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August 16, 2013, supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather in the center of Cairo to protest against the clearance of demonstrators. / Xinhua
By Su Changhe
English Edition of Qiushi Journal,
Central Committee, Communist Party of China,
Vol.5 No.4 Oct 1, 2013
I. From Africa to the United States
In October 2012, I had the chance to attend the Second China-Africa Think-Tanks Forum in Africa. After the conference, I travelled to the United States to observe the presidential election there.
At the Think-Tanks Forum in Ethiopia, I remember hearing certain African scholars go on about Africa’s civil society and democratic transition. The forum was being held in a resort compound in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Leaving the compound, it was not long before I came across impoverished everyday people living in squalor. The state in which these people were living came in stark contrast to the talk of democracy that had taken place in the conference hall. I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the huge gap between academia and the real world.
The year 2012 was a big year for elections. This election fever began with general elections in Russia and France towards the beginning of the year, and came to a conclusion with the US and Japanese elections towards the end of the year. But while it all seemed so “perfect,” a feeling of democracy “fatigue” has nonetheless set in for many people. Democratic transition has become a topic of considerable interest among scholars in China over the past few years. For over a year, I have been a regular attendant at various academic symposiums on democracy held in China. The contrast I have experienced between reality and academia has been the source of some uncertainty in my mind over popular topics concerning democracy. As a researcher of diplomacy and international relations, democracy is certainly not my field of expertise. However, I do believe that looking at democracy from the perspective of diplomacy and international relations could have a meaningful bearing on how we think about the development of democracy of various countries in the age of globalization.
II. Misconceptions in the study of democracy
The academic study of democracy has long been centered around the democratic transition of developing countries. This gives the impression that democratic transition only concerns developing countries, and that it is not an issue for developed countries. In their studies, scholars, the media, and social groups tend to subconsciously regard Western-style democracy as the sole benchmark for gauging democracy. In their minds, the so-called path to democracy for developing countries must be to follow the standard that has been set by Western-style democracy. These research tendencies have proven seriously misleading for developing countries, with many paying bitterly as a result. The number of developing countries who have sealed their own tombs with the “democracy” they tried to emulate is not small either.
A large-scale global industry has formed around the study of democracy. Of course, the agenda of these studies has been set by a small minority of Western countries for developing countries to follow. Moreover, the benchmark for appraising democracy is determined entirely by a small handful of countries. This involves a range of appraisal mechanisms, and a contingent of campaigners who are paid by various foundations to go around the world delivering speeches and selling the case for democracy. Thus, democracy, together with the social sciences founded on its basis, is more like a propaganda tool employed by the West than anything else, and the resulting knowledge bubble is far from small. Whenever the West, driven by its own interests, plans to intervene militarily in another country in the name of “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” this propaganda tool springs into action, relentlessly labeling the country in question as authoritarian and autocratic. When this happens, the country on the receiving end is never far from civil war and chaos. Scholars of diplomacy and international relations are almost constantly looking at countries and regions that have been thrown into chaos owing to external intervention. Faced with developing countries that have descended into killing and destitution as a result of foreign intervention, any scholar versed in the basics of politics who still believes that this is due to a lack of “democracy,” or to the need to constantly enhance “democracy,” as opposed to turning to external intervention for the answers, is making an argument that cannot be justified in reason or logic.
Under the Western-style appraisal mechanisms of democracy, there is only one precondition that needs to be met for a developing country to be considered a “democracy,” or to “graduate” from the class of authoritarian countries: that country must show obedience to Western countries, and must give up its independent foreign and domestic policies. Any country that does so is immediately rewarded with “international” praise. As far as international public opinion is concerned, some countries are able to become democracies overnight. But those who do not do what they are told may find themselves being put back on the “authoritarian” list without prior warning, which is what happened to Russia several years ago. Various appraisal mechanisms are like leashes tied around the necks of developing countries and emerging markets. If one of these countries refuses to do as it is told, the holders of the leash will not hesitate to tighten the knot.
When Chinese academics study democracy in China, they tend to subconsciously see the West as being the perfect model for democracy. Sometimes they even subconsciously place themselves on the non-democratic side of the scale, a mentality that leads to a sense of inferiority in global academic exchanges. The result is that they are unable to hold their heads high in front of their teachers. I remember one time being at an event with scholars from English-speaking countries. As per routine, they began wielding their leash, putting questions to me about censorship and freedom of speech in China. It just happened to be around the time when the Muslim world was up in arms over the film the Innocence of Muslims. I responded by asking the scholars a question: If you had even the most basic respect for the religious beliefs of others, and if you had the necessary censorship in your countries to prevent such insulting material from going public, would it not have been possible to prevent the US Ambassador to Libya from being killed? My question left them in silence. In the age of globalism, all countries must seriously consider the issue of restraint and self-restraint in the expression of public opinion. Any country failing to do so has no credibility to talk about freedom of speech.
So, it is evident that developing countries need to free themselves from this leash. This being the case, they need to liberate their minds from overly simplistic distinctions such as “democratic and non-democratic,” and “democratic West, authoritarian non-West.” And they need to free themselves from their superiority-inferiority mentality. Only then will they genuinely be able to approach the development of democracy on the basis of their own national conditions.
III. The retrogression of Western-style democracy and the re-democratization movement
Before we are genuinely able to boast a spirit of freedom and an independent national character, we must untie ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy. To do this, we must first downgrade the democracy that a small number of Western countries preach from “universal knowledge” to “local knowledge.” For a considerable period of time, the US has relied on diplomatic initiatives to turn American-style democracy from local knowledge into universal knowledge. If all of the world’s countries, north, south, east, and west, were able to cherish the democracy that they have built on the basis of their own national conditions and history, and if they were able to develop a new and more advanced theory of democracy, the so-called universal theory of democracy that is currently prevalent would naturally be reduced to a local theory of democracy. Admittedly, this downgrading will be a long and drawn-out process. The most important thing, therefore, is that researchers and practitioners start on this now.
