Friday, September 30, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Chicago, Occupy etc.

Recent photos from occupied Wall Street here. Occupy Chicago here.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Has Obama Done For Black People?

Not much, except facilitate the worsening of their condition. Amidst arresting levels of Black unemployment (official figures indicate 16.7% unemployment, with figures tree times that for Black youth) and massive losses of hard-earned wealth due to the foreclosure crisis, it is clear that Black people are being forced to endure the hard edge of this recession in a particularly intense way. Yet, Obama and the Democrats have done nothing about the problem. In fact, they've made it worse by pushing through austerity. And let's not forget that the Federal Government is threatening to eliminate over 120,000 U.S. Post Office jobs, many of which are held by people of color.

Of course, when ailing financial elites needed liquidity, the Democrats --and the Obama Administration in particular-- wasted no time throwing money at the problem. But when it comes to the social and economic suffering of working people, and of working people of color in particular, we're not just told by Obama and friends that there's no money to solve the problem. We're told that working people must actually give up more, sacrifice more of their meager earnings, and ultimately accept an even lower standard of living. The priorities of the Democratic machine, in this case, are crystal clear.

As the article points out, on a Midwest tour to plug his jobs plan Obama refused to stop in Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit (where there are large Black communities where unemployment is soaring). As Maxine Waters describes it, "The unemployment is unconscionable. We don't know what the strategy is. We don't know why on this trip that he's on in the United States now, he's not in any Black community. We don't know that." I know why. If I wasn't planning to do anything about the economic suffering of millions of people in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, I wouldn't want to stop there either.

Still, apologists for Obama are firing back in an effort to resist any and all criticism from the Left. In an effort to silence critics (especially critics on the Black Left), two prominent strategies seem to have emerged. The first is to collapse left-wing criticisms into those of the reactionary racist right. The move is to paint critics who are calling for an end to the wars and a massive increase in spending aimed at ameliorating the economic suffering of Black people (e.g. Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, among others), with the same brush as Republican reactionaries who are openly racist in their condemnation of Obama. That is slanderous and dishonest. To be sure, there probably are some white liberals who apologized for Clinton but refuse to do the same for Obama because he is Black. And they deserve to be called out for this (racist) double standard. But here's what I say to this. First, it simply doesn't follow from the fact that some liberals have racist double standards that all criticisms of Obama, particularly those from the real Left, are invalid. Second, I reject the inference that because some white liberals refused to criticize Clinton, we should therefore refuse to criticize Obama. That's flatly absurd; let's not endorse tepid liberal apologetics for any U.S. President, Clinton or Obama. Apologetics of this sort are inherently conservative; they give the status quo a veneer of legitimacy that it does not deserve.

The second strategy for silencing criticism, already made famous by the likes of Bill Fletcher Jr., is to deflect all criticism of Obama and the Democrats onto the mistakes of "progressives". In other words, rather than hold the president accountable or demand that he live up to his promises, we should instead place all the blame on "progressives" for not doing anything to make it happen. In short, instead of criticizing power, we should save all our criticism of those who are oppressed by it.

What an excellent strategy! I must say, this really gets me pumped to go out and vote Democrat. I mean, if the Dems do really well in 2012 maybe we can get that elusive super-majority in the Senate, and take back the House, and then things will really start happening! Anyone who thinks we can do better must be an unrealistic cynic.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Health Care Crisis Continues Unabated

"America's top five health insurance companies increased their profits by 56 per cent in 2009 for a combined profit of $12.2bn, the same year that 2.7 million people lost their private health insurance."
Read more here.


Monday, September 26, 2011

"Occupy Wall Street" Frozen Out of US Media

See the Guardian's coverage here, which has included articles by Amy Goodman and others in support of the protesters. See also the Guardian's criticism of U.S. media, particularly the NY Times, for hardly noting the protests at all. See pictures here. There are, to be sure, plenty of things to quibble about re: the tactics of the protesters, but the general thrust of the phenomenon is right on: tax the rich, end the wars, no cuts to social programs.


More on Obama's Faux Left Turn

Matt Taibbi hits the nail on the head:
Hearing Obama talk about jobs and shared prosperity yesterday reminded me that we are back in campaign mode, and Barack Obama has started doing again what he does best--play the part of a progressive. He's good at it. It sounds like he has a natural affinity for union workers and ordinary people when he makes these speeches. But his policies are crafted by representatives of corporate/financial America, who happen to entirely make up his inner circle.
I saw this in Lance Selfa's excellent piece on this morning, "Is Obama a Class Warrior?" which you can read here.


