Against neo-liberalism and Empire

Bill Fletcher Jr., President of TransAfrica Forum, delivered the keynote speech at the opening of this past weekend’s Thinking Through Action conference at Simon Fraser University. A prominent voice on the American Left, Fletcher was interviewed by Derrick O’Keefe of Seven Oaks about the state of the U.S. trade union movement and other challenges facing progressives south of the border.

Derrick O’Keefe: In your keynote, you emphasized the importance of identifying principal contradictions in guiding political work, in the context of the life of Jack O’Dell and his work as part of the Black liberation struggle. Could you talk about the principal contradictions in U.S. society today?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: Let me just start with what I’m talking about in terms of principal contradiction. Of course I’m borrowing from Mao, with the notion that at any moment in society there are multiple contradictions that are influencing reality, but at each point, one is metaphorically the first domino. The one that if it falls, it has an impact on all others, and so in the 1950s and 60s clearly the struggle around legal segregation was that fight. Right now, there are multiple contradictions in U.S. society.

The one that I think is actually the dominant one revolves around Empire and neo-liberalism. We have a situation where what has happened is the dominant framework around the economy, that has been embraced by the leaderships of both major parties, really does follow from neo-liberalism, the basic notion of moving away from any real concept of public service or public space, and privatizing, removing obstacles to the accumulation of capital. And this issue of Empire, the unbridled objective of global dominance. The U.S. has always had an Empire, but what we’re looking at now is an unapologetic effort to say that the U.S. will not be constrained by any treaties, any international law, any international precedent and that it in fact will be the dominant force.

So I think that right now that’s what we’re looking at. Now, the questions of race has obviously not gone away. Race is still fundamental to understanding the United States.

O’Keefe: On the question of Empire, the basically unilateral decision to go to war on Iraq provoked worldwide repudiation. In other instances, the U.S. has been able to impose its dominance in a more multi-lateral fashion, with less objection. I’m thinking in particular of Haiti, where a popular democratically-elected leader was overthrown. How have they gotten away with the regime change in Haiti?

Fletcher: I think that what is important to understand is that, for much of the world, the western hemisphere is viewed as the sphere of influence of the United States, going back to the Monroe Doctrine. In the case of Haiti, and it was ironic, because Canada and France had both opposed the United States on Iraq, vehemently. And Bush supporters in the United States ridiculed them, particularly France –you know this whole thing around “freedom fries.” So they opposed that, but just a few months later they’re embracing one another to overthrow Aristide. I think that it is largely about spheres of influence. I think that there was also a coincidence of interests.

One of the things that Aristide did that pissed off the French was that he demanded that France repay Haiti for the reparations that Haitians had paid France from 1825 to 1947. And it’s interesting because when Aristide starts raising this in the fall of 2003, you see this flip in the position of the French, and they very quickly move to ‘no, no, Aristide needs to go.’ So I think that you have both a coincidence of interests as well as this notion of spheres of influence, which obviously Latin Americans and Caribbeans have never accepted, but Europe, Japan and Canada basically accept it.

O’Keefe: Obviously Haiti has a special meaning to the African Diaspora, as it was a successful slave revolution. Is that history one of the reasons that your organization, TransAfrica Forum, is one of the groups that has really taken up the issue of this latest coup in Haiti?

Fletcher: Everyone of African descent owes a special debt to the Haitians. The Haitian Revolution was not only the second successful independence movement in the western hemisphere, it was, as you said, a successful slave revolution. And it demonstrated to the world, it reaffirmed, the humanity of the African, that we people of African descent could hold our own against the Europeans, in fact defeat the Europeans. There’s a special circumstance that began in 1804 between Haiti and the United States, in that the relationship from that point on was completely deformed, first with a blockade and isolation, and then the switch in tactics to interference, indirect control, and direct control, depending on the circumstances.

So we felt that the United States has an obligation to the people of Haiti. And that obligation is both one of non-interference in the internal affairs of Haiti, but also helping Haiti get back on its feet. No administration, as far as I can tell, has ever believed that the United States owes Haiti anything, and we’re trying to challenge that.

O’Keefe: In your speech, you outlined three areas where you have been active: the labour movement, the academy, and social justice movements. With the first, can we really call it a labour movement today, can we put those two words together in the U.S., and what is the way forward? What is it, less than 10 percent union density now?

Fletcher: It’s 13 percent union density, but in the private sector, yes, it’s like 8 or 9 percent.

There is a trade union movement in the United States, there’s not a labour movement. There needs to be a labour movement. But in order for a labour movement to really emerge, or re-emerge, it’s going to necessitate renewal of the unions as well as an embrace by the unions of other forces that are currently not in the union movement, but are rooted in the working class. There are community-based organizations that are very rooted in the working class. They don’t happen to be focused on the workplace. And then there are community organizations that are focused on the workplace. A labour movement needs to include all of that. The union movement in the United States is and has been in very deep crisis, and right now there’s an immediate crisis that revolves around the potential split in the AFL-CIO.