It will be impossible for us to free ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy unless we are able to think independently and communicate as equals in academic activities. Do the small minority of Western countries that have always been viewed as a paradigm of democracy not have the potential for democratic transition? In other words, are the democratic systems in these countries undergoing a process of retrogression? Going a step further, at a time when academics are speculating as to which developing region will see the emergence of “democracy’s fourth wave,” I personally am more inclined to make the assumption that this next wave of democratization is most likely to appear in the West. Without reform, it is possible that the standing of Western-style democracy in human political civilization will go into decline. Of course, most academics throughout the world, especially those engaged in the study of comparative politics, are busy devoting all their energies to the lack of democracy in developing countries. Few have the courage to go out on a limb and raise the retrogression of Western-style democracy and the democratic transition that the West is facing as a serious topic for academic discussion. Do those scholars who study ways of gauging the quality of democracy dare to apply those benchmarks to developed Western countries, instead of just developing countries?
There are indeed signs that Western-style democracy is retrogressing. According to the logical reasoning that has been established by the discourse of Western-style democracy, all problems in developing countries can be attributed to a lack of democracy. The same logic also dictates that many problems in the West, such as political polarization, the alienation of the social elite from the general public, high levels of national debt, irresponsible promises by politicians, falling voter turnout, the monopolization of public opinion, and authoritarian intervention in other countries, are the result of the system of democracy having gone wrong. From the perspective of international relations, Western-style democracy has clashed with people’s hopes for a world order of peace and development since its very inception. Being established on the foundation of exclusive, territorial politics, this system allows Western countries to legitimately discharge the negativities of their domestic political systems into international politics, and show absolutely no regard for the concerns, feelings, and interests of other countries. For this reason, this system is a major source of international conflict, and a domestic obstacle preventing the responsible participation of these countries in global governance. From the perspective of international relations, seeing how the US Federal Reserve has attempted to shift the crisis with round after round of quantitative easing, any observer with a basic understanding of politics will be hard-pressed to go on believing the Wall Street theory that a central bank should form policy independently, or go on believing that the US is a responsible country.
So, scholars of comparative politics in developing countries need to start researching issues such as democratic transition and the retrogression of democracy in countries that practice Western-style democracy. On this basis, they need to provide more rational suggestions with regard to re-democratization movements in these countries—which is by no means impossible—and even establish an agenda for them in the research of democracy. Only then will scholars of comparative politics from developing countries win the respect of the international academic community.
IV. Shifting the agenda in the study of democracy
The retrogression and decline of Western-style democracy should come as a warning to developing countries that are still exploring their path of national development. Any country that blindly copies this system will eventually encounter the same difficulties that Western countries are experiencing today. The kind of democracy that is just a game for the rich, that causes constantly falling turnout, that forces the morality out of politics, that makes people feel small and insignificant, that is increasingly used to legally bully people, that creates conflict and division, and that gives rise to more and more “lawful” wars, is absolutely not what the human race aspires towards in the pursuit of fine politics. This kind of democracy is a disaster for human civilization, and under absolutely no circumstances can China embrace it.
Therefore, we need to rethink the current agenda in the research of democracy, and seek to bring about a change in direction. Chinese scholars must free themselves from meaningless debate over Western-style democracy, and work hard to shift the research of democracy back in the direction of national governance, a classical topic in political science that has more of a bearing on national development.
To do this, it is worth giving more consideration to China’s democratic development on the basis of the political resources that China already boasts. The word “democracy,” which in Chinese is made up of the characters for “people” and “rule,” has its own unique meaning in the political context of China. Breaking the word down, we can see that the word has at least three closely-related meanings. The first is “rule of the country by the people,” also known as “rule by the people,” which represents the foundation of the state. The second is “rule on behalf of the people,” which implies that the government must maintain close ties with the people and rely on the people. Only on the basis of these two conditions can “the position of the people as masters of the country” be truly realized. The notion of “rule on behalf of the people,” which is manifested in a political elite that maintains close ties with the people and serves the public, is an inherent political resource that not all countries can claim to enjoy. Many political elites from developing countries go on about democracy, civil society, NGOs, and elections when they are attending international meetings, but they have little sentiment with regard to “rule on behalf of the people” and “rule by the people.” Severe alienation from the public is a common phenomenon in these countries, and it is not difficult to understand why this leads to political degradation and social unrest. Maintaining close links to the public is an important means for preserving the vitality of democracy. In China, this close bond can be attributed to two things: the spirit of compassion for the people that China’s intellectual elite has preserved since ancient times; and the mass line, a distinct form of democratic practice conceived by the Communist Party of China. In the world’s democracies, if the ruling elite becomes alienated from the people, and if democracy becomes a game for a minority of 1% who show no regard for the wellbeing of the people and who even view the votes of the poor with open contempt, then it is hardly surprising to see this so-called democracy go into decline.
Another word that requires more consideration is “election.” When we research the topic of elections, we seem to devote all our thoughts to the practice of “one person, one vote.” We make the assumption that the word election simply means to hold a popular vote. And we assume that once we have a vote, a great deal of problems will be able to be resolved with great ease. Actually, the word for “election” in Chinese is much deeper in meaning than its English equivalent, being composed of two words, “select,” and “recommend.” China’s national governance, appointments, and policy making activities involve both “selection” as well as “recommendation,” with special emphasis being given to the latter. This is the quintessence of the election system. Of the world’s successful countries, not a single one relies entirely on votes. But if we look at countries gripped in chaos, we can see that every single one demonstrates a dogmatic belief in votes. Researchers of Western politics should be aware that “recommendation” also exists widely in Europe and the US; these countries are not run solely on the basis of votes. I have always thought that we need to thoroughly study the practice of “recommendation” in the American system. There is definitely a great deal that can be learned from this. If we fail to gain a clear understanding of “recommendation,” and instead focus all our attention on the more eye-catching aspect of “votes,” we will succeed only in oversimplifying US politics. Simply learning from the “votes” aspect of politics in the US will do nothing but lead us astray as we pursue our own path of political development.
