I used to talk to the political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. a lot back in the ’90s when we both lived in Chicago and wrote for the same magazines. I thought of him in those days as a man of brilliant skepticism, as someone who could always be counted upon to have the exact right word for the situation of the left in the Clinton years.
I got him on the phone last week to talk it over, and the conversation wandered all over the political map
Well, I dont know. Not in the circles I move in, it s not. Not in the labor movement either. I guess everything hinges on how you define the Left and what you mean by it. That s part of what s at stake. As I argue in the essay, by Left I mean an old-school understanding thats rooted in evaluation and critique of current circumstances from the standpoint of an ideal of equality and justice that s rooted in political economy.
Right, and my friend Walter Michaels has made this point very eloquently over and over again . . . that the problem with a notion of equality or social justice that s rooted in the perspectives of multiculturalism and diversity is that from those perspectives you can have a society that s perfectly just if less than 1 percent of the population controls 95 percent of the stuff, so long as that one percent is half women and 12 percent black, and 12 percent Latino and whatever the appropriate numbers are gay. Now that s a problem.
No. I didnt see that. But, yeah, it s perfect. I wish I had. It would be a nice book jacket. Yeah, I think where we are now is, from one perspective, the result of either 30 or 60-plus years, depending on how you want to count it, of a left that has been able to take only what the other side would make available . . . would permit them to take. And what thats meant is that our political strategiesI m not saying this to fault activists; you can only do what you can do, but the political strategies and understandings that have constituted the Left have come increasingly to accommodate with neoliberalism. And the only place that that s a conspicuous problem is in the labor movement because that s the one interest group that basically can t be accommodated to neoliberal economic policy.
Right. Well thats true by some standard. Like in black politics, for instance, the subtle shift from a notion of equality that s anchored in the political economy to a notion of equality that tends to a norm of parity has been a really important shift. And when we look around now at academics and others who plead the case for racial justiceMerlin Chowkwanyun and I did an article on this in the 2012 Socialist Register, a challenge to the racial disparity discourse. The language through which briefs for racial justice are crafted at this point are much more likelyI mean, vastly more likely to point to the problem as a racial disparity instead of inequality. And that might sound
I was going to say, it might sound like a pedantic distinction. But the notion of disparity as the metric of racial justice means that blacks should be represented roughly in their percentage of the population in the distribution of goods and bads in the society. So you can have 15 percent unemployment, but if blacks are only 12 percent of the 15 percent that are unemployed basically
Yeah. And while no one actually says that would be okay, the way in which the problem is posed leaves that implication and deflects discussion away from the underlying structural problems in the political economy that put anyone in the exploited or oppressed position. I just saw an article in Labor Notes month or so ago about howKellogg s is jerking workers around in a plant in Memphis. And the slant of the Labor Notes article is that the moves that the company is making disproportionately hurt black workers. The logic of that argument, that type of argument is, in effect, that we can understand the costs of economic restructuring or whatever, but they need to be borne on an equitable basis. Because it was Labor Notes, I know thats not the intent or the perspective of the magazine or presumably the author, but that just makes the trope stand out even more.
Right, and my argument is: well, lets back up.
And the funny thing about it when you think about it, Tom, is that if youre concerned with the conditions of black Americans, most black people are working people. One might say even disproportionately. And what improves the condition of the working class is going to improve the condition of more black people than the disparity focus would. That s not to say it s either/or. But the fact is we ve largely dropped the one in favor of the other. You can see the same thing in the women’s movement. I made this point in the article. It wasn t that long ago when the political agenda of the women s movement included stuff like comparable worth and universal child and elder care. And right now, attention to that stuff is shriveled. The defense of reproductive rights is a constant, of course. But the political-economic program that gets touted by the women s movement is directed toward the glass ceiling and the first woman president. Stuff like that.
Right. She is the Alexandra Kollontai of our moment.
Or the Clara Zetkin. The radical Bolshevik theorist who was also a feminist. I guess I should say that Sandberg is the Alexandra Kollontai of the bourgeoisie at this point.
Well, its a bizarre one, man. I wrote a progressive column on this 20 years ago or close to it. And it just seemed somewhere in the mid-’90s almost like I didn t set my alarm one night and woke up and the rules of being on the left had changed. Everyone was focused on electoral politics. That s a phenomenon that s like cause symptom. It s certainly a symptom of not having any other kind of traction in the social-movement world as a left. And once again, I acknowledge there are all kinds of people out there doing all kinds of good stuff. Who are trying to make people s lives better. And to the limited ways it s possible to succeed, succeeding. But there is not a left social movement that s got any capacity to do anything. That has any institutional capacity. And most of all, that has any capacity to alter the terms of political debate at the national level, or for that matter even the local level.
So in the absence of that, what can you do? Well, voting has come to seem more important as a form of political practice. Weve lost the capacity to do anything else. And when you think about it now we ve got at least a generation of people who never had any experience with any other kind of politics.
Well, actually I think protesting is overrated. In fact, I think protesting was always kind of overrated in the sense that its not so much the protest that produced the change; it s the movement that produces the capacity for the protest to be effective. That s the source of the change.
Yeah. Yeah. But I would sayand a bunch of us have been saying for a while that I think its much more useful . . . to look at elections as vehicles for consolidating and expressing power thats been created on the field of social-movement organizing around issues. Ultimately, mass mobilization around issues that connect with concerns that are broadly shared among the mass of people that live in the countrythose of us who are expected to get up and go to work every day. And thats how the nature of the debate changes.
Heres a factoid: a Roper poll a month before the 1944 presidential election found that 68 percent of respondents said that they would not favor a political and economic system no matter what it was called that didn t pivot off of a fundamental right to a job, that didn t rest on the fundamental premise that everyone in a society who is willing and able to work should have a right to a job.
Sixty-eight percent. Thats a month before the 1944 presidential election.
Well, the other side won. Theres an interesting literature on the streams of the defeat. The public opinion industry was mobilized in the support of selling the gospel of free enterprise, which itself was only invented in the late 1930s. The term wasn t even around before then. But there is a steady mobilization of bias, as political scientist E. E. Schattschneider used to call it, against left ideas.
Yeah, I wonder. The numbers might be higher than one might think. What full employment meant then in terms of the full-employment bill that passed the Senate and was defeated in the House
No, no. Im talking about the full employment bill of 1945 that went down, despite passing the Senate so it wasnt a gimmick bill — that would have mandated that the federal government take action, both in public spending and public works job creation when unemployment crossed the 3 percent threshold with the goal of moving the full employment threshold over a decade to 2 percent. By the Kennedy Administration the full-employment bill became four percent with fingers crossed. Now, I understand its 6 percent.
Well, theres a lot of crap going on there, too. And I ll come clean. I voted for Nader in 2000 partly because I lived in Connecticut and it wasn t a big choice because I knew the Democrat was going to take the state anyway. But partly also because I had lived in Connecticut in the ’80s and I had a track record to maintain of not ever voting for Joe Lieberman for anything.
But I was struck, too by the incredible vitriol that the Dems directed at Nader and anyone who supported Nader after that defeat. And it was a defeat that Gore wouldnt even fight against either, which they tend to forget. My response to them was, the vitriol was a signal that they were looking for a scapegoat because their flawed candidate couldn t even carry his home state. I mean, if he could have carried his home state he would have won the presidency. But I always said to them the best explanation of the defeat in 2000 came from a 1970s R&B singer named Ann Peebles with a song called I Didn t Take Your Man, You Gave Him To Me.
