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Friday, October 19, 2018

The Lemming Effect and the Left

 With two weeks before the mid-Presidential-term US elections, the number of Democratic Party political solicitations in my e-mail inbox now approaches fifty a day. The curious-- “cynical” might be a better word-- thing is that none mention a genuine issue, none suggest an argument for a cause. All come with a folksy tone, an easy familiarity (from Bob, Chuck, Nancy, or Michelle) and all presume that I’m on their “team’  with cash at hand. The cheap emotional card is pulled frequently-- “Do you want to wish President Obama/Michelle Obama/Nancy Pelosi a happy birthday?” or “You didn’t respond to our request, do you HATE Bob Mueller?” Some are scolding: “TRAGIC ENDING. I [Nancy Pelosi] e-mailed yesterday. Barbra Streisand e-mailed. Harry Reid e-mailed. Now I’m e-mailing again…” And some are foreboding: “This is bad news…” One of the hilarious best: “Hi Friend, I just got off the phone with Senator Menendez, and he asked about you specifically.” Sure, he did...

But not a serious issue, an urgent cause, or a principled stand revealed.

Despite the lack of issues, not to mention a program, the Democrats fundraising tactics are working: ActBlue reports that Democrats raised $385 million in the third quarter alone, more than they raised in the entire 2014 midterm effort. Clearly, Trump-hating, even in its most visceral form, pays off.

However, the fund-raising orgy comes with a cost to democracy. Over 60 contested house seats sought by Democrats drew over a million dollars in campaign-fund donations in the third quarter alone compared to only 3 in the same quarter of 2014. The price of running a competitive campaign has risen dramatically (Source: WSJ, 10-16-2018).

Texas Senate Democratic hopeful Beto O’Rourke, a frequent solicitor appearing in my inbox, raised $38 million in the third quarter.

To date, Democratic House candidates have scheduled $122 million in TV commercials (Republicans $67 million) (WSJ, 10-16-18). It should be obvious that such fund raising is beyond the reach of truly independent candidates. The financial bar is set far too high to forego support from corporations, other well-heeled organizations, or wealthy contributors and expect to wrest power from Democratic or Republican incumbents. Accordingly, democracy is further stifled.

The notion of an authentic grass-roots campaign has nearly disappeared from the arsenal of the two major parties.

While posturing as a “people’s party,” the Democrats have largely substituted emotion for issues. Hatred of Trump and fear of Russia have served as the catalyst for the 2018 campaign. The Democrats have crudely sought to fold the two emotions into a brew disconnected from the sinking living standards, growing insecurity, and uncertain future of working people. A truly meaningful assault on Trumpism would necessarily target Trump’s pro-capitalist measures, cast light on betrayals by the Democratic Party, and underscore the failings of the two-party system, consequences that Democratic Party leaders dread.

It is no wonder that some commentators are describing political behavior today as “tribal.” In place of principled differences, the two parties have urged an amalgam of brand loyalty and blind faith. Stoked by a corporate media with its own interest in masking class-based issues and promoting imagery of class harmony, personal invective, anonymous charges, rumors, and internet gossip constitute the substance of political debate today. We have a reality TV-star President for reality-TV political theater.

After many decades of rightward drift by the two-party monolith, it is exceedingly difficult to find even a glimmer of hope that either party can be wrested from its corporate mooring. Yet hope does spring again and again with large sections of the US Left which attempt to pry open a door and commandeer the “people’s party,” a task now embraced by the youthful veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Our Left

With the last Presidential election, growing dissatisfaction with centrism found a home with Trumpism, a process that previously fueled the Tea Party movement for the Right. The Left experienced a similar distaste for centrism, a counterpart process that fueled the Bernie Sanders campaign-- a candidacy quickly subverted by the Democratic Party leadership.  

After the election, disenchanted young Democrats found expression in the nominal political residence of their pied piper: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA provided an organization; its burgeoning numbers provided energy and impact; but it left the youthful activists in ideological limbo, torn between a slapdash socialism and a decadent Democratic Party.

