Notes on Building a Left in the Age of Obama
Since I wrote a book that comprehensively criticized Barack Obama from the left two years ago, people are sometimes surprised to learn that my main problem with a lot of U.S. liberals and “progressives” isn’t that they’ve been overly attached to the latest mediocre business- and empire-friendly conservative (Wall Street Obama) to sit in the White House. That gripe continues with many – though I must say a shrinking number – of them, but I have two bigger difficulties with this crowd.
My first bigger criticism is that so many U.S. “progressives” have tended to buy into our nation’s dominant definition of “politics” as being about little more than big quadrennial corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, and candidate-centered election spectacles. The problem here is not so much their connection to Obama as their privileging of those great staggered big money exhibitions over the hard, day-to-day work of grassroots citizen action. Here I am informed by an excellent passage from the leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky on the eve of the 2004 elections:
Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena….A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..
The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power….
[Election] choices [are]...secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”
I also take counsel from the late, great radical historian Howard Zinn. In March of 2008, as Obamaphoria was sweeping up vast sections of the U.S. including much what passes for a left in the nation, Zinn wrote an essay on the “Election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity:
The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.
And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike… Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
Let's remember that even when there is a "better" candidate…that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”
As I read Zinn’s essay in Iowa City in early 2008, I was instantly reminded of something I had found curious in Iowa (ground zero for candidate-centered U.S. politics thanks to the early presidential Caucus held there every four years) in the months leading up to Iowa’s historic presidential Caucus of early January that year. When I would ask “liberal” and “progressive” voters why they were supporting Obama, many of them would try to argue that that he and/or his campaign (some even said “movement”) were forces for democracy and against militarism, racism, and social injustice.
This claim had nothing to do with actually “deeply conservative” corporate, imperial, militarist, and race-neutralist (so-called “post-racial”) reality of their candidate, who had been vetted and found safe to corporate and imperial rule since 2003 by the U.S. power elite. (Liberals and others on “the left’ were being sold a false, fake-progressive bill of goods by the expert crafters of “Brand Obama.”). At the same time, it was made by people you never or rarely saw in actually existing local organizations that fought for democracy and against war, militarism, racism, and social injustice on a daily basis beneath and beyond the election cycles. Their definition of “politics” did dot extend beyond Zinn’s “election madness” and Chomsky’s “personalized quadrennial extravaganzas.” It was thus “secondary to serious political action.”
“The Things I Cannot Change”
My second and I think related leading difficulty with progressively inclined Americans is a pronounced tendency to give up on politics altogether. Most of us are familiar by now with the (substance abuse) “recovery movement’s” famous Serenity Prayer, crafted – interestingly enough – by the leading U.S.-imperial theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
I would say that half the people I know who identify themselves as left have pretty much think taken politics (broadly understood) and put it in the category of “things [they] cannot change” and which are therefore “dysfunctional” as a relevant focus for life activity. The “pessimism of their mind[s]” has overridden the lost “optimism of their will[s]” (to quote Antonio Gramsci) when it comes to extra-personal matters. They focus on private pleasures, pains, and endeavors” in a society whose ubiquitously authoritarian character strikes them as irretrievably beyond their “sphere of influence.” This is of course a great surrender.
“Obama. It Just Gets Worse”
The first 13 months of the Obama presidency have born out Chomsky and Zinn’s warnings. They have also been richly consistent with “deeply conservative,” corporate and imperial Obama that I portrayed in my 2008 book, Big money and big empire have been the only voices speaking with real authority while the supposedly eloquent Obama has orated at a record pace, epitomizing (as Michael Hureaux Perez notes) the old labor maxim: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (we could add another working class slogan: “money talks, bullshit walks”). The Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama has worked in dedicated service to the combined and interrelated imperatives of corporate and military rule.
Recently the civil rights lawyer Ernest Canning listed some key policy examples in a “troubling litany” demonstrating that Obama is a conscious agent of ruling class and imperial power. Canning observed “the immediate alignment of President-Elect Obama with a bevy of former Wall Street/Goldman Sachs insiders like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, the retention of the CIA-connected Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, the re-nomination of Ben Bernacke,” and “the ‘too big to fail’ excuse that handed Wall Street the keys to the National Treasury, even as Goldman Sachs/AIG executives gorged on seven and eight figure bonuses.”
