “development,” and “democracy.”
Although Eisenhower warned us of the impacts of the military/industrial complex he could not foresee the magnitude of the controls on America’s public life that soon resulted. First, he only dimly saw the changes that would occur in the techniques of empire. CIA money ensured election outcomes in other countries. American intelligence and military forces engineered brutal military coups. Military advisors revamped armies and repressive police forces in countries threatened by revolutionary change. The United States used “low intensity conflict” to train anti-government reactionaries. And then to mollify domestic critics, the U.S. initiated the privatization and outsourcing of the military as an adjunct to the over 700 U.S. military bases in more than 40 countries. Most recently, high tech weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, are used to kill people without endangering U.S. soldiers. Technological advances and the globalization of U.S. violence continue.
Eisenhower was inalterably opposed to the militarization of the U.S. economy. While he was willing to allot $40 billion in 1950s currency, he resisted the demands from Beltway liberals and defense contractors to double military spending. By the 1960s, half of the federal budget began to go to the military and one in ten workers derived wages from defense contracts. And that continues, but with less public criticism.
Finally, Eisenhower spoke to the militarization of American culture. The university became a research arm of the complex. Students were taught about the virtues of military “readiness,” “the communist threat,” the problem of “human nature” and perpetual war, and, more recently, the endless danger of “terrorism.” Virtually every large corporation, producing such products as toothpaste, toys, breakfast cereal, medications, automobiles, electronics, or energy, is steeped in military contracts. The public airwaves, the internet, movies, and sports are laced with war, violence, killing, and competition. As Eisenhower put it: “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved: so is the very structure of our society.”
Making War Overseas and Advancing Hunger At Home
In April, 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City and made it crystal clear that wars elsewhere not only kill the designated enemies, but impoverish poor working people at home. Dr. King made a critical contribution to the discussion of the link between war and foreign policy and people’s lives. Killing in other lands is an immoral abomination. While that needs to be critically understood, the unequal distribution of wealth and income within the United States is stark and is intimately connected to foreign adventures. And, in fact, the more resources that are allocated for killing others, the less there are to serve the needs of those at home.
President Lyndon Johnson, who increased the U.S. troop commitment from 16,000 in 1963 to 540,000 in 1968 and who launched daily bombing of targets in North and South Vietnam in 1965 that went unabated until 1968 tried to create a “war” on poverty at home. Dr. King knew that this country could not do both: that there was an inverse relationship between war-making and domestic prosperity. As he put it: “I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.” And as the years unfolded and the United States shifted from a military draft to a volunteer army, the percentage increased of those who could not find jobs and earn a decent income and became the foot soldiers for future wars.
Corporate/Financial Elites and the Creation of Self-Indulgence
Perhaps the least known of the prophetic speeches cited above is the one presented on television in July, 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He was called to speak about the growing energy crisis, dramatic increases in the price of oil, growing dependency on foreign oil, concentrated economic power in Washington, and the celebration of a culture of self-indulgence, consumerism, materialism, and competition.
While this speech did not address foreign and military policy as directly as the other two, it warned the American people about the dangers of war, foreign dependency on oil, and an international system driven by oil giants and oil-rich countries. He linked these to a domestic culture that defined its success on the basis of how much it could consume.
President Carter challenged the basic precept of the corporate culture that evolved out of industrial and monopoly capitalism in the twentieth century; its basic paucity of meaning and purpose. “But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
What Can We Learn From These Famous Speeches
We should bring to our political work the idea that words still matter. In addition, we must reflect upon the possibility that mainstream politicians, presidents for example, may say things that should and could be appropriated to build a progressive agenda. And, perhaps more difficult, we need to cut through the propaganda which often leads political figures to be lionized and thus transformed into everyday icons. Dr. King was a radical, against racism, sexism, and classism. He opposed war. He saw the vital interconnections between massive governmental waste and human suffering. And he saw that the direction U.S. society was heading in was pure “madness.”
Substantively, we should revisit these speeches to raise again our opposition to war and empire and military spending. We need to stand with our brothers and sisters who are demanding jobs and justice. And we must stand with those, whether secular or religious, who argue against a self-indulgent, consumption-based and competitive society.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Changing Media Frames of Political Reality
I am an inveterate watcher of MSNBC, the “liberal” spectrum of the “mainstream” media. Reflecting on the last two years of American political life, often through their eyes but also through other mainstream media outlets, I have been fascinated by the swings in interpretations of the performance of the Obama administration and Congress.
During the campaign, Obama was doomed, according to the media, several times by such crises as the remarks by Reverend Wright and Obama’s alleged snobbish rendition of the flaws of working class consciousness. On the other hand, the media presented Obama as the savior of the United States reputation overseas, the committed anti-war activist, the environmentalist, union supporter, and the African American candidate who could bring the country together in a post-racial era. We cried as the President-elect celebrated victory with the slogan “Yes We Can.”
Within a month of Obama’s entering office riding a massive swing to the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, media pundits were speculating about an historic shift in national politics and whether it would equal the transformation of political life that occurred in the 1930s.
But then, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress began to experience roadblocks in efforts to provide an adequate economic recovery stimulus package and to radically reform health care. Climate change legislation and pro-union legislation went off the table. Congress and the White House launched a two-year discussion about ending discrimination against gays in the military. And most importantly, economic recovery, jobs and growth stalled. To top it off, after an extensive in-house review of United States foreign policy toward Afghanistan, the Obama administration chose to escalate U.S. military involvement in that country.
Media frames shifted dramatically (in all but the rightwing Fox empire which was hostile all along) from the new political alignment in American politics to discussions of incompetence in Congress, Obama’s inability to lead, Obama’s reluctance to go back out to the people to mobilize support for his policies, to critiques of Obama’s strategy of compromising with the rightwing in Congress even before negotiations begin.
Then the Tea Party emerged. The American politics in crisis frame dominated stories, at least on television. Names like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Jim DeMint, dominated the news. While anger and frustration, particularly with the enormous economic suffering, was real the media exaggerated the strength of the Tea Party movement. And on November 2, the elections showed a dramatic shift to the Republican Party at the national and state levels. The savior of our economic and political life of 2008 had become, as the media told us, the pariah of 2010.
Lame Ducks and Triumphal Returns
After the elections, right wingers licked their chops eagerly waiting for 2012 and the prospects of electing representatives of the ruling class who would return America to the Gilded Age. Many progressives saw in the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party majority future adversaries, not potential allies for change. And many, particularly youth, were seen as losing their enthusiasm for any and all politics. Finally, liberals, including Obama, claimed that the answer to the “shellacking” of 2010 was more compromise with Republican foes in the future. No one thought the “Lame Duck” session of Congress, November and December 2010, would create anything other than stalemate and acrimony among the two parties and a further sense of despondency among the progressive majority.
But to everyone’s surprise, Congress, led by Obama, secured passage of the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that discriminated against gays in the military. The Senate passed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Congress passed legislation giving some financial support to 9/11 responders who are suffering from health infirmities resulting from their rescue efforts.
And, in addition, Obama, almost despite his Democratic colleagues in the Congress, secured a piece of mega-legislation that extended Bush tax cuts to the super-rich but also the vast majority of Americans, continued unemployment insurance for those out of work between 26 and 99 weeks, saved Pell grants for needy college students, and added additional tax breaks for worthy and unworthy purposes. However, Congress resisted passing the DREAM Act which would have provided a path to citizenship to young people who came to the United States without papers, attended college, and/or enlisted in the military.
The Lame Duck session since mid-December has been touted as an enormous victory for progressive forces. MSNBC commentators have begun to say that maybe they had been too harsh on Obama all along. Reviewing the list of legislative accomplishments and executive orders since 2009, they have concluded that this has been the most activist (and progressive) period in American political history since the days of Lyndon Baines Johnson. For some, the most recent victory, DADT repeal, symbolizes the slow but dogged determination of an administration that must struggle against dysfunctional legislative hurdles to achieve any success at all.
So now the media frame, everywhere but FOX, Limbaugh and the rest of the neo-fascist crowd, is back to Obama the crusader, and Democrats the progressives.
What to Make of All This?
Well from the standpoint of building a progressive majority, the incumbent administration has made some significant advances. Several policy changes, such as reauthorizing U.S. aid to international agencies that provide family planning advice, remain below the public radar. Repeal of DADT is worthy of celebration. Support for 9/11 responders is basic to a humane society. Some health care reform is better than none. Pell Grants need to be extended if we do not want our colleges and universities to be populated only by sons and daughters of the wealthy. And the inadequate economic stimulus package saved jobs and whole industries, such as auto.
But the other side of the story is instructive. This administration has participated in tax reduction for the super wealthy, froze wages for federal employees, did not struggle to save unemployment for the 99ers, has signed off on a U.S./South Korean trade agreement that Lori Wallach, Global Trade Watch, claims will be of the magnitude of NAFTA. In essence U.S. and South Korean workers will be the victims of an agreement that reduces barriers to capital flight and financial speculation. While this list can be expanded, I only add that the foreign policy agenda of this administration has been one of extending, not retracting empire, in South Asia, in the Gulf, in Africa, and in Latin America.
In sum, lame duck aside, the Obama administration has continued to support the interests of finance capital at home and abroad at the expense of workers everywhere. What the world calls “neo-liberalism,” that is policies to cut government programs, extend privatization and deregulation of economies, and reduce wages and living conditions is the operant vision at home and abroad. The issue in the end comes down to “class,” and “class struggle.”
We can and should applaud the progressive victories (many of which are part of the social agenda) at the same time that we build a political movement that demands jobs and income now and an end to empire. By assessing the policies, the issues, and their impacts, progressives can determine where to go from here. And at this stage the class and anti-imperial issues must remain central to our work.
Monday, December 13, 2010
The other day a friend came in my office to ask if I had a blog. I said that I did. He then asked if I was interested in expanding my readership. I said “sure.” He then said that he knew I was on Facebook. Had I thought of putting a link to my blog on my Facebook profile, he asked.
Well this proposal seemed to be a good idea so I went on Facebook. After fumbling around I found the page with information about my age, residence, interests, and other data. My daughter helped me set this stuff up a year ago when I joined Facebook. Since that time I have signed on a large number of “friends.” I knew some of them. Others I think share common political views with me.
I don’t really use Facebook very much but I do read what my daughter is doing (what used to be called parental supervision). But I figured that adding a link to my blog might lead to dramatic increases in my readership. (I don’t know how to check how many folks actually read it but I fantasize that it is in the millions, at least).
At any rate, I went to my profile page on Facebook and typed in the link to my blog (which incidentally is www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com). When I was typing in the link I noticed that there was an empty box labeled married. I figured that my daughter and I had failed to fill in that box when I originally registered. So I typed “yes” in the box.
This is an aside but I must relate here that my wife and I got married on August 2, 1964, the day of the first alleged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. We were driving off to our honeymoon and heard on the car radio that the North Vietnamese had attacked two United States vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, of course in international waters. As you know a second attack was claimed to have occurred two days later and as a result President Johnson asked Congress for authority to make war on the Vietnamese people. Later we all learned that these North Vietnamese attacks on the two vessels, which were not in international waters, had not occurred.
However, driving off to our honeymoon, I declared with all the political science knowledge I had gleaned from undergraduate and graduate study, “President Johnson is too smart to get involved in a land war in Asia.” My new wife, who had only taken Political Science 101 responded: “You just wait and see.”
So I remember that I have been married to the same woman, who only had one political science course, for a long time. Just a further aside: On the morning of August 2, 1990, I was driving back from the florist with roses to present to my wife for our anniversary. I heard on the radio that Saddam Hussein had sent thousands of Iraqi troops into Kuwait. So with wars in Vietnam and Iraq as a backdrop, political husbands are not likely to forget marriages and anniversaries.
But back to Facebook. After I filled in the link to my blog and indicated that I was married I started to get congratulations messages. A few Facebook friends wrote: “Why did you wait so long?” At first I did not understand why I was getting these silly messages. Then it dawned on me that the marriage box I filled out probably referred to changes in marital status.
When I went back to my profile page on Facebook I could not figure out how to correct whatever it was that I had done wrong. Nor could I figure out how to tell my Facebook friends that I indeed was married and had been so since the first Gulf of Tonkin incident. (Incidentally I don’t care if people are married or not or who their partners are. I was just interested in clarifying what my status was). In fact, I was afraid that if I changed that box on the profile page it might suggest to Facebook friends that I had gotten a divorce, which would seem particularly weird having occurred just two days after getting married.
Well, fortunately after I wrote my daughter for help she was able to send a message indicating that I had been happily married for a long time (even though my wife’s prediction about the Vietnam war was correct and mine dead wrong).
Then I got to reflecting about how easy it was to send an erroneous message via Facebook or other social network sites. What flashed across my mind were the various policies pursued by President Barack Obama that I disagreed with. I supported single payer and he didn’t. I was for a vast jobs stimulus package, particularly a green jobs agenda. I support climate change legislation. I want significant immigration reform and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. I surely oppose renewing tax cuts for the rich.
Then I asked myself whether it was possible that President Obama, during times when these issues were debated in Congress, made the same mistakes on Facebook or other forms of electronic communication that I did in the marriage box of my profile page. In other words, maybe our President has in fact tried to support a progressive agenda but because of the ease with which errors can be made communicating on the internet, he has been sending the wrong messages to Congress and the American people. Frankly, I hope this is true because it would make policy change a whole lot easier.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
At the east end of town, at the foot of the hill
Stands a chimney so tall that says "Aragon Mill."
But there's no smoke at all coming out of the stack.
The mill has shut down and it ain't a-coming back.
Well, I'm too old to work, and I'm too young to die.
Tell me, where shall we go, My old gal and I?
There's no children at all in the narrow empty street.
The mill has closed down; it's so quiet I can't sleep.
Yes, the mill has shut down; it's the only life I know
Tell me, where will I go, Tell me, where will I go?
And the only tune I hear, is the sound of the wind
As it blows through the town,
Weave and spin, weave and spin.
(from Si Kahn, “Aragon Mill”)
President Obama Comes to Town
On a cold and sunny Tuesday morning Air Force One flew into the Grissom Air Base just north of Kokomo, Indiana carrying President Barack Obama and Vice- President Joe Biden. Just two days before Thanksgiving the presidential team had programmed a trip to highlight job stimulus successes in this declining factory town in North Central Indiana. Democratic leaders, outgoing Senator Bayh and Congressman Joe Donnelly, were part of a delegation to welcome the visitors.
According to press reports, bigger welcomes than from politicians were noted among Kokomo UAW workers and children from local elementary schools. Kokomo is one of Indiana’s small manufacturing towns dominated by the auto industry (along with Anderson, and Indianapolis). Kokomo, with a population of only 46,000, houses 10 parts plants operated by General Motors, Chrysler, and Delphi. As recently as 1990 Indiana was ranked tenth in union density, largely due to auto and steel plants around the state. Kokomo’s UAW Local 685 played a pivotal role in the campaign to pressure Indiana Congressmen to vote “no” on NAFTA in 1994.
Because of declining manufacturing and the crisis in the auto industry, unemployment in Howard County (where Kokomo is located) topped out at 20.4 per cent in June, 2009. With the federal program to save the auto industry and various stimulus packages to save local jobs, including Kokomo fire stations, unemployment has been cut to 12.7 per cent. Jerry Price, president of UAW local 685 representing three Chrysler transmission plants pointed out that “The bailout has meant the survival of Kokomo.”
The White House reported that a Recovery Act grant of $89 million helped open a plant to make parts for hybrid vehicles. Also Chrysler invested $300 million in transmission plant renovation leading to the retention of 1,000 jobs. In addition, government funds stimulated the opening of twelve new businesses in the city’s downtown, including Sweet Poppins, a pop corn shop. Tashia Johnson-St. Clair, the shop’s owner, said the downtown area used to be like a ghost town. After the government funds stimulated new businesses downtown, she said: “It’s absolutely beautiful. It looks like a scene off a TV show.”
The Kokomo Tribune noted in muted terms the general appreciation of Kokomo residents for the government’s job saving and creation programs:
“The workers, many of whom undoubtedly voted to end the president’s Democratic House majority two weeks ago, applauded the speech, particularly when both Obama and Biden referenced the news that the American automakers are gaining market share for the first time in 24 years.” (Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune, November 23).
Critics of the Obama/Biden Visit
Not every Hoosier politician or activist appreciated the presidential visit or the
policies it was trumpeting. Governor Mitch Daniels was too busy to attend the Kokomo celebration. Indiana state party chairman Murray Clark said that the presidential team “are here today to cherry pick a single success story: at worst, it further proves how out of touch this administration is with an electorate that sent a clear message on Nov. 2.” Local Tea Party activists condemned Obama’s stimulus policies arguing that businesses should be allowed to fail, rather than “throwing money” at them. (Labor activists have concluded that Kokomo would have been destroyed as a city without the emergency assistance).
Perhaps the most telling commentary appeared in an editorial in the Lafayette Journal and Courier on Monday, November 29, 2010. It denied that Kokomo’s economic rejuvenation should be seen as an indicator of a more general economic recovery. The editorial reminded readers that Kokomo still had almost 12 per cent unemployment and the state and nation close to ten per cent unemployment.
The Journal and Courier argued that the accolades and pep talks provided by Obama and Biden were misguided. What the president should have done was to “discuss how he planned to work with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives to reach compromises for job creations….Tuesday’s visit was a missed opportunity for Obama to celebrate Chrysler’s investment in Kokomo while reassuring workers across the country how he planned to create jobs working with a split Congress.”
The Kokomo Dilemma
As the song says, “The mill has shut down: it’s the only life I know.” Under capitalism production and reproduction of life requires work- wage labor- for most people. Jobs are central to life. But in an era of financialization and economic crisis jobs are declining, workers are pitted against each other worldwide to work for less, and with declining incomes demand for products decline. Towns and cities are destroyed by lack of investment. The industrial base of the Midwest has been in decline for years. Whole regions of countries have experienced economic devastation. And employed workers everywhere live in fear for their economic security.
Government stimulus packages don’t resolve the growing contradictions between the shift toward jobless economies, declining wages, and reduced demand for goods and services. But they do provide relief for those who suffer. Kokomo, Indiana, is a success story. It needs to be replicated all around the country. And tales of successes need to be heralded from coast to coast.
The political dilemma, however, is reflected in the newspaper editorial cited above. Critics of government efforts to create and maintain jobs, such as reflected in this editorial, rather than encouraging greater efficiencies and improvements in government programs, demand the Obama administration “reach compromises” with political opponents who have made it clear they will never work with the administration.
The dilemma the Kokomo story poses for progressives is how to force the administration and its allies in Congress to fight for job creation programs in the face of an opposition that is inalterably opposed to these goals.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
So where shall we start our revolutionary anti-capitalist movement? Mental conceptions? The relation to nature? Daily life and reproductive practices? Social relations? Technologies and organizational forms? Labour processes? The capture of institutions and their revolutionary transformation?
…the implication of the co-evolutionary theory here proposed is that we can start anywhere and everywhere as long as we do not stay where we start from!...it becomes imperative to envision alliances between a whole range of social forces configured around the different spheres. (David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Oxford Press, 2010, 138)
Class Struggle in an Age of Economic Crisis
In a recent book David Harvey, Marxist geographer, summarized the economic crises of the 1970s and beyond including growing global monopolistic competition, declining profits in non-financial corporations and the uneven spread of global capitalism with new fronts in East Asia. As analyzed by Harvey these economic crises stimulated the following responses:
a)an assault on unions, outsourcing of work, speed-up based on technology, and overall “global wage repressions.”
b)deindustrialization in the capitalist core and qualitative shifts in economic activity from industry and service to financial speculation; what is referred to as financialization. New financial schemes such as collateralized debt obligations and derivatives emerged to generate new vehicles for the making of profit.
c) overcoming declines in demand by creating a growing system of global and local debt and credit.
d)“accumulation by dispossession” including sucking assets from working class people, particularly those of color, and appropriation of land in rural areas of the Global South.
Economic Impacts of the Crisis of Capitalism
Harvey’s narrative suggests that since the 1970s we have seen the transformation of the U.S. capitalist system from one based on the production of commodities for sale to one based on the provisioning of services for lower wages. Even the service economy is being superseded by an economy driven by debt and speculation, from a “real” to a “virtual” economy. Significant changes in the economic life of the United States over the last forty years include:
-growing income and wealth inequality
-substantial increases in the proportion of wealth and income accumulated by the top one percent in the society
-further consolidation of corporations and banks such that fewer and fewer corporations and banks control more and more of society’s resources
-economic shifts from investments in production to financial speculation, using opaque institutional forms such as hedge funds and derivatives
-growing indebtedness-personal, regional, and global
-the construction of a world based on billions of people living in poverty
-escalating economic processes that destroy the natural environment.
Returning to the Current Political Crisis
The long-term economic crises discussed above refer to the rapid transformations of the capitalist system: concentrations of capital creating new winners and losers, class struggle, declining rates of profit, and global economic and political competition. Political crises refer to the reallocations of power in the struggle over the shape of society. Central to the capitalist era is the struggle for power between capital and labor. Often, access to and relative control of the state is central to understanding the constellation of forces existent in any given time.
The discussion above suggests ways in which economic structures and processes have affected the distribution of power in the United States. The analysis gives some sense of the prospects and possibilities of strategies for progressive political change. Understanding the character of political crises requires both structural analyses, covering decades, and contextual analyses about strategies, tactics, personalities, and political activities, whether electoral or not. Activists and pundits have been combining the two in pre-election debate and post-election assessments. While the two kinds of analyses are inter-connected, they have their own theoretical and practical assumptions which may be very different.
For example, as to structural analyses the era of a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and neoliberal globalization have affected politics in the following ways:
-The power of the organized working class, indeed the entire working class, has declined dramatically.
-Union strength has declined by one-third since the 1960s, particularly among traditionally higher paid industrial workers.
-For the working class today insecurity and isolation have replaced the potential of solidarity with others.
-The most virulent forms of racism have been reenergized, fueling fear and hate.
-In the age of insecurity in which we live, masses of people are as likely to blame fellow victims for their troubles as those who rule over them.
-The transfers across generations of the stories about victories achieved over capital have been forgotten.
-The momentum of parallel civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental rights activism has dissipated as well.
-New generations of activists organize around identities and single issues at the expense of organizing around bold visions of a new society.
-The old social democratic vision of a state that provides safety nets for suffering people has been defeated by corruption, incompetence, and sustained efforts by representatives of the ruling class to delegitimize government.
- While these tendencies listed above have always existed in American history, they are particularly important background features of the economic and political age of the “Reagan revolution” from 1980 to today.
Contextual analyses add to our understanding of the recent 2010 election:
-President Obama, in the face of competing pressures from neoliberal financiers and progressive populists, tended to adopt policies of the former rather than the latter which benefited Wall Street but not Main Street.
-President Obama ignored the calls from a variety of articulate spokespersons to propose and fight for an economic stimulus package, including a massive green jobs agenda, which would have stimulated some economic recovery.
-President Obama chose a political tactic of “reaching” out to the Republican opposition in the Congress despite the fact that its approach was to resist every effort at compromise.
-President Obama chose to continue war and intervention over peace.
-Sectors of the Democratic Party took the erroneous view that the American polity is “center-right” and therefore the best reforms that could be achieved (and accepted) would be tepid ones. -The Administration and Congress chose to ignore clear polling data that indicated that most Americans would support single payer health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, a green jobs agenda and other prominent proposals.
-President Obama frittered away an enormous outpouring of support for his charisma and lopsided majorities in both houses of Congress. The Congressional leadership refused to challenge the arcane rules that required 60 vote majorities to pass legislation in the Senate.
-The grassroots organization of young, working class, and minority communities was allowed to dissipate. The mass movement that elected Barack Obama was demobilized.
-And finally, progressives and socialists were unable to fashion a strategy that on the one hand would maintain critical support for Obama and on the other hand demand that he and his party deliver the progressive agenda at home and abroad that was implied if not directly promised.
These “errors” occurred in the context of a thirty year economic crisis that engendered a qualitative shift in wealth and power. Millions and millions of dollars were spent by think tanks, party leaders, and most importantly, the media to shape the consciousness of the American people. Despite the thousands of blogs, websites, and electronic media, the ideas of the ruling class about capitalism, about the threats of people of color, and about the government were transmitted 24/7 from Fox to CNN to the New York Times.
Never before have working people had greater access to greater numbers of media with so little diversity of ideas.
In a clear-headed way, progressives and socialists need to revisit the political and economic history of our times, assessing the distribution of resources and forces for and against social change. Most Marxist narratives of the history of the last 40 or 50 years tell a common story; a story of shifting capital from manufacturing to finance, income and wealth from the bottom to the top, and the marginalizing economically and politically of all whose power is limited in capitalist societies-workers, people of color, women, and immigrants. When they have risen up angry, political institutions have been forced to respond by ameliorating the worst of people’s pain and suffering. Along the way struggle has taken a variety of forms-electoral, mass mobilizations, local/national/global, and has addressed various issues.
Harvey disaggregates the history of capitalism during its recent phases and articulates a “co-revolutionary theory” for progressives and socialists to respond to the crises of our time. The “co-revolutionary theory” recognizes that the history of capitalism has involved changes in technology, in relations between humans and nature, and in how people relate to each other in institutions, in the work place, and on the street. Also changes have occurred in cognitive and emotional ways in which people understand the world in which they live. Finally, people’s relationships to politics have changed.
Each of these constitutes a different location for struggle; over control of the workplace, against environmental destruction, against racism or attacks on immigrants for example. Activism might take an electoral form, street heat, or in social relations such as building communities of solidarity. As Harvey suggests: “An anti-capitalist political movement can start anywhere….The trick is to keep the political movement moving from one moment to another in mutually reinforcing ways.” He claims that this is how capitalism arose out of feudalism and this is how 21st century socialism can emerge out of capitalism. I would argue that what many have called “building a progressive majority” is part of the same trajectory Harvey is suggesting.
Since most progressive and socialist organizations today have limited resources, they need to identify those cites they can most influence, always recognizing the dialectical interconnections among each and that the relative salience and connections between them are ever changing. Today organizations such as the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) should concentrate on labor and jobs, the environment, and militarism and global interventionism. CCDS is particularly equipped to work with others on these projects and to use electronic and communications skills to transform what Harvey calls “mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.”
This essay of necessity began with a grounding in the long history of capitalism and political struggle and its impacts on economic and political life, and ended with “what now?” It is not a simple road map. Rather it is a check-list of what is relevant to understanding structures and processes and contexts to advance discussion and debate. Paraphrasing Marx, people make history but not precisely in ways of their choosing.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Social Construction of the 2010 Election
It is fashionable but true to refer to the “social construction” of reality. What this means is that while certain things happen, and certain realities are determined by our senses to be correct, how we interpret their meanings varies based on some combination of our interests, outlook, and ideology. When talking about the elections different people may interpret the results in different ways. For political activists the social constructions we use should have some value in helping us understand and change the reality we believe to be true.
Some of the “data”
From data reported in the media between November 3rd and 10th, 2010 the new United States Senate will be comprised of 51 Democratic Senators and 2 Independents and 47 Republicans. The Republicans experienced their biggest gains in the House of Representatives winning 239 seats to 189 for the Democrats (as of November 3). The 2011 distribution of the governorships will include at least 29 Republicans and 18 Democrats. In sum, the elections brought Republican control to the House of Representatives and significant shifts in gubernatorial contests which will impact on the redistricting of House of Representative districts for the next decade.
At the state level, Republican candidates won 650 seats in legislative assemblies, taking control of 19 legislative bodies from Democrats. For example, Republicans gained both state houses in Alabama, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. They won an additional house to take control of both houses in Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Through gubernatorial and legislative victories at the state level Republicans will control the designation of 170 congressional districts while Democrats will control 70. The rest, about 200, will be determined by bipartisan bodies. Republicans won three state legislatures in the Northeast, eight in the South, nine in the Midwest, and five in the West. Looking at a USA map of red and blue states, 27 states will be red in the next period http://www.usastoday.com/news/politics/2010-11-04 .
USA Today quoted a North Carolina Republican who succinctly summarized the situation in his state. “‘The ability to reshape political boundaries gives this election a lasting impact that extends far beyond last night and today,’ says Tom Fetzer, North Carolina's Republican Party chairman.” According to USA Today one party control had not existed in that state since 1888.
What Can Exit Polls Tell Us?
Pollsters often are interested, as we are, in discovering who voted and why. For years polling organizations have done exit polling; asking people who they were, how they voted, and why. While these data are subject to all the weaknesses of polling in general, they can shed some light on questions relevant to pundits and activists. Looking at CNN Politics http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2010/results/polls/ the following findings are noteworthy:
-Males voted Republican (55 to 42%), Females Democratic (49 to 48%)
-60% of whites voted Republican, which was 78% of turnout
-90% of African-Americans voted Democratic, 10% of turnout
-65% of Latinos voted Democratic, 8% of turnout
-56% of Asian-Americans voted Democratic, 2% of turnout
By gender and race, 35% of white men voted Democratic; 40% of white women; 85% of Black men; 93% of Black women; 61% of Latino men; 69% of Latinas
By age, 56% of the 18-29 cohort voted for Democrats (11% of voters);47% of 30-44 year olds (22% of voters); 46% of 45-64 (44% of voters); and over 65 years old 40% voted Democratic (23% of voters).
By income those making under $30,000 and between $30,000 and $50,000 voted Democratic by 57 and 51 %. Those earning more that $50,000 (making up 66% of voters) were more likely to vote for Republicans. Only 35% of those earning more than $200,000 voted Democratic.
As to education and voter preference, only those with no high school degrees (60%) and post graduate degrees (52%) voted more for Democrats.
Finally I include the breakdown of voting by ideology: 90% of liberals voted Democrat and 14% of conservatives but 56% of moderates voted Democrat.
What to Make of All This?
1) I don’t know. Media pundits of course have been making up many different narratives to explain the voting outcome. Some began constructing the Republican wave scenario many months ago. But in the end, the outcome is unclear.
2) While the exit polls cited here say little about issues that mattered, it seems clear that the economy is the number one issue shaping voter decisions. Pollsters have long argued that economic issues trump virtually everything else when issues matter.
3) Exit poll data confirms once again that race, class, and gender remain the big determinants of voting choices. What Tim Wise recently suggested about race applies very well. Tea Party activists have proclaimed they want “to take back their country.” That clearly is about race.
4) As some have suggested, aside from some progressive leaders such as Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson, the Democrats most likely to have lost were the “blue dog” Democrats who in fact had won in 2008 in traditionally mixed or Republican districts. Progressive Democrats tended to do better in the House races.
5) The biggest disaster for progressives may turn out to be the state races. Republican and Tea Party victories at the governors’ and legislative levels will lead to damaging Congressional redistricting and a host of reactionary policies that the right wing has been eager to reestablish.
In Indiana what probably will be on the agenda in a state legislature that has gone Republican (with a Republican governor) along with redistricting will be Right to Work legislation, new laws limiting the rights of public employees to be in unions, new laws allowing school districts to fire teachers (without their pensions) when their students do not perform to test standards, caps on taxes, a draconian anti-immigration law, and perhaps even a state so-called “student bill of rights” which will allow legislators to interfere with what is taught at public universities.
6)However, looking at the electoral system longitudinally, say from 1980, may suggest that not as much has changed as the apocalyptic among us might believe. We need to look at election results, both presidential and off-year to see the extent to which trends and magnitudes differ or not from the results of 2010. My suspicion at this point is that the changes at the level of the federal government have not been that different over the years and the state results in 2010 constitute a return to state political life before 2008.
If there is some truth and usefulness to my social construction, what does it mean for building the progressive majority? Well, it means we need to continue to do what we have been doing only do more of it and do it better. We need to continue an “inside/outside” strategy that targets critical legislation, giving support to the handful of progressives who survive, and perhaps most centrally to mobilize to stop the brutal shifts in policy planned by Republicans (with Democratic complicity) in state houses across America, as well as at the national level.
Perhaps with the election over, we can brainstorm about how to best increase the militancy of our outside strategy. We need to support alternative institutions: coops, alternative print and electronic media, and build third parties where possible. We need to get out in the street more: not so much national mobilizations but regional and local ones. We need to concentrate our messages such as “education not war,” “health care not warfare,” or “build a Green jobs program.” And we should figure out ways to link up more effectively with our brothers and sisters around the world. After all, the right wing shift in political life is not unique to the United States.
Finally, perhaps now is a good time to raise our voices about “21st Century Socialism.” If they can call President Obama and Nancy Pelosi Socialists, we need to articulate what real Socialism is about.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
“Well, the thing is, we’re all interconnected. There are no rich. There are no middle class. There are no poor. We all are interconnected in the economy. You remember a few years ago, when they tried to tax the yachts, that didn’t work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making 50,000 and 60,000 dollars a year lost their jobs. We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people. So just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone. Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending.” (Senator-elect Rand Paul from Kentucky in an election night interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN)
On Ideology and Consciousness
In an essay, called “The German Ideology” Karl Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. While the relationship between ideology, dominant societal values, and ruling classes is more complicated today than Marx observed in the 1840s, the basic point is well taken. The relative legitimacy of ideas is related to the power in society of economic and political elites. If people could hear or read different ideas they would be in a better position to choose which ones best fit their interests.
Six media complexes control more than half of the communications about the world that Americans receive via television, radio, music, movies, and the internet. Today, the “battle of ideas” is fought out between those multinational corporations that speak for the “far rightwing” in American political life (probably most supported by domestic capital, real estate, insurance and energy companies) and those that represent global finance capital. Media corporations present news and opinions reflecting modest, not fundamental, differences about policies, programs, and institutions. Basically they all represent the interests of the largest sectors of capitalist institutions in the international political economy. For the most part, mainstream media ignore the peace movement, trade union activism, anti-racist struggles, the environmental movement and the global connections among all these movements. When working people appear on local television screens, they are usually presented as victims, as the powerless, not the empowered.
In this context building a progressive majority requires multi-level struggles over the communication of diverse ideas about how political and economic structures and processes work and what alternatives there are to them. As difficult as it might be, the coming period requires an escalation of the battle of ideas, a battle for the consciousness of the vast majority of the people.
Commanding Heights: The Battle of Ideas
A few years ago, PBS aired a six-hour series on the importance of the new age of “globalization.” They framed their portrait of late twentieth century economic and political history around the key “battle of ideas” that shaped the century. Reduced to its most vital core, the broadcast claimed that the greatest debate of the twentieth century was that between free marketer Frederick Hayek and mixed economy capitalist theorist John Maynard Keynes.
In intricate detail, the video pointed out how Keynes captured the consciousness of ruling elites and masses during the Great Depression of the 1930s and influenced the post-war global economic order framed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and programs such as the Marshall Plan. In addition, British Labor Party policies after the war were highlighted as examples of the Keynesian approach (which alas the video suggests was proven to be erroneous by the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s). It is interesting to note that revolutionary socialism from the Bolshevik Revolution, to China, to Cuba, to the rise of dependency theories about the global economy were all subsumed under the mantel of Keynesianism.
The polar opposite to the Keynesian model of society, was reflected in the personage of Frederick Hayek, obscure Viennese economist who worked, almost by stealth, to build a core of supporters to retake intellectual power when the mixed economy approach of Keynes would falter. Hayek built a network of economic gurus from the University of Chicago, the world of fiction (such as Ayn Rand), and the rightwing of the Tory Party in Britain and the Republican Party in the United States. Their fundamental theoretical proposition was that markets were good for people and government was bad. The video pointed out that this ideology, known around the world as “neoliberalism,” became dominant in these two countries in the 1970s, in international financial institutions, and among marginalized elites, mostly military dictators, from the Global South. The collapse of most Socialist states in the late 1980s confirmed, the documentary claimed, what the followers of Hayek had been arguing since the 1920s.
Neoliberalism Doesn’t Make Sense
Central to the approach of descendents of Hayek is that markets, when “free,” can provide for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Markets stimulate productivity, growth, equality, and the maximum development of each and every individual who takes advantage of the opportunities that free enterprise offers the citizenry. When pain and suffering prevail, the theory proposes, the heavy hand of government lurks in the background. Government for these analysts is the problem not the solution. Finally, these theorists claim, history has validated Hayek.
The problem with the free market approach is that it is dead wrong, theoretically, historically, and empirically. There is no question that sectors of the world have experienced enormous growth, technological advancements, and miraculous feats such as space travel but they have all come on the backs of millions upon millions of people who have lived lives of pain, hunger, despair, and brutal dehumanization. Tiny percentages of the world’s elites have thrived on the backs of over 90 percent of the world’s people ever since capitalism emerged from the vestiges of feudalism.
Furthermore, the economic growth and development in the era of capitalism have been intimately connected with the rise of state power, not in the service of humankind, but in the service of economic ruling classes. Navies, armies, munitions all came from state resources. The evil slave trade, the backbone of modern capitalism, could not have been created and sustained without state power. In the Western Hemisphere, it was government armies, serving the interests of emerging capitalist elites, who committed genocide against peoples from the North Pole to the South Pole.
On a more positive note, as a result of mobilizations in support of mass demands, governments have provided some health care, public education, libraries, roads, and research and development that have improved the lives of some of humankind. There never was a time since the rise of capitalism that state power was not central to whatever human development has occurred.
Finally, capitalism is a system based on the maximization of profit, more and more capital accumulation, and increasing power, spatial control, and the control of the minds and actions of all humankind. It is in the very logic of the economic system that this must occur. However, governments from time to time have mitigated the unbridled growth of power and control of capital when the traditionally disenfranchised and exploited have demanded reforms or revolution.
If we return to the “battle of ideas” as portrayed in the documentary “Commanding Heights,” the claim was made that in the twentieth century the followers of John Maynard Keynes successfully challenged the free marketers’ philosophy. Keynes recognized that capitalism created disruptions both in terms of growth and the well-being of workers. He argued that some governmental intervention was needed to override short-term economic crises. This perspective gained influence when coupled with mass demands for change from workers. Governments that adopted mixed economies, such as reflected in the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration, were designed to mollify militants. The Keynesian “revolution” was designed to “save” the capitalist system from those who demanded a new system.
What Does All This Mean for Building a Progressive Majority in 2010 and Beyond
We have to find a way to engage more effectively in “the battle of ideas.” First, we need to communicate the basic proposition that the free marketers’ ideas do not make sense. They are not logical. If these ideas were ever relevant it was in tiny villages and rural communities before the capitalist revolution. In fact, the less the government has been involved in serving the interests of working people, the more it was involved in promoting exploitation, war, environmental devastation, and all the problems 400 years of capitalism have left us with today.
Second, some government policies within the capitalist system can help people today. We need to allocate much more government money to create jobs-public and private-to build a new green economy. People employed by the state are workers just as are those who work for the private sector. Those who argue that government now has to cut back on expenditures and give more tax breaks to the rich are narrowly self-interested or ill-informed.
Third, we also need to make it clear that while governments representing the interests of working people provide the only alternative to the unbridled accumulation of power by the economic ruling classes at this time, we will have to create a new system in the long run where there are no economic ruling classes. But for now the first educational and activist priority is convincing the people that the policies advocated by Republicans, most Democrats, and Tea Party spokespersons do not make sense. Saying “YOUR IDEAS DON’T MAKE SENSE” to Rand Paul’s claims referred to above is a place to start.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Americans always check the win/lost columns. From mid-April to some time in June I check the progress of my beloved Chicago Cubs on the sports pages. After that my interest in baseball tapers off because hopes usually are dashed by June.
Thinking about sports might help us think about politics and social change as well. Winning and losing is defined by what happened yesterday and about where your side is in the standings. There is much less interest in watching the game for what it is. Little attention is paid to where the team has come from and the prospects of building a better team in the future. In other words, history--the connections between yesterday, today, and tomorrow--is less important than the most recent box score and standing in the race.
I remember waking up the first Wednesday in November, 1980 with a heavy heart, a headache, a sense of despair as deep as I could remember in my life. Students told me that in all of their classes professors were decrying the prospects for America because Ronald Reagan had been elected president.
I raise the sports metaphor and my 1980 feeling of a world crashing down as I think about Tuesday’s Congressional elections. I don’t think the progressive candidate slate will be big losers as the Cubs are by June every year. Also I do not believe that we will see the Republican “tsunami” that some have been predicting that would resemble the 1980 election. But I realize I need to reconsider the intellectual underpinnings of the political highs and lows that I felt in 2008 and will feel in 2010. Why? Because I and we need to better understand the longer-term trajectory of progressive politics in America.
There are three possible outcomes we can expect from Tuesday’s Congressional elections. These are listed on the basis of their relative probability of occurrence based on available evidence, flawed though that is.
The most likely outcome Tuesday is an election that represents victories for Republicans. Republicans would gain about 50-60 seats in the House of Representatives and thus would gain control of that body. In the Senate, Republicans would pick up five to seven seats, leaving party control of that body in the hands of Democrats.
The second possible outcome is the one that has been trumpeted by most of the media for months, a massive victory for Republicans. This would lead to Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and would constitute the most sustained challenge to the Obama administration. Curiously, this expectation has been driving the news accounts from Fox to NPR. Their reports have been based on constant polling data using the most dubious of methods-including robo calls to landlines and day-time calling. The tsunami outcome, if it occurs, could reasonably be explained by the enormous reporting bias that has encouraged two contradictory behavioral reactions: “back the winner” voting or “it’s hopeless” non-voting.
A third possible outcome which is not inconceivable would result from modestly better turnouts from those who constituted the Obama coalition of 2008: people of color, the young, workers, and those seriously disappointed with the administration and Congressional Democrats but who see the so-called Tea Party alternative as qualitatively worse.
What do each of these outcomes mean for progressive politics after the election? As to broad vision and our program of actions over the next several months, it is important to recognize that not much will change. We need to continue to build a progressive majority around achieving fundamental goals.
We need to mobilize forces, connecting “street heat” with direct pressure on legislators and the administration, to pass a jobs bill. Right now, the bill that makes the most sense is the one introduced by Congressman John Conyers, HR 5204: “The 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act,” which will set goals to reduce unemployment over ten years from the current levels to four percent, institutionalizing the principle of the government as Employer of Last Resort, and which will be paid for by taxes on financial transactions.
We need to continue to defend current health care reform and at the same time continue to work for its expansion into a single payer health care system.
We need to broaden and deepen our work around climate crisis legislation, effective regulations of energy corporations, and building a green economy.
In addition, we need to work against the war in Afghanistan, for the elimination of U.S. global militarism, in opposition to funding of Israel’s aggression, and to cut United States military spending by half or more, converting war spending to education, infrastructure, and research and development for peaceful activities.
These priorities do not change irrespective of which of the three options come to pass.
At the tactical level, progressives will continue their debates about how to achieve these goals and how to begin talking about “21st century socialism.” We will need to assess strengths and weaknesses of those who might support us in the Congress. We will need to debate how to relate to the Obama Administration. We will need to address anew “outside” strategies, from street heat mobilizations, to building local third parties, to constructing alternative institutions such as worker-owned cooperatives. We will need to address the role of the media and how to use and challenge it in a way we have not before. We also will need to assess the long-term significance of massive movement collaborations for progressive change. Here I am thinking about the World Social Forum and the One Nation rally, held October 2, organized by the NAACP, La Raza, and the AFL-CIO.
On reflection, progressives need to realize that the 2010 Congressional elections do not constitute the end, a defeat or a victory, but the continuation of an historical process of change.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Long ago Karl Marx argued that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Twentieth century Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who spent his last years in jail for his ideas, argued that power and control came from the capacity to shape idea systems, ideologies, as much as having guns and bombs. In other words, our political and economic institutions are as much fashioned by the struggle over ideas as they are by the struggle for weapons.
More and more of experience of the world is framed for us by television, radio, movies, the internet, and sound bite communiqués from Facebook and Twitter. As we withdraw to the world of smart phones and radio/TV receivers, the frequency of our direct experiences of each other declines. And, more and more of the dissemination of information, emotional and descriptive, is controlled by fewer and fewer institutions; corporations that control what we know, hear, see, feel, and are exhorted to consume. Rough estimates suggest that ten media conglomerates control about half of all messages we receive about the world.
As the structures of media conglomerates began to change after World War II, with dramatic declines in competing print media outlets and the globalization of control of radio, television, and films, grassroots activists began to struggle for the re-democratization of the flow of information and entertainment. Since the 1960s, alternative newspapers, radio stations, television programs, and networks of friends have been created to challenge hegemonic control by creating community media institutions. More recently, the blogosphere and web sites constitute a new hope as well.
At the national level, pressure mounted for the creation and public support for radio and television programming. In 1971, National Public Radio was launched with the goal of creating alternative sources of national and international news, providing diversity of perspectives on the world’s happenings, and information and analysis from those who traditionally had been voiceless in the society. Ever since then sixties generation activists, long-time liberals and radicals and other independent-minded people living in cities and towns around the United States have habitually sought out NPR outlets on local stations for their news and information. A 2004 report indicated that there were 22 million listeners to NPR on 750 radio stations.
