Posted by rflacks on:
If you’ve been following my occasional scribbles all these months, you know that I’ve tended to be critical of lefty attacks on Barack Obama, on the tendency to blame him for failures to fulfill the promise of the reform his election ushered in. Instead of such recrimination, I urge that we think strategically about how to make gains—and that strategic thinking includes searching for ways to build upon Obama’s presidency and his promises. And it means understanding that he is not the leader of progressive movement nor can he be. To be president of the United States, he’s the chief “executive of the ruling class’ (as old Karl put it) at a time of increasingly naked class struggle. He intends to play that role seriously and that means something very important that’s usually ignored—he has to define a class interest and therefore challenge the greed and self-aggrandizement of the rich and powerful. The class interest is to try to make the ‘system’ work at a time when many of those who run its institutions are engaged in systematic crime. It means trying to engineer solutions for the deep long-term problems—economic, environmental and moral—that the system’s operation has created.
Obama, unlike his predecessor, is a serious guy who is intent on being a problem solver. He deserves acknowledgement as a political strategist if for no other reason than he succeeded in becoming president even though expert wisdom was quite sure this was impossible. And, contrary to many lefty commentators, his effort during the current struggle over the debt provides further evidence of his strategic skill. His strategy for defeating the GOP is to split the business elite from the Republican Party—a task made easier by the quasi-fascistic lunacy which that party is pandering to. But to do that, Obama has believed it necessary to exempt the banksters from paying the huge costs of their venality (including criminal penalties as well as financial ones), and to claim leadership in the project of restraining the long-term debt. He and his political team believe that this stance not only enables him to win support from centers of corporate and financial power, but will help win back support from ‘independent’ voters who think the deficit is the cause of our economic problems. He seems to be hoping that he will be able to take the deficit issue away from the Republicans forever (just like Bill Clinton did by abolishing ‘welfare as we know it’).
But the dark side of this gets darker by the day: a willful neglect of the need for a massive jobs program and of the needs and rights and interests of American working people. Recent employment reports showed unemployment worsening. Large layoffs of state and local workers due to austerity budgeting offset any slight gains resulting from increased activity in the private sector. The mortgage foreclosure crisis has destroyed the housing market and with it the consumer economy as a whole. Meanwhile two trillion dollars in profits and reserves are held in private hands and not being invested in the American economy. Old Karl may be saying in the grave: “I told you all this would happen!”
But, those of us who’ve been teaching Marx to students over the last number of decades have acknowledged that capitalist society and government have more ways than Marx knew to overcome the tendencies of the capitalist economy to stagnate—tendencies that are largely due to the fact that workers can’t be paid enough (because of the necessity for profit to be extracted) to consume the goods the economy is capable of producing. We long ago accepted the idea that “Keynesian” policies –i.e. government investment programs that create jobs or put money in people’s pockets—can stimulate the growth needed to end recessions and restore employment. And for a long time the chief way this was done was by boosting military spending.
In the last 2-3 decades, ‘globalization’ has meant the export of jobs and investment so that established government pump priming has become less effective in creating jobs. At the same time, military spending has become a drag on the overall economy more than a job creator. Simultaneously, rather than accepting the value of government investment for the long-term health of the US, the corporate and financial elite has decided that they want the freedom to invest globally and have no great interest in the domestic well-being of American society and its people. They have wanted to reduce the cost of labor and they’ve succeeded maybe beyond their wildest dreams. American workers’ real wages have markedly declined while corporate profits have skyrocketed. American workers’ pensions are shredded and much of the social wage achieved in the New Deal and the post war eras (including low cost public higher education) is gone. Recent research by corporate sources confirms that the profits derived by American investors is largely the result of these wage cuts and the low taxes levied on the wealthy class.
What I just said is but a bare bones sketch of the ways the American people have literally been robbed since the advent of Ronald Reagan. But here’s where Marx has always had a very good point: cutting the wages of workers means undercutting the consumer economy, making economic stagnation and decline inevitable.
Obama wants to come to the rescue. He wanted to promote in a major way the ‘green economy’. Large scale investment in retrofitting homes and office buildings, in new renewable energy, in alternative transportation –all this would make millions of jobs and usher in a new prosperity. He wanted to promote ‘infrastructure’—repairing the massive decay of America’s transportation system, upgrading education, making broadband universal, etc. These two interrelated pathways have to be initiated with public money but the returns in the long term are evident. He has been unable to lead this sort of movement because the corporate elite were quite happy to ally itself with the Republican ideological and political opposition (based on fantasy and lie).
