Monday, November 4, 2013

Strategically speaking, it's time to rise up

The Left ought to aspire to relevance

With some awareness of the grandiosity of my ambition, I recently assigned myself the task of describing the way the U.S. Left has wandered through the wilderness these last 40 years or so and what, exactly, the Left ought to start doing about it besides acknowledging its own existence and finding ways to build unity. One critical requirement for writing about such topics is a bit of clarity about where the country is now, how it got that way, and what writers on the Left think about such things.

In "Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six Party System," socialist and veteran peace and justice activist Carl Davidson puts it this way:

"Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particularly gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time (Heaven). It's not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised," Davidson wrote.

Davidson's "Heaven and Earth" metaphor might seem gimmicky, but it grows out of the very useful understanding that strategic thinking requires the broadest possible look at the variables affecting the universe under consideration and that universe is always changing. Davidson's piece wants to take a hard look at that part of the universe conventionally understood as the two-party system; in reality, he argues, "that we live under a six-party system with two labels [Democrat and Republican]."

In the process, Davidson also notes that many would argue "...that the US has only one party, a capitalist party, with two wings, the bad and the worse."

That is, more or less, the position that Chris Hedges, a journalist widely respected by many on the Left, takes in "Our Invisible Revolution." Hedges doesn't even deign to mention Republicans in his piece, but Democrats of all descriptions "are effective masks for corporate power," he writes.

I prefer Davidson's take: The notion that we are actually living under one-party rule "is reductionist to a fault," he writes, "and doesn't tell you much other than that we live in a capitalist society, which is rather trivial." Of course, the point isn't trivial, at all, but Davidson is focussed on describing a complex reality here that includes the Tea Party, the Republican Multinationalists, the Blue Dogs, the 'Third Way' New Democrats, the Old New Dealers and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (and the Progressive Democrats of America). The last grouping, PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus, lies at the heart of Davidson's assertion that it is reductionist and misleading to claim that Republicans and Democrats are simply two wings of one party fronting for and managing on behalf of corporations and capitalism.

The PDA/CPC's "...policy views are Keynesian and, in some cases, social-democratic as well. Its recent 'Back-to-Work Budget' [would serve] as an excellent economic platform for a popular front against finance has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Davidson writes, using such slogans as "'Healthcare Not Warfare' and 'Windmills Not Weapons'." That congressional progressives haven't gotten very far with their agenda doesn't seem to be a function of their alleged role in one-party rule, but the result of political weakness on the Left, the absence of a movement of any sort that could force Congress to take such policy positions seriously.

And speaking of "a movement of any sort," a recent Nation article, by Greg Kaufmann warned about impending food stamp cuts that would adversely affect 48 million people receiving benefits. The piece, titled "This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement," argued that "...when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way."

This is true, of course, but the problem here is that there wasn't anything that the Left could do about the cuts when Congress passed them and the President agreed to them, and there wasn't anything anybody could do to stop them last week, either. On Friday, the budgeted cuts became reality in the lives of millions of households around the country. But as a title for the piece, "No time to wait for a movement" is misleading. We can't just "wait" for a movement to come along, of course, but until we build one, we're going to see more safety net cuts, more government shutdowns and more healthcare debacles.

Hedges seems to feel that a movement is already on the way. "...once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion. No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt [against the corporate state] is coming." Hedges has more to say, but most of it raises a single set of questions in my head: How does he know this? And, where is the evidence?

As a journalist, Hedges has great skill, courage and instincts for the kind of news that the rest of us need to hear and read. But when he's merely sharing his opinion, he's rather like a lot of the rest of us on the Left, full of stories about how we're gathering strength, about how we stopped an American attack on Syria, about how we prevented the appointment of Larry Summers as head of the Fed, or about how Occupy was "...ruthlessly crushed by the corporate state."

But if anybody or anything stopped a Summers appointment, it was the Congressional Progressive Caucus' ability to swing at least a little weight against a possible Obama appointment before it became a certainty. There was a popular outcry on the Left against armed intervention in Syria, to be sure, but ordinary Republican resistance to anything Obama, as we have witnessed repeatedly for the last five years, would have been (and was) more than sufficient to force Obama into a different course of action. Further, if taking away Occupy's tents was, overall, about what it took to crush that movement, then, yes, the corporate state behaved ruthlessly.

It might be past time for a movement, but it ain't gonna happen in advance of a strategy to build it. At the end of his piece, Carl Davidson quotes Alvin Toffler: "If you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."

For a long time now, what has happened to the Left in the U.S. has been part of someone else's strategy.