Canning also noted “the betrayal of the single-payer [health insurance]cause former state senator Obama once championed, not to mention the abandonment of the more modest ‘public option’ in favor of back-room deals with the rapacious health insurance cartel and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Canning also cited “the deceptive, and at times Orwellian justifications for not merely continuing but expanding an irrational ‘global war on terror,’ complete with retention of murderous mercenaries, like those supplied by Blackwater/Xe at enormous taxpayer expense” and Obama’s “failure to faithfully execute the laws against torture.”
Obama has not merely kept the
We might also mention the
“The immediate reason for the failure of the [
Truth be told, the list of Hope Killer Obama’s deadly “progressive” betrayals expands daily. As I write, the Obama team is advancing preparations for the possible privatization or at least rollback of Social Security and Medicare. Obama has recently declared himself an “agnostic” when it comes to making spending cuts on these “entitlement programs” (though never on the Pentagon’s $1 trillion annual entitlement, which accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 800 bases spread across more than 130 nations in the name of something called “defense”) in order to reduce the deficit. His “progressive” administration is currently stonewalling two mildly progressive nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Barack Obama has spoken again and again of “our” need to be what he and his team call “practical” and to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But let’s be honest about how this really boils down. Obama has advanced what the liberal novelist and political essayist Kevin Baker calls a “business liberalism” that “espouses a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.” The results are not simply less than “perfect” – they are no damn good. This is widely felt and understood across much of the populace, which is understandably restless and angry over hopes and promises that have been (as usual) betrayed in standard accord with the dictates of “the unelected dictatorship[s] of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) and empire.
As a leading left intellectual said to me in an e-mail to me some time back: “Obama. It just gets worse.”
All as predicted, by myself and others on the “hard left.”
The Dashed Expectations and Democrats Exposed Theses
So how and why might I have been willing (somewhat grudgingly) to help Obama get elected (even as I protest- voted for Nader) in the fall of 2008? Beyond the calculation (I cannot lie), I held out two ironic sorts of hope (if I might employ that deeply abused word) for his election. The first such wish was that mass disappointment with a President Obama’s (certain) betrayal of the popular expectations (for democratic transformation) he would ride to the presidency might help move progressively inclined citizens off candidate-focused election spectacles and into Chomsky and Zinn’s “main task” of building grassroots socio-political movements.
The second hope held that the corporate Democrats are better able to deceptively pose as a progressive alternative to business class and imperial rule and the Republicans when they are out of office than when they are in nominal power. They are less able to hide their essential identity as the other business and empire party (what former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips once aptly termed “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party”) when they sit atop the political system.
I thought it was essential and useful for American citizens, especially younger ones to experience life under a Democratic presidential administration. It seemed to me that most serious middle-aged and senior lefties didn’t require an education from Obama (or alternatively a president Hillary Clinton) on the bipartisan nature of the
Perhaps nobody expressed my sense of the relevant if ironic sort of optimism that a leftist could attach to the prospect of an Obama presidency than the incisive Brooklyn-based Marxist commentator Doug Henwood. As Henwood argued at the end of a March 2008 essay that criticized, among other things, Obama’s subservience to big capital, Obama’s militarism, Obama’s disingenuous claims to be against the Iraq War, Obama’s “empty” slogans, Obama’s “fan club,” and Obama’s denial of the extent of racial inequality in the U.S:
“Enough critique; the dialectic demands something constructive to induce some forward motion. There's no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world -more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He'll deliver little of that – but there's evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed.”
“There's great political potential in popular disillusionment with Democrats. The phenomenon was first diagnosed by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. As Wills explained it, throughout the 1950s, left-liberals intellectuals thought that the national malaise was the fault of Eisenhower, and a Democrat would cure it. Well, they got JFK and everything still pretty much sucked, which is what gave rise to the rebellions of the 1960s (and all that excess that Obama wants to junk any remnant of). You could argue that the movements of the 1990s that culminated in
“Never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That's not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist.” (Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117, March 2008).