Socialist Politics and the City

A couple of weeks back, I got into a lively debate with some comrades about the role of the city in socialist politics. The debate seemed to dwell on the question of whether the city or the urban form (it's worth noting that those very concepts were contested in the discussion) coheres with (or makes possible) the socialist ideal of a collectively self-governing society free from exploitation and oppression. I won't try to summarize the objections or positions of those with whom I disagreed, since I wouldn't be able to do them justice. But I would like to reflect a bit more about the position I found myself defending in that discussion.

Let me begin by confessing that much of my thinking about these matters is strongly influenced by an article Mike Davis wrote a couple years back for New Left Review. Here's an excerpt that is particularly emblematic of the view he puts forward in that essay:

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human-settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power. But there is no planetary shortage of ‘carrying capacity’ if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence—represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance and human reproduction.
The brilliance of Davis's argument is that he weaves together the ecological genius of urban living with the social and political importance of the city as well. Taking ecological concerns seriously, he argues, requires anti-capitalism. But sustainability also requires urban forms. And, independently of ecological concerns, Davis gives us reasons to think that the socialist ideal has always had a close affinity with the forms of social organization made possible by dense urban communities. All three political concerns -anti-capitalist, ecological and urban- hang together in a kind of equilibrium, each drawing support from the other. I find this to be a a highly plausible and attractive picture.

Before I say more about why I endorse this picture, let me say a little bit about what's essential to the idea of the city. Like any familiar concept, the idea of city carries with it innumerable associations and meanings, not all of which I intend to endorse. As I've noted elsewhere, the idea of "the urban" (or worse, "the inner city") is often a racialized euphemism in the United States. And, given that the U.S. is a racist society, racialization goes hand in hand with devaluation and disparagement. As waves of gentrification wash into neighborhoods previously inhabited by working class people, most of them people of color, this "fear of the city" is beginning to wane among middle class whites. But it's fair to say that there is still a good degree of negative connotations attached to the idea of the city.

By "city", I mean nothing more than a densely populated community in which functional uses are integrated (rather than separated), that is walkable and bikable, where lots of people with very different backgrounds can live together and share many basic social institutions together (e.g. libraries, parks, etc.). I mean a space that makes use of efficiencies created by density, mixed-use, and diversity. Though every city fails to fully embody this ideal, big cities (e.g. Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.) are especially close to it. I'll elaborate more on this ideal in a moment.

Still, attractive though this ideal may be, cities get a bad rap. Cities, it is often said, are dirty, cramped, polluted, dangerous, and concrete-heavy. They embody the worst of capitalist industrialization. According to this common view, if cities are gray and asphalt, suburbs and towns are green and leafy. Suburban living, the story goes, is comfortable, safe, harmonious and, most importantly for "green" politics, loaded with expansive lawns and large trees. Low density residential configurations make for a less concrete-heavy landscape, and strict separation of uses entails that residential spaces are far from industrial spaces. It follows, then, that cities, with all their iniquity, pollution and concrete, are the antithesis of sustainable living. Sustainability requires a suburban home with a Prius parked out front, a new-fangled energy efficient refrigerator full of organic produce, etc.

Though these ideas have wide currency, in point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

As the Davis quote makes clear, we would need several additional earths for everyone on the planet to have the massive single-family McMansion with a big irrigated lawn, a couple of cars, etc. It therefore goes without saying that the McMansion lifestyle cannot be egalitarian or, for that matter, socialist in spirit since it is only possible on the assumption that the majority don't enjoy it.

Moreover, the low-density, use-segregated, car-heavy model of development characteristic of Postwar suburban sprawl has been an unmitigated environmental disaster. It is well-known that this model was pushed by ruling classes after WWII to facilitate economic growth (think of, for instance, the impact of the suburban form on the sales of new construction homes, cars, appliances, etc.). The construction of the interstate highway system, in conjunction with huge subsidies for mortgages in low-density suburban areas, made this model hegemonic for a generation. Its dominance continues, though it is becoming increasingly contested and criticized. Many readers of this blog will already know that I have no love for cars, so I'll set the issue of cars aside for the moment the problem of the environmental costs associated car-exclusive built environments. This leaves many other problems to be dealt with, e.g.: extremely high per capita uses of energy (think of the energy spent heating a McMansion in the winter). Even the surface-level aesthetic credentials of the ideal "green" suburb are dubious. Most suburbs are monotonous nightmares where indigenous plants are uprooted, old trees cut down to make space for useless lawns and tacky landscaping. The suburbs surrounding Chicago, for example, tend to have far fewer trees than the typical street in the city. And let's not forget the worst aspect of the suburban separation of uses: massive, four-lane highways connecting residential subdivisions with other spheres of activity. To say that these are an eyesore is an understatement. And anyone averse to large agglomerations of concrete should want to have nothing to do with them.

