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Making a difference

jeffroby's picture
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Stephen King, in one of his books on the field of horror fiction, was asked about the political import of all the 50’s movies that featured scary monsters created from radioactive fallout. King’s response was that there was no politics at all. Spooky radioactive stuff was simply part of the public consciousness, a throw-away, and the question was simply whether the monster should be a sea creature or an insect or a giant lizard.

Today, if you look at popular movies for the past 40 years, there is a constant theme that if you know evil government secrets, the government will kill you. If you expose a secret military operation, the military will kill you. If you can reveal corporate wrong-doing, the corporations will kill you. If you know of illegal police operations, the police will kill you. Government officials, corporate officials, military officials, are all routinely portrayed as ruthless seekers of profit and power who will stop at nothing to achieve their ends.

Jaws. A local government leaves people exposed to a giant ravenous shark rather than hurt the local tourist business. This was a shock? Did people react to Jaws with, “No, we can’t imagine them doing something like that”? No. Of course not. The exciting part was whether the heroes could kill the shark before it ate them.

Now there’s this oil leak

The left leaps into action. The oil companies are evil. The government is corrupt. Obama is a tool of BP. So fucking what?

What difference does this exposure make? Has it made Obama move any faster to clean it up? I doubt it. Does it increase the pressure to halt offshore drilling? Yes, to some small extent. (The real pressure is exerted by shoreline governments and the economic interests this threatens.)

Is it being used as a rallying cry for a primary challenge in 2012? If only it were.

Crushing the unemployed

I’ve been trying to keep folks up on some of what’s happening with the unemployed, particularly the 99ers -- those whose maximum benefits are running out, like mine. Paladinette of Now: Jobless/Next: Homeless, Advocacy for the Long Term Unemployed (AFTLU), the IAM’s Union of the Unemployed (UCubed) and others launched a fight for the creation of a Tier 5, additional benefits beyond the maximum 99 weeks (99 for states with extra-high unemployment). They organized a campaign to fax leading politicians, phoning congresspersons, and hitting some radio shows.

It was a great success. They helped force the issue into the mainstream. They jammed the fax machines of the likes of Pelosi. Paladinette and others have emerged as leaders of the unemployed.

It was a total failure. The unemployed were heard, and Pelosi and Reid simply said drop dead. A devastating article in Huffington Post notes:

But this is the first time the Democratic Party can't even half-plausibly blame the Republicans for the lapse. "This isn't being done because of Republicans, believe me. This is done because there's a group of us, we don't have a majority, but they listen," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger (D-Md.), who fought to shrink the size of the bill. "I think it's really symbolic. We have a very diverse party and the party has come together... This is a real victory for the moderates and the Blue Dogs and the freshmen, that our party leadership is working with us to let this happen."

And it signals the beginning of the end of the commitment to ending the jobs crisis. It took FDR two congressional terms to lose his New Deal majority. Though Democrats still controlled Congress in 1937, deficit hawks put a stop to federal efforts to end the Great Depression, bringing about what became known as the "recession within the depression."

Failure and success both

The question is what is to be done with it. To the extent that they are calling on their members to make more phone calls and send more faxes, they are heading for a dead end. A mini version of MoveOn. This tactic was exactly correct when the campaign began. It mobilized the memberships, and moralized them with a level of success (breaking the Tier 5 story into the mainstream after the Democrats had tried to keep it under the radar). At this point, I fear that it will lead to defeat and subsequent demoralization

On the other hand, judging from the Facebook entries, folks are turning toward punishing the politicians, some astute comments such as Paladinette’s, “If Repub vote in a Dem. If Dem has a primary challenger vote in the newbe!” The Democratic Party is catching heat as the betrayers. How far can this go?

If if if if if there were an organization that had a coherent electoral strategy to confront the Democratic Party around this in 2010, I would gladly say to them, join that organization, they are fighting for you, they need you, you need them. I see nothing on the horizon that fills that need. At best, the left has treated the Tier 5 issue as, “See, here’s another example of how bad things are.” That is not the same as fighting for it, campaign for it, rallying forces around it.