The SEIU, the largest of the unions, has taken a vote that it will authorize their officers to withdraw from the AFL-CIO, a move that I think will be very damaging. But it’s damaging especially because the so-called debate that has been taking place has not been much of a debate. It has not been about the issues that I believe need to be debated. It’s been mainly about structural issues around the AFL-CIO, and about issues of personality. So if we’re really talking about renewing, we’ve got to start, in my opinion, with an analysis of the global and domestic economic and political situations. It’s sort of like that saying, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.’ If you have a situation where the union movement has no consensus about what’s going on out there, then it’s essentially a throw of the dice in terms of what forms of organization, what structure.

The argument that’s being raised by some of the critics of John Sweeney, the President of the AFL-CIO, is that we need a different kind of structure to organize these millions of workers. Well, that’s true, but I think we need more than a different kind of structure. We need a different kind of trade unionism.

O’Keefe: In terms of the social justice movements, the Left in the United States – the force that could bring in that larger analysis to the labour movement — seems to be very much turned in on itself, divided. Is there anything positive you see happening with the U.S. Left in terms of turning back outward, and having an impact?

Fletcher: I think that there are glimmers. The decline of the Left in the United States, after the emergence in the 1960s, was the result of both active repression by the government as well as our own subjectivist and sectarian mistakes.

Now, that said, I think that there are a lot of prospects. The global justice movement, I think, has been very important in terms of a shot in the arm. The movement around reparations for African Americans has been very important in terms of raising big questions. But what we need is to start thinking about an organizational form. That is, having the movements and having ideas is good but it’s not enough.

We really need to have people that are thinking along common lines in terms of strategy. Where are we going? How do we actually build a movement for the transformation of U.S. society, and, at least as I see it, ultimately the creation of a socialist society? How do we actually bring that about? That’s not going to happen spontaneously; that’s not going to happen simply because some people on the internet are exchanging ideas and decide to engage in protest. You have to have people who are really thinking down the road, just the way that the right-wing does. We have to have people that are thinking ten, twenty years down the road.

So I think that part of the steps to get there include a very broad-based electoral movement that is progressive. That is, it’s not necessarily Left but it has politics that challenge neo-liberalism and suggest that there is a different path that could be followed. And it needs to be a broad, anti-Empire, anti-irrationalist movement, and I think that’s the kind of effort that those of us that see ourselves as socialists on the Left could really work towards building.

O’Keefe: It sounds like you’re describing something that’s more than an email group, but less than a political party, something like a network.

Fletcher: Eventually we need a political party. The Left needs to have something, but then the broad progressive movement needs to have a political organization that is bent on the fight for power. And I don’t mean power in the kind of personal sense. I mean, in order to move – power is the ability to do work. We have got to be thinking about what is it that needs to be put into place in order to do the work of social transformation. That’s what we need to focus on.

So, yes, it needs to be much more than an email list. But I think that what’s interesting about the internet is that there are possibilities for a much broader – geographically and politically – democratic interaction between people at the base and people at the centre of something. There’s great potential for self-organization, but none of that gets anywhere unless we keep our eyes on the prize in terms of what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

O’Keefe: This kind of discussion of achieving political power, and concretely transforming society, is a lot different than what you hear from some of those who broadly identify as Left or progressive – I’m thinking in particular of postmodernists in the academic world. You are very critical of postmodernism. Can you explain some of that criticism in the context of a vision of rebuilding a Left that is aiming for political power?

Fletcher: The way I think about postmodernism is to go to a bowling alley. You have a row of games, where for every lane you have a different game. No one is playing the same game. You might be able to watch somebody playing a different game, but you’re not part of that. So the difficulty is that if we’re all in these separate lanes, how do we become more than the sum of our parts? How do we become more than just a lot of people playing our own games? So my criticism is that post-modernism, in effect, accepts that we have been defeated. It accepts that we can’t do anything about it. And that will ultimately lead to despair, regardless of what sugar-coating is put on it.

So part of what I’m saying, and other people are saying, is that we need to develop a long-term strategy for power that says that we actually can do something about this, but it’s going to take a long-time. And it needs to draw from different social movements, so you are not asking people to collapse in their different movements, to give up their concerns. But it’s to say that we can construct a master narrative. We can construct a way of looking at what’s happening out there that says that there’s a piece of this for progressive social movements, that we can join together and actually transform society. Transforming society is not simply about being elected to office. It really is a top to bottom alteration of the way that society operates. So that’s both getting people elected, but it’s also the way that work takes place in the workplace, it’s the issue of culture, it’s the issue of the media. None of that will happen if we don’t have a sense of very clear objectives.

Derrick O’Keefe is co-chair of the StopWar coalition in Vancouver and a founding editor of SevenOaksMag.com.

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