Naming the Beast or Whistling Past the Graveyard

The democratic left’s socialist context went missing. If anyone spots it, please call or instant message. We can even put the appeal on milk cartons.   


It was not always thus. Forget about the glory days of pre-war socialism, or the red decade of the thirties or even the sober, literary ’50s. In April 1965, Paul Potter, then the president of SDS, said the mission of the new radical movement confronting American power was to “name that system. We must name it, “he said, “describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.  For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable (and) more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over — all the time.”


Forty one years after Potter made that speech, given on a perfect spring day in Washington when everything seemed possible, as he addressed 25,000 young antiwar protestors (an unheard of number who effectively launched the antiwar movement nationwide), Potter’s mandate is still the goal of democratic socialists: naming, describing, analyzing, understanding, organizing, and changing.


SDS said the enemy was corporate liberalism. Looking back, corporate liberalism in its Great Society garb, in its efforts to ensure social peace and even wage a war on poverty, seems enlightened and even kind, at least compared to the contemporary fang and claw ethos.


Today, the enemy’s name is neo-liberalism. That is the political ideology that capitalism dresses in and articulates its policies now. It was in the 1970s that Margaret Thatcher opined that there was no such thing as “society,” only grubbing individuals engaged in cementing short-term contracts and where the market, not the family or the community or the class, was the instrument of individual choice.


It’s a world, says anthropologist David Harvey, in which “deregulation, privatization and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision is common.” And not just in the United States and Britain, but even in France. And Italy. And Germany. And the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand, once the models of welfare-state largesse.


That’s the ideology that says: replace defined benefit pensions with defined contributions. It says charter schools and vouchers are preferable to public schools.  It says rent regulation stymies housing starts. It says government should not be responsible for health care delivery. It says job security and labor rights constrain competition in a global market, and that labor market “flexibility” is paramount.


It’s the logic behind this year’s Economic Report of the President, which stupidly brags that the administration will “restrain government spending to reduce the budget deficit,” but only for non-military spending. And it will jumpstart an  economic boom  — at least it will try– by outsourcing jobs, driving wages down, hunting unions to extinction and despoiling the environment.


Neo-liberalism is the rough beast lurking behind every social problem. It’s the demon haunting the three talks you will hear following mine, on health care, on education and on housing. And we could add it’s also responsible for US military policy and growing income inequality.


Under neo-liberalism, women are freed to work even as retirement becomes impossible.


Under neo-liberalism, the state no longer manages discontent with ample jobs and placated labor leaders and social welfare provisions and a guns and butter economy.  Now the state exacerbates that discontent. It’s all guns, and the butter’s gone bad.


Under neo-liberalism it’s the capitalists who are the revolutionaries, fulfilling Marx’s observation that everything sacred is profaned.


Well, where are the good guys?


In Latin America, global capitalism is taking a beating from insurgent movements and progressive governments. In Europe, French students and unions beat back an effort to end job security and create a substandard youth wage. French and Danish voters rejected the European Union constitution, and British railroad workers battled their own Labour Party government over pension rights. And yes, the US occupation of Iraq is unraveling.


But here at home, the forces confronting neo-liberalism are fragmented, and mostly defensive. Battles for health care, housing and education, for example, have their own advocates, their own strategies, and make their own trips to the well. Any advocate of education knows children cannot learn without adequate housing and good health care, and each of the issues overlaps the others like circles on a Venn diagram. Yet their armies march alone.


Unionists and environmentalists rarely agree. The trade unions, representing less than 12 percent of the US workforce, still don’t support a thoroughly democratic foreign policy, though the vote last July at the AFL-CIO convention calling for rapid withdrawal from Iraq was historic and welcome. 


The US peace movement’s opposition to the Iraq war condemns its illegality and its immorality, but rarely that the war machine is being the logical outcome of imperial interests.  


The point is: of those confronting capital, too few see their particular issues as manifestations of larger, systemic problems. The social movements resemble competing mendicants. The resistance is Balkanized, and so is its thinking.


