“We Have to Do It Ourselves”
Reflections on Wisconsin, Obama, Latin America, and the Struggle for Democracy
We can’t look for saviors on high to get us out of this mess. We have to do it ourselves.
- Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali, October 20, 2006
“Obama Sits Out State Fights”
One of the neat things about the recent progressive labor rebellion within and beyond Madison, WI is the extent to which it has broken with the false of promise of change coming from the top down – from the last corporate imperial politician to be installed in the White House by the unelected dictatorship of money. The Tea Party right has insisted that their great, supposedly socialist nemesis Barack Obama – the corporate-friendly savior of Wall Street – intervened decisively on workers’ side in, and even sparked the recent and ongoing state-level uprisings. The charge is absurd. As Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman noted last February in an article titled “Obama Sits Out State Fights,” Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Top Democratic officials told Weisman that this was because Obama was “eager to occupy the political center…to help him try to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election.”
“Sitting out” does not do full justice to Obama’s conservatism in relation to the public worker struggle. Earlier this month, national New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes reported that the White House actually intervened against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the Wisconsin labor protests, which administration officials saw as contrary to their happy and neoliberal message. “When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests,” Calmes wrote, “they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters…Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address.”
So Obama responded to the rank-and-file labor rebellion in the American heartland in much the same way as he responded to the right-wing coup in Honduras in June of 2009 and to the rise of the Egyptian revolution in January and February 2011: with initial statements of seeming support for popular-democratic forces followed by conservative equivocation and caution meant to identify himself with democratic change without severing his accommodation to dominant hierarchies and elites. 1
Nobody should be surprised by this. The deeply conservative Obama’sfailure to align himself strongly with the public workers and their fight within and beyond Madison was consistent with his centrist campaign pledge to be a “post-partisan leader” ready to take on his own party’s union base. It matched: his support (over the opposition of teachers’ unions) of charter schools and “performance-based” teacher pay; his recent advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by labor; his recent public strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation’s management-friendly labor laws, and his federal workers salary freeze (a move that angered by public sector union members).3 Before the progressive labor rebellion broke out, Obama had already gone far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the “Republican narrative” (Robert Reich) that American prosperity was being undone by overpaid public workers and excessive government regulation, not by the real culprits on Wall Street, who recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008.4 Claiming (falsely) that the American people had spoken in the Republican Tea Party electoral triumph of November 2010, Obama made a number of moves calculated to win the more heartfelt allegiance of top business players. He continued his pattern of disregarding and irritating his liberal and progressive “base” by agreeing to sustain George W. Bush’s deficit-fueling tax cuts for the rich beyond their original sunset date of 2010.5 Accepting the false business and Republican Tea Party claim that “overpaid” public sector workers are a leading force behind rising government deficits and economic stagnation, Obama ordered a two-year freeze on federal worker salaries and benefits.6 He published an Op-Ed in the plutocratic editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal – an essay that praised “free market capitalism” as “the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known” – and said that government often places “unreasonable burdens on business” that have a “chilling effect on growth and jobs.” The tone of his editorial suggested that it wasn’t neoliberal deregulation that sparked the financial collapse of 2008, but all those nasty little government rules and guidelines that stifle innovation and growth. 7
Obama signed an executive order calling for a government-wide review of regulations to remove or revise those that supposedly inhibited business. He signed a corporate-neoliberal, NAFTA-like trade deal with South Korea under the cover of night in early December of 2010.8 He appointed JPMorgan Chase’s William Daley – a leading agent of the corporate-globalist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under Bill Clinton – as his chief of staff. He put Goldman Sachs’ Gene Sperling (another legendary neoliberal) at the head of the National Economic Council. He tapped General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head his new “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.” The new council’s title referred to specifically American jobs and competitiveness – something that made Immelt’s appointment more than a little darkly ironic: with fewer than half its workers employed in the United States and less than half its profits coming from U.S. activities, New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman noted, “G.E.’s fortunes have very little to do with U.S. prosperity.”9
Consistent with these rightward moves, Obama’s late January 2011 State of the Union Address (SOTUA) claimed that American business was plagued by the highest corporate tax rate in the world. Obama opened the door to lowering that rate, stating that he hoped to slash it “without adding to our deficit.” He offered no bold, large-scale economic stimulus, antipoverty or public works programs to address the mass unemployment and economic destitution still stalking the land two years into his presidency.
Whether out of political necessity, ideological preference or both, Obama appeared to have pinned his hopes for an expanded economic recovery (vital for his chances of re-election) on appeasing the right and the business class.
