Sunday, October 5, 2014

My own national book awards

The long list of National Book Award nominees for nonfiction for 2014 was released on September 17. It came to my attention when a friend on Facebook pointed out the limited diversity of the list--just one woman, and no people of color (more accurately, one, Anand Gopal).  But the lack of diversity is just one of the list's problems. If the major goal of non-fiction is to provide insight into important questions facing the larger society--certainly I think this is the goal--the list is almost a complete failure. Excluding Gopal's book, which sheds light on how Afghanis have experienced the American occupation of Afghanistan, I can't see how any of the books on the list (I admit I haven't read them) could qualify. Some of the list reads like a parody of current publishing cliches. There is neo-gilded age kitsch called "The Innovators." There is presidential hagiography, the main form of popular history in the US. Apparently we are moving on from Lincoln to FDR. If you pay any attention to these things, you will not be surprised that the words "at war" follow the president's name in the title. Another author has written a memoir apparently focused on her dysfunctional parents, not at all an overcrowded genre, and hailed as a breakthrough because it is in cartoon form ("the first cartoonist honored by the National Book Awards in the adult categories"). I would add, only a couple of decades after "Maus." A journalist travels around China in another title--I'm guessing he meets ambitious people who aren't too worried about the government, discovers there is a lot of corruption and pollution, and that inequality is growing. Three titles form a mini-treatise on the religious views of the nominating committee. "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic" sounds like pushback against Tea Party nonsense that postulates the founding fathers as fundamentalist Christians. But then "The Heathen School: A story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic" sounds somewhat sympathetic to Christian efforts to educate a multicultural cast of "heathens", demonstrating that the nominating committee is not rigidly anti-religion. And then E.O. Wilson's "The Meaning of Human Existence" offers a scientist's reflections on deep philosophical questions, showing that these sorts of meditations are not the monopoly of the religious. Rounding out the list are titles on Tennessee Williams and Paris under the German occupation seemingly plucked at random from a list of respectable sounding books published this year. What a dismal, unexceptional list. Excluding Gopal, efforts to engage with the major problems of our time are practically absent,  unless you want to believe the culture war between the religious and secular still constitutes the major dynamic.And the sad thing is this has been a great year for non-fiction works. I therefore offer the following list of books that should have been honored. It is not especially counterintuitive. A number of these books have gotten a fair share of attention. Two hit the bestseller list. This only raises more questions about the official list.(disclaimer--I haven't read all of the books below. I don't claim to agree with everything any of these authors say)

1. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century I wasn't able to find rules on the National Book Award's website. I certainly hope, for their sake, that the rules forbid authors based outside the US. How else to explain the absence of the unchallengeable non-fiction book of the year? Simultaneously a serious economic history, an endorsement of a populist prognosis that the rich seem to be getting almost continuously richer at the expense of everyone else, and a bestseller, Picketty played a key role in returning inequality to public debate, after it had receded with the demise of Occupy.

2. Gerald Horne, The Counter Revolution of 1776 Horne's depiction of the American colonialists as simultaneously obsessed with expanding slave society and terrified of the prospect of slave revolt is not easily shaken. His narrative culminates with a fresh approach to the American revolution, as a rebellion against the prospect of abolition.

3. Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge Perlstein's history of the US in the seventies generated unfounded charges of plagiarism. His real crime--chipping away at the halo around Ronald Reagan, the signal historiographical achievement of the right wing in the last thirty years.

4. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything A very timely intervention putting both questions about the role of the state and the question of capitalism on the climate change agenda. 

5. Simon Head, Mindless:Why Smarter Machines are Making Humans Dumber Largely neglected, perhaps because of its unfortunate subtitle. A serious examination of the transformation of the labor process by computer business systems, that also highlights how these systems migrated out from the military. A worthy successor to Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capitalism."


6. Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity A true story of slave rebellion that inspired fiction by Herman Melville provides a window into the relationship between slavery and capitalism.


7. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism  Now famous as a book The Economist declared was too hard on slaveholding whites, this also illuminates the relationship of slavery and capitalism. A big topic getting very belated attention is worth two nods on the list.


8. Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction That the Civil War presaged the total war of the twentieth century is a cliche; this book left me convinced that we should think of the wave of reactionary violence after the Civil War, ultimately successful in defeating the push for African American rights, as a precursor to the twentieth century reactionary terror in Spain, Indonesia, Chile, etc.


9. Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars Provides actual historical background that can be used to put the current attacks on teachers' unions and public schools in context.

10. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People's History of the United States Rather overdue telling of American history from the perspective of its victims. Hopefully this just released book will reopen a question that the American left has quietly abandoned.

11. Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City  Among other things, this ethnographer witnessed the police kill a man and falsify a report about it. Her subject--the relationship of young African American men to the justice system that torments rather than serves them--is crucial.


I could go on. There are many books being produced that develop insights into key historical and social questions of our time. These are books whose goal is not to score a few academic points, but to foster debate among a much broader public. Some of them have actually succeeded in doing so. I don't really understand the case for honoring the non-fiction on the long list of the National Book Awards as opposed to my list. Perhaps they have some other criteria. Maybe they have a more aestheticized understanding of non-fiction, in which what matters is the artfulness of the prose and the narrative structure. This sounds like a terrible idea to me. But even so, such a list probably wouldn't include celebrations of dot com entrepreneurs and presidents. Those books are not the next "In Cold Blood." Rather, the list seems to be saying "don't raise important questions. Keep producing grist for the NPR mill. We will honor you anyway." 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Gaza to Ferguson

One of the most heartening developments connected to the uprising in Ferguson has been connections made with the resistance in Gaza--connection made by people in Ferguson, in Gaza, and around the world. This connection reignites the internationalism of 2011--"Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall" but at a different level. Whereas the rebellion of the squares in 2011 was based on growing alarm among the highly educated that they no longer had a decent future (notwithstanding the huge differences between the political context in the Arab countries and the West), Ferguson/Gaza represents the revolt of those who have always been aware that they have no future.


The connection between Ferguson and Gaza has been made partly because of concrete manifestations, most notably the training of the police chief in Ferguson in Israel. Here I will describe three ways in which the two situations paralleled each other. First is the basic context. These are revolts of people who have basically been declared redundant, in the way of the prosperous people who believe they have every right to whatever they want. They are not first and foremost a proletariat in the marxist sense--unemployment is too high to use strikes as a primary weapon, nor do those who are employed occupy a particularly strategic place in production. This does not mean that they are not exploited--Ferguson is what it is partly because of the looting of the subprime era, and the conflict over Gaza is in part a conflict over control of resources. As well in Ferguson, part of the larger picture of policing is an effort by the city government to use motor vehicle fines to fund itself--in effect squeezing an impoverished population because more conventional revenue sources--taxes from property or business--are less and less viable. They are shunted to the margins, where the powerful hope they will remain quiescent. In return, they are offered virtually nothing. Whether one calls the places they are forced into occupied territories, slums, ghettos, refugee camps or prisons, at this point, there is little effort to dress them up in the bunting of consumerism or progress. Instead, the powerful basically believe they cannot make trouble, so there is hardly reason for the sort of elaborate work (and often dollars) needed to maintain hegemony. This situation, to be regarded as human trash, exploited sometimes, but often just pushed aside, is the first parallel between Gaza and Ferguson. And this helps clarify what just happened. In both places, this situation has been resisted. The invisible made themselves visible. And their foes were not able to put them back in their place.


