Tecumseh’s Fist: Toward a Politics of Transformation in the US: the 2008 elections and beyond
A discussion of tactical and strategic options for US movement building, including Progressives for Obama, the McKinney/Clemente campaign and non-profit activism.
I) Introduction: Tecumseh’s Fist
Interviewing the captain
The Dime of difference: what’s it worth?
The Obama balancing act
Objects in mirror
II) The World as it is
The heating planet
The global casino
Empty plates, full portfolios
Health and wealth
III) The Tecumseh Strategy
IV) Ballots and Banners
Elections and the unity of fires
Power in a non-profit world
Prospects for a people’s campaign
Weimar and the specter of fascism
V) Finding Our Way
Reading the strategic map
Tecumseh and accountability
Meanings of the Obama moment
The Obama road revisited
Leadership: the movie
Fear factor: Palin + McCain = Pain
Tecumseh and the Accommodationists
Introduction: Tecumseh’s fist
The visionary Shawnee leader Tecumseh crisscrossed the North American woods and plains in the first decade of the nineteenth century, attempting to build a united front of tribes to contain the encroaching white settler state aggressively expanding from the east. In some of his speeches Tecumseh likened the tribes to the fingers of a hand, weak individually but powerful if united into a fist. This was not just a truism. The United States was achieving success by striking deals with individual nations, sometimes negotiating with individuals not authorized to represent their people. Tecumseh based his appeal on two strategic premises. The first was a concept of pan-Indianism: that the interests of the Native nations fundamentally contradicted those of the US. To many native leaders the White nation was a powerful player with whom temporary alliance could be made to bolster their positions against other tribes. Tecumseh argued that the nature of US expansionism called for a solidarity among native nations that would be strategic, that must supersede any conflicts among themselves and must not be compromised for any temporary advantage. His vision called for a unified native nation stretching from north to south across the continent, blocking the western flank of the settler state. Within those lands the tribes would retain their autonomy, adjusting their fluid relationship to the land as they always had, according to their changing needs. His second premise was that the strategic terrain as a whole was shifting as the new nation grew in appetite and capacity and that unity would have to develop quickly before the opportunity be lost forever. Making accommodations with the USAmericans would not provide real security; it would only enable their divide and conquer strategy.
Tecumseh’s task remains unfinished. It would be seven generations before his vision of inter-tribal pan-Indian unity would materialize with the founding of the American Indian Movement, the International Indian Treaty Council and related entities. The new pan-Indianism that emerged then was closely linked to other people’s struggles both internal and external to what by then had become a global empire: struggles for racial justice, political independence and national liberation, and their multiplying ripples, calling for an end to the many and varied forms of oppression and exploitation.
We live in the aftermath of that upsurge of struggle in the respect that both imperial strategy and movement possibility are still shaped with reference to that conflict and the methods that were used to repress and contain it. At the same time, although no one saw it then, the cresting of those movements coincided with the beginning of the historical decline of US power, another factor playing significantly in today‘s calculus.
The strategic paradigm of Tecumseh’s day is pertinent today. The US political system offers shrinking but nonetheless tempting opportunities for constituencies to strike illusory individual bargains with the empire in exchange for not challenging its essential legitimacy or its international agenda. At the same time, changes in the larger environment, particularly global warming and financial instability, threaten the wellbeing and survival of the human family and many of its relatives and shortens the necessary
timeframe for making fundamental societal changes.
The 2008 election brings these dilemmas into play. Unfortunately the debates surrounding Left options in the elections fall far short of what the times call for. Strategic thinking requires that our choices be framed in light of the largest possible landscape and our deepest and most powerful vision for our peoples future. It must encompass an assessment of our strengths and weaknesses and those of the forces we confront.
People on the Left1 participate in elections for one reason; to further our efforts to pose a viable challenge to the present system of power. This is achieved by one of three courses of action, which are debated in different terms at each election cycle. They are 1) to buy time by tipping the election in favor of the least destructive sector of the elite so that we have the space within which to organize for deeper change or 2) to directly build an independent political force able to explicitly articulate and construct an alternative vision for the future or 3) to boycott the elections to either argue that they are not a legitimately democratic venue or that they do not offer opportunities for movement advancement under the specific circumstances of a particular election.
We will engage with the first two options since boycott is not being advocated as an organizing strategy at present. Both of these offer compelling advantages and both have measurable downsides. The answer to the dilemma they represent is neither self-evident (as too many current activists seem to think) nor eternally applicable. Each must be measured in the context of the configuration of forces that we face and in terms of our long term strategy for change. Put in that way it should not take the reader many moments to realize that we in fact have no such strategy. Addressing that failing must therefore be the first order of business for any serious discussion of election options. That is the core agenda of this paper.
Arabica coffee ripens unevenly on the tree. You must therefore pick selectively, choosing the ripe, red berries and leaving the green ones to ripen. If you know there is a hurricane coming, however, your strategy must change. You pick all the coffee at once, green and red, even though it will bring a lower price. The alternative would be to lose the entire crop in the storm. The point here is that what determines the farmer’s strategy is not a close examination of the berries on the branch — they look identical under either scenario — but an understanding of larger forces at work, the laws of motion of weather and markets.
This document will assess the election season in the context of these larger weather patterns. This means surveying processes at work in the global environmental and economic systems as they impact on the policy choices facing humanity. We will check on how the US political system fits into these larger systems and how Barak Obama has positioned himself within it. We will develop a framework for thinking about transformative political change and long-term movement building as a backdrop for assessing how our election choices might complement or distract from such a strategy. The central motivation for this analysis is to promote a higher standard for strategic debate in the service of social change. Our inability to collectively chart a course — or
even envision one — that will really change the direction of political history is our great weakness. Overcoming that weakness will require a level of creative, collective analysis that has for the most part eluded us.