In summary, in the development of democracy from generation to generation, the role of different peoples is to inherit and then pass on ideas. Even in Africa, there are scholars who believe that Africa once had its own indigenous democracy. However, these indigenous resources were destroyed following the introduction of Western-style democracy. This is something that is worthy of deep thought.
Contemporary Chinese scholars have the fortune of living in a historic time that is witnessing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Would we not be a laughing stock to foreign observers and our later generations if we were to totally neglect the path and system that are fuelling this drive forwards?
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.11, 2013)
The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.
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Chokwe Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, MS
By Ajamu Nangwaya
SolidarityEconomy.net via Rabble.Ca
Ajamu Nangwaya participated in the recent Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013, speaking about the potential for worker self-management in the City of Jackson, Mississippi, following the historic election Chokwe Lumumba as mayor. This article, Part 1 of 2, is based on Ajamu Nangwaya’s presentation to the conference, and is part of our ongoing focus on labour and workers’ issues  this week on rabble.ca.
Sept 3, 2013 – “We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy. We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi.”  – Chokwe Lumumba
"Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children." – Amilcar Cabral 
I am happy to be a participant at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013 and to be in the presence of worker cooperators, advocates of labour or worker self-management  and comrades who are here to learn about and/or share your thoughts on the idea of workplace democracy and workers exercising control over capital.
Worker self-management or the practice of workers controlling, managing and exercising stewardship over the productive resources in the workplace has been with us since the 19th century. Workers’ control of the workplace developed as a reaction to the exacting and exploitative working condition of labour brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Many workers saw the emancipation of labour emerging from their power over the way that work was organized and the fruit of their labour got distributed.
I believe we are living in a period that has the potential for profound economic, social and political transformation from below. It might not seem that way when we look at the way that capitalism, racism and the patriarchy have combined to make their domination appear inevitable and unchallenged. But as long as we have vision and are willing to put in the work, we shall not perish. We shall win!
On June 4, 2013, the people of the City of Jackson, Mississippi, elected Chokwe Lumumba, a human rights lawyer and an advocate of the right to self-determination of Afrikans in the United States, as their mayor. That is a very significant political development. But that is not the most momentous thing about the election of Chokwe Lumumba. The most noteworthy element of Lumumba’s ascension to the mayoral position is his commitment to economic democracy, "more cooperative thinking" and facilitating economic and social justice with and for the people of Jackson.
The challenge posed to us by this historical moment is the role that each of you will play in ensuring a robust programme of worker cooperative formation and cooperative economics in Jackson. We ought to work with the Jackson People’s Assembly, the Malcolm Grassroots Movement and other progressive forces to transform the city of Jackson into America’s own Mondragon . It could have one possible exception. Jackson could become an evangelical force that is committed to spreading labour self-management and the social economy across the South and the rest of this society.
The promotion of the social economy and labour self-management could engage and attract Frantz Fanon’s "wretched of the earth"  onto the stage of history as central actors in the drama of their own emancipation. By promoting the social economy/labour self-management and participatory democracy by civil society forces and structures (the assemblies), Chokwe and the social movement organizations in Jackson are privileging or heeding Cabral’s above-cited assertion that the people are not merely fighting for ideas. They need to see meaningful change in their material condition. The development of a people controlled and participatory democratic economic infrastructure in Jackson would give concrete form to their material aspirations.
Amilcar Cabral was a revolutionary  from Guinea-Bissau in West Afrika whose approach to organizing and politically mobilizing the people could provide insights and direction to our movement-building work. In order to build social movements with the capacity to carry out the task of social emancipation, we need to organize around the material needs of the people. The very projects and programmes that we organize with the people should be informed by transformative values; a prefiguring of what will be obtained in the emancipated societies of tomorrow.
As an anarchist, I am not a person who is hopeful or excited by initiatives coming out of the state or elected political actors. More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labour self-management.
Based on the thrust of The Jackson Plan , which calls for the maintenance of autonomous, deliberative and collective decision-making people’s assemblies and the commitment to organizing a self-managed social economy , which would challenge the hegemony or domination of the capitalist sector, I see an opening for something transformative to emerge in Jackson. As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision.
Primary imperatives or assumptions
There are four critical imperatives or assumptions that should guide the movement toward labour self-management and the social economy in Jackson. They are as follow:
1. Build the capacity of civil society
We should put the necessary resources into building the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude needed by the people to exercise control over their lives and institutions. In the struggle for the new society, we require independent, counterhegemonic organizational spaces from which to struggle against the dominant economic, social and political structures.
In any labour self-management and social economy project in Jackson, we must develop autonomous, civil-society-based supportive organizations and structures that will be able to survive the departure of the Lumumba administration. If the social economy initiatives are going to operate independently of the state, they will need the means to do so. Therefore, the current municipal executive leadership in Jackson should turn over resources to the social movements that will empower and resource them in their quest to create economic development organizations, programmes and projects.
2. Part of the class struggle, racial justice movement and feminist movement
When we talk or think about social and economic change in the City of Jackson, it is not being done in a contextless structural context. We are compelled to address the systems of capitalism, white supremacy/racism and patriarchy and their impact on the lives of the working-class, racialized majority. It is critically important to frame the labour self-management and the solidarity economy project as one that is centred upon seeking a fundamental change to power relations defined by gender race and class.
The worker cooperative movement ought to see itself as a part of the broader class struggle movement that seeks to give control to the labouring classes over how their labour is used and the surplus or profit from collective work is shared. The solidarity economy and labour self-management will have to seriously tackle oppression coming out of the major systems of domination and allow our organizing work to be shaped by the resulting analysis.