This brings us to the second major parallel between Gaza and Ferguson. Basically, both Israel and the forces of order in Ferguson lost their respective battles. Israel visited horrific destruction on Gaza. Over 2,000 people were killed, thousands more maimed, tens of thousands left homeless. The economic infrastructure was destroyed. A high tech progrom was carried out, involving terrifying robo-calls to imminent victims of drones, and hateful messages scrawled on the walls of destroyed homes. But Hamas’ capacity to fire projectiles seems intact. The tunnels seem more menacing than they were perceived at the beginning of the conflict. Dozens of Israeli soldiers were killed, a small fraction of the Palestinian death toll, but too many for the Israeli public. And the effects on consciousness further afield--within Israel, in the West Bank, in the United States, and in the rest of the world--are largely opposite what the Israeli leadership hoped for, unless it has completely lost its mind (More about this below).

In Ferguson, it was the appearance of militarized police that catapulted this story onto the front pages. But it was also striking that the heavy handed show of overwhelming force failed to repress the protests. The contrast with Occupy Wall Street was stark. Occupy gained its footing because of political fumbles that resulted in a failure to promptly confront it. By the time Bloomberg was ready to go ahead with a “park cleaning,” OWS had already gathered sufficient steam and liberal allies to force him to call it off. But when a militaristic police force showed up in the middle of the night, the park was easily cleared. It was a devastating blow from which the movement did not recover. More than a few OWS sympathizers concluded that consequential protest in the US would be met with overwhelming force and quashed. In Ferguson, not only did the militarized police fail to stop the protests. The arrival of the “good cop,” Ronald Johnson, also did not seem to slow the momentum. Nor did the mobilization of the National Guard. At this point the protests appear to be declining, not so much because they have been repressed but because these sorts of mobilizations don’t last forever. There are some promises from the Attorney General and the FBI to look into the killing of Michael Brown. I suspect many people in the immediate area and quite far afield are concluding that this sort of protest is effective and possible.  And, as with Gaza, we must consider the opinions of actors further afield. Here too, the protestors won big.


Lets look first at the larger battle for hearts and minds around the Isreal/Palestine conflict. Israel itself has been sliding towards a vicious, intolerant, racist madness depicted by Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Israel’s foundation is racist, but the polity has long had quite a bit of space for dissenters and, not so long ago, there was a substantial, even if lightweight, peace movement. During the first weeks of the assault on Gaza, demonstrations were small, didn’t have many Jewish participants, and were met by terrifying mobs out for blood. By the end, there was a modest revival of the old peace movement, and larger demonstrations. Israel has a ways to go before getting back to the inadequate normal of the nineties, but these cracks haven’t appeared for a while. Still, it is hard to be too optimistic about developments within Israel. But then there is the situation in the West Bank. Lately the West Bank has epitomized acquiescence to the status quo, as Gaza has epitomized resistance. Abbas has followed a cautious strategy (if that is the right word for it), trying not to offend the US or Europe much. And this strategy has not been effectively challenged from below. But a couple of weeks after the onslaught on Gaza began, the largest demonstrations in years were held in the West Bank. Now we read that the West Bank may be on the verge of a social explosion. Further afield, in places like London and South Africa, some of the largest demonstrations  ever in solidarity with Palestine were held.


And then there is the situation in the United States. Notwithstanding the unanimity of the Senate in affirming its support for Israel, notwithstanding all the ridiculous lies and twisted arguments promoted in the media, the space for dissent around US support for Israel, already increasing in the last ten years, widened substantially. Two developments were particularly noteworthy. One was the direct action to “block the boat,” and prevent a ship carrying Israeli goods from unloading in the Bay Area. It represented a heightened level of confrontation and confidence for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The other was action taken by Jewish Voices for Peace to protest at Jewish Federation offices in several cities. This literally marks the arrival of activism and controversy about support for Israel within the formal organizations of American Jewry. This is a very significant development. The unanimous support for Israel by these organizations has been a huge obstacle to change in the US. The left extreme of American rabbis (apart from an eccentric Hassidic group) has typically been to use wiggle words, wring hands, and say “we hope there can be peace.” The emergence of J Street, a pro-Israel group which took a little distance from the traditional Israel Lobby, AIPAC, was a welcome development, but it was too limited in its dissent to make much of a difference. In theory, a coalition to end military aid to Israel and transform the US relation to it could be built around the Jewish community; in practice, liberal groups (labor unions, African American leaders, liberal churches, etc) have been fearful of undermining their relationship with Jews. The sooner the unanimity is broken, then, the better. Two signs of the time--an article in an Israeli newspaper warns that “Israeli Apartheid Week” held on many college campuses the last few years is likely to turn into “Israeli Apartheid Year” this coming school year, as BDS activism picks up. And the New York Times just published an anti-zionist Op Ed piece that could appear on Electronic Intifada or MondoWeiss. For those familiar with the perspective of those three publications, and notwithstanding the Times editorial page’s formal commitment to offering diverse perspectives that its editors do not endorse, this is a “hell freezes over” moment. At the very least real wariness about the motives and actions of Israel is becoming dominant among liberal public opinion, and I think organizations are likely to become more confident about expressing some need for US policy to change. Progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bill de Blasio, who have back-burnered this issue when not expressing outright support for Israel, are likely to find themselves under fire. Few in the US will say this out loud, but the increasing space for criticism of Israel can be traced back to the resistance posed by Hamas. If not for that resistance, and Israel’s monstrous and ineffectual response, Palestine would remain mired at too low a spot on the progressive radar to fight the steep obstacles facing those who want change.


Ferguson is triggering similar changes in public opinion and the space for activism. The image of the criminal or radical African American male has been a weapon in the reactionary arsenal for decades (actually centuries). I well remember the reaction to the looting during the New York blackout of 1977 (in retrospect, an indirect response to the austerity imposed in response to the fiscal crisis of the early 70s) occuring in the midst of a decade when the "Black mugger" was very prominent in the popular imagination. “Those people are on welfare, but it is still not enough for them, and they defy the logic of a civilized society by looting." Soon the US elected a president endorsed by the KKK, as well as his successor, whose defining campaign ad was also the vilification of the African American male as criminal, in this case Willie Horton. The momentum of this stereotype was devastating to the African American community, which was incarcerated at ruinous rates. It was also destructive to any hopes for a broad coalition to challenge the power and concentrated wealth of what Occupy memorably tagged “the 1%.”


