Rethinking Same-Sex Marriage

Like any radical, progressive or socialist, I celebrated New York State’s (NYS) legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward full legal equality for LGBT people. All the while, remembering that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act excludes married gays and lesbians from the federal benefits that come with marriage.

However, the way in which same-sex marriage legislation was won in NYS leads me to rethink my political assessment of the issue. For a number of years, I have disagreed with many on the left who argued that while we should support the right of same-sex couples to marry, the focus of the mainstream LGBT organization on marriage was an adaptation to hetero-normativity and tended to ignore the substantive social and economic oppression of queers. I believed that this attitude might lead radicals to abstain from mass, socially disruptive struggles for marriage equality as a democratic-civil right.

Despite what some on the organized left are arguing, the NYS same-sex marriage legislation was not the result of mass mobilizations and struggles. There have been no mass demonstrations, sit-ins at County Clerks offices or even dissident local officials officiating at same-sex marriages in defiance of NYS law. Instead, mainstream LGBT organizations in NYS engaged in a tepid lobbying and TV/radio ad campaign. Orchestrated by militant neo-liberals NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg– who are in the vanguard of an austerity drive against working and poor people in NYS–the legislation passed because of the role of traditionally Republican corporate executives and investment bankers.

In light of this, I have to say that the comrades who were much more critical of the LGBT movement’s focus on marriage equality were right. Their critique that the focus on same-sex marriage was part of the increasingly assimilationist politics of the LGBT middle classes was correct. In fact, it supports arguments the Canadian socialist Alan Sears has made that marriage-rights was the last step in winning full citizenship for queer people in a neo-liberal/lean world. Cuomo and Bloomberg– along with significant segments of NYS capital (including Xerox and a number of Wall Street firms) — have succeeded in re-cementing the support of an increasingly privileged segment of the queer community for the neo-liberal politics of the Democratic party.

The victory for legal equality in NYS is quite ambiguous and very bitter-sweet.

Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Book Review)

Review of David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011)

By Charlie Post

book coverIn late 2007, over twenty years of global economic growth came to a screeching halt. A financial panic began in the sub-prime mortgage market, leading to the bankruptcy (Goldman Sachs) and near bankruptcy (AIG, GM) of major financial and industrial corporations. While capitalist state bailouts for corporations deemed “too large to fail” stemmed the tide of economic collapse, millions of workers in both the global North and South faced attacks on their jobs, wages, working conditions and, for many, their housing. Unemployment, which had fallen to a “mere” five or six percent in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, quickly spiked. Underemployment also rose rapidly.

Despite the hopes of many liberals and social democrats, the state bail-outs of failing capitalists did not produce a “return of the state.” Capitalist states reverted to neo-liberalism, attacking social services and public sector workers in the name of “balanced budgets” and “deficit reduction.” While corporate profits have begun to rise, there has been no new wave of investment and hiring. Unemployment remains at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and real wages continue to decline.

David McNally’s Global Slump offers a Marxian analysis of the current crisis that is neither an academic tract or, as he puts it “The Crisis for Dummies” (11). This book is both useful for people familiar with Marxian economics and accessible for those new to theoretical discussions. McNally locates the deep roots of the crisis in the most basic dynamics of capitalism — what he describes as its “manic depressive” tendencies — to better arm the labor and social movements’ resistance to the capitalist onslaught in the workplace and our communities.

The Neo-Liberal Boom

After a lucid summary of the course of the global slump of 2007-2008, McNally presents an explanation of the “neo-liberal boom” of the past twenty-five years. Unlike most radical economists (including Robert Brenner, Alex Callinicos, Chris Harman and David Harvey), who equate prolonged capitalist prosperity with the exceptional “golden years” of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, McNally argues that the global slump of the late 1960s and early 1970s ended with the global recession of 1980-1982. Three processes laid the foundation for the restoration of profitability and accumulation. First was a sharp increase in the rate of exploitation — the relationship of profits and wages.

While neo-liberal attacks on social services deprived workers of most alternatives to working under whatever conditions capital dictated, the reorganization of work along the lines of lean production — fragmentation of tasks, speed-up, outsourcing, the use of part-time and temporary workers, etc. — increased output while real wages deteriorated. Second was the destruction of inefficient capitals through massive waves of bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the 1980s and 1990s saw a massive spatial expansion of the world economy — so-called globalization — as transnational corporations moved their most labor-intensive operations to low-wage regions in the global South.

McNally locates the origins of all global slumps, including the current one, in falling profits and the over-accumulation of capital. Following Marx, he analyzes how the same mechanisms that propel long waves of expansion — capitalist competition and investment — necessarily lead to long waves of stagnation. As capitalists attempt to improve their position in the unplanned, anarchic process of competition, they introduce new labor-saving machinery and technology to cuts costs and prices. While allowing individual capitalists to increase their market share, mechanization displaces living, human labor — the source of profits. The result is a falling rate of profit — less profit compared with growing capital investment.

As production becomes increasingly capital-intensive, the economy reaches a point of over-accumulation, where masses of capital no longer yield adequate profits to continue the process of investment and growth. While over-accumulation initiates long periods of stagnation, capitalism has “built-in” mechanisms of recovery. The “creative destruction” of crises — massive bankruptcies that reduce over-accumulation, the reorganization of work and production that increases exploitation, and the spatial expansion of the world-economy — restore profitability and lay the basis for a new wave of capitalist expansion, at the cost of working-class communities and living standards. Put simply, capitalist solutions to economic crises must come at the expense of working people globally.

McNally’s analysis of the “neo-liberal boom” allows him to offer more grounded explanations of two phenomena that have captured the attention of radical economists in the past thirty years — the growth of the financial sector and the spread of capitalist production in the global South through “accumulation by dispossession.” David Harvey is perhaps the best known left-wing analyst of financialization and the spatial expansion of capitalism. He has argued that the uninterrupted stagnation of capitalist production in the global North since the late 1960s compelled capitalists to seek alternative sources of profits.

On the one hand, capital was unable to find profitable outlets in the production of goods and services, and has flowed into speculative investment in financial instruments and real estate. On the other, “accumulation by dispossession” in the global south — the expulsion of millions of peasants from the land to become low wage workers, privatization of state owned industries and services, etc. — has been, according to Harvey, the only source of steady growth as most productive investment shifted from the global North to the South.

Roots of Financialization

According to Global Slump, the roots of financialization are found not in speculation, but in the reorganization of production. The end of the “Bretton Woods” regime of monetary regulation (in which other currencies were pegged to the value of the US dollar, which was convertible to gold) opened a period of exchange rate instability that created problems for transnational corporations’ increasing their investments in the global South in the 1980s and 1990s.

