Bobby A. Summers
For The Life of Me:
Reflections and Prognostications on the United States
January 30, 2006
I really don’t want to sound pessimistic, but to be real honest, 2005 was another year of going backwards for working class, poor, left and progressive, or any other human being who’s not rich and/or at the helm of corporate America.
If you look at the big picture, that is what passes as events, policy, the ever-falling statistics of well-being, political adjustments, the kind of stuff that shows up in newspapers, TV and radio, 2005 has placed America two more significant steps closer to a corporate-run, new style fascism. I feel real safe making a big generalization here, but nothing in the interests of working folks, a healthier democracy, liberty or equality has happened in the last year, or two or three or four for that matter. I will stand by this too; I MEAN NOTHING!
On the other hand, if one listens carefully to where people are at, how they’re feeling about things, folk’s acceptance of the way things are going, one gets a much different sense of what’s happening with America.
The story here is one of increasing polarization. Those not in accord with George W. Bush and an agenda of corporate hegemony are feeling increasingly frustrated -- indeed to the point of a steady state low-level rage. And lots of folks seem to be looking for new options and avenues to channel their discontent. This, to my mind, is positive.
For the life of me however, I have no idea where this is all going in any wide historical sense. I’m not an astrologer or soothsayer, yet, all my social and political senses tell me that the next two to three years are pivotal.
With the highly polarized state of things in America, the so-called center is increasingly irrelevant. The stakes are really about whether a mass movement in opposition to corporate fascism is possible in the USA.
If not, I’m afraid the United States is well on its way towards a new fascism for the 21st century.
Holding the Nose: The Smell of Fascism and Failure
So, holding my nose, I am going to take a run through the “big picture.”
It was hailed by the corporate media as the most important development in the U.S. labor movement in 70 years. Here I am talking about the July 2005 split in the AFL-CIO.
With great fanfare, the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UNITE-HERE (textile workers and hotel/restaurant workers), The Laborers, Farm Workers, and Carpenters left the AFL-CIO’s national convention to form a new labor federation called Change to Win (CTW).
The objective of the new federation is to be a massive drive to organize America’s most oppressed workers into the unions. “The biggest event since the 1930s,” the mainline press said, and this was reinforced with a first-rate media campaign by the Change to Win unions.
Six months later, we are still waiting. In the meanwhile, the airline mechanics at Northwest Airlines went on strike, were replaced by scabs, had their work sub-contracted out to other unionized maintenance hangars, and are now trying to bargain their jobs back.
Neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win had a thing to say about the strike. More importantly, neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win have suggested even the barest strategy as airline workers continue to lose wages, pensions and health benefits across this heavily unionized industry.
A month ago, just before Christmas, the New York City mass-transit workers went on a three-day strike to protect health and pension benefits. New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and New York Governor George Pataki threatened the striking union with jailings and massive fines under New York’s draconian Taylor Laws.
So, where was Change to Win? Where was the AFL-CIO as transit workers risked all? I frankly don’t know, but they sure the hell weren’t in New York: both federations left the transit workers union hanging in absolute silence.
Some in the labor movement think the whole AFL-CIO/Change toWin split was nothing but an internal power-play. I don’t know. What I can say though is that the whole split came down to an argument among maybe 60 union presidents. I know this because the thousands of rank-and-file union leaders who are actively fighting the bosses and routinely risk their livelihoods to do so were never invited to the debate.
I am wondering if readers remember Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans? You might remember -- most Americans have forgotten, much to the happiness of those who run the oversized corporation called America. Well, almost forgotten, except for Ray Nagin.
Ray Nagin, the embattled mayor of New Orleans, has been tarred and beaten up and down the American mainstream press and by the power elites this past week for pledging that New Orleans will be a “chocolate city.”
Nagin is not talking about candy!
What he is referring to (Nagin is a black man) is that the corporate rebuilding of New Orleans specifically does not include the re-building of New Orleans’ black and working-class neighborhoods, thus excluding hundreds of thousands of primarily black residents from returning home. Black and working-class people formerly made up 68% of New Orleans’ population.
The unfortunate part of the whole debacle is that while Ray Nagin has been loudly dragged up and down the media for his use of “chocolate city,” the issue of excluding black and working-class residents from returning home has been systematically buried and ignored by the press and other major media.
America’s elderly citizens were finally accorded a prescription drug plan, allegedly designed to help them cope with ever-rising pharmaceutical costs. I say allegedly, because this bit of neo-liberal social legislation seems to be subsidizing private medical insurance companies far more than helping the elderly.
The plan is a new one, implemented on the first of the year, 2006. So far, elderly recipients of this new plan have received little in the way of help with medicine. What they have received is a bewildering onslaught of advertising from up to 70 separate insurance companies, all saying, “pick our plan, it’s the best.”
This new government plan does not subsidize elderly citizens. What it does do is subsidize the insurance companies’ costs in providing the coverage. Folks can rest assured that this new legislation will lead to insurance industry profits, including the subsidization of companies’ administrative and advertising costs.
The final insult in this new benefit for the elderly is that the cost of this plan is being paid for by the extremely poor, who will now be required to pay cash for prescriptions that used to be covered by Medicaid, that is the health insurance portion of the old welfare system.
While the Bush Administration, the Republican Party, and the so-called opposition Democratic Party are busy subsidizing the American insurance and international pharmaceutical industry, the poor in America are receiving some help from Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.
As international oil prices rise astronomically, Venezuela’s national oil company, Citgo, has offered America’s poor heating oil at significantly reduced rates. The irony of the situation is of course that the Bolivarian Revolution is taking more responsibility for the well-being of America’s poor than any American President or Congress in recent history.
And meanwhile, that colonial war in Iraq continues. What many folks outside the U.S. might not realize is where Bush’s popular support for this idiot imperial war comes from. Overwhelmingly, Bush’s popular support is based on an evangelical Christian right wing. In all reality, this Christian right (not to be confused with Christianity in general) has more in common with the popular base of a fascist movement than it does with any religion.
Thus, while Western governments cry about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, this war is largely backed in the U.S. by a popular base which interprets this war in terms of Biblical prophecy involving the end of the world and the Second Coming.
Sounds pretty weird, eh? All the same, this fundamentalist Christian base accounts for about 25% of the American population -- a significant piece of the population.
Not that there aren’t non-fundamentalist advocates of this imperial disaster. There are those in a popular base who will always respond to the chauvinistic cry of, “we’re being attacked” regardless of events and facts. And of course, there are the intellectual, corporate and political elite in charge of this idiot war, who operate with slightly different motivations.
And this all reminds me of another regime in the mid-20th century, where a capitalist elite manipulated a strong popular base through mystified national and religious symbols and arguments. Maybe that’s the next article…
Still holding my nose, I should mention that in 2005, even more folks in America went without healthcare, and the number of Americans covered by a pension and other retirement benefits continues to decrease.
Meanwhile, the national intelligence network -- outside the written law -- is conducting surveillance operations purportedly aimed at “terrorists.” In reality, this effort is aimed at internal dissidents -- including for instance, animal rights advocates and environmental organizations.
Overseas, the CIA is running an international torture network involving kidnappings off the street and the export of these “subjects” to parts of the world where torture can be conducted quietly and without notice.
And we in America are now witnessing the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice (Samuel Alito) who seems to believe in the unchecked and absolute power of the President: In this case, kind of an anointment of a 21st century Roman Emperor.
It’s a Polarized Nation
Letting go of my nose however, there is this:
My wife and I were taking a walk when we ran across a neighborhood party a few blocks away. This little yard party was a get-together of people active in the local Democratic Party. We talked for a bit.
Uniformly, this was a pissed-off group of folks. The level of anger was high, and was directed both at the galloping fascist movement led by the Bush Administration, and a Democratic Party (supposedly an opposition) which has been caving to Bush and the corporate agenda on nearly every issue.
I told a union organizer friend of mine about my conversation; he told me he heard the same thing at a Catholic social justice gathering.
This past year I’ve been part of a number of demonstrations and vigils around the Iraq war, Human Rights, and labor actions. These events can go from a hundred people, to a few thousand people, to a massive September 24 demonstration against the war, which included hundreds of thousands.
The beauty of these street actions is this: they are a wonderful cross-section of the population. They include kids with purple hair, grandmothers and grandfathers, black people, white people, Latinos, gay folk, people who are identify themselves as trade unionists, civil rights workers, students, socialists, communists, and people who frankly admit they haven’t done political activity before.
This is about as unscientific as one can get, but I work with autistic kids in a program that includes eight other staff. Half of us are identified anti-Bush/anti-fascist types. The other half believe in social control, law and order, prisons, conformity, see “terrorists” everywhere, are proud that they support the Bush agenda, and see corporate greed as a natural part of the universe that should not be interfered with.
We don’t talk politics on our down time, largely because we all know we’d use different wording: kill each other. The point is numbers are equal and the polarization intense.
Finally, while I’m pretty cynical about the motivations behind the fracture in America’s near- powerless labor unions, there is a silver lining, so to speak. Very simply, the split has sparked and reinforced a discussion across the unions involving thousands of activists looking for a meaningful direction in building working class strength. It’s a hard discussion to find, but it is there, and it is far-ranging in that the whole labor movement, its motives, methods of operation, aims and assumptions are up for discussion.
Sorry - A Theoretical Interlude
At the beginning of this little essay, I mentioned something about the next two or three years being crucial ones for the United States. If someone was to say, “well, really, maybe more like one or two years,” I wouldn’t argue.
I really don’t want to get into dry old theory, but I can’t see any way of avoiding it. We are talking about history here, and what most of us should know is that history is not something out there, written in the stars. Not does history work according to some steady state timeline, measured according to its own plodding speed.
Instead, history is something that all of us humans make every day. History is a collective production in the widest sense of the word. We are all historical actors, and the salient point is that history moves as fast or as slow as our thinking and actions in the world happen.
Please bear with me as I wade through a couple of hopefully brief examples:
In 1917, Russia moved from a February Revolution, which called for a democratic and bourgeois republic, to an October Revolution, a revolution which placed Russia in the hands of the working class and peasantry.
In hindsight, there is no mystery here. The reasons for this 10-month radical evolution were very simply that through engagement and participation, Russia’s working class and peasantry came to the conclusion that bourgeois democracy was incapable of solving two key problems -- an end to the poverty and slaughter of WWI, and meaningful land reform that would break the economic power of Russia’s agricultural landlords.
Likewise, Germany in the 1920s and early 30s was precariously balanced between Hitler’s fascism, a working class social revolution, and in the middle, a squeezed Weimer democracy. By 1933 however, the Nazis moved ahead. By 1934 and 35, the Nazis had so consolidated power (largely through “democratic means”) that both a working class revolution and a democratic republic were nothing more than a has-been possibility.
On A Knife’s Edge
Whether America moves down the line of a 21st-century fascism, or moves in the direction of an egalitarian and democratic renewal, has everything to do with consciousness, leadership, and organization.
On both sides of the public opinion/ideological divide, the numbers and intensity of belief are near equal. However, the personal commitment of those who care and are willing to act tips well on the side of the forces of renewal.
Nonetheless, I feel a bit too optimistic even suggesting that the race to the fascist right can be stopped. Here’s why:
Starting with consciousness: Those of us on the side of a renewal are a divided bunch. We are, in classic American style, divided by our own issues. We have folks working for peace. We have folks fighting on environmental issues. We have ant-racist activists, we have trade union and labor activists, we have civil and political rights activists. What we don’t have is any kind of a wider frame of reference that links these disparate activists and their thinking within common themes.