The trumped up debt crisis (trumped up by the GOP) seems to have provided Obama with the strategic opportunity to split a lot of the business elite from the GOP given the Republican effort to drive the economy over a cliff. It’s this strategy that leads him to accept so much of the argument for cutting the budget, refraining from real moves on jobs, and entertaining ideas to cut social security and other benefits programs. According to reports about White House advisers’ thinking, winning in 2012 (and presumably taking back congress) will then allow for a second term of new investment in the infrastructure and ‘innovation’.
This thinking could be too smart for its own good. It risks a repeat of 2010—the demobilization of the Democratic base as working people see their interests jettisoned by Democrats who claim to represent them. It’s a strategy which worked for Bill Clinton in winning a second term (but not so much for enabling the Democrats to control congress). It’s a strategy that proved disastrous for Jimmy Carter, and Reagan was elected promising jobs and winning all those Reagan Democrats.
But the situation now for workers and the ‘middle class’ (a term I as a sociologist really despise since it’s a blurring of needed class analysis and awareness) is much more desperate. And as we ‘ve tried to suggest in this space there’s a lot of organizing now going on aimed at fighting back and giving workers some voice. Please pay attention to what’s going on in places like Wisconsin and Ohio and other states where rightwing governors’ efforts to destroy workers’ rights have politically backfired. Note that much of the Democratic caucus in the House seems ready to vote down a deficit deal that would damage social security and Medicare benefits. Their resistance, articulated by Nancy Pelosi as well as the Progressive Caucus gets much less media attention than the clowning of the congressional tea party, but it may be at least as important in shaping the final resolution of this charade. And I mention this because the Pelosi concern is certainly about the anger of the grassroots if benefit cuts are accepted—and on the other hand a belief that real political gain is at hand if Democrats defend what’s left of the social wage.
But there’s a lot missing from the political dynamic. The grassroots anger isn’t being expressed articulately. Its political thrust is to defend threatened rights and not to advance a set of ideas and visions that can give people something to fight (and vote) for.
Some efforts to do that are being tried—like Van Jones ‘rebuild the dream’ campaign. The most interesting thing about that (which you’ve certainly gotten a lot of email about) is the number of diverse organizations that have come together around this—and the way that MoveOn has connected to unions and other economic progressive groups in new ways. It remains to be seen what forms of action might come from the fact that 25000 folks supposedly participated in house meetings to endorse the Van Jones campaign. (If you’ve been involved in this project, please record your thoughts about it in the comments below).
How workers’ voices can be heard
I’ve been trying to figure out how workers needs and interests can be voiced nationally in a way that would compel attention and response. Here’s an idea I’m a bit obsessed with:
Use the Democratic presidential primary season as a framework. One or more highly credible leaders ought to run against President Obama in some or all of the states with highest unemployment levels. The aim is to articulate the needs of working families and ‘vulnerable’ people, to tell their stories and to spell out a plan to help meet those needs—and to use the vote in the primary to send a message to the powers that be—a message in support of that agenda. Such a candidate would stress support for the re-election of the president, but that the president needs the pressure to challenge all the pressure he is getting from the banksters and the business elite and the right wing. Such a candidacy would, leading up to the voting, stimulate the crafting of the plan or agenda I refer to (could use public hearings or town meetings or other frameworks for this). It would seek long term mobilizing of supporters to stay in motion after the voting and to ensure maximum turnout in November. It would seek financing from grassroots fundraising.
My candidate for this role is Rich Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, who has in recent months been speaking in much the way I imagine he might in a primary campaign, and whose capacity for being a voice of labor is established not only by his formal position, but his personal story (as a miner), his physical bearing and his evident passion. I am NOT proposing –and won’t support—a marginal and non-credible candidate—the point here would NOT be to advance a ‘progressive’ position but to try to be literally the voice of working people.
There might be others who could serve as such a credible voice—and maybe different people might run in various states.
I’m sure there are many potential pitfalls lurking in this sort of strategy. So I’m hoping to spark a discussion: What’s your reaction to such an effort? What are its dangers and dark sides?
If not this, then what kinds of action seem feasible and also potent for accomplishing the purpose of strongly challenging corporate domination of policy and politics in the near term?
If you like the idea, can we think of people like Richard Trumka who might be both credible and willing to step up to this role?