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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Looking Back and Going Forward

One year ago, President Obama took office. His assumption of the highest executive office was met with relief by most (nearly 80% of citizens polled in October 2008 thought the country was heading in the wrong direction) and high expectations by many.

Quite naturally, those who opine on the big national media stage used the occasion of the anniversary to record an assessment of the first year. Judgment was heightened by the result of the special election for the Senate seat in Massachusetts of the deceased incumbent, Edward Kennedy, a result that, by all accounts, was an ominous and severe setback for the Democratic Party.

With equal vigor, the Democratic Party mainstream, uncomfortable with anything even vaguely threatening to corporate interests, points to a non-existent leftish tilt as responsible for their failings. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, ever anxious to speak for Party moderates, decried the Democrats “overreach” and failure to find consensus “with independents and moderates”. With all the seriousness that a scolding Democratic Leadership Council icon can muster, he warns of a “catastrophe of biblical proportions” unless Democrats mend their ways. Like so many of his Party colleagues, Bayh is more comfortable with sermons than realistic or effective policy proposals. He advocates a “positive populism” that will miraculously create jobs and prosperity while reducing government spending, a prescription akin to advocating diets for the starving. In his world this makes sense, only emphasizing the irony of his remark that “Washington is out of touch with mainstream America” as expressed to The Wall Street Journal (1-26-10)

But this seems to be the message that Obama and his team are hearing, given his emphasis on reducing the deficit. Not only will he freeze non-defense related federal spending, already eviscerated during the Bush years, but he will enact a stealth budget slashing strategy recently rejected by the Congress. A commission – to be established beyond the bounds of democratic engagement or transparency - would make wholesale recommendations for spending cuts and present them as a package to Congress to be voted up or down. With little debate and no possibility of amendment the package-strategy would provide cover for those politicians
facing potential outrage in their home states or districts. They will argue that they had no choice but to accept or reject the whole policy even with some unpopular aspects. There is no question that the ultimate target of this devious strategy is Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We find here an example of the Obama pattern – now a finely honed tactic – of “faking left and going right”.

Despite Obama’s best rhetorical flourishes, there is absolutely to connection between deficit austerity and job creation. Every economist concedes this point. In fact, most would recognize an inverse relationship between reduced government spending and improved employment. Indeed, the great lesson of the last profound and persistent struggle against unemployment – The Great Depression – demonstrates the utter folly of a policy of deficit reduction in the face of mass job loss. Roosevelt’s drive for a balanced budget in 1937 sent the economy into a sharp descent while sharply reducing employment. It took a return to massive public employment to stabilize the US economy. That lesson is lost on an Administration dogmatically committed to private, market-based solutions.

Rather than listening to Evan Bayh, his corporate cronies, and the baying hounds of the know-nothing media, Obama and his team might consult with the people. He might begin with the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (1-20-10).

Around 57% of US citizens think the economy will stay the same or decline over the next 12 months. This is hardly an endorsement of the policies crafted by Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, and the rest of the Obama economics team. If Obama were listening to the people, they would be gone. Nonetheless, the DC political cabal is hanging tough with Bernanke and Geithner. Since June, 2009, the percentage of people confident in Administration economic goals and policies has steadily declined, settling at about 35% in January. This should come as no surprise given policy makers’ near total neglect of the 16 million under or unemployed in the US while urgently rendering life support to the unappreciative financial sector.

In October of 2008, before Obama’s inauguration, only a bit more than one in ten US citizens felt the country was going in the right direction, a reflection of the overwhelming disgust with the Bush era. Immediately after the inauguration, that number rose to over 40%, bolstered by the great hope and faith that so many had placed in Obama and the Democrats. In January, 2010, the number had dropped to the mid-thirties, reflecting growing disappointment with the Administration.

Contrary to the wide spread, media induced belief that the country is being overrun by wild-eyed, Obama haters, 72% of the poll respondents found Obama to be “likeable and easygoing”, 59% “inspirational and exciting”. This result demonstrates the vast exaggeration of the tea-bagger movement as representative of the attitude of most US citizens. It further suggests to what extent the corporate media was complicit in pumping up the phenomena. On the other hand, the poll does show a decided unhappiness with the direction Obama has taken: only 38% agree with position on issues and 40% believe he will achieve his goals. Less than a third believe he is “changing business as usual in Washington”.

Despite the symbolic impact of the election of the first African-American President, 78% of those polls believe that race relations in the US have stayed the same or gotten worse.

