Political Change and Continuity in the Dominican Republic

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A defaced campaign poster of President Abinader. Credit: Amaury Rodríguez.

The presidential election of 2020 in the Dominican Republic—which took place within the context of the global economic and health crisis ignited by the Covid-19 pandemic—was the most significant since 1996. Seen as a referendum on democratization and an indictment of never-ending political graft scandals, the electoral defeat of the center-right Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party, PLD) by the liberal, catchall party Partido Revolucionario Moderno (Revolutionary Modern Party, PRM) marked an abrupt end to its twenty-year political dominance. Except for a short interregnum (2000-2004), the PLD controlled every sphere of political life since 1996 in close alliance with Washington and the Dominican far right led by former collaborators of the Trujillo dictatorship (1930-1961).

Más de los mismo (more of the same) is a popular expression within Dominican culture, which highlights the lack of political changes. This expression can easily apply to the economic policy guiding the current administration. When President Abinader ran as a candidate, he stressed the inequality that plagued the years of governance under the Dominican Liberation Party. His presidential platform highlighted how economic growth benefited the upper middle class and the elite. He also stressed that the Dominican Republic’s development economic model provided economic growth to a small sector of the population. This message, combined with the message of fighting corruption, catapulted Abinader to the office of the presidency in 2020.1

Nonetheless, when Abinader commenced his presidential term, the first political decision he undertook was to appoint Héctor Valdez Albizu, who was instrumental in implementing the current neoliberal model in the Dominican Republic, president of the Central Bank. This economic model has three critical pillars: a) liberalization of the economy, b) growth via incurring into foreign debt, b) attacking the working class. Thus, the head of the Dominican Central Bank has similar powers as the dominant role other Central Bank presidents played in the hemisphere such as Domingo Felipe Cavallo in Argentina during the process of liberalization of the economy or Alan Greenspan in the United States.

Indeed, the real process of economic liberalization began when the PLD took power in 1996. At the time, neoliberal policies were sweeping Latin America, and the PLD did not hesitate to jump on the bus of this economic transformation with adverse consequences for the Dominican working class. The first target of the liberalization process was the state-owned enterprises such as the state electric company and others. The narrative used to enchant the population was that privatization would help to eradicate the inefficiency and corruption that plagued those companies. The reality was different, however, and it was to sell those companies to foreign multinationals or local business interests and for elected officials who participated in the process of selling, to enrich themselves with kickbacks. The current president of the Central Bank played a critical role in that process.

But the process of privatization also brought another reality regarding economic resources. The state enterprises represented a source of revenue for the state, and without that source of revenue, the state had to find new resources. One of the options was to tax the Dominican elite but that option was immediately discarded.

Dominican reformist politics

The emergence of the PLD in the Dominican political landscape began in the 1970s when societies faced complex political, economic, and social challenges. Founded by Juan Bosch (1909-2001) in 1973 after leaving the nominally social-democrat Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), which he and others founded in Cuba in the 1940s, the PLD was, in all essence, a reformist bourgeois party. However, the party leadership concealed its true colors by making use of progressive language, a posture that would prove successful for party building as the crisis and divisions facing the Dominican left had no end in sight. Bosch built a base of loyal supporters due to his role in the anti-dictatorial resistance abroad, and his proven credentials as a democratic politician as he became the first democratically elected president in 1963 after thirty years of dictatorial regime. Overthrown in a military coup seven months later, Bosch’s party at the time, the PRD, led the 1965 democratic revolution that sought to restore constitutional order and democratic liberties, playing a central role in the anti-imperialist resistance against the US military intervention that same year.

In a political landscape dominated by two main capitalist parties, on one side the right-wing Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) and on the other the center-left Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), the emergence of a third party offered a sense of respite from traditional politics, disrupting bipartidism in the process. The PLD’s early reformist orientation eventually solidified the party as a left-wing pole of attraction during the 1980s. Early on, Bosch had envisioned the PLD as a political instrument to fulfill the task of national liberation under the leadership of the petit bourgeoisie class, a social class assigned a “historical role” in his political writings. The party’s outlook did not only reflect Bosch’s ideas about the origins of capitalism in the Dominican Republic and the implications in the fight for national liberation, but it also reflected the class interests of some of its leading members. In fact, the bulk of the PLD’s membership had become—or were en route to become—young professionals who hailed from lower and middle-class strata. Among the party membership were some conservative opportunists and former collaborators of the Trujillo dictatorship who cloaked their right wing, authoritarian sympathies under the guise of pseudo-progressive language.

In a 1986 interview, Bosch admitted that the PLD was leftist without a socialist program.2 Unlike the old reformist PRD of yesteryear—a mass, left-of-center, populist, pro-capitalist party with active labor, radical and anti-imperialist wings—the PLD did not claim to represent the working-class or other popular sectors.

Over time, three critical factors eventually helped the PLD under Bosch’s leadership consolidate its position as the “truly leftist reformist party” vis-à-vis the PRD. First, the Stand-by Arrangement of the Dominican government led by the Dominican Revolutionary Party, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), marked a period of discontent within the progressive segment of the coalition that first catapulted the PRD to power in 1978. The second factor was the attraction that the new reformist party had on Dominican leftists who gradually abandoned revolutionary politics: from renowned radical fighters and unionists to artists and intellectuals of great standing and political prestige.

Finally, the third factor that contributed to the rise of the PLD was the internal division of the PRD. Beginning in 1982, when the presidential candidate Salvador Jorge Blanco (1926-2010) won the election, a civil war erupted inside the PRD. Two factions emerged: one led by president Salvador Jorge Blanco, who represented the elite segment inside the PRD, and the other faction led by Jacobo Majluta, who served as vice-president to former president Antonio Guzmán Fernández and as interim president for 41 days after the president committed suicide. In 1986, as the PRD presidential candidate, Jacobo Majluta (1934-1996) lost the election against the Social Christian leader Joaquín Balaguer (1906-2002). In short, the weakness of the PRD within the Dominican political landscape—exacerbated by the loss of popular support after state repression quelled anti-IMF mobilizations in 1984—served the growth of the PLD in the late 1980s.

The PLD shifts to the right

With the beginning of the 1990s, the shift to the right of the PLD began to be more noticeable. Two factors accelerated the internal transformation of the party. First, the loss of the 1990 presidential elections in which the PLD was perceived as the winner, but Joaquín Balaguer was able to retain power by manipulating the election results with the support of the Dominican elite and the United States, opened the door to question the so-called leftist tendency inside the party.  Due to pressure from the conservative wing of the party, the PLD had to change its mantra from that of a center-left party to a centrist party that incorporated segments of the conservative elite if the party wanted not just to win an election but the recognition of that election by the elite.

The second critical factor was the tectonic change in the geopolitical sphere between the Soviet Union and the West led by the United States. In the 1990s and on the onset of the fall of the Communist regimes, the PLD leadership consolidated the shift of the party to the right when it openly embraced bourgeois ideology in a move that propelled it into the arms of Washington and local archconservative elites. For a segment of the party leadership, the world changed, and the struggle of ideology became an obsolete political tool of the past. This perception was in tune with conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his now infamous book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he described the so-called victory of the West as the end of human beings’ ideological evolution in support of Western values. This new realignment coupled with Juan Bosch’s inability to lead due to declining health and his eventual death in 2001, posed a dilemma for the leadership: how to maintain party unity and preserve its “progressive” image for public consumption while engaging in political duplicity. Over the years, the chameleonic PLD leaders—who were invested in restructuring economic and social relations in tandem with the free-market—adopted, as in a masquerade ball, multiple political colors, depending on the occasion, in the hopes of retaining and gaining support. Moreover, progressive language and periodical invocations of the deceased leader served the PLD as subterfuge to deceive, disorient and confuse both opposition parties and voters.

As the crisis of the left intensified, the PLD leadership began to position itself beyond left-right ideologies, preaching the virtues of capitalism at every opportunity. Aware of the particularities of Dominican politics, which is pretty much acute and sensitive to international political trends, the PLD leadership spent a great amount of time making vague references to Anglo-political conservative, neoliberal and anti-progressive realignments such as Clintonism and Tony Blair’s Third Way. That is not to say that these two neoliberal heads of state did not influence the thinking of peledeistas (PLD members), but the seeds to embark on privatization of public holdings to further dismantle basic services like healthcare and education were already there.

Further, small but popular gestures like establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba were meant to appease the left while the leadership argued that the party’s ideology was neither left or right; it continued to spew center-left and progressive rhetoric despite its alliance with fascists from the Fuerza Nacional Progresista (Progressive National Force, FNP), a minuscule far-right party whose influence (and resources) grew because of its alliance with the party in power. By the time those at the helm no longer felt guilt for espousing their reactionary ideology, the PLD leadership had already adopted a traditional, patriotic and nationalist identity.