By Bob Wing*
*Bob Wing has been a social justice organizer and writer since 1968. He was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times newspaper. Bob lives in Durham, NC and can be contacted through Facebook. Special thanks to my lifelong colleagues Max Elbaum and Linda Burnham and to Jon Liss, Lynn Koh, Carl Davidson, Ajamu Dillahunt, Raymond Eurquhart and Bill Fletcher, Jr. for their comments, critiques and suggestions.
August 1, 2013 – The heartless combination of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the House Republicans flatly shunning the immigration bill and the Trayvon Martin outrage should be a wake up call about the grave dangers posed by the far right and may give rise to a renewed motion among African Americans that could give much needed new impetus and political focus to the progressive movement.
The negative policies and missteps of the Obama administration are often the target of progressive fire, and rightly so. But these take place in the context of (and are sometimes caused by) an extremely perilous development in U.S. politics: an alliance of energized rightwing populists with the most reactionary sector of Big Business has captured the Republican Party with “the unabashed ambition to reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means necessary.” (1)
The GOP is in all-out nullificationist mode, rejecting any federal laws with which they disagree. They are using their power in the judiciary and Congress to block passage or implementation of anything they find distasteful at the federal level. And under the radar the Republicans are rapidly implementing a far flung rightwing program in the 28 states they currently control. They have embarked on an unprecedented overhaul of government on behalf of the one percent and against all sectors of the poor and much of the working and middle classes, undermining the rights of all.
The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today’s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”
This nullification and neo-secession must be met by a renewed motion for freedom and social justice. The great scholar-activist Manning Marable, the leader of the powerful fightback in North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber II, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and others have called for a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction. (2)
We are now at a pivotal point in this fight. The battlelines are drawn: Reactionary Nullification and Neo-Secession or Third Reconstruction?
Like the first secession, this second neo-secession is centered in the South even though it is a national movement with unusual strength in the upper Rocky Mountain and plains states in addition to the South. (3) Similarly racism, especially anti-Black racism, lies at its foundation even as the rightwing assaults all democratic, women’s, immigrant and labor rights, social and environmental programs. Progressives in the South are rising to the challenge. But, deplorably, most Democrats, unions, progressives and social justice forces barely have the South on their radar and rarely invest in it. This must change, and change rapidly.
The 2012 election will be one of the most polarized and critical elections in recent history.
By Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Carl Davidson
August 9, 2012 – Let’s cut to the chase. The November 2012 elections will be unlike anything that any of us can remember. It is not just that this will be a close election. It is also not just that the direction of Congress hangs in the balance. Rather, this will be one of the most polarized and critical elections in recent history.
Unfortunately what too few leftists and progressives have been prepared to accept is that the polarization is to a great extent centered on a revenge-seeking white supremacy; on race and the racial implications of the moves to the right in the US political system. It is also focused on a re-subjugation of women, harsh burdens on youth and the elderly, increased war dangers, and reaction all along the line for labor and the working class. No one on the left with any good sense should remain indifferent or stand idly by in the critical need to defeat Republicans this year.
U.S. Presidential elections are not what progressives want them to be
A large segment of what we will call the ‘progressive forces’ in US politics approach US elections generally, and Presidential elections in particular, as if: (1) we have more power on the ground than we actually possess, and (2) the elections are about expressing our political outrage at the system. Both get us off on the wrong foot.
The US electoral system is among the most undemocratic on the planet. Constructed in a manner so as to guarantee an ongoing dominance of a two party duopoly, the US electoral universe largely aims at reducing so-called legitimate discussion to certain restricted parameters acceptable to the ruling circles of the country. Almost all progressive measures, such as Medicare for All or Full Employment, are simply declared ‘off the table.’ In that sense there is no surprise that the Democratic and Republican parties are both parties of the ruling circles, even though they are quite distinct within that sphere.
The nature of the US electoral system–and specifically the ballot restrictions and ‘winner-take-all’ rules within it–encourages or pressures various class fractions and demographic constituency groups to establish elite-dominated electoral coalitions. The Democratic and Republican parties are, in effect, electoral coalitions or party-blocs of this sort, unrecognizable in most of the known universe as political parties united around a program and a degree of discipline to be accountable to it. We may want and fight for another kind of system, but it would be foolish to develop strategy and tactics not based on the one we actually have.
The winner-take-all nature of the system discourages independent political parties and candidacies on both the right and the left. For this reason the extreme right made a strategic decision in the aftermath of the 1964 Goldwater defeat to move into the Republican Party with a long-term objective of taking it over. This was approached at the level of both mass movement building, e.g., anti-busing, anti-abortion, as well as electoral candidacies. The GOP right’s ‘Southern Strategy’ beginning in 1968 largely succeeded in chasing out most of the pro-New Deal Republicans from the party itself, as well as drawing in segregationist Democratic voters in the formerly ‘Solid South.’
Efforts by progressives to realign or shift the Democratic Party, on the other hand, were blunted by the defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and later the defeat of the McGovern candidacy in 1972, during which time key elements of the party’s upper echelons were prepared to lose the election rather than witness a McGovern victory. In the 1980s a very different strategy was advanced by Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow insurgencies that aimed at building—at least initially—an independent, progressive organization capable of fielding candidates within the Democratic primaries. This approach—albeit independent of Jackson himself—had an important local victory with the election of Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago. At the national level, however, it ran into a different set of challenges by 1989.
In the absence of a comprehensive electoral strategy, progressive forces fall into one of three cul-de-sacs: (1) ad hoc electoralism, i.e., participating in the election cycle but with no long-term plan other than tailing the Democrats; (2) abandoning electoral politics altogether in favor of modern-day anarcho-syndicalist ‘pressure politics from below’; or (3) satisfying ourselves with far more limited notions that we can best use the election period in order to ‘expose’ the true nature of the capitalist system in a massive way by attacking all of the mainstream candidates. We think all of these miss the key point.
