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.
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London Review of Books
One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.
Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. It might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).
Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.
Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’
Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.
By Mark Solomon
Published by Portside March 6, 2013
On February 4, 2010 The Gallop Poll released its latest data on the public’s political attitudes. The headline read: “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans.” While the poll did not attempt the daunting task of exploring what a diverse public understood socialism to mean, it nevertheless revealed an unmistakably sympathetic image of a system that had been pilloried for generations by all of capitalism’s dominant instruments of learning and information as well as by its power to suppress and slander socialist ideas and organization.
In sheer numbers, that means a population at the teen- age level and above of tens of millions with a favorable view of socialism.
Why then is the organized socialist movement in the United States so small and so clearly wanting in light of the potential for building its numbers and influence?
That is a crucial question. At every major juncture in the history of the country, radical individuals and organizations in advance of the mainstream have played essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change. In the revolution that birthed this country, radical activists articulated demands from the grass roots for an uncompromising and transforming revolution to crush colonial oppression. Black and white abolitionists fought to make the erasure of slavery the core objective of the Civil War while also linking that struggle to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. A mass Socialist Party in the early 20th century fought for state intervention to combat the ravages of an increasingly exploitative economic system while advancing the vision of a socialist commonwealth. In the Great Depression, the Communist Party and its allies fought the devastations of the crisis – helping to build popular movements to expand democracy, grow industrial unions and defend protections for labor embodied in the historic New Deal.
Small left and socialist organizations in the sixties supported a range of progressive struggles from peace to civil rights to women’s liberation to gay rights and beyond. The limited resources of those groups were effective in galvanizing massive peace demonstrations and in campaigns against racist and sexist oppression. But the Cold War and McCarthyism had eviscerated any hope for a major influential socialist current. Consequently, no large and impacting force existed to extend to the peace movement a coherent anti-imperial analysis that might have contributed to its continuity and readiness to confront the wars of the nineties and the new century. Nor was there a strong socialist organization to contribute to the civil rights struggle by advocating for reform joined to a commitment to deeper social transformation. Had such a current existed, it might have contributed to building a broad protective barrier against the devastating FBI and local police violence against sectors of the movement like the Black Panthers.
There should be little debate today on the left over the need for a strong socialist voice and movement in light of festering economic stagnation, war on the working class, looming environmental catastrophe, a widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us, massive joblessness and incarceration savaging African Americans and other oppressed nationalities, crises in health care, housing and education. Such a strong socialist presence could offer a searching analysis of the present situation, help stimulate a broad public debate on short term solutions and formulate a vision of a socialist future that could begin to reach the minds and hearts of the 36 percent who claim to be sympathetic to that vision.
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By Chris Walsh
International Socialist Group
Aug 37, 2011
Capitalism is currently experiencing the worst crisis in living memory. Austerity packages across the Western world are the deepest and most savage for generations. Millions are being thrown out of work; working conditions are constantly under attack; wages have stagnated (in real terms) for years; the cost of living continues to soar. Surely the economic conditions are ripe for a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system? Yet seizing the assets of the rich is only on the agenda for a minority of the working class. Why is this?
Consent and Class Leadership
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted that since the dawn of capitalism there had been many crises, but very few had resulted in any serious attempt by the workers to overthrow capitalism. Economic crises, on their own, were not enough to lead to a workers revolution. Gramsci states that in a class-based society, the dominant class maintains its authority through a combination (to varying degrees) of force and ideological persuasion. He called this two-pronged approach ‘authoritarian-populist hegemony’.
On the one hand there is the systematic use of force or coercion by the state, what Lenin described as "special bodies of armed men, prisons etc." In this way, the state ensures its domination over the workers. Even in advanced capitalism, the infliction of violence, or the even the ambient threat of violence, are a continued reality as a means of exerting mastery, e.g. the imprisonment of political activists or the deployment of the police or army to break up strikes. However the threat of violence is often concealed and social order is maintained through leadership in the field of ideas.
Thus, the dominant class rules by inflicting force where necessary, but winning consent where possible. Consent is negotiated by convincing the workers that the demands of the present order are ‘natural’ or at least the best case scenario for all. The ruling class competes, for instance in the sphere of parliamentary politics or journalism, to prove themselves worthy of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. This is not the function of the state proper, but of ‘civil society’, the institutions of cultural and ideological production (schools, universities, the media, the family etc.). Since the ruling class largely controls the institutions of learning, media etc, it is able to win the consent of the subordinate classes and thus maintain the system in its present form. By these means it is able to ride through economic crises and protect its position as the dominant class in society.
Consent is only achieved by a day-to-day negotiation between the immediate aims of the workers and the ideological leadership of elements of the dominant class. Gramsci repeatedly emphasizes that the masses are not intellectually passive:
There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens. Each man, finally, outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher’, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.
The aim of the ruling class is to persuade the masses that their agenda represents ‘common sense’. They can achieve this by making analogies – often spurious analogies – between policies and the daily experience of ordinary people. For instance, British politicians and pundits have successfully convinced some workers that cutting the deficit is the most immediate and urgent problem for any government (e.g. because sovereign debt is "like a credit card"). Actually, this is nonsense. Sovereign debt is not directly comparable with any form of private debt, least of all credit card debts. Furthermore, the idea that unleashing harsh austerity upon the working class will directly cut the deficit is highly contestable. Even many ruling class economists now reject this argument and predict that austerity will only stunt economic growth and produce ‘blowback’ in terms of a double-dip recession. Thus, the ruling class is perpetually divided between competing strategies: an all out ideological offensive to put a populist spin on austerity; and the incorporation of elements of dissent on particular issues, e.g. new taxes on the bankers and the billionaires. Ideological leadership thus involves negotiation and brinksmanship, between competing capitalist interests on the one hand, and the workers’ material needs and common sense ideas of ‘fairness’ on the other.
Dominance and Incorporation
We are surrounded by a system of indoctrination that serves to legitimize the backward institutions of the capitalist order, like private property, the family, and wage labour. From birth, almost everything that a member of the working class is exposed to, from nursery rhymes to school textbooks to newspapers, reinforces either subtly or explicitly the validity and superiority of the current system. The oppressed masses accept their lot consensually because of the success of capitalist hegemony. This explains why the majority of people in 21st century Britain do not want, nor recognize the necessity for, a revolution that will overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with a workers’ state. Capitalist ideology is inescapable.
However, it would be crude to suggest that hegemony is simply ruling class ideology enforced upon the workers in order to make us think the way they do. It’s more nuanced than that. Hegemony is a set of contested ideas, constantly in flux, striving for the continued acquiescence of the workers through demonstration of the ruler’s right and ability to rule. The ideas within ruling class hegemony have to change in order to maintain the popular support of the masses. This is done by making concessions to the workers and addressing, or at least seeming to address, some of their needs and wants.
