After Bush What?


This essay explains the place of the "What's Next?" conversation in our overall goal of building greater progressive unity.

C. Why this matters! [full essay]

On the eve of his 80th birthday, Noam Chomsky is taking the time to sit down with all of us and reflect on the election and what comes next. More than a fundraiser or a thinking session with a great mind, this is also AN ORGANIZING MEETING: we plan to use this event to connect with people interested in the many campaigns and structured conversations that Mass Global Action and its many partners have been organizing but that may not be so well known. [*]

After Bush, What?

Many conversations about strategy are being held right now across the country. Not a day goes by without someone daring to imagine what to demand when… and if only the Democrats are returned to office. A two-prong model has emerged: if the Republicans take the White House, there is really the sense that all is lost; even Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky urge strategic voting against McCain/Palin. In the best case then, we go back to the business of eking out a majority. Whereas, if Democrats win, especially if they do so while expanding their presences in Congress, many see the doors opening for social movements to press for the everything they've "had" to previously repress. To be sure, there are counter-arguments along the lines, "If Obama wins, we'll be asked to go gently lest we embarrass the first African-American president." There is no simple answer or ready-made algorithm to choosing between standing for what we believe and exercising political discretion. These will be judgment calls based on our practical experience… informed by the fact that most of our issues are burning ones with very short fuses.

In the New England area, within the peace movement, numerous organized and spontaneous conversations are being held about pursuing a "majority agenda." These recognize the fact that the a majority of voters supports a single, payer health system, wants to promote green jobs, demands expanded rights at the workplace, opposes military intervention abroad, generally favors civil liberties and human rights protections, wants fairness for immigrants, recognizes the problems with "free" trade and so on.

It is not so much that people concerned about these issues favor one part of the ruling class over the other as much as it is them believing that there is a greater strategic opening when the Democrats are in power. Based on organizing many actions (mass demonstrations, protests, and campaigns), conversations (workshops, conferences, forums, meetings, intra-movement dialogs, etc.) and with these building a dense network of friends and communities, Mass Global Action will use this event with Noam Chomsky to help plug fellow progressives into these conversations.[*]

The meaning of 2008

Missed opportunities

The Nation magazine has rightly lamented the many moments that could have been used as learning opportunities but were squandered by the Democrats. In addition to the silent omnipresence of race in this campaign, serious conversations about free trade, environmental matters, migration, the changing place of the US in the world economy, and also the ground truths about the wars were largely avoided with the traditional "consensus" that has ruled since the Carter-Reagan years.

Despite the promising start on the environmental front with Al Gore's proposal for ten-year conversion from fossil fuels program, the whirring, "Drill, Baby Drill!" slogan has drowned out other approaches. Both parties greased the drills with dashes of the oxymoronic, "clean coal," radioactive, nuclear poison, and offshore drilling. These omissions are likely to hem in any progressive impulses in the next Administration unless powerful grassroots movements are able to break into or create future national conversations.

There are three interesting registers of the current campaign season and accompanying economic crisis that read like a 1970s text: race, class and the state.

I - Resilience of Race

Far from signaling a "declining significance of race," the electoral process to date demonstrates its enduring structuring role in American life. Even as the Democrats' presidential candidate soft-pedals the issue, forces both supporting and opposing him are largely defined by racial categories. These partially define their perspectives on the state and the taxes that finance it. Together all of these drive notions about the free market and enterprise.

Those strongly supportive of the Democrat are largely African American, other people of color or white folks who consider themselves progressive on racial issues. A majority of those opposing Obama have found a variety of code words or subterfuges for their opposition: experience, qualifications, religion, etc. Sometimes, even racial claims are used to hide other underlying racial claims. They're not opposed to him because he is African American, but because he is an "A-rab"[!]

Even the housing crisis--the most basic economic issue defining the election--has powerful racial dimensions: controlling for credit scores, African Americans and Latinos were several times more likely to receive sub-prime loans than whites [ see http://tinyurl.com/raceloans ]. The resulting foreclosures and depreciations have meant that African American families have lost nearly $200 billion over the last few years (according to our friends at United for a Fair Economy - see http://tinyurl.com/racetransfer ).

Obama's class-based rhetoric and even his "nationalism" [e.g. his incredibly over-polished 30 minute informercial entitled, "American Stories, American Solutions"] both seem carefully tailored to encompass these racial dimensions to the crisis without rendering the underlying phenomenon visible. His political genius has been to allow campaign politics to also be the pursuit of race by other means - previously the monopoly of the right.