Transnationals, headquartered in the global North, feared that exchange rate fluctuations could reduce their profits earned abroad. The development of exchange-rate derivatives was an attempt to stabilize exchange-rates and guarantee the repatriation of all the transnationals’ profits. While the 1990s and 2000s saw a massive expansion of financial instruments, as the extension of consumer credit and “sub-prime” mortgages maintained working-class consumption in a period of falling real wages, the roots of “financialization” are found in the restructuring of production.

McNally also recasts Harvey’s discussion of “accumulation by dispossession” in a more classical Marxist framework of the geographic expansion of capitalist production and primitive accumulation. The extension of global boundaries of capitalist trade and production, in particular increased labor-intensive investments in regions with large surplus populations and low wages, has been a counter-tendency to falling profit rates since the late nineteenth century.

Claims of a wholesale relocation of manufacturing to the global South are without empirical basis: the vast majority of capitalist accumulation remains in the global North. However, the growth of labor-intensive industries (such as textiles, clothing, footwear and electronics) and operations (such as auto parts) in Africa, Asia and Latin America fueled the “neo-liberal boom.” Neo-liberal state policies in the global South have deepened primitive accumulation — the separation of peasants from the land and the transformation of land and tools into capital — creating new arenas for investment and masses of cheap labor for transnational corporations.

As agriculture in the South has become subject to market-discipline, millions of peasants lost their land, and those that survive are forced to cultivate non-food crops to survive. The result has been a massive migration of workers to the global North and rising food prices globally.

As the capitalist world economy temporarily stabilized in the past two years, capitalist classes and governments around the world have launched vicious austerity drives. While corporations received huge bailouts, working people — especially in the public sector — have experienced new attacks on wages and working conditions along with big cuts to social services in a period of rising unemployment and poverty.

The Drive to Austerity

McNally’s analysis of the austerity drive as a means of disciplining workers is perhaps one of the most insightful in the book. While many on the left see the dismantling of social services as primarily a means of transferring income from labor to capital, McNally highlights austerity’s role in forcing workers to accept, without question, the terms of work dictated by capital. His insights into the racial and gender dynamics of austerity are a powerful reminder of the need to explicitly address sexism and racism in building working-class resistance to the crisis.

McNally ends with a sweeping survey of the popular and working-class resistance the capitalist austerity drive has engendered. He moves effortlessly between discussions of the fight-back in Oaxaca, Mexico, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the global South to the factory occupations and “boss-nappings” in the US, Britain and France; from the public sector strikes in France and Greece to the massive immigrant rights mobilizations in the US in 2006.

McNally highlights the capacity of working people, including those in the global North, to organize and struggle, usually independently of and often in opposition to the official leaders of their unions, parties and communities. However, he is not a simple cheerleader. He recognizes that few of the current struggles have had the breadth, power and radicalism to reverse the capitalist offensive, no less pose the possibility of an alternative to global capitalism.

McNally is especially conscious of the generally low level of resistance in the US and the Canadian state, the result of the weakening of “infrastructures of resistance” –working-class institutions in workplaces (unions and activist networks) and communities (including tenant organizations, political parties and working-class public spaces) that had provided working-class activists with the means of organizing day-to-day resistance to the rule of capital.

The capitalist restructuring of production — in particular the geographic movement of manufacturing within the global North and the spread of lean production — have made the rebuilding of these “infrastructures” independently of the bureaucratized official leaders of the workers’ movement and social movements a central task of a new anti-capitalist left.

Global Slump is a crucial book for any activist or organizer attempting to build resistance to the current capitalist crisis. It arms us with a theoretical analysis that understands why capitalist crisis is inevitable and why any pro-working class solution must challenge the power of capital. However, there are several points that need greater discussion, debate and clarification. McNally fails to identify the mechanisms that turn increasing capitalization of production and falling profits — features of a period of capitalist expansion — into a situation of over-accumulation.

Such clarity is important in countering the claims of some on the left about permanent capitalist stagnation. There is also inadequate discussion in Global Slump of the role of the wave of mergers and acquisitions during the 1980s in creating a controlled destruction of inefficient capitals. The creation of high-risk “junk” bonds and other instruments to finance this restructuring of production was another source of the growth of the financial sector over the past three decades.

Militant Minorities

Politically, McNally’s explanation of the weakening of the “infrastructures of resistance” relies too much on the restructuring of capitalist industry since 1980. The geographic relocation and reorganization of industry is a permanent feature of capitalism. Despite this, activist “militant minorities” were able to persist, passing on traditions of radical politics and organizing to new generations of workers until the mid-20th century. The role of bureaucratic business unionism and the adaptation of much of the independent left to “progressive” trade union and political leaders in the destruction of that “militant minority” need more emphasis.

Finally, McNally does not sufficiently analyze the rise of right-wing political movements in response to the capitalist crisis. While he mentions the growth of anti-immigrant politics in Northern Europe, McNally does not discuss the sharp turn to the right in mainstream politics in the US. In a period when much of the left is calling for “unity” with liberals and the official leaders of the labor and social movements to “fight the right,” it is crucial that activists are armed with an understanding that such “unity” will only weaken working-class resistance to the crisis and fuel the growth of the right.

Charlie Post teaches sociology in New York, is active in the faculty union at the City University of New York and is a member of Solidarity. A version of this review appears on the New Socialist Webzine

New Anti-Capitalist Party (France) on Tunisia

Mike F. (NY) has translated this statement from the NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party), our French comrades, on the Tunisian Revolution:

STATEMENT FROM THE NPA (January 26, 2011);
SOLIDARITY WITH THE ONGOING REVOLUTION IN TUNISIA.

One after the other, the pitiful declarations of members of the Fillon government, from Alliot-Marie to Lemaire and including Sarkozy, have shown that they do not understand the reasons for the revolt of the Tunisian people.

Their explanations try to camouflage their political choice to the support for a friendly dictatorship, sanctioned by Sarkozy during his trip in 2008.

The so-called transitional government to prepare for the elections, stacked with politicians from the RCD, is rejected by the great mass of the people who overthrew Ben Ali after a month of continuous demonstrations, despite ferocious police repression.

The revolution continues its forward march to force the resignation of this government and to construct organs of power where the people are represented, heard and make the decisions.

Daily demonstrations, a teachers’ strike and a strike in the city of Sfax called by the UGTT [main trade union federation] show that the youth and the Tunisian people do not want to be robbed of their social and democratic revolution.

The NPA reaffirms its unconditional support for the on-going revolution in Tunisia, for the Tunisian people who don’t intend to give up anything, and for the organizations that are struggling to construct a democratic society based on the sharing of wealth and the right of employment for everyone.

More than ever, solidarity is a necessity to defend a revolution that has raised so much hope in the Maghreb, in Egypt and in all the Arab countries.