Historically, the ruling class have kept workers’ revolts at bay by allowing economic concessions to their needs or popular desires (wage increases, welfare provision etc.) but such allowances have to be made in terms of culture and ideology also. For instance, the media will play on the concerns or fears of elements of the working class by including them in the cultural output of the ruling class.
Consider crime. Many workers have a ‘common sense’ fear of crime, and bourgeois hegemony mutates to reflect and also to lead these concerns. There are a whole host of television programmes about the tackling of crime and the restoration of law and order: Cops, Crimewatch, Police, Camera, Action, Night Cops, Cops With Cameras, the list goes on, seemingly, ad infinitum. In showing programmes like these, the ruling class simultaneously stoke the fears of a layer of the working class whilst attempting to resolve these fears by visualizing the victorious reconciliation of social order. In this way, they can make political capital and solidify their competence as society’s ‘intellectual and moral’ leaders.
If we consider the recent riots in London and other parts of the country, the backlash from the government and the media is a classic case of authoritarian-populist hegemony. The response of the State can only be described as brutal. Incredibly harsh sentences were dealt out to anyone having anything to do with the riots, including 2 young men who were sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for suggesting on Facebook that people in their own towns should emulate the uprisings in London. Had the unrest gone on any longer; the government was prepared to use rubber bullets and water cannons on our streets. Coupled with the State’s draconian backlash was a hysterical outcry by civil society, particularly the media. It was almost impossible to find any voice in the media addressing the real causes of the events. Instead we were subjected to newsreel after newsreel, article after article decrying the moral decay of certain parts of the country and in particular the young people of today’s Britain.
The perpetrators of this particular challenge to the status quo were immediately locked up, preventing them from creating any more trouble for the ruling class and also sending a message to anyone who might consider doing something similar in the future. As well as being imprisoned, the rioters have undergone a mass character assassination from both the State and civil society. Cameron has described the communities that rioted as "broken" and "sick", whilst elements of the media have painted anyone involved as simply criminals who took to the streets because they enjoy behaving badly. It was not uncommon to hear broadcasters suggest that the army be deployed on the streets.
The real issue of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity that has destroyed the communities that most of the rioters came from and robbed them of any real opportunities in life, is deflected. The uprisings in London should have been a series of events that working class people across the country could sympathize with and rally around; but instead, bourgeois hegemony has allowed for a mass condemnation of those involved and an opportunity for the State to prove its ability to rule because it is "tough on crime" and can keep people safe from such disturbances in their own areas.
Strategy and Power
Having considered the role of both the State and civil society in keeping the workers subordinate to the bosses, it is now useful to consider Gramsci’s military strategy. Gramsci stated that in any attempt to win state power there are two forms of struggle that revolutionaries can engage in: a War of Movement and a War of Position. The former is a swift attack, directly upon the seat of state power, with the objective of immediate overthrowing the government and replacing it with a workers’ state. This strategy is clearly inapplicable to the conditions of Britain or any form of ‘advanced capitalism’ today. A War of Movement can only be launched if civil society is weak and there is thus popular support from workers for an insurrection.
But a War of Position is a feasible strategy. This is a revolutionary struggle within and against (and perhaps, to an extent, for) civil society, set over a longer period of time, against the hegemony of the ruling class. (As long as this hegemony remains stable, a workers revolution cannot even be considered). In a War of Position, we must recognize that set-backs and retreats are inevitable. If the War of Movement is a sprint, the War of Position is a marathon; not simply an event, but a process. It is through this protracted struggle that we aim to create working class hegemony. We must aim to undermine ruling class hegemony and garner mass support and subscription to working class ideology.
It would be naïve to think that the best strategy for revolutionaries to gain influence and bolster working class hegemony today is to depose the ruling class from the institutions of civil society. The links between the State and civil society are far too deep and intricate for this to be a realistic possibility. The heads of the capitalist institutions of hegemony (schools, universities, television stations, newspapers, news websites etc.) are, for the vast majority, of the same class background as the heads of State.
Such positions are nearly always filled by people coming from a private school background, very often from Oxford and Cambridge, the same as most of the millionaires in the current cabinet. These positions are rarely open to anyone from a working class background. The recent Newscorp scandal proves just how deeply the connections between the State and civil society run. To try and fight the establishment to take control of civil society as it stands would be to fight the ruling class on its own terms and its own soil. This is not a viable strategy to break bourgeois hegemony. Instead, we must create our own working class institutions, in the workplace and beyond and demonstrate our own abilities as a class and present an alternative to subversion to greedy managers and politicians. In attempting to hegemonize society with working class ideas we must cast the net wide and draw in as many working class people as possible to the struggles that concern or affect them. By increasing workers’ participation in political struggles, we can promote, and prove in practice, the possibility of working class self-organization and self-determination. In this way we can prove that, as a class, we are capable of running society and that the bosses are superfluous to our needs.
As a means of drawing workers into struggles, Gramsci, like Lenin and Trotsky, was a great exponent of the united front. By drawing working class people together around one particular issue or campaign, revolutionaries are able to have a far greater influence on society than if they only relate to ‘card-carrying’ Marxists. In terms of today’s struggle: millions of people in Britain are opposed to the cuts but only a handful would describe themselves as Marxists or revolutionaries; they may hold very different beliefs, on any number of issues, to a revolutionary socialist but this is of no importance. If these people can come together and form a united front around the one issue of opposition to the cuts, then we have a far larger and more powerful oppositional force to the ruling class than if we squabble over whatever petty differences we may have. Gramsci recognized the centrality of the united front to revolutionary organization. He believed that the united front was not just a tactic to be utilized in one particular campaign and then jettisoned, but an on-going strategy to constantly draw more and more working people into struggles against the ruling class. Only through the continuation of this strategy can we hope to build serious influence in society and seek to undermine ruling class hegemony.
We must also seek to spread our ideas to as wide an audience as possible through the media. The function of propaganda cannot be underestimated. We have already noted that the mass media is almost exclusively a platform for ruling class ideas to be broadcast. However, with the recent exposure of corruption and malpractice within news outlets; the constantly growing new forms of media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, live blogs etc.); and the realisation by more and more people that institutions like the BBC are far from impartial (note the reportage on Palestine and the recent public sector strikes to name but a few), we have a terrific opportunity to promote our own ideas to a mass audience. The news outlets of the establishment are losing credibility rapidly and people, in growing numbers, are looking to alternative ways of following the news. Videos on Youtube can ‘go viral’ in a matter of hours and Twitter is growing at a spectacular rate. These are just two examples of ways in which radical ideas can be broadcast to the masses and working class perspectives can penetrate a massive audience like never before.