Like endless numbers of their predecessors, the youthful idealists are preparing to exhaust their principles and vision on the bastion of hypocrisy, the Democratic Party. Inexperience may excuse this illusion, but older veterans of the Left know no similar excuse. They have witnessed the subversion of George McGovern’s Presidential campaign, rallied around an exciting 1976 Democratic national platform, only to see the sanctimonious Jimmy Carter quickly run away from it. They have observed the Democratic Party leadership wilt in the face of right-wing reaction, abandoning the New Deal gains piece by piece. They have supported “insurgents” like Jesse Jackson or Howard Dean, only to see the dissidents pacified and escorted back into the fold.

It is a long and tortured history of failure, Don Quixote-like journeys to wrest the Democratic Party from the grip of its corporate owners. Sadly, many who embarked on these journeys were lost by the Left; disappointment bred inaction and cynicism.

Beyond the socialists (DSA), the US left is a small, largely electorally irrelevant motley mix, stretching ideologically from center-left liberals disenchanted with the Democrats to committed Marxist-Leninists.

Despite the fact that their endorsements or support will have virtually no effect on the outcome of the interim elections, the predictable stampede to support the Democrats has begun. Grandiose exhortations to stop Trump will serve as coded messages to support Democrats in the interim election. The ideological bankruptcy that fails to put promoting third parties, independent candidacies, anti-monopoly coalitions or advocating for socialism ahead of unconditional support for Democrats guarantees that the rightward two-party drift will continue, Trump or no Trump.

Unconditional support for Democrats reinforces the two-party stranglehold in two ways:

  1. It acquiesces to the already prevalent view that there is no other route to progressive change.
  2. It thwarts the development of third parties or actions that will disrupt the grip that Democrats have upon the Left.

That grip is continually strengthened by the insidious material influence (money!) spread by foundations, nonprofits, think tanks, right-wing labor organizations, etc. that enables the Democrats to capture the Left. And of course many reluctantly support the Democrats because they fear the ire of their allies in the broader mass and labor movements.

For decades, Leftists have explained their support for Democrats through a clumsy, misappropriation of Marxist-Leninist theory. Many have advocated a “United Front” tactic in the face of what they perceive as the threat of fascism. Specifically, Republican Presidential candidates-- Nixon, Reagan, Bush II, and now Trump-- are seen as harbingers, if not bearers of fascism. It is a bitter irony that much of the 1968 Nixon-era Republican platform would appear largely acceptable to today’s Democratic Party leadership.

But the fascism of the first half of the twentieth century does not figure in the crises facing the US today. Fascism was a ruling-class response to a dire challenge to its rule spawned by disillusionment from a bloody, but meaningless World War, crushing economic crises, and, especially, the political challenge from a powerful revolutionary Left.

Those conditions simply do not coalesce in the US at this time.

Instead, the ruling class in the US (and many other countries) faces a crisis of the legitimacy of the centrist parties that have ruled throughout the Cold War until today. Opinion polls in the US (and many other countries) show nearly non-existent confidence in the long-standing ruling parties. The Trump phenomenon and the Sanders experience demonstrate that dissatisfaction, no matter how imperfectly. The electoral successes of non-traditional parties in many other countries equally demonstrate a popular desire for a new course, a new direction.

One can bury one’s head in the sand and refuse to recognize the mass shift in political allegiance; one can continue to slavishly tail the Democratic Party or the now-discredited, corrupt parties of social democracy; one can choose to embrace the myth of containing the barbarian hordes; but this moment is different, demanding different strategies.

The Left must discard the unproductive, out-of-touch approach of defending the left flank of capitalism and begin an earnest search for a new, independent politics. The growing mass rejection of the old politics demands it.

The Left cannot grow in size and influence if it continues to attach itself to a rotting Democratic Party.

Paradoxically, continuing to support the discredited Democratic Party and failing to offer a credible alternative will only encourage more people to look rightward for inspiration and answers.

Greg Godels

Monday, October 8, 2018

Anti-Racism: Back to Affirmative Action

The situation of blacks in the workplace without AA [Affirmative Action] is not difficult to imagine. The racist impact of irrelevant job requirements will continue, perpetrating the victimizing effects of inferior ghetto education and the racial bias that has denied blacks training and work experience. Unless AA measures reduce the racist impact of seniority-based layoff, blacks will, as always, move down during recessions into unemployment. Should blacks wait until recessions are eliminated (until capitalism is fundamentally restructured) to achieve job security? Without AA, desirable jobs will be distributed through a white pipeline, as an ingrained practice in America’s two segregated societies.

...The aim of AA is to break that racist barrier. Without that pressure, even in an expanding economy, occupational segregation will continue. Blacks will remain second-class citizens. Gertrude Ezorsky, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, 1996.

The question of racial oppression in the US against peoples of African origin remains unsettled well over two hundred years after the country’s foundation.

Some would like to believe that the question was substantially solved after the Civil War with the liberation of African slaves from their bondage.

Still others would like to believe that the question was largely solved with the Civil Rights “revolution” of the 1960s when legal segregation was overturned and historical racially-based legal obstacles to voting were abolished.

And still others would like to believe that the final racial barrier was shattered when Barack Obama was elected, breaking the ultimate glass ceiling.

For many well-meaning liberals, only a mopping-up of the vestiges of racism remains: the abusive impact of language, attitudes, individual relations, micro-aggressions, etc. remain problematic. And, of course, these attitudes can fester into collective violence organized by the police or the so-called “alt-right.” From this perspective, the race question can neatly be absorbed into a vast rainbow of worthy causes, an intersection of dozens, if not hundreds, of group grievances for which liberal academics have concocted an umbrella word: “intersectionality.”

The wholly unique history of depredation and alienation experienced by a people forcibly “exported” to foreign lands for slave labor and subsequently scorned because of skin color is cast into a cauldron of -ism’s that range from the most benign to the most harsh, systemic, and unimaginably violent, elevating the slight and trivializing the brutal.

It is the relativizing of oppression that allows vast numbers of otherwise disinterested citizens to remonstrate against second-hand smoke while ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of thousands at the hands of the US military in its imperial campaigns throughout the world.

African Americans today fall behind their white counterparts in every objective, material standard of well-being, from life expectancy to accumulated wealth. Despite the relative successes of an upper stratum (petty bourgeoisie) of US Blacks who have parlayed education, social or political contacts, professional prowess, ethnocentric entrepreneurship, or fealty to power to its advantage, most African Americans occupy the lowest, most precarious rungs of the US working class.

Black citizens often live in bantustan-like neighborhoods, isolated from better housing, better schools, and better human services. Where Northern, urban African Americans have historically been confined to city ghettos, they are now being ethnically cleansed from inner cities by a process of gentrification motivated by young, white professionals enamored with the amenities of urban living. Today, Blacks are herded into declining suburban ghettos where they were formerly denied residence.

It is no exaggeration to say that the segregation of Blacks and whites is as great or even greater than ever, with a consequent disparity of advantage.

The Liberal Moment

The high point of progress against racism and its effects occurred in the 1960s coincident with the growth in breadth, militancy, and unity of many decades of anti-racist activism. New Deal liberals, prodded by a largely Communist left and CIO working-class radicalism laid the foundation for the direct action and broad-based movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Democratic Party, long an unholy alliance of Northern liberals and Southern racists, acutely felt the pressure from this movement. A unique conjuncture of sympathy for an assassinated President’s initiative, the rare audacity of a succeeding President, Lyndon Johnson, obsessed with leaving an historic legacy and repairing the international image of the US, widespread outrage over officially sanctioned violence in the South, and, most importantly, a disruptive mass movement for racial justice culminated in unparalleled legislation expanding civil, political, and human rights for US Blacks. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked the high-water point in the struggle against racism. The history since that juncture has been one of defending, enforcing or, most tragically, witnessing the erosion of those gains.