“Having Obama in the White House Has, If Anything Made Things Worse”
So how’s it going with the ironic and “dialectical” forms of inverted hope that Henwood and I (following Henwood) advanced (somewhat naively seeking to transplant the rising expectation of the early 1960s into the dream-smashing neoliberal era) in 2008?
Not so hot. According to the left historian Nelson Lichtenstein in a recent reflection, “the Obama era has…been characterized by a surprising demobilization of the left and the liberals” (Dissent, January 27, 2010). I have zero idea why Lichtenstein would find that “surprising” (it’s what many of us serious left political commentators fully expected and easily predicted under an Obama presidency), but the observation of left-liberal stand-down and paralysis is accurate enough. My own observations in a “progressive” town (Iowa City, Iowa) are all-too consistent with Lichtenstein’s and with Henwood’s recent less-than- cheery response to an interviewer’s question on whether or not the dashing of Obamanistic hopes and the exposure of the Democrats was yielding the sort of radical potential he had hoped for:
“I can’t say there’s a lot of inspiring stuff going on. The left, such as it is, is divided and weak. Having Obama in the White House has, if anything, made things worse, as otherwise decent people twist themselves into apologetic postures. Maybe this kind of weakness and confusion are symptoms of a society that’s falling apart and there’s not much we can do about it. I hope not.”
“…I’d hoped that the shattering of illusions would be productive, but it’s happening rather slowly, and maybe causing people just to give up. All the energy, at least for now, is coming from the right. It’s like all the crazy paranoid shit that [Richard] Hofstadter wrote about is coming back to life with more numbers and force than in a few decades. It’s amazing that a neoliberal president who subsidizes nuclear power, bails out Wall Street, and escalates imperial war is somehow seen as a treasonous socialist. But those loons make the liberals more inclined to defend Obama, to preserve us from the fascist threat they love to invoke.”
This is a bit too negative and depressing for me. I will give some counter-examples below. Still, well into Year II of the Obama atrocity, one group of so-called left-liberals clings preposterously to a false image of Obama as a deep-down people’s president who still wants to “do the right thing” for the common good. For many of these “progressive” so-called left liberals, unjust wars and occupations, mega-bankers’ bailouts, U.S. torture practices, secret paramilitaries and executions, illegal domestic wiretaps, drone attacks on defenseless women and children and other terrible policies that were seen as intolerable under the rule of a boorish white Republican moron from West Texas have seemed all too acceptable when carried out by an eloquent and dashing black Democrat from Chicago. (That of is course is no small part of what those who rule
Another group on the “left, such as it is” is not (or does not pretend to be) beholden to the illusion of Obama as a progressive president. But it responds to Obama’s nauseating corporatism and imperialism not with energized activism of any kind (but with depression, inertia, and a deepening sense of isolation and anomie. Politics and social change – these are realms in which that they no longer feel they can have a relevant impact, thanks in part to Obama’s success (real or perceived) in pacifying much of the citizenry, youth especially.
I understand this second group’s dystopian gloom. As the left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin predicted with haunting prescience before the elections in his chillingly titled book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism: “Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society.” In the
“the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy….The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf.”
“The G.O.P. is Giving Answers, The ‘Left’ Isn’t”
It’s a dangerous situation. The dodgy, authoritarian, and messianic-militarist American right has long had a better understanding than the U.S. “left” of the need to stay focused and energized on a daily basis beneath and beyond elections. It walks forcefully with its potent noise machine into the activism and anger void created by progressive de-mobilization, depression, and corporate-Democratic captivity. Popular resentment abhors a vacuum and the hard right is more than happy to fill the empty space. As Noam Chomsky noted in an interview prior to the right wing Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s incredibly telling victory in the open-seat election for Teddy Kennedy’s former seat in the U.S. Senate
“There is a right-wing populist uprising….If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances...“
“For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined. The social conditions have worsened….so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Rush Limbaugh has answered: It’s the rich liberals who own the banks and run the ban and run the media. They don’t care about you. They just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.”