OCTOBER 2ND AND BEYOND: Rebuilding Our Movements

Hopefully, tens of thousands of working people will descend on Washington, DC on Saturday, October 2nd. The unions, civil rights, immigrant, women’s and LGBT organizations that have built this demonstration to counter the “Tea Party” and the right’s program of new wars abroad and attacks on unions, immigrants, people of color, women and queer folks at home.

In 2008, most of us in the labor, civil rights, anti-war and immigrant rights movements celebrated the election of the first African-American President. Some of us believed that Obama’s promises of “hope” and “change” would result in more progressive government policies. Others recognized that Obama was an even more conservative Democrat than Clinton, but believed his election would energize progressives to fight for their agenda—an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, single-payer healthcare and amnesty for undocumented immigrants and an easy path to citizenship.

In 2010, the situation is exactly the opposite of what most of us expected. Rather than new progressive policies from Washington, Despite the Democrats’ control of both the White House and Congress, there have been no progressive reforms to benefit working people. Nor are the movements of working people and progressives dominating politics. Instead, a racist, nativist, homophobic, anti-union right occupies the center stage of US policies.

What happened?

The main thing fueling the growth of the “Tea Party” and the right today is the Obama administration’s failure to solve the economic crisis. Rather than launching a massive public works program at living wages to rebuild public schools, hospitals, roads and mass transit, Obama and the Democrats gave billions in loans and grants to the financial and manufacturing corporations who continue to lay off workers and cut wages and benefits. Rather than provide universal health care (“Medicare for All”), they have given us a “reform” that provides massive subsidies to private insurance companies and places the burden for obtaining insurance on millions of working and middle class families. Instead of peace abroad and expanded social spending at home, the Democrats have given us an escalating war in Afghanistan and an increased military budget.

Obama and the Democrats’ performance should not be a big surprise. The Democratic Party, despite its claims to speak for “working people,” has always been financed by corporate capitalists. Corporate dominance of the Democrats was clear in the Clinton years, when the Democrats promoted “free trade,” dismantled social welfare and laid the ground work for the Bush administration’s attacks on civil liberties. In 2008, many traditionally Republican capitalists threw their support to Obama and the Democrats in disgust with the incompetence of eight years of Bush and the Republicans, deepening the Democrat’s dependence on corporate financing.

The Democrats’ march to the right since the 1970s is part of a general trend across the industrialized world. Labor and Socialist parties around the world, many of which depend upon unions and other progressive organizations for their financing, have turned on their constituents, cutting social services, attacking unions, scapegoating immigrants, and launching new foreign wars. Faced with the demands of corporations across the world for government policies that prioritize the needs of profits over human needs, “pro-labor” and “progressive” parties have caved.

Why hasn’t nearly 25% unemployment and underemployment led to a progressive radicalization? The forces that should have been leading these fights—the official leaderships of the unions, civil rights, women’s and anti-war organizations—have supported the failed policies of Obama and the Democrats. Rather than organizing independent struggles for our own demands, they have urged us to be “realistic” so that we can have “a place at the table” where “our voices will be heard.”

The “realism” of the official leaders of the labor and social movements is, in some ways, very unrealistic. Without vibrant and powerful movements in the streets, the Democrats have no reason to listen the demands of labor, people of color, immigrants and LGBT people. The “Tea-Party” and the right are the only force giving voice to the growing resentments of many working and middle class Americans. The failure of unions and progressive organizations to lead movements for our agenda has allowed the right to direct many folks’ legitimate anger against other working people rather than the real source of our distress–the corporations and the Republican and Democratic servants.

Putting our time and energy into reelecting the discredited Congressional Democrats in 2012 will not get us out of this situation. We need to build independent movements that fight for our program, no matter who is in the White House and who controls Congress. The progressive, pro-union left needs to present a real alternative to the Tea-Party right– not merely echo the failed policies of Obama and the Democrats.

Even in today’s political climate, there are important examples of how to begin to rebuild our own movements and struggles. The Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ unions, with new reform leaderships, are building movements of teachers, parents and students against cuts to public education, the growth of charter schools and attacks on teacher unions from both the Obama administration and the right. Students at the University of California staged mass demonstrations and built alliances with campus and public sector unions to oppose cuts to public higher education. Hundreds of young immigrants have staged demonstrations and hunger strikes in support of the Dream Act and a path to citizenship. Labor for Single-Payer and others are continuing to organize for real universal health care. Together these struggles should inspire many of us in unions and progressive organizations across the country to build the sort of movement that can stop the attacks, win new gains and turn the tide against the right.

The Left and Obama

How should the left relate to Obama? A response to Linda Burnham
Charlie Post*

There is a broad consensus on left—from those who actively campaigned on his behalf, through those who sat out the election, to those of us who supported the independent candidacies of Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader—that the election of Barack Obama represents an important opening for anti-capitalists and radicals in the US. The election of an African-American to the highest elected office in a republic founded on white supremacy was, in itself, an important symbolic blow against white supremacy. Even more importantly, Obama’s victory was a political and ideological defeat of the right. The 2008 election has raised popular expectations of the possibility of gains for working and oppressed people—national health insurance, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a renegotiation of NAFTA, the expansion of civil rights for queers, women and people of color, and an end to the imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Linda Burnham, the long-time African-American socialist and feminist, has made an important contribution to the analysis of the Obama victory and the strategic challenges it presents to the US left. Burnham recognizes that the Obama administration has two “bottom lines”—the stabilization of US capitalism and the rehabilitation of the reputation of US imperialism with its allies in Europe and Japan. However, “the effective-steward-of-capitalism is only one part of the Obama story.” The Obama’s campaign brought together a new electoral rainbow coalition of people of color, youth, LGBT people, unionized workers, civil libertarians, and progressive urban professionals. According to Burnham, this new coalition was forged because Obama has moved the Democratic Party to the left:

[Obama has] wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy grip of Clintonian centrism. (Although he often leads from the center, Obama’s center is a couple of notches to the left of the Clinton administration’s triangulation strategies)…

Burnham excoriates those on the left who failed to support Obama’s residential campaign. She dismisses these comrades as hopeless sectarians, who rejected Obama because he was “insufficiently anti-capitalist.” Those of us who did not campaign for Obama are caricatured as interested only in fighting for demands that directly attack capitalist rule—abstaining from real, concrete popular struggles.

Burnham concludes that the U.S. left has three tasks in the coming period:

1. The left needs to defend “the democratic opening” created by the Obama victory. This will require a bloc with “centrists against the right” through Democratic Party electoral campaigns. Those leftists who have traditionally rejected participation in the Democratic Party’s electoral activity need to abandon their sectarian purity, and work to ensure an increased Democratic Congressional majority in 2010 and Obama’s reelection in 2012. This will require the left’s participation in voter registration and mobilization and actively campaigning for any and all Democrats in the coming four years.