That’s why it’s so great that David Harvey refers in his new book, “A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, to the free market creed as “the reconstitution of class power.” As Harvey says, ” if it looks like class struggle and acts like class  war, then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is. ” We either resign ourselves “to the historical and geographical trajectory defined by overwhelming and ever increasing upper class power, or respond to it in class terms.”


Responding in class terms?  Our social movements wonder if class is even a viable category for explaining contemporary politics. That’s a puzzlement our rulers and our betters do not share.


The Democratic Party, as the opposition party, should be addressing this reality. It isn’t. With the exception of a few brave souls like Russ Feingold, its leaders are keeping their heads down, waiting for the Bush regime to implode.

Punchy liberal bloggers obsess over 2008 presidential election prospects as if electoral tactics were the Great Oz; they’re not looking behind the curtain. When Hillary Clinton dodges and weaves on life and death questions, too many Bush-hating liberals justify it, saying she’s all we’ve got. Even New York’s Working Families Party is poised to endorse her.


Intellectually, resistance is flabby, too. The hot books Bush critics are touting: Francis Fukuyama’s retreat from neoconservatism and Kevin Phillips’ demolition of the Religious right — and they are worth reading  — don’t look at capitalism as a system. Nor should these basically conservative writers be expected to carry our water for us, even if it is thrilling to find conservatives who aren’t self-serving or insane.


Another bugbear of mine: the lionizing of the late New Frontier warhorse JK Galbraith in The Nation, in In These Times and even in Counterpunch and the DSAmember listserve. Galbraith was a decent man who titillated Cambridge’s sherry-drinking set by calling himself a socialist. But the closest he ever came to working class self activity was watching his plumber snake a drain.


Who is coming up with an alternative economic strategy that can roll back the class power David Harvey so brilliantly describes. We need our own thinkers, our own critics, our own activists.


Meanwhile working people are not standing still, waiting for orders. Work stoppages are up nationwide. The TWU fought for respect in New York and a living wage. Northwest Airlines mechanics and cleaners went out, as did Boeing aircraft workers and California hospital workers.

Delphi, the GM parts supplier, wants to declare bankruptcy as a way to escape its union contract; its workers are fighting back. Custodians at the University of Miami forced their employer to accept card check, no thanks to Donna Shalala, the university president and Bill Clinton’s HHS secretary.


 “Some of the biggest labor success stories of 2005 were made by predominantly immigrant farm workers, writes Chris Kutalik in Labor Notes. “The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful Taco Bell boycott and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s 5,000-worker organizing victory in North Carolina broke new ground for immigrant labor organizing,” he reports.


Ditto for the 2 million who marched for immigrant rights last month. And US Labor Against the War shows promise of creating and nurturing a core of unionists who can and do connect shopfloor problems to international issues.


This is all great stuff.


It’s not enough.


Because if we socialists don’t emphasize class and commonalities, and don’t make these run like red threads through all our work, and don’t help the movements we support see commonalities and find common work, we run the risk of losing, again. The neo-liberals understand class and power and a unified message. Why not the left? Yes, we have to make the road by walking, but without a class perspective we’re just making  traffic circles.


Just for example: Look at the charged debate over Israeli influence on US policy, legitimate disgust with the Iraq adventure is taking the form of blaming Israel for the continued occupation. Now Israel — or more properly its ruling circles–has a lot to answer for; from its tribalism and its colonizing and Bantustaning the West Bank to its austerity assault on its own public sector workers. But the Iraq War isn’t Israel’s doing. The argument that a shadowy Jewish lobby controls US policy whitewashes the US, just as Noam Chomsky says.   


Fingering Israel sidesteps taking on the real forces behind the war. Do anyone really believe the US would ever back an ally if it meant going against its basic corporate and strategic interests? Not only is the charge that Israel plays US puppeteer intellectual rubbish, it squanders opportunities to change US and Israeli policies


In his final book, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?  the French Marxist and Nation contributor Daniel Singer wrote “We are not here to tinker with the world, we are here to change it.”


Even if we only wanted to tinker, and incremental tinkering is all one can do in dark times, the other side won’t let us.



Michael Hirsch is a New York City- based labor writer. These remarks were first given at New York DSA’s annual convention May 13.

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