"...There is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers: that is, they blame the Jews and the Bolsheviks…”
“Liberal Democrats aren’t going to tell the average American, ‘yeah, you’re being shafted because of the policies that we’ve established over the years that we’re maintaining now.’ That’s not going to be an answer. They’re not getting [straight] answers from the left.” [By contrast,] There’s an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they’re very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything – a crazy answer, but it’s an answer and you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances...Thing is GOP is giving answers. The ‘left isn’t.”
Of course, the more the right and its candidates advance, the more many liberal “progressives” cower under the umbrella of Obama the Hope Killer and mute any criticism they might be willing to have of the Democrats and their Leader – thereby expanding the very vacuum that leave the field open to the right and further depressing many of the vanquished radicals who have placed the seemingly totalitarian U.S. political situation into the other side of the Serenity Prayer. It’s a vicious circle.
“Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing”
This is not to say that nothing inspiring is going on at the grassroots level and to the left. There are positive examples: the National Equality March in October, mass resistance by students defending public education in
Nearly a month after Obama was elected, a militant, largely immigrant-based union local in
The Republic Door and Window workers struck a chord of populist dissent that resonated across the country. They didn’t wait to get the okay from Barack Obama or the Democratic Party or any other politicians or elected officials or with electoral considerations in mind. They had developed and utilized the rank and file institutional capacity to undertake a morally righteous direct action at the immediate shop-floor and community level and thereby forced events from the bottom, compelling media and politicians to follow in their wake. We need hundreds and then thousands of little and big and then merging epic fights like the one fought in
Last week I got an e-mail saying that Cindy Sheehan and a new group called Peace of the Action will be establishing Camp OUT NOW on the lawn of the Washington Monument (with or without governmental permission) on Saturday, March 13th, to be a base of operations from which they will organize and direct daily acts of civil resistance throughout the DC area. Their demands: troops out of the Middle East, which includes drones, permanent bases, contractors and torture/detention facilities; reparations for the peoples of these war torn regions and a fully funded VA system to reintegrate our soldiers healthfully into. They are also going to argue for single payer health insurance, nationalization of the banks, and major green public works programs to provide jobs for the millions who are ready and able to work on social useful tasks at a lovable wage. Good.
Still, as the Marxist political writer Lance Selfa has noted, “Many of these [recent] struggles are fragile, fledgling, and still by-and-large defensive...Along with the revival of real resistance comes the urgent need for new politics,” Selfa rightly adds. “Without a political alternative that is independent, and to the left of, the Democratic Party—that is, from both parties of big business—anger at Democrats in office will always mean turning them out for Republicans, and vice versa. Such an alternative to the two-party shuffle won’t be built soon, but it must be built.”
Sadly, the exciting Republic Door and Window action has yet to be replicated in the country, even though it was positively highlighted in Michael Moore’s popular populist movie “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Lichtenstein thinks “historians are going to spend a lot of time figuring out why the December 2008 sit-down strike at Chicago Windows and Doors, which Obama endorsed, had no progeny.”
23 Do’s and Don’ts for Building a Left
So we need more and better and serious left-radical political action at all levels in the “Age of Obama” (which could well end in 2013) and beyond. Towards that end, the remainder of this essay – elaborating on a talk I recently gave (at the behest of the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization) – audaciously lays out my “top 23” list of "Do’s and Don’ts" for “Building a Left in the Age of Obama.” Readers should view the following admonitions and their accompanying explanations/elaborations with a healthy dose of radical skepticism, taking them not as an effort to impose “What is to Be Done” doctrine but as a rough draft (with few if any claims to originality) of (some) key principles and ideas towards productive execution of the “urgent task” Chomsky mentioned in 2004 - the hard work that Zinn recommended over waiting for politicians to do the right thing from the top down.