II - Revival of the working class

Against the false consciousness of the Joe-the-Plumber icon, the Democrats, populist Republicans, the Obama campaign, and even liberal policy wonks like Paul Krugman have revived a notion exorcised from the academy and even many left organizations: the working class. Not only has the concept been articulated in those literal words by presidential candidates, but it is also used interchangeably with the words, "middle class."

This does not mark the new dawn of categorical clarity and transparency about social class relationships. Class has often been used in preference to identifying race-specific fault lines. Still the public and political recognition of class by mainstream political figures suggests the continued vitality of this left-wing analytic category as a means to identify unifying themes cutting across identity categories. If "working class" has a practical emotive value for desperate politicians seeking votes, why not also for those of us used to thinking about social class and what it may mean for social change?

The recognition that the "middle-class" is in fact part of the working class recasts the traditional way of thinking about class issues and offers a more comprehensive social change approach. Health-care advocacy, free public education at all levels, rebuilding the infrastructure (water, sewage, power, etc.) are all issues that require "working class" perspectives and organizing. At the organizational level, it demands that the unions' DC organizing go well beyond the Employee Free Choice Act and many organizations rethink the "single-issue" organizing frames that defines them.

III - State role in the economy

With Newt Gingrich, prime mover of the Republican's "Contract with America" in the Clinton era, last month praising Sweden's Social Democratic-led state intervention to stave off a national banking collapse in the 1990s, one can be forgiven for thinking that we have woken up in an alternative universe. Nonetheless, beyond welcoming increased regulation of the market, there is a sea change in attitudes toward the role of government in the United States. It was first seen in defeat of Bush's "ownership society" and social security-privatization agenda. More recently, the Deval Patrick campaign in Massachusetts held its ground on the role for the public sphere during public debates. Later he defended the idea of government by paraphrasing Barney Frank, "'Government' is the word we give to things we do together."

Of course, as old-fashioned lefties, most of us generally demand a much more expansive and much more democratic role for the state than traditional liberals. Over the last few years, economist Rick Wolff has been reminding us of the need to transcend the liberal-conservative cycles of more and less regulation. Suddenly, in light of the economic crisis, pragmatic capitalists and liberals are appealing the state for assistance and even regulation. Progressive responses have been modest, straying from the bailout framework with only nervous steps, demanding temporary ownership over banks and other drivers of investment.

Beyond the financial commanding heights of the capitalist economy, and despite even George W. Bush's explicit embrace of the need for global strategies, few (I can't think of any) progressive plans out of our DC-based think tanks have grasped the opportunity for a GLOBAL economic justice agenda. Interestingly, the call for a Global New Deal has been circulating in international social democratic circles around the ILO for at least 5 years now. Nowhere to be seen is a leading progressive actor with the resources, alacrity and short-term objective to address the opportunity created by a world seeking global economic coordination.

Adding it all up

Noam Chomsky's presentation will offer us a chance to bring these themes together as we think through meaningful global solutions to domestic and world-scale problems. Will this conversation lead inexorably to a rejection of the modest demands of our immediate defensive past in favor of an agenda that matches popular aspirations?

Specifically, will we question what a living wage means when everyone, even in the entitled middle-classes, feels desperately insecure and ready for a new economic architecture? Or will we still want to convert homeowners into tenants when even McCain is talking about support for people unable to pay their mortgages? The foregoing observations about durable racial inequalities, the re-emergence of class, and a positive role for the state suggest that we have to be more ambitious. If the doors are now open for serious conversations, we will have to do the on-the-ground organizing to demand progressive solutions. For the still disparate social movements and organizations, the necessary "internal" organizing for us to be become full partners challenging each other to do better and to coordinate agendas is urgent and needs to be placed on the front burner. That is the process to which this event contributes.

C. Why this matters! [cut-the-crap version]

(1) there is a crisis; (2) there are opportunities; (3) we need to be organized to take advantage of this; (4) we need a dialog within & between our movements to make this happen; (5) this event is part of that dialog.

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[For a list of some of these activities, see the events we have helped organize at: http://www.BostonDayOfAction.org, http://www.BostonHumanRights.org, http://www.NewEnglandUnited.org, http://www.encuentro5.org, and http://www.MassGlobalAction.org; specifically on the Majority Agenda Project, see quick-and-dirty compilation that we put together for the New England United Spring Conference, http://www.massglobalaction.org/home/crossmovement.htm]