2. The left cannot abandon the task of “building more united, effective, combative and influential progressive popular movements.” The gap between Obama inspired rising expectation of change and a deepening economic crisis “will likely spark new levels and forms of population resistance.” The left needs to continue to organize, educate, and agitate against US imperial policies in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, for national health care and pro-working people solutions to the economic crisis, and for a real answer to the looming environmental crisis.

3. We need to build the anti-capitalist left while simultaneously engaging in alliances with centrists in the Democratic Party, and rebuilding vibrant, progressive social movements.

Burnham’s claim that Obama has moved the Democratic Party “several notches to the left” of Clinton’s administration is very questionable. Even more importantly, Burnham’s strategy for left in the age of Obama is self-contradictory. Her first strategic priority—an alliance with centrists in the Democratic Party to ensure a Democratic Congressional majority in 2010 and Obama’s reelection in 2012—is incompatible with her second and third strategic priorities—rebuilding movements of social resistance and building an anti-capitalist left.

Is Obama to the Left of Clinton?

There is no question that many of Obama’s voters and active supporters were well to the left of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. Especially during the primaries, Obama won support because he appeared to be left of Hillary Clinton on the wars, economic and health care policies, immigration, and a myriad of other questions.

However, even a cursory examination of what Obama himself wrote and said during the 2008 campaign revealed that he was well within the mainstream of the Clinton-Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing of the Democratic Party. African-American radicals at the Black Agenda Report (http://www.blackagendareport.com/) constantly hammered away at the huge gap between popular perceptions of Obama and his actual politics, as did the left-wing historian Paul Street in his Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

The record of Obama’s first “hundred days” only confirms Obama’s fundamentally neo-liberal politics. Obama’s cabinet not only includes re-cycled Clinton administration figures, but important representatives of major Wall Street investment houses and big Information Technology capitalists. The list of Obama’s proposals to revive US capitalism at the expense of working people, people of color, women and queer people are too numerous to catalogue completely. Among the highlights:

• Obama’s plan to restructure the auto industry on the backs of auto workers.
• The administration and Congressional Democrats waffling on EFCA.
• Outsourcing the torture of “suspected terrorists” from Guantanamo to other countries.
• The refusal to discuss revising NAFTA, and backpedaling on global environmental regulations.
• The embrace of John McCain’s proposal for immigration reform, including guest worker programs.
• The Obama “national health insurance plan” which will provide massive subsidies to private insurers.

As the world economy either continues to stagnate or grows at extremely slow rates in the coming years, we can expect even more pro-capitalist, anti-working people policies from the Obama administration. In the absence of significant movements from below—built independently, and if necessary, in opposition to Obama and the Democrats—any hopes of a new “New Deal” will be sorely disappointed.

Nor is it true that those on the left who did not support Obama’s campaign are hopeless sectarians who reject any partial struggles that do not directly strike at the heart of capitalist rule. This is clearly not true of Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, the Greens, or the comrades around Black Agenda Report. While these groups differed about the importance or effectiveness of third party campaigns like that of Cynthia McKinney , none reject struggling for reforms—the end of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for single-payer health care, for amnesty and an easy road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, in defense of affirmative action and social programs. We did not support Obama because neither he nor the pro-corporate, neo-liberal Democratic Party support these struggles.

Can We Build Movements and Work for Democrats?

Burnham strategy of campaigning for the Democrats, and building social movement and the left is impractical. The idea that the left should work to elect pro-corporate Democratic politicians is based on the mistaken notion that electing liberal politicians is the key to winning reforms and fighting the right. This position mistakes cause and effect. It is not the election of “lesser evil” liberals to office that opens the possibility of reforms and progressive politics. Instead it is effective social movements that can force the ruling class and its political spokespersons—both Democratic and Republican—to grant reforms. The experience of successful struggle grows the audience for left-wing, radical politics.

The left cannot lose sight of the fact that capitalism makes the class struggle a zero-sum game. Gains for working people, racial minorities, women, queers, and immigrants come at the expense of capitalist competitiveness and profitability. Reforms are won through militant mass strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and the like. Such struggles involve large-scale defiance of the law, and forge ties of active solidarity among working people. This experience of successful struggles for reforms is the basis for left-wing and radical politics among large layers of the population.

Historically, attempts to simultaneously build an alliance with Democratic Party centrists and build social movements have led the disorganization and decline of the movements and a shift to the right in politics. Time and time again—from the CIO upsurge of the 1930s, through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, to the movements against the Vietnam War — the decision of the leaders of powerful and potentially radical social movements to pursue an alliance with the Democrats have derailed these struggles.

Electoral campaigns that are not expressions of social movements actually demobilize activists. Electoral campaigns are generally top-down, bureaucratic and seek to mobilize individual voters at the lowest common political denominator. Such campaigns, no matter what sense of satisfaction people gain from seeing their candidate win, reinforce the notion that change comes from above—through the ascendance of “good leaders” to office. Corporate funded Democratic Party election campaigns can not be anything but these sorts of mobilizations.

The dynamics of social movements—where people act collectively, organize democratically from the bottom-up and come to understand the connections between their particular struggle and those of other working and oppressed people—could not be more different from those of election campaigns. Successful social movements promote radicalism because they provide the lived experience of working and oppressed people exercising their collective power.

Once the elections are over, the continued alliance with Democratic politicians requires the leadership of movements of social resistance to trim their demands in ways that will not alienate the “centrists” – watering down their demands for pro-working class, popular reforms in favor of policies that the Democratic politicians and their corporate backers find “reasonable.” Even more importantly, the alliance with the Democrats requires abandoning militant forms of struggle—mass demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and other forms of social disruption.

As the movement leaders water down their demands for concrete reforms and abandon “street heat” for lobbying, electoral campaigns and other forms of “pressure politics,” the movements become weaker. Democrats and Republicans only make concessions to working and oppressed people when compelled to—when the alternative is continued social disruption and conflict. Unable to win new reforms as movement leaders abandon their source of real social power, the gap between popular expectations and real change grows feeding demoralization and disappointment. In the absence of powerful social movements, Democrats and Republicans are under no compulsion to grant reforms and are free to move politics to the right in line with the wishes of their corporate capitalist sponsors.

In recent years, we have seen this dynamic at work in the movement against the US war in Iraq. In the Winter and Spring of 2003, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding no US war against Iraq. Despite the relatively quick defeat of the Saddam Hussein regime, renewed Iraqi resistance to the US occupation continued to fuel anti-war sentiment and activity in the US. Organized opposition to the war emerged among military families, veterans, active duty GIs and the ranks of organized labor at a much earlier stage than during the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the anti-war movement—especially in United for Peace and Justice (UfPJ)—believed that they could harness this burgeoning movement to the efforts of anti-war liberals and centrists to elect Democrats to the White House in 2004 and 2008. During both election cycles, the UfPJ leadership put national demonstrations on the back burner and downplayed both the demand for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and their opposition to the continued US occupation of Afghanistan.