I believe that there is more–and in many ways smarter– organizing taking place today than at the height of the mass movements of the 1960s and 70s. It has not made us more powerful. We suffer from tactical brilliance and strategic paralysis. It’s as though our response to Tecumseh’s challenge was to continually grow more fingers until our hands resemble a writhing sea anemone but we are no closer to knowing how to close our fist. I contend that our inability to close our hand into a unified force for meaningful change is not accidental. It is the product of our history, specifically the way in which repression and cooptation were wielded to disable the mass social movements that shook the land between thirty and forty years ago. It has left us with movement structures and practices guaranteed to permit us to ask only small questions which can lead to only limited victories.
An implication of this is that the key to building a powerful opposition movement in the US does not revolve around us “working harder,” “redoubling our efforts” or any other forlorn clichés of despair. We need, rather, to understand our sources of power and direct them at the system’s points of vulnerability. It is a question of having the capacity, as a movement, to think and act strategically.
The US Social Forum proposed that “Another World is Possible: Another US is necessary.” We are here to discuss how to make it practical.
Interviewing a captain
In the 1970s, as US urban centers crumbled in the face of federal de-funding of services and white flight, Black politicians were given the green light to walk into mayoral offices and take over management of the wreckage. Like a car stripped of all its accessories before the new owners get the keys, wielding urban executive power amounted to less than had been hoped for by those who had struggled hard to make such an achievement possible. The mayors discovered that the job had been downsized to one of administering neo-liberal policies handed down from above. The new managers had to enforce these policies and take the heat for the declining quality of life and unfulfilled promises.
Today we are witnessing the dramatic collapse of US economic power and military credibility in the world. It is the acceleration of a process begun more that thirty five years ago when Viet Nam was in the headlines. It is not the product of one rogue administration. The brutal recklessness of the Bush presidency has just been one desperate strategy to reverse this slide.
The response on the part of the corporate elite (yes, Virginia, there is a ruling class!) has been to unite around a regressive program that seeks to slow or reverse that decline. The 2008 elections, from their viewpoint, are to select a CEO who is 1) capable of carrying out this elite agenda in a competent manner while 2) legitimizing it in the eyes of the domestic and international constituencies who will pay the price. These two requirements for the job are of equal importance: whoever is selected must be able to sell a restricted,
predetermined program to the public and the world and must unfailingly be willing to carry it out.
On the global stage the next president will direct the state’s power and influence to shore up a fragile economic position. Of particular importance is securing geopolitical control over the flow of oil and gas that the entire world depends on and re-enforcing the place of the US dollar as the currency in which it is traded. The president must also use whatever diplomacy, manipulation or force is necessary to prevent governments in the formerly colonized world from getting confused enough to think that their abundant natural resources were put there for their own benefit. In elite foreign policy circles, securing control over foreign resources and labor is considered to be a legitimate — and essential — component of national self defense.
Domestic policy is constrained by the short-sighted gluttony of the corporate class which demands accelerated plunder of the public sector, massive shifts of investment into the military and elimination of its own tax burden. The resulting demolition of public investment necessitates expanded police powers and capacity, to deal with both the political and the criminal fallout of such policies. Of particular concern is the demographic time bomb: the growth in the combined numbers of peoples of color to the point of being a majority of the population within a few decades. The potential instability of a white elite governing an increasingly dark and impoverished people has brought about a dual strategy of population management: the exponential expansion of a color-coded penal system to bring the African American population substantially under the control of the criminal justice system (the current incarnation of yesterday’s Jim Crow system and the Black Laws); and the restructuring of immigration policy to replace the vast undocumented workforce with a documented but tightly monitored labor pool with limited legal rights, subject to unchallengeable employer control. In other words, a New Domestic Order is under construction that straps the two populations who for historical and demographic reasons are most capable of mounting a major political challenge, into a straightjacket of legal vulnerability.
I suggest that the above summary represents non-negotiable elements of the elite agenda. Any campaign rhetoric that challenges that agenda is only that: campaign rhetoric. From that perspective no one should have been surprised that Obama’s passionate calls to renegotiate Free Trade treaties would be jettisoned as soon as he had bested Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. A US president does not tinker with elite consensus.
This harsh assessment sheds light on why Barak Obama and Hilary Clinton were anointed by the media as the first “serious” or “viable” Black and female candidates respectively for the presidency. They are the first deemed acceptable to Wall Street and their policy think tanks. This opens the floodgates of financial contributions and green-lights sympathetic media coverage. That such candidates as Shirley Chisolm or Jesse Jackson are judged to have been not “serious” reflects that their programs were in conflict rather than in harmony with the requirements of corporatist policy. They also based their campaigning on appeals to activist social bases that were viewed with alarm by the
guardians of power.
Being president of the United States in the current period is like being captain of a NASA space ship. It requires the ability to make cool decisions under pressure, manage human relations among the crew and have the technical know-how to assure a successful mission. The mission goals, however, are not in question, the navigation coordinates have been pre-programmed, the rations carefully measured and the chain of command firmly established (the captain, by the way, is not at the top of it). Some applicants for the job may be more able than others to carry out these duties, but the goals of the mission are not theirs to mess around with. What’s important in an election is for each candidate to convince the voters that choosing him or her will assure that the mission actually serves their interests.
When there is significant discord among factions of the wealthy elite, the political parties square off behind different policies and may engage in real debate. This is not one of those times. Where there is room for difference — corporations are divided on strategies for health care reform, for example, and they are indifferent on social issues such as Gay marriage or abortion — the difference between the parties can have real impacts on people’s lives. The overall direction of imperial policy, however — regardless of who is elected — can be better gleaned from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or the reports of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation than from the campaign trail positions of the candidates.