It may seem that we have a considerable way to go before working class counter-hegemony can begin to rival that of the capitalist class, but class struggle develops unevenly. As Lenin said, "Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen".
The capitalist class is in deep crisis. Ruling class ideology is being questioned by greater numbers of people every day; the bourgeois media is increasingly being seen as the propaganda machine that it truly is; and people are genuinely looking for an alternative to the crisis-ridden capitalism that drives them increasingly deeper and deeper into poverty. Now is the time to organize and build within workplaces and communities and not allow the capitalists to ride through yet another crisis unscathed. The ground is fertile for revolutionaries to engage the masses in class struggle against our oppressors, and this is what we must do. The united front must be utilized in a serious and genuine way in the months and years ahead. It is our only hope for victory.
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By Chris Walsh
International Socialist Group
June 21, 2012
The legacy of Antonio Gramsci is one of the most fiercely contested in the Marxist tradition. Gramsci’s lineage is claimed by myriad schools of thought for innumerable theoretical purposes, both within and out with Marxism. There is scarcely a social science that hasn’t incorporated Gramsci’s key concepts into its literature: often presenting the Italian as an ‘acceptable’ Marxist and almost never confronting the possibility that he was a thinker and activist of the same political ilk as Lenin. In the history of Western Marxism, perhaps the major debate of the last fifty years has been around the question of whether Gramsci’s politics were a continuation of, or a break from, the Leninist tradition.
The major task of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was to begin to articulate a revolutionary strategy for socialists operating in the advanced capitalist West where the conditions were fundamentally different from those in absolutist Russia. To engage in such a project is enough, for some, to draw a distinction between Gramsci’s politics and Lenin’s. However, this is a shallow conclusion to reach; since in the early 1920s, no one was more acutely aware as Lenin that a different revolutionary strategy would be necessary for the West.
In the 1970s, a new wave of theory which relied heavily on a (mis)reading of Gramsci began to emerge from within the Communist Parties of Europe. This loose variety of perspectives became known collectively as Eurocommunism: centred on the idea that Gramsci’s concept of ‘War of Position’ sanctioned a reformist road to socialism; the Communist Parties that adhered to this new perspective began to see electoral work as their political priority and quickly began to discount much of the politics of their Leninist heritage.
In Britain, Eurocommunism was championed by the Marxism Today journal, headed up by writers like Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall. Such figures had good reason to detach Gramsci from the Leninist tradition: they wanted to drive a theoretical wedge between themselves and the Stalinist USSR’s ‘cult of Lenin’; they were deeply pessimistic from decades of defeats for the hard-left and wanted to articulate a new socialist strategy which jettisoned the unmarketable old verities of their failed Marxism-Leninism, like ‘The Dictatorship of The Proletariat’. Gramsci, they thought, was their ticket to such drastic revision and they purposefully tried to distance his thought from that of Lenin. These were, of course, politically motivated men. Their own conclusions were neither impartial nor strictly scholarly but dictated by their own specific agenda of radical left-wing reorientation and renewal, in a time of deep crisis for the left.
It is important here to clarify some, often ignored but crucial, points: Firstly, the concept which has become synonymous with Gramscian thought, ‘hegemony’, was not an original concept of Gramsci’s, but one that he learned from Lenin and was widely used by leading theorists of both the Second and Third International. Gramsci’s use of the term is not a departure from, nor contradictory to, the Russian’s usage but is in fact a continuation and development of the same concept. Secondly, although it has been popular for decades to characterise Gramsci’s hegemony as an alternative strategy to the increasingly unfashionable concept of The Dictatorship of The Proletariat, Gramsci never intended it thus; in fact the two concepts were, in the Italian’s mind, very much complementary. In fact, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was an attempt to carry on Lenin’s legacy after his death.
Lenin and the West
As already mentioned, Lenin knew all too well that a different revolutionary strategy was required for the West. In 1921 he specifically outlined to the Russian communists the necessity of the theorisation of a strategy for Western workers which was suitable to their own conditions. He specifically regrets that the program set out at the Third Congress was scarcely comprehensible to the non-Russian mind:
"At the Third Congress, in 1921, we adopted a resolution on the organisational structure of the Communist parties and on the methods and content of their activities. The resolution is an excellent one, but it almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. This is its good point, but it is also its failing. It is its failing because I am sure that no foreigner can read it…Second, even if they read it, they will not understand it because it is too Russian. Not because it is written in Russian – it has been excellently translated into all languages – but because it is thoroughly imbued with the Russian spirit. And third, if by way of exception some foreigner does understand it, he cannot carry it out." (Lenin; ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution: Report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International’; Lenin’s Final Fight: 1922-23; p111)
The strength of the resolution was in its detail, specificity and ability to focus on the minutiae of organisational questions. Its weakness was that the specifics of the Russian social and economic conditions were exceptional and thus completely alien to the Western worker. Worse still is the fact that even after dedicated study of the Russian conditions leading to an understanding of the revolutionary organisation and practice of the Russian communists, this knowledge could become a fetter to the Western revolutionary if taken dogmatically since their own road to workers revolution would be so radically different to that of the Bolsheviks. This led Lenin to lament that "We have not learned how to present our Russian experience to foreigners." In order to rectify the oversights from the previous congress, he stressed to his compatriots that, "We Russians must also find ways and means of explaining the principles of this resolution to the foreigners. Unless we do that, it will be absolutely impossible for them to carry it out."
The key task for the Communist International at this point was to ‘translate’ the Russian experience into the many vernaculars of the European workers. No two states have identical form or conditions, and certainly the Russian situation was particularly far removed from those of the more advanced capitalisms in Europe.
War of Manouvere & War of Position
One of Gramsci’s greatest contributions to revolutionary Marxism was his formulation of the dual strategies of War of Manouvere and War of Position. The former, as carried out by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, was conceived as an appropriate strategy for socialists operating within societies where capitalism was still underdeveloped. It involved an insurrectionary advance upon the state which is only possible when the ruling class within society maintain their superiority to the subaltern classes by sheer force, with little or no acceptance of their superiority from the masses. In such a situation, the subordinate classes do not consent to the class leadership of the bourgeoisie but are forced into acquiescence by the vast apparatuses of state violence, "special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc." as Lenin outlined in The State and Revolution.