Obama’s election appears to have all but destroyed the national anti-war movement. Significant funders of UfPJ, like Moveon.org, and many activists who had sustained the anti-war movement no longer see any reason to continue anti-war activism at the grassroots. For them, Obama’s election has made the war a “non-issue.” Unable and unwilling to confront the Obama administration as it retreats from its promise to gradually withdraw from Iraqi cities and its fulfills its promise to increase troop strength in Afghanistan, the UfPJ leadership is no longer in a position to act as an organizing center for national anti-war protests. As the anti-war movement declines, Obama is free to maintain US troops in Iraq and pursue new military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The same pattern is and will be repeated by the leaderships of the labor and social movements in the age of Obama. Not wanting to alienate Obama and the Congressional Democrats, the leaderships of both the AFL-CIO and CTW have done little to publicly oppose the Democrats back-pedaling on the EFCA—with Andy Stern of the SEIU, as always, leading the retreat. The labor officials and many mainstream immigrant rights groups are abandoning the struggle for universal amnesty and a direct route to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in favor of the Obama-McCain plan. Proposals for a single-payer insurance system appear dead in the water, leaving the Democrats and Obama free to implement their “universal health care” program based on massive subsidies for private insurance companies. The list can, depressingly, be multiplied across a wide variety of popular reform issues.

Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, grasped this dynamic quite well in a 2000 essay :

No administration in modern history has been as good for American business as has the Clinton-Gore team; none has been as solicitous of the concerns of business leaders, generated as much profit for business, presided over as buoyant a stock market or as huge a run-up in executive pay… The Clinton-Gore administration delivered on policies that Republicans failed to achieve—fiscal austerity, free trade, and a smaller government—and Al Gore was in the lead. This confirms a pattern to American politics: Once in office, recent Democratic presidents in an era of business dominance have had an easier time moving right rather than left from where they campaigned since the Democratic base has no one else to turn to.

The left needs to champion any and all popular demands—but refuse to water down these demands to placate centrists and liberals. We need to reach out to any and all Obama supporters who want to continue the struggle against war, racism, sexism, homophobia and for social justice—reminding them that change has come “from outside Washington”, from mass movements from below. The anti-capitalist left needs to be in the struggle, building organizations and movements that have the power to force those in power to give concessions in the form of concrete reforms that benefit working people in this country and internationally.

If the anti-capitalist left is going to take advantage of the real opportunities of the “Obama moment,” we will need to be rooted in real social struggles. We have already seen important struggles that have seized popular attention and enthusiasm—the Republic workers’ sit-down strike being the most important. We need to build support for every strike and organizing drive among workers, no matter how local and defensive. Struggles against government austerity and cuts to social services are another important arena for building alliances between public employees and working class and people of color communities—like the United Teachers’ of Los Angeles (UTLA) May 15th one day teacher-student-community day of action against budget cuts. Radicals and anti-capitalists need to rebuild the anti-war movement to press for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such movements cannot be summoned at will, but are the results of rising popular expectations confronting the realities of capitalist crisis and the intransigence of the ruling class. Today, the movements of social resistance are at a low point. The left needs to help build and support the “militant minority”—those who attempt to organize and struggle even when mass movements are dormant. Such militant minorities can set larger struggles in motion—struggles that can win gains and shift politics to the left. The key to the building of militant minorities and the sparking of larger struggles is the need for political independence from the corporate rulers and their political representatives.

Structural Adjustment Comes Home to Roost

When the meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage market last Fall began to spread to major banks, investment houses and insurance companies, the Bush administration responded with massive bailouts the financial sector. Before they left office in January, the Bush gang extended billions in loans to the ailing auto industry. Since Obama took office, the calls for new loans and other bailouts have multiplied, as the deepening global recession threatens new sectors—both industrial and financial—of the US capitalist economy.

Many commentators believe that this new role for the government in the market marks the death of “free market”—neo-liberal—policies. For conservative talk-show hosts the bailouts and loans have raised the specter of socialism (we wish!). The liberal pundits are ecstatic—hoping for a new age of government regulated capitalism. Many on the radical left have echoed the liberals’ enthusiasm, hoping for a new “New Deal” that will regulate finance and industry, and increase demand for goods and services through higher wages and social benefits for working people.

Is neo-liberalism with its deregulation of capital, labor, and commodity markets really dead? Clearly, a big expansion of social welfare and rising wages is not on the agenda—despite the hopes of many on the left. The Democrats are rapidly back-tracking from their commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make union organizing easier and has the potential of raising working class wages. The Obama administration is clear that its plan for “universal” health care is rooted in subsidies for private insurance companies, funded through taxes of those workers who have employer based health insurance. It is very likely that if Obama’s plan is adopted it will be the model for reforming Medicare into an even more private insurance based program.

But what about these bailouts? Isn’t this evidence that the era of unregulated, free market capitalism is dead? The first wave of Bush administration bailouts came with “no strings attached.” The big banks and insurance companies were free to do with billions in tax payer dollars what they liked—including paying their Executives huge bonuses while millions lose their jobs and homes.

However, the Obama administration’s new approach to bailouts seems quite different. Like the Bush administration’s auto loans, the Obama regime places very strict conditions on new bailouts for auto and other industries. In fact, the new bailouts resemble the earliest form of neo-liberalism—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) structural adjustment programs of the 1980s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, governments across the global South borrowed heavily from the IMF and WB to finance locally owned industries whose development could end their countries’ dependence on trans-national corporations. Their plan was to repay the debts—interest and principle—through exports of industrial raw materials and foodstuffs. When global economic growth began to slow in the mid-1970s, more and more governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America found themselves unable to pay their loans.

Faced with the possibility of whole nation states defaulting on their loans, the IMF and WB entered into negotiations with the debtor governments. In return for forgiving some of the debt, renegotiating payments and interest rates, the governments in the global South agreed to implement structural adjustment policies. The heart of these policies was a commitment to balancing state budgets through massive cuts in social programs and the elimination of restrictions on foreign investment. Put simply, the debt relief programs became a lever for depressing working class and popular living standards and reopening the global South to transnational, imperialist investment.

The conditions Bush placed on the first auto loans, and the conditions Obama is placing on future loans to the auto and other corporation have a similar goal. While the salaries and obscene bonuses for executives are not under scrutiny, the wages and salaries of workers certainly are. With the willing cooperation of the UAW officialdom, the auto companies have already agreed to reducing labor costs and work rules to those of foreign plants operating in the US.