But the problems of the suburban form aren't simply ecological. They are socially and politically (and economically) disastrous as well. I'll keep this point brief. They privilege individual consumption over public goods, they alienate individuals from one another, they encourage consumerist ideologies by leaving little space for non-commercial social interactions among people, they are planned in a top-down manner by developers in conjunction with national (and multi-national) corporations, they are often racially exclusive, and many are little more than quasi-feudal gated "communities" meant to keep out those who aren't sufficiently wealthy. It has also been noted (by Davis, among others) that the low-density spatial configuration of suburbs makes organization and collective action less likely to transpire (compared with a dense, urban working-class neighborhood where residents would be far more likely to unite and fight).

So much for suburbia. What's the alternative?

The only viable alternative, I'd like to suggest, is the city. But not everyone on the Left agrees with that claim. Anarcho-primitivists, for example, argue that the city isn't the only alternative to suburbia. In fact, according to their view, we should reject cities for similar reasons and return to pre-capitalist forms of social organization, e.g. agriculture-based communes, that predate the industrial revolution.

I could spend several posts saying why this view is wrong, so I'll have to be unfairly brief here. My objections to primitivism are as follows. First of all, as Marxist, I am not unequivocally negative about Modernity. I am ambivalent: modernity has brought with it all kinds of progressive possibilities for developing human potential, but it has also brought vastly increased environmental destruction and new forms of exploitation and oppression. In classical Marxism, the ambivalence toward modernity (which, under any plausible interpretation of modern, has to be loosely synonymous with capitalism) expresses itself as follows. On the one hand, capitalism has developed the forces of production (e.g. technologies, productive instruments, productive techniques, technically useful knowledge) to an extremely high degree. But the highly developed productive forces and technology in capitalist society are not put in the service of human liberation. Though we can do so today in ways that would have been unthinkable in the Bronze Age, capitalism doesn't use the productive forces to eradicate all forms of poverty, suffering, and starvation. Technological innovation is not put in the service of developing human potential or creating green/sustainable living. Rather it is put in the service of generating ever growing profits. As far as the default mode of the system is concerned, it's all about the bottom line, all the time, and in the long run that the bottom line requires endless compound economic growth. It's not hard to see that this spells destruction for the natural environment.

But that destruction isn't the result of technology, industry, and cities as such, as primitivists would argue. Environmental degradation is the result of the social/political system of capitalism, i.e. an apparatus which generates and uses technology for purposes other than human need and ecological considerations. So the culprit is our political system, not technology and the urban form itself. A sustainable, green socialist society need not dispense with all technologies developed after the emergence of capitalism. That would be absurd. After the revolution, I'd still like to have modern plumbing thank you very much. And aside from improving human lives in innumerable other ways, many technologies enable efficiencies that reduce per capita energy consumption and waste.

And let us not even begin to list the incredible forms of knowledge, association, culture, and so forth that have been enabled by modern technological developments. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should radically change the uses that capitalism puts technology to. And we should radically change the way that technological innovation proceeds under capitalism, and put in the service of worthier goals. And, to be sure, many technologies currently in vogue in capitalist societies will need to be abandoned, chief among them the personal automobile as a primary means for each individual to get around. So much for primitivism.

So if I'm right, that leaves us with the city as an ideal form of socialist community. I've set this up as a negative, indirect argument for the city using the process of elimination. But I don't think that's the main thing the city has going for it.

Aside from the environmental gains to be made from consolidating space, eliminating waste, and creating efficiencies from the shared use of public institutions and utilities, there are social and political benefits that attach to city life as well. As Davis points out, the possibilities for spontaneous social interaction and the propensity to feel a sense of shared fate make the urban form an excellent accompaniment to the socialist ideal of a free community of equals, or an association of free producers. Furthermore, if socialist politics privilege the common good and public wealth over private gain and individual greed, then cities are an excellent physical embodiment of the socialist ideal. Rather than hiding our interdependence on one another, cities lay it bare in a way that other forms of structuring communities do not. Cities also unleash human potential and creativity in ways that no other social form can. The sheer density of interesting and creative people living in close proximity to one another creates the possibility for endless combinations of different approaches, lifestyles, artistic endeavors, and projects. If socialism is about making human development, rather than profit, the priority of social production, I can think of no better means than the best aspects of dense urban spaces.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Compare and Contrast

This psychopath commits horrifying acts of murder and may even get out of prison at some point if he shows "good behavior". But for a black man in Georgia, who was sentenced to death on what was quite obviously faulty evidence, we were told by the powers that be that execution was absolutely necessary. The message from above is clear: the lives of white cops and soldiers matter more than the lives of black men and Afghani children.


