Judis on No Popular Left: Reflections
By Paul Street at Feb 16, 2009
Look at this interesting article by John Judis at The New Republic, titled "End the Honeymoon." The key line that caught my attention: " I think the main reason that Obama [has gone forward with a really shitty and inadequate economic plan - P.S.] is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket. "
As someone who has been toiling for years at being an actually leftwing intellectual (I would call Krugman a left-liberal, well to the right of, say, a Noam Chomsky, an Alexander Cockburn or a Howard Zinn), it has long struck me (but stayed in the back of mind) that I am operating on the false assumption of the existence of a relevant left in the U.S.
I know a certain individual who (if he reads this) is likely to write in and explain how and why a real hopeful progressive left is emerging in connection with "Progressives for Obama" and Obama's Internet-based "Organizing for America" deal and so on. But that so-called left has not been doing very well in forcing a decent economic plan and besides it falls smack in the middle of Judis' category of "in Obama's pocket." So it is fairly useless and co-optive. And I don't personally trust the judgement of any "progressive" who didn't at least have the common left decency to be with Kucinich or the semipopulist (and remarkably pro-labor) Edwards (who I ended up backing in the Iowa Caucus without illusion) before those two guys were kicked to the curb (after New Hampshire) by the corporate-electoral powers that be.
Labor? Listen to Judis' sadly dead-on comments: "The labor movement, for instance, has not recovered from the split between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win. To make matters worse, the unions themselves--in particularly, SEIU and Unite Here--are rent by division. As a result, the unions have either been on the sidelines during the debate over the stimulus and bank bailout or uncritically backing Obama and Reid. One labor group, Americans United for Change, which is backed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), even ran ads thanking Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, and Arlen Specter for agreeing to back the stimulus bill that they had significantly weakenedbama and Reid. One labor group, Americans United for Change, which is backed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), even ran ads thanking Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, and Arlen Specter for agreeing to back the stimulus bill that they had significantly weakened." http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=5bff5e94-6fa6-4a69-9ff2-8f08cb437ccc
Moveon.org? Judis again: "MoveOn--as far as I can tell--has attacked conservative Republicans for opposing the [stimulus] bill, while lamely urging Democrats to back it. Of course, all these groups may have thought the stimulus bill and the bailout were ideal, but I doubt it. I bet they had the same criticisms of these measures that Krugman or The American Prospect's Ezra Klein or my own colleagues had, but they made the mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician. "
By the way, for a useful account and analysis of how that critical mistake has been made over and over again by "progressive" groups in relation to the Democratic Party (once aptly descibed by former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillps as "history's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party") in U.S. history, see Lance Selfa's recent book The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2008).
I could go on. Mike Albert had an interesting blog a while back about United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) some time ago. That discussion and what emerged in the dialogue about UFPJ and other parts of the antiwar left did not inspiire a lot of hope.
All of which has me thinking about how to direct one's activity. I am by nature and training more a researcher, writer and speaker than an organizer but what's the point really of writing and speaking on behalf of ideas and causes that lack any real institutional basis for meaningful realization? There is a division of labor on the left as in other parts of society and it is obvious where my background points, but maybe its just self-indulgent to be spending a lot of time writing, speaking, going on the radio and television (generally local stations in my case) as a big fancy "expert" when what really needs the most attention is the more anonymous and tedious work of movement-building.