As a socialist, it is very easy for me to see that all of these single issues are responses in opposition to a limitless and predatory capitalism. This, by the way, is a very powerful capitalism which seeks, and has been increasingly successful in placing all aspects of man, woman, child, and nature within the sphere of a market and commodity governed world.
The U.S. has always been resistant to a socialist analysis. In a nutshell, we are the only Western nation that has been totally unable to build a mass social-democratic, working-class, or communist party. Thus we have no common language that can describe what a predatory capitalism means, or, for that matter, a frame of reference which can unite towards common action.
The sense here is that if we cannot unite under some kind of a common frame of reference, we are dead in the water.
This leads to the issue of leadership.
The quantum jumps to the right that have happened under the Bush Administration have been met with little more than whimpers, complaints and internal arguments from the so-called opposition Democratic Party.
The War in Iraq occurred with substantial Democratic support. A Washington D.C., September 24th protest against the war, which drew hundreds of thousands, had virtually no participation from elected Democratic politicians.
A December 10 demonstration in support of the United Nations Human Rights declaration (Portland, Oregon), which drew at least 3,000 demonstrators, had no speakers from either the local or national Democratic Party.
Tax cuts for the rich and the public subsidization of insurance and pharmaceutical corporations has occurred with substantial Democratic support. The Democratic Party has -at best - contributed nothing more then a local whimper as the building of an African-American-free New Orleans continues. Democratic support has been crucial and overwhelming in support of CAFTA, NAFTA and other neo-liberal trade agreements.
Democratic Party Senators, as this essay is written, are fighting amongst themselves and appear unwilling to take any meaningful steps in opposition to a Supreme Court nominee (Samuel Alito) who will tip the balance of the Court towards imperial and capitalist absolutism.
Leadership Again: The Endless Loop of Democratic Party Failures
It is well beyond me and this essay to get into the issue of whether the Democratic Party can be reformed into a mass opposition party or should simply collapse under the weight of its own irrelevance. Nonetheless, the reasons for its ongoing history of failure are clear.
First, the Democratic Party feeds out of the same corporate trough as the Republicans and every other major politician in America. This, in conjunction with the national notion that politics is a career and not a public discourse keeps Democratic politicians on a short corporate leash.
Second, the problem of the short corporate leash is compounded by a common sense across single-issue activists that in a two party/winner takes all political system, the Democrats are the only game in town.
The leash is kept even shorter again by a tendency on the part of leaders of powerful opposition institutions (i.e., the unions, civil rights organizations) to value their careers by staying within the rules of the game.
Thus, the endless loop of political monopoly seems to continue in spite of the lengthening list of betrayals and failures. Finally, the political monopoly seems capped in that, minus institutionally suggested alternatives and a critical theory, progressives are just plain unable to imagine a wider range of options.
Finally, the ongoing failure of a Democratic Party opposition leads to the third category of chancy vulnerability; that is organization.
Briefly, unless we on the progressive and pro-human left can build an organization that unites us under one tent, and is built directly to challenge the corporate agenda, we are dead in the water.
Organization and consciousness go hand-in-hand. Thus, the situation seems to demand an organization, a party, a whatnot, that is able to unite the concerned under a common frame of reference and shared analysis, yet will have plenty of space for a thousand flowers to bloom underneath this common tent.
Given that this is the United States, I have little hope that the common analysis will at least begin as a socialist analysis. Given our history, it is far more likely that the common frame of reference will begin around a renewed form of democracy and/or self- determination. For all I know, the beginnings could even be around a moral renewal where greed is reconsidered within the notion that maybe we are our brothers’ keepers.
No matter how you look at it though, any meaningful opposition must include a direct challenge to capitalism, where notions of human well-being, freedom, and a collective organization of society in opposition to a competitive organization of society, are placed at a much higher value than the centrality of corporate hegemony and the crumbs of consumption…
Which to me, sounds sort of like socialism no matter what it’s called…
For the life of me though, it’s an uphill climb.