Why the Left Needs an Economic Justice Agenda Now

[The text is a slight revision of remarks given to the annual convention of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City local on Oct. 13, 2007 at Judson Memorial Church.]

Addressing a rally at the old Madison Square Garden at the tail end of his first presidential re-election campaign, Franklin Roosevelt caught the ethic of what I’ll call the enlightened wing of the ruling class — even if that wing was just Franklin and Eleanor.

Standing in front of 18,000 screaming supporters, including a solid contingent of members of the newly formed American Labor Party — formed precisely to boost Roosevelt in New York State and take votes away from socialist Norman Thomas –FDR also gave them a little of the red meat they were hoping for.

"We had to struggle with the enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering," Roosevelt said about his first term in office. "They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob."

Now those of us who are socialists would take exception to FDR’s casual treatment of "the mob," not to mention his bristling at "class antagonisms." After the work of Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude and Jesse Lemisch and other modern left historians and scholars of crowds and collective behavior, we don’t conflate "the mob" or "class struggle" with witless, disaggregated actors united only by demagogues. Working class self-activity always looks like frenetic mob action to those with something to lose.

But FDR certainly got the "government by organized money" part right. It’s not the whole of a socialist critique, but it’s a good start. It certainly situates the role of democratic socialists, at least in the short run, as unifiers in challenging and reversing the control of government by organized money.

That’s the political context in which DSA’s Economic Justice Agenda (pdf | Powerpoint) was written and which it addresses.

It’s a historical context in which an unremitting corporate offensive beat down people for more than three decades. It’s a politics of cuts in social spending, of deregulation and privatization, of tax relief for the rich and wars on unions.

It’s what the Agenda calls "a conscious government policy of redistributing income and wealth and power upward." It’s a dogmatic defense of "free trade" but not of fair trade or labor rights, either at home or abroad. It justifies a war that would turn Iraq into a gusher for U.S. oil interests and a growing private military that would secure those interests.

It’s the mammoth cost of growing and maintaining an empire that is contributing, as the Agenda argues, "to the demise of social and economic democracy at home."

If the left is to be faulted in the U.S. for failing to organize effectively against the corporate offensive, at least two reasons stand out: its estrangement from electoral politics and its single-issue focus. Worse, the left in the U.S. — certainly the radical left that claims it understands class and racial antagonisms — does not follow-up and do what parties on the left in Europe, Canada and much of Latin America do: advocate for and create state policies that guarantee labor rights; militate for raising government revenues through progressive forms of taxation; and use those revenues to fund high-quality universal public goods. These neglected things include free public education from pre-K through graduate school, job creation, long-term unemployment insurance and retiree benefits, accessible low- or no-cost health care, affordable housing, and quality child and senior care.

To a large degree, the American radical left handed over defense of the welfare state to others, leaving liberals to fight a rear-guard, defensive action, when even liberals knew more than defensive action was needed. The framers of Social Security, for example, called their effort a first step. With the exception of Medicare in the 1960s, we’re still stuck in that first baby step.

It’s ironic. Corporate America is electorally oriented, multi-issue and relatively cohesive. Its ideological face is neoliberalism and it has an enabling agenda. Our movements instead are protest-oriented, single-issue and relatively diffuse, even as a unified neoliberal politics dominates the national and state Democratic Parties. In fact, the race to the bottom is being waged by a lot of Democrats as vigorously as by Republicans.

So if individual protest regarding single issues is a problem, the solution ought to be a common agenda, or at least broad social policy points all the progressive movements can agree on. Neoliberalism frames corporate America’s common agenda. Where is ours?

The DSA Economic Justice Agenda is one stab at cementing a common agenda for the other America, for the rest of us, particularly for the social movements DSA works in and seeks to build. It’s not a wish list, but a focused call to defend and reinforce the four pillars on which any just economic policy must be built.

These are: 1. Progressive taxation and military-spending cuts to provide necessary public revenue. 2. Universal social insurance programs and high-quality public goods. 3. Powerful, democratic labor movements and other social movements capable of achieving equity in the labor market. 4. Global institutions that advance labor and human rights and provide for a sustainable environment.

The logic of the Agenda lies in its recognizing that the social movements need to have a common legislative program that redresses the structural inequality that corporate power has instituted over the past three decades.

Let me be clear. The program, we are at pains to explain, is NOT a manifesto. It is NOT a laundry list. It is NOT a "transitional program" for a pre-revolutionary situation or even a "radical reform program." It is surely NOT a "mouse that roared" effort to project one group (or even the entire radical Left as presently constituted) as major players, and it is definitely not set in stone.

Neither is it meant as a repudiation of direct-action and other movement tactics in favor of creating a clean electoral machine. It’s definitely not a call for specially oppressed groups and their allies to abandon their own necessary struggles or a replacement for a systematic critique of ravening global capital.

What it IS is an effort to get the social movements to read from the same electoral and legislative text, one that could empower people through winning classwide political reforms.

As the Agenda states, and at the risk of teaching a catechism: "It is a work in progress, an agenda for Congress that DSA hopes will begin a broad discussion of how politically to restore progressive taxation, defend and expand high-quality public provision and social insurance; empower working people in the labor market; create universal programs that are genuinely universal and that address racial, ethnic and gender disparities; and that create a global economy that raises global living and human-rights standards rather than debasing them."

In a post-Hurricane Katrina world, we have at least a peephole of opportunity to defeat corporate marauding and end "government by organized money."

How to implement it? Certainly at this point, it looks all but certain that the Democratic candidate will be someone with a neoliberal agenda whom Wall Street is already embracing. What this means for the democratic left is that there will likely be no role for socialists in the presidential campaign, except maybe as enfeebled promoters of a protest vote. And not much more for liberals, except as spear carriers. But there is a pre-election role; it’s in local and state races. What programs and policies do we want congressional and local candidates to campaign on and that social movements can reasonably agree on? That’s what the agenda outlines.

And after the November 2008 elections, the Agenda can be the basis for forming a real alternative to neoliberalism.

It’s also, let me underscore, an effort to function in coalition. Activists are always free to work on local issues and set their own priorities, but at least those issues and priorities should be couched in an effort to gain allies around broad demands on the state, along with legislative and policy remedies.

Is the DSA Economic Justice Agenda the way to cut the Gordian knot of capitalist hegemony? It’s nothing so romantic, but it’s a start. By uniting behind a program that restores faith in democratic government, re-institutes progressive taxation, defends and extends goods and social insurance and builds just global institutions, democratic forces CAN get off the defensive. They — we — can proactively curb the power of corporate elites and reverse corporate globalization’s heightening of inequalities to levels unseen since the fall of Rome.

Let me close with one thought. In Iraq, oil workers in unions that were illegal under Saddam and now function under the U.S. occupation’s gun are resisting privatization of unexplored oil fields — fields that hold the vast majority of all Iraqi oil deposits. If they are doing that, facing down U.S. bullets on one side and sectarian violence on the other, taking on neoliberalism where it’s encrusted with blood and armed to the teeth, surely we can follow their example.

Besides, as commentator Joe Conason writes about the far Right’s war on the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, their squeals — repeated by the president — that such programs represent oncoming "socialism," has "lost its juju," its fetish quality in warding off evil. If Conason is correct that the Right’s bleating about the advancing "socialist evil" won’t work any more, then, as they say in Cajun Louisiana, before and after Katrina, "Laissez le bon temps roulez."

"Let the good times roll."


Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor writer, an editor of New Politics magazine and one of the two principal authors of the draft  DSA Economic Justice Agenda. Copies of the Agenda are available at www.dsausa.org. (pdf | Powerpoint)


Leave a comment