The War of Position, on the other hand, is a more patient and protracted strategy. This involves not just an attack upon the bastions of state power, but a lengthy period building up to this moment in which class alliances are forged and ideological leadership amongst the subaltern classes is strived for. Gramsci explains the differing conditions that demand each respective strategy:
"In the East, the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The state was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. Needless to say, the configuration of the state varied from state to state, which is precisely why an accurate reconnaissance on a national scale was needed." (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume III; trans. Buttigieg; p169)
In this particular passage Gramsci identifies the state as being the fortress surrounding civil society. At other times he presents the converse, that civil society protects the state. There is no ultimate truth regarding the formulation of advanced capitalist states since "the configuration of the state varied from state to state". The key point to note is that in the West there was a far more mature relationship between the state and civil society. The state in the advanced capitalist West ensures the continuation of the domination of the capitalist class through a far more complex method of governance than the brute coercion of the underdeveloped Eastern state. There is a far more effective deployment of a combination of both coercion and consent. The more advanced that the capitalist state becomes, it utilises less and less force and becomes increasingly reliant on gaining consent from the masses to maintain the hierarchical status quo.
It is important to note at this point that the population is by no means duped into such an arrangement. The ideology of the ruling class purposefully appeals to certain needs, desires or fears that are actually held by the subaltern classes. These appeals are made upon different issues at different historical points and are obviously dictated by the specific conditions in any given society. They can be anything from: the restoration of law and order/domestic security; national security; concerns around the size of the state apparatus; anger at ‘benefits culture’, appeals to fairness. All of these were deployed in Margaret Thatcher’s political project. All of these fears were stoked by Thatcher and her allies, predominantly through the role of the media in endorsing them wholeheartedly and giving little or no platform to any voice of dissent.
When the ruling class ideology becomes so widely accepted that the oppressed classes are willing to subscribe to it; when alternatives cannot be found, or if they exist but can’t gain any traction; this is when the ruling ideology becomes, what Gramsci called, ‘common sense’. This ideological shift in society becomes so stable that even the following political administrations seemingly have to subscribe to it. This is when a political project becomes truly hegemonic. This is what was achieved by the radical project of Thatcherism, so that the next Labour government after Thatcher’s reign completely embraced and continued her neo-liberal project.
The Integral State
In the traditional Marxist duality of state and civil society; the ideological apparatuses such as the media, schools, universities, the family etc. are considered to be institutions of civil society. Gramsci recognized that in advanced capitalist society, such an assignment is not completely accurate. Civil society and the state become so inextricably linked that both must be tackled concurrently. If we consider the influence that powerful figures in society can have upon the state and vice versa: whether it be wealthy donors to political parties having a say in policy or decision making; or media tycoons who have such a vast influence upon the population that they play a decisive role in who is elected to office; it is clear that the power in society does not simply lie within the state proper.
This is why Gramsci formulated the concept of the ‘integral state’. In this formulation, the state and civil society are not two distinct entities but two component parts of the same organism. There is a dialectical relationship between the two parts so that the capacities of the state to act are always dependant upon the balance of class and social forces, and the role of actors, within civil society.
It is a common misinterpretation of Gramsci that the War of Position is fought within civil society, and once hegemony is ensured, the state lies unprotected for the workers to lay hold of. When we consider the concept of the ‘integral state’ it becomes obvious that this is incorrect. The integral state is everything; one unitary ‘state-form’ that encompasses both civil and political society. The state proper and civil society prop each other up in a symbiotic fashion. A working class revolutionary movement must attack both at once. The strategy of the united front must be in constant deployment. The oppressed must be organised and drawn into constant and increasing struggle with the state and the ruling class. This must be given organisational form in the shape of new workers institutions and revolutionaries must always strive to ensconce politics into them, continually raising the consciousness and organisation of struggle in a dialectical interaction.
Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United front
We must understand that Gramsci’s conception of hegemony cannot be comprehended in isolation from his other major prison researches. We are offered the equation: ‘Civil Hegemony = War of Position = United Front.’ The United Front is the strategy implemented in order to unite the subordinate classes in conflict with the state; Civil hegemony (the starting point of, and always progressing towards, political hegemony) is the leadership of the oppressed classes on the terrain of civil society; and War of Position is the steady, incremental advance of the proletarian-led alliance of the oppressed to subordinate the dominant hegemony, and when possible, manouvere for control of the apparatuses of the state. Each component part of this formulation is essential to the unity of the strategic whole.
If any one is discounted, the strategy is rendered unintelligible and certainly un-workable. Leadership (hegemony) can only be established within civil society once the various oppressed classes have forged some form of allegiance (through the United Front) with the proletarian vanguard that will lead the struggle against the ruling class in the fields of both civil and political society. I will argue, and seek to demonstrate through a close textual analysis, that each component part of the equation owes a great deal to the influence of Lenin.
Lenin’s Hegemony (Leadership)
As we have already noted, Gramsci adopted his concept of hegemony from Lenin. We should also remember at this point that hegemony for Gramsci, in any given pre-revolutionary period, simply means leadership of the subaltern classes, brought together in struggle by the United Front. Although Lenin doesn’t often use the word hegemony, this has often mistakenly been interpreted as an absence or irrelevance of the concept from his discourse. As Buci-Glucksmann puts it:
"The majority of commentators, anxious to stress the decisive contribution made by Gramsci, or more subtly, to oppose Gramsci to Lenin, end up by underestimating the place of hegemony in Lenin’s work and remaining almost completely silent on the Third International." (Buci-Glucksmann, Christine; Gramsci and The State; p174)
However, it is not difficult to find examples of the concept in his writings from long before 1917. Let us consider the following passages from Two Tactics of Social Democracy, written in 1905:
"All the usual, regular and current work of all organizations and groups of our Party, the work of propaganda, agitation and organisation, is directed towards strengthening and expanding the ties with the masses." (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p51)
"In a word, to avoid finding itself with its hands tied in the struggle against the inconsistent bourgeois democracy the proletariat must be class-conscious and strong enough to rouse the peasantry to revolutionary consciousness, guide its assault, and thereby independently pursue the line of consistent proletarian democratism." (Lenin; Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in The Democratic Revolution, Lenin: Selected Works; p85)
As early as 1905 Lenin recognises that class alliances must be made with the other subaltern classes in order to engage in effective revolutionary struggle. This is especially true in countries where the proletariat is not quantitatively the largest class. As well as forging this alliance of the oppressed, the proletariat must establish the trust and loyalty of the other component classes and lead and dictate the form of their revolutionary activities (just as in Gramsci’s formulations). At this conjuncture, Lenin identifies the united front as a tactic, suitable to the specific period, rather than a strategy. One could easily argue that it was suitable for Russia in 1905 but quite ill-fitting to the conditions in which Gramsci operated in Italy. However, the United Front eventually establishes a more permanent role in Lenin’s thought. It wasn’t until much later, specifically at the beginning of the Third International that the united front was recognized as a strategy for the age rather than merely a specific manouvere. I will return to, and address, this point later when dealing with the theory and practice of the ‘last Lenin’ and its significance to Gramsci.