By the 1980s, Republicans and other conservatives had made attacks on publicly financed radio and television a centerpiece of their efforts to transform the goals of an independent media into becoming clones of the dominant corporate media. And, of course, it worked.
Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal source of moneys for NPR constitute ten percent or less of radio operations. Despite the fact that most of NPR’s funding comes from fees paid by local stations and grants, NPR clearly shifted to the right. This has been seen in its coverage of news, its sources, and its declining representation of workers, people of color, women, and dissidents critical of United States foreign and domestic policy. All of this was confirmed in empirical research done on NPR reporting (“How Public is Public Radio?” Extra, May/June, 2004).
Major coverage of stories in the 21st century includes the following:
1)NPR became a major celebrant and sponsor of U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, marginalizing questions being raised about the morality of the first and the accuracy of claims being made about the need for the second (Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”).
2)NPR has been an unceasing critic of Cuba, using the Cold War “dictatorship” frame of the island. Stories ridicule Cuba’s historic resistance to market based capitalism, celebrating Cuba’s economic difficulties, while presenting minimal coverage of the impacts of the US blockade of the island and the horrific damage done to Cuba by recent hurricanes.
3)For the better part of a year, NPR, like its fellow stations such as Fox News, have been trumpeting the growth of the Tea Party, emphasizing its grassroots character and minimizing its central funding and organization by reactionary billionaires.
4)Again, for almost a year, NPR has communicated the frame that the Republicans will win dramatic victories in the fall, 2010 elections. On Saturday October 23, Scott Simon interviewed an “expert” from The Weekly Standard on the shape of the new Republican Congress. They analyzed the new Republican leadership in the Republican House of Representatives as if the election were over.
5)And, of course, voices of opposition to the right wing, to the Obama corporate agenda, to U.S. foreign policy are rarely heard on NPR. “Left-wing” perspectives usually come from such “extremists” as the Brookings Institution. Occasional references to research reports from the Economic Policy Institute refer to that body as left-leaning or tied to labor unions while The Heritage Foundation is referred to merely as a think tank.
Despite the reality of NPR’s service to the construction of ideological hegemony, the fall fund drive season brings out the old propaganda about NPR’s mission: we are “the alternative to corporate controlled news.” All around the country local stations, who often have varied and creative programming, are having fund drives. Many people face a dilemma: they recognize the hegemonic role of NPR but wish to support the work of their local stations.
To further NPR’s effort to mystify the public, it fired Juan Williams, the commentator who did extra duty for Fox News and who made one racial slur too many on a Fox broadcast. (At least one other NPR regular has done double duty on Fox over the years). Now the NPR spokespersons will trumpet the Williams firing as proof of their record of defending diversity and non-partisanship against the Fox enemy. The fact is that NPR is the Fox enemy but in sheep’s clothes.
What to do? Some may choose to continue their support of public radio. Ways need to be developed to encourage the independence and creativity of local public stations that do strive to achieve the original mission of public broadcasting despite shrinking resources. Some may find their ways to commercial alternative radio represented by the survivors of Air America. For sure, progressives need to support national ventures such as Amy Goodman’s radio/television program “Democracy Now,” which is an example of authentic independent, informative media.
And, finally, progressives should continue that tradition of building movement alternative local media: radio, television, print, blogs and websites. There may be something about the old adages about how “the truth can make you free” if we “speak truth to power.”
Saturday, October 16, 2010
I became a radical in the 1960s. I kept putting off being active until the late 60s but I slowly involved myself in the anti-war movement. When I started teaching around this time I noticed that many students became instant radicals; 19 year-old- kids going from lack of political awareness to militancy in a matter of weeks.
The Southern movement was inspiring; young people and their elders were transforming the system of Jim Crow. College campuses were bursting with energy, demanding “student rights” and “relevant” courses. Then the anti-war mobilizations grew bigger and bigger. Each massive mobilization in D.C., in New York, in Chicago, in San Francisco challenged organizers to produce larger and larger crowds and for a time the crowds did get bigger.
Many of us began to see the achievement of peace and justice as just around the corner. We were on the verge of building a new world, not unlike the world of altruism and love envisioned by Che` Guevara.
But then everything seemed to fall apart. The New Left split. African Americans sought to build their own movements. Women and gays began to argue that human liberation should be for them as well.
Nixon was elected. Vietnamization did not end the war but shifted the U.S. role from ground to massive air strikes across all of Vietnam. The Xmas bombing destroyed virtually all of North and South Vietnam. Black Panthers were targeted for assassination by the federal government and local authorities. Students were murdered at Kent State and Jackson State.
The youthful energy, the visions of socialism dissipated. Particularly the young became disillusioned. I remember one student telling me in the early 70s: “I tried the political thing and it didn’t work.”
The seeming victories of the 60s and 70s were followed by the brutal Reagan “low intensity” conflicts of the 80s: leading to death and destruction in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. And Reagan trumpeted the shift from welfare state capitalism to neoliberal globalization: privatization, de-regulation, and shifting all human activities from the public sector to the market. Then the last large-scale check on the globalization of capitalism and imperialism, the Soviet Union, collapsed.
This brief history reflects my own intellectual immaturity. Along with hundreds of thousands of others I was caught up in the emotion of the times. Not informed about the subtleties and complexities of history, I assumed that the path to victory, the path to peace and justice, would be smooth and linear. I did not expect major setbacks. I assumed that once we demonstrated our passion, our ability to mobilize large numbers of people, then the job was done.
But as I read Marx, involved myself in the labor movement and Central American solidarity, I began to realize that history does not work in simple and linear ways. Struggle must continue. Those who oppose us will continue to defend their privileges and their position. Patience is as critical to our work as is passion. And, these lessons of history are more likely to be understood by workers, by marginalized peoples, by most of the citizens of the globe who may not have been the beneficiaries of the short-term victories of social movements.
I also thought more about the lessons embedded in the music of my youth and the deep philosophical meaning of the simple verses of the songs of folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
I remember Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie describing his own connection to the progressive folk music tradition:
“One of the great things that I learned from both my mother and my dad and from some of these folks here is that this kind of wanting to make the world a better place is not something that started with the Weavers….they recognized and continued a tradition that’s probably been going on for as long as people have been around. And that is a wonderful thing for a young person to discover; he or she is not the beginning of a thing but somewhere in the middle of a long line of people who are concerned about making the world a better place to be.
It gives you the ability to not get so anxiety-prone over what’s going on from moment to moment but to take a little longer look and know that you don’t have to finish a job within the span of a lifetime. All you have to do is link up to the future. That’s the job of being a human. It’s to make the connection to the future and hold on to the connection to the past”(album notes from HARP, Redwood Records).
In addition, I would often think about Pete Seeger singing in “Quite Early Morning” that it is “darkest before the dawn.”
Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
So though it's darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
[ Quite Early Morning lyrics on http://www.lyricsmania.com/ ]
So let’s get back to work
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Their father's hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked
The one you'll know by.
(Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
One hundred years ago, Hannah Shapiro, known as “Annie” among her fellow workers, sewed pants pockets at one of the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx men’s clothing factories in Chicago. She worked ten hours a day, unless the foreman demanded more pants produced than usual. She earned four cents for every pocket she sewed.
Annie and her parents came from Russia to the United States in 1905 and the family settled on the west side of Chicago. Her father, a former rabbi, earned a modest living teaching Hebrew and Annie, the oldest of eight children, had to go to work to help support the family. She began working when she was 12 and was employed at HSM, when she was 17.