Our elections are about money and the balance of power
Money is obvious, particularly in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The balance of power is primarily at the level of the balance within the ruling circles, as well as the level of grassroots power of the various mass movements. The party that wins will succeed on the basis of the sort of electoral coalition that they are able to assemble, co-opt or be pressured by, including but not limited to the policy and interest conflicts playing out within its own ranks.
The weakness of left and progressive forces means we have been largely unable to participate, in our own name and independent of the two party upper crust, in most national-level elections with any hope of success. In that sense most left and progressive interventions in the electoral arena at the national level, especially at the Presidential level, are ineffective acts of symbolic opposition or simply propaganda work aimed at uniting and recruiting far smaller circles of militants. They are not aimed at a serious challenge for power but rather aim to demonstrate a point of view, or to put it more crassly, to ‘fly the flag.’ The electoral arena is frequently not viewed as an effective site for structural reforms or a more fundamental changing of direction.
Our politics, in this sense, can be placed in two broad groupings—politics as self-expression and politics as strategy. In an overall sense, the left needs both of these—the audacity and energy of the former and the ability to unite all who can be united of the latter. But it is also important to know the difference between the two, and which to emphasize and when in any given set of battles.
Consider, for a moment, the reform struggles with which many of us are familiar. Let’s say that a community is being organized to address a demand for jobs on a construction site. If the community is not entirely successful in this struggle, it does not mean that the struggle was wrong or inappropriate. It means that the progressives were too weak organizationally and the struggle must continue. The same is true in the electoral arena. The fact that it is generally difficult, in this period, to get progressives elected or that liberal and progressive candidates may back down on a commitment once elected, does not condemn the arena of the struggle. It does, however, say something about how we might need to organize ourselves better in order to win and enforce accountability.
In part due to justified suspicion of the electoral system and a positive impulse for self-expression and making our values explicit, too many progressives view the electoral realm as simply a canvass upon which various pictures of the ideal future are painted. Instead of constructing a strategy for power that involves a combination of electoral and non-electoral activity, uniting both a militant minority and a progressive majority, there is an impulsive tendency to treat the electoral realm as an idea bazaar rather than as one of the key sites on which the struggle for progressive power unfolds.
The Shifts within the Right and the Rise of Irrationalism
Contrary to various myths, there was no ‘golden age’ in our country where politicians of both parties got along and politics was clean. U. S. politics has always been dirty. One can look at any number of elections in the 19th century, for instance, with the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 being among the more notorious, to see examples of electoral chicanery. Elections have been bought and sold and there has been wide-spread voter disenfranchisement. In the late 19th century and early 20th century massive voter disenfranchisement unfolded as part of the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Due to gains by both the populist and socialists is this era, by the 1920s our election laws were ‘reformed’—in all but a handful of states—to do away with ‘fusion ballots’ and other measures previously helpful to new insurgent forces forming independent parties and alliances.
What is significant about the current era has been the steady move of the Republican Party toward the right, not simply at the realm of neoliberal economics (which has also been true of much of the Democratic Party establishment) but also in other features of the ‘ideology’ and program of the Republicans. For this reason we find it useful to distinguish between conservatives and right-wing populists (and within right-wing populism, to put a spotlight on irrationalism). Right-wing populism is actually a radical critique of the existing system, but from the political right with all that that entails. Uniting with irrationalism, it seeks to build program and direction based largely upon myths, fears and prejudices.
Right-wing populism exists as the equivalent of the herpes virus within the capitalist system. It is always there–sometimes latent, at other times active—and it does not go away. In periods of system distress, evidence of right-wing populism erupts with more force. Of particular importance in understanding right-wing populism is the complex intersection of race, anti-immigrant settler-ism, ‘producerism,’ homophobia and empire.
In the US, right-wing populism stands as the grassroots defender of white racial supremacy. It intertwines with the traditional myths associated with the “American Dream” and suggests that the US was always to be a white republic and that no one, no people, and no organization should stand in the way of such an understanding. It seeks enemies, and normally enemies based on demographics of ‘The Other’. After all, right-wing populism sees itself in the legacy of the likes of Andrew Jackson and other proponents of Manifest Destiny, a view that saw no inconsistency between the notion of a white democratic republic, ethnic cleansing, slavery, and a continental (and later global) empire. ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ was primarily the complete codification and nationalization of white supremacy in our country’s political life.
Irrationalism is rising as an endemic virus in our political landscape
Largely in times of crisis and uncertainty, virulent forms of irrationalism make an appearance. The threat to white racial supremacy that emerged in the 1960s, for instance, brought forward a backlash that included an irrationalist view of history, e.g., that the great early civilizations on Earth couldn’t have arisen from peoples with darker skins, but instead were founded by creatures from other planets. Irrationalism, moreover, was not limited to the racial realm. Challenges to scientific theories such as evolution and climate change are currently on the rise. Irrationalism cries for a return to the past, and within that a mythical past. A component of various right-wing ideologies, especially fascism, irrationalism exists as a form of sophistry, and even worse. It often does not even pretend to hold to any degree of logic, but rather simply requires the acceptance of a series of non sequitur assertions.
Right-wing populism and irrationalism have received nationwide reach anchored in institutions such as the Fox network, but also right-wing religious institutions. Along with right-wing talk radio and websites, a virtual community of millions of voters has been founded whose views refuse critique from within. Worse, well-financed and well-endowed walls are established to ensure that the views are not challenged from without. In the 2008 campaign and its immediate aftermath, we witnessed segments of this community in the rise of the ‘birther’ movement and its backing by the likes of Donald Trump. Like many other cults there were no facts that adherents of the ‘birthers’ would accept except those ‘facts’ which they, themselves, had established. Information contrary to their assertions was swept away. It didn’t matter that we could prove Obama was born in the US, because their real point, the he was a Black man, was true.
The 2012 Republican primaries demonstrated the extent to which irrationalism and right-wing populism, in various incarnations, have captured the Republican Party. That approximately 60% of self-identified Republicans would continue to believe that President Obama is not a legitimate citizen of the USA points to the magnitude of self-delusion.