The Dime of Difference: What’s it Worth?
Critics of “lesser evil” politics (voting for liberals to forestall conservative victories) often assert that there’s no more than “a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties. This claim has two implications. First, that the difference between the parties is small and not fundamental. Second, that there is, nonetheless, some difference.
This dime’s worth of difference has different meanings at different times and at different locations in the economic and racial social structure. If you are part of a vulnerable community, that dime can have a large impact. Minor changes in school, park or library funding, in laws regarding truancy or street lighting, in decisions over zoning proposals or clinic or hospital locations can impact your quality and even length of life. A slight degree of protection is not something you give up lightly in a harsh environment. Independent political parties can speak the community’s truth but cannot offer even limited protection. This means that communities of the poor and of color are reluctant to break with the mainstream menu until alternative political organizing looks more like a locus of power, not just a forum for opinion. Supporting a radical party may not result in victory for a Republican but can still alienate you from a Democratic incumbent who has significant influence in your community.
If both parties are tied to the same elite then+ its interests will generally trump grassroots ones when they conflict. The difference between the parties will tend to increase during times of popular upsurge. The liberal establishment moves toward the left to absorb
people’s discontent back into safe channels. At a time like the present, when mass movements are not beating on the doors of power, the liberals have little incentive or ability to made substantive promises to their left. The necessary resources are not being put on the table by the ruling elite in any case.
The strategic dilemma is that both parties are moving toward the right in response to larger shifts in the global balance of power. It’s as if the Republicans were driving our national vehicle in the wrong direction at 65 miles per hour while the Democrats promise to go at only 55. By the next election the Republicans have brought the speed up to 75mph and the Dems come in at a moderate 65. Pretty soon we’re headed for a precipice at 100 mph but have the option of voting for Democratic candidates who promise to slow it to 80.
Bush II demonstrated that even if the parties serve the same masters, their differences in strategy can have a significant impact. The reckless militarism and repressive measures, while implemented with Democratic support, would not likely have been as aggressive under their direction.
Still, the problem remains that if our attention is always riveted on that dime, will it ever be possible to break away and develop a vehicle that can genuinely take us where we want to go? There will always be the fear of nastier Supreme Court nominations and more regressive social policies if we let the wrong party in. On the other hand if we choose to forfeit the dime in hopes of long-term benefits, we must be able to make the case that the short-term price is worth it and that the eventual benefit will be real.
The Obama balancing act
Here we move in close to the branch to examine the Obama phenomenon. The following exposition of Obama’s career and politics will disappoint his fans. It will not resolve the strategic question of how to direct our votes and support. That should be decided based on broader strategic considerations. But it should put to rest any lingering fantasies that Obama is a covert revolutionary waiting only to enter the White House to unveil a program of radical change. The hopes and expectations awakened by the campaign are themselves important to assess but they are a separate issue and will be dealt with as such further on.
Objects in mirror are closer than they appear
People make choices based on what story we believe ourselves to be part of. The battle to define that story underpins all organizing, of whatever political stripe. Efforts to control publishing, access to airwaves and education are all point to the importance of controlling perceptions, which in turn rests upon understandings of history.
Simply put, most conflict in the world — however it is dressed up — is about people trying to take stuff that other people have. This is the back-story of the modern era. The greatest narrative chasm in today’s world has to do with the colonial era which began at the time of Columbus and continues to define global politics. The European nations, bristling with weaponry from their incessant in-fighting, extended their control across the world to
encompass 90% of Africa, 98% of Polynesia, over half of Asia, all of Australia and, ultimately, all of the Americas. Natural resources were loaded onto ships and transferred to the conquering nations to fuel development there, farmers were forced to plant what the masters demanded, racially determined systems of governance were implanted and outright slavery and human trafficking instituted where profitable. Resistance to these measures was met with massive, usually collective (and sometimes genocidal) applications of violence. The memories of that process shape the ideologies and loyalties of people around the world today.
In the colonized nations this history is remembered as one of conquest and resistance. The loss of resources and population, the indignities of foreign occupations and the dictatorships which followed, loom large in national memories. The powerful nations nurture a self-image of paternalistic generosity: their relationship to their dominated territories is told as one of bemused concern and affection. Resistance can be explained by either misguided ingratitude, ingrained hostility to progress or the manipulations of sinister outside forces. The persistence of poverty and hunger are seen as evidence of the inability of the darker nations to show the competence and responsibility modeled by their more mature elder siblings.
In the aftermath of WWII the US emerged as the dominant world power and set about rebuilding the shattered economies of Europe and Japan. The war had also raged across vast regions of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Leaders of these nations called for an expanded Marshall Plan (the US program that pumped $13 billion into Europe to rebuild the colonial heartland) to help them consolidate the independence they felt they had earned.2 Instead, the US backed a brutal program of re-conquest. US munitions reigned down in Indochina, Mozambique, Indonesia, Yemen, Algeria, and covert operatives fanned out across the globe to undermine any efforts to break the colonial yoke. Although it was always framed in Cold War rhetoric, the largest CIA “regime changes” were directed against liberal — even anti-communist — governments (Mossadech in Iran, Sukarno in Indonesia, Arbenz in Guatemala) who had dared to launch programs of national development. Their efforts toward self sufficiency and an increased social wage restricted corporate access to their national wealth and had to be dealt with.
The colonial divide cuts a deep chasm through the human family. It underlies the gap that separates those who see foreign interventions, racism, economic opportunity and policing from above from those who experience them from below.
Imperial foreign policy requires a sanitized history. To achieve viability a candidate must declare loyalty to the colonial narrative in order to prove that he or she will not undermine the empire’s interests on the global or domestic stage. Anyone who articulates the view of the colonized (as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright inconveniently did) must be sidelined as the crazy uncle in the attic or, ultimately, denounced as a purveyor of “hate speech” and a comforter of the nation’s enemies.