And the unemployed organizations themselves? I’m not sure. A Facebook organization can reflect movement, bring people together, but as an effective planning body, it’s very shaky. You don’t know where your membership is at, whether it is even still there. A grouping brought together ad hoc around a narrow focus will of necessity be riven with differences at any attempt to broaden that focus. This is not a criticism. It is merely a fact.

There has to be that outside organization. There is not. Yes, there are organizations out there, but they have (at least) two major limitations. First, there is the taboo against seriously threatening the Democratic Party. We saw this in the aftermath of the healthcare debacle, where all progressive anger was to be diverted toward the Blue Dogs, despite the fact that it was the refusal of the ENTIRE Democratic Party to ensure healthcare for all without restricting abortion rights. Second is the lack of strategic perspective.

Marx and socialism

In a recent Docudharma post I Am Poor, DawnoftheRedSun brought in the importance of class and even dared to reference Marx. I supported that. I think that anti-communism has become such a deep thread of the American consciousness -- even though there is no longer any communism -- that it has a paralyzing effect on everything. As Dawn stated, “Since the official burial of Marxism we aren't supposed to use the term "class war" anymore.” But if there is indeed a class war going on, and we aren’t allowed to mention it (or say anything that might evoke it), that leaves us in pathetic shape to actually deal with it.

One hopeful thread is that SEIU and others have sponsored rallies of people being foreclosed on at the homes of the big bankers and their running dog lackeys. I usually think of demonstrations as ritualized exercises in futility, but these are a bit outside the box. Suppose the unemployed and the homeless joined in. Suppose they held one at Pelosi’s house. Or Reid’s. This could be explosive. It could break the box. But SEIU as loyal Democrats would never take it that far. And progressives would -- I think -- be made very nervous about the potential for confrontation, possible violence. Class war.

There are threads that could be pulled together, but that would require some pulling, wouldn’t happen by chance. Who would do the pulling? People with a strategic perspective, who, as an organized force, do not today exist. And we get back to the leadership issue. The understanding of dynamics as opposed to flat empiricism. Class. War.

This would require a body that can plan, rather than merely react as everyone is doing around the BP spill. Allow me to irritate people (more). I contend that the energy being put into exposing the BP spill will accomplish very little that wouldn’t already be accomplished by bourgeois forces that need to do something for their own self-preservation. Minor quantitative change at best. (According to a recent poll, 44% of Americans thought the spill should be cleaned up, 27% thought we needed more oil spills, and 29% thought the number of oil spills was just right.)

Suppose all the energy that has been poured into that had been poured into the Tier 5 fight, a minor reform as any Marxist would admit? I think it would have dramatically changed the dialogue on the left and in Congress, while the BP spill is more of the “isn’t capitalism bad” litany. It would have broadened the class base of the progressive movement. And it would have the potential to harness the anger of the poor (you think they’re not angry, you have no ears) for every damn political cause that progressives fight for. It would have transformed American politics.

But again we get back to the same question. How could we make this happen? Progressives are what progressives are. The left is the left. They will keep doing what they’ve been doing since they helped impeach Nixon. Until they die. The calls for renewed spirit and energy and dedication are the same calls they put out all the time, and in the wake of the healthcare debacle, I’d put spirit and energy and dedication at a low ebb. (Remember, jobs was the “next big issue” after healthcare? And the left didn’t even show up enough to construct a surrender.)

One place to start is to put Marx and socialism back into the dialogue. Would any of this look like it looked in 1848? I suspect not. But it would be a different dialogue than the one we are having.

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Submitted by libbyliberal on

There is no passion for populism in the Dem party and that is hard to forgive.

It is about class warfare, what we are suffering through now. And we need inspiring leadership. The brilliance of a candidate like Obama who won and immediately and effectively pulled the rug out from under the liberals and left none standing in his circle.

As for the right, in years past the incredible merciless punishment of "communist" ideas by the McCarthyites ... the word communism alone ... and today what the tea partiers and Repubs have done to the word "socialism" when most of them don't know the diff betweens socialism and fascism. But what the hey, most of the country confused Osama with Saddam.