For its part, as it revived class-based populism, Occupy basically evaded race. In fairness, Occupy showed solidarity with Troy Davis and others like him. But it can’t be said that it attempted to take on the question of police persecution of communities of color very directly, except somewhat at the end as it was looking for allies to challenge police repression. The power of the stereotype of the black criminal was not simply in its ability to mobilize those on the right; it also coursed through liberal circles, where, again going back to the seventies, resentment among White liberals that Blacks did not appreciate White liberal leadership or were impinging on White public patronage networks was rife. And, not least, it helped paralyze African American politics. I remember once hearing Bill Fletcher on Democracy Now!, discussing the aftermath of the acquittal of police officers who had killed Sean Bell. The New York Times had noted (a little giddily, I thought), that there were no riots or unruly demonstrations. Fletcher said that to understand the muted response, one had to understand the fear of crime within the Black community.


Clearly, something has changed. If we look at the chain of Troy Davis-Trayvon Martin-Michael Brown we see ascending public anger within the African American community, but also more widely, as most solidarity rallies in these cases have been mixed race. Although the old tactics of vilifying Michael Brown’s character, denouncing “violent” protesters, and even unironically invoking “outside agitators” were all pulled out, none seemed to stick much. This is not to underestimate continuing resistance to confronting racism, even in its most violent manifestations at the hands of the police; only to note that the terrain seems more open for challenge than it has in some time. Particularly notable was the migration of the term “the militarization of the police” from the margins to mainstream publications. Although many people on the left justifiably worry that the "militarization" question will obscure ongoing racism at the hands of police with ordinary weapons, "militarization of the police" has disrupted the high esteem of the police among the American public, politicians, and media more than any time I can remember.


In thinking about this opening, it is worth noting the diversity of approaches on display in Ferguson. While the response to the Rodney King verdict was a five day riot, from the start in Ferguson there have been large conventional demonstrations. These demonstrations produced the memorable slogan “hands up/don’t shoot” (reportedly Michael Brown’s last words) and the image of collectively raising hands above heads. But there was also the more militant practice of pushing back against the police, looting, etc. It was probably the latter that intensified the overreaction by the police that consolidated Ferguson as an international story. Ferguson is actually only the latest in a series of unruly community responses to police shootings (a number of whose victims were Latino or white) in the last few years in places including Anaheim, Durham, Albuquerque, and East Flatbush. It was only a matter of time before one of these situations broke through. To explain Ferguson, some observers have pointed to the mismatch between the demographics of the police force (almost entirely white) and the population, while others have noted the novelty of trying to repress riotous behavior in suburbs. Regardless, it should be apparent that it resonated in places quite different--places with more diverse police forces or "traditional" urban neighborhoods.


And now that it has broken through... It is clear the case has generated intense reflection within the African American community, particularly among younger people. To some degree, Ferguson seemed to mark the end of an era of leadership epitomized by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom was able to capture the spirit of the uprising and point a way forward. Ferguson has generated a huge response on traditionally African American campuses, even though it is the middle of the summer. It has also spread to additional campuses for the Monday August 25 Hands Up Walk Out action. There have also been protests, some peaceful, others a little unruly, although none rising (or sinking, depending on ones perspective) to the status of “riot” in numerous cities. Pictures I’ve seen suggest multiracial crowds.


Waves of protest matter, but one of the more poorly understood ways they matter is to baptize people, through direct action, into enduring political commitment. This only occurs with a small portion of the protesters, but they become the core that pushes additional movements forward. Looking around, they may find that there are already budding movements in the African American community around foreclosures, education, low wage workers as well as a number of criminal justice issues. Indeed, it was apparently a core of activists in these movements in Ferguson who organized many of the demonstrations about Michael Brown. Although questions of police, and trying to focus an agenda into a couple of demands that might make a difference is likely to be the highest priority, it does not require an advance degree in Marxism to recognize that the crisis in Ferguson and other places like it is much broader than questions of criminal justice. Perhaps the experiment with solidarity economics in Jackson Mississippi that was spearheaded by the election of Chockwe Lumumba and then tragically cut short by his death will be seen as a touchstone in the creation of a broader project. Need it be said that while one can reference all of these struggles within the African American community, they are simultaneously class based struggles of importance to people of all races in the United States?

There is no reason to be excessively optimistic about either Gaza or Ferguson. Even fairly minimal demands--fully lifting the siege of Gaza, or national legislation curtailing police abuse--is likely to prove elusive without struggle, and these sorts of steps are really only the beginning of a much larger struggle to actually achieve justice. Nor would I want the above to be read as minimizing the ongoing human tragedies in both places. But as we mourn the losses, we should also be cognizant of what has opened up. Israel’s mighty military and America’s militarized police proved ineffectual at subduing and repressing poorly armed or unarmed opponents. The movement of repression and resistance has opened up cracks in ideological structures that can and must be widened. It is a moment fraught with possibility.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Adolph Reed is Wrong: There is Something Left

Adolph Reed
University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed has an important piece on the left in the current issue of Harper's called "Nothing Left: The Long Slow Surrender of American Liberals".It is filled with anger and despair. Left Business Observer Doug Henwood has been arguing on facebook that those critical of Reed are wrong in arguing that he doesn't clarify what is to be done, that to diagnose the dismal situation of the left is enough. Indeed. The problem is not that he doesn't present a ten point plan to rebuild the left.  In fact, he explicitly, if briefly, outlines what he thinks is a way forward at the end of the article. The problem is that he misdiagnoses the existing left. Here I want to suggest alternative interpretations.

Reed's essay  is divided into a three parts--a brief history of the American left in the twentieth century, a lengthy mid-section denouncing the excessive focus on elections and particularly the high hopes placed on Barack Obama, and a brief focus at the end on the contemporary left and how it might be rebuilt--this last section itself interrupted by several more paragraphs denouncing Obama. I'll consider mostly the historical and proscriptive sections. For Reed, "For nearly all the twentieth century there was a dynamic left in the United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism generated unacceptable social costs. That left crested in influence between 1935 and 1945, when it anchored a coalition centered in the labor movement, most significantly within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). It was a prominent voice in the Democratic Party of the era, and at the federal level its high point may have come in 1944, when FDR propounded what he called “a second Bill of Rights.” ...The labor-left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American politics through the 1960s. What have become known as the social movements of the Sixties — civil rights activism, protests against the Vietnam War, and a renewed women’s movement — were vitally linked to that egalitarian left. Those movements drew institutional resources, including organizing talents and committed activists, from that older left and built on both the legislative and the ideological victories it had won. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. " After berating the left for embracing Obama, he makes this snide declaration: ""The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other. The left careens from this oppressed group or crisis moment to that one, from one magical or morally pristine constituency or source of political agency (youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban “precariat”; green whatever; the black/Latino/LGBT “community”; the grassroots, the netroots, and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a “Trotskyist” software engineer elected to the Seattle City Council) to another. It lacks focus and stability; its m├ętier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.""

This is, to say the least, an odd history of the left. Entirely omitted from the first period is the presence of the Communist Party, a key driver of the organizing of the CIO, and the initiator of prominent anti-racist struggles. The CP went into demise as a result of the contradictions posed by its allegiance to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, which first resulted in endorsing the Hitler-Stalin pact, and then, perhaps more importantly, embracing World War II, resulted in calling off all domestic struggles and the demise of the party as a significant force in American life. Some unions were under communist leadership, adapting more progressive positions on most matters, but when the red scare hit, these unions were simultaneously unable to shake the communist taint and bereft of effective direction from an isolated and out of touch party leadership. The broader labor movement, although possessing massive heft in US society at this point, had limited left influence. 