1. Rule # 1: Beware of “The Election Trap.” Consistent with Zinn and Chomsky’s counsel at the beginning of this essay, remember that its’ not about running for president and it’s not really about electoral politics. We must always be on guard against what the noted left social critic Charles Derber calls “The Election Trap.” Beware of the belief that serious progressive change is mainly about voting and winning elections. No, it’s more fundamentally about the hard work or organizing people and developing and inspiring many-sided peoples’ power in diverse locations beneath and beyond the quadrennial corporate-crafted electoral extravaganzas: in the workplace, in the schools, in the streets, in the homes, at the military recruiting stations, in the shopping malls. As Derber notes, “the main catalysts for regime change in
2. No Big Progressive Change Without an Epic Fight. Remember the warnings of a Democratic super-freak named John Edwards during the Iowa Caucus campaign. We all know what happened to John but please recall that he repeatedly electrified town hall audiences in this state by saying that it was a “complete fantasy” to think that meaningful progressive reform could be achieved by sitting down at a big negotiating table with big corporations and Republicans. Only an “epic fight” with corporate power could achieve such reform, Edwards said, calling Obama’s ideas of reaching out to Republicans and big business “singing Kumbaya.” In a debate in
3. Get it that Democratic Party Incremental-ism is Insufficient (We are Now Beyond “Letter Grades. In trying to work creatively with “the Obama moment” (whether it lasts three or eight more years), people engaged in progressive political action should not be afraid of demanding something along the lines of revolution or at least very radical reform. Reforms themselves are insufficient. Incremental change won’t do it any more. The demand for radical, even revolutionary change naturally strikes many, probably most of Obama’s more intellectually inclined liberal and progressive supporters as hopelessly “utopian” and “unrealistic “ – as off the charts of serious consideration. The real progressive thing, the properly “practical” and “pragmatic” course, is to carefully and incrementally push for small steps on the long, slow path to a better world. But for many on the actual historical Left, the honest and truly informed calculation of what is realistic is profoundly different. Leaving aside the important fact that Obama and the Democrats’ “reforms” are generally quite conservative we have a very dissimilar sense of practicality and reality. As we see it, the currently reigning profits system – every bit as entrenched and intact under the “leftist” Obama and a (corporate-) Democratic congressional majority as it was with Bush and Republicans in the saddle (possibly more entrenched now thanks in part to the superficially left cover provided by “Brand Obama”) – is thoroughly incompatible with basic human needs and democratic principles. The really fantastic and deadly “utopian” illusion, for us, is to believe that the U.S. and humanity can build a desirably democratic and sustainable future without implementing an egalitarian alternative to the capitalist order – to the so-called “free market” system to which Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged his allegiance and on whose financial chieftains he has so strongly relied. To quote the left economists Fred Magdoff and Michael Yates: “Can [democratic, socially egalitarian, and ecologically] goals be achieved inside the present economic system? Perhaps some can in very limited ways, but most of them clearly cannot. The system simply will not allow it. Pragmatists say that these things are utopian, that we have to work within the system and achieve what we can, gradually and in a piecemeal fashion. It seems to us, however, that this ‘pragmatic’ approach is utopian.” (Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates, “What Needs to Be Done: A Socialist View,” Monthly Review [November 2009], 90)
Increasingly grave ecological issues, particularly those connected with the largely profits-driven problem of global warming call into question the “pragmatic” wisdom of pursuing nothing more than the “incremental change” that many Obama fans laud the president for embodying. As Ricardo Levins-Morales noted in an important reflection on Left strategy and prospects last summer, the cautious “one small step at a time” approach to progressive change loses credibility when the existing order is posing ever more imminent existential questions of – and indeed radical threats to – survival of the species. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, read at http://web.mit.edu/ newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#] Honest appreciation of realistic imperatives calls for a more radical approach.”
“If the road we are on leads to a precipice, then a shift in our strategic orientation is overdue. If the Obama administration proposes modest green-oriented initiatives and then waters them down to mollify corporate interests, we will still (it can be argued) end up further along than we were to begin with. If we envision ourselves as advancing across an expanse of open field, then we can measure our progress in terms of yardage gained and be satisfied that we are least moving in the right direction. If, instead, a chasm has opened up which we must leap across to survive, then the difference between getting twenty percent versus forty percent of the way across is meaningless. It means we have transitioned from a system of political letter grades to one of ‘pass/fail.’ We either make the leap or not.”
