Out of prudence, I’ve tried to suppress some of my enthusiasm for the Chicago Teachers Union strike; the struggle for social justice is an arduous, grinding one, and failure often characterizes it. My Twitter feed illustrates how well that attempt at equanimity is going.

Strikes have become quite rare. Last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted just 19 “major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers.” That’s actually a slight uptick from 2009, when there were five. Five! Here’s some context for those measly numbers: In 1979, shortly before the Volcker-induced “long deep recession that would empty factories and break unions in the US,” there were 235 major stoppages. That year also marked the last time more than a million workers, in the aggregate, were involved in work stoppages. My how times have changed.

The teacher’s strike counterpoises itself to this trend of increasingly cowed workers. And it comes at a most opportune time, falling one week before the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. The felicitous confluence will display two of the most important movement “streams” of the democratic left, could reinvigorate the extra-electoral left, and may even impact the November election.

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Why I don’t like charity

Alright, I’ll cop to a little hyperbole there.

I view charity as inherently insufficient. By itself, that doesn’t make it worthy of scorn, especially when so many millions are suffering under an unjust economic system that necessitates it. Yet as fat-cat banker/ Democrat Richard Wolf’s appearance on Sunday’s Up w/ Chris Hayes reminded me (h/t Elias Isquith), the rhetoric of charity is routinely used to deflect criticism, absolve guilt, and mask systemic injustice.

Wolf plays the exculpatory game well: He invokes “philanthropy,” thus ridding Wall Street of any responsibility for the inequities and abject poverty the financial industry has wrought. Pacify the plebeians with a few dollars here and there and, in the process, erode democratic sovereignty. Private interests can defray the costs of, say, upgrading technology at the local public school, but the beneficiaries of philanthropists’ largesse are then beholden. The locus of power has been shifted from citizens and their elected representatives to corporations and affluent donors.Wolf’s charity defense carries over into conventional politics, as he calls for “shared sacrifice” and raising taxes on the wealthy. Again, this is supposed to mollify us, to silence our cries for economic justice. We’ll continue ruling the country, Wolf is effectively saying—but don’t worry, we’ll throw you some scraps.

Elias labels this center-left persuasion “Third Way”; pity-charity liberalism is an alternate adjective. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the de facto governing philosophy of the Democratic Party. Hayes does a good job pinpointing the principal reason (rising inequality, increased pecuniary reliance on finance industry) for the shift, querying in one segment whether Democrats can represent both labor and capital. The answer, of course, is no—the two are irreconcilably opposed. The most capital can do is offer charity, because transforming social and economic relations, such that the need for charity is obviated, would entail negating the power of capital itself.

The truth is, magnanimity is no substitute for autonomy, for agency. Charity reifies hierarchy. It robs people of their dignity. Democratic citizens are reduced to vassals and supplicants. What’s the matter with noblesse oblige? The existence of nobility.

I’m currently reading Barbara Ransby’s fantastic biography of the great Ella Baker. The oft-overlooked civil rights organizer, intellectual, and activist advanced a different model of social relations, one that repudiated the reliance on mere charity, elite “beneficence” toward the benighted, or saviors from on high. She wanted poor people, oppressed people, to receive more than a temporary handout. She wanted them to have the power to collectively change their circumstance.

It’s this kind of radical democracy that threatens the power of people like Wolf—threatens them in a way that charity absolutely does not.

Radical proposal(s) of the day

Christopher Lasch, for all his antediluvian tendencies, was right when he wrote, “The difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth itself needs to be limited. When money talks, everybody is condemned to listen.”

This was hardly a novel suggestion on Lasch’s part—Louis Brandeis remarked a century ago that for democracies, the choice was between maintaining its existence and allowing great concentrations of wealth to fester—but it’s nearly absent from center-left discourse. Liberals justifiably assail the 1 percent for enriching itself through the political process, then typically point to Citizens United and a broken campaign finance system as the culprits. Overturn Citizens United, legislatively limit the “power of big money,” and, if they’re feeling really ambitious, constitutionally “establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

This is all well-intentioned, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic. But I think this kind of approach gets it backwards. Just as reconstructed liberals have come to favor after-tax, at-the-margins redistribution, so too are their money-in-politics proposals informed by ex post facto logic. In both cases, it’s too late. Money adapts, it seeps through the cracks. And when you try to limit its political influence, you bump into legitimate First Amendment concerns. Above all, liberals’ preferred palliatives would leave the root problem—prodigious disparities in wealth and power—virtually untouched.

Democracies which are also class societies are in a perpetual balancing act: Class inequalities replicate themselves in the political system, imperiling fundamental democratic principles. Wealthy donors have an outsized influence on political campaigns, of course, but they also underwrite policy organizations, advocacy groups, and think tanks that shape public policy. Outside the conventional political process, wealthy individuals and large corporations make enormous decisions that impact thousands, if not millions of lives—plant closings, investment decisions, etc.—that make a mockery of self-determination. The “lesser” is subject to the caprice and the preferences of the “better.” When most American workers enter the workplace, they’re denied not only negative liberty, but positive liberty, stripped of free speech and due process protections. Nevermind the proletarian revolution—the bourgeois revolution hasn’t even been consummated!

Class power can be reduced through equality-enhancing policies and the existence of strong popular organizations such as unions, but it’s always lurking around the corner, ready to vitiate the democratic promise of collective self-governance between equals. In the United States, equality-augmenting policies are few and far between. Labor unions, on the whole, have become a conjoined arm of the Democratic Party, docile, easily placated, inert. They’re still arguably the largest progressive force in American politics, but they lack the rank-and-file membership and chutzpah to really counterbalance the 1 percent. So we’re stuck in a class society with little to weaken the tie between political and economic inequality.

One antidote to this is simple: Redistribute wealth, thus constraining its influence. No, not some tepid, Buffet Rule-style corrective. The status quo calls for massive shifts from the fabulously wealthy to everyone else (especially the poor). By itself, this would inaugurate a society less riven by class, dispersing power from the few to the many. The solution must go beyond that, however. Repeal Taft-Hartley and overhaul labor law to make it more amenable to unionization and the establishment of workplace democracy. À la the War on Poverty’s Community Action Programs, fund community organizations that foster participation and nurture grassroots democracy. Tom Wolfe satirized these programs to great effect in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” but they were actually quite successful. They were axed because they effectively challenged existing power structures, not because of their inadequacies. In sum, diffuse power, or counterbalance it.

If this radical agenda were to be seriously debated, the ululations of the elite would be positively ear-splitting, a capital strike a distinct possibility. But if we wish to even approximate the political equality on which our system is avowedly based, that stuff’s pretty unavoidable, isn’t it?

Democracy: A Journal of (Bad) Ideas

I’m glad to see a left-ish journal discussing citizenship, but I can’t find a lot to agree with here:

We at Democracy, while not for a second denying the need for constant vigilance with regard to rights, have long felt that progressives frankly don’t care enough about the other side of citizenship: responsibility. Here, we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility. What it means to be a true and good and productive citizen. The obligations that come along with rights. These obligations can sound quaint and as fusty as something delivered by the Wells Fargo Wagon. But they’re real: the need to contribute to one’s community and country; to understand that one’s rights must exist in balance with other prerogatives; to commit oneself to the idea that political disputes should be resolved more or less amicably; to pledge loyalty to the ideals of reasoned debate, majority rule, protections of minority rights, and so on.

This—not just the securing of a right—is citizenship, and the sad record tells us that it just isn’t very important to progressives today. In stark contrast to the vast constellation of rights-based outfits, very few groups are organized around citizenship, and very little money is spent fostering it. The rights-obligations scales are wildly out of balance, and have been for decades.

In my experience, this kind of dour, Character Counts-style citizenship is overemphasized—to the detriment of advancing conceptions that view citizenship as a form of empowerment. Democracy, at its core, is a radical notion: An affirmation of each person’s humanity and right to self-determination, equality is a sin qua non, profound power imbalances calamitous. (This is why democracy’s marriage with capitalism is so precarious, as neoliberal globalization has laid bare. The two privilege different sets of rights and, left unchecked, capitalism has an insatiable appetite for commodification.) Under democracy, citizens are agents of their collective destiny, able to tame, unleash, and canalize forces that would otherwise be beyond their control. And the marginalized and historically oppressed have just as much right to govern; if democracy is deepened, they’ll become full citizens, not supplicants.

That’s a heck of a lot more meaningful than invoking obligation—especially at a time when democratic equality is in retreat.

Equality, social movements, and assimilationism

I’m in the midst of rereading Chris Hayes’ excellent book Twilight of the Elites (review still forthcoming—promise) and wanted to highlight this pregnant passage:

“The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress—gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside meritocracy’s purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.”

This is a really perceptive point. Put another way, the struggles which have been successful have been assimilationist, rather than transformative, in nature. Civil rights activists vanquished Jim Crow, but couldn’t occasion economic democracy. Racial minorities may appear in corporate commercials with greater frequency, but they’re still disproportionately poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. In the same vein, it’s telling that when Hayes speaks of “gay rights,” he’s alluding to the acceptance of gays into mainstream America. This is the degree to which more radical demands, groups, and tactics in the queer community have been subordinated in favor of the inclusionary fight for, most prominently, marriage equality. Under this strategy, class fissures need not be remedied, and the interests of  the middle and upper class win out. (Taking this logic to the extreme, mainstream groups like the Human Rights Campaign have constructed an alarmingly expansive ally umbrella, and expediently thrown transgender people under the bus.)

One can envision a society, I think, in which racism, sexism, and homophobia have all been quashed, yet profound economic and political inequities fester. Witness the hypertrophied growth in income inequality over the past 30 years, alongside increasing (if insufficient) acceptance of gays, lesbians, and racial and ethnic minorities. The two can coexist quite comfortably if the raison d’etre of activism is inclusion; the new cosmopolitan elite that Hayes so adeptly skewers isn’t averse to the assimilationist agenda.

I write this all, of course, as a straight, cis white male. It would be preposterous and offensive for me to pooh-pooh the enormous accomplishments of the gay rights and civil rights movements. But it’s certainly sobering to an egalitarian like me, who wants to see more tectonic shifts toward equality and democracy, to look at the wins/ losses column.

There’s much work to be done.

Paul Ryan and the politics of the poor

Over at In These Times, Bhaskar Sunkara argues Ryan’s entrance into the presidential race could redound to the benefit of the left:

The injection of a right-wing ideologue in Paul Ryan should, logically, move the race rightward. But since his stances are so extreme, calling for exploding Medicare and deeper cuts into the rest of the social safety net, the Obama campaign has incentive to highlight Ryan’s radical stances on these popular programs.

The Medicare line is especially important in swing states with lots of seniors, like Florida. It’s one of the reasons why Democrats have been keen to help elevate Ryan to national prominence, against the wishes of key House Republicans. The starkness of Ryan’s ideology—the Ayn Rand-quoting doesn’t help—has opened him up to charges that he doesn’t care about anyone but the super-rich.

And Josh Eidelson, writing at Jacobin on the ongoing welfare brouhaha, smartly identifies the Obama campaign’s defuse-by-triangulation strategy:

In the hours after the Romney camp debuted an ad hitting Obama on welfare reform, liberal commentators made a few important points: The ad’s allegation – that Obama had gutted “welfare reform” – was false, and undeserving of “he said, she said.”  Romney’s position – that state waivers betrayed the law – clashed with his prior stance as Governor.  And Romney’s message appealed to the same resentments that infused and instigated the 90’s welfare debates.

What’s gone nearly unnoticed is the zeal with which the Obama campaign stoked the same resentments in its pushback.  A campaign statement charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”  Only Obama can protect us from a Republican regime of hand-outs and Oprah-style free cars for the undeserving poor.

Don’t parry Romney’s rhetorical attack on welfare beneficiaries with a forthright defense of their right to live a dignified existence, of our obligation to our fellow citizens, employed or not. Obama is cut from the same New Democrat cloth as Clinton, so he wouldn’t deign to make the welfare-as-freedom-enhancer argument. I suspect, however, that political calculations are even more responsible for Obama’s stance than deep-seeded opposition to welfare laxity. As Eidelson notes, Obama– he of the erstwhile “most liberal senator” designation— was once incredulous of Clinton’s welfare law. And now? The former skeptic casts himself as Clinton’s (miserly) successor. In another rebuttal ad, he hits Romney for cosseting public aid recipients, maligning the former Massachusetts governor as “flexible on welfare.”

Man I love Democrats.

The Ryan plan and, to a lesser extent, the tapping of the Wisconsin reactionary are politically perilous because of whom they target. It’s one thing to block grant Medicaid, quite another to voucherize Medicare; senior citizens are a more powerful constituency than poor people. The poor’s impotence in American politics is  so pronounced, in fact, that calling them a constituency is almost deceptive, implying they’ve accrued at least a modicum of power. Save for a handful of particularly impoverished congressional districts (and well-organized communities), that’s hardly the case. (The middle-class has less sway than one might expect, too.) This is partially due to the inequities inherent in capitalism. The economic inequality that characterizes class societies ineluctably bleeds into the political arena, undermining, to varying degrees, democratic values like political equality and citizen agency. Strict campaign finance laws might mitigate this corrosion, but the underlying distribution of resources and power is the real determining force at work. Walls are ineffective if they’re built on a faulty foundation.

At times, against Sisyphean odds, poor people have challenged this power asymmetry, courageously agitating and enumerating their demands and critiques. The welfare rights movement of the late 1960s and early 70s represented the last large-scale efflorescence of this kind. Indigent activists mobilized against dehumanizing bureaucracies, prudish restrictions, and meager benefits. Boasting 20 to 30,000 card-carrying members and 540 local chapters, the most prominent movement group, the National Welfare Rights Organization, was the “largest national organization of poor people in the history of the United States.” Since its demise, the voting public has taken a harsh turn against public aid beneficiaries, the upshot of which has been an even more austere welfare regime.

The juxtaposition of the quotes above was intentional because again, I think Obama, Romney, and Ryan all correctly gauge the politics of austerity. They know that, even though Medicaid would be subject to deeper cuts under Ryan’s “Roadmap” (and sooner!), the bulk of attention is paid to the Medicare reforms it proposes. They know that that’s why the Ryan pick was viewed as risky in some corners, as would be an Obama viewed as soft on welfare. And, above all, they know the real danger in American politics is being seen as too concerned with the plight of the poor.

A partial mea culpa

Over the past few months, as a result of Occupy, my lack of awareness of leftist thinkers, and my exposure to Corey Robin’s fantastic The Reactionary Mind, I’ve become decidedly less enamored with that veritable hobby horse of mine, left-libertarian coalition building. So think of this as a partial mea culpa, a qualified repudiation of my earlier expositions.

To understand my attraction to libertarianism—and it was an attraction, even if I was just pushing for a short-term alliance—you first have to understand my relationship with the Left. While I fancied myself a genuine man of the left, happy to attract the scorn of  conservative interlocutors, I was essentially just a Bernie Sanders-style liberal Democrat. More importantly, my actual acquaintance with leftists thinkers was, to put it charitably, minimal. This probably had something to do with the left’s emaciation and general invisibility.

A compounding cause was being ensconced in the world of mainstream political journalism. I was the politics reporter for my college newspaper for several semesters and covered the Iowa Caucus, the Iowa Legislature, and the 2008 presidential election, among other things. I had absorbed the circumscribed version of political discourse most mainstream journalists advance (and, disgustingly, congratulated myself for being “in the know”—i.e., parroting conventional wisdom). Accordingly, even as a political junkie with liberal persuasions, I rarely read anything to the left of The Nation; these publications and thinkers had negligible political purchase, so I all but disregarded them.

As a result, my initial foray into libertarian works surprised me. I was surprised to find cogent critiques of liberal governance; I was especially drawn to disquisitions on the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and the twin scourges of concentrated power and corporatism. Furthermore, I appreciated libertarians’ unwavering commitment to civil liberties and anti-militarism, especially in light of widespread liberal Democratic apologism for Obama’s capitulations. In short, I had become sympathetic to (without fully embracing, mind you) a strain on the American right, ignorant that the left had superior critiques of liberal foibles—without the corresponding contempt for democracy.

Then Occupy came onto the scene. It was my first experience of an enlivened, confident left. This beautiful upsurge radicalized me and opened my eyes to alternatives: both of ways to order society and to think about the problems of liberalism—this time from a leftist, anti-capitalist perspective. It also prompted me to take the long view of the struggle for freedom, equality, and self-determination. I became convinced that expending too much energy on short-term, trans-ideological coalitions can militate against the longer term, Gramsican goal of uprooting the prevailing neoliberal capitalist ideology. Myopic pragmatism can undermine the long-term project of the egalitarian left.

Which brings me to Robin’s work. Robin’s principal assertion is that the right is animated by an opposition to the extension and deepening of democracy. Proponents of this protean ideology—traditionally, conservatives—adopt transitory political stances, but their abiding interest is in defending privilege, elite rule, and hierarchy, of quelling calls from below for the “lower orders” to govern their own affairs. The “lower orders” are mutable and historically contingent; the reactionary’s opposition to the assertion of their agency is static.

Robin’s claim has been met with cries of calumny, but his thesis shouldn’t be controversial: Correctly perceiving its embedded egalitarianism, the right is hostile to democracy. The left would be wise to sharpen its underlying division with the right, elevating democracy and self-governance to its rightful place in the leftist constellation of principles. (The left and center-left have a history of subordinating democracy to ostensibly more important objectives and principles. Dispensing with democracy is rarely prudent or normatively desirable.) With democracy as a reference point, a new dividing line, libertarians could no longer “transcend the left-right spectrum”; they would be ineluctably arrayed against the long-term project of democratizing undemocratic spheres and subverting domination and hierarchy.

I won’t retract all I’ve written on left-libertarian coalitions. The drug war needs to meet its demise, civil liberties need to be restored, and the imperialist march needs to be halted. Aligning on these ends could quicken their realization. But time and energy is finite.

And as for a more ambitious, multi-issue coalition, my own experience calls its plausibility into question: A resurgent left, in part,  prompted me to rethink my once-strident support for left-libertarian coalitions. At the end of the day, maybe that’s the folly of cross-spectrum alliance building: Once one camp senses its electoral or political power growing, it quickly reneges on its end of the deal, (understandably) opting for purity over pragmatism.

A lesson from the Tea Party?

Probably to the chagrin of my former political science professors, I often forget that movements can have a discernible effect on election results without actually shifting the electorate to the right or left.

That’s because the demographic and ideological composition of those who show up to the polls matters a whole bunch. Turnout isn’t static, and voters decide elections, not electorates. This is pretty rudimentary stuff—GOTV—but I trust I’m not the only observer of the political scene who forgets it.

What jogged my memory is Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s book on the Tea Party, the first scholarly book-length treatment of the subject. It’s a good book, even if there are few ground-breaking revelations (that is, unless you bought the left’s Tea Party Astroturf narrative). Writing on the 2010 mid-term election, Skocpol and Williamson argue: “It might be a coincidence that Tea Party supporters overlap with the older, white, middle-class Republicans who turned out enthusiastically and disproportionately in 2010, but probably not. … Tea Party grassroots participants were themselves highly motivated to vote in 2010, and they likely influenced other Republican and GOP-leaning voters, especially other older people like themselves.”

The Tea Party, visible and invigorated, helped conservative Republicans shake off their post-2008 ennui. While the Tea Party may have swayed some voters, strong turnout among Republican voting blocs and a poor environment for incumbent Democrats—moribund economy, mid-term election for the president’s party—was the principal reason the GOP picked up so many seats.

The question for my side is, how does the electoral stream of the democratic left increase turnout among demographic groups amenable to the left without merely buoying corporate Democrats?

What does the Wisconsin recall say about labor and the left?

A week later, I’m still not sure.

It signals the left’s etiolation, undoubtedly. There are all kinds of caveats and excuses one can summon to explain away the recall results—Barrett was a crappy candidate, Walker had an enormous financial advantage, a not insignificant chunk of voters were recall-averse no matter the target. But more than anything, the failure to recall was a failure of solidaristic politics. Too many voters accepted the fat-cat-public-employees canard, too many bought into the unions-as-interest-group frame. It was a failure on the left’s part, that is, to convincingly make the case for solidarity and workers’ rights. (It is worth remembering that the case can be made—Ohio citizens voted to repeal their anti-collective bargaining law.)

I’m less certain about the strategic takeaways for the future. Absent a radical shift in the labor movement, unions will keep straddling the electoral politics right and “fair economy” middle, to draw on the schema I recently laid out. (These distinct “streams” are already discernible and need limited hypothesizing. A successful left-wing social movement just requires each stream be robust in its on right.)

For his part, Doug Henwood has argued labor was stupid to canalize the vim and vigor of last year’s statehouse occupations into electoral politics.


“Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.”

It would be boneheaded for labor to completely extricate itself from electoral politics, but it certainly has to be smarter about it. Consider a union like the National Education Association, which not only endorsed Obama despite his corporate education reform agenda, but endorsed him nearly a year and a half before Election Day. If labor seeks electoral emasculation, if they want to be treated like servile apparatchiks, they just have to ape the NEA’s strategy. If unions’ electoral involvement has any utility, it has to be in dragging the Democrats to the left and advancing an expansive pro-worker agenda.

In this age of austerity, it’s also important for unions to tout the vital social goods their rank-and-file provides—even if they’re simultaneously inveighing against policies which threaten members’ interests. While the public is wrong to think of unions as just another interest group, unions often give them no reason to think otherwise. Unions can’t claim to be custodians of the public interest or indefatigable champions of social justice if they’re jealously defending their (ever-shrinking) territory or they’re lobbying for harsher sentencing laws.

A couple months back I was at postal workers union protest against mail delivery cutbacks and the shuttering of post offices. To be honest it was a bit insipid, bereft of even chanting. But there was at least an attempt to link the union’s more self-interested struggle against layoffs to the broader public good: Keep universal service; unions built the middle class; stop the attack on public services.

They understood, at least implicitly, that practicing parochialism is a recipe for self-marginalization.

Blogging “Twilight of the Elites”

I’m fortunate enough to have obtained an advance copy of Chris Hayes’ new book, Twilight of the Elites– not due to my perquisites as a little-read blogger, but the serendipity of one of my best friends.

As I make my way through the book over the next few days, I’ll be recording some of my preliminary thoughts here. I’ve been a fan of Hayes for several years now (dude even makes cable news edifying!), so I’m quite excited.

A teaser:

“[T]he core experience of the last decade isn’t just political dysfunction. It’s something much deeper and more existentially disruptive: the near total failure of each pillar institution of our society. The financial crisis and the grinding, prolonged economic immiseration it has precipitated are just the most recent instances of elite failure, the latest in an uninterrupted cascade of corruption and incompetence.”