Lenin’s overall strategy for proletarian revolution was evidently vindicated in October 1917. After the October Revolution, the concept of hegemony – class leadership of the oppressed – begins to appear far more frequently in Lenin’s writings, and it appears in a more developed form. In 1918, in The State and Revolution, we read:
"Only the proletariat – by virtue of the economic role it plays in large-scale production – is capable of being the leader of all the working and exploited people, whom the bourgeoisie exploit, oppress and crush, often not less but more than they do the proletarians, but who are incapable of waging an independent struggle for their emancipation." (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p281)
No other class other than that of workers has been prepared by its position in the mode of production for such a role; No other class is organized through labour in such large groupings and social conditions; No other class has the skills to continue production and lay the foundations for the new socialist society in the eventuality of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
The Dictatorship of The Proletariat (Domination)
At this point, after the revolutionary deposition of the capitalist class, Lenin’s ‘hegemony’ acquires another vital aspect to its overall meaning, one that we also find in the writings of Antonio Gramsci; namely, domination. Now we see hegemony as necessary not just in order to lead the oppressed classes in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie; but also as essential to the proletariat to maintain its class domination and quell the "desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie". This period in which the proletariat assumes the position of society’s ruling class is by no means the completion of the workers’ revolution. It is simply the transitional period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers revolution is only complete when all classes have been abolished from society.
Now, the distinction, falsely forged in desperation by the Eurocommunists and reformists of all shades, of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Lenin’s understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat is exposed to all as wholly inaccurate. Simply put, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the mobilization of "a ‘special coercive force’ for the suppression of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat". (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Lenin: Selected Works; p275) In other words, Gramsci’s understanding of the ‘domination’ aspect of hegemony is identical to Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
In the writings of both Lenin and Gramsci, the proletarian-led, revolutionary alliance of the exploited remained essential before, during and after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. This working class leadership was coupled with a post-insurrectionary working class domination and suppression of the deposed capitalist class and the counter-revolutionary forces it would mobilise in a furious attempt to reclaim its lost superiority. In Gramsci’s first notebook he writes:
"A class is dominant in two ways, namely it is "leading" and "dominant." It leads the allied classes, it dominates the opposing classes. Therefore, a class can (and must) "lead" even before assuming power; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but it also continues to ‘lead’." (Gramsci, Antonio; Prison Notebooks, Volume I; trans. Buttigieg; p136)
Compare this with Lenin’s outline of the strategic necessities of the revolutionary process, again written in 1918:
"In every socialist revolution, however – and consequently in the socialist revolution in Russia which we began on October 25, 1917 – the principal task of the proletariat, and of the poor peasants which it leads, is the positive or constructive work of setting up an extremely intricate and delicate system of new organizational relationships extending to the planned production and distribution of the goods required for the existence of tens of millions of people. Such a revolution can be successfully carried out only if the majority of the population, and primarily the majority of the working people, engage in independent creative work as makers of history. Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class-consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and perseverance, will the victory of the socialist revolution be assured." (Lenin; The Immediate Tasks of The Soviet Government; Lenin: Selected Works; p402)
The overthrow of the bourgeoisie does not herald the birth of a new socialist society; it is merely the transitory stage of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The socialist revolution is only complete when classes have been eliminated from society and thus the state, whose very raison d’être is the suppression of the subordinate classes to ensure the continued superiority of the dominant, is rendered superfluous. The socialist revolution is only completed when a new, completely unprecedented state-form comes into being: the workers state; "which is no longer really a state." (Lenin; The State and Revolution; Essential Works of Lenin; p301)
The alliances forged before the insurrectionary movement must be maintained and continue to be led by the workers in order to construct the new social and economic conditions for socialism and allow the revolutionary process to progress beyond the temporary moment of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Lenin writes in 1919:
"Classes have remained, but in the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat every class has undergone a change, and the relations between the classes have also changed. The class struggle does not disappear under the dictatorship of the proletariat; it merely assumes different forms." (Lenin; Economics and Politics in The Era of The Dictatorship of the Proletariat; Lenin: Selected Works; p503)
Although Lenin and Gramsci use different language, it is evident that they are describing the same organisational, revolutionary practice. Just as the relative absence of the actual word ‘hegemony’ in Lenin doesn’t denote an omission of the concept; neither does Gramsci’s seldom use of the phrase, ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in the Prison Notebooks signify its absence from his thought.
The ‘Last Lenin’
The most significant themes of Gramsci’s carceral writings: Hegemony, War of Position and the United Front; as we have seen, were all taken directly from Lenin. Gramsci’s biographer, Alastair Davidson remarks that, "Leninism at its end-point and gramscianism at its beginnings are closely linked." (Davidson, Alastair; Gramsci & Lenin: 1917-1922; The Socialist Register, 1974; p146) This does not go far enough. Gramsci’s prison writings carry Lenin’s theoretical baton after the Russian’s death. They seek to articulate his final strategic thoughts in a period when Leninism had been crudely distorted and Lenin’s true legacy was fiercely contested, if not always openly, within the Communist International. Gramsci formulated his ideas at the same time as the Comintern was committed to the strategic folly of the Third Period and the abandonment of the United Front. In Lenin’s final years, he realised that the United Front was no longer merely a conjunctural manouvere but in fact the only suitable strategy for the age. Gramsci took the minority position of being faithful to this Lenin. Peter Thomas writes:
"The struggle for ‘civil and political hegemony’, the attempt to construct a proletarian hegemonic apparatus, was Gramsci’s attempt to remain faithful to Lenin’s last will and testament and to deploy the qualitative advance in the development of the concept of hegemony in Western conditions. Far from leading away from the classical thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gramscian theory of proletarian hegemony posits itself as its necessary ‘complement’. War of Position is now not only the ‘only possible’ strategy in the West; as an application of the mass class-based politics of the united front, it has become the sine qua non of a revolutionary politics that wants to produce a politics ‘of a very different type’ on an international scale." (Thomas, Peter D; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism; p239)
In light of the evidence, there can be absolutely no question of whether or not Gramsci was a Leninist. His Leninism was far richer and more dynamic than any variant professed by his contemporaries. By crudely cleaving Gramsci from the Leninist tradition, the Eurocommunists and their ancestors present a picture of the man and his theory which is not only historically inaccurate, but opportunistically incomplete. We must reclaim his legacy from its wide-ranging abuse in political discourse and just about every other field of social science.
In the 21st century when much of the left have abandoned Lenin for being antiquated and outmoded, we must look to Gramsci in order to help define what Leninism means today and its relevance to revolutionary struggle in our age. The Leninist left’s dreary re-reading of The State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done?, as if a solution to the many crises that confront us today will magically materialise from within the text, will provide little insight into the questions and tasks presented by the ever advancing and transforming (and increasingly crisis-ridden) capitalism of today. Dogmatism is our enemy within. Gramsci’s dynamic Marxism can aid in undermining the dogma that silently retards us. The revolutionary left needs Gramsci; now more than ever.
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By Gar Alperovitz and Steve Dubb
Alternet, Jan 15, 2013
Most activists tend to approach progressive change from one of two perspectives: First, there’s the “reform” tradition that assumes corporate control is a constant and that “politics” acts to modify practices within that constraint. Liberalism in the United States is representative of this tradition. Then there’s the “revolutionary” tradition, which assumes change can come about only if the major institutions are largely eliminated or transcended, often by violence.
But what if neither revolution nor reform is viable?
Paradoxically, we believe the current stalemating of progressive reform may open up some unique strategic possibilities to transform institutions of the political economy over time. We call this third option evolutionary reconstruction. Like reform, evolutionary reconstruction involves step-by-step nonviolent change. But like revolution, evolutionary reconstruction changes the basic institutions of ownership of the economy, so that the broad public, rather than a narrow band of individuals (i.e., the “one percent”) owns more and more of the nation’s productive assets.
1. A People’s Bank
One area where this logic can be seen at work is in the financial industry. At the height of the financial crisis in early 2009, some kind of nationalization of the banks seemed possible. It was a moment, President Obama told banking CEOs, when his administration was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” The president opted for a soft bailout, but that was not the only possible decision.
When the next financial crisis occurs – and many experts think it will —a different resolution may well be possible. One option has already been put on the table. In 2010, 33 senators voted to break up large Wall Street investment banks that were “too big to fail.” Such a policy would not only reduce financial vulnerability, it would alter the structure of institutional power.
Nor is an effort to break up banks, even if successful, likely to be the end of the process. The modern history of anti-trust and finance suggests that the big banks, even if broken up, will ultimately regroup. So what can be done when breaking them up fails?
Traditional reforms have aimed at improved regulation, higher reserve requirements and the channeling of credit to key sectors. But future crises may bring into play a spectrum of sophisticated proposals for more radical change. For instance, a “Limited Purpose Banking” strategy put forward by conservative economist Laurence Kolticoff would impose a 100% reserve requirement on banks. Since banks typically provide loans in amounts many times their reserves, this would transform them into modest institutions with little or no capacity to finance speculation. It would also nationalize the creation of all new money as federal authorities, rather than bankers, directly control system-wide financial flows.
More striking is the argument of Willem Buiter, the chief economist of Citigroup, that if the public underwrites the costs of bailouts, “banks should be in public ownership.” In fact, had the taxpayer funds used to bail out major financial institutions in 2007-2010 been provided on condition that voting stock be issued in return for the investment, one or more major banks would have become essentially public banks.
Nor is this far from current political tradition. Unknown to most, there have been a large number of small and medium-sized public banking institutions for some time now. In fact, the federal government already operates 140 banks and quasi-banks that provide loans and loan guarantees for an extraordinary range of domestic and international economic activities.
The economic crisis has also produced widespread interest in the Bank of North Dakota, a highly successful state-owned bank founded in 1919. Between 1996 and 2008, the bank returned $340 million in profits to the state. The bank enjoys broad support in the business community, as well as among progressive activists. Legislative proposals to establish banks patterned in whole or in part on the North Dakota model have been put forward by activists and legislators in more than a dozen states.
2. Move to Universal Healthcare
That austerity and failing reform might open the way to "evolutionary reconstructive" institutional change is also suggested by emerging developments in healthcare.
Cost pressures are also building up—and, critically, in ways that will continue to undermine U.S. corporations facing global competitors, forcing them to seek new solutions. The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services projects that healthcare costs will go up from the 2010 level of 17.5 percent of GDP to 19.6 percent in 2019. It has long been clear that over the long-haul cost pressures are ultimately likely to force development of some form of single-payer system —the only serious way to deal with the underlying problem.
A national solution may come about either in response to a burst of pain-driven public outrage, or more slowly through a state-by-state build-up. Massachusetts already has a near universal plan. In Hawaii, health coverage (provided mostly by nonprofit insurers) reaches 91.8 percent of adults in part because of a 1970s law mandating low-cost insurance for anyone working 20 hours a week. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin signed legislation in May 2011 creating “Green Mountain Care.” Universal coverage, dependent on a federal waiver, would begin in 2017 and possibly as early as 2014. In Connecticut, the legislature in 2011 authorized a “SustiNet” non-profit public health insurance program, which it aims to launch in 2014. In all, bills to create universal healthcare have been introduced in nearly 20 states.
3. Build Community Wealth
“Social enterprises” that undertake businesses in order to support specific social missions now increasingly comprise what is sometimes called a "fourth sector” (different from the government, business and non-profit sectors). Roughly 4,500 not-for-profit community development corporations are largely devoted to housing development. There are now also more than 10,000 businesses owned in whole or part by their employees; nearly 3 million more individuals are involved in these enterprises than are members of private sector unions. Another 130 million Americans are members of various urban, agricultural and credit union cooperatives. In many cities, “land trusts” are underway using an institutional form of nonprofit or municipal ownership that develops and maintains low- and moderate-income housing.
In Cleveland, Ohio, an integrated group of worker-owned companies has been developed, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities. The Cleveland effort, which is partly modeled on the 85,000-person Mondragón cooperative network, based in the Basque region of Spain, is on track to create new businesses, year by year, as time goes on. The goal is not simply worker ownership, but the democratization of wealth and community building in general. Linked by a community-serving non-profit corporation and a revolving fund, the companies cannot be sold outside the network; they also return 10 percent of profits to help develop additional worker-owned firms.
A critical element of the strategy points to what is essentially a quasi-public sector planning model: Hospitals and universities in the area currently spend $3 billion on goods and services a year—none, until recently, from the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. The “Cleveland model” is supported in part by decisions of these substantially publically financed institutions to allocate part of their procurement to the worker-co-ops in support of a larger community-building agenda. Numerous other cities are now exploring efforts of this kind, including Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Amarillo, Texas; and Washington, DC. Related institutional work is now underway, too, through the leadership of United Steelworkers, a union that has put forward new proposals for a co-op-union model of ownership.
Another innovative enterprise is Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, a $23.5 million, mixed-use, commercial-retail-residential development. The project was conceived, planned and developed by teams of community members working with the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. Market Creek Plaza is also a green project, and aims to expand to become a transit-oriented village with 800 units of affordable housing and extensive facilities for nonprofit organizations. The project has restored 1,400 linear feet of wetlands, while generating 200 permanent jobs (70 percent filled by local residents), provided 415 residents with a 20-percent ownership stake in the project, and generated $42 million in economic activity (in 2008).
4. Leverage City Assets
Yet another arena of institutional growth involves municipal development. By maintaining direct ownership of areas surrounding transit station exits, public agencies in Washington, DC, Atlanta and elsewhere earn millions, capturing the increased land values their transit investments create. The town of Riverview, Michigan has been a national leader in trapping methane from its landfills and using it to fuel electricity generation, thereby providing both revenue and jobs. There are roughly 500 similar projects nationwide. Many cities have established municipally owned hotels. There are also nearly 2,000 publicly owned utilities that provide power (and often broadband) to more than 45 million Americans, generating $50 billion in annual revenue. Significant public institutions are also common at the state level. CalPERS, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local community development needs; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each citizen with dividends as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development.
5. Organize for the Long Haul
You can think of the slow buildup of democratizing strategies as the pre-historical developmental work needed to clarify new principles for larger scale application. Just as in the decades before the New Deal, state and local experiments in the “laboratories of democracy” may suggest new larger scale approaches. The new direction has four aspects; democratization of wealth; community, both locally and in general; decentralization in general; and substantial but not complete forms of democratic planning. Let’s take a look at each of these.
Democratization of Wealth: Institutions like public banks challenge the idea that private corporate enterprise offers the only possible way forward. They also help open new ways of thinking about how to get meaningful larger scale democratization. Historically, cooperatives and other federations also helped establish institutional and organizational support for explicit political efforts in support of specific policies. Critically, they also help stabilize local community economies, since such institutions tend to be anchored locally by virtue of their democratic ownership structure.
Rethinking Community: If you want to alter larger patterns of wealth and power, you have to build a culture that reconstructs “community.” In economic terms, building community means introducing and emphasizing practical forms of community ownership. In the Cleveland effort, for example, the central institution is a community-wide, neighborhood-encompassing non-profit corporation. The board of the non-profit institution includes representatives both of the worker cooperatives and of key community institutions. Worker co-ops are linked to this (and to a revolving fund at the center), and though independently owned and managed, they cannot be sold without permission from the founding community-wide institution. The basic principle is that the effort should benefit the broader community, not only or simply workers in one or another co-op.
Decentralization: Can there be meaningful democracy in a very large system without far more rigorous decentralization than is commonly assumed in the United States? It is a commonplace that Washington is “broken.” But part of the problem has to do with scale. We rarely confront the fact that the United States is a very large geographic polity: Germany could easily be tucked into Montana. The United States is also very large in population—currently more than 310 million, likely to reach 500 million shortly after mid-century.
Decentralization in these circumstances is nearly inevitable, and if the continental nation is too large and most states are too small to deal with economic matters, what remains is the intermediate scale we call the region— a unit of scale that is likely to become of increasing importance as time (and population growth) go on. The question is almost certainly how to regionalize, not whether to do so—what powers to maintain at the center and what powers to relegate to various smaller scale units. The principle of subsidiarity—keeping decision-making at the lowest feasible level, and only elevating to higher levels when absolutely necessary—is implicit as a guiding principle.
Democratic Planning: A well-designed planning system can change relationships between firms, the community and the market. Planning also needs to be democratic at all levels.
Take a look at Brazil’s innovations in participatory budgeting, where citizens determine major public expenditures – an idea that is gaining traction in Chicago. So far these experiments have definite limits since they are restricted to municipal budget decisions. But if the practice can be extended in scope and scale over time, it could provide an important mechanism for increasing meaningful democracy.
High-speed rail and mass transit are another area in which we can think about larger scale planning approaches. The United States has limited capacity to build equipment for any of this. But when the next crisis occurs in the auto or other industries, a public bail-out might restructure firms so that we could use public contracts needed to build mass transit and high-speed rail in ways that also help support the development of quasi-public national and community-based firms—both to produce what is needed and simultaneously to help stabilize local communities.
6. Cut Corporate Power Down to Size
To deal with economic issues, ecological challenges and local community stability, we must also come to terms with corporate power dynamics. Public corporations are subject to Wall Street’s first commandment: Grow or die!” You can’t just wish or regulate that idea away.
In addition to carbon emissions, countless studies have documented growing energy, mineral, water, arable land and other limits to unending growth. Yet the trends continue: The United States, with less than 5 percent of global population, consumes 22 percent of the world’s oil, 13 percent of world coal, and 21 percent of world natural gas. From 1940 to 1976, Americans used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as did everyone in all previous history.
At some point, a society like the United States that already produces the equivalent of over $190,000 for every family of four must ask when enough is enough. As Juliet Schor has argued, one key change is to encourage less consumption and more leisure time. That means reforming unemployment insurance policy to encourage work sharing, changing government labor practices to model shorter working hours, and discouraging excessive overtime. We need to restore balance on a personal level, but we can’t ignore the big systemic challenges. As former presidential adviser James Gustav Speth has observed: “For the most part we have worked within this current system of political economy, but working within the system will not succeed in the end when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”
As a matter of cold logic, if some of the most important corporations have a massively disruptive and costly impact on the economy and environment—and if experience suggests that regulation and anti-trust laws are likely to be largely subverted by these corporations—a public takeover becomes the only logical answer. This general argument was put forward most forcefully not by liberals, but by the founders of the Chicago School of economics. Conservative Nobel Laureate George Stigler repeatedly observed that regulatory strategies were “designed and operated primarily for [the corporation’s] benefit.” Henry C. Simons, Milton Friedman’s mentor, was even more forceful. “Turned loose with inordinate powers, corporations have vastly over-organized most industries,” Simons held. The state “should face the necessity of actually taking over, owning, and managing directly…industries in which it is impossible to maintain effectively competitive conditions.”
For many decades, the only choices to many have seemed state socialism, or corporate capitalism. When traditional systems falter and fail, new ideas spring to life. Little noticed by most observers, handholds on processes of potentially important new forms of change have been quietly developing around the country. These changes build upon each other to create an evolutionary process that has the power to transform the way we live – for the better.
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“In recent years, and in increasingly more countries, growing multitudes have rebelled against the existing order and without a defined leadership have taken over plazas, streets, highways, towns, parliament, but, despite having mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, neither the magnitude of its size nor its combativeness have enabled these multitudes to go beyond simple popular revolts. They have brought down presidents, but they have not been capable of conquering power in order to begin a process of deep social transformation.” — Marta Harnecker.
By Marta Harnecker
Translated by Federico Fuentes, via LINKS
This article seeks to reflect on the issues raised during the roundtable discussion, “State, revolution and the construction of hegemony”, that occurred at the VI International Forum on Philosophy, held between November 28 and December 2, 2011, in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Logically, here I once again repeat some ideas that I have expressed in other writings, but have ordered them differently, while further refining some of them. It was written in July 2012 and first published in English at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Now available HERE in a PDF file set up from printing as an 11 x 17 fold-over, doubled sided, collated booklet, in easy-to-read type. Click HERE for a straight-though 36-page PDF document.