The Obama campaign of 2008 at the grassroots was nothing short of a mass revolt
The energy for the Obama campaign was aimed against eight years of Bush, long wars, neoliberal austerity and collapse, and Republican domination of the US government. It took the form of a movement-like embrace of the candidacy of Barack Obama. The nature of this embrace, however, set the stage for a series of both strategic and tactical problems that have befallen progressive forces since Election Day 2008.
The mis-analysis of Obama in 2007 and 2008 by so many people led to an overwhelming tendency to misread his candidacy. In that period, we—the authors of this essay—offered critical support and urged independent organization for the Obama candidacy in 2008 through the independent ‘Progressives for Obama’ project. We were frequently chastised by some allies at the time for being too critical, too idealistic, too ‘left’, and not willing to give Obama a chance to succeed. Yet our measured skepticism, and call for independence and initiative in a broader front, was not based on some naïve impatience. Instead, it was based on an assessment of who Obama was and the nature of his campaign for the Presidency.
Obama was and is a corporate liberal
Obama is an eloquent speaker who rose to the heights of US politics after a very difficult upbringing and some success in Chicago politics. But as a national figure, he always positioned himself not so much as a fighter for the disenfranchised but more as a mediator of conflict, as someone pained by the growth of irrationalism in the USA and the grotesque image of the USA that much of the world had come to see. To say that he was a reformer does not adequately describe either his character or his objectives. He was cast as the representative, wittingly or not, of the ill-conceived ‘post-Black politics era’ at a moment when much of white America wanted to believe that we had become ‘post-racial.’ He was a political leader and candidate trying to speak to the center, in search of a safe harbor. He was the person to save US capitalism at a point where everything appeared to be imploding.
For millions, who Obama actually was, came to be secondary to what he represented for them. This was the result of a combination of wishful thinking, on the one hand, and strongly held progressive aspirations, on the other. In other words, masses of people wanted change that they could believe in. They saw in Obama the representative of that change and rallied to him. While it is quite likely that Hillary Clinton, had she received the nomination, would also have defeated McCain/Palin, it was the Obama ticket and campaign that actually inspired so many to believe that not only could there be an historical breakthrough at the level of racial symbolism—a Black person in the White House—but that other progressive changes could also unfold. With these aspirations, masses of people, including countless numbers of left and progressive activists, were prepared to ignore uncomfortable realities about candidate Obama and later President Obama.
There are two examples that are worth mentioning here. One, the matter of race. Two, the matter of war. With regard to race, Obama never pretended that he was anything other than Black. Ironically, in the early stages of his campaign many African Americans were far from certain how ‘Black’ he actually was. Yet the matter of race was less about who Obama was—except for the white supremacists—and more about race and racism in US history and current reality.
Nothing exemplified this better than the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, followed by Obama’s historic speech on race in Philadelphia. Wright, a liberation theologian and progressive activist, became a target for the political right as a way of ‘smearing’ Obama. Obama chose to distance himself from Wright, but in a very interesting way. He upheld much of Wright’s basic views of US history while at the same time acting as if racist oppression was largely a matter of the past. In that sense he suggested that Wright’s critique was outdated.
Wright’s critique was far from being outdated. Yet in his famous speech on race, Obama said much more of substance than few mainstream politicians had ever done. In so doing, he opened the door to the perception that something quite new and innovative might appear in the White House. He made no promises, though, which is precisely why suggestions of betrayal are misplaced. There was no such commitment in the first place.
With regard to war, there was something similar. Obama came out against the Iraq War early, before it started. He opposed it at another rally after it was underway. To his credit, US troops have been withdrawn from Iraq. He never, however, came out against war in general, or certainly against imperialist war. In fact, he made it clear that there were wars that he supported, including but not limited to the Afghanistan war. Further, he suggested that if need be he would carry out bombings in Pakistan. Despite this, much of the antiwar movement and many other supporters assumed that Obama was the antiwar candidate in a wider sense than his opposition to the war in Iraq. Perhaps ‘assumed’ is not quite correct; they wanted him to be the antiwar candidate who was more in tune with their own views.
With Obama’s election, the wishful thinking played itself out, to some degree, in the form of inaction and demobilization. Contrary to the complaints of some on the Left, Obama and his administration cannot actually be blamed for this. There were decisions made in important social movements and constituencies to (1) assume that Obama would do the ‘right thing,’ and, (2) provide Obama ‘space’ rather than place pressure on him and his administration. This was a strategic mistake. And when combined with a relative lack of consolidating grassroots campaign work into ongoing independent organization at the grassroots, with the exception of a few groups, such as the Progressive Democrats of America, it was an important opportunity largely lost.
There is one other point that is worth adding here. Many people failed to understand that the Obama administration was not and is not the same as Obama the individual, and occupying the Oval Office is not the same as an unrestricted ability to wield state power. ‘Team Obama’ is certainly chaired by Obama, but it remains a grouping of establishment forces that share a common framework—and common restrictive boundaries. It operates under different pressures and is responsive–or not–to various specific constituencies. For instance, in 2009, when President Zelaya of Honduras was overthrown in a coup, President Obama responded–initially–with a criticism of the coup. At the end of the day, however, the Obama administration did nothing to overturn the coup and to ensure that Honduras regained democracy. Instead the administration supported the ‘coup people.’ Did this mean that President Obama supported the coup? It does not really matter. What matters is that his administration backtracked on its alleged opposition to the coup and then did everything in their power to ensure that President Zelaya could not return. This is why the focus on Obama the personality is misleading and unhelpful.
No Struggle, No Progress
President Obama turned out not to be the progressive reformer that many people had hoped. At the same time, however, he touched off enough sore points for the political Right that he became a lightning rod for everything that they hated and feared. This is what helps us understand the circumstances under which the November 2012 election is taking place.