When the Repubs in Congress were handily able to do the same thing with the word "empathy" during the Sotomayer hearings, it was truly disgusting. But the authoritarian follower's drumbeat has amazingly quick Pavlovian success.

When crisis strikes, it has a tipping point sometimes. Knocks the fight out of people, and pushes them to a paralyzing despair.

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Submitted by jeffroby on

... they could be very effective if cohesive, a simple strategy, had legal backing, minimal funds, and the recklessness of youth. There are political nerve centers that could be hit (jobs fairs, for instance). But they seem not to exist.

The "leader" issue is a big one. Not sure if I can post next Saturday, but it's my next subject.

Submitted by lambert on

And I'm all for new process. I'm also with you that the opportunity cost of engaging with the legacy party system is not acceptable: All the phone calls and faxes do is rack up commissions for some "progressive" Beltway lobbying firm.

I'm also for any analytical tools needed -- but I'm also certain that Marxism is not a leading contender not only because of official suppression, but because the record of governments espousing Marxism in the 20th C is very bad. (Yes, yes, not "genuine," "never really been tried," and all that. Whatever.)

If there's one lesson we can learn from the 20th C about "class" "conciousness" it's that the both words in the phrase need equal weight, and of the two, the harder nut to crack is the second. Why I think Wikrent's on the right track with Veblen, to tell you the truth.

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Submitted by jeffroby on

In MRzine, William Dugger writes:

The real Thorstein Veblen was not a humorist. He was a radical and a Marxist. Like any good Marxist he did not follow his intellectual mentor slavishly, but studied his mentor critically. So just like Marx critiqued Hegel in order to use him as a foundation to go further, Veblen critiqued Marx. Revisionist institutionalists argue that he was an anti-Marxist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course there are significant differences between Veblen and Marx, but the similarities run deeper.
...
Marx emphasized the exploitation of the working class through the capitalist class's control of the production process; while Veblen emphasized the exploitation of the underlying population through the control of the market system by big business and big government. There is a difference, but no contradiction between the two.
...
We should not pick between Marx or Veblen. We should construct a vibrant radicalism out of them both.

Who is Dugger? Damned if I know, but he sounds good.

I would add that some of the critiques of Marx addressed by Veblenites (Marx’s analysis was closed-system) were handled by Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist. Then there are the works of Hardt and Negri (Empire and Multitude), who take the best of Marxism and don’t simply tinker with it, but create something quite new.

So what are we disagreeing about? To quote you:

If there's one lesson we can learn from the 20th C about "class" "conciousness" it's that the both words in the phrase need equal weight, and of the two, the harder nut to crack is the second.

The problem is that -- far from giving equal weight -- the blogosphere is about 98% conscious-raising, and the other 2% reduces to which Democrat to support or whether to support none. Any individual can say, “I’m into consciousness-raising, and Veblen thinks that a good thing,” but if we look at the blogosphere AS A WHOLE, the balance is horribly off-kilter.

On Docudharma, Paul Loeb has a lengthy post: Stories Of Impact Will Push Us To Fix The Oil Spill, Homelessness, And Other Big Problems. This embodies the consciousness-raising perspective about as well (or badly) as anything. Loeb cites an Oregon union campaign, noting how personalizing the plight of the workers won over the hard hearts of the legislature.

But the personalizing was the tip of an entire organizing campaign. When the blogosphere runs picture after picture of oily penguins, they are not the tip of ANYTHING.

So give Marx (and Marxists) a condescending “Whatever,” but that’s just a cheap way of disposing of decades of hard analysis, theoretical updating, and an actual fighting movement that fought and died for much of what we have today.

It’s interesting that you cite Wilkent whose talent is imposing lengthy quotes from Veblen on the world today accompanying mechanical applications of the American populist movement of the 19th century.

At least I am trying to do concrete analysis of conditions and strategy today, and you know you can’t accuse me of mechanically imposing 1848 Marxist paradigms on the modern world. I use Marx, not quote him.