These stories underlie opposing agendas. Acceptance of the colonialist account is essential for the justification of interventionist foreign policies and racist domestic ones.
The second narrative underpins efforts throughout the world to weaken the grip of the colonial power centers (now morphed into the “G8” nations).
It is no surprise that a US Senator with aspirations for the presidency will champion the colonial worldview. To Obama, the US has always been “a nation that is still the beacon for all that is good and all that is possible for humankind.” The nation’s history was an idyllic one:
“We did not have to go through any of the violent upheavals that Europe was forced to endure as it shed its feudal past. Our passage from an agricultural to an industrial society was eased be the sheer size of the continent, vast tracts of land and abundant resources that allowed new immigrants to continually remake themselves.”3
The civil war, an important historical marker in that transition, the brutal system of slavery which that war formally ended, the centuries of crop burnings, forced marches and village massacres which secured those “vast tracts.” These have no place in the colonialist memory.
Once committed to this perspective, one can criticize the handling of imperial policy but not its rationale. The old speech that is the basis for Obama’s anti-war credentials fits that mold.4 He now proposes a withdrawal of “combat troops” from Iraq while leaving sufficient forces to train the Iraqi army, protect the ongoing construction of a massive regional control center (euphemistically called an “embassy“), and engage in “counter-terror” operations. This could leave 60-80,000 military personnel in Iraq after “withdrawal.” This is in addition to powerful private mercenary forces (numbering 180,000) which he now insists must be an instrument at the disposal of the president.
The Senator reserves his right as president to “preemptively” attack other countries and insists that in regard to Iran, “nothing is off the table.” He thus endorses the US disdain for international law which, by definition, is about taking things “off the table.”
The centerpiece of his geo-military vision is to shift the action from Iraq to Afghanistan. The US mission cannot even be dignified as propping up a government since the Afghan state has no power beyond handing out patronage. The importance of Afghanistan is as a pawn in the larger regional chessboard whose stakes are control of oil and natural gas . With US power depending increasingly on its military capacity, control over fossil fuel distribution is seen as key to retaining global dominance. Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia and (increasingly) Pakistan have fallen victim to this maelstrom, with Iran in the crosshairs. With such high stakes in play the elite would not tolerate a non-interventionist president.
Ali Abunimah traces Obama’s self-adjustment on Middle East policy as his political star rose, from being a liberal supporter of political compromise (even attending Palestinian community events) to an unconditional champion of Israeli state policy.5 This has reached the extreme of endorsing the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, (when it destroyed the civilian infrastructure of the nation and scattered 4.6 million cluster bombs on its way out to punish the population for Hezbollah’s capture of two soldiers) as an
instance of Israel’s right to reasonable self defense. He is now an unwavering ally of the Israeli state, pledging 30 billion dollars in unconditional military support in the coming years.
His foreign policy design calls for an increase of US troop levels by 90,000 soldiers to permit simultaneous wars and occupations in far flung parts of the world. He has aligned his vision with that of the military elite in his declarations on the Middle East, Africa (supporting a US military command on the continent) and Latin America (faulting the Bush government for tolerating the emergence of disloyal governments).
Obama links his foreign policy vision to the mystiques of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom mobilized domestic coalitions in support of interventionism. He praises Reagan for sensing that “the country” wanted to cleanse itself of the “excesses of the 1960s.” The “excesses” that Reagan set out to correct were gains in the areas of civil rights, feminism, anti-war sentiment, GLBT rights and union power. His tenure represented an all out assault on the public sphere and the social wage.
On the racial front, Obama, the “post-racial” candidate has struck a highly conservative stance, assuring Whites that as an issue race is a thing of the past. To a Selma, Alabama audience in March, 2007 the Senator stated that Blacks were “90% of the way” to equality, needing only to push themselves “that 10% to cross over to the other side.” This is a curious assertion. The American Journal of Public Health reports that close to 100,000 African Americans die each year as a direct result of unequal treatment within the health care system (not even addressing the unequal conditions outside that drive them into the system in the first place). Racial disparities in the areas of health, education, incarceration rates, housing and social discrimination have deteriorated substantially over the last decade.6 In the face of documented evidence to the contrary, including a report from the International Red Cross, Obama asserts that the government response to Hurricane Katrina had “no racial dimension.” Of all the demographic sectors in the country, the Senator singles out Black men for having “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.” And what are we to make of this prescription for deep Black poverty “…the best we can do would be to convince teenaged girls” to not have babies. This is the “best we can do” only if measures that would really mean something are taken off the table.
While Obama’s campaign seeks to highlight parallels with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., their world views are opposite on most particulars. Where King confronted a racial system of oppression, Obama sees racism (and those who obsess about it) as residuals from a past era. Where King called for a “radical restructuring of society” Obama blames the irresponsibility of the system’s victims for their hardships and decries the “divisiveness” of those who point to structural causes. Where Obama sees the military fiasco in Iraq as a blundering but well-intentioned mistake, King considered the imperial adventure of his day to be a crime. Obama scorns opponents of the US war in Viet Nam as people who “blamed America for all that was wrong in the world.”
In the realm of economic justice, Obama’s vision of universal harmony crosses into the farcical. Addressing a Wall Street audience at NASDAQ headquarters in September,
2007, Obama reassured his listeners of his friendly intentions:
“I believe all of you are as open and willing to listen as anyone else in America. I believe you care about this country and the future we are leaving to the next generation. I believe your work to be part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America. I think the problem is no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal.”7
The corporations who have been shifting production to sweatshops (and supporting the interventionist policies that facilitate it), plundering their employees’ pension plans, aggressively pushing onerous debts of the most vulnerable, demolishing the public tax base while demanding public subsidies, funding junk science to undermine environmental protections, championing one-side trade deals that override local rights and neutralizing advances in transportation and energy that don’t lend themselves to monopoly control, have been doing these things because nobody has thought to ask them to be nice (and why be nice if no one asks?). Dang!
His warm invitation to inclusion in the quest for a better US future does not extend to the immigrants desperate to escape the ravages of the Free Trade policies Obama once again supports. In November, 2006 he voted to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to shield the US from the human costs of its economic power grab. Now he insists to Latino leaders that this was not an anti-immigrant move but was part of a “larger plan.” He just can’t explain what that plan was.8
He has surrounded himself with a policy team made up of Free Trade economists, military interventionists and Wal-Mart apologists. He is alone in declaring the Teamsters union to be finally free of corruption and no longer in need of federal oversight (position which coincided with an endorsement from Teamster president James Hoffa Jr.).9
The Obama campaign has distinguished itself as “lobbyist-free.” The largest industry backing him is lawyers and law firms, in their overwhelming majority wall street lobbying companies. These firms, some with hundreds of corporate lobbying clients, contribute to Obama through their non-registered partners, making possible this highly dishonest claim. Similar sleight of tongue is applied to the lobbyists on his staff (some are on “leave” from their jobs during the campaign). The financial services market is another pillar of Obama support starting with such names as Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase and City Group, companies up to their ears in the sub-prime scandal and crisis.10 In that debacle lenders secured fraudulent AAA ratings for shaky loans and covered their trail through of layers obscure transactions and “financial instruments.” Obama has been firm that the victims of these swindlers should not be rewarded for making “irresponsible decisions” since that would violate “the sanctity of the contract.”
The victims of the sub-prime frenzy are further disadvantaged by the passage — with Obama’s active support — of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 which removed citizen’s right to sue corporations in state courts for damage they have caused. Ignoring a desperate plea from over 40 civil rights, labor and human rights groups and 14 state attorneys general (including from his home state), Obama pitched it as striking a blow for the little people. As analyst Pam Martins sums up, “Senator Obama graduated Harvard
magna cum laude and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Given these credentials, one assumes he understood the ramifications to the poor and middle class in this country as he helped to gut one of the few weapons left to seek justice against giant corporations and their legions of giant law firms.”
Obama began his climb with a three-year community organizing stint in Chicago, leaving for law school and finally winning his first legislative campaign knocking out his three opponents (by challenging their filing papers). He served six unremarkable years in the Illinois senate, angering many constituents by his inattention to community issues. In his seventh year he was taken under the wing of Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones Jr. who set out to “make me a US Senator.” During that last year Jones created a legislative track record for Obama by giving him top sponsor billing on a huge raft of legislation that others had already done the heavy lifting on (he “sponsored“ an impressive 26 bills, leaving plenty of resentful colleagues in his wake). His earmark requests submitted last year in the Senate included tens of millions of dollars for Emil Jones’ district.11
He is remembered fondly, however by Chicago real estate developers who built and abandoned thousands of low-income housing units that have become unlivable for his less favored constituents, with sewage backing up into kitchen sinks, collapsed roofs and rodent infestations. Valerie Jarret, a developer whose housing project was seized by the federal government is a top Obama advisor and sits on his finance committee. Developers benefited from his strategy of providing them with public funds to develop properties and have contributed hundreds of thousands to his campaigns. One such contributor had his properties seized by the city after inspectors documented more than 1,800 code violations. Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a key figure in Obama’s rise, is under indictment.
The Senator’s recent positions, supporting telecom immunity for illegal wiretapping, promoting the death penalty for non-lethal crimes, opposing limits on firearm ownership, endorsing Bush’s faith-based initiatives program, endorsing nuclear power as an “ecological” energy solution, escalating the war in Afghanistan are standard expressions of a New Democrat electoral strategy. Assuming that his dark and progressive supporters, who have no independent political vehicle, will not abandon him, he will concentrate on pleasing the ruling elite who, after all, have another place to go. As the candidate himself has stated, those who think that these positions are at odds with his basic philosophy “have not been paying attention.” .
Not everyone has been dazzled by the public image of the candidate (polished by such PR firms as the Parker Group, GMMB and Elevation Ltd., who also represent the Dept. of Homeland Security and Fortune 500 corporations).12 Many critical voices have tried to be heard above the adulation, some of which have been cited in this section. I would single out for recognition Glen Ford, Paul Street, Margaret Kimberly and others associated with Black Agenda Report, to whom this article — and the progressive movement in general — owes a substantial debt of appreciation.
Obama has generated an extensive data base of supporters and a lot of campaign volunteers. To equate the Obama campaign with a community organizing effort, however, is going overboard. Community organizing starts with issues defined at the
community level and proceeds toward uneasy alliances with leaders willing to commit their support. Accountability to the base is paramount and leaders and spokespeople are jettisoned if they fail to deliver support on the core issues. The Obama campaign promotes trust in a charismatic leader who is the one irreplaceable constant of the campaign. The “community organizers” of the campaign are, in fact canvassers whose prescribed script avoids policy issues (referring such questions to Obama’s web site). None of their training has to do with holding leaders accountable, encouraging issue organizing or creating member-run organizations.13 After the election there will be no ongoing organization with the capacity, leadership or will to hold Obama accountable to grassroots concerns.
That Obama is a centrist politician in the Bill Clinton mold does not in itself determine the course of action we should follow in the coming elections. Like the coffee farmer we must take into account the larger weather patterns. A Left strategic response needs to be rooted in an understanding of the overall balance of political power, larger trends in global corporate capitalism and the imperatives of movement building. With those under our belt we can assess how best to navigate these turbulent waters.
II) The World as it is.
What follows is a snapshot of several areas of global public policy that will impact the life prospects for humanity. The point of these stories is not to say that things are bad. Everyone knows that. The point is to demonstrate first of all that we are reaching a critical tipping point that will — one way or another — result in major social changes in the not distant future; and secondly that the self-corrective mechanisms that should allow a society to avert disaster have been corrupted and disabled to the point that they serve the very interests they were meant to regulate, and are embedded in the structures that block the emergence of real solutions. This is the hurricane that the coffee farmer must know about when deciding her harvest strategy.
The heating planet
Since it was brought to world attention in 1988, the effects of global warming have become undeniable (except, of course, for those who deny them). We are experiencing accelerating changes around the world far in advance of what scientists would have predicted even five years ago. These include the progressive disappearance of the polar ice caps with a resultant rise in the level of the sea leading to greater heat absorption by the oceans, less reflection of heat by the glaciers and looping back to accelerated rises in temperature. The collapse of fisheries and reefs, dropping river levels, catastrophic coastal storms and greater extremes of drought and excessive rainfall are already taking their toll on vulnerable people and a growing number of species are threatened with extinction. Plant and animal diseases once held in check by seasonal weather cycles are increasing in both range and impact. We are moving rapidly toward a systemic tipping point beyond which the cascade of impacts and feedback loops will usher in a period of devastating instability that could easily undermine the survival of a third of the animal and plant species in existence and many millions of humans.14
To date, the causes of human death attributable to global warming have been from flooding and landslides, hunger and disease. These burdens fall most heavily on populations made vulnerable by poverty. The poor live on exposed hillsides, cannot absorb rises in the cost or accessibility of food and have immune systems compromised by poor nourishment, stress and inadequate living conditions.15 Further damage to agriculture due to drought and flooding are expected to drive many more people to urban areas where temperatures tend to be higher and where social inequity limits access to air conditioning, health services and nutrition. To simply mitigate the damage already en route will require a significant shift of resources to improve the living conditions of the large numbers of poor people who are in harm’s way.
The petro-chemical, agro-chem and pharmaceutical industries have responded in ways consistent with the strategy that was developed in 1962 following the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” (which warned of the impact of toxic pesticides and made her the object of vicious industry attack). The threat posed by scientific
research led destructive industries to become major funders of research institutes, individual scientists and universities. This has put them in a good position to suppress, sideline or counter any research results that might endanger their profits.
Government subservience to these interests makes a mockery of international climate regulation. National governments attend meetings as spokespeople for their “national” industries and reach diluted “compromises” that are then hailed as breakthroughs. The recent Bali round on climate change is no more likely to be implemented than the previous Kyoto accords and would be insufficient even if it were.
Corporate concern over dwindling supplies of accessible resources has unleashed a feeding frenzy on remaining coal, oil, shale and other raw materials. The emergence of water as a contested resource has brought on a corporate race to wrench it from public guardianship and establish private monopoly control. Indigenous communities are finding themselves targets of terrorist violence in order to make their land available for mineral extraction. A sudden jump in demand for crop-based fuels has been reflected in an increase in the rate of rainforest destruction, as forest lands are cleared for conversion into stock dividends. US international and trade policies lend support to these efforts. Marketers have responded to public concern by trying to promote products and services with “eco-friendly” slogans regardless of their actual impacts.
On the level of the individual enterprise, planners must make their choices with an eye toward the financial markets that supply their economic oxygen. Corporate decisions translate into profitability numbers which are the main determinant of investor interest. If the numbers dip even slightly, capital can immediately be shifted to other investments where the returns are better.
James Gustave Speth, advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton and former administrator of the UN Development Programme, takes heed of a growing backlash. “the international social movement for change — which refers to itself as the ‘irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism’ — is stonger than many imagine and will grow stronger; there is a coalescing of forces: peace, social justice, community, ecology, feminism — a movement of movements…“
“people and groups are busily planting the seeds of change through a host of alternative arrangements, and still other attractive directions for upgrading to a new operating system have been identified.”16
Mitigating the impact of changes already set in motion will require massive shifts of resources into the social wage: the constellation of basic services and access to essential resources that determine the health and well-being of populations. This would serve to buffer vulnerable populations and protect ecosystems from being ravaged for firewood, water and animal and plant food sources. This in turn would drastically alter the balance of power that currently allows corporations to dictate the terms of wages, benefits, trade, foreign policy and environmental conditions. It is what dominant political, economic and social policies are designed to prevent. Averting even greater collapse would demand a change of direction for global society that would necessitate removing the management
of the Earth’s wealth from corporate hands.
Surveys conducted in countries around the world regarding people’s hopes for the future, point to a desire for tight-knit communities, sufficient resources to live on, safety from systemic or endemic violence, a healthy environment and control over the decisions that affect their lives.17 They were not demanding an equal chance to be a multi-billionaire at the pinnacle of an unequal system or the right to consume and discard vast mountains of plastic junk.
The global casino
The sub-prime mortgage crisis, whose reverberations continue to shake other markets and financial structures, is an indicator of the fragility of the global financial system. The domination of the capitalist economy by a handful of banks and financial services companies has created a financial world characterized by a multilayered shell game devoted to generating, repackaging and reselling debt through “instruments“ too complex to understand. Where three decades ago, 60% of US credit was held by banks, it is now down to 30% with most debt now in the form of these “securitized” mystery packages.
The US economy has become dominated by this casino capitalism and by investment in the increasingly powerful military research, production and services. Players at every level of this game seek opportunities that bring the highest return, shifting investments at the drop of a percentage point from one fund to another without thought as to what industry or market these choices correspond to on the ground. In the real economy, where the rubber meets the road, it happens that the investment ends up flowing to places where worker rights are crushed, democratic aspirations thwarted, public services curtailed and environmental safeguards gutted. These places produce the good numbers.
To the world of high finance there is no longer such a thing as a grocery industry, a garment industry or a tobacco industry. From a financial perspective they are all subsidiaries of the profit industry and investment can be quickly redirected to wherever the numbers flash the brightest. This is dramatically illustrated by the overnight transformation of global food production into the energy resources sector. It turns out that agriculture was not about food after all, it was about return on investment.
Scan the newspapers from anywhere on Earth and you will find evidence of a massive and ongoing land grab. Village properties, urban neighborhoods, ocean access and agricultural lands are being seized for large energy projects, upscale housing, resorts, trash burners and golf courses. Many local governments accommodate this process with ordinances enabling the plunder and criminalizing resistance. These processes unfold under the approving supervision of international banks and development agencies.
Neo-liberal economic policies, expressed especially in “Free Trade” treaties, have stripped national finance ministries of power, devastated local economies and released millions of displaced workers and their families into the internal and global migrant stream. Local industriesare swept away in the tide of subsidized imports from the rich economies. This is the face of post-colonial colonialism.
The sub-prime mortgage scam was a mechanism for financial institutions to load untenable debt onto people unable to afford homes in the increasingly unequal US economy. Described as “the greatest loss of wealth to people of color in modern U.S. history,”18 it caused little concern in policy and media circles until the inevitable defaults began to threaten the stability of the predators themselves.19 The inevitable collapse of the scheme has led to the state stepping in, not to write down homeowners debt to reasonable levels (which would release renewed buying power into their communities, protect local property tax bases, maintain the housing stock and prevent a new wave of homelessness) but to purchase the predator franchise from its wealthy developers with imaginary public funds. It will now proceed to force home owners onto the street and seize their assets to make back its “investment” and stabilize “the economy.”
Empty Plates, Full Portfolios
Just as access to housing is determined by the banking industry, so is food production controlled by the agro-chemical companies and health care by insurance and pharmaceutical interests.
As with the mortgage crisis, widespread endemic hunger was not considered a crisis until riots began to threaten the stability that elite interest rely on. The current food crisis represents the triumph of post-colonial and neo-liberal trade policies. Countries have been effectively prevented from establishing food self-sufficiency and been made dependent on imports from the G8 nations. Attempts to strengthen national economies (known as “import substitution”) were systematically sabotaged and paralyzed by the west (the September 11, 1973 coup in Chile being an example of the extreme methods employed).
The logic of food as commodity has also created a disease-vulnerable system under which vast tracts are devoted to a single crop that is processed and distributed from central mega-factories. That means that outbreaks of disease or contamination, rather than being contained by the natural barriers of small farms, intercropping and local processing, can distribute poisons to school lunches and grocery store shelves all across the US within days. This system, now on a global scale, creates dependence on petroleum-fueled transportation networks that further increases people‘s vulnerability.
Once removed from the hands of local farmers, crop development can be bent to the requirements corporate profitability, producing vegetables that have little flavor and dwindling nutritional value but will survive the rigors of transportation and storage.
Health research indicates that the best foods are those subjected to the least processing. Profit considerations, however, dictate that the most lucrative foods are those with the most “value added” through as much processing and packaging as possible. With corporate boardrooms being the real governing powers, “food” policy amounts to a relentless assault on public and environmental health to the benefit of shareholder value and CEO compensation.
Health and Wealth
Corporate health care not only limits access to treatment in ways we are familiar with, it also determines the content of health care itself. The interests of insurance corporations dictate a cookie-cutter approach to medical care directly opposite that suggested by current health research. The insights of functional and integrative medicine reveal the human body to be a complex system in which the same condition can give rise to differing symptoms and differing underlying conditions may be manifested in ways that look similar. Effective treatment requires identifying and treating the specific causes that are expressed in the symptoms. Insurance mandates allow for only a limited range of treatments per cluster of symptoms in order to keep re-imbursement costs down.
A recent trend in corporate medicine is the notion of “genetic susceptibility.” Given that in any population some people will be quicker to suffer the symptoms of stress and poisoning, corporations are rushing to develop screening procedures that will allow them to exclude workers likely to succumb sooner. Individual weaknesses, not toxic exposure, are identified as the true cause of illness. Researchers have identified a common gene among smokers likely to be the first to get lung cancer. The tobacco companies can now “demonstrate” that cancer (like mortgage defaults) results from defective individuals acting irresponsibly.
One strategy for dealing with disease in populations involves identifying a pathogen and developing a drug to attack it. This has lead to widespread biotic resistance to medicines. An alternative approach is to raise the overall level of health in the population in order to confer the capacity to resist disease in general. This latter approach would entail improving people’s access to safe housing, nutritious food, clean water, non-toxic workplaces and communities and greater decision-making power. Raising the social wage in this way would also lessen the pressures exerted by poor people on vulnerable ecosystems, protected species and forests. However this runs counter to the needs of the colonial-post-colonial system, in which the dependence of vulnerable populations allows corporate interests to dictate labor, economic and environmental policies that maximize profits.
A Harsh Imbalance Sheet
A similar picture holds for the formulation of energy, transportation, urban design, product development, packaging, public safety, elder care, toxic contamination or other aspects of social policy. The problem is not that vested interests slow progress to an unacceptable pace: it’s that they force policy in a direction diametrically opposed to the interests of human wellbeing and long term sustainability. In every arena, advances in knowledge, technology and social organization are aborted, derailed or destroyed if they threaten the flow of corporate profit.
Corporations have extended their control over economic policy, media, education policy, scientific research, cultural production, public office and regulatory administration to the point that the system comprised of all of these components is incapable of changing direction within the constraints of its own logic. Those of us resisting this dysfunctional racket have mostly engaged in countering the damage in specific policy areas, not
addressing its underlying structure.
In none of these arenas are the solutions mysteriously complex. They depend, however, on a politically unacceptable pre-condition: the massive shift of resources to the social wage and of control of economic and natural resources and decision-making into the hands of “ordinary” people. One could mention in passing that an adequate social wage would also resolve most street crime, prostitution, poaching, and a large portion of chemical abuse. It would undermine the basis of popular support (economic insecurity and fear) for most military conflicts and “ethnic” violence around the world. Powerful vested interests invest heavily in convincing us that such a shift is not practical. It turns out that a world system based on unbridled greed didn‘t work out the best for everyone after all. Who knew?
111 The Tecumseh Strategy
Tecumseh’s mission did not succeed. He was able to recruit adherents in many tribes and his stature and moral authority impressed even his enemies. His nemesis, the white governor William Henry Harrison considered him a genius who “ If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would, perhaps be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru.” But there were also factions who did not sign on and from among these Harrison was able to isolate “treaty Indians” with whom he could sign individual agreements that undermined the geographic integrity of Tecumseh’s nation. When US forces destroyed Tecumseh’s headquarters at Tippecanoe, it deprived him of an administrative and political center at a difficult time and dealt a blow from which his alliance would be unable to recover.
The idea of a unified strategy to contest the power and legitimacy of the world’s largest empire seems so alien to the real politick of today’s turf-based movements that it does not even enter into serious discussion of social change. This is no accident.
As long as we fight only limited battles to redress specific grievances we can annoy the powers that be and they will oppose us, but we will not threaten their grip on wealth and they will not seriously seek to destroy us. The current structure of mainstream organizing, fragmented into issues and “advocacy” areas and channeled through “non-profit corporations” is a legacy of the government repression that disarmed the mass movements of forty years ago with brutal repression (against the dark-led movements) and co-optive funding.
The destruction of the radical movement by police repression was accompanied by a major expansion of what is now called the “non-profit sector.” Funding was made available to “advocacy” groups who would agitate for changes in narrowly targeted policies: housing, the environment, equal rights for a single constituency, educational reform, etc. No such “non-profit corporation” could — or can — move beyond attacking symptoms of society’s structural problems and expect to retain its funding. The crushing of militant struggles is a reminder of what can happen to anyone who proposes an alternative moral vision to challenge the dominant one. This is a legacy of the cold war Red Scare. It is compounded by the repressiveness and opportunism of nations that claimed to be the embodiment of socialism and equality. Any suggestion that social relations can be based on the common good rather than on private greed is certain to be tarred as “old style Communism.”
The repressive strategies of the state give some indication as to whom it sees as a threat. Struggles that offer an alternative vision or challenge the colonial narrative are considered dangerous in a way that lobbying for job programs or more wilderness protection are not. These may be important issues but it makes a difference whether they are posed as part of something larger. Sitting in to integrate lunch counters electrified
supporters and frightened foes because it was organically linked to a larger vision of equality and justice.
To assess how our involvement in the elections could affect our strategy for change, we need to have some idea of what such a strategy would look like. How do we move beyond sectoral campaigns to a position from which we can hope to implant a democratic and humane system of governance? What sources of leverage and power can we make use of and how can we deploy them to greatest advantage? More pointedly: in what areas do we have advantages that can compensate for those that the empire enjoys in others? Our habit of asking small questions and overlooking or underestimating our potential power is one of our greatest liabilities. Elite strategy, from mass incarceration to war planning, is designed to prevent effective opposition from arising. It seems that they take quite seriously the threat that such an opposition could pose.
I’d like to outline four interrelated areas that our movement must develop in order to comprise a serious opposition force and that I suggest to be the combination necessary to close Tecumseh’s fist. They do not resolve all of the complex challenges that arise in the course of political and social struggle, but they give us the tools with which to do so.
1) A vision. The magic of mass movements is that they speak to people’s deepest aspirations and link daily tactics and challenges to those dreams. Clearly articulating a vision is more important where you are dealing with heterogeneous and diverse constituencies since it serves both to amplify our separate efforts and develop mutual trust. The US and Vietnamese Declarations of Independence, the French Rights of Man, the South African Freedom Charter, the Right wing Contract with America are examples of unifying messages used to consolidate movements. The Black Panther Party orchestrated a Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention process in 1971 to produce such a unified vision for a diverse movement. It involved local conferences and events leading to several national ones. The process never reached fruition for reasons distinct from the bold concept itself. The 1957 creation of the South African Freedom Charter became a milestone in the struggle against apartheid and was seen as the seed of a future constitution. It was a sharp enough challenge to the existing system that it could not at that time be co-opted, but was flexible enough that it could be embraced by diverse sectors who did not necessarily agree on details at the programmatic level.
The creation of such a unifying instrument, which we will here refer to as a Social Charter, presents some intriguing possibilities in the US context. First of all, it would make visible the hidden reality that the values of the social justice struggles are shared more widely by the population than those of the official Consensus.20 This is easily illustrated by the perceived need of the government and corporations to lie about their goals, values and the operational principles of their policies. Their use of the rhetoric of democracy, equality, fairness, etc. represents a tacit admission that their real agenda does not fit well with the self-image of their people, as well as a tip of the hat to the power of Left ideology even when we are organizationally weak (did you notice how the war in Afghanistan became framed as a campaign for women‘s rights!?). This is a strategic advantage we must take note of.
How can a unified statement threaten a social order? Let’s spend some moments on what message it would deliver before turning to how it might become an instrument of strategy. At heart it would represent an ideological challenge. Take the oft-repeated aphorism of the