On "Class Reductionism"

In some circles, it goes without saying that Marxism (or, at least, Classical Marxism, or first generation Marxism or whatever) is "class reductionist". I think it's worth spending a moment just trying to get clear on what the charge is supposed to be. To be sure, I think some version of it applies to some (not all) figures on the Marxist Left. I don't mean to suggest that the charge is inherently frivolous or misguided. Still, in my experience, the objection is thrown around so loosely that it's often not clear exactly what's being said. For this reason I've taken to simply asking those pushing the objection to explain what it means before trying to defend Marxism from the charge.

One gloss on "class reductionism" goes as follows. It is the mistake of reducing all forms of oppression, e.g. racism, to economic inequalities. I've encountered some who seem to think that this means that Marxists understand racial oppression to boil down to income inequality or stratification. I've encountered others who claim that Marxists conflate race with "socio-economic status". (Aside: I despise the term "socio-economic status". People seem to say it instead of class because it sounds more technical and "official". But it's a conceptual mess that obscures more than it clarifies. I really wish people would just say "class", even if they misuse the concept. If nothing else, it rolls of the tongue much more effortlessly.)

Others would say that "class reductionism" isn't a view about what explains what. It is, rather, a normative mistake that ascribes unequal importance or significance to, say, racism and class disparities. On this view, class reductionists just don't think that racism is as important as class to study or fight against.

For others, "class reductionist" is tantamount to a strong kind of eliminativism. This version of "class reductionism" holds that because talk of race and gender oppression can be reduced to talk of income inequality, it follows that talk of race and gender should be eliminated in favor of a political lexicon that is entirely based around the concepts of income inequality, stratification, etc. Some eliminativists even claim that there is something wrong with talk about race and gender, viz. that it obscures the real heart of the matter: income inequality. This seems to be the position of Walter Benn-Michaels, aptly dubbed the "Glenn Beck of the contrarian left" by Richard Seymour. This is basically a version of the familiar racist ideology of colorblindness, albeit with a generally left flavor.

If Marxism were class reductionist in any of the above senses, I too would reject it. But it's not clear that Marxism makes any of these claims. The normative mistake has been made by Marxist as well as non-Marxist socialists, to be sure. And they should be ruthlessly criticized for having made the mistake. As Trotsky argued, the "mistake" is usually connected to latent racism among some in the working class movement. Trotsky said of this phenomenon that "the argument that the slogan for self-determination leads away from the class point of view is an adaptation of the ideology of the white workers". "The Negro", Trotsky argued in 1939, "can be won to the class point of view only when the white worker is educated", i.e. only when white workers are disabused of racist beliefs, when racism is smashed within the labor movement. I don't think the normative mistake is a feature of Marxism as such, in fact, I would argue, Marxism speaks against abstractly and inflexibly ascribing unequal significance to race and class. As a form of analysis that looks at concrete conjunctures as dialectical totalities, Marxism is attuned to the combined and uneven development of economic and political formations. This is what underlies some of the best Marxist scholarship, e.g. on questions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, on colonialism and imperialism, on national liberation struggles, permanent revolution, etc.

Moreover, Marxism makes no claims to the effect that racial oppression boils down to differences in income or "socio-economic status". First off, Marxism does not trade in concepts such as "stratification" or "socio-economic status" at all. Marxism offers a very rigorous, relational definition of class that differs in many respects from the ordinary language use of the term in everyday speech. The basic Marxist complaint against liberal income-based approaches to inequality is that they wrongly take income inequalities to be sui generis. They don't explain what it is about our economic system that produces income inequalities. Marxism, on the other hand, sees income disparities as deriving from more fundamental asymmetrical relations of power that are rooted in the material conditions of modern societies.