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1. Our goal: a different socialism
1) A new socialism, far removed from the Soviet model
2) Returning to the original socialist ideas.
3) Participatory planning: a fundamental characteristic of socialism..
4) Socialism, direct democracy and delegated democracy.
a) Decentralization: essential for real participation.
b) Direct democracy and delegated democracy.
5) A new society that is not decreed from above.
2. Transition to socialism using the government as a lever
1) Neoliberalism bred 21st-century socialism in Latin America.
2) A dilemma: how to advance having only conquered governmental power
a) Using the inherited state to promote the creation of a new state built from below.
b) Transforming the armed forces.
c) A development model that respects nature.
d) Other challenges.
3) The need for a pedagogy of limitations.
3. Constructing a new hegemony.
1) Defining hegemony.
a) Bourgeoisie achieves popular approval for capitalist order
b) Bourgeois hegemony begins to break down.
2) The need for a political instrument and a new culture within the left
3) Political strategy for current situation: a broad front
a) Winning the hearts and minds of the immense majority
b) A new culture of the left
Our goal: a different socialism
1) A new socialism, far removed from the soviet model
1. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Latin American and world leftist intellectuals fell into a state of confusion. We knew more about what we didn’t want in socialism than what we did want. We rejected the lack of democracy, totalitarianism, state capitalism, bureaucratic central planning, collectivism that sought to standardize without respect for differences, productivism that emphasized the expansion of productive forces without taking into account the need to preserve nature, dogmatism, intolerance towards legitimate opposition, the attempt to impose atheism by persecuting believers, the need for a single party to lead the process of transition.
2. So, why talk about socialism at all, if that word carried and continues to carry such a heavy burden of negative connotations?
3. To answer this question, we need to consider some important issues. On the one hand, just as Soviet socialism was collapsing, democratic and participatory processes in local governments began to emerge in Latin America, foreshadowing the “kind of alternative to capitalism that people wanted to build.” On the other, by demonstrating in practice that people could govern in a transparent, non-corrupt, democratic and participatory manner, the political conditions in several Latin American countries were thus prepared to make possible the coming to power of the left through democratic elections.
4. These beacons that began to radiate throughout our continent were aided by the resounding failure of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, by the global crisis of capitalism. An alternative to capitalism is more necessary than ever. But what should it be called?
5. It was President Chávez who had the audacity to point to socialism as the alternative to capitalism He called it “21st-century socialism,” reclaiming the values associated with the word socialism: “love, solidarity, equality between men and women and equity among all,” while added the adjective “21st century” to differentiate this new socialism from the errors and deviations present in the model of socialism that was implemented during the 20th century in the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.
6. Aware of the negative connotation associated with this word, Chavez dedicated himself to explaining to his people, through numerous public speeches and interventions, all the benefits that this new society would bring with it, in contrast to the situation created by capitalism. His interventions have been so successful that, according to various polls, more than half of Venezuela’s population prefers socialism over capitalism.
7. However, it is worth remembering that 35 years earlier in Chile, the victory of President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, with the support of the leftist Popular Unity coalition, marked the beginning of the world’s first experiment in a peaceful transition to socialism. Although it was defeated by a military coup three years later, the experience left us with some important lessons. If our generation learned anything from that defeat, it was that peaceful progress towards our goal required us to rethink the socialist project applied until then in the world, and that it was therefore necessary to develop a project that was more in tune with the reality of Chile and the peaceful path towards socialism. Allende’s folkloric expression, “socialism with red wine and empanadas,” seemed to capture this idea, pointing towards the building of a democratic socialist society rooted in national popular traditions. So I believe that the Chilean experience should be considered the first practical experience that attempted to move away from the Soviet model of socialism and towards what we now call 21st-century socialism. continue
By David Laibman
SCIENCE & SOCIETY 76
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began last fall at Zuccotti Park in New York City, and then spread across the country, has rekindled, with some urgency, the debate about left strategy, and about the direction the movement should take.
By the time this text appears in print, the discussion will have become fused with the political debate that always surfaces in the United States in a Presidential election year.
Let’s start with two affirmations: first, everyone who lives in the shadow of today’s world capitalist crisis has a right to give “advice” to Occupy. In my own conversations with activists (mainly in New York), I have found very little of the old “hey, we are the movement” attitude: everyone understands now that people with varying experiences and different degrees and styles of participation have a right to speak in the “general assemblies” of our time; that youth is not a guarantee of creativity and freshness of vision, any more than age is a guarantee of wisdom and experience. Second, yes, many of the things we will be saying, and hearing, have been said and heard before. That, too, is good, not bad. If some of us are reminded of debates on the left in earlier times — the 1960s, say, or even the 1930s — that does not mean that we are necessarily spinning (or reinventing) our wheels.
With this in tow, I want to consider the range of positions that are circulating within today’s activist movement. Without attempting anything like a systematic survey, I want to suggest that there are essentially three positions in play — three models of the society that oppresses us, and against which we are organizing. I will call this society “capitalist,” recognizing that that term means different things to different people, and that one of the three models (described below) may not even use it. Each of the models, in turn, has its own unique brand of proposals concerning how the movement should proceed: the relation between electoral and extra-electoral forms of struggle, for instance, or between long-range and short-range goals. Each of the models, of course, has numerous variations within it. Listening to the discussions, the first impression received is one of immense and random variety. The most common view, I believe, uses a two-model approach to organizing the cloud of ideas: these are the first two, of the three enumerated just below. My contribution is to add a third model to the toolbox. It should go without saying that more than one of these models can coexist within a single consciousness.
The three models may be labeled 1) Reformist; 2) External/Revolutionary; 3) Internal/Revolutionary.
The Reformist model sees contemporary capitalist society as having gone off the rails in crucial respects. Its description of the crisis, and the forces leading up to it, relies on metaphors and concepts such as “feeding frenzy,” “excessive polarization,” “loss of equilibrium between public and private,” and so on. We need impassioned and energetic forces, such as Occupy, to drive a new political momentum for balance, for reining in excesses, eliminating harmful externalities, generating the “shared prosperity” that is the “foundation for political democracy.” The movement should focus on reforms: fair taxation, government (public) responsibility for job creation in the last instance, full funding for health care, education, child and elder care, ecological sustainability. Issues concerning systems — of property, wealth, power — take back seat to the task of achieving measurable goals. The practical consequences of this model are fairly straightforward: pursue specific reforms, in concert with established forces (trade unions, reform movements, community organizations, the activist base of the Democratic Party). continue
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Debating Strategy and Tactics: Chris Hedges vs. the ‘Black Bloc’ – 20 Minute video as discussion starter
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.