The Obama administration’s plans for the auto industry deepen structural adjustment—under the banner of “equality of sacrifice.” Obama’s plan requires US auto corporations to dump their least profitable operations and merge (“alliances”) with foreign auto companies. His “auto-team,” which includes a former advisor to the President of the United Steelworkers, wants the UAW to assume even more responsibility for its active and retired members’ health care.

Rather than an abandonment of neo-liberalism, the Obama administration’s plans for government bailouts brings structural adjustment ‘home’ to the imperialist heartlands! As the bailouts move beyond massive subsidies to the financial sector, loans and subsidies to failing corporations are becoming an important mechanism to restructure industry and manufacturing—to restore the profitability and competitiveness of US capitalist production.

Celebrating Teen Pregnancy?

For years, I’ve taught sociology at a community college in New York City. I’m always looking for current examples to illustrate how class, race and gender work in contemporary capitalist socities. Bristol Palin’s pregnancy (itself a tribute to the effectiveness of the right’s “abstinence education”) provides such a good example of the intersection of race, gender and class, I am offering the following extra credit essay question on my final exam:

In a well written, well argued and well reasoned essay– drawing on sociological concepts and theories we have discussed in class, please answer the following question:

Why is teenage pregnancy and motherhood considered a social pathology when it occurs among poor women and women of color; while it is considered an act of responsibility if you are white and upper middle class and your mother is running for Vice-President of the United States?

All answers must be typewritten, no less than one double-spaced typewritten page, no more than two double-spaced typewritten pages.

Readers of Solidarity’s webzine are encouraged to reply with their own thoughts about this paradox!

Anti-War Movement(s)-- Then and Now...

Those of us who have organized against the US war and occupation of Iraq are faced with a major paradox. On the one hand, the war is extremely unpopular—most people in the US want their government to withdraw troops from Iraq sooner than later. On the other hand, the level of anti-war organization and mobilization is extremely low. While some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in history marked the run up to the war in the Winter-Spring of 2003, mobilizations since then have been progressively smaller. In September 2007, only 10,000-15,000 people turned out at a national demonstration in Washington, DC, while regional demonstrations that October were significantly smaller than most organizers expected—with fewer than 5,000 turning out in New York City, a center of anti-war sentiment in the US.

How do we explain this paradox, especially when we compare the movement against the war/occupation of Iraq with the anti-Vietnam war movement of 40 years ago? Clearly, there are important similarities between 2008 and 1968. While both wars were very unpopular, a majority of US citizens did not come to support the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam until after 1970—just as most Americans do not support “US out of Iraq now” today. The movements against both wars were divided between different national coalitions, which differed in their relationship to liberal “anti-war” Democrats. Both movements experienced sharp ups and downs in the level of mobilizations, with Presidential election years being low points and periods of US escalation being high points. Despite these similarities, it is clear that the level of organization and mobilization against the US war in Vietnam—even at its lowest ebbs—was significantly higher than against the US war and occupation of Iraq.


Anti-War GIs during the Vietnam War

Two key factors, in my opinion, explain the differences in anti-war organization and struggle against the Vietnam and Iraq wars. The first is the level of US military presence and the status of the US armed forces. During Vietnam, the US fought with a conscript army, there was up to 500,000 GIs on the ground in Vietnam and over 50,000 American soldiers—disproportionately working class and people of color—lost their lives in Vietnam. The draft and US casualties fueled anti-war sentiment and activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the draft targeted young people from the working class and communities of color, the threat of being forced to fight in a losing war most viewed as immoral and unjust produced sustained student activism against the war. The high level of casualties—nearly every working class and Black or Latino neighborhood in the US experienced young men coming back in body bags nearly every month after 1967—turned the majority of Americans against the war. The high likelihood of death and injury in a hopeless and pointless war sparked opposition among active duty GIs and veterans. After 1969, disgust with the war in the military made the US army in Vietnam an unreliable fighting force.

Today, the US military in Iraq has deployed, at most, 150,000 volunteer soldiers. Clearly, the growing number of injuries—tens of thousands of soldiers have returned from Iraq missing limbs and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—has fueled significant opposition to the war. The emergence of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and anti-war organization among active duty military personnel early in the Iraq war and occupation is unprecedented. However, the size of the military force “on the ground” and the relatively low level of casualties is not sustaining the level of revulsion and resistance that existed during Vietnam. While the US military relies on an “economic draft”—poverty and unemployment pushing young men and women into the armed forces—the absence of a draft leaves large sectors of working and middle class youth exempt from the possibilities of being sent to Iraq.

As the low level of casualties and the absence of a draft undercut mass organization and mobilization against the US war and occupation of Iraq, three decades of retreat and defeats on the past of the labor and social movements in the US undermines the emergence of a large “militant minority” that could sustain the movement in its low ebbs. The movement against the US war in Vietnam came in the wake of the victory of the African-American Civil Rights movement—which smashed the “Jim Crow” system of legal segregation and disenfranchisement in the US south. The Black Liberation movement continued, as urban insurrections, black workers struggles and community organizations targeted institutionalized racism. The African-American struggle provided a powerful lived experience of how ordinary people, in the face of tremendous odds, could organize, fight and win—inspiring student and anti-war activism in the 1960s.

The ascending social movement promoted the development of a broad far left that maintained some independence from the Democratic Party and could be a counter-weight to demoralization and disorientation of the anti-Vietnam war movement during its low points. These forces made the anti-war movement a living reality during Vietnam between the semi-annual national and regional mobilizations—fighting the draft, organizing among GIs, veterans, and among people of color.

Today, we are attempting to build a movement against the US war and occupation of Iraq in the midst of over thirty years of defeats. There are no existing social movements that can inspire a significant minority to believe in the power of mass organization and struggle from below. The absence of effective mass movements has resulted in the withering of the far left in the US (and internationally), deepening discouragement among many activists—and making the futile attempt to use the Democratic party to end the war more and more attractive.

The character of the popular opposition to US occupation in Iraq—a reflection of the evolution of the global relationship of forces over the past three decades—also undermines the coherence of a “hard-core” of anti-war activists. In Vietnam, a popular-nationalist movement against imperialism—despite its Stalinist-bureaucratic leadership—inspired a generation of anti-imperialist student and youth radicals, and successfully stalemated US military forces on the ground after 1968. The divided, religious-sectarian resistance in Iraq, that targets both US forces and their Iraqi opponents, is incapable of inspiring an “anti-imperialist” minority or of militarily defeating the US occupation.

Building—or rebuilding—any social movement in the US during a Presidential election year is always difficult. The “presidential” (versus parliamentary) system in the US increases the pressure to “vote realistically”—for one or another “lesser evil”—that exists in all capitalist democracies. The main beneficiary of these pressures has been the pro-corporate, pro-imperialist Democratic Party.