As the world enters a period of epic mass structural unemployment and (most urgently of all) related, potentially fatal ecological crisis that is directly traceable to – and fundamentally rooted in – the profits system, it’s long past time for millions of Americans to embrace (as some recent polling suggests many do, in fact) the conclusion that Obama’s left-liberal cheerleader Michael Moore had reached half way into the first of his candidate’s presidency “‘ Folks, capitalism’s got to go.’”
My next eight rules are aimed alrgely at left-liberally sorts of supposed “progressive Democrats.”
4. Stop being so Anger-Averse and Stop Making Fun of Those Pissed-off “Tea-Baggers.” Too many privileged liberal lefty types are prone to see anger as “dysfunctional,” retrograde, excessively “uncouth” and generally frightening and unpleasant. They should find a way to get over this. Millions of Americans are legitimately pissed off right now. If you can’t figure out why and work up some legitimate progressive fury that reflects the real circumstances people are facing out here, then you leave it to the right to capture all the “rage.” I repeat: resentment abhors a vacuum. Folks out there are really angry and for some very good reasons. These “tea party” folks are often people with substantive complaints that are rooted in the alienating and exploitative society they inhabit along with you. Instead of mocking these people (ala Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann), real “progressives” need to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves why they aren’t doing a better job responding and channeling these complaints in an egalitarian and democratic direction.
5. Shut up about Sarah Palin and the GOP and study the Democrats in a Critical Vein for One Month. Just try it. Dedicate a month to focusing on the Democrats, their history, and who controls them and the role they’ve played shutting down progressive movements. Please study up on the history and nature of the Democratic Party and of the narrow spectrum political system of which they are part. Here are some reading suggestions: my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008); Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (2008); Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated (2008); John MacArthur, You Can’t Be President. (2008).
6. Make a New Year’s Resolution: “This year I resolve not to bite my tongue when it comes to noting and criticizing the power-serving propaganda and national and imperial nonsense that constantly flows from the mouth of this President like previous presidents. I resolve to oppose and resist the White House’s corporatist and imperialist policies and rhetoric. I shall always remember that Wall Street bailouts, unjust wars, warrantless wiretaps, torture, eco-cidal climate betrayals and other criminal and authoritarian policies are just as wrong when the president is an eloquent black Democrat from
7. Remember that Reformers need Radicals. Too many liberals and progressive Democrats seem to have forgotten the critical role that left radicals organizing and calling for popular upheaval and radical reconstruction of society have long played in getting progressive reforms passed. Left liberal-types seeking reform need radicals and ordinary folks (generally organized by radicals) acting dangerously in the streets in order to convince members of the establishment that the price of not bending the system (significant destabilization of business as usual and perhaps even revolution) is greater than price of reforming.
8. Don’t get Sucked into Corporatism and Imperialism by Identity Politics...and drop the assumption you are making some sort of heroic white statement against racism by supporting president Obama. As John Pilger noted last July 4th in
“The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary.”
Speaking of dysfunctional identity politics and “the class one serves,” very few noticed that Obama’s Latina Supreme Court appointment was quite close to the
9. Please Read Thomas Frank’s
“The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McCauliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues….Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as 'class warfare' and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness with business. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table…..by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans [the Democrats] have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talks constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.”
By Frank’s account, the Ivy League aristocrat Kerry’s problem wasn’t simply that workers were diverted from their real economic interests by liberal cultural elitism and smart Republicans who knew how to press cultural issues to get working-class folks to “vote against their own pocketbooks.” It was also that he followed in the footsteps of previous Democrats by collaborating with Republicans in placing class injustice and the workers’ material and (I would add moral-) economic issues beyond the parameters of acceptable debate, thereby. The same can be said of the elitist, corporate-neoliberal Ivy League president Barack Obama. His fake-progressive adherence to the corporatist and related military playbook has opened the door for the right to “win over” untold masses of ordinary voters who are left to bounce back and forth between the sadly narrow choices offered by the American plutocracy, masquerading as popular governance.