To a great extent, the gains of the 1960s reached the limits of bourgeois democratic, rights-based reform. Unlike a revolutionary change brought on by the US Civil War, a war that overturned an entire politico-socio-economic system (while leaving the deplorable material conditions of Blacks largely intact), liberal reformism promises opportunity but does not promise the delivery of outcomes. In other words, liberal reformism may open closed doors without providing the means to pass through those doors.

The legislation of the mid-1960s opened many doors for African Americans, but failed to offer most of them the material essentials-- the education, the jobs, the living conditions, etc.-- to successfully pass through those doors toward real equality.

Just as the promise of 40 acres and a mule never materialized to liberate former slaves, liberal reformism fails to offer Blacks the socio-economic foundation that would liberate the African American working class in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To grant that foundation would challenge the most sacred values of capitalism and open further doors to the emancipation of the entire working class.

The aftermath of the Civil Rights era brought two promising developments: a movement to desegregate public schools in both the South and the North and an emerging commitment to affirmative action.

Beyond the Limits of Reformism?
School Desegregation

Of all of the potential reforms targeting racism, desegregating public schools and forcing children to bear the burden of social change was the least likely to come at a cost to capitalism or disrupt existing power relations. Nonetheless, there was great promise in dramatically improving the education available to Black youth by putting them in the same classroom with white youth, where the quality of teaching, resources, facilities, and options are consistently higher.

While minimalist in economic sacrifice, public school integration met intense opposition from highly organized racists who rallied many under the bogus banners of “forced busing,” “school choice,” and “neighborhood schools.” It made no difference that elites had embraced publicly subsidized busing and travel out of neighborhoods for their children’s attendance at private and parochial schools. The hypocrisy was only underscored by the use of busing and the abandonment of neighborhoods to avoid attendance at integrated schools.

Nonetheless integration of city schools persisted. Of course the problem of better education for Blacks remained unsolved because of the even greater class disparity between urban and suburban schools. To achieve some parity for Blacks would necessarily involve consolidating school districts across this class line at some additional material cost and with social and political cost to the existing racial barriers.

This dramatic step for parity education for African Americans was quashed with the Burger Supreme Court decision of 1974, Milliken v. Bradley.

The Burger majority effectively removed any legal obligation of suburban school districts to participate in school desegregation unless they could be shown to be intentionally racist, placing an untenable onus upon reformers. The urban Detroit school district was 75% Black when it originally appealed for judicial relief. With the Supreme Court denying relief, it was 90% Black by 1987.

Dissenting Justice Douglas caustically noted: “...the task of equity is to provide a unitary system for the affected area where, as here, the State washes its hands of its own creations.” One should clarify: the capitalist state washes its hands of its own creation.

With a substantial legal obstacle placed before it, the reformist desegregation movement collapsed well before it achieved any real educational parity for African Americans. Liberal reformist leaders surrendered without a further fight. Since Milliken v Bradley, it has been a persistent battle to protect the limited gains made from opportunist politicians.

Beyond the Limits of Reformism?
Affirmative Action

The other promising reform stoked by the Civil Rights movement-- and potentially the most significant-- was the policy of affirmative action, a policy designed to move beyond allowing participation in the US economy to actually leveling the employment playing field for US Blacks. Marxist political economist, Victor Perlo, calls affirmative action “...the principal mechanism designed to reduce discrimination against African Americans.”

Among the most thoughtful, passionate advocates for affirmative action is the liberal philosopher Gertrude Ezorsky. Her brief, concise book, Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action, is the classic on the policy. From first reading her book many years ago, I remember well her central datum that jobs are acquired overwhelming through contacts or personal networks. It caused me to reflect on my own work history from digging a basement for a neighbor when I was thirteen through the rest of my employments. Without exception, every job was gotten through family, friend, or other acquaintance. Every thoughtful person, except for the mythical “self-made man/woman,” will concede this datum.

Of course this means that those limited to the worst jobs through racism will only produce and reproduce, through their limited networks, still others locked into bad jobs.

It is this cycle that affirmative action promises to break by guaranteeing Black representation in workplaces proportional to African American representation in the population.