The Nader thing. The vitriol of the reaction was striking to me because it communicated that the Democrats felt entitled to every left-of-center vote, but that they didnt have to do anything to get it. They didn t have to appeal at all. And distaste for Lieberman notwithstanding, I would have voted for Gore if he wouldn t have run such a right wing campaign. That s part of it. And this goes back to Clinton s first campaign too. I worked in the short-lived [Tom] Harkin campaign and the word we were getting in that campaign from people in the South in particular was that Clinton s people were coming through and saying, Our guy s going to win the election so you better get on board if you want any consideration. And don t ask for anything because if you ask for anything we probably arent going to give you any access.And that s pretty ugly. And that s the way they can be. And I think that Clintonism basically polished off the purge of the left wing of the Democratic party.
Yes it was. It was an utter success in that regard. But its the cycle though, right? So theres nothing to do at election time except vote for the Democrat because the Republican is almost invariably going to be worse and despite the Third Party votes I ve cast in my life, that s no response to anything. And that speaks to another problem that s an element of the electoralitisin the left and thats that the same thing happens every four years. Around this time you begin to look around and see how the Democratic presidential field is shaping up. Then one strain of lefties will say, God, Hillary Clinton? This looks terrible. We need to find a progressive candidate. Well, at that point, it s too late. You can t build a base for a candidacy in a year or two years or even four years. The only way to get candidates worth having is to build the social force that will create candidates worth having.
Yeah. It comes back to movements all the time really.
Well, no. There are a couple things going on. One of them isI think the capture by the Tea Party tale is overstated. It s true that that element has some a disproportionate impact in the primaries, and I may be wrong about this, but I m still hard pressed to think that there is anything truly organic in the Tea Party movement that wasn t already the sort of Birchite nut cases on the right flank. And now they ve been fueled by the most cynical kind of right-wing money.
Well, they did with Romney and McCain. They get their candidates. I remember back in 1996 when Pat Buchanan won in New Hampshire and he came out of there with a big bounce and was moving down to South Carolina next which is where his real base was. His main bank roller was a mill operator down there named Milliken. So I was afraid enough to begin to wonder what I was going to do if he won the presidency. Either head north or head south, across the border. But whats fascinating was that the Moral Majority pulled the rug out from under him in South Carolina. The holy rollers backed [Bob] Dole. And that s where the field capacity was in South Carolina, among the holy rollers. And you d wonder, well, why would they do that, right? Partly, it s because they made the rational calculation that the interests that the elites in the right wing with populist tendencies are fundamentally connected with right wing corporate and financial sector interests.
Exactly. And they figured that in strategic terms theyd be better served by getting behind Dole and helping to deliver him the nomination than by going down in flames with their version of Henry Wallace, I guess. It s interesting in that regard too that year when they had the big jamboree they had down in Dallas. I think it was Jerry Falwell. I often get him and Pat Robertson confused. But he said that the two things God was most interested in that year were cutting capital gains taxes and I think the other may have been the estate tax.
Make it plain, why dont you. So in effect, and I think this gets to the point I was making in the article, that the choice is between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.
Well, yeah, kind of. This gets into another issue. In a way, I think their hysteria about Obama being a communist or a socialist is in a funny way a backhanded acknowledgment of the success of the Civil Rights movement. Because they cant say he s a n—– in the White House. Right? And I don t even necessarily think that people are being consciously disingenuous about it. I think they sell
Ill tell you, it s that Birchite psychosis. This is the social base of fascism, really, is what they are.
No, thank God. Not yet anyway. And I guess thats partly because a lot of them are pensioners.
But I still think theres a lot of astro-turf there. I go back to the founding moment of the Tea Party. And I ve watched this clip a number of time since then. That day that Rick Santelli
Oh good, I need to read that because when I watched it after the founding moment it seemed pretty clear to meI mean, you can tell me if I m wrong that the co-host knew what was coming. That this was not a spontaneous rant.
Right. Thats exactly right. That s exactly right. Yeah.
Right. Thats exactly right. And it says something about the extent to which content has been drained out of our politics too.
Sure. Well yeah because theres nothing else. The Democrats don t have an alternative to offer. Right? I mean, that s the problem. My son said in 04 that either, in the industrial Midwest in particular, either Kerry would talk about NAFTA and trade or Bush would talk about gay marriage. And that s what happened. And I recall
It sure is. Which is kind of funny. And frankly, it also says something about how successful an egalitariana reasonable egalitarian program can be if it doesn t cost anybody anything. If it doesn t raise the backs of upper-class economic interests.
Well, in not much more than a decade, gayness has gone from being if not completely stigmatized, certainly not normalized. . . .
Thats right. And here we are like a decade later and that s. . . .
I think Im quoting Matt Taibbi I believe, but I ll take it. I ll take credit for it also. Because he is. He s always been a cipher. You know that.
I dont know. Look, I ve taught a bunch of versions of him.
Yeah. So his cohort in the Ivy League. His style. Theres superficial polish or there s a polish that may go down to the core. I don t know. A performance of a judicious intellectuality. A capacity to show an ability to understand and empathize with multiple sides of an argument. Obama has described himself in that way himself in one or maybe both of his books and elsewhere. He s said that he has this knack for encouraging people to see a better world for themselves through him.
Right. Which in a less charitable moment you might say is like a sociopath.
Im not saying that. But I m just saying. I m not saying he s a sociopath but
Hes better at it than most. And this is another point that I make. That any public figure, especially a politician or a figure in a movement, is going to be like a hologram that s created by the array of forces that he or she feels the need to respond to. That s how it was that we got more out of Richard Nixon from the left than we ve gotten from either Clinton or Obama.
Not that he liked us any more, to put it bluntly.
Right, but the labor movement and what are now called the social movements of the 60s had enough traction within the society that, as part of his understanding of who he was as someone that had to govern the country, was that he had to take them into account in some way. Clinton, as he pointed out, felt our pain, except for maybe Ricky Ray Rector. And when he dreamt of a world he would like to see in his earnest moments Im sure it was closer to the world that you and I and others like us would yearn to see, than anything that Nixon ever wanted. But he screwed us a lot more. And the same with Obama.
Well, in fact, I go a step further about Clinton. He not only didnt have to take the left into account, his presidency was in good measure about making that clear to the left.
Thats right. That they were cue-takers, and cue-takers only. NAFTA. Welfare reform. The effective elimination of the federal government s commitment to provide affordable housing for the poor.
Ive got the photo of him signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
Indeed. Indeed. The ’70s, and even to some extent the ’80s, perhaps especially the ’80s, were among other things a moment of contestation within the Democratic party between what would later be understood as the neoliberal wing. You remember these guys
Them. And the Atari Democrats and that crowd. Clinton, who had been president of the DLC, as had Gore, that administration is what installed them basically.
Yeah, but success by a really shallow standard. Just that he won.
Even then, yeah. Ill accept that he s a savvy pol and all that, but Kerry, I think, got a higher percentage of the vote losing in 04 than Clinton got winning. Maybe either time. I know one of them for sure. Because in both cases the smartest move he made was when Ross Perot filed to run. That s the only standard. But that s the other thing that s happened. As the left constituencies have shriveled and have been pushed to the side, the inside-the-beltway types that we know and love set the agenda. I wrote this in a symposium years ago. Rick Perlstein did a symposium in the Boston Review that was later published.
And one of the points I made was that the rise of the political consultants is an expression of the problem because the service that they sell is the alternative to popular electoral mobilization. So of course they have no time for that. They dont think it s necessary. They don t think it s important. You target this. You target that. But on the other hand
Which is not a group. Thats a demographic category. It s bullshit, like the other bullshit that they ve come up with. Remember the National Security Moms?
I think that was 04.
Thats right. In fact, you don t want them.
Thats right. And get in the way.
Some peasants somewhere. The urban precariat. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.
Well theyre real, but the problem is the fantasy of the spark. That there s something about the purity of these oppressed people that has the power to condense the mass uprising. I ve often compared it to the cargo cults.
Well thats what it s like. Frankly, what I ve come to describe as the Internet fundraising left Common Dreams, TruthOut, and all the rest of that stuff .
Me too. Yeah. But I think the proliferation of that domain, no pun intended, has exacerbated this problem. Because there is always a crisis. There is always something thats about to happen. I think, frankly, a lot of the demoralization and the fretting that followed in the wake of the UAWs defeat in the Tennessee plant was the product of expectations that had been unreasonably stoked in advance. This was going to be the thing that reinvigorates the labor movement. It would be like the CIO going into the South. It would be like the Flint sit-down strike. It was a 1500 member bargaining unit in a rabidly anti-union state for Gods sake. So you would expect that the greater likelihood would be to lose, right? That s what s happened.
I think there is a good reason and a bad reason. Well, no. Theres a nice reason and an ugly reason. The nice reason is that people see how desperate the circumstances are and they feel a sense of urgency and they want to have something happen that can begin to show signs of turning the tide. And when somebody says, You know, we didn t get into this overnight. We re not going to get out of this overnight, then people start to yell at them for being insensitive to the suffering and the urgency. The other side of the coin by that reasoning is they don t want to do the organizing or they can t figure out how to do it or their sense of how political change is made is so underdeveloped that they can t conceptualize a strategic approach to politics. So its like the bearing witness stuff basically.
Yes. Exactly. For some as well its the expression of an earnest but nave, or too self-centered, inclination to stand publicly against injustice.
I think thats corrosive in another way as well. Yes it s true that any fool with a computer and internet access can call himself or herself a blogger. But to the extent that people actually see the blogosphere as kind of like the audition hall or the minor leagues for getting onto MSNBC, then it encourages a lot of individual posturing, the conceptual equivalent of ADHD, hyperbolic crap. And you re right. The answer is, no, you can t have a movement of just commentators. But there s so much of that back and forth, so much of it, and it just seems to me like noise, the great bulk of it. Because it comes along with a sense and I think this is also an artifact of the larger condition of demobilization and defeat. But the notion that being on the Left means being seriously well-informed about everything that s going on with the world, every travesty, and tragedy, outrage and victory. So I m sure there are a lot of people around now demanding that we do something about Ukraine. Like, what the fuck can we do about Ukraine? There s nothing. The only thing we could do is something bad which would be to join the chorus for the U.S. to invade.
AR: Im telling you. The last time I actually talked to Chris Hitchens we got in an argument about this at a bar on Dupont Circle. It was during the Iraq War and I kind of stopped him in his tracks, which didnt happen often, I said to him, There s no place in the world that s been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne, not even Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Its horrible. I used to work down there. Although my son, who was actually born there when I was working there, pointed out to me that it was the 82nd that JFK sent to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962 to quell the riot after James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, where among other things they confiscated the arsenal from cheerleader Trent Lotts frat house. So thats the one place in the world that has been made better by the presence of the 82nd Airborne.
It goes back to the disparity thing. The Democrats have been very good in pursuit of the goal of reducing racial and gender disparities, which is a good thing. But it is as a small wheel, within the big wheel of pursuit of an economic policy that is all about regressive upward transfer.
Well, there you go. (laughs)
That theyve signed onto the upward transfer?
Well they certainly havent done anything to stop it. Look, stuff like this the Transpacific Partnership, financial sector deregulation, the transfer of subsidies from poor people to employers of low-wage labor.
Well, the same thing with Obama. Heres the rub, too. It s one thing to talk about inequality. Most people who are not on the Fox list will at least nod and say, yeah, inequality, tut tut. But then the question becomes: what approaches do we take for combating inequality? And that s where you look at stuff like cultivation of petty entrepreneurship, human capital tales, breaking teachers unions and destroying the public schools to make them better.
No, they havent backfired. I mean, they wouldn t produce other than what they produced anyway. That s what s creepy about it. There is an open question as to how genuine they are in the belief that these market-based approachesthat are, at best, an attempt to dip the ocean with a thimble basicallycan produce anythingand to whatever extent that s cynical. It s a tough call. My father used to always say that ideology in one sense is the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you like to think you hold with what advances your material interest. Then he would say something like, I ll bet you that God has paid off so well for Billy Graham that he probably even believes in Him by now.