It’s About Who’s Sitting In, Not Who’s Sitting in the White House
The real energy in the Wisconsin public worker rebellion and its state-level offshoots has come from the bottom up. It has arisen from the grassroots, not from the top down. As Wisconsin State Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller rightly noted when the Wall Street Journal queried him on Obama’s role: “Really the people of our state, and the people of our country, have been able to find their voice in this battle. The voices of the people [not Obama] are the voices the governor needs to listen to.”10 Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the union and pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda seem uninterested in the question of who’s perched atop the national media-politics extravaganza. With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, it seemed as if they were channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009: “There's hardly anything more important that people can learn,” Zinn wrote that year, “than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating….It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency,” Zinn added, “that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.” 11
I am reminded of something that Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali wrote together in Socialistworker in the fall of 2006, as many American progressives were already fueling their delusions about the cold, calculating, and corporate Chicago politician Barack Obama being some sort of progressive messiah. “We can’t look for saviors on high to get us out of this mess,” Arnove and Ali Tariq wrote: “We have to do it ourselves.”12
Latin American Lessons
The lesson is well understood in other parts of the world. It’s nice to see North American progressives and activists show some new awareness of something their South American counterparts have long understood: it isn’t about politicians and elected officials at the end of the day; it’s about the people joining together in solidaristic social movements to discipline and educate the politicians and policymakers from the bottom up. For example, mid-February of 2011 brought a nationwide general strike during a popular rebellion against food price hikes in Bolivia. All of Bolivia’s major cities—La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro—were paralyzed three Fridays ago, as “workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages….” As the World Socialist Web Site reported, “Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, and health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.”13
So what if Bolivia’s president Evo Morales is left-leaning and indigenous? The nation’s popular forces expect him to respect the power of their social movements and their determination to resist the drastically increased cost of food and fuel imposed by capitalist elites. When my wife Janet Razbadouski and I spent two weeks visiting our son in Ecuador exactly one year ago, we were very struck by the fact that indigenous and labor activists there were far from content to merely have helped elect a left-of-center president (Rafael Correa). They continued to hold significant popular demonstrations and otherwise exercise grassroots pressure in defense of cultural rights, livable ecology and popular control of water (and other) resources. Like their counterparts in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, the social movements in Ecuador do not simply take orders from party leaders of the official Left.14 They see candidates and elections as only one aspect of a deeper, many-sided popular struggle and understand the necessity for organization and action beneath and beyond political campaigns and the machinations of political elites.
The Austerity Party is Bipartisan
That’s something more and more North Americans need to appreciate and to apply to both of the dominant business parties in the U.S. It’s one thing for existing labor institutions and leaders (themselves heavily integrated into the nation’s reigning state-capitalist order) to rally popular masses in defensive response to the worst policy outrages of the most reactionary politicians in the rightmost wing of America’s corporate-ruled “one-and-a-half party system.” It is another thing to wield and expand popular pro-actively and against the richly bipartisan neoliberal business agenda and to capture and act meaningfully on the legitimate popular anger that the Tea Party and the broader right has at times been able to exploit and misdirect. The political observer Chris Green raised a good question in a private communication with Street on February 22, 2011. “Is this progressive movement going to operate,” Green asked me, “within traditional limitations, especially those imposed by the union leadership? That is, are they only going to protest Republican governors and not pro-cut Democrat governors in places like New York, California and Illinois? This will be the challenge, not to get co-opted by the Democrats.” Indeed, the austerity party is not limited to the Republicans. The left commentator Doug Henwood offers sage advice at the end of a generally quite favorable and optimistic take on the eruption of labor protest in Wisconsin:
“The Republicans have majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, and are likely to get what they want. It’s clear that he’s using a budget crisis to break the unions and to remove them as a political force in the state. As in most states, the unions are major supporters of Democrats—who keep writing checks and getting out the vote despite the fact that Dems actually do little for them once they’re in office. (In fact, Walker’s Dem opponent did his share of union-bashing during the campaign.). It may be that had Walker not gone for such a maximalist agenda, this sort of protest might not have happened. Other governors may take note and opt instead for the death by a thousand cuts instead of one giant machete chop. But of course, it’s not just Republicans. Democratic governors like Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo also have it out for public sector workers, since, as everyone knows, you just can’t tax the fatcats these days. And you do have to wonder how aggressive unions in California and New York will be in protesting Democratic governors.”15
Henwood could have added comments about the corporate-friendly, center-right agenda of the national Democratic Party and the Obama administration. A progressive resurgence that confronts Democratic Party corporatism and militarism as well as the Republican variants of the same diseases will have to take place on the national as well as the state level if we are going to make meaningful popular-democratic progress against the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire that continue to rule America beneath and beyond the staggered, candidate-centered big-money big-media electoral extravaganzas that continue to define “politics” in the United States.
On that note, I am happy to record one promising development at the national level – the emergence of the national group “US Uncut,” which carried out 50 protests outside Bank of America headquarters and branches on Saturday, February 26, 2011. Inspired by the British anti-austerity group UK Uncut, this new organization targets corporate tax evasion and points out the unjust absurdity of government claiming to address fiscal deficits by slashing social programs and attacking public workers while failing to collect billions of dollars in unpaid taxes due from corporate giants like ExxonMobil, GE, and Bank of America, each of which paid no federal income taxes in 2010. As the Government Accountability Office reported in 2008, a fourth of the nation’s largest corporations pay no federal income tax. B of A, the beneficiary of $45 billion in federal bailout funds, hides its would-be tax dollars into no less than 115 offshore tax havens. Meanwhile, policymakers refer to budget deficits as justification for pay freezes for public workers and cuts to key social safety nets. As Carl Gibson, a US Uncut founder, noted in a press release prior to the February 26 protests: “Because of overseas tax havens and other tax loopholes, US corporations are making profits in America but barely paying taxes here. If we close those loopholes, we wouldn't have to be cutting back on firefighters, library hours and student loans.” This basic observation helps takes the ground out from under the corporate- and Republican coordinated Tea Party campaign to balance federal as well as state and local budgets on the backs of the poor, working people, and organized labor. By the hopeful account of the liberal commentator Jonathan Hari in the Nation in early February 2011, US Uncut holds the promise of becoming the beginning of “A Progressive Tea Party:
“Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, YOU CAUSED THIS CRISIS. NOW YOU PAY.”
“…Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation. Instead of letting the government cut our services and increase our taxes, the people demand that it cut the endless and lavish aid for the rich and make them pay the massive sums they dodge in taxes.”
“This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?”18
In the three weeks following The Nation’s publication of Harri’s essay, hundreds of thousands of Midwestern workers and citizens had determined to leave their homes and televisions behind to make history from the bottom up.
Left author Paul Street’s latest book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, April 2011 advance order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.
1 For details and sources, see Paul Street. “Cold-Blooded Calibration: Reflections on Egypt, Honduras, and the Art of Imperial Re-branding,” ZNet (February 11, 2011) athttp://www.zcommunications.
2 Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007); Paul Street, “Statehouse Days: the Myth of Obama’s ‘True Progressive’ Past,” ZNet (July 20, 2008), read atwww.zcommunications.org/znet/
3 Jonathan Weisman,“Obama Sits Out State Fights,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2011, A4.
4 Robert Reich, “Obama’s Republican Narrative of Our Economic Woes,” The Berkeley Blog, December 2, 2010 athttp://blogs.berkeley.edu/
5 Nick Wing, “Rep. Gary Ackerman: Tax Cut Deal Is GOP's 'Wet Dream Act,'” Huffington Post (December 9, 2010) athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/
6 Paul Krugman, “Freezing Out Hope,” New York Times, December 2, 2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/
7 Barack Obama, “Toward a 21st-Centuryr Regulatory System,”Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2011 athttp://online.wsj.com/article/
Goodman, “Obama’s Bogus Explanation.”
8 Jane Hamsher, “Sherrod Brown: Obama’s NAFTA-Style Korea Trade Deal A ‘Dangerous Mistake,’ “Firedog Lake, December 4, 2010 athttp://fdlaction.firedoglake.
9 Paul Krugman, “The Competition Myth,” New York Times, January 24, 2011; Paul Street, “State (of) Capitalist Absurdity: Reflections Before and After Obama’s State of the Union Address,” ZNet (January 28, 2011) athttp://www.zcommunications.
10 Miller quoted in Weisman, “Obama Sits Out.”
11 “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker, November 2, 2010, http://socialistworker.org/
12 Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove, “The Challenge to the Empire,” Socialist Worker Online, October 20, 2006).
13 Bill Van Auken, “Bolivia ’s Morales Faces General Strike Over Food Prices,” World Socialist Web Site (February 22, 2011)at http://www.wsws.org/articles/
14 See Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 213-14, for instructive reflections on Latin American versus dominant Western understandings of democracy.
15 Doug Henwood, “Wisconsin Erupts,” Left Business Observer, February 16, 2011 at http://lbo-news.com/2011/02/
16 Johann Hari, “How to Build a Progressive Tea Party,” The Nation (February 3, 2011) at http://www.thenation.com/
17 Alissa Bohlig, “US Uncut’s Anti-Austerity Protest Hits Bank of America,” Truthout, February 28, 2011 at http://www.truth-out.org/us-
18, Hari,“How to Build a Progressive Tea Party.” There would be rich historical irony in inspiration for “a progressive Tea Party” coming from England, the onetime colonial power that provoked the original Tea Party, whose popular legacy the hard right ilk of Charles and David Koch and Dick Armey have crassly appropriated in service to the authoritarian agenda of concentrated wealth. On the genuinely popular and progressive nature (in its time) of the original Boston Tea Party, see the remarkable study by the wonderful New Left American colonial and revolutionary historian Alfred Young: The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).