While ‘60s liberals acknowledged both the necessity and promise of affirmative action (Title 7, Civil Rights Act 1964), they were slow to devise plans or seek implementation of the policy. Ezorsky notes that, ironically, two of the more effective plans were enacted during the Nixon Administration. The 1969 Labor Department Philadelphia Plan saw the representation of Blacks in the construction trades go from 1% to 12% in Philadelphia. And Nixon’s 1971 Executive order 11246 required “that dated numerical targets for hiring, training, and promoting minorities be set by firms that hold government contracts but have underutilized minorities…” (Ezorsky, p.37)

Affirmative action got as much attention in the 1976 Democratic Party platform as did fisheries. When mentioned, it was conflated with the Black unemployment rate. Even less attention was given by the Carter Administration, in practice.

Ezorsky concedes that “[t]he affirmative action programs begun in the 1960s have been diminished in the 1980s in response to a different political climate.”

The Democratic National Committee’s 1986 83-page statement of principles, New Choices in a Changing America, written and endorsed by the Party’s luminaries, contains not one endorsement (or mention) of affirmative action. In its place were vague policies directed at unemployment and job training.

Affirmative action was dead.

Racial Justice

Because Ezorsky grasps the historical specificity of US racial oppression, she recognizes a strong need for restorative justice, a justice that must go beyond merely establishing opportunity. The liberal conception of justice as fairness-- everyone playing by the same rules-- professes a distance, a willful blindness to outcomes. But blindness to outcomes fails to acknowledge that inequality of means determines outcomes even when equality of opportunity is assured.

Thus, an equal opportunity to apply for acceptance from Harvard means little to the gifted African American student saddled with a third-rate education; an “equal opportunity” job-training program in the suburbs means nothing to a motivated potential employee lacking the financial resources to travel to the suburbs; and the right to stay at the Greenbrier resort counts for little to the vacationer who would have to devote an entire paycheck for a visit.

Of course it is the class dimension that arises with these examples, an “intersection” with racism that academics and “middle class” liberals seldom recognize.

Consequently, restorative justice-- like affirmative action, but unlike merely establishing civil rights-- depends on a redistribution of society’s resources. For Blacks to finally enjoy justice, they must acquire a material foundation beyond newly minted rights in order to participate productively in society and enjoy its benefits.

Obviously capitalism opposes any redistribution of assets or any reordering of power relations, unless it comes at the expense of the working class. And that opposition explains the stillbirth of affirmative action. It has disappeared almost entirely from the mainstream conversation.

Could affirmative action succeed in bringing racial justice to African Americans under capitalism?

Probably not, but the struggle for affirmative action would bring Blacks closer, and would attack racism at its core.

Anti-racism for the Twenty-first Century

The shallow and patronizing anti-racism that occupies much of the left-- the language-scolding, the tokenism, the guilt-driven deference-- leaves the structure of racial oppression untouched.

Nor does the idea of “reparations” attack that structure. Reparations draw upon hollow legalisms: the notion that a retributive settlement can be negotiated with a guilty party and magically restore justice to a people kept back for centuries. It fundamentally looks to the past, promising to repair damages incurred, but with no promise of delivering future justice. Further, reparations fail to explain how any settlement would be distributed in a way that benefits those most aggrieved. Like other liberal answers to racism, it fails to recognize the fact of class.

Any attack on the structure of US racism must recognize that eliminating the racial ghettos of poverty, inferior education, poor housing, mass incarceration, poor health care etc. must attack the economic ghetto of centuries of super exploitation, unemployment, underemployment, and inadequate jobs.

In his classic reprise on the subject, Economics of Racism II, Victor Perlo writes:

A program to achieve economic equality [for Blacks] has two main requirements:

  1. Affirmative action; that is, specific measures to improve the economic conditions of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and sections of the Asian population;
  2. Measures to advance the conditions of the entire working class. (Perlo, p. 281)

Any anti-racist reforms must, therefore, revisit affirmative action. An authentic People's anti-racist strategy must place restorative measures at the center of our efforts-- measures that afford African Americans the minimal means to march through the doors of opportunity won in the great Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.

Greg Godels