Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Blaming the Victims

Bill Fletcher Jr. is getting really good at it. His new schtick is basically just that: don't criticize Obama and the Democrats... criticize the Left for "not working hard enough". As he put it in his piece on "enthusiasm" during the 2010 midterm campaigns:
Unfortunately, the main problem rests neither with the Obama administration nor the Democrats in Congress. It rests with the failure of the social forces that elected them to keep the pressure on. Too many of us expected results without continuous demand.
Now, in a sense he's absolutely right. It was a mistake in 2008 to think that Obama would implement progressive reforms absent pressure from the Left. Moreover, it continues to be a mistake to think that we'll win even modest reforms without a left-wing social movement capable of making demands on the system.

But Fletcher's position is a contradictory one. Coupled with this emphasis on social movements and protest (and, sometimes, on "independent formations") is an injunction to submit to the Democrats. I say "submit" because I think that most accurately captures the relationship Fletcher encourages us to take vis-a-vis the Democrats. That is, he wants progressives and leftists to enter the Democrat apparatus, such as it is, and accept all its constraints and limitations without argument. Only then can we begin to agitate. Hence, he makes suggestions like the following:
A number of people, in the midst of justified outrage, have suggested that there needs to be a candidate or candidates to run in the Democratic primaries against President Obama as a way of challenging him. While I understand this view, I think that it does not work as good, progressive political strategy. Progressives are in a position of weakness. It is unlikely that a good, multi-racial, progressive challenge - that has credibility - can be mounted against Obama. I might be wrong. But what is the case is that progressives can mount Congressional challenges and, in that sense, mirror some of what the Tea Party has done on the political Right. I am talking about going after both the Republicans but also the right-wing of the Democratic Party.
Again, the message is that we must work within the Democrat apparatus. But his advice that we try to steer the Democrats leftward by playing their game is not sound. Several points need to be made here.

First, he's wrong about the Tea Party. Though the media has massively overblown and exaggerated their importance and strength, they are not a serious source of power in contemporary American politics. They are more spectacle than substance. And, though this wasn't well understood in the media following the midterms, the "Tea Party" did not do particularly well in the elections. For all the spectacle surrounding nuts like O'Donnell, few of those kinds of wackos actually won elections. The "movement", to the extent that there is one, is bankrolled by billionaires and run by such "grass-roots activists" as Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich. Though the denizens of the Tea Party talk endlessly about being "anti-Washington", they are, in fact, mere tools of the Republican Party. They have no serious power over the GOP itself, but they do help to turn out the party's "base" to try to oust Democrats. This is the most interesting part about Fletcher's interest in this "model": he doesn't seem to grasp that the Tea Baggers are, politics notwithstanding, more or less analogous to PDA, except that the latter receive much less media coverage. That is, both the Tea Baggers and PDA are impotent organizations that are full of sound and fury but which, at the end of the day, signify nothing in the way of serious pull. They are willingly subordinate to one or other of the two major corporate parties.

Second, I don't understand how Fletcher can seriously believe that challenging the Democrats in Congressional primaries is a reasonable way forward. First of all, it is quite difficult to even mount such a challenge: it requires a lot of money and effort, often in the face of better-funded and well-connected candidates. Also, working within the Democrat apparatus means playing by their rules and accepting some of their political terms of debate. Given that progressive organizations have scarce resources, throwing money at primary challenges seems an unwise expenditure (better to spend it on alternative media, grass-roots organizing, movements, etc). For even if a "progressive" Democrat wins the primary, there's still the question of the general election where, in order to receive funds from the DNC, the candidate may have to make further compromises. But say that a progressive Democrat like Schakowsky wins a primary challenge and gets elected. What should we expect to change in Washington? The Prog Caucus is a completely marginalized force in the Party and it is well-known that they cave-in on everything that matters. They are under the thumb of the leadership and have little pull. And, as is well-known, in exchange for the pull they do get they make further and further compromises. The career of Paul Wellstone is a nice case study here.

At the end of the day, the ProgCaucus is a safety valve for the Dems. Their subjective intentions aside, their objective function is to keep progressives from leaving the Democrats by occasionally bubbling up with leftish rhetoric. I'm not convinced we need more of these folks. We need a qualitative alternative.

Third, I don't understand all of the emphasis on elections when Fletcher's whole schtick is that we need to build the movements to pressure elected officials. He spends a lot of time talking about electoral strategizing, the need to hold one's nose and support conservative Democrats, etc. He has a lot to say about what we shouldn't do (support third party candidates, criticize Obama and the DNC, etc.). But what has Fletcher done to build the movements? How do his suggestions help us understand how to build an independent Left?

The Fletcher of the last few months seems more like a critic of the Left than a comrade in struggle. He seems more likely to blame progressives and leftists than to blame those in power. That is a shame. Because he wants to fight for many of the right causes (against the wars, for taxing the rich, and so forth). But he's suggesting that we throw our resources and political energies into a black hole. The Democrats take and take, but they give nothing in return. We need a real alternative, and that means getting outside of the two-party straightjacket. Movements don't emerge out of thin air- they grow out of organizing work and conditions that require struggle. But organizing work doesn't pay for itself- if Fletcher would urge progressives, trade unions, and activist organizations to put all of their resources into building the movements and getting out critical media... the "weak" state of the Left that Fletcher loves to criticize might actually grow stronger. I'm not convinced that a strong Left is possible within either of the two pro-Business parties we have. The Democrats siphon off political energy and defuse it. We need movements that sustain and build the confidence of the Left, and that can only be accomplished outside the ephemeral swells of the televised, corporate election spectacle.


Richard said...

great post

I have been aware of Fletcher's recent attacks upon what passes for left in the US (probably like you, through Proyect), but I haven't taken the time to go through what he says and address it as you have here

your emphasis upon the futility of electoral activity through the Democratic party hits the nail on the head, so much so that I wonder whether people like Fletcher are pushing it as the preferred alternative so as to undermine attempts to built a mass based, direct action oriented, social movement to challenge Obama's policies, and, potentially, beyond that, the US political system itself

I mean, don't they pay any attention to what happens in, say, South America, for example? Ben Dangl has a good book out now, "Dancing with Dynamite", that confronts the question as to how social movements there are often demobilized through incorporation into the electoral process and operate most effectively outside party structures

oh, by the way, I don't agree, at least from Fletcher's liberal perspective, that the social movements failed to organize effectively enough to pressure Obama, actually, they did quite effectively on issues like health care, and got the back of his hand, so, in that sense, I consider his remarks on this subject offensive

now, that wasn't a left effort, but it was one that was strong and consistent, and Obama decided that he'd rather take the punishment at the polls than respond to progressive pressure and give the public what it wanted, like the public option and the ability to purchase lower cost medications from Canada

t said...

I agree about South America- the problem of cooptation there is great- in Bolivia as much as in Venezuela.

I found this article on Bolivia to be generally on target on that point: http://www.isreview.org/issues/73/feat-bolivia.shtml

I'm not sure about Fletcher's intentions, but I would guess he doesn't understand himself to be undermining progressive change... strangely, he seems to think that he's got the only viable strategy, and, as I note in the post, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. That is, he wants to say he's for mass movements and pressure from below, but at the end of the day his tactical suggestions are that we shackle ourselves permanently to the Democrat machine.

Also, agreed on the public option question. There was some pressure, to be sure, re: the public option question. But not the sort of pressure I want to see more of, e.g. like the protests erupting in the UK right now. Of course it's an open question whether such pressure will yield concrete concessions from elected officials... and it's always an open question whether eruptions of this sort can be sustained for any length of time. But history (even recent Latin American history, as you point out) shows quite clearly that sustained, organized movements can force choices upon elites in such a way as to open up space for change (and, in the best of cases, for even more ambitious movement demands).