Lest it appear that disappointment with Obama translates into support for Republicans, one need only turn to US attitudes towards health care reform: 55% of respondents disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue, while 64% disapprove of the Republican approach! Clearly neither party offers the answers to health care that the people want. Of the options available – including the popular single-payer solution- both parties chose a course out-of-step with the people’s desires and, I might add, the people’s needs.

It should be even more obvious that both parties are trapped in a box dictated by corporate interests, a box that allows only limited policy options, failing both the test of popular desires and needs. Obama’s recent, extraordinary meeting with Republican bigwigs seems a calculated attempt to rally the other party to defend that box. When he stated: “I know many of you individually. And the irony, I think, of our political climate right now is that, compared to other countries, the differences between the two major parties on most issues is not as big as it's represented”, he spoke a truth that defined his own approach as well as the basis for the crisis in the two-party system. It is precisely this identity of outlook and interest that Obama persistently and enthusiastically pursues with his tiresome, ineffective, but dogged call for “bi-partisanship”.

It fails, and it will fail, because the Republican Party is under constant and unrelenting pressure from its right. The evangelicals, the anti-immigrant cabal, the anti-abortion crowd, the anti-gay fanatics, the racists, the war-mongering nationalists, and, yes, the tea-baggers are organized, vocal and independent of the Party leadership. They make nearly non-negotiable demands on the Republican Party. And the party complies.

This lesson has escaped liberals, progressives, and many on the left who consistently work and support Democratic candidates who neither share nor swear to a progressive agenda. Moreover, they refuse to call out politicians in the Democratic Party who stray from a progressive course out of some perverse sense of loyalty or twisted appeal to unity. In my view, this is unprincipled and opportunistic. But even if some see this as too harsh of a judgment, surely this past year demonstrates that complacent trust is ineffective. The dynamic of Obama’s first year shows that one cannot simply work for the election of a “better” candidate and put aside the critical activism that can shape that candidates political course. We would do well to study the strategic approach of the demonic right. We’d do even better putting our energies into building a left-of-center third party.

Zoltan Zigedy


Carl Davidson said...

ZZ says: 'We’d do even better putting our energies into building a left-of-center third party.'

Just exactly how does that work, ZZ? Do we join the Greens? Try the 'Labor Party' without labor once again? Or what?

I'm building a 'party within a party' of sorts, PDA, which is an independent PAC with its own platform that operates in the orbit of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

If you have something else in mind, spell it out. Don't do like the old Trots and end every article with a 'call for' a labor party.

Anyone can 'call for' anything they please. But effective leaders put out a plan.

Charles Andrews said...

"The Republican Party is under constant and unrelenting pressure from its right. The evangelicals, the anti-immigrant cabal, the anti-abortion crowd, the anti-gay fanatics, the racists, the war-mongering nationalists,..."

...and a group of employers who are impatient with the DLC pace of dismantling the few social programs, labor and health regulations, and environmental mandates that still exist.

zoltan zigedy said...

With all respect to your PDA efforts, others have attempted to reshape the DP for many, many decades. No doubt your father or grandfather like my family often recalled the old days of New Deal Democrats. They are gone. And they've been gone for a long time.

The focus of the article was political independence from the DP, a factor that has been sorely missing with our progressive friends for the last year. That's water over the bridge, but surely you agree that its high time to fire up the moribund national anti-war movement (March 20) and unite around real health care reform after the DP fiasco. How about a serious AFL-CIO spring rally in DC around EFCA?

I say we would do well to light a fire under D's like the wacko's do the R's. And yes, I say we would do even better to work with the Greens. I see a helluva a lot more Greens at local rallies, anti-war actions and the G-20 than visible D's.

Don't be so rigid and dogmatic, Carl: Talk to a Green. You might be surprised that they are building something.

Christian MacAlpine said...

Good commentary ZZ. It should be clear to all that any hopes we harbored that Obama and his administration would be somewhat liberal or left is not going to happen. My union supported Obama as the only possible choice in our rigged two party "trap" to stop McCain and Palin. We did not endorse him, however, as we are sensible enough not to endanger our own credibility for the sake of some Democrat. We know from decades of experience that Democrats do not respond to the "left" because they get our support no matter what they do or don't do.
And not only is this regime now left to beg the Republicans for favors, they are incapable of even staffing their agencies and responding to the crises hammering working people. As a consequence, millions of working people will not go to the polls in November to support Democrats who give speeches, and little else. Of this we can be certain.

Third Party time? No, not in my opinion. It's time we focused our energies on the employers. It's time to rebuild some semblance of fight and struggle within our nearly evaporated labor movement.

zoltan zigedy said...