The pressure on social movement activists to pour all their energy into electing whomever the Democrats nominate is even greater this year with the nomination of Barak Obama. Most opponents of the war are attracted to Obama’s anti-war rhetoric. They recognize that a major party’s nomination—and the realistic possibility of the election—of an African-American for President is a tribute to the enduring impact of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and 1960s. While a small minority of radicals and revolutionaries have pointed to Obama’s pro-imperialist, pro-neo-liberal politics, most anti-war activists will not take to the street in order to elect Obama and may be willing to “give him a chance to end the war” if he is elected.

Despite these obstacles, there remains a hard-core of anti-war activists in the US. While most will hold their nose and vote for the Democrat Obama, they have few illusions that a Democratic victory will end the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, or prevent an attack on Iran. They remain committed to fighting for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East whoever occupies the White House or holds the majority in Congress. These activists are maintaining anti-war committees in their neighborhoods and union locals, continuing counter-recruitment activity and building MFSO, IVAW and the new anti-war GI coffeehouses. The success of the IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings this past Spring was the most visible and important anti-war activity this year. The continued organization and activity of these militants will be central to the revival of the anti-war movement after the next Presidential election.

This reflection also appears in the next issue of NEW SOCIALIST, the publication of Solidarity’s Canadian sister organization, the New Socialist Group.

Another Comment on FRSO/OSCL's Which Way is Left?

COMMENTS ON FRSO, WHICH WAY IS LEFT?

[This contribution was originally presented to a November 18, 2007 joint meeting of Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization/OSCL and an independent study group of activists interested in revolutionary organization]

Like most members of Solidarity, I welcome the new pamphlet from the comrades in Freedom Road, Which Way is Left? I agree with the general thrust of the pamphlet. We share much of Freedom Road’s thinking about the need to embrace new ideas and practices—especially developing a non-reductionist understanding of patriarchy and racism/national oppression. I also find important points of unity on the nature of socialism, and on revolutionary organization in the 21st century.

I share Freedom Road’s rejection of bureaucratic, single-party dictatorships as anti-socialist. Socialism—the democratic rule of working people—requires, at the minimum, the possibility of working and oppressed people to form a multiplicity of parties; and freedom of press, speech and assembly for all organizations that do not take up arms against a revolutionary regime.

Solidarity and Freedom Road also share a vision of the socialist organization that we need to build in the US today. Both of our organizations reject “vanguardism”—building small, programmatically pure groupings that pretend they are the nucleus of a mass revolutionary organization.

Both organizations want a process of “left refoundation” or “socialist regroupment” that will build a broad revolutionary organization rooted among activists in the workplaces, oppressed communities, and the anti-war movement. Both Freedom Road and Solidarity want a “multi-tendency” organization—where internal debate and discussion is a source of the organization’s vitality and capacity to act collectively.

I believe that the process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment should proceed along two lines. First, and most important, is common practice. Forces exploring the possibility of building new revolutionary organizations need to see if they can actually work together in real struggles. Such experience is a necessary condition for building trust and respect.

We should seek out ways to work together, in the labor movement (building for the Labor Notes conference this April), building organizations of immigrant workers (especially workers’ centers), supporting struggles of workers of color (like FUREE [Families United for Racial and Economic Equality – based in Brooklyn] organizing among child care providers) and maintaining an independent anti-war movement during the 2008 elections (Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier Investigations scheduled for March 2008 may provide an important opportunity).

The second path toward left refoundation/socialist regroupment is on-going, comradely political discussions. Often the distinctive languages of our different traditions have obscured what we actually agree and disagree about. We need to hammer out a “common political vocabulary” that will allow us to stop talking past one another. Such a process requires patience, commitment, and respect.

I hope that meetings like this here in NY and around the country can begin that process. We also hope to organize other national, jointly organized events in the future.

One of the questions I believe needs to be discussed is the role of reformism in working class and popular struggles. I think we would all agree that reformism is not the same thing as the struggle for reforms. Any revolutionary who rejects struggles for immediate improvements under capitalism — reforms — is doomed to political irrelevance.

In my opinion, what distinguishes revolutionaries and reformists is how they understand the workings of capitalism (theory) and how they organize to win reforms (strategy). For reformists, a neutral state can regulate capitalism to promote both rising profits for capital and social and economic gains for workers and oppressed people. Reformists have traditionally looked to electing progressive politicians (either in independent social-democratic parties or in “progressive” capitalist parties like the US Democrats), and the establishment of legally regulated collective bargaining between employers and unions as the way to win and defend reforms.

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, understand that capitalism makes the class struggle a zero-sum game. Gains for workers come at the expense of capitalist competitiveness and profitability. Reforms are won through militant mass strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, and the like. Such struggles involve large-scale defiance of the law, and forge ties of active solidarity among working people. When such mass movements decline and capitalists face sharpening competition and falling profits, they roll-back reforms in order to improve the conditions of accumulation.

Clearly, all of us reject reformist theory and strategy. All of us agree that the class struggle is a zero-sum game, and that gains are made through mass struggle.

However, since the mid 1930s, a significant sector of the revolutionary left have advocated long-term strategic alliances with the forces of official reformism— progressive politicians, middle class leaders of communities of color and women’s organizations, and the labor bureaucracy. This “popular front” strategy has, in my view, undermined the ability of revolutionaries to promote mass struggles.

Most working and oppressed people, in period of low level struggle like today, accept reformist ideas. However, in periods of mass struggle, the experience of organizing collectively in the workplace and community, building solidarity with other working people, and confronting the employers and the state can lead broader and broader segments of working and oppressed people to question reformist ideas.

The forces of official reform embrace reformist politics unconditionally because their conditions of life—their job security, incomes, working conditions—do not depend upon mass struggle, but on the preservation of their organizations as organizations.

For these forces mass struggle is risky. While gains might be made, mass confrontations with the state and capital carry with them the possibility of defeat—and the destruction of the institutions which provide the forces of official reformism with their distinctive life-styles.

As a result, these social layers tend to discourage attempts by rank and file activists in workplaces and communities to prepare for struggles that confront capital and the state. Instead, they embrace “safe” methods — electing progressive officials, lobbying, and routine collective bargaining.

The paradox is that reformist strategies can not win or defend reforms. As the forces of official reformism demobilize mass struggle and disorganize networks of activists, they undermine their capacity to win or defend reforms. Especially in periods of increased competition and falling profits, capitalists become more aggressive and the forces of official reformism are unable to resist.

In fact, these forces often embrace austerity, wage cuts, and concessions in the vain hope of forestalling even greater givebacks. We have seen the capitulation of European social-democratic parties and many official Communist parties to neo-liberalism. Mass workers’ organizations in the global south—most notably the Brazilian PT and the South African CP—have undergone a similar evolution. Here in the US, we see the labor bureaucracy engaged in the deadly spiral of concession bargaining.