10. Please stop saying that we who criticize Obama and the Democrats from the left are just carpers and “antis.” This is largely false. We “hard leftists” propose solutions and alternatives quite a bit. Please look at pages 183-217 of my 2008 Obama book, including the last chapter, titled “Beyond the Narrow Spectrum,” and the Afterword: “Imagining a Progressive Future.” As Chomsky wrote four years ago: "One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don't like them.'" We radicals have been presenting solutions for centuries (please google up “Gerrard Winstanley”) and you haven’t generally willing to forego your sense of privilege enough to give us a fair healing.
11. Please dare to read Marx and good Marxist and deep left-radical thinkers like Ivan Meszaros, Samir Amin, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, and other names I don’t have time to give. It’s not what your minister or your political science professor or the dominant media told you. There’s no dungeons and Stalin. There is a liberating and anti-authoritarian critique of the de facto dictatorship of capital over economy, society, and culture in Western society. There’s a compelling (unsurpassed) analysis of critical aspects and life-or-death dilemmas of contemporary experience: the ever-growing concentration of wealth and inequality; rapacious globalization in endless quest for profit; the reduction of most people to subaltern and dispossessed status; the recurrent tendency towards crisis (99.5 percent of the U.S. economics profession taken by surprise by 2008; few if any of the world’s serious Marxists and other left-radical political economists were remotely startled); the deadly primacy of soulless exchange value over social and human use value in contemporary society; the contingency of employment on profitable exploitation by a business firm; the authoritarian and hierarchical division, command, and stultification of the human work process; the drowning of basic egalitarian human sentiments and life-ways in the “icy waters of egotistical calculation” (Marx and Engels 1848); the private ownership and propagandistic, pro-capitalist management of core opinion-forming, population-controlling, and “reality”-distorting cultural and communications sectors; wildly disproportionate political influence for the capitalist elite, with much of its surplus pooled and protected in giant, impersonal corporations, whose directors are legally mandated to privilege investor profit over any and all other concerns; dangerous addiction to militarism and war and the production of means of mass destruction both as a direct source of profit for so-called “defense” corporations and their investors and as a tool to expand the reach of the profits system and protect its investments across the planet; and Last but not least and related to all of the above, capitalism entails a relentless profit-addicted, “cost-externalizing” business assault on livable ecology. As I think these left authors show, we have come to a point where the really dangerous and unrealistic utopianism – the truly fantastic belief – is to think that we can advance the human and democratic prospect without “getting to the root of things.” Near the end of his life, the democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King said that “the black revolution...is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” That was a call for revolution, for going to the root of things, and for a break, among other things, with capitalism, which Dr. King felt had to be transcended if we were going to have any realistic chances of ending war and poverty, of creating social justice, and of living democratically. He was right.
My remaining rules are more aimed at radical left progressives, people who are already on board with Dr. King’s call for getting to the root of things:
12. Don’t shrink from making it personal. As Mike Gravell said at an antiwar demonstration in
13. Beware the stench of corporate-imperial Democratic failure. If you do not loudly distance yourself from Obama and the Democratic Party you help the right and the Establishment media smear the actual left with the corporate Democrats’ failures, which result from the Democrats’ unleft captivity to Wall Street and the Pentagon. You feed the false claim that radicals “have no answers.” The talk radio FOX News club is constantly merging Obama and the Democrats with “the Left,” making it doubly urgent for actual leftists to demonstrate and proclaim the differences between their own agenda and world view and those of the current state-capitalist party-“in-power.”
14. Remember: there is no meaningful Green that is not also Red. The system that is assaulting livable ecology is the one that Marx described – the one that privileges profit and exchange value over and above everything else, including a human-sustainable planet. At the same time, as Samir Amin and others note, the corporate oligopolies and their nonprofit fronts have been working hard and effectively to overtake “Green” politics and to limit environmental “solutions” to policies that are compatible with the eco-cidal imperatives of capital.