As a corporate liberal, Obama’s strategy was quite rational in those terms. First, stabilize the economy. Second, move on health insurance. Third, move on jobs. Fourth, attempt a foreign policy breakthrough. Contrary to the hopes of much of his base, Obama proceeded to tackle each of these narrowly as a corporate ‘bipartisan’ reformer rather than as a wider progressive champion of the underdog. That does not mean that grassroots people gained nothing. Certainly preserving General Motors was to the benefit of countless auto workers and workers in related industries. Yet Obama’s approach in each case was to make his determinations by first reading Wall Street and the corporate world and then extending the olive branch of bi-partisanship to his adversaries on the right. This, of course, led to endless and largely useless compromises, thereby demoralizing his base in the progressive grassroots.
While Obama’s base was becoming demoralized, the political right was becoming energized
It did not matter that Obama was working to preserve capitalism. As far as the right was concerned, there were two sins under which he was operating: some small degree of economic re-distributionism and the fact that Obama was Black. The combination of both made Obama a demon, as far as the right was concerned, who personified Black power, anti-colonialism and socialism, all at the same time.
The Upset Right and November 2012
We stress the need to understand that Obama represents an irrational symbol for the political right, and a potent symbol that goes way beyond what Obama actually stands for and practices. The right, while taking aim at Obama, also seeks, quite methodically and rationally, to use him to turn back the clock. They have created a common front based on white revanchism (a little used but accurate term for an ideology of revenge), on political misogynism, on anti-‘freeloader’ themes aimed at youth, people of color and immigrants, and a partial defense of the so-called 1%. Rightwing populism asserts a ‘producer’ vs. ‘parasites’ outlook aimed at the unemployed and immigrants below them and ‘Jewish bankers and Jewish media elites’ above them. Let us emphasize that this is a front rather than one coherent organization or platform. It is an amalgam, but an amalgam of ingredients that produces a particularly nasty US-flavored stew of right-wing populism.
Reports of declining Obama support among white workers is a good jumping off point in terms of understanding white revanchism. Obama never had a majority among them as a whole, although he did win a majority among younger white workers. White workers have been economically declining since the mid-1970s. This segment of a larger multinational and multiracial working class is in search of potential allies, but largely due to a combination of race and low unionization rates finds itself being swayed by right-wing populism. Along with other workers it is insecure and deeply distressed economically, but also finds itself in fear—psychologically—for its own existence as the demographics of the USA undergoes significant changes. They take note of projections that the US, by 2050, will be a majority of minorities of people of color. They perceive that they have gotten little from Obama, but more importantly they are deeply suspicious as to whether a Black leader can deliver anything at all to anyone.
Political misogynism—currently dubbed ‘the war on women’—has been on the rise in the US for some time. The ‘New Right’ in the 1970s built its base in right-wing churches around the issue in the battles over abortion and reproduction rights, setting the stage for Reagan’s victory. In the case of 2012, the attacks on Planned Parenthood along with the elitist dismissal of working mothers have been representative of the assertion of male supremacy, even when articulated by women. This in turn is part of a global assault on women based in various religious fundamentalisms that have become a refuge for economically displaced men and for gender-uncomfortable people across the board.
The attack on ‘slacker,’ ‘criminal’ and ‘over-privileged’ youth, especially among minorities, is actually part of what started to unfold in the anti-healthcare antics of the Tea Party. Studies of the Tea Party movement have indicated that they have a conceptualization based on the “deserving” and “undeserving” populations. They and many others on the right are deeply suspicious, if not in outright opposition, to anything that they see as distributing away from them any of their hard-won gains. They believe that they earned and deserve what they have and that there is an undeserving population, to a great extent youth (but also including other groups), who are looking for handouts. This helps us understand that much of the right-wing populist movement is a generational movement of white baby-boomers and older who see the ship of empire foundering and wish to ensure that they have life preservers, if not life-boats.
The defenders of the 1% are an odd breed. Obviously that includes the upper crust, but it also includes a social base that believes that the upper crust earned their standing. Further, this social base believes or wishes to believe that they, too, will end up in that echelon. Adhering to variations of Reaganism, ‘bootstrapping’ or other such ideologies, they wish to believe that so-called free market capitalism is the eternal solution to all economic problems. Despite the fact that the Republican economic program is nothing more or less than a retreading of George W. Bush’s failed approach, they believe that it can be done differently.
Empire, balance of forces and the lesser of two evils
The choice in November 2012 does not come down to empire vs. no-empire. While anyone can choose to vote for the Greens or other non-traditional political parties, the critical choice and battleground continues to exist in the context of a two-party system within the declining US empire. The balance of forces in 2012 is such that those who are arrayed against the empire are in no position to mount a significant electoral challenge on an anti-imperialist platform.
To assume that the November elections are a moment to display our antipathy toward empire, moreover, misses entirely what is unfolding. This is not a referendum on the “America of Empire”: it is a referendum pitting the “America of Popular Democracy”—the progressive majority representing the changing demographics of the US and the increasing demands for broad equality and economic relief, especially the unemployed and the elderly—against the forces of unfettered neoliberalism and far right irrationalism. Obama is the face on the political right’s bull’s eye, and stands as the key immediate obstacle to their deeper ambitions. We, on the left side of the aisle, recognize that he is not our advocate for the 99%. Yet and quite paradoxically, he is the face that the right is using to mobilize its base behind irrationalism and regression.
That’s why we argue that Obama’s record is really not what is at stake in this election
Had the progressive social movements mobilized to push Obama for major changes we could celebrate; had there been progressive electoral challenges in the 2010 mid-term elections and even in the lead up to 2012 (such as Norman Solomon’s congressional challenge in California, which lost very narrowly), there might be something very different at stake this year. Instead what we have is the face of open reaction vs. the face of corporate liberalism, of ‘austerity and war on steroids’ vs. ‘austerity and war in slow motion.’