While short-term coalitions with the forces of official reformism are possible—and in fact unavoidable—long-term strategic alliances with these forces have undermined the revolutionary left’s ability to build struggles for reforms and promote radical and revolutionary consciousness. A new revolutionary left in the US needs to debate and discuss our relationship to the forces of official reformism—in particular the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic party and the union bureaucracy.

Solidarity advocates independent politics and democratic, “bottom up” organization in the workplace and community. We have consistently argued that participation in the Democratic party has been the graveyard of every social movement of the 20th century—and that social movement activists need to remain independent of the Democrats. As a result, we did not participate in the Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988, but have supported independent electoral campaigns such as Nader in 2000 and 2004 (and hopefully a McKinney campaign in 2008).

We also help build rank and file organizations that advocate democracy, solidarity and militancy in the labor movement, and cross-union networks like Labor Notes.

Discussion of the Democratic Party and the official leadership of the unions should be part of the open ended process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment.

Whether or not a common revolutionary organization can be created is not simply a matter of the good will or the effort of existing revolutionary organizations. It will also require the participation of new layers of radical and revolutionary activists—what Freedom Road calls the “social movement left.” The participation of these comrades will both encourage those already in revolutionary organizations to find ways to cooperate in practice and carry on comradely dialogue, and will bring new experiences and perspectives so necessary to any successful process of left refoundation/socialist regroupment.

The color-blind racism of “Law & Order”

Confession: I am a major Law & Order (L&O) junkie. I just can’t get enough of new episodes and reruns (including episodes I have seen at least a dozen time) of the original L&O. L&O Criminal Intent comes in a close second (although I have never gotten the hang of L&O Special Victims Unit). As a friend and comrade who shares my obsession put it, “It’s got cops and lawyers — what more can you ask from a mainstream TV show?”

L&O is also an excellent barometer of the drift of mainstream US liberalism to the right over the past twenty years or so. Not surprising given that Dick Wolf, the show’s Executive Producer, has gone from being a close friend of the Clintons to a supporter of the second Bush and the short-lived Presidential campaign of Fred Thompson (who starred as DA Arthur Branch on L&O for two seasons). Whether it has been issues of war, poverty, gender, sexuality or race, L&O has presented the current (and changing) face of US liberalism — wrapped in an hour of some of the most diverting TV aired today.

I was moved to write by the episode of L&O aired on January 23, 2008—Driven. The episode opens with three upper middle class white boys walking through a playground in the rapidly gentrifying, but historically African-American and Latino Upper West Side of Manhattan. Three working class African-American teens harass them and take their basketball. It turns out the three white boys, encouraged by the mother of two of the boys (played by Ally Walker of Profiler fame), return with baseball bats to claim their ball. As they chase one of the black teens toward his home, the black teen’s father — already angered by the prospect of being evicted from his apartment because he cannot afford the rising rents that come with the arrival of the white professionals and managers — shoots one of the white youths and accidentally shoots a nine year old black girl who was playing in the park.

After the multi-racial police detective team (Jessie L. Martin, S. Epatha Merkeson and Jeremy Sisto) spend the first half of the show determining the “facts,” the DA decides to try the father of the black teen and the mother of the bat-wielding white kids together. Their “theory of the case” is that both parents were irresponsible and guilty.

For the representatives of the criminal justice system, the actions of the white middle class mom — encouraging her thuggish sons to arm themselves to retrieve their $30 basket by any means necessary — and the actions of the working class black dad — defending his son from immanent danger — were morally and legally equivalent. In the end, the jury agrees—finding both guilty.

I was floored by this nearly chemically pure representation of liberal, “color-blind” racism. An act of racist violence is equated with black self-defense in color-blind justice system, which puts aside race to find justice. The African-American father’s preoccupation with becoming homeless as a result of gentrification is presented as evidence of his “irresponsibility” and “recklessness.” Real inequalities of wealth and social power — of race and class — disappear before “blind justice” that sees not black and white, not workers and professionals, but “citizens” who appear as equals in “the eyes of the law.”

Color-blind racism is the common sense — the mental road map of lived experience — of institutional racism. Before the victories of the African-American freedom struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, white supremacy was maintained by a combination of legal coercion (“Jim Crow”) in the south, and openly racially discriminatory hiring and housing practices in the north. The civil rights and black power movements effectively smashed legal and open racist discrimination in the north and south.

As we know, the end of legal and open racial discrimination did not end racial inequality in the US (or South Africa either). Today, white supremacy over Blacks, Latinos, and Asians (with the exception of undocumented immigrants) is reproduced through “the dull compulsion of the market” not through law and open racist practices. The historic legacy of racism in employment, education, and home ownership (which is the main way working people accumulate wealth that can be leveraged into college educations for their children) put African-Americans and other people of color at a marked disadvantage in the “race-neutral” competition with whites for economic opportunities and resources. People of color are also at a distinct disadvantage in dealing with the race-neutral justice system. Racist justice no longer has to rely, for the most part, on lynch mobs and open appeals to white racism. “Blind-justice” alone can maintain racial subordination.

While the African-American freedom movement was stronger in the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream liberalism and conservatism was forced to acknowledge that the abolition of legal and open racism was not sufficient to end white supremacy. Some race-conscious policies — in particular limited forms of affirmative action in higher education that helped promote the growth of a new middle class among African-Americans and other people of color — were deemed necessary by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

As the social movements of the 1970s retreated, liberals and conservative in both political parties declared “the end of race.” Race-conscious policies like affirmative action and educational desegregation were “no longer necessary.” Whatever residual inequality existed was the result of cultural differences among different groups. Liberals began to argue that many people of color, especially African-Americans, were mired in a “culture of poverty” which discouraged the characteristics (deferred gratification, rational planning, etc.) that were necessary for success. Bill Clinton used such arguments to justify his welfare reform, claiming that cash assistance for single women encouraged a “culture of dependence.” Put simply, mainstream liberalism increasingly blamed the victims of racism for their own predicament.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the triumph of liberal, color-blind racism is the success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign this year. While the success of his candidacy is a tribute to the enduring achievements of the civil rights movement, Obama is a decidedly “post-racial” politician. Unlike Jesse Jackson who spotlighted growing class, race and gender inequality in his 1984 and 1988 campaigns, which remained mired in the pro-corporate Democratic Party, Obama presents a color-blind vision in his campaign. Not only has he refused to criticize (and in fact supports) the neo-liberal policies of both parties since the 1980s (hence his praise of Ronald Reagan) nor called for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq, but Obama is silent on affirmative action and desegregation. It is not ironic that the first African-American with a real possibility of gaining the Presidential nomination of a major party, champions a politics that ignores race.