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.