Not surprisingly, when social struggles reemerged in the late fifties and sixties, it was isolated from the bastions of the old left, namely the CP, and was not readily embraced by the labor movement. Instead, the civil rights movement and the student anti-war movement drew from other wellsprings. The small pacifist movement of WWII produced a more impressive roster of elder statesmen who counseled the new movements--including Staughton Lynd, Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, and A.J. Muste-- than either the CP or the labor movement. The movements themselves drew their leadership and members from new forces in American life--the African American clergy and residents of the urbanizing South, and expanding centers of higher education. The labor movement was not entirely absent--the UAW was a prominent endorser of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, and the UAW later left the AFL-CIO for a time in protest over its pro-war stance--but it could hardly be considered a key player in either movement.Furthermore, the backing of labor provided the context for the social democratic measures of  Medicaid, Medicare, and public sector unions. Soon enough two Democratic administrations had launched the US into war in Vietnam, which the labor movement largely supported, at first, and which made the alliance between left forces and the Democratic Party completely untenable. Women's and gay rights movements fed on energies and organizing skills developed in the student/anti-war and civil rights movement, not labor unions. 


When many within the new left became more radical after 1965, they became more isolated from labor. Although significant forces, including the Black Panthers and the Poor People's Campaign, to mention two with very different approaches, recognized the urgent need for a multiracial coalition rooted in the working class, the labor movement was basically MIA. For that matter, several of the most urgent labor struggles of the time--the UFW, or the Charleston hospital workers--seem to exist more in the context of new left activism than in the mainstream of the labor movement. As parts of the new left fought for entrance into the Democratic Party--inside the convention in 1964 through the Mississippi Freedom Party,  or through the McCarthy campaign in 1968, the labor movement was largely indifferent or hostile.  When the goal was achieved in 1972, the unions basically abandoned George McGovern, the most pro-labor candidate ever nominated by a major party, facilitating a landslide by Nixon. In the context of accelerating speed ups to meet international competition, and corrupt union leadership, there was a grassroots union rebellion in the early 70s--too late for the now dispersed energy of the new left.None of the "new communist parties" of the seventies had a strong connection to the existing labor movement, and efforts to organize workers outside of its framework (and there were many) didn't amount to much. In a second-time-as-farce repitition of the perils of orienting parties around states' foreign policies, some followed Mao into a cuckoo world where Soviet socialist imperialism constituted the main enemy. Meanwhile, the unions largely ignored the storm clouds rapidly developing.


A sort of  anarchist radicalism that had emerged in the anti-war movement (for example, the May Day Tribe in 1971) evolved into the anti-nuclear movement, although this too seemed remote from the concerns of labor. The point here is not to bash the working class or the labor movement, or for that matter the new left--there is a complicated history there, with some ambiguities--but simply to note that the period of 1935 to 1975 was not one of a left-liberal coalition moving from one reform to the next. It was instead filled with ruptures within the left and frequent conservatism on the part of labor. It is probably worth keeping in mind the predominantly white male character of labor unions in this period, particularly the older craft unions. White workers were fairly easily drawn into identifying with the settler colonialist narrative of US nationalism. That the Soviet Union was dominating what were often their homelands in Eastern Europe in the name of socialism didn't help matters either.


The seventies were also a sour time for liberals. It began well enough, with liberals belatedly assenting to anti-war sentiment and pushing for "reform" in congress, leading to watergate and the deposing of Nixon after his electoral landslide. But there was no coherent liberal program to deal with the economic crisis of the early seventies. Liberals also were crucial to reviving anti-communism. And after the rebellions of the late sixties and early seventies, there was no renewal of alliances between white liberals and racial minorities and unions. Instead, the drift towards neoliberalism accelerated. The rightward turn of The New York Review of Books and the ascendancy of The New Republic epitomized the right leaning centrism that would constitute the intellectual climate for American liberals for most of the remainder of the century.


When I became involved with the left in the late eighties, social movements remained isolated from organized labor, although overheated rhetoric about imperialist labor aristocracies was largely forgotten. Solidarity with Central America, anti-apartheid, ACT-UP--these were not labor's struggles. To the extent that they had any heft beyond an activist milieu, they were rooted in such institutions as churches (including the Quakers, the Catholic churches that served immigrant populations), university students, and the gay community. The union movement was occasionally visible in my circles through seemingly quixotic campaigns signified by words like Hormel. For the most part, after PATCO, it was retreat, retreat, retreat for a dazed and sclerotic labor movement. There was nothing like an effective socialist left organization. The remains of the new communist movement were able to pull themselves together enough to play a significant role in the two presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, which Reed devoted an entire book to disparaging. Jackson revived the dream of a multiracial coalition, reusing the slogan of the Chicago Black Panthers, "the rainbow coalition." Particularly in 1988, the campaign managed to attract the votes of substantial numbers of union members. However, the rainbow coalition vanished with the end of Jesse Jackson's campaigns, although some of its networks helped lay the groundwork for the labor community coalitions that were beginning to emerge in many cities.


The nineties were a very difficult time for the left. There were occasional heartening moments like the Teamsters strike and students against sweatshops, but for the most part it was a decade of disorientation. A key factor was the demise of the Soviet empire, and the related negotiated settlements in Central America. In retrospect, this seems strange. It was apparent to most activists--although not all--that whatever utopian hopes the Soviet Union once embodied had been extinguished long before it collapsed. And marxist leninism, as well as its Trotskyist and Maoist variants, were basically failures, not only in the US, but all the wealthier countries, at least if one measures success or failure by the question of a seizure of state power, which these ideologies universally valorized. Mostly they were failures even if one hopes for a much more modest but real impact on the larger society. Nevertheless, the fall of the Soviet empire was severely disorienting. In addition, not only in the US, but in most countries Social Democratic parties were in full retreat in the nineties. The Zapatista rebellion opened up questions of rethinking the relationship between liberation and the seizure of state power, but it hardly substituted for the demise of the grand narrative that had ordered left struggles for most of the century.


A few developments in the nineties should be noted. A number of multicultural struggles which had been waged since the sixties were being digested by the body politic. Secondly, labor unions, which were basically continuing their retreat, did wage some struggles that opened up new possibilities. For example, the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles was indicative of both working with immigrants and using civil disobedience tactics borrowed from the social movements of the sixties. Relatively progressive leadership, which was more willing to recognize the crisis of labor, ascended to the top of the AFL-CIO, and encouraged a substantial minority of the (typically white, college-educated) activist strata to gain some experience as union organizers, a practice that continues to the present. 