15. Third Party Electoral politics is probably pretty much a dead end right now. This is because of the nature of the
16. Issues First: Careful with political labels and isms. In interacting with everyday working people, a left that has any chance of growing and becoming relevant will lead with real life issues that matter to people in their real lives. In general, folks are not interested at first in an abstract discussion of, say, the conflict between Marx and Bakunin or of Marxist theory or anarchist writings. Focus on specific relevant issues relating to the real life experience of oppression and on developing capacity for militant and egalitarian resistance: actual plant occupations and other such direct actions are far preferable to abstract and academic-sounding discussions on late capitalism and the like.
17. No one issue or set of issues. “Which issue should I focus on?” I get this question via e-mail from young lefties all the time. No! Everyone is in their own set of circumstances, location in the system. A relevant Left will advance consistent principles – participatory, democracy, workers’ control, eco-sustainability, the common good, equality – across the board but specific issues vary in accord with location and circumstance,with where you and others in your most relevant sphere of influence are, obviously.
18. Revolutionaries Need Reform. The revolution-reform dichotomy goes both ways. Radicals are not going to get very far by rejecting any and all reforms. Some things that many non-radical progressives (people who don’t call themselves Marxists or left anarchists and the like) are willing to support – single payer national health insurance, labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act and more), major “green jobs” public works programs, and a peace dividend [shifting resources from military to social programs/human needs]), and more – would significantly improve the lives of many ordinary working people and it would be foolish and counter-productive to oppose them as insufficiently radical. At the time, militant struggles for needed reforms highlight the ever- more evident harsh limits of the profit system’s ability to meet human and social needs and thus help show the need for "radical reconstruction of society itself" (King).
19. Reject infantile spontaneity-ism and insurrectionism. Little if anything radical or progressive happens without dedicated hard work and organization – movement building.
20. Stop talking about 9/11 conspiracies. It’s a black hole. The ruling class would love left people to spend the rest of their lives tracking down every arcane way the Bush administration and/or power elite supposedly carried out 9/11. Let go of this disastrous obsession/diversion.
21. I agree with the late Howard Zinn and the radical historian and activist Staughton Lynd that Marxists and anarchists should snipe at each other much less than they commonly do in light of our common opposition to the profits system, which poses an ever-more imminent existential threat to human survival. Marxists and anarchists have some real and substantive traditions but they also have a lot of common ground and a good number of their differences can be sorted out after the revolution and the liberation of society from the pre-historic yoke of capital’s class rule. In seeking to merge these divergent radical traditions, I suggest we keep world system theoretician Samir Amin’s admonition front and center: “The struggle for democratization and the struggle for socialism are one and the same. No socialism without democracy, but also no democratic progress without a socialist perspective.” This maxim is critical also for countering the lingering Cold War propaganda that automatically equates socialism and radicalism with Stalin and Mao’s dungeons and firing squads.
22. Don’t reject working with people who are religious. Many of us on the radical left are atheists (I am) in the well-known tradition of “No Gods, No Masters.” Great - good for us. But let’s recall that (a) current conditions imposed by capitalism/imperialism/sexism/racism deeply encourage religiosity; (b) there’s nothing inherently radical about atheism (I know plenty of amoral, cynical and bourgeois atheists); and (c) many people activated by religious faith work in deeply radical ways against the very same evils we oppose. If Marx was right about the intimate relationship between religious belief and class rule, it is futile to expect such belief to disappear under the conditions of currently existing society.
23. Don’t Give Up. There may be only a 1 in 10 chance of We the People getting the radical-democratic root-and-branch change we need (I actually think our chances are much better than that!). But if we withdraw and decide that politics and societal change are hopelessly beyond our legitimate “sphere of influence,” then our chances of success go down to zero and all is lost. Faith and belief matter. The people who make a good and progressive mark on history do not stare into the crystal ball like disengaged Mandarins and futurists. They kiss the fortune-teller goodbye and act in accord with their moral, (dare I say spiritual?) sense of what needs to be done. Dr. King’s call for revolution is even more relevant today than it was 42 years ago, thanks in no small part to the ever-growing anthropogenic (and capital-genic) ecological crisis. Thanks to this emergent uber-catastrophe (the evidence of which becomes more chilling/warming each day), it is fair to say along with the great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros that “if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, then there can be no future of humanity itself.” This is because “the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capitals destructive course of development.” (Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism [
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (