A Left Electoral Campaign
This is the final entry in our Twentieth Anniversary series featuring past articles from Z. Michael Albert’s 1992 column envisioning a left presidential campaign ends our 20th Anniversary series and begins our new series of articles and videos (both in print and online) paralleling the 2008 candidate debates with our own positions and with a possible left platform and program for the U.S. — Eds.
PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS may prove more or less pivotal to radically transforming society. In either case, considering the issues highlighted in the 1992 campaign—economics, education, health, drugs, foreign policy, and ecology—what would be a good alternative short-run program?
A LEFT CANDIDATE would pursue three primary economic goals—better quality of daily economic experience, more fairness, and increased mutual compassion. To clarify the obstacles, she would also emphasize that corporate elites oppose these humane aims.
To level the playing field of economic struggle between workers and employers, therefore, our candidate would help grassroots organizations fight for: (1) a law forbidding capital export and relocation without community and worker permission and (2) a law delineating punishments for employers who impede nationally mandated economic reforms. For each law, our candidate would demand that the maximum penalty for owners be nationalization of their businesses under the management of currently employed workers.
Having established a context for struggle as her primary immediate economic aims, our candidate would propose: (1) reducing inequality, (2) reorienting productive potentials to meet social needs, and (3) enlarging economic democracy.
For example, to foster equality of wealth and income, our candidate would propose a sharply progressive property, asset, and income tax, with no loopholes, as well as a dramatically-increased minimum wage coupled with a new profit tax that would be proportional to inequities in each firm’s pay scale. Due to a new minimum wage law, minimum pay would rise dramatically. Due to a new pay equity tax, industries with a more equitable pay scale would have more after-tax profits. Not only could more equitably structured firms use these extra funds to further improve work conditions and increase their social contribution, they could generally out-compete less socially responsible firms. Finally, the new property and asset taxes would dramatically dimi- nish differences in wealth.
Our candidate would label all these innovations redistributive and repeatedly explain why redistribution from the rich to the poor is both morally justified and socially essential. She could call her program “reclamation of stolen riches.” Other facets of the reclamation project would include a comprehensive full employment policy, a comprehensive adult education and job training program, and a comprehensive social support system for those unable to work, whatever the reason.
Moreover, beyond material equity, our candidate would also advocate that workers should all have work conditions and responsibilities suitable to their personal development and to their responsibility to contribute to society’s well being.
Why should some people endure boring, dangerous, subordinate, and rote conditions while other people enjoy challenging, fulfilling, empowering, and varied conditions? In reply to this fairness question, our candidate would explain that attaining equity of life circumstances has to mean not only balancing people’s material circumstances, but also their social circumstances—not only attaining equity of wealth and pay, but also equity of conditions of work.
With this principle as a touchstone, our candidate would support the creation of workers’ councils empowered to develop job redefinition and to win increasing say over the pace and goal of work. She would emphasize that work should be a demanding but rewarding part of people’s lives, rather than alienating and misallocated by those at the top.
Regarding investment priorities, our candidate would propose tax incentives for socially useful production and tax disincentives for waste and socially harmful production. This would limit excessive or ecologically damaging advertising or packaging and other antisocial behavior. It would help foster production to meet real needs and potentials. Indeed, our candidate’s administration would regulate, punish, and even out out of business any industry deemed by an independent citizens bureau and public plebiscite to be destructive of the public good.
Of course, the first tangible evidence of a change in economic priorities that our candidate would emphasize would be a 90 percent cut in the defense budget. To make this worthwhile, our candidate would propose that existing military bases be converted to centers for ecological clean-up, new schools for local communities, production plants for developing low income housing, or new means of clean transportation or energy production. Funding for these bases would persist while resident GIs, or others seeking new employment, are retrained to work in the converted bases.
Regarding economic democracy and participation, our candidate would assist the formation of consumer and worker organizations to watchdog product quality, guard against excessive pricing, advise about product redefinition, and participate in plant and industry decisions with open books and full investigative rights. Beyond these first steps, our candidate would clarify that her ultimate goal is the full democratization of economic decision making and the initiation of a national public project to develop new institutions for work, consumption, and allocation.
In short, a left presidential campaign would: (1) ratify the public’s suspicion that the basic problem with our economy is that capitalist institutions make capitalists prefer war production, persistent unemployment, and homelessness to a working class able to demand a bigger piece of the pie and control over what kind of pie is baked; and, (2) propose uncompromising changes that redress existing grievances, create conditions more just and humane, and establish a new balance of power conducive to winning more fundamental changes in the future.
A LEFT CANDIDATE would note that while it is often claimed schools are failing, it depends on how you look at them. Our candidate, for example, would emphasize that existing schools actually succeed at developing, on the one hand, future executives, professionals, intellectuals, and managers by providing them with an empowering environment, diverse skills development, wide-ranging knowledge, and an expectation of fulfillment in life.
On the other hand, schools also serve to create future workers by providing them minimal literacy and maximum training in enduring boredom and obeying orders.
Our candidate would explain that the schools accomplish this by incorporating differences in teacher-student ratio, in resources per student, and teacher expectations and training—for example, $2,000 per student per year for the poor districts in Texas and $19,000 per student per year in the rich districts.
Thus, our candidate would explain that while our schools are failing most people, for those who decide on education policy, they are succeeding admirably. She would explain that that’s why representatives from these elite constituencies repeatedly give us candidates who will, rhetoric aside, maintain education disparities more or less as they are.
To make educational change requires that we overcome corporate agendas and existing institutional pressures with our own alternative. So our candidate would explain that we have to change the context that schools prepare people for so that good education for all makes sense. She would urge that this requires an economy promising full employment at jobs that require and utilize people’s full capabilities, including facility at decision-making, ample knowledge about society, and expectations of success and participation. But our candidate would also emphasize that we need to develop a popular movement to pressure for specific pedagogic changes. To enumerate these changes, our candidate would advocate a national debate about curriculum reform, improved teaching methods and teacher-student relations, improved resources for schools, and increased community involvement.
Next, our candidate would promise to implement specific goals for education. The first would reduce class size to a maximum of 20 students per teacher in all schools. The second would equalize resources per student across all schools, including architecture, computers, books, and food—and guarantee education (through college) to anyone who wants it.
Our candidate would promise funds to staff all schools at night for community meetings and remedial and adult education. And finally, our candidate would guarantee that funding for education would come from corporate profit taxes and from private progressive taxes collected at the national level to guarantee that regions attain educational parity.
In short, our candidate would galvanize public anger and activism to: (a) develop a detailed, long-term popularly conceived and supported education agenda, and (b) win immediate reforms, including educational equity and improvements for all.
AS IT STANDS, U.S. foreign aid correlates directly with human rights abuses. The more abuses a country practices, the higher our aid is. Our candidate would explain that this is not due to diplomatic stupidity, but is U.S. policy because it pleases elite decision makers who make that policy. Our policy makers view aid as a way to maintain a flow of riches and wealth out of other countries and into ours. Since this rip-off requires that the local population be subdued, wherever we give aid indigenous populations are repressed. The idea is that in return for our “largesse” in providing the tools of repression and authoritarian rule, elites get to take home an ample bounty of wealth.
A proper foreign policy would respect the integrity of other nations and seek a human-serving economy at home. Our candidate’s overall program would therefore emphasize:
Cessation of all arms shipments abroad.
Cessation of any aid abroad that may, by any means, find its way into the hands of police or other potentially repressive agencies in other countries.
Elimination of all overseas military bases, with half the funds saved from closings returned to the U.S. for solving domestic problems; half applied to aid to underdeveloped countries in the form of no-strings attached infrastructure improvements, job and skills training, equipment grants, food aid, and privileged buyer status for many goods on the international market.
Ultimately, the goal of foreign policy should be the same as the goal of domestic policy: to promote equity, solidarity, diversity, and self- management, while respecting personal and collective rights
A LEFT CANDIDATE would emphasize that a civilized health program for our society must involve three main components: prevention, universal care for the ill, and cost cutting. At a minimum our candidate would argue that we must have:
- Improved preventive medicine, including increased public education about health-care risks, a campaign around diet, and provision for community centers for exercise and public health education.
- Universal health care for the ill, including a single-payer system with the government providing comprehensive coverage for all citizens.
- Reassessment of training programs for doctors and nurses to expand the number of qualified health workers and to better utilize the talents of those already trained.
- Civilian review over drug company policies and the medical impact of all institutions in society—for example, the health effects of work conditions and product choices.
Our candidate would point out that the single-payer system would save approximately $70 billion on billing, collection, and bureaucracy. She would also advocate saving billions more, to be allotted to preventive medicine and treatment, by establishing limits on the incomes of health professionals and the profits pharmaceutical and other medical companies could earn. If additional funding is required, it would come from punitive taxes on unhealthful products such as cigarettes, alcohol, and unsafe automobiles, etc.
The overall guideline for a health program is that illness should be reduced as much as possible, the quality of health care should be raised as much as possible, and the costs of these improvements should be paid by those who have gotten rich at others’ expense.
A LEFT CANDIDATE would establish a department of ecological balance to develop a list of necessary clean-up steps, as well as a policy to preserve the ecology.
Beyond this, our candidate would argue that clean-up funds should come from a reparations tax on current polluters and prior beneficiaries of unclean industrial operations.
The critical innovation in our candidate’s approach to ecological sanity, however, would be to open a national public debate about the relation between our basic economic and social institutions and the environment. For example, our candidate would begin the process of clarifying that we need institutions attuned to ecological costs and benefits and that we must experiment with non-market approaches to allocation, rather than trying to police the inevitable ecological ill-effects that markets routinely produce.
SUPPOSE SOMEONE WHO managed to get into the presidential sweepstakes decided to run on a program like that above, with compelling examples, and with an additional focus on many issues otherwise ignored or merely manipulated by the other candidates, such as media, race, gender, and political reform. It is easy to imagine such a candidate having an excellent program and developing a good delivery to explain it. But as things now stand, the campaign would nonetheless be a travesty. Even with a supportive popular movement, for want of money and honest media there would be little possibility of clarifying to a national audience what the candidate’s stands were and what real implications they would have, much less why they were structurally necessary.
Besides an evolving and highly conscious movement, therefore, two further conditions are prerequisite to any successful use of presidential electoral politics, whether for consciousness raising, movement building, or winning power.
(l) We must have our own uncompromised independent means of fundraising to finance such a campaign. This means five million people each willing to give $10 or more through a well-established, inexpensive fund- raising system.
(2) We must have our own means of communication to convey detailed information, vision, and analysis to a nationwide audience. This means a network of radio stations, cable TV, magazines, and daily newspapers spanning the country, that are all not only left content, but financially and editorially independent of advertising and large wealthy donors who come with strings attached.
Some people believe that the way to get more out of presidential and other elections is to advocate campaign reform. I think that as we develop a powerful grassroots movement with sufficient support to raise money and with sufficient alternative media to reach millions of readers, listeners, and viewers across the nation, campaign reform will take care of itself. Only then can presidential elections become part of the process of winning a new society.
Michael Albert is co-founder of Z and current staff member of ZNet. He is the author of numerous articles and books. His latest are Parecon, Realizing Hope, and Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism.