Understanding what is wrong in our society; speaking out against injustice; denouncing abuses by the powerful. All of these are crucial tasks. Many of us devote a large part of the year to them, and they are certainly necessary if we are to create a better world.
At the same time, it is highly doubtful that these acts are sufficient. Creating positive social change takes more. It takes the knowledge that people can organize to win justice and an awareness that, even in inhospitable times, some things can go right. The holiday season provides an important moment to reflect on a few of those advances that offered hope in 2007-many of which came about just in the past few weeks.
In early December the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the NSA, released a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The document may have single-handedly undermined the White House’s push to start yet another war in the Middle East. The report declared that Iran dropped its clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not renewed it since. The NIE has greatly strengthened the hand of those in Washington-including many high-ranking military officials-who believe that a preemptive attack on Iran would be both unnecessary and disastrous. The NIE also solidified public opinion against military escalation and spawned a wide range of commentary denouncing the most recent round of Bush-Cheney war-mongering. The Washington Post, for one, editorialized that the report "strengthens the view, which we have previously endorsed, that this administration should not have to resort to military action to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities."
Of course, efforts to stop a new war must continue. The NIE notwithstanding, U.S. relations with Iran remain tense, and the neoconservatives have recently been trying to regroup and articulate reasons why an attack would still be warranted. But their opponents can proceed from a much better position than before. So distraught are the far-right militarists that some have resorted to conspiracy theory: Neocon godfather and Giuliani advisor Norman Podhoretz recently voiced "dark suspicions" that the intelligence community was "leaking information calculated to undermine" President Bush.
Beyond Iran, 2007 witnessed a number of other critical shifts in policy debate. Whereas just a few years ago many public officials denied that global warming was even taking place, climate change is now almost universally regarded as one of humanity’s gravest challenges. The Nobel Committee trained a spotlight on this idea by awarding the Peace Prize to Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Upon formally receiving the award on December 10, Gore passionately decried global warming as a "threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential." Just a week later, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, he went further by explicitly charging that "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress" on climate policy–an unusually blunt acknowledgement which the conference attendees applauded energetically.
In their most serious drive in at least a decade to address this crisis and end U.S. dependency on foreign oil, Democrats have pushed a promising energy bill in Congress. The bill, which passed through the House on December 6, included what the New York Times calls "the first meaningful increase in fuel efficiency standards in three decades," mandating that auto makers move from a standard of 25 miles per gallon (mpg) to 35 mpg by 2020. Due to a shameful filibuster by Senate Republicans and a threatened veto from the White House, two provisions from the original bill were removed from later versions: one would have required that at least 15 percent of the country’s electricity come from renewable alternative energy sources by 2020, while the other would have paid for this initiative by eliminating tax subsidies for oil companies. Despite these changes, the legislation marks a significant defeat for the big oil corporations and for the auto lobby. The rising public demand for action on clean energy suggests that this may be the first of many.
In another overdue but nevertheless important move, Congress passed a bill in May mandating a graduated increase in the federal minimum wage, raising it from $5.15 to $7.25–the first increase in 10 years. There were also some victories for working people on the grassroots level this year. In April, building on their 2005 victory against Taco Bell, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers won a campaign calling for McDonalds to demand that tomato growers it buys from increase wages for their farm workers. This increase will almost double wages for the workers, raising their pay from 40 cents to 72 cents per bucket of tomatoes picked. The agreement will also create a new code of conduct for labor relations and safeguard workers’ rights in future disputes. With their series of wins the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – made up of immigrant laborers who are traditionally among the most exploited in America – have provided some brilliant examples of the power of collective action.
There has also been a notable shift this year in the debate over the death penalty. On the national level, the movement to restrict capital punishment has been reinforced by actions at the Supreme Court. The Court has implemented a de facto moratorium since late September, ordering the halt of five scheduled executions while it deliberates on a case that will determine whether lethal injection constitutes a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Subsequently, on December 13, the New Jersey State legislature passed a bill outlawing capital punishment in the state, which Governor Jon Corzine signed into law the following week. New Jersey thus became the first state to abolish the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did so in 1965. David Fathi of Human Rights Watch argued that the move is "a very significant event for a state that has had the death penalty on its books for decades. It’s one more indication that the death penalty is on its way out in the United States."
Advances in the global South also bode well. The rebellion in Latin America against the economics of corporate globalization continued in 2007, with governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela leading the march toward more progressive policies. In what ended up being a very positive development, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez lost a public referendum on December 3 in a narrow 51-to-49 percent vote. Among other things, the constitutional amendments at issue would have abolished presidential term limits and centralized state power. Chávez graciously admitted defeat. Contrary to the hysterical voices in the mainstream press asserting that Venezuela had become a dictatorship, the referendum showed that the country’s democracy is robust and its public debate vigorous. From a progressive perspective, the referendum’s failure will encourage Chávez to broaden the leadership of his "Bolivarian revolution" and potentially pave the way for a new generation of activists to succeed him.
For Latin America as a whole, one of the most significant gains of the year was the creation of the Bank of the South. On December 6 representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela met in Buenos Aires to inaugurate the new bank, which will compete directly with Washington-controlled institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the past, these institutions were leaders in enforcing a fundamentalist brand of "free trade" neoliberalism-an economic model that has had terrible results in the region. Not only will the Bank of the South represent a critical step in the battle for regional self-determination, it will be free to support approaches to development that can effectively combat inequality and address the needs of the poor.
For those who have grown disheartened living under the reign of George W. Bush, such victories abroad are genuine markers of hope. We can cheer them just as heartily as we celebrate the signs of progress within the United States-and resolve to work for even greater gains in the New Year.
— Mark Engler, an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, April 2008). He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance provided by Sean Nortz.