So there is an element of true belief there. For instance, I believe that Obama truly believes that this kind of self-help twaddle that he talks is a way to combat inequality. I also believe that he believes, in his heart of hearts, that public schools are for losers and that what you got to do is identify the bright kids from the ghetto and get them into the Lab School or the Lab School equivalent. So in the ideological frame of reference that the dominant elites within the Democratic party operate now, this is the element that defines the center of gravity of political liberalism and also sort of has captured the imagination of those who want to think of themselves as being on the left. They, often enough, will invoke the same general principles at a high level of abstraction that we associate with the Democratic Party and its history back to FDR. But the content that they load into those lofty symbols is neoliberal and reinforces the logic of a regressive transfer. If you cut public services and privatize and outsource, that hurts people at the bottom half of the income queue, or the bottom two-thirds of the income queue. Theres no way around that. You can only talk about equality and support that kind of agenda if you are fully committed to a neoliberal understanding of an equality of opportunity.
They like their workers when theyre brown and really abject and getting the shit beaten out of them but they don t like them when they try to work through institutions to build power for themselves as a class. That s one way to put it.
Thats who I m talking about too. That s exactly who I m talking about. It s a few things. One of them is the cult of the most oppressed that I mentioned a while back. And as my dad used to say, If oppression conferred heightened political consciousness there would be a People s Republic of Mississippi. And the fact is all that oppression confers is oppression really. There s that which connects with the cargo cult aspect that kind of fills the whole of
Well, yeah in the sense that, Ill tell you what happens. There s a conflation of the moral imperative and the strategic imperative. In fact, it s not even conflation, it s substitution of moral imperative for a strategic imperative.
Exactly. In a way, from an organizing standpoint, that often means that youre stacking the deck against yourself or picking, choosing, to focus on the populations that have the least in the way of resources, the least in the way of institutional capacity. Take a group like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. They re really good organizers with good, sharp politics doing that work, and they understand that those workers are so weak in their market position that they can t assert power on their own against the owners. They re dependent on mobilizing middle-class consumers to bring pressure on the fast-food companies and supermarket chains to get the chains to get the growers to sign the accord. It s a clever approach for marginally, or maybe more than marginally, improving the conditions of these highly exploited workers. But you can t generalize from that to a strategy for political change.
Well, theyve won some.
No, thats right. Look, I ve spent upwards of 15 years working in an effort to build an independent political party that s anchored in the labor movement. I wouldn t say that a political party is the model. But I think that what s got to happen is and this may sound like doubletalk, but trust me, I m not a University of Chicago political theorist just as a revitalizing trade union movement is essential for a grounding of a real left, a serious left is important for revitalizing the labor movement. There are a lot of leftists with serious politics in responsible positions in the labor movement. I don t just mean the rank and file fetishist guys. I mean people who are core leaders. And I m not talking necessarily about internationals, but at the district level. Big locals, and there are a lot of them around the country, who function in something like that old CIO social movement unionism capacity around the country now. . . . So there s stuff like that going on.
Well, no, he wasnt. He said he was. I had no illusions nor did anybody I know in the labor movement have any illusions that that was going to last. And it functioned kind of cynically, to be honest, as part of what union activists could point to to build a turnout that elected him and that also meant there was a tendency to exaggerate the significance of the E[mployee] F[ree] C[hoice] A[ct]. I mean, how many things did you read that touted it as the most important piece of labor legislation since the Wagner Act?
Yeah, and its certainly much better to have card check than not to have it. But the problems that confront the labor movement aren t that simple. That would help around the edges but there are structural problems too, not the least of which is that the Democratic party said to go punt and treats the trade unions like a 3 a.m. booty call. They come by when they need the money
I wonder. Yeah. I wonder.
Thomas Frank’s most recent book is “Pity the Billionaire.” He is also the author of “One Market Under God” and the founding editor of “The Baffler” magazine.