This raises an interesting question about the matter of the “lesser of two evils,” something which has become, over the years, a major concern for many progressives. Regularly in election cycles some progressives will dismiss supporting any Democratic Party candidate because of a perceived need to reject “lesser evil-ism”, meaning that Democrats will always strike a pose as somewhat better than the GOP, but remain no different in substance. In using the anti-‘lesser evil-ism’ phraseology, the suggestion is that it really does not matter who wins because they are both bad. Eugene Debs is often quoted—better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you oppose and get it. While this may make for strong and compelling rhetoric and assertions, it makes for a bad argument and bad politics.
In elections progressives need to be looking very coldly at a few questions:
Are progressive social movements strong enough to supersede or bypass the electoral arena altogether? Is there a progressive candidate who can outshine both a reactionary and a mundane liberal, and win? What would we seek to do in achieving victory? What is at stake in that particular election?
In thinking through these questions, we think the matter of a lesser of two evils is a tactical question of simply voting for one candidate to defeat another, rather than a matter of principle. Politics is frequently about the lesser of two evils. World War II for the USA, Britain and the USSR was all about the lesser of two evils. Britain and the USA certainly viewed the USSR as a lesser evil compared with the Nazi Germany, and the USSR came to view the USA and Britain as the lesser evils. Neither side trusted the other, yet they found common cause against a particular enemy. There are many less dramatic examples, but the point is that it happens all the time. It’s part of ‘politics as strategy’ mentioned earlier.
It is for these reasons that upholding the dismissal of the ‘lesser evil-ism’ is unhelpful. Yes, in this case, Obama is aptly described as the lesser of two evils. He certainly represents a contending faction of empire. He has continued the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His healthcare plan is nowhere near as helpful as would be Medicare for All. He has sidelined the Employee Free Choice Act that would promote unionization. What this tells us is that Obama is not a progressive. What it does not tell us is how to approach the elections.
The political right, more than anything, wishes to turn November 2012 into a repudiation of the changing demographics of the US and an opportunity to reaffirm not only the empire, but also white racial supremacy. In addition to focusing on Obama they have been making what are now well-publicized moves toward voter suppression, with a special emphasis on denying the ballot to minority, young, formerly incarcerated and elderly voters. This latter fact is what makes ridiculous the suggestion by some progressives that they will stay home and not vote at all.
The political right seeks an electoral turn-around reminiscent of the elections at the end of the 19th century in the South that disenfranchised African Americans and many poor whites. This will be their way of holding back the demographic and political clocks. And, much like the disenfranchisement efforts at the end of the 19th century, the efforts in 2012 are playing on racial fears among whites, including the paranoid notion that there has been significant voter fraud carried out by the poor and people of color (despite all of the research that demonstrates the contrary!).
Furthermore, this is part of a larger move toward greater repression, a move that began prior to Obama and has continued under him. It is a move away from democracy as neo-liberal capitalism faces greater resistance and the privileges of the “1%” are threatened. Specifically, the objective is to narrow the franchise in very practical terms. The political right wishes to eliminate from voting whole segments of the population, including the poor. Some right-wingers have even been so bold as to suggest that the poor should not be entitled to vote.
November 2012 becomes not a statement about the Obama presidency, but a defensive move by progressive forces to hold back the ‘Caligulas’ on the political right. It is about creating space and using mass campaigning to build new grassroots organization of our own. It is not about endorsing the Obama presidency or defending the official Democratic platform. But it is about resisting white revanchism and political misogynism by defeating Republicans and pressing Democrats with a grassroots insurgency, while advancing a platform of our own, one based on the ‘People’s Budget’ and antiwar measures of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In short, we need to do a little ‘triangulating’ of our own.
Why do we keep getting ourselves into this hole?
Our answer to this question is fairly straight forward. In the absence of a long-term progressive electoral strategy that is focused on winning power, we will find ourselves in this “Groundhog Day” scenario again and again. Such a strategy cannot be limited to the running of symbolic candidates time and again as a way of rallying the troops. Such an approach may feel good or help build socialist recruitment, but it does not win power. Nor can we simply tail the Democrats.
The central lesson we draw from the last four years has less to do with the Obama administration and more to do with the degree of effective organization of social movements and their relationship to the White House, Congress and other centers of power. The failure to put significant pressure on the Obama administration–combined with the lack of attention to the development of an independent progressive strategy, program and organizational base–has created a situation whereby frustration with a neo-liberal Democratic president could lead to a major demobilization. At bottom this means further rightward drift and the entry into power of the forces of irrationalism.
Crying over this situation or expressing our frustration with Obama is of little help at this point. While we will continue to push for more class struggle approaches in the campaign’s messages, the choice that we actually face in the immediate battle revolves around who would we rather fight after November 2012: Obama or Romney? Under what administration are progressives more likely to have more room to operate? Under what administration is there a better chance of winning improvements in the conditions of the progressive majority of this country? These are the questions that we need to ask. Making a list of all of the things that Obama has not done and the fact that he was not a champion of the progressive movement misses a significant point: he was never the progressive champion. He became, however, the demon for the political right and the way in which they could focus their intense hatred of the reality of a changing US, and, indeed, a changing world.
We urge all progressives to deal with the reality of this political moment rather than the moment we wish that we were experiencing. In order to engage in politics, we need the organizations to do politics with, organizations that belong to us at the grassroots. That ball is in our court, not Obama’s. In 2008 and its aftermath, too many of us let that ball slip out of our hands, reducing us to sideline critics, reducing our politics to so much café chatter rather than real clout. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and international writer and activist. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com, the co-author of Solidarity Divided, and the author of the forthcoming “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty other myths about unions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Carl Davidson is a political organizer, writer and public speaker. He is currently co-chair of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a board member of the US Solidarity Economy Network, and a member of Steelworker Associates in Western Pennsylvania. His most recent book is ‘New Paths to Socialism: Essays on the Mondragon Cooperatives, Workplace Democracy and the Politics of Transition.’ He can be reached at email@example.com.