It is a fact that the material conditions of the U.S. social order, from the very beginning, have been structured by racial oppression, just as it is a fact that racial oppression itself grew out of a set of material conditions. U.S. capitalism literally comes into being, dripping from every pore, covered in blood and dirt. Let's not forget that capitalism comes of age in the context of expropriations of indigenous populations, colonial extraction of natural resources, and the enslavement of human beings -in short, what Marx called "primitive (or primary) accumulation". Modern racism emerges out of European colonial expansion and the slave trade. It grows out of a need to justify the enslavement, domination and subordination of non-white peoples to needs of the ruling classes of Europe. Thus, racism and capitalism co-originated in a complex dialectic of mutual development. Racial oppression has been a basic feature of the functioning of the system since its inception. It would be foolish to think that racism could simply fade away without being decisively uprooted by struggle against its historical and material bedrock. It should be clear that no Marxist worth her salt could, on the basis of the analysis above, endorse an eliminativist position.

So, for Marxists, disparities in income, job and educational opportunities, etc. are explained by an critical analysis of the material conditions of social life. What a historical materialist analysis of the system reveals, however, isn't just that racism is a basic feature of basic structure of society. It also reveals that capitalism, as a mode of production, is shot through with contradictions. One contradiction is that the interests of the two most important classes in capitalist societies, workers and capitalists, are diametrically opposed. If workers want a shorter work day, better pay, safer conditions, more voice in the workplace, capitalists want the opposite. But, the clash between workers and capitalists isn't a fair fight. Capitalists have a lot of advantages on their side: a legal system meant to service their needs and stop workers from organizing, a repressive state apparatus ready to defend their interests in moments of conflict (e.g. by breaking strikes), a political system beholden to their interests, etc. We could go on. What this reveals is that class relations, such as the relation between workers and capitalists, are asymmetrical relations of power. The fundamental problem, then, isn't that capitalists enjoy higher levels of consumption than workers. It's not that capitalists possess more stuff than workers that, at the end of the day, is the fundamental problem with capitalist social relations. It's what the capitalists can do to others with the stuff they possess that matters. In other words, Marxists don't fundamentally worry themselves with looking into whether abstract individuals, off in their own corners, are consuming unequal amounts of stuff. Marxists are concerned with social relationships, rooted in the material conditions of capitalist societies, that exhibit exploitation, oppression or domination.

Is Marxism, then, in any sense "class reductionist"? Not if we go by the senses of "class reductionist" examined earlier.

Still, I can imagine further charges of class reductionism that could be leveled at Marxism here. Someone could argue that Marxists are reductionist insofar as they don't understand racial oppression (or any other form of oppression) to be particular particulars, sui generis and completely autonomous from one another. The charge clearly sticks; Marxists indeed do not think that racism, for example, is totally sui generis. Marxism holds that no single part of the social life can be fully understood when torn apart from other features about modern societies and history. Marxists view society as a totality with complex dialectically mediated interconnections between various parts. But does that make one reductionist? I don't see that it does.

Marxists, on the basis of a concrete, materialist analysis of historical development, will argue that we can't understand modern racism without seeing how and why it emerges when and where it does. We don't fully grasp modern racism without learning about European colonialism, imperialism, and the battles for economic/political dominance between the ruling elites of different European empires. Does that mean that racism is reducible to its historical origins? Hardly. Here Marxists must emphasize that ours is a dialectical social theory. That means that racism and class exploitation develop such that there is causal interaction going both ways; the two reciprocally interact, co-evolve, inflect one another, in a dance of mutual reinforcement and tension (one sometimes pulling more strongly against the other and vice versa). Reduction of one to the other elides the dialectical structure of Marxism as a tool for social analysis.

This isn't idle academic squabbling. Getting clear on how forms of oppression are rooted in the system, and therefore bound up with other forms of oppression, is of immense practical significance. This insight underlies the political tactics and strategies of the Marxist left. Most importantly, it shows that an anti-racism that fails to uncover the ways that capitalism reinforces, exacerbates and consolidates racial oppression is doomed to failure. It also shows that an anti-capitalism that doesn't grasp the racial domination written to the very infrastructure of the U.S. economic system is similarly doomed to failure and defeat.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More on Rahm vs. Teachers



Saturday, September 17, 2011

Some Reflections on Obama's Jobs Bill

I know I'm weighing in a bit late here, but I'd like to say a little bit about the "jobs bill" proposed by Obama.

As always, I think a bit of context is important here. It's not unfair to say that this is too little too late. Obama has spent the lion's share of his tenure in the White House thus far pandering to ruling class interests. From the large share of Goldman alums he brought into his cabinet to the billion dollar bank bailouts, to the extension of Bush's tax breaks for the rich, Obama has time and time again proven his pro-business credentials. And he has time and time again thrown progressives under the bus in order to do it.

Moreover, the recent charade over the debt ceiling evinced a deep-seated allegiance to the interests of finance capital. During that debacle, polls routinely showed widespread disillusionment with the whole mess, and growing anxiety over soaring unemployment figures. Since the onset of the global crisis -and with it, mass unemployment- there has been a need at the Federal level for a comprehensive jobs plan. But Obama has done nothing and said nothing about this problem, until now. Even if it were a serious plan, which it isn't, it would still be too little too late. And even if it did have serious progressive content, which it doesn't, it is little more than a rhetorical campaign move, since Obama is well aware that Congress won't pass it. It's a low-risk move, since he can externalize responsibility by blaming the fact that it doesn't pass on the reactionary Republicans. But anyone who's paid attention during the last 3 years knows that this is little more than a cheap trick. It's not the Republicans who've stopped the Democrats from pursuing modest reforms aimed at easing the pain of working people during the worst crisis since the Depression. It's been the Democrats themselves who've put the breaks of reform. A quick glance at their record during the period when they held supermajorities confirms this. They don't "lack backbone". They simply don't aim to do anything that seriously challenges the pro-business consensus in Washington that grounds the Democratic Party as much as the Republican Party.

On the environment, Obama reversed his position on offshore drilling and came to the defense of the corporate crooks running BP. In Afghanistan, Obama has actually expanded operations. On the Arab Spring, Obama had the same position as his Republican predecessors: keep repressive client regimes "stabilized", arm authoritarian monarchies to the teeth to put the break on popular uprisings, and maintain control of the region given its political/economic significance for global competition. On tax breaks for the super rich, Obama pushed to extend Bush's policies rather than roll them back. On the question of budget cuts, Obama and the Democrats have been more than willing to make punishing cuts to the arts, health care, student aid, education and public transport. On education, Obama and the Democrats have embraced and repackaged Bush's No Child Left Behind while taking a fierce anti-teacher position that would make Reagan blush. On the bank bailouts, Obama continued Bush's policies and defended CEO bonuses. All of these positions were shared by the Democrats in Congress, and by the National party apparatus in general. A progressive party they are not. A party of the people they are not. To blame all of this on the Republicans is to suggest that the Democrats have no agency of their own. But they do have agency, and what they choose to do with it is to butter up the haves at the expense of the have nots.

But what about the content of the "jobs bill"? I haven't looked at it closely, but it's my understanding that it suffers from many of the same problems as the stimulus bill. It is, first of all, much too small to deal with the problem. This isn't a fuzzy, touchy-feely affair: the scale of the problem is objective and easily observed by glancing at unemployment figures. Second, the bill includes a disproportionate share of tax breaks which will do little to address unemployment. The idea that tax breaks for corporations always increases their likeliness to invest in new jobs is discredited nonsense. There is no such automatic relationship, as recent events make crystal clear. And, of course, this bill still does nothing to address the basic contradictions that produced this crisis in the first place. Nor does the bill do anything to address the huge loss of purchasing power and the large levels indebtedness that the working class has sustained as a result the crisis. It would be far too generous to say the bill is weaksauce. It's more like watered down weaksauce lite, except we won't even get to try it because it won't get passed. So I guess it's more like a TV advertisement for weaksauce lite that we're forced to watch even though we can't afford to buy it.

Some liberals are rejoicing that this is the "Obama we voted for in 2008", but that is crazy. They're being taken for a ride.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rahm vs. Teachers

Before he was elected, Rahm made no secret of his desire to smash the ability of Chicago teachers to have a voice in their workplace. His campaign rhetoric was loaded with anti-union sabre-rattling as well as heaps of praise for privatization/charters. He garnered large swaths of business support with "tough" statements threatening to neutralize the influence of teachers over their own work conditions. His tone was bellicose and uncompromising. This is, after all, the same person who publicly said "fuck the UAW" and called left-leaning supporters of the Democratic Party "fucking morons". So, when you think about it, all of Rahm's anti-teacher baggage was to be expected, given his background in the corporate world and Chicago machine politics. His tenure in the Obama Administration, notable for its glowing embrace and ambitious extension of Bush's failed education policies, did little to assuage fears that Rahm would come down hard on teachers as mayor of Chicago.

But the most recent assault on Chicago teachers is a low blow, even for Rahm.

On labor day, no less, Rahm and Co. engineered a stunt that resulted in 3 CPS schools allegedly voting to waive the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) contract. Rahm (and the virulently anti-union big Chicago media empires like the Tribune) have lauded this as a huge step forward for "school reform". Glowing endorsements of these "courageous" teachers have surfaced all over the business-friendly media landscape in Chicago. What's going on here?

Let me fill you in on the background: The CTU is 30,000 strong, and has a contract with CPS in place which includes a clause that enables particular schools to waive aspects of the contract if the members vote to do so. Rahm ran for mayor pledging to extend the school day in Chicago without paying the teachers a dime for their increased work day. Of course, when workers are unionized into a 30,000 strong union, you can't just push them around the way that charter school administrators push around their non-union personnel. Unions are organs of workplace democracy that give workers a voice and the power to force bosses to listen. So, naturally, Rahm understood that he wouldn't be able to persuade the teachers to increase their work day substantially without paying them for the extra work they'd be doing. He understood that he'd have to ram it down their throats; negotiation, he must have thought, would be a waste of time. Of course, the teachers still have a potent weapon to resist his onslaught: the ability to shut down the entire CPS system with a 30,000-strong teachers strike. So, in the uncompromising, strong-armed manner for which he is infamous, Rahm used his Washington-insider connections to push through a bill in Springfield that legally restricts the right of teachers to go on strike. This doesn't, strictly speaking, mean that the teachers won't still strike; many public sector strikes are technically illegal. But it gives Rahm and his corporate allies yet another weapon in their union-busting arsenal. Succinctly put: Rahm wants to force the teachers to work longer hours for less pay, and, naturally, the teachers want, god forbid, to be compensated for the work that they do. Of course, teachers already do a large amount of uncompensated labor (e.g. grading, lesson-planning, etc.) and many contribute large amounts of their own money in order to purchase necessary school supplies for their students. They're already sacrificing a great deal. If there was a shred of justice in this system, the CPS teachers would first get fully compensated for the unpaid work they're already doing, and only then would a conversation about extending the school day take place.

It is in this context that we must understand Rahm's recent stunt. What happened was that Rahm and his allies engineered a "vote" among teachers at 3 CPS schools to extend the workday and thereby waive the CTU contract. From Rahm's perspective, this is tantamount to "courageous" teachers willingly accepting a lengthening of their workday for the sake of the "greater good". In his ideal world, all of the CTU would simply roll over and work longer hours. This would, of course, fix all of the social ills of our society, and puppy dogs and ice cream would float down from the sky.

Now, aspects of Rahm's position appear to have merit if you know nothing about the political context, or the concrete details of the "votes" (which I'll get to in a moment). And, predictably, this event has been given a context-free, tendentious portrayal in the business-friendly Chicago media. But, situated in the context of a general assault on working class living standards, and a particularly focused and dogged attack on public school teachers, it's clear enough that this is little more than a bid to undermine the CTU's ability to resist the coming onslaught from above. Despite all of the soaring rhetoric about "reform", this move has little to do with improving education as such.

But what about the details of the votes? Every day, more and more damning facts have come to light. First off, CPS had to bribe the teachers in order to get the votes they needed. They offered teachers increased compensation, and in some cases I'm told that teachers were offered iPads and other electronic goodies for their classrooms. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per school in increased compensation. Of course, this is only 3 out of 600 schools in the system. If CPS has the money to increase compensation no a system-wide scale, why are they crying poor and demanding that teachers accept longer hours for zero pay in the first place? Second, there is also evidence that teachers and other staff were under intense pressure from above to vote the way that they did. In addition, there is reason to think that protocol (as outlined in the legally binding CTU contract) may not have been properly followed, throwing into question the legal basis of the whole stunt.

Still, set that aside. Suppose these 3 schools really did have bottom-up, teacher-driven elections, and suppose that they did vote to extend their workday for increased compensation packages. What would this show?

It's unclear. This only 3 out of 600 schools. That's 0.5% of the CPS system. Since when does a 0.5% vote tally on anything signal a major news event? And if the teachers did willingly accept longer hours for increased pay, doesn't that cast doubt on the whole "work longer, get paid the same" argument put forward by Rahm and his minions? As I said above, if CPS extended the increased compensation on a system-wide scale, they'd already be on their way to giving the teachers what they've asked for in terms of raises and increased pay for increased work hours.

But these facts, inconvenient though they may be for Rahm, aren't going to slow down the assault on teachers. Only increased struggle can stop the onslaught. Sooner or later, Rahm will provoke a showdown in a bid to crush them once and for all. What our side needs to do is prepare patiently for this by building community support, building solidarity among the working class, and educating potential allies about the power politics playing out here. Rahm's aim, itself part of a national (global, in fact) political/economic trend, is to crush the bargaining power of public sector unions in order to push through cuts and austerity. Rahm is merely doing what the Scott Walkers and the Georgios Papandreous of the world have been doing for months. Through Tax Increment Financing schemes (basically huge slushfunds controlled by the mayor that are funded by skimming revenues from property taxes), he's continuing to funnel money to unaccountable corporate firms who need "inducements" and "incentives" to do business in Chicago. But Rahm and the city machine can't be bothered to give the teachers the pay they deserve or treat educators with respect. The priorities are clear.

Should the school day be lengthened in Chicago? Perhaps. It's not the silver bullet that Rahm makes it out to be, and it won't fix the structural social and economic problems that produce educational inequalities in the first place. But maybe it would do a bit of good and add some marginal benefits to the education system in Chicago. I'm not in a position to say one way or the other. But this much is clear: whether not the day should be lengthened should be decision that educators make themselves, democratically, in consultation with community groups and parents. It should not be decreed from on high by political cheerleaders for the privatization and corporatization of education. And should teachers be asked to work longer hours, they absolutely must be compensated for doing so. Moreover, as I say, teacher should get paid for all of the extra labor that they already perform before they are asked to do more uncompensated work. One has only to recall that many Democrats, Obama included, defended the bonuses raked in by bank bailout recipients to see the duplicity at work here. These robber barons, we were told, "earned" every dollar of compensation they received. Without such high pay, the old argument goes, these "exceptionally talented" simply wouldn't work in finance and the company would not be able to compete. The astronomical bonuses were necessary to motivate the "talented rich" to do the great things they do (e.g. like wrecking the global economy for a generation). But, you know, when it comes to rank and file educators, they're overpaid at $40,000/yr and should be worked much harder for less money, and so on...

One final thing. If I hear another oblivious liberal from somewhere outside of Chicago tell me that it "must be cool to have Obama's right hand man as mayor" I think I may have to puke on their shoes. First off, Rahm is a right-winger, even by the tepid standards of the Democratic Party. Second, his old "boss" is just as bad as he is. Here's an excerpt from Obama's Labor Day speech:

"When union workers agree to pay freezes and pay cuts, they're not doing it just to keep their jobs, they're doing it so that their fellow workers, their fellow Americans can keep their jobs."

"When teachers agree to reforms on how schools are run, at the same time they're digging into their pockets for supplies for those kids, they do so because they believe every child can learn. They do it because they know something that those seek to divide us don't understand. We are all in this together. That's why those crowds came out to support you in Madison and Columbus. We are one nation. We are one people. We will rise and we will fall together."

Translation: workers must accept living standard cuts because otherwise "we" (by which he means the government and the ruling class) will be "forced" to lay them off. It's not as if there are any other options here... like taxing the rich, ending the wars, and rebuilding US infrastructure with a major public works plan. Yes, Obama and the ruling class are literally "forced" to either push down living standards or fire workers and drive up unemployment even further.

And how about all of this "we're all in this together" rhetoric? It's funny, it only surfaces when the ruling classes need something from the rest of us. When they're banking, I don't remember them calling me up talking about how we're all in it together as far as the profits are concerned. And I don't recall hearing this "we rise and fall together" line when Obama was extending the Bush tax cuts at the same time that he slashed spending on health care, education and public transportation. If we're "all in this together", why doesn't he shield workers from all cuts by raising the marginal tax rate and ending the costly imperial ventures abroad? Because Obama is for Wall Street, not the jobless. He represents the ruling class, not the people.

Take note here. When it comes to cuts and sacrifices, suddenly "we're" all in it together. Suddenly gaping inequalities, racial hierarchies and oppression all disappear and, for the purposes of distributing sacrifices and burdens amongst the masses, we're one big happy family helping each other out. But when it comes to record profit margins, there is no "we" to speak of. When it's a matter of big private profits, Obama prefers to stick to the Reaganite refrain that the rich deserve their wealth because, well, "they've earned it". He makes sound as if the rest of us, working ever longer hours for stagnant wages to make this society run, are the ones getting a free ride. It's a simple formula: prosperity for the few, austerity for the many. And Democrat and Republican alike endorse it through and through.