Christian, there is no contradiction in doing both. You are right about the labor movement. The time is ripe for organizing a fightback. Witness the spontaneous rebellion in many UAW locals. The left is sorely needed there.

But we can fight on two fronts. We must fight on two fronts. While Carl scoffs at the Green Party and ridicules the Labor Party effort, there is much promise with the former and much to learn from the latter. While the GP is a diverse mess, it represents a solid reaction to the two-party crisis and is growing in membership and local impact. No one said it would be easy.

I think PDA is a failed project, though it has been a healthy spur to left-Democratic activism. I see no change in course of the DP. Indeed, it has moved backwards. That takes nothing away from the PDA effort, only its strategy.

Christian MacAlpine said...

Dear ZZ: Point well taken, but I don't intend to suggest a boycott of electoral work in some form. What I think is urgently needed is a re-ordering of priorities for the left to help initiate and stimulate the unions to undertake new organizing. Currently the tiny left pours its energies into the electoral work, with little impact. The same energies applied on the organizational front would possibly yield a magnified result. It would greatly help the remaining left to connect with workers in addition, something in need in any event.
Thanks for your site and the related MLToday as well.

Carl Davidson said...

ZZ, I've been a member of the Green Party (which doesn't mean there aren't times when I don't scoff at some of their wackier tactics), and I know its strong points and weak points well.

And my work with PDA is not aimed at 'reshaping' the Dems, but at replacing them. Some PDAers may think they can reform it or take it over, but I'm not one of them. I figure we keep building our 'party within a party' and at some point the DLC types will either throw us out or split the institution. Either way we move forward 'with a crowd', not onesies and twosies. And if the Greens are there and are in a pro-working-class mode, we can merge with them to create something new.

The main thing is to find tactics that don't help the far right.

In brief, the Greens and PDA types, or at least most of them, are strategic allies, whether they're understanding and affirming it or not.

As for talking to the Greens, the last meeting in Chicago I went to, I suggested they make a platform out of, say, the city's five main problems and how they would solves them, and pay to them, something we could take door-to-door in the Wards. No one picked up on it; they were more interested in running against the most left-progressive Dem incumbents 'because that's where the most votes are.'

But we have a labor leader here who wants to run as a Green vs. our Blue Dog Congressman, so we'll give it a try with him, but we're going to elect some other labor guys locally as Dems to put some GOPers out of the statehouse at the same time.

But I'm still waiting for your plan, or are you just tailing the Greens?

zoltan zigedy said...

Carl, I agree with many of your comments in your posting. We did differ sharply in what I thought was an unjustified confidence in the promise of the Obama administration. Nor do I share your confidence in community-based, cooperative arrangements - a view you share with many Greens - because I believe they are utopian and both fail to confront monopoly capital directly and will ultimately be defeated by the same. The ESOP experience is a recent example of failed utopian schemes. To my mind, they give folks a false hope that capitalism can be tamed without directly resisting corporate power.

Nonetheless, I support cooperative efforts where ever I find them. Lessons about capitalism will be learned.

As for a "plan", I think I share with Marx (and Lenin) a reluctance to attempt a road map to the just society. It is important to note that Marxism-Leninism is first, and foremost, a critical stance towards capitalism, a stance that when embedded in the working class movement encourages the majority to democratically shape the society that it wants. We too often invoke the dramatic socialist revolutions of the twentieth century, forgetting the literally 100's of CP's that influenced workers to reach for reforms that they would not otherwise have achieved. I think that role is decisive in moving forward and I want to devote my energies towards that end by encouraging and participating in a militant M-L party in the US.

Carl Davidson said...

You should know, ZZ, that there's a rather large difference between ESOPs and worker-owned coops. A few ESOPs approach something like the workplace democracy and control of coops, but not most of them by far.

Mondragon is a far cry from an ESOP, and it's competing rather well with its traditional capitalist rivals. You'd do well to do some serious study as to why.

Coops are only utopian if you think you're going to get to socialism by multiplying them indefinitely. I don't; I simply see them as a strong point secured by the workers, much like any other group they control, to be used for further struggle, together with other tactics. Think of them as part of the 'war of position' in the emerging counter-hegemonic bloc, a la Gramsci.

But I think your deeper flaw here is avoiding the question of strategy and tactics. It's true that Marx had little to say in the way of a blueprint for a socialist society. But it's certainly not the case that he, and others that followed him, were only critics of the past and the present, will little to say about the path, ie, strategy and tactics.

It's the path and platform, the strategy and tactics, wherein we differentiate ourselves from redistributionist liberalism with a militant veneer, even as we may be allied with some of them to one degree or another. That's the question I put to you.