On a bright and sunny day, September 22, 1910, Annie went to work early in the morning. She was saddened to think that she would not leave work until it was dark. Upon arrival, Annie and her fellow workers were informed by the foreman on the floor that the piece rate for each pocket sewed would be cut from four cents to three and three quarter cents. This was the last straw for Annie who experienced daily indignities at the work place involving work rules and wages. She decided she had had enough and stormed off the job.
As she marched down the stairs from the fifth floor, she heard the tramp of many feet. Her fellow workers followed her off the job. Thus, as a result of the spontaneous leadership of Annie Shapiro the great Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910 was launched. Eventually 40,000 workers from job sites around the city would march in solidarity with the HSM workers. Workers would receive support from noted progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, the Women’s Trade Union League, and after a time, the United Garment Workers Union.
After a month’s general strike, HSM agreed to the establishment of a workers’ grievance committee but refused to recognize a union in the factory. That was to come later with the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but workers all around the city learned a valuable lesson: the power of the working class comes from solidarity, organization, and action.
This inspiring story is told in a new book written for kids by children’s author Marlene Targ Brill http://www.marlenetargbrill.com/ ). The book, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike, Millbrook Press, 2011, tells the story of Annie in words and attractive illustrations, and includes a script for children’s use in theatrical performances.
Beyond a blatant advertisement of a book written by my sister and about my wife’s aunt I have been intrigued for a long time about education, consciousness raising, and the importance of transmitting progressive narratives from generation to generation. For me, this is a vital project, particularly given the general ignorance and denial of history in our culture. Even so-called radical scholars reject “historical narratives,” defending a “post-modern” understanding of the world that emphasizes the here and now and the absolute subjectivity of the world.
Thinking about the question of how to reclaim and communicate progressive history to the young, I came across a recent book by Julia L. Mickenberg, Learning From the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Oxford Press, 2006. In this book Professor Mickenberg presents a history of the impacts of anti-communism on children’s political culture in the Cold War era. (Also, she and Philip Nel edited a collection of representative children’s stories from this period called Tales for Little Rebels, NYU Press, 2010).
Paradoxically, as radical novelists, essayists, and journalists were blacklisted from publication outlets and public school and university teachers lost jobs or were censored because of what they taught, a small space was opened up for writers and educators in children’s literature. “Red hunters” were able to purge from education, kindergarten through college, curricula and reading materials that studied and advocated for peace, racial justice, equality, and worker rights. But they ignored the children’s book publishing field.
Mickenberg describes in rich detail the many children’s books that addressed these subjects, and in addition, the array of children’s books on science that presented physics and biology from the standpoint of materialism, dialectics, and evolution.
Mickenberg reports that children of the 1950s read books about African American and white kids befriending each other, kids from different countries engaging in common activities, kids enjoying the environments in which they lived, and in some cases books about active, engaged girls and women. Perhaps, most importantly, many children’s stories emphasized the role of people, particularly young people, in bringing about change.
Mickenberg suggests some possible meanings of her research:
The young people in their teens and twenties who joined the Civil Rights movement and called themselves the “New Left,” who protested the Vietnam War, who formed consciousness-raising groups, and who imagined a kind of “liberation” for their own children through books like “Free to be You and Me” (1974) had grown up in an age marked by conformity and the repression of dissent. Yet they also managed to find material promoting interracial friendship, critical thinking, “science for the citizen,” and a “working-class Americanism.” Through trade books, many children learned a version of history that was left out of their textbooks, and they found stories that encouraged them to trust their imaginations and to believe that the impossible was possible.
The task of progressives today is to pass along the stories of myriad Annie Shapiro’s to young people. History and consciousness, after all, can be a material force. “Teach your children……”
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided homes of activists and issued subpoenas to some of them in Minneapolis, Chicago and elsewhere on Friday, September 24. These FBI actions reminded me of a book I read by Regin Schmidt, a distinguished Danish historian, called Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000. Schmidt carefully documents the role of state repression and FBI conduct in the 20th century. I wrote a review of the book which appeared in Socialism and Democracy, Summer-Fall, 2002, pp.212-214. The review, printed below, suggests that progressives need to understand the continued connections between social movements and state repression.
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The young lack a sense of history-of the Cold War, of anti-communism, of the vibrancy of progressive movements in the United States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, older activists discoursing on their history at first engaged in long needed self-criticism. The self-criticism then shifted, however, to blanket rejection of our progressive pasts—our victories as well as our defeats, our brave and honorable moments, and particularly a recollection of the hegemonic power of the U.S. state as a primary cause of our defeats. Plainly the horrific record of state repression in America is being forgotten by the older radicals and is unfamiliar to the younger ones.
Regin Schmidt’s book can help enormously in revisiting and reconstructing the role of state repression in manipulating, subverting, jailing, deporting, and killing leftists in the twentieth century. Schmidt has provided us with a data-rich account of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation took on its special role in crushing the left in America. His book is about the origins of the FBI in the old Bureau of Investigation in 1908 and its transformation into a state weapon in the struggle against perceived Bolshevism, anarchism, and communism in the aftermath of World War I. It is also about the continuity of state repression from the era of the Palmer Raids after the world war to Cold War America.
Schmidt argues that recently declassified information points to new explanations for the FBI’s rise to prominence. Some researchers view the agency’s rise as a response to mass hysteria, placing the root cause of anti-communism in the public at large. Schmidt, however, shows how popular attitudes about the Bolshevik/communist/anarchist threat emerge only after Attorney General Palmer and the FBI launched their campaigns of harassment, arrest, and deportation. In short, anti-communism as a public ideology was the creation of state institutions.
Another body of scholarly and journalist literature places primary, indeed sole, responsibility for FBI misdeeds on the shoulders of its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover. While Schmidt sees Hoover as the major protagonist in the FBI drama, he grounds Hoover’s conduct in the context of state policy and bureaucratic interest.
Further, most studies of the FBI emphasize its role in shaping anti-communism after World War II. Schmidt, however, takes the reader back to the first Red Scare and the Palmer Raids for the origins of anti-communism. And, he claims, the campaign was constant from then through the Cold War period. The FBI and anti-communism are less visible from the mid-1920s until the depths of the Great Depression only because of the diminution of radical activities.
Schmidt clearly states his central thesis early in the book and demonstrates its accuracy through historical examination:
Just as the mushrooming federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions were employed to regulate the economy and ameliorate the most severe social consequences of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, (so also) the state during the first decades of the century increasingly used its resources to control, contain, and, in times of crisis, to repress social unrest and political opposition. Thus, the institutionalization of the FBI’s political activities from 1919 was at bottom a part of the federalization of social control in the form of political surveillance.
This book provides an engaging, rich detailed history of how the FBI served the social control functions of the state: harassing the left, supporting federal, state, and local politicians in their anti-communist campaigns, and responding with sympathy to corporate requests for assistance. It covers the campaigns against the IWW, the 1919 strike wave, the Palmer Raids, the Seattle General Strike, and the deportation of radicals in the early twenties.
Red Scare is an important book. It should be read by older progressives to refresh their memories of real state repression in the United States. The book should be passed along to young activists, most of whom were not old enough to remember FBI harassment of Central American solidarity activists in the 1980s. And this book should be included as supplementary reading in university classes (and study groups) on U.S. history, American politics, and social movements.
Finally, the book makes crystal clear an important reality of struggles for social change. Social movements do not fall apart solely because of ideological rigidity or factionalism or egotism. The errors that come from our ranks have to be understood in the context of a continuous pattern of state repression. The sorry record of the FBI in the United States must not be forgotten. Red Scare will help us remember.