Finally, the decade was bookended by two earthquakes--the L.A. riots which followed the Rodney King verdict and the "battle of Seattle" at the WTO meeting in 1999. The former was a multiracial riot, in contrast to those of the sixties, and probably the largest riot in the history of the US.  The after effects of the LA riot were very limited and mostly subterranean.  The WTO protests marked the stunning return of the anarchistic direct action current, which had been bubbling around for decades but never before produced anything so massive and disruptive, and the emergence of an uneasy coalition between this current, the labor movement, and environmental NGOs. It seemed like a new day for the left, but follow up was weak. There were other mobilizations against IMF meetings and free trade negotiations in the US, but none had the same magic. It was never clear what those of us who lived far from the centers of action were supposed to do to participate, especially in between major moblizations. A certain amount of energy was directed into the Nader campaign, which simultaneously failed to get close to the 5% benchmark supporters were claiming would constitute a breakthrough, while managing to get enough votes in New Hampshire and Florida to plausibly cast Nader as spoiler, heightening tensions between the left and liberals.  Both the WTO protests and the Nader campaign indicated that Clinton's deepening of neoliberalism (NAFTA, welfare reform, etc) was fraying the Democratic party base. 

The Bush administration helped insure that that energy would mostly be rechanneled into partisan liberalism for the next decade, and, for the moment, the tears in the Democratic coalition would be papered over. The left and liberals shared horror at the rightward turn of the Bush administration and the invasion of two countries in the wake of 9-11. A large anti-war movement materialized, with several socialist groups providing much of the underpinning, but from the start it had a strong tone of partisanship to it. In other words, it blended anger at the war with anger towards the Republicans, not really laying the basis for a strong anti-imperialist current. Earlier anti-war movements, produced, among the left, romantic identification with the foes of the US--the NLF, the FMLN, etc. This helped produce an energetic core of activists to carry on through the slower moments, something notably lacking in the changed environment of the aughts.  Labor, African American, and anarchist currents were mostly invisible during the Bush administration. Immigrants generated a major protest movement, pretty much outside of the traditional channels of left activity, however broadly defined, culminating in a revival of May Day as a day of labor action. 


But for the most part, in the aughts, the left of center belonged to liberals. Figures like Paul Krugman and Keith Olbermann, organizations like Move On were characteristic. There was some sense here that the Clinton adminstration had drifted too far rightward, but most if not all anger was channeled towards the Republicans. Alarmed at the direction of the Bush administration, the left tailed the liberals into first the Dean campaign, and then the John "anybody but Bush" Kerry campaign. After four more listless years, liberals scored a modest victory by displacing the candidate of the center, Hillary Clinton, with one who was perceived as one of their own--Barack Obama. Both left and liberals cried tears of joy when Obama was elected, defying skeptics  including Adolph Reed himself, who claimed the American public would never vote for an African American. 

And then Obama took office, and immediately made clear that he planned to closely follow in the footsteps of Bill Clinton. At this point, the coalition on the left began to fracture. Many liberals followed him through every twist and turn, every betrayal and hollow compromise, claiming he was playing "twelve dimensional chess," i.e. acting in a fashion so sophisticated that many couldn't follow his brilliance. Many on the far left went quickly into denunciation mode. Some, including early Obama skeptic Paul Krugman, charted a middle course of sorts. 


For the first three years of the Obama administration, social movements on the left were largely quiet. The anti-war movement did not move back into the street in the context of the winding down of Iraq, a mixture of escalation and disengagement in Afghanistan, and the escalation of drone strikes and failure to close Guatanamo. Nor were the labor movements, African American movement, or direct action movement visible. A DC protest, "One Nation," called by the NAACP and many unions, occupied an uneasy space between dissatisfaction with the administration and calls to elect more Democrats in 2010. It was little noted in the mass media and failed to galvanize the left.


Into the vacuum raced the Tea Party, appealing to that portion of the population terrified that a Black president would lead the charge of the disenfranchised to appropriate their limited wealth and entitlements. More importantly, perhaps, the political right refocused its sites on state governments.


This provided the context for the first major left protest movement of the Obama years, the Wisconsin uprising. Union led protesters took over the state capital to stop a bill that would have eliminated collective bargaining rights. The protest was inspiring because labor unions in the US had not in recent memory taken such an audacious step. Furthermore, some signs aligned the spirit of the protesters with the Arab Spring. Still, several aspects conspired against this becoming a larger movement. The unions who led the struggle were uneasy about turning it into a class based struggle by more firmly tethering themselves to the victims of the right wing governor's budget cuts, the dread specter of poor African Americans. Instead, they sought to appeal to a perceived middle class majority through a recall election. Having already escalated into unfamiliar territory through an occupation of the state capital, they were unwilling to take the next steps into the even more perilous territory of politically oriented strike activity.  Finally, as the entire logic of the struggle was rooted in confrontation with a right wing governor, the struggle could not really be replicated nation wide. Many of us nationwide might cheer the occupation of the capital, or order a pizza for the protesters, but the applicability of the struggle to a state like New York, where a Democratic governor respects the rights of unions even as he guts the substance, was less than clear. 


During the spring and summer of 2011, attempts were made to pick up the pace of protest around the dismal state of the American political economy. A large demonstration against Wall Street was held in New York City by a coalition of unions and community groups. Several unions attempted to jump start discussion of income inequality during the summer. Still, such efforts had limited impact. Then people responded to Adbusters' call to "Occupy Wall Street." Rooted in the direct action current, Occupy did go viral, and did finally put "income inequality" into the national discussion. It had a simple slogan, "We are the 99%." It had a simple tactic that could be, and was, reproduced all over the country--create an encampment. Stay at the encampment. Or visit it. Or participate in protests called by it. Or argue about it over facebook. However incoherently, Occupy also posed the question of radicalism--the overall legitimacy of the social order-- in ways that none of the movements of the aughts had. What Occupy lacked was a strategy for maintaining a viable organization once state repression decimated the encampments. 


Nevertheless, the inequality cat was out of the bag. Emboldened, labor unions began experimenting with more confrontational tactics in organizing campaigns at Walmart and fast food establishments, where the more traditional tactics of the last few decades had not proven effective. Movements against foreclosures persisted even after Occupy faded. Chicago teachers struck and won with community support. Elizabeth Warren ran for senate basically with the focus on being a gadfly of Wall Street. The Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, led by the NAACP but including many social justice organizations in the state,  combined urgent civil rights concerns--for example, voting rights--with a broad focus on social and economic justice.


Additionally, almost simultaneous with Occupy, campaigns against the criminalization of African American men stepped up. The New Jim Crow was a surprise bestseller. The effort to stop the execution of Troy Davis was the first such campaign in recent memory to truly go national. It was followed by the much larger campaign around justice for Trayvon Martin. These campaigns have been led by forces within the African American community, but warmly embraced by the Occupy generation of activists.


The new wave of activism also helped jump start women's activism, particularly against the paleo-Republicans in power in various states. Climate change activism has gotten livelier. The Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign against Israel is finally gaining some traction.


In general, we seem to have entered a period of activism and experimentation. The fulcrum of this process is the question of income inequality, but by no means can all the movements that are becoming more visible be reduced to this. Not surprisingly, this activism also has electoral components. Reed maligns Kshama Sawant as one more fashion the left jumps on, but she won a seat on the Seattle City Council through a hard fought grass roots campaign. Both the campaign, and her actions in office, have intensified the fight for a citywide $15 minimum wage. New York now has a mayor close to various community non-profits and labor unions. By no means perfect, his election nevertheless opened up space to critique the Bloomberg years and the direction of development in NYC in general. I suspect within the next eight years there will be a significant populist challenge in the Democratic primaries for president. While the left is not strong enough to conduct such a campaign on its own, ultimately depending on relatively well established politicians deciding to run, such a campaign would likely energize the left, swell its numbers, and expand the circle of people debating left ideas.


Reed complains that the left lacks a vision. In fact, lots of people have explored ideas about how to have better cities, live within the constraints of the ecosphere, mechanisms for more economic equality, etc. The problem is, absent a mass movement, such explorations mostly become fodder for academic conferences. It is when people are actively contesting structures that questions and answers can more meaningfully be posed. We are against schools dominated by testing and which reduce students into one size fits all widgets requiring college preparedness. What are we for? We are against Keystone XL. What sorts of energy policies do we want? etc. One of the most admirable features of the Occupy movement was its agora format, both in the encampments and on social media, which facilitated raising these questions. I thought that while it was going on, the level of discussion on the left improved precipitously. 


Rather than berating the left for jumping from one trend to the next, Reed, and the rest of us, would do better to ponder the actually existing multiplicity of movements and ways to bring them into coalition, or at least productive tension with each other. Looking at the history of the last forty years or so that I've outlined above, it seems apparent to me that while none of the major currents active in the US (including African Americans and other racial minorities, labor unions, anti-war, direct action, gender and gay rights movements, and even left parties) are exactly strong, they are closer to each other than they have probably ever been before. While Reed disparages the left for going in many directions, he is really doing nothing more than calling attention to the reality that there are many sites for contemporary struggle. This is not a bad thing nor particularly surprising. One could debate whether a formalized organization on the left might facilitate further unification of these struggles or their amplification, or whether the debate in places like Facebook and various websites, social forums, etc is sufficient. I am not convinced that a structure resembling any of the really existing parties of the left would help much. But the starting point for a strengthening of the left has to be a recognition of the significant work being done in different places, not another effort to a priori privilege the labor movement.



Monday, February 24, 2014

Is Obama's America a Conservative Paradise?

An article in Esquire, of all places, makes an argument about Obama fairly common on the American left. In "Barack Obama's Conservative Utopia," writer Michael Maiello asserts that far from being the socialist of American conservatives' nightmares, Obama has in fact "created a conservative America." He identifies seven metrics to prove this point--Taxing the Rich (down), Fracking (up), Abortion (down), Deportations (up), Defense Spending (up), and Corporate Profits (up). Plenty of questions could be raised. For example, do conservatives really want fewer abortions? Much more prominent is their drive to criminalize abortion. In societies where abortion is illegal, rates are often quite high. The real issue for conservatives is women's autonomy and sexual freedom, or rather limiting both, and so I think they would react with horror to Maiello's explanation for the drop: "Under Obama, the number of women accessing contraceptives through public means has increased." Taxes raise similar questions. Maiello ignores the taxes implemented through Obamacare. Those he does focus on indicate a modest increase since Bush, but lower than the top tax rates under Clinton. Not exactly a dramatic tax break for the wealthy. Graphs included representing trends in fracking and deportations indicate that these trends were rising before Obama took office, and, in the case of deportations, the rate of increase slows under Obama, while fracking continued to rapidly expand.


All in all, the evidence presented here doesn't make a very convincing case that Obama has created much of anything. I suspect that Maiello is basically a libertarian troll, trying to confuse already demoralized liberals, but, I should add, his views parallel many of those on the left, such as Perry Anderson, who outlined a similar argument using more and larger words. If Anderson (among others) doesn't make foolish claims about Obama "creating" conservative America, the argument is nevertheless also that virtually nothing much has changed (I finished writing this before seeing this piece by Adolph Reed, which is of the same ilk, albeit more insulting about the left, which Maiello and Anderson basically ignore).

Putting aside the dubious case of abortion, what we have here are a series of long term trends--low taxes on the rich, expanded militarism, deportations, etc. that Obama has failed to reverse. Similarly, Obama promptly moved from a modest stimulus to deficit reduction in the context of intense political and media pressure that he do so. People today look back on the world of the eighties and may say that Reagan "created" an America (sic) of low taxes, deregulation, renewed militarism, nativism, abandonment of efforts to rectify racism… This is an oversimplification. All of these trends were already in evidence by 1978, under his Democratic predecessor Carter. Nevertheless, Reagan did embolden the forces pushing the state in this direction, and crushed the spirit of those opposing them, and so he deserves at least some of the credit or blame, depending on how you see these developments. Obama, far from being a "transformative" president (how Obama himself described Reagan) has mostly gone with the drift of history, which has been to both preserve the inequities introduced in the Reagan era and to modify them with reforms circumscribed by neoliberal logic. Obama has pushed for reforms that might alarm conservatives in a number of areas -- health care, banking regulation, stimulus, immigration -- but always in ways that seek to salve business interests first and foremost.

But--and this is really the key point--if I were a conservative, I would be at least concerned, if not horrified at the direction things have been going in the last few years, notwithstanding that everything cannot be laid at the feet of Obama, and it is indeed preposterous to regard him as a "socialist." First off, we might mention a few side issues. Here is how Maiello describes gay marriage and marijuana legalization: "states have acted in lieu of the Feds, serving as the laboratories of democracy that conservatives have long claimed they should be." Translation--victories are being consolidated in both gay marriage and marijuana legalization in blue states. Obama has very belatedly gone with the flow in both cases, giving gentle but unmistakable pushes. For all the talk of states rights, it is hard to see how to seriously pursue drug or marriage policies that vary much from state to state. Indeed, courts in red states appear to be beginning to undo gay marriage bans put into state constitutions in the last decade. So our conservative friend is likely to be alarmed by these defeats, on an issue of great importance for the maintenance of traditional gender roles on the one hand and of great importance to the "war on drugs" mass incarceration craze on the other. Still, I consider these side issues to the extent that victories do not directly challenge the power of what Occupy Wall Street called "the 1%."

While the US has always had a ruling class with a great deal of power over the state, the most recent phase of inequality, and the transformation of the state from having some semblance of redistributive downward/inclusionary policies to redistributive upward/exclusionary basically dates from the Reagan era, and has alarmingly accelerated in the last ten years or so. This concentration of power, and its flip side, the expansion of the surveillance and incarceration state, can justifiably be considered the central issue of our time, although we must also add the empire behavior of the US that has accelerated since 9-11.  How do things look on these fronts? On the one hand, things have just been going on and on in the same direction, and Obama seems to have no real problem with that. The banks were bailed out, and far from launching criminal investigations into top executives, Obama did not so much as encourage the firing of this strata as a precondition for the bailouts. Indeed, he praised some of the shadiest bankers. We seem to be stuck in deficit cutting hell, notwithstanding the vast numbers of long term unemployed and the declining prospects for recent college grads. The US remains the world leader in mass incarceration, while the Snowden leaks have revealed the massive intrusion of another portion of the surveillance state that most people were only very dimly aware of six years ago. The US retains its warlike posture in the Middle East, and drone and special forces operations seem to be dispersing to endless sites worldwide. So the picture is pretty grim. And for the most part, Obama has done little more than try to repackage this material for liberal consumption.

But the picture is also more contradictory than that. The bankers seemed to have gotten away with everything, but then Occupy Wall Street exploded onto the scene. The most viral of social movements since the sixties (at least), Occupy was striking for directing rage at the 1%, and not neatly fitting into the two party framework (as the Iraq anti-war movement ultimately did, notwithstanding the failure of the Democrats to offer robust opposition to the war). Since Occupy, the issue of banks has been reopened, just a little, with, for example, the J.P. Morgan settlement. Elizabeth Warren was elected to the Senate, and has played the role of gadfly surprisingly well. Furthermore, on a number of fronts, Obama has not been able to advance the neoliberal agenda. Larry Summers was clearly his choice to lead the fed, but had to be withdrawn. The Trans-Pacific Partnership seems less and less likely to pass, although we shouldn't rule out yet another effort once we are passed the midterm elections. Obama himself barely mentioned it in the State of the Union, instead, focusing on income inequality. At least that seemed to be the takeaway. Some stories noted that his language has shifted away from inequality towards opportunity, generally considered a Republican theme, but I am not sure how clearly this registered.

On other fronts as well, I see contradictory movement. Recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates' memoirs were published. Clearly an attack from the right by a Washington insider, they were widely hailed in the US media. Obama was portrayed as being uninterested in vigorously pursuing the war in Afghanistan, and this was portrayed, both by Gates and in the media coverage, as a failing of Obama's, notwithstanding that about 70% of the American public seems to agree with him. Obama did in fact agree to a "surge" in Afghanistan and has pursued an agreement to keep US forces in Afghanistan until 2024, but apparently he has not done so with enough enthusiasm for many Washington insiders. The sort of mixed picture presented here is also borne out in a couple of other recent policy decisions. Obama moved towards striking Syria in the context of accusations about the usage of chemical weapons, but quickly backed down in the face of little public support and likely congressional opposition. In the midst of this, Secretary of State John Kerry made his bizarre fumble, attempting to simultaneously advocate the attacks and minimize them. Retrospectively, many Obama fans tried to argue that the entire war drive was a successful bluff, but this does not seem likely. Rather I would suggest that it failed in part because it was carried out with little conviction. At the time, Obama seemed to be caving in to pressure to do something about Syria, rather than initiating a full-press propaganda blitz necessary to sell such an attack to the American public.

And then there is the question of Iran. Notwithstanding promises to move towards engagement, Obama wasted his first term continuing the confrontational policies of his predecessor. But since the election of Rouhani, as well as the introduction of a slightly more liberal team for foreign policy in the Obama administration, there has been some movement. And there is also pushback from the more right wing elements of the Democratic Party and much of the establishment media. The American public seems to sort of understand that the U.S. no longer has the financial means or military capability to rule the world. The US has conducted a number of military strikes over the last decade, and while it is capable of toppling governments, little more seems to be accomplished, and forces not easily controlled by the US or friendly to it come to the fore. Obama appears to be taking some steps to adjust to this reality, but strong pressure persists in Washington to continue pretending the US can maintain its posture. Meanwhile, trying to exert force on the cheap through drone strikes and special forces deployments remains largely uncontroversial, notwithstanding its ineffectiveness as a way to exercise power in the world.

Speaking of running empire on the cheap, we must also touch on the NSA. Recently, Alfred McCoy argued that the principle reason for the NSA's relentless data collecting is to find information on private scandals worldwide, and then use that information for blackmailing purposes to keep policy makers in line. The US has done this in low-tech ways in the past. And this is at least as plausible as claims that the NSA fights terrorism, as are claims that the NSA is being used for industrial espionage. The important point to make about the NSA is that the American public seems not particularly convinced by  the argument that it is fighting terrorism and therefore needs to be left alone. This makes for a pronounced change from ten years ago, when Snowden's leaks would have likely been overwhelmed by "fighting terrorism" rhetoric. Obama has been terrible on this issue. Apart from efforts to maintain the NSA, we could point to the related issue of the persecution of Chelsea Manning and other whistleblowers. Still, our conservative friend should hardly be sanguine about the growing unease with the surveillance state.

Nor should he be pleased with developments around mass incarceration, where Obama has played a slightly more mixed role. Here, as elsewhere, Obama has matched a certain rhetorical adjustment to the new mood, registering concern about the massive numbers incarcerated, with rather feeble measures. But our conservative friend would have to be blind not to notice that the "tough on crime" mass incarceration rhetoric has grown stale and no longer seems to strike fear into  most of the population.

Rather than take solace in Obama's many sellouts and compromises, our conservative friend, and for that matter leftists, would be better off examining the evolution of US society and politics as a whole. In 2008, a majority voted for reforms (in its own way, this was the culmination of a drift leftward among much of the middle class that began ten years earlier, notwithstanding George Bush's electoral victories, such as they were). The reforms that have passed since have been so larded up with corporate giveaways that trying to figure out whether there is a kernel worth supporting turns into a depressing question, to say the least. But this hasn't really dimmed the quest for a US that moves away from empire, plutocracy, and mass incarceration. There is quite a bit more agitation on most of these questions than there was six years ago. Sometimes it is Occupy where that agitation is focused, at others times low wage workers, or victims of police brutality, or efforts to push back against the corporate destruction of public education. The corporate center epitomized by Obama is no longer able to sell snake oil like the Trans Pacific Partnership. The right is locked into minority politics for the time being by the obduracy of the tea party crowd. However, a great deal of inertia remains with current policies. Thirty years of these policies has driven unions close to the point of extinction and left the population of the US atomized and disoriented. The question for the next ten or even twenty years is whether the left can shape  the thousand--or at least a hundred--points of light and resistance now twinkling in the US into a coherent project.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement by Akinyele Omowale Umoja is as provocative as it sounds. Tracing a tradition of armed self defense of the African American community before, during and after the visible heyday of the Civil Rights Movement in the early sixties, the text suggests  a new way of understanding the relationship of that movement to the use of force. And it is not only a matter of self defense--at times violence was used to further the goals of the movement. The book unsettles a narrative, widespread in the media and influential on the left, that the movement achieved its goal of desegregating the South by taking the moral high road and through the use of non-violent civil disobedience discredited its opponents, whose cruelty was exposed. In turn, the federal government was impelled to act, passing crucial legislation, i.e. the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. These in turn promptly led to the dismantling of Jim Crow structures. In the context of the failure of the Democratic Party to embrace the movement by seating the Mississippi Freedom Party rather than the Jim Crow delegates at the 1964 and the turn towards more intractable economic issues and Black Power, the question of violence was opened, and growing numbers in the movement embraced it. Depending on ones outlook, this was either a tragic error that invited government repression or a step towards revolution, aborted by forces outside the movement's control.

Umoja's narrative is quite different. Armed self defense was a long standing tradition in the South, due to constant threat of white supremacist violence. Some Blacks would keep firearms in their homes and return fire from night riders and other white supremacist vigilantes. When Civil Rights activism started to accelerate, it was a necessity, due to the intensity of the violent response, the collusion of local law enforcement with white supremacists, and the failure of the federal government to consistently protect movement activists. Early on, there was interest in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, and their parallels to the struggles of African Americans. These anti-colonial struggles were all typically violent. In this context, strict codes of non-violence appear as an importation that always had limited support. And when non-violent groups were most active in the state, they often adopted to grim realities of Mississippi life by accepting offers for self-defense. The Deacons of Defense, an armed group in Louisiana, inspired imitators in Mississippi.

Although the Black Panthers didn't have much of a presence in Mississippi (but see below), Black nationalism does register in We Will Shoot Back. It's particular form is the Republic of New Africa (RNA), an effort to assert a nation composed of Black Belt regions in the South. Participants adopted armed self defense, which the author claims may have saved lives when the police confronted them over a dispute over land. In contrast to the other struggles described in We Will Shoot Back, the Republic of New Africa seems arbitrary and imposed from above. Although it never came close to its goal of a new country and pulling the United Nations in as arbitrar of the status of African Americans, it nevertheless raises similar questions as other efforts to create homelands for people, namely, how many African Americans would actually want to move to such a place, and what would happen to the indigeneous population already present?

During and after the RNA, civil rights struggles, backed by self defense, continued in Mississippi. Although there is a tendency to declare Jim Crow dead following passage of the Civil Rights Act, struggles continued into the late seventies around fairly basic demands such as having African Americans on the police force. These struggles were often powered by the emergence of the United League, a more militant alternative to the NAACP, which developed effective strategies involving boycotts in small cities backed by enforcement squads which would intimidate those within the African American community unwilling to support the boycotts (it might be noted here that many labor struggles in the US have used similar amounts of violent intimidation to enforce compliance).

Of the many stories of self defense recounted in We Will Shoot Back, three in particular stood out for me. In 1961, in Tylertown Mississippi, SNCC workers were told that several months before their arrival, the town had been terrorized by nightriders. Warnings that the terrorism must cease were ignored. African Americans apparently connected to a fraternal order captured one of the nightriders. His head was severed from his body and placed on a bridge as a warning to whites. The terrorism stopped.

The second incident occurred during a boycott in Aberdeen Mississippi in 1970. The context for the boycott was the suspension of two African American police officers for refusing to wear confederate symbols. Organizer Rudy Shields had a friend bring a contingent of Black males from another town to Aberdeen. Amidst rumors that the Black Panthers had arrived, the young men marched through town, striking fear among both white business owners who hoped to break the boycott and Black consumers who were not yet on board. The fear of militant, armed members of a revolutionary organization was more potent than the reality, and helped to strengthen the boycott.

The third incident happened amidst the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 70s. In Tupelo in 1978, the aforementioned United League led a boycott of White owned businesses around demands relating both to racism of the police and failures to expand economic opportunities for Blacks. Tensions rose as the Klan joined the battle to break the boycott. The city council tried to appear above the fray, equating the struggle for social justice with Klan terrorism and trying to stop the protests of both. In this fraught environment, the United League brought arms to demonstrations, and had scouts on rooftops searching for snipers and other dangers. Things came to a head on June 10, when the United League held a demonstration in downtown Tupelo, and the Klan held a counterdemonstration.  The UL's demonstration was more than twice as large. No violence occurred, but "local Blacks were emboldened by the greater numbers of UL protesters and took the opportunity of the Klan counterprotest to unleash verbal assaults at White supremacists for years of racial intimidation and terror." Sixty four year old Jack Clark told reporters "We used to have get off the sidewalks for White folks.. and them Klansmen, wooie boy, you didn't go messin' with them. But now I tell them, "go to hell.""  Umoja attributes the new attitude not only to the size of the United League demonstration, but to the presence of armed Blacks. The release from fear of the Klan provides a stark contrast with the more famous incident in Greensboro North Carolina, where Klansmen assassinated five members of the Communist Workers Party in 1979 at a "death to the Klan" rally.

Above I've summarized just a small amount of the content of We Will Shoot Back. I strongly recommend reading the entire book. I suspect most readers will find their understanding of the civil rights movement transformed. The image painted of Black activists willing to use force if necessary to protect themselves and advance their movement is quite different from the way the civil rights movement is usually portrayed. It is not that images of disciplined non-violent activists not being provoked by beatings, or communities singing in churches are wrong. Rather, these practices should be seen as part of the same movement that at times provided armed guards to movement activists and shot back at nightriders. Attempts to disentangle an early,  good, noble, non-violent movement from a later bad, nationalist, violent movement are a lot harder to do after reading this book. Apart from the chapter on the RNA, one of the most striking things is how consistently the protests described, protests which involved armed self-defense, were advancing demands that involved rudimentary reforms necessary to abolish segregation--firing the most racist police, attaining a minimal level of respect from city governments, ending the refusal of white businesses to hire African Americans. The RNA is something of an outlier, but for the most part, armed resistance was advancing basic goals of the civil rights movement. It is also important to note that movement activity of this sort persisted long after the civil rights legislation was passed in the mid-nineteen sixties. Jim Crow was not simply abolished by legislative fiat in Washington, but through a multitude of hard fought struggles in small cities all over the South.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Past and future of Multiracial Coalitions--Some Thoughts on Power to the Poor

In the last few years, our understanding of the social movements of the sixties has been transformed by new scholarship that looks beyond familiar narratives of SDS and the civil rights movement in the South. Works like Penny Lewis’ Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s  Hillibilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power and The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi have undermined notions that the movements in the sixties were largely bereft of class politics, or that identity was foregrounded in ways that marginalized economic struggles. In fact, identity and economic struggle were combined in innovative ways by groups not well represented by the existing labor movement. Not preserved in an amber of nostalgia like some highpoints of struggle, these struggles were nonetheless highly significant. The fact that they cannot be glibly classified as victories may in fact make them even more useful to understanding struggles in the present. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 by historian Gordon K. Mantler is a worthy addition to this literature. Focused on efforts to build multiracial alliances, mostly between African Americans and Mexican Americans, it highlights a number of these struggles, showing how assertions of identity, multiracial coalitions, and economic struggles could, for a time, all build together, rather than at the expense of each other.


The notion of multiracial coalitions, or “rainbow coalitions,” can seem natural, or a “no-brainer.” Until recently, the American polity largely excluded non-whites, and, to this day, whites constitute a large majority of the most privileged groups. On the other hand, less privileged, powerful and wealthy groups are also disproportionately non-white. Furthermore, whites are often racist against all those who do not look like them. At the same time, the position of poorer whites could conceivably be strenghthened through an alliance with people of color. However, the author identifies three concrete challenges to the scenario of inevitable multiracial coalitions. First, the history of different racial groups is quite varied, leading to different priorities in the present. Secondly, the evolution of struggle in the US led to an activist hierarchy in which African American leaders saw themselves as the leaders of all oppressed, sometimes folding other groups priorities into their own. Finally, the racial hierarchy in the US is not simply white and non-white. Racism against African Americans is more sharply posed, and other groups have sometimes acted to distance themselves from African Americans, in effect, asserting that they are not so far from whites. All of these emerged as concrete problems in efforts to build coalitions between African Americans and Mexican Americans. On the other hand, continued violence at the hands of police was a shared experience that facilitated unification.