Some within the party, for instance, former president Leonel Fernández, claimed to be political heirs of right-wing strongman and close-U.S. ally Joaquín Balaguer whose regime (1966-1978) killed thousands including left-wing revolutionaries.

Furthermore, the PLD came to power in 1996 through an electoral alliance with Balaguer and other right-wing political actors. Calling themselves the Frente Patriotico (Patriotic Front), the PLD and the Right launched a coordinated racist campaign to derail the presidential candidacy of José Francisco Peña Gómez (1937-1998), a Black Dominican of Haitian origin who was one of the leaders of the 1965 democratic revolution that sought to restore Bosch to power after a right-wing US-backed military coup in 1963.

During its heyday in power, the PLD leadership accumulated immense personal wealth and built a massive clientelist base. A key pillar of their success was figuring out that money could buy loyalty. The party leadership was also willing to undermine the Dominican political system, if it suited them, by buying the leadership of opposition parties.

The formerly petty bourgeois, and now nouveau riche, millionaire PLD leadership thus announced their intention to perpetuate their regime. Following in the footsteps of Mexico’s constitutional dictatorship under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) and reviving the local authoritarian tradition implanted by the Trujillo and Balaguer regimes, the peledeista political class expressed a desire to cling to power for forty years, that is, until the year 2036. The leadership’s voracious greed and appetite for power accelerated what seemed like an irreversible authoritarian turn.3

Resistance from below

Akin to a party-state electoral machine, and in some ways like its predecessors, the PLD used state violence to remain in power. However, what set the PLD apart was its reliance on other forms of social control aimed at creating consensus and legitimacy. For example, due to limited employment opportunities in semi-colonial capitalist societies, government jobs, career advancement and scholarships to prestigious universities abroad are enticing to activists and intellectuals.

In that sense, the PLD co-opted some radical sectors but, at the same time, those who were able to repel the PLD’s coercion and corrupting tentacles played a significant role in leading the popular resistance that over the years helped galvanize opposition to PLD governments under both former presidents Leonel Fernández (1996–2000, 2004–2012) and Danilo Medina (2012–2016, 2016–2020).

It took years of struggle, in fact, to bring the PLD to its knees. From the fight against the 2010 racist, sexist and homophobic constitution to labor and anti-austerity strikes and protests that challenged neoliberalism and the signing of unilateral U.S. trade agreements in the context of growing hemispheric resistance that slowed down the expansion of neoliberalism in the region; to what is perhaps the most durable social movement from those years, the civil rights struggle led by Sonia Pierre (1963-2011), a force to reckon with, as she defiantly challenged anti-Haitian racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, capitalist exploitation and sexism.

By 2017, widespread anti-PLD sentiment exploded into a mass anti-corruption movement known as Marcha Verde (Green March), mobilizing a large working and middle-class electoral bloc who continue to play a central role in shaping anti-corruption politics to this day.

Downfall

Former President Danilo Medina’s bid for re-election accelerated the PLD’s downfall from power. Medina abandoned his attempt to run for a third time when it became more and more evident that widespread anger triggered by the regime’s nepotism, abuse of power, authoritarianism and utter neglect of basic services, such as health care and education, had reached its boiling point. At the end, Medina handpicked a puppet candidate to remain the king behind the throne.

By the time the 2020 presidential election campaign arrived, the PLD was facing a nasty and bitter internal crisis accelerated by rigged primary elections stacked against Leonel Fernández, Medina’s rival, who left the party shortly after and launched his own party (Fuerza del Pueblo or Peoples’ Force), a “new” party as reactionary and corrupt as the PLD. This new crisis split the PLD voting base, a sign that the end was near.

With the defeat of Medina’s candidate, Gonzalo Castillo, a new political cycle found one of the factions within the reactionary camp weakened as a result. This electoral defeat dealt a significant blow to the political and personal ambitions of former president Medina whose protégé and would be successor failed to garner support among the electorate even after running a ridiculously expensive electoral campaign that included distribution of cash to poor and unemployed young and adults voters alike, buying votes, hiring journalists and entertainers to spread propaganda, silencing dissent and forcing state employees to attend pro-government rallies at the risk of losing their jobs.

The PLD’s debacle at the ballot box amounted to a resounding rejection of conservatism and a reactionary political and economic model based on extreme acts of nepotism, abuse of power, state violence, intolerance, impunity, paternalism, individualism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ecocide and the worship of money. Thus, the defeat of the PLD was a step forward, albeit a partial one, in the struggle to democratize Dominican society.

Neoliberal continuity under Abinader

In the absence of left-wing and working-class electoral political alternatives, ordinary people eager to subvert the critical political situation after twenty years of right-wing rule under the PLD and its millionaire class, replaced one political class by another by throwing their lot with businessman-turned politician Luis Abinader, from the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), a split from the PRD.

Abinader’s win was a two-fold strategy: first, he and his party capitalized on the mass opposition to the PLD embodied primarily in the Marcha Verde anti-corruption movement; and second, Abinader put together a right-wing/center-left alliance that brought together a portion of the PLD voting bloc (represented by Leonel Fernández and his People’s Force party) and other small right wing parties such as the PRSC and Dominicanos por el Cambio (Dominicans for Change, DXD) as well as the center-left Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA).

Abinader also gained the support of middle-class progressive intellectuals and activists who saw the attempt by the PLD to perpetuate in power as a threat to democracy. But those progressive activists and intellectuals, guided by hatred for the PLD as well as their own anti-working-class politics and personal ambitions, ended up backing Abinader, conservative candidate to beat the incumbent, creating illusions among ordinary people. Left-wing journalist Lilliam Oviedo excoriates those who “out of naivety, crude pragmatism or opportunism, the [progressives] have thus crowned [their] desire to play cards in a dirty game”.4

Public knowledge of Abinader’s upper class and privileged background was not enough to deter progressive-leaning organizations and individuals from endorsing the PRM candidate. But the leadership of the PRM also engages in political duplicity, striking a progressive, left-wing pose as an opposition party with a social democratic lineage that once in power, swung to the right. That is why this last election was another cosmetic change.

While it is true that President Abinader appointed an independent prosecutor to persecute corruption as part of the popular clamor for justice embodied in the Marcha Verde movement, his government has shielded corrupt political allies from prosecution. Since taking power, Abinader has disappointed a large majority of voters, including the base of his party that tends to be more progressive, by stacking the Dominican state and his cabinet with capitalist moguls (like himself) and corrupt politicians from both the PLD and the PRM.5

The role of the private sector became more evident when President Abinader launched a public-private alliance to invest in tourism projects to the detriment of both the state (which will act as the main investor) and working-class people whose pressing needs include access to decent healthcare, Covid testing and vaccines, education, food and housing.6

During the presidential campaign, Abinader and the PRM expressed support for the struggle to decriminalize abortion, a polarizing issue that challenges the hegemony of religious conservatives from both the Catholic Church and the growing evangelical community. The PRM was the only opposition mainstream party to openly support therapeutic abortion during the presidential campaign and won the support of feminist organizations. However, Abinader and his party—in alliance with Christian right sectors—have betrayed their promises again and again by refusing to decriminalize abortion, serving as a catalyst for the launch of massive street mobilizations and occupy-like encampments.7

Abinader and his Christian right allies have also contributed to further criminalize LBGTQ+ people by refusing to persecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation.

A year into Abinader’s presidency has only created more misery and exploitation for poor and working-class people in the Dominican Republic. To manage pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, Abinader has relied heavily on repressive measures including street militarization to enforce unpopular lockdowns. Poor neighborhoods bear the brunt of state repression. In 2021, Abinader declared a state of emergency from March to the first week of October. By doing so, his government suspended free transit and democratic liberties. The state of emergency, backed by all traditional parties, granted Abinader special executive powers to rein in the state’s finances with little or no oversight while re-opening the economy despite the rapid spread of the virus with the sole objective of keeping the tourist sector afloat at the expense of people’s health. For the Dominican elite, the pandemic has been an economic bonanza long in the making. Abinader and the ultra-rich, financial capitalist class he represents, benefits greatly from tourism. According to a 2021 Central Bank report, 462,536 tourists entered the country by June. Additionally, other sectors that have grown during the pandemic included construction, free trade zones, local manufacture, transport and storage of supplies, mining and commerce.8

White supremacy and racism are key components of the white, Dominican elite that President Abinader represents. That is why it is not surprising that he has adopted right wing populist nationalism as a pillar of his regime, making his political positions more extreme than that of former PLD governments. His right-wing agenda clearly serves the interests of both local and US capitalists. By using racist, xenophobic anti-Haitian rhetoric (sometimes openly and sometimes in coded language), Abinader continues to scapegoat Haitian workers for social ills, polarizing the electorate and creating divisions between Haitians and Dominicans. His right-wing nationalist rhetoric—which portrays the political and economic crisis of neighboring Haiti as a threat to national sovereignty— is also meant to galvanize patriotic symbolism and national unity to slow down, and eventually derail class unity.

The most recent nationalist propaganda serves as a political distraction that only benefits the ruling class. Interestingly, it is not a coincidence that President Abinader went on a right-wing nationalist tirade right around the time his name appeared in the Pandora Papers list of presidents and public figures who hide their fortunes in tax havens.9

Further, the Dominican state under Abinader continues to serve the needs of capitalist exploitation as his government prioritizes funding non-essential public works at this perilous time such as the construction of a Trump-inspired fence alongside the Dominican-Haitian border while poor neighborhoods suffer blackouts, and the housing crisis widens.

What’s Next?

The social justice movement has a bright future, but it must deal with practices undermining past social justice movements on the island. While it is true that the Dominican Republic moved away from extrajudicial killings of activists, it is also true that the economic coercion of leaders of those movements continues. The PLD demonstrated the political and economic tentacles of the clientelist states and its willingness to provide economic “gifts” to social justice leaders in exchange for loyalty to the party. Already several former leaders of the Green March movement have abandoned social struggle after accepting lucrative government jobs.

Meanwhile, the struggle against the PLD’s authoritarian turn and its electoral fraud during the municipal elections in 2020 as well the impact of youth and women mobilizations in Haiti, Chile, Argentina and the United States politicized and radicalized young people for an entire generation, leading to a resurgence of feminist, queer, black/afro-Dominican struggles. Bearing in mind that the PLD’s ultra-reactionary legacy will continue to have political and cultural ramifications, its long-term impact and survival will depend on whether progressive, labor, feminists, anti-racist and anti-capitalist sectors continue to organize and fight the right.

In the Dominican Republic many workers are not organized, and labor unions remain weak across the country. As long as there is a conservative leadership at the helm of some of the largest labor unions such as the Confederación Autónoma Sindical Clasista (Autonomous Confederation of Classist Unions, CASC), labor unions cannot become instruments of class and social struggle.

Nevertheless, the prospects of working-class struggle look promising. In recent months, teachers, healthcare workers and professors and staff from the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo (Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, UASD), the public university, have led important labor struggles. Under the leadership of a socialist, members of the professor’s union (FAPROUASD) won a 15% salary increase in November of 2021 as a result of mobilizations. As important is the labor struggle led by sugar cane workers of Haitian origin fighting for their pensions. Moreover, large segments of the population comprised of peasants and unorganized workers also challenge mega-mining extractivism on an ongoing basis.

The revolutionary left is small, but it continues to be the only political force that can mount a serious opposition to state repression and capitalist exploitation as reformist center-left parties have moved to the right. Known for its endless sectarian strife, the Dominican left is also known for its rich history of struggle. The more prominent organizations are rooted in some of the political tendencies that were the backbone of the international left: Maoist (Movimiento Popular Dominicano or Dominican People’s Movement, MPD), Stalinist (Movimiento Caamañista or Caamañist Movement, MC) and Trotskyist (Movimiento de las Trabajadoras y Trabajadores Socialistas or Socialist Workers Movement, MST). Despite their different origins, these revolutionary organizations share a deep commitment to internationalism and anti-imperialist politics rooted in the 1965 revolution and subsequent anti-imperialist war against US occupying troops. The left has potential to grow and contribute to re-building the student movement and strengthening feminist, labor, environmentalist and peasant struggles. Finally, it is important that the left continues to denounce the Dominican ruling class attacks on people of Haitian descent, and offer realistic, concrete solutions to working people at this moment of crisis while rejecting nationalism.

International solidarity with the Dominican people will be crucial to defeat the latest ruling class offensive. The progressive and revolutionary sectors from the Dominican diaspora in the US have played an important role in Dominican politics and will continue to do so in years to come. As the Dominican elite consolidates its power under Abinader and continues its relentless attacks on the working class, the revolutionary left must unite to organize workers regardless of national origin, fight racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and ultimately, build a strong working-class led left-wing political alternative to fight the battles to come in the ideological and electoral terrain as well as in the streets.

The authors dedicate this article to the memory of Dominican revolutionary socialist Hancy Martínez (1991-2021). The authors also thank Amín Pérez for revising an earlier draft.

Endnotes

1Abinader asegura pueblos del Cibao decidirán en el 16”, El Caribe, November 23, 2015.

2An Interview with Juan Bosch”, NACLA, 1986. Date re-published online: June 25, 2013.

3Leonel Fernández: El PLD gobernaría hasta el 2036”, Diario Libre, July 15, 2013.

4Continuidad del saqueo y el entreguismo”, Lilliam Oviedo, Rebelión, April 8, 2020.

5 Ibid, Oviedo.

6Alianza Público Privada contempla inversiones de hasta 7,000 millones”, El Dia, August 18, 2021.

7Activists in the Dominican Republic Are Fighting the Country’s Abortion BanJacobin, December 14, 2021.

8BCRD informa que la economía dominicana creció 13.3 % en el primer semestre del año 2021”, Report from the Dominican Central Bank, July 29, 2021.

9Billions Hidden Without Reach”, The Washington Post, October 3, 2021.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Workers’ Health

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United States Supreme Court Building

This article was written for L’Anticapitaliste, the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled President Joseph Biden’s plan to mandate vaccinations for American workers employed by private businesses. It was an extraordinarily irrational and reactionary ruling by one of the most undemocratic and authoritarian institutions of our society, one that puts the power of capital ahead of the health of workers.

The mandate for private business was one of two prongs of Biden’s plan to end the pandemic among workers. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services mandated vaccination for nearly all employees of hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers that receive federal funds. Though the most conservative justices opposed it, Supreme Court majority let that mandate stand, and it will protect the health of most of the country’s 22 million health care workers.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also mandated that in all businesses with over 100 workers, employees who worked indoors had to be vaccinated or tested regularly, which would have protected an estimated 84 million workers. The court struck this down.

OSHA, an agency that exists to protect workers health, was established by Congress in 1971 after a long fight by labor unions and public health activists to establish it. Congress gave OSHA, among other responsibilities, the power, when workers faced “grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards,” to establish emergency standards to protect them. Clearly the COVID virus represents exactly such a grave danger, one that has taken the lives of thousands of workers, not only in health care but also in meat processing plants, restaurants, grocery stores, and other workplaces. As I am writing this, COVID has killed about 850,000 Americans and is still killing them at a rate of nearly 2,000 per day, and many got sick at work.

The Supreme Court voted along ideological lines six to three to overturn the OSHA mandate for private business, arguing that OSHA did not have the authority to mandate vaccination. Two of the central arguments were these: First, COVID exists not only in the workplace but everywhere in society as a “day-to-day danger,” so it is a public health issue nor a workplace issue. Of course, that is also true of other OSHA standards such as those regarding protection from fires or dangerous chemicals found in many communities. Second, the conservative justices argued that a vaccination cannot be undone at the end of a workday and therefore it affects workers outside of the workplace. OSHA’s standard, however, did not require vaccination, but provided the alterative of regular testing. And, of course, there were exceptions for religious objections and those with particular health issues.

Clearly the court’s conservative majority’s underlying ideological objection is to the federal government’s intervention in the affairs of private business. Concerns with workers’ health should not interfere with the sanctity of capital.

Yet many U.S. corporations in various sectors have already mandated vaccination for their workers and most labor unions, despite some initial resistance, have come to support and even advocate vaccination. The American public by and large now supports getting the jab.

The Supreme Court is one of the most undemocratic institutions of our government. The sitting U.S. president nominates the justices who must be confirmed by a simple majority in the Senate. Former President Donald Trump nominated three, creating a much more rightwing court. They then sit on the bench until they quit or die and they can only be removed by impeachment and none has ever been convicted. The far left in the U.S. has long called for the court’s abolition.

The court’s decision is part of a growing authoritarian and anti-worker political tendency, one that is growing and must be resisted.

 

 

 

 

 

Biden’s Speech on January 6 Insurrection and the Growth of America’s Far Right

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President Donald Trump incited the insurrection at the Capitol that accompanied the attempted coup of January 6, 2021. Photo by Tyler Merbler.

This article was written for L’Anticapitaliste, the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France.

On January 6, the anniversary of the insurrection and attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, President Joseph Biden spoke out strongly against former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” and the Republican Party’s anti-democratic state voting laws, his first such strong speech since taking office.

We now know that Trump and the Republican Party had a plan to have their senators vote to reject state election returns in several states and to have Vice-President Mike Pence refuse the state’s electors, which would send the election to the House of Representatives. At the same time, President Trump would declare a national emergency to prevent the election from going forward. Meanwhile, far-right groups organized the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. While the coup plots failed, they represented a serious attempt.

But the rise of rightwing politics and authoritarianism and of armed groups preparing for violent action is an even greater problem than Biden’s speech suggests and neither mainstream Democrats, nor progressives, nor the left, seems to have a strategy to stop the rise of the right. The last several years have engendered a complex, multi-faceted far-right movement active in government at all levels, in the news media, the social media, and the streets. There is now big money backing rightwing politicians and organizations and middle-class business owners and professionals as well as parts of the working class support them.

Trump controls the Republican Party and only a handful of Republicans dare oppose him. The Republicans now have several mini-Trumps and the party is riddled with far-right ideologues. The party is growing and its rank and file, tens of millions of voters, support Trump. Two-thirds of Republicans believe that Biden won the election through fraud, and most refuse to accept the results. Trump’s party controls the U.S. Supreme Court, half of the Senate, a large minority in the House; in almost half of the states there is a Republican governor as well as Republican majorities in both houses. This allows the Republicans to control redistricting, the redrawing of the electoral maps following the decennial census, and to pass election laws to suppress the vote. Republicans have passed dozens of laws making it more difficult to vote, laws that most affect Black voters, young voters, and low-income voters, a majority of whom vote Democrat. Eight states now have laws that give the state legislature power to overturn the election.

The Democratic Party response to these developments is a federal Freedom to Vote Act, but it seems unlikely that Congress will pass it.

At the local level, far-right groups, including the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and paramilitary militias, organize protests at school board and city council meetings. Together with Q-Anon supporters, white Evangelical Christians, and anti-vaxxers they opposed vaccination or mask mandates, and along with white nationalists they oppose “critical race theory,” which mans any teaching about the history and nature of racism in America. Some members of these groups are running for local office or for Congress. Right-wingers are also organizing to ban books from schools and public libraries, some have proposed that hundreds of books be banned, mostly books dealing with race, gender, and sexuality, many by Latino, Black, gay, or trans authors.

The U.S. labor movements has no strategy whatsoever to deal with the far rights, beyond voting Democrat. The Democratic Socialists of America, the country’s largest socialist group, works to resist the right by electing more progressive Democrats, but those congresspeople and state legislators represent only a tiny minority. The anarchist left advocates building the anti-fascist movement to confront the far-right in the streets, but at this point few Americans on the left will take up a plan that inevitably leads to violence. The left must involve itself in campaigns to defend the vote as well as in the social movements and workers’ struggles, challenging rightwing ideology and demagogy and offering a democratic and socialist alternative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Education Reforms and Capitalism’s Changes to Work: Lessons for the Left

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Join us January 20, 7:30pm (Eastern) to discuss what we need to learn and do to resist changes capitalism has made to labor and schools since Trump’s election and the pandemic.  A panel of working teacher union activists and audience members will join Lois Weiner, longtime New Politics contributor and editorial board member, to discuss ideas in the first chapter of her new book, now available on the New Politics website.

Panelists include

*Tia Edison, Academic Instructional Coach in Jefferson County Public School (Kentucky) who chairs the teachers union local’s Black Caucus.

* Natasha Carlsen, a special education teacher in Chicago, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) special education committee co-chair, a CTU Executive Board Functional Vice President, and a member of the  CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) steering.

* Lourdes Torres, an elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico and  member of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR).

* Daniel “Herm” Jerome, a teacher at Maker Academy in New York, a steering member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Movement for Rank and File Educators, (MORE), and a founding member of the New York Collective of radical Educators (NYCoRE) and Teachers Unite.

Register here : https://us02web.zoom.us/…/tZctceihqDwtHdRl5CWj3h3QRW7XU…. (After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.)
Co-sponsored by New Politics, Badass Teachers Association, Haymarket Books, Tempest Collective

 

Bolivia Update: Arce’s First Year

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In October and November of 2019, clashes over the validity of presidential elections in Bolivia led to protests and the eventual ouster of the leftist Indigenous president Evo Morales, in what most observers characterized as a coup.  In the year that followed, the interim regime, led by Jeanine Añez, oversaw a deeply repressive regime that confronted protests on two occasions with large-scale killing by the military.  The year of de facto rule was further compounded by COVID and by corruption, with widespread theft and graft.  When new elections were finally held in October of 2020, the ousted party returned to power with a new president, Luís Arce.  Evo Morales came back from exile in Argentina, and the resurgent MAS party – the ‘Movement Toward Socialism’ – took back the state.  Now a year later, President Luís Arce continues to grapple with an extremist right-wing opposition and the challenges of governing in a post-coup scenario amidst an ongoing pandemic.  Against ongoing efforts by the right-wing to destabilize the new president, the country’s robust peasant and worker social movements, in large part rural and Indigenous, continue to turn out in the streets to offer their ongoing support – both for Arce and for the democratic mandate he won in the polls.

But beyond the electoral win, Bolivia’s situation is complicated.  Luís Arce has managed to juggle the pandemic, the economic downturn, and right-wing machinations.  As such, his first year is a success if seen against the backdrop of the situation at hand.  Bolivia has received a medley of vaccines– from Russia, China, the US, and Argentina – and has been feverishly trying to get them into people’s arms.  The government has also been methodically scooping up those accused of taking part in the 2019 coup and putting them in jail.  This has followed popular clamor for justice for the victims of army violence as well as a scathing report by a ‘Group of Independent Experts’  (GIEI).   Backed by the OAS (and partly financed by the United States) the GIEI carried out an exhaustive investigation and produced a report that detailed numerous human rights abuses and confirmed the two massacres carried out by the coup regime in late 2019.   In the wake of Morales’ ouster, the tide of international opinion seemed to be adopting the argument that Morales was rightfully ousted in the wake of fraud – in no small part thanks to the efforts of the OAS and the US itself.  But the work of a number of academic researchers has debunked the OAS’s “evidence” for the coup.  And the GIEI report, against what many expected, has actually documented the gross abuses of the coup regime.   International opinion – and the facts – are now leaning in the other direction.

Even so, in past months the right-wing opposition, from its geographic base in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, has been moving from one tactic to another in an effort to keep the Arce government on its heels.  The ostensible motives are varied.  In the immediate wake of Arce’s October 2020 victory, a small segment of the right tried to mobilize claims of fraud once again.  Given the international recognition that Arce won in free and fair elections, that effort fizzled.  A few weeks later, when the government started jailing those responsible for the coup, the opposition again called for a national work stoppage, claiming that there was a political witch-hunt underway.  That effort hinged on an ongoing division in Bolivia – between those who believe the 2019 events were a coup and those who believe that the upheaval was precipitated by Evo Morales’ attempt at electoral fraud.  The ‘coup vs fraud’ cleavage remains an abyss. The MAS’ rural and urban majority base of support is on one side (it was a coup), while the mostly urban upper- and middle-classes of the opposition are on the other (it was fraud).  The fact that this latter sector controls most of the media outlets means that the fraud message – and the story of ‘political persecution’ – is a constant daily barrage.

Nonetheless, this national work stoppage also fizzled. So the opposition tried another tactic – opposing a new law aimed at stopping widespread money-laundering. Here they got more traction, claiming that some provisions of the law increased the surveillance and subpoena powers of the state and were an infringement on citizen rights.   After several days of blockades, marches, and clashes, the government was forced to retreat, giving the right a symbolic victory.  And, while a number of military officials and even the ex-(de facto) president  Jeanine Añez are in jail awaiting trial, the government has been unwilling or unable to go after one of the main coup protagonists: Luís Fernando Camacho.  After being at the forefront of the effort to topple Evo Morales in 2019 – and even bragging that his father had paid the police to mutiny – Camacho returned to his regional stronghold of Santa Cruz to participate in local elections as a gubernatorial candidate.  In March of 2021 he was elected governor.  Though his popularity is limited to that eastern region, the national government has not moved to detain him for his role in the coup.  This is a tacit recognition of government weakness, acknowledging that Arce’s administration does not quite have the power to withstand the reaction that such a move might provoke.

So, while numerically the MAS and Arce enjoy the support of a popular majority, with much of this backing in the rural areas, in the cities and in the media the situation looks more like a polarized stalemate.  As Bolivian analyst Fernando Molina recently wrote, it is not altogether clear whether or not the government will be able to successfully prosecute those it has jailed.  For various charges of corruption during the coup regime, the case is a little easier. In fact, the coup government’s former Minister of Government, Arturo Molina, is sitting in a Miami jail cell right now, charged by US authorities for his own money-laundering carried out while in office. Yet for those charged with participating in the coup, things are more complicated. To prosecute the ex-president Jeanine Añez, the government needs a 2/3 majority vote in Congress, a vote it does not have.  With the details of abuses of the coup regime now documented by the report of the GIEI, the report did not weigh in on the coup vs. fraud debate, leaving the narrative largely in the hands of a divided public.

Even so, Arce maintains widespread popularity in Bolivia and a right-wing return is not imminent. Yet there are still a range of uncertainties and challenges ahead.  The first is the resurgence of the pandemic, with growing rates of infection despite the vaccination efforts.  The second is economic.  After a dismal economic year in 2020, Bolivia’s growth rate has rebounded and is projected at 5.1% for 2021, the average for South America.  But high levels of revenue from natural gas exports have dropped off.  In the period since his first election in 2006, gas revenues allowed Evo Morales to redistribute wealth and increase public spending, both of which had positive effects on the broader economy.  But in 2014 gas revenues started a precipitous decline.  National, regional and municipal governments, all of which had shared in the largesse, now face deep cutbacks.  The possibility of the return of a gas boom is small.  Many observers and Bolivians alike are now turning their attention to lithium.  Bolivia’s large lithium deposits, situated primarily in the department of Potosí, may indeed promise some future bonanza.  Yet the department of Potosí, not coincidentally, has also been a thorn in the side of the national government.  One of its leaders, Marco Pumari, was the sidekick of Camacho during the 2019 putsch.  While Camacho remains free, Pumari has now been jailed.  National and regional tensions, which have long characterized the relationship with Santa Cruz, are also simmering around the issue of lithium and Potosí.  Arce’s government not only has to grapple with international jockeying for rights to develop Bolivia’s lithium deposits but also with domestic struggles tied to the management of whatever wealth those deposits might generate.

Even with all of these challenges, the scenario in Bolivia is much better than it might have been, and the wider trajectory of Latin America seems promising as well.  In Bolivia, the right-wing does not have the mobilizing power of a Trump or a Bolsonaro (as in Brazil).  While it is hard to say what events might unsettle the Arce government, for the moment the situation is much better than it would have been with a prolonged coup regime or with the return of the old guard neoliberal political parties.  In Latin America as well, things are taking a modest turn for the better.  Along with the recent overwhelming victory by leftist Gabriel Boric in Chile, Xiomara Castro, a democratic socialist, has been elected to the presidency in the US’ perennial lapdog, Honduras.  Setting aside the travails of Nicaragua and Venezuela – complicated in their own right – the re-election of Lula da Silva in Brazil (absent a military coup) will also probably happen in 2022.  With the three largest economies in South America – Argentina, Brazil, and Chile – all neighbors of Bolivia, and all under left-leaning governments, Bolivia’s historic process of change looks to have several more years to work on its unfinished business – the deeper social and economic decolonization and democratization of the state.  Things could be worse.

The United States and Russia Struggle over Ukraine. War on the Horizon?

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Military forces in and around Ukraine. Map from Institute for the Study of War.

This article was written for L’Anticapitaliste, the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France.

Ukraine is at the center of a dangerous contest between the United States and Russia that could lead to a Russian invasion, to Western economic sanctions, to mutual cyber warfare, and, with two nuclear powers involved, could even detonate a nuclear war. At the heart of this is Ukraine’s plans to affiliate with NATO. Both U.S. President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have invoked their nations’ imperial histories and current ambitions, using the Ukraine as the occasion to reassert their claims to dominate Eastern Europe.

Some time ago, Putin lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, calling it “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” Under both the Tsarist monarchy and then under the Soviet Union, Ukraine formed part of the empire, and Putin seems to yearn to reconquer and reincorporate it. Now Putin, claiming that the United States and its allies are threatening Russia by supporting Ukraine, has mobilized about 100,000 troops that are poised to invade.

Biden has made his own aggressive assertions. In June of last year, Biden told Western European allies, “America is back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values….We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security for the remainder of the century.” He specifically noted, “We stand in solidarity with our valued partners Ukraine and Georgia, and we will continue to support their reforms, bringing them closer to NATO.” Biden also stated that the U.S. regards Article 5 of the NATO treaty—which states an attack on one country is an attack on all—was “a sacred commitment.”

The Ukraine, long a colony of Russia and lying between Russia and Western Europe, is deeply divided geographically and politically between pro-Western and pro-Russian politics, and so it has become a flashpoint. Independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine initially established relations with both the Commonwealth of Independent States, (former Soviet states) and with NATO. When former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who favored an alliance with the Soviet Union, rigged the presidential election in 2004, the Orange Revolution forced a rerun and Viktor Yushchenko, who leaned West was elected. Yanukovych, however, won the 2010 presidential election and in 2013 decided to suspend association with the European Union and instead affiliate with Russia’s Eurasia Economic Union. That led to the Euromaidan protests and the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014 in which Yanukovych was ousted and succeeded by a pro-Western president.

In response to those developments, in 2014 Putin sent Russian forces to invade and seize Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, claiming it for Russia. He also provoked a war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine and recognized two “republics” in the Ukraine that are demanding autonomy.and still supports guerrilla troops there today. Some 13,000 people have been killed in that conflict since April 2014.

At the center of the U.S.-Russian dispute is the question of Ukraine’s affiliation with NATO. Ukraine joined the NATO Cooperation Council in 1991, cooperated with NATO ever since, and still plan to affiliate. At their 2021 summit, NATO leaders reaffirmed plans for Ukraine to become a full member, asserting that Russia would have no veto power over that decision. Putin says that the Ukraine must not join NATO and that NATO forces in Eastern Europe should be pulled back. If it does join NATO, Russia would “conduct itself as the United States would behave if offensive weapons were near the United States.” When the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the U.S. pressured the USSR to remove them and the world came close to a nuclear war.

The European far left opposes both Biden and Putin, but there is no anti-war movement in the United States and none is possible in Russia. We need to speak up now, opposing U.S. imperialism first, Russian interference as well, and supporting a movement for an independent Ukraine, one not controlled by the country’s reactionary oligarchs.

 

Education Reforms and Capitalism’s Changes to Work

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[Join us for a roundtable Jan. 20, 2022, 7:30 pm (EST) as Lois Weiner and a panel of teacher union activists discuss the first chapter of her book, appearing here and in the Winter 2022 print issue. Register for the event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/324994209483277/ ]

In this article, which is the first chapter of my new book, I examine what has occurred in and to education and teachers’ work since publication of The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice (Haymarket, 2012).1 I had intended to revise that book in 2017, in response to Trump’s election, but the pandemic changed my plan. Seeing the media whip up public hysteria about teachers and teachers unions; investigating information technology’s changes to work and education; examining reports of world financial organizations; and looking at how the neoliberal narrative had changed in response to new social movements, in particular Black Lives Matter, I concluded we faced a significant shift: Capitalism had been altering work and education in ways most opponents of its reforms, myself included, had missed.

In a nutshell, the ruling class used the pandemic to accelerate and intensify changes so substantial that what has occurred should be understood as a new iteration of the neoliberal project in education. The process, underway for several years, reflects and reinforces changes in work and the global economy. Public education is being reconfigured with “new models of curriculum provision based on digital resource banks created by a variety of commercial organizations, politically-connected entrepreneurs, teacher-creators, public and charitable institutions, … increased commercial penetration into state schooling through a mixed economy of new providers and public/private partnerships,” creating a new infrastructure of education that is intended to persist well beyond the pandemic.2

I make the case that we arrive late in contesting this new project, outlining its origins and social, political, and economic ramifications, and I explain that we have time, still, to resist successfully. The popular slogan “When we fight, we win” inspires militancy, the bottom line for victory. We also need to fight smart to win, which requires examining the new project, our victories, and our mistakes with all the objectivity we can muster. Our opponents bring to bear almost unimaginable wealth, power over governments, control of media, and armies. We bring the power of our numbers and ideas and the passion and courage of multigenerational, multiracial movements that are defending our planet, our livelihoods, social justice, democracy, and the peaceful future humanity deserves.

To protect education as a public good, we need to ground our analysis and strategies in forthright acknowledgment that the system was, from its inception, structurally and ideologically flawed. There is no “golden age” to which we can return. Struggles contesting the shortcomings in public schools that are rooted in historic injustices can guide our vision about the schools we want and in turn inform further resistance. Fighting smart also requires marshaling all of our resources, which includes the left and potential allies in the labor movement, beyond those involved personally in education.

This new iteration of the neoliberal project has already manifested itself globally in teachers’ work and public education, from preschool through mass public higher education. No student is too young or too old for education to be “data-driven,” with metrics for teaching and learning decided far from classrooms. As my analysis of global education reform has been dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by some opponents of privatization, I note that conspiracies are, by definition, secret. This project’s aims and methods are public, articulated in reports of world financial institutions, in particular the World Bank’s World Development Reports of the past five years, as well as in materials produced by think tanks and foundations funded by billionaires, primarily those whose wealth is based on finance and information technology. Often the project’s aims are couched in rhetoric that makes the ideas seem unobjectionable and their financial and political backing irrelevant. For instance, the self-identified think tank for the “New Democrats,” the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, with offices in Washington DC and Brussels, has named itself the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and identifies its goals as “radically pragmatic.” One ominous indication of our opponents’ sense of their strength is that they explicitly name their ideological and political commitments: A blog in February 2020 proudly explained that the PPI now formally sponsors “the neoliberal project,” embracing ideas and activities ongoing since 2017.3

Education and Teachers’ Work: Why Do They Matter?

Examining teachers’ work and labor activism, as well as educational research that looks at education’s functioning under capitalism, can inform struggles against capitalism, encompassing forms of social oppression that have been “baked into” its development.4 Teachers’ location and function as “idea workers” who do “women’s work,” in the last standing sector of public service that has not yet been fully privatized, one that is still understood as legitimately subject to democratic control, makes their work unique and their activism especially generative of lessons for labor. Because teachers’ work takes place at the juncture of capitalism’s economic, social, political, and cultural processes, looking closely at what occurs in teachers unions can illuminate how to better negotiate tensions and develop synergies that address labor’s responsibility to defend the dignity of work and workers’ economic self-interest, as well as its political and economic responsibilities and capacity to advance goals of movements for social justice, democracy, and peace.

School reforms initiated by those with the most power and money reflect how they want society to look, just as do struggles that contest their vision and plans. Yet what occurs in classrooms is not the only, nor arguably the most influential, education that occurs in capitalism. Social movements teach by exposing harmful cultural and ideological assumptions; as John Dewey observed, learning occurs in families, and parents can be thought of as our first teachers; popular culture influences the way we speak, dress, eat, and think; we learn about class relations—class struggle—in the workplace.5 While education does not take place only in schools, they are sites of intense political controversy concerning explicit requirements about what to teach as well as the “hidden curriculum.” “Government schools,” as the far-right labels public education, are still a space for democratic struggle, seen in contestations about requirements for ethnic studies, the rights of transgender young people in physical accommodations, and opposition to standardized testing, before and during the pandemic. On the other side, the right has used its wealth and power to attack academic freedom in higher education and in pre-K-12 education and to criminalize teaching about climate change and systemic racism. The frenzied caricature of critical race theory, used to turn back gains by the powerful movement for racial equality, shows that schooling is a site of ideological struggle about political and social challenges to the status quo.

The less publicized struggles over how and whether students should be placed in “ability groups” or “school tracks” reveal the deep, historic contradictions of capitalist society’s claims to be meritocratic and democratic. Standardized measurements of “ability,” far from being objective, reflect and reinforce social inequalities rooted in social class, family history of formal education, gender, supposed mastery of English, physical disabilities, and how U.S. society constructs “race.”6 The way we think about and measure “ability” exposes not only how schools synchronize education to the economy but also how categories of student “ability” relate to war and foreign policy. “Learning disabilities,” for example, developed as a classification of “ability” in the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik. Bipartisan horror that the United States was losing the Cold War because of its inferior schools drove policies to make children master more advanced material at younger ages. The assumption that Black people and immigrants couldn’t handle more challenging academic work due to biological or cultural deficits, embedded in mass public education from its creation, rationalized school “failure” of students from these groups. But when white children, mostly boys, couldn’t handle schooling’s new academic demands, a medicalized explanation for their problem mastering school work emerged—learning disabilities.7

Educational research clarifies our challenge, which is not whether schools disrupt or reproduce unequal social relations but how they do so and for whom, by mapping how these conditions relate to inequalities outside the school walls. The significant impact of Black educational researchers, whose presence reflects the long-standing respect for teachers and teaching in the Black community from slavery onward, itself refutes the persistent canard that academic success is a function of biology or culture.8 This body of educational research also challenges deterministic analyses on the left contending schools reproduce a status quo of inequality uniformly, as was the intention in creating mass public education.

One contribution I hope this forthcoming book makes is to push analysts of labor economy to take into account how social oppression, including gender and sexuality, configure work and the workplace. The best example of the left’s lacunae in this regard is its failure to recognize that teaching is real work and that teachers are workers.9 So much still written by the left about labor and unions perpetuates a historically inaccurate nostalgia for a working class of heterosexual, cis-gender, white men. The mischaracterization of teachers’ work reflects the bromance that obscures complexities about how and why workers organize on the job and undercuts our seeing and learning from contemporary struggles. We can take pride in, and learn from, the history of Black women, working as teachers, excluded from white professional associations and segregated teachers unions, who formed independent associations as teachers to protect their working conditions and conditions for Black students. Moreover, analysis of who comprises the working class that marginalizes teachers simultaneously obscures workers’ struggles powered by resistance to discrimination in the workplace. Gay women who fought their exclusion from the overwhelmingly white, male building trades unions, and gay militants in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, fought for their rights alongside campaigns against exclusionary racial policies in their unions, connecting both to red-baiting. They have much to teach us about building solidarity from below.10

Recovering Lost Time and Territory

While we focused on resisting Trump’s and the GOP’s horrifying advocacy of racial superiority, theocracy, subversion of women’s rights, anti-immigrant sentiment, dehumanization of people with disabilities, anti-labor positions, and more, policies that signaled and comprised the new iteration of the neoliberal project in education were underway. Resisting the DeVos/Trump/GOP expansion of policies prominent in the bipartisan project enacted under Bush and Obama, in particular standardized testing, charter schools, and vouchers, as well as the GOP’s neo-conservative additions, like funding for religious schools, occupied the movement’s resources and attention. During this time, education activists overlooked the significance of the Senate’s unanimous approval of Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary of education for career, technical, and adult education, Scott Stump. Every GOP and Democratic Senator voting on Stump’s nomination—even Sanders—cast an approving ballot.11 Stump’s background in workforce development and education in community colleges using online learning reflects the World Bank’s push that workers’ access to online learning through digital platforms is essential to reduce poverty. An underlying assumption, unchallenged by those who advance this project, including the two U.S. teacher federations, the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and NEA (National Education Association), is that powerful elites and the politicians they control have the right to determine the future of education.

The breathtaking scope of change being planned and enacted in teachers’ work and new forms of privatization are occurring on a scale hard to grasp, let alone resist. Mining student data yields enormous profits, and school districts have few, if any, safeguards to keep student data private. Data collected on students isn’t anonymous, as platforms and software companies claim, because tech companies can and do re-personalize it. Student and teacher privacy rights are easily voided when software for remote learning contains video. Teachers and students are subjected to surveillance of their physical presence and behavior. One of the most chilling aspects of the new project is how it extends corporate control and profit throughout the entire range of social services.12 A virtually unrecognized paradox of teachers unions demanding remote learning to keep children, families, communities, and school workers safe (as they had to do) is that teachers have been training their replacement, AI, with each key stroke of online assignments. One immediate and straightforward ask of teachers unions is for school districts to address the dangers that the National Educational Policy Center, or NEPC, has identified in “personalized learning,” digital platforms, and proprietary software. While understanding the life-and-death imperatives that drove teacher union demands for remote learning, we also need to explore why they missed this big picture.

Another more complicated, worrisome issue is the extent to which the ruling class has—again—successfully obscured its aims with rhetorical and financial support for social justice struggles, especially anti-racism. The extent of nonprofit, foundation, university, and liberal think tank entanglement in education-based anti-racist organizations funded by Silicon Valley and Wall Street is itself a topic for a book.13 Often truly progressive organizing by NGOs contradicts their funders’ aims. For example, cutting-edge organizing against ed-tech surveillance that reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline is being done by the Alliance for Educational Justice. This authentically grassroots group is funded by the Democracy Alliance (DA), which includes Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union; a coterie of wealthy liberals, many of them ed-tech entrepreneurs; and the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank bankrolled by supporters of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. DA members pay annual dues of $30,000 and are required to contribute a total of at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. Although DA steers money to “pillars of the political left such as the conservative media watchdog Media Matters,” it also donates big money to CAP and the data firm Catalist, run by Clinton allies. CAP explicitly supports most aspects of the Bush, Clinton, and Obama educational reforms, including expansion of charter schools.14

The breathtaking shift in media treatment of teachers—pervasive claims that fighting the dangers of in-person learning undercut the well-being of low-income children, families, and communities—reproduces the narrative we have heard under Democratic and Republican administrations since Bush. The vicious onslaught in the media and among politicians occurs now for the same reason it was orchestrated 15 years ago: Teachers organized as workers are a powerful force, and their unions are a stable, potentially formidable foe. Hence the narrative about selfish teachers is a backhanded compliment to us—a response to victories in teachers’ labor activism in the past decade, in “blue cities” and “red state” walkouts, as well as gains in educating teachers and parents about the purposes of and harm done by standardized testing under No Child Left Behind.

Activists have changed teachers unions, generating enthusiasm and excitement about possibilities for labor to challenge the status quo. The movement has demonstrated that teachers are a force with which powerful elites must reckon and that “business unionism” is not the only or best way to defend teachers as workers and public education as a system. Teacher union activists have shown we can both protect education workers’ dignity and many of the needs of the communities and children we serve. The burgeoning support for teacher unionism that advances social justice as a core principle has made both NEA and AFT alter their rhetoric and, in some cases, their policies. The movement’s exciting growth has shown what teachers’ labor activism can accomplish.15

When Mary Compton and I edited The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions (Palgrave, 2008), we addressed a burgeoning young movement, which has flourished in ways we could not predict. I assume readers have a general familiarity with the ideas Mary and I laid out, which I don’t summarize in this book.16 Mary and I decided not to name capitalism because we wanted our arguments to be persuasive to education activists who did not self-identify as anti-capitalist. But a new generation has been radicalized in the United States, and talk of capitalism—and socialism—is now widespread among opponents of the status quo. Thus, this new book names capitalism and explores the implications of understanding it as a social system.

Education workers who are labor activists often have at least three jobs: their work in the school, their labor activity, and union reform. Participation in movements for social justice and family responsibilities make their schedules impossibly taxing. To address this reality, I again write informally, in first person, minimizing jargon. I make statements that are bolder than I would in an academic article because I try to duplicate what readers say was most useful in my earlier work: creation of a narrative that expressed ideas they intuited and felt and yet couldn’t synthesize. To make this book more useful as research, I include extensive narrative endnotes, a format I have learned was used by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in its pamphlets for workers. (Reading the text straight through, without looking at the end notes, may help you to more easily follow the thread of the argument.) Whenever possible I cite references that are open-access, often with pdfs on Google Scholar. The notes are suggestive, not comprehensive, and I apologize to the many scholars and activists who have informed my thinking, in publications and private conversations, but whom I don’t cite. I continue to learn so much from education workers and the scholar-activists supporting the movement, and I acknowledge that debt and thank you.

Using an idea from a young comrade more knowledgeable than I about synergies between print publication and social media and the changing left landscape, I am publishing this book by an untraditional method. Organizations and publications sympathetic to the book’s purpose will publish the chapters serially. The left website Tempest will publish the second chapter online. An online public event will follow publication of each chapter, in sessions that I hope will model what we know from educational research about encouraging construction of knowledge to support organizing and political education.17

In concluding this first chapter, I note parallels between the system of mass public education when it was newly created a century ago, as a response to social upheaval during the industrial revolution, and our challenge today.18 Though her language differs from mine, Margaret Haley, a socialist and suffragist, and founding organizer of the first U.S. teachers union affiliated with organized labor, sums up many of this book’s premises. Haley organized a union of elementary school teachers—all women—in Chicago, the first in the AFT, which is why the Chicago Teachers Union is Local 1. In what is probably her most famous speech, “Why Teachers Should Organize,” which she gave in 1904 to the NEA, at that time a professional organization of school administrators, she articulates her vision as a teacher and union organizer of why teachers’ work is unique:

If there is one body of public servants of whom the public has a right to expect the mental and moral equipment to face the labor question and other issues vitally affecting the welfare of society and urgently pressing for a rational and scientific solution, it is the public school teachers whose special contribution to society is their own power to think, the moral courage to follow their convictions, and the training of citizens to think and to express thought in free and intelligent action.

Haley then described the reciprocity of teachers’ work with labor struggles and the urgency of recognizing how both relate to the fate of democracy:

How shall the public school and the industrial workers in their struggle to secure the rights of humanity through a more just and equitable distribution of the products of their labor, meet their mutual responsibility to each other and to society? … The essential thing is that the public school teachers recognize the fact that their struggle to maintain the efficiency of the schools through better conditions for themselves is a part of the same great struggle which the manual workers—often misunderstood and unaided—have been making for humanity through their efforts to secure living conditions for themselves and their children; and that [behind] the unfavorable conditions of both is a common cause.

The “common cause” of attacks on public education, teaching, and conditions of work is capitalism, which subordinates workers’ rights to profit. And, as she observes at the end of her speech, the struggle for control over work and uses of technology cannot be separated from the fight for democracy, at the workplace and in society:

Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today: one, the industrial ideal dominating through the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product and the machine; the other, the ideal of democracy, the ideal of the educators, which places humanity above all machines and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life. If this ideal of the educators cannot be carried over into the industrial field then the ideal of industrialism will be carried over into the school. Those two ideals can no more continue to exist in American life than our nation could have continued half slave and half free. If the school cannot bring joy to the work of the world, the joy must go out of its own life, and work in the school, as in the industrial field, will become drudgery.

For much of my life, Haley’s assumptions that teachers are workers and analysis of their work is central to understanding what occurs in capitalism have been marginal in the academy and the left.19 We owe a debt to Haley and to the movement that has demonstrated her ideas are as relevant today as they were a century ago.

In the next chapter, I explore how understanding capitalism as a social system helps to clarify linkages between social movements fighting for justice, equality, democracy, and peace and labor’s responsibilities to those struggles. I take a deep dive into material about alterations that information technology has made to knowledge and cultural work and combine insights from this body of work to theories of social reproduction. New Politics will host a webinar shortly after publication of this first chapter. Details to be announced.

 Notes

  1. On methodology: The findings supporting claims in this book come from a meta-analysis of relevant scholarship. My assumptions are explicit and frame my questions, while being kept separate from my analysis, which I strive to make objective. I read, synthesize, and apply scholarship from several disciplines, looking for overlaps, omissions, and contradictions. After doing a preliminary dive into material to crystallize a hypothesis, I try to locate relevant material research that supports, complicates, and contradicts the patterns I’ve identified. My ideas come from published scholarship as well as webinars, podcasts, and conversations with activists. The advantage of the meta-analysis is that it enables one to examine a huge scope of material, making connections that are missed in the silo-ization of disciplinary knowledge, academic departments, and the tendency toward single-issue-ism of social movements. A disadvantage of this methodology is that I may connect the dots incorrectly, so the pattern and picture aren’t accurate. To address this limitation, I use an iterative process, revising ideas against new material I read, looking especially for empirical evidence or theories that contradict my hypothesis or conclusions.
  2. Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan, Commercialisation and Privatisation in/of Education in the Context of Covid-19 (Education International, July 2020), 28. This report documents the global nature of the project and its acceleration during the pandemic. In “Pearson 2025: Transforming teaching and privatising education data” (2019), Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan describe why privatization of data is a source of huge profits and detail Pearson’s global ambitions.
  3. See here. The PPI created a Center for New Liberalism six months after The Neoliberal Project. The Neoliberal Project boasts that it has “40 chapters around the world, a podcast listened to over 300,000 times and a social media reach of over 15 million impressions a month.”
  4. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life (1976) made the important case about schooling’s function in reproducing capitalist economic relations. Yet it flattened processes educational researchers have found when looking inside schools. Consider Jean Anyon’s work, written at about the same time, “Social class and school knowledge” in Curriculum inquiry (11, no. 1, 1981), 3-42; and “Social class and the hidden curriculum of work” in the Journal of Education (reprinted in Childhood socialization (Routledge, 2017), 369-94. Anyon used Bowles and Gintis but also Bourdieu and provided empirical evidence of how social reproduction occurs in classrooms. Pauline Lipman’s research about Chicago is a more contemporary corrective to Bowles and Gintis, critically examining school reforms under neoliberalism from the micro (how schools are organized, funded, and closed) to the macro (capitalism globally), integrating race and social class. Her book The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city (Routledge, 2013) is a classic worth reading. However, a strong article, available online, that sets out her ideas is “Contesting the city: Neoliberal urbanism and the cultural politics of education reform in Chicago,” Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education (32.2, 2011), 217-34.
  5. Powerful transmission of values and beliefs occurs outside of schools, and my focus on schools should not be construed as diminishing influences of other ways we learn about who we are—or should be—as a society. Religious institutions, media, and popular culture shape our views of ourselves and the world, as the body of research produced in critical cultural studies has documented and explained.
  6. School desegregation often identified Hispanics as white, creating from the start “majority minority” schools that were classified as desegregated. I learned a great deal from Reynaldo A. Contreras and Leonard A. Valverde, “The impact of Brown on the education of Latinos,” The Journal of Negro Education (63.3, 1994), 470-81, about the history of school segregation of Latinos and their resistance. There is too much valuable research about how construction of race as a Black/white binary affected education of Hispanics for me to discuss. However, one aspect of debates about bilingual education that has been ignored is how many Hispanic immigrants speak an indigenous language as their first language and Spanish as their second, an important issue in learning another language. Angela Valenzuela’s work about the ways in which teaching English language learners can be additive or subtractive complements other work that exposes how “deficit paradigms” drive school reforms that claim to promote equal educational opportunity. A book chapter summarizing Valenzuela’s ideas is available in pdf: “Subtractive schooling, caring relations, and social capital in the schooling of U.S.-Mexican youth,” Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender in United States Schools (SUNY Press, 2005), 83-94.
  7. See Wayne Au’s “Meritocracy 2.0: High-stakes, standardized testing as a racial project of neoliberal multiculturalism,” Educational Policy (30.1, 2016), 39-62 (available on Researchgate) to understand why education activists were aghast when Jacobin printed an article defending use of the SATs for college admission. Left readers are probably aware that countless studies have shown the ways “gifted and talented” programs sift students based on social class and parents’ level of formal education, as well as parent networks. They may be interested in research about reforming schools to provide all students, including those considered “at risk” of school failure, code for low-income children of color, to the kinds of curriculum and teaching reserved for “gifted and talented” students. See Henry Levin and Wendy S. Hopfenberg, Accelerated Schools for At-Risk Students (Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1988). Christine Sleeter contextualizes emergence of “learning disabilities” in “Why is there learning disabilities? A critical analysis of the birth of the field in its social context,” Disability Studies Quarterly (30.2, 2010), available in a pdf online. Early, deep links between the military, education reform, and technology, are explored in Douglas D. Noble’s pioneering work, The classroom arsenal: Military research, information technology and public education, originally published in 1991, reissued by Routledge, 2017. It is available only in book form, to my knowledge. Kenneth Saltman and David A. Gabbard look at newer connections between militarization of school life and corporatization post-9/11 in Education as enforcement: The militarization and corporatization of schools (Routledge, 2003). The introduction is available here.
  8. Alas, much scholarship by researchers of color that has informed my thinking is only available to those with access to university research libraries. One such author is Michèle Foster, whose early empirical work on the experiences of Black teachers, and how they and parents understand good teaching, still resonates. The “Brown Lectures” of the American Educational Research Association, which are available as webcasts, are useful snapshots of some of the best critical research on race and racism in education. The lectures skew older because the Brown Lecture recognizes lifetime achievement. Critical race theory also includes scholarship on indigenous peoples and linguistic minorities, in particular this nation’s largest group of English-language learners – Hispanics. Lectures by Vanessa Siddle Walker, Prudence Carter, James Anderson, Richard Milner, Luis Moll, and Gloria Ladson Billings are here.
  9. One of the most comprehensive examinations of teaching as work was conducted by a collective of radical teachers, the Boston Women Teachers’ Group, in the late 1970s. See Sara Freedman, Jane Jackson, and Katherine Boles, The Effects of the Institutional Structure of Schools on Teachers (1982). Studies by Sari Biklen, Sandra Acker, Raewyn Connell, and Diane Reay are important exceptions to the tendency of feminist scholarship to ignore teachers’ work as a labor process. In “Class work: Mothers’ involvement in their children’s primary schooling” (1998), Reay skewers romanticized notions of “partnership” between mothers and teachers, examining racial and class stratification as reflected in mothers’ material and cultural resources. Reay, along with a few others, mostly British, Australian, and Canadian feminist researchers in education, anticipate new work in social reproduction by explaining that labor-market definitions of work and social class that are static neglect the key role of women in class formation. As Reay puts it, “Individuals do not occupy a location, they act in situations” (Reay, 23). Chloe Asselin and I analyze evidence about the absence of attention to teachers’ work and unions across the academy in “Learning from Lacunae in Research: Making Sense of Teachers’ Labor Activism,” available open access from Hipatia Press. In “Research on Teachers’ Labor Activism and Teachers Unions: Implications for Educational Policy, Scholarship, and Activism,” Chloe Asselin, Leah Z. Owens, Erin Dyke, Keith E. Benson, and I explore theories that explain social oppression in capitalism understood as a social system. We draw on research on four topics: Black teachers organizations; social movement unionism outside the United States; gender and sexuality; and the “red state” teacher walkouts, applying various theories that explain social oppression. The manuscript, which has been solicited for a publication of the American Educational Research Association, is a work in progress, available on Academia. We invite comments.
  10. See Miriam Frank’s article “Hard Hats and Homophobia” in New Labor Forum (Spring/Summer 2001), available from JSTOR. “We Took Care of Each Other” by Jonathan Kissam, June 23, 2021, at labornotes.org.
  11. Stump’s history, summarized in his official biography , illustrates one of the ideological tenets of the new iteration of the neoliberal project in education, “workforce development” through online programs, because education can and should mitigate the contour of the labor market. I explore how Sanders’ program for education reflected this dangerous idea in my Jacobin article (June 2019). I explore the rationale more fully, analyzing the role of the AFT and NEA, in Chapter 2, forthcoming in Tempest.
  12. NEPC’s materials, available from its website (nepc.colorado.edu) include useful advice on adopting software and digital platforms as well as close examinations of how ed-tech is privatizing education. One especially useful report by Faith Boninger, Alex Molnar, and Michael K. Barbour (2020) is on Summit Learning: “Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Platforms.” Summit is used very widely, including by school districts in which social justice reformers lead their locals. See also “Investing for ‘impact’ or investing for profit? Social impact bonds, Pay for Success, and the next wave of privatization of social services.” An NEPC interview with Ben Williamson explains why the looming use of AI in teaching should concern us all.
  13. The easiest way to find these interlocks is to use “Little Sis” (the opposite of Big Brother), a project of the Public Accountability Initiative. However, in doing research for this chapter I saw the need for information to be updated. I hope readers will volunteer time, money, or both. More about Little Sis here.
  14. See Neil Campbell’s lament that teacher walkouts have linked poor pay and teaching conditions to public money being siphoned off to charter schools.
  15. The left and educational researchers have responded to teachers’ militancy and the burgeoning of “social justice unionism” in teacher union reform efforts with a valuable uptick of research, from which we have much to learn. I try to build on what I’ve read, watched, and heard in popular publications of the left and in educational and labor studies journals to make connections as yet unmade. I wish space and time allowed me to synthesize what we can learn from this new body of knowledge but my focus—and contribution—is explaining the terrain of our battlefield, to conceptualize how teachers’ activism as workers illuminates what’s needed to build more dynamic yet stable movements, including labor, to challenge capitalism’s ideological dominance and the social, political, and economic status quo.
  16. Mary created and maintained a website (www.teachersolidarity.com) until her death a few years ago. Though new material is not being added, the site remains as an archive of research and news reports about global struggles to defend public education and teaching. She would have contributed knowledge and insights to this book about the global context, in particular what is happening in the global South, that I cannot. However, I do examine the role of Education International, the international confederation of teachers unions, in another chapter.
  17. Later in the book, I suggest how to tap what we know from teaching, an under-utilized resource on the left. One example is how we organize discussions, or rather, depend on lecture and serial comments in which speakers do not engage with each other’s ideas. Much of what we know about supporting use of language to deepen learning and democratize access to creating shared understandings was produced by critical researchers who investigated how to alter classroom environments to make learning both richer and more democratic. The classic work is Courtney Cazden’s Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning (1988). Not coincidentally, Cazden and a group of like-minded scholars were pioneers in examining alterations made by the use of computers in classrooms, questioning who decides on their use. See Sarah Michaels, Courtney Cazden, and Bertram Bruce, “Whose Computer Is it, Anyway? Schools Embrace Computers Without Knowing Why.” Originally published in “Science for the People” in a special section in 1985 on computers in education, this article is now available open-access in pdf in several places.
  18. Although historians of education have written so much that illuminates aspects of how public education became what it is, I think David Tyack’s The One Best System (1974) is unsurpassed as a readable, comprehensive, compelling history. It is still in print, available for purchase.
  19. Haley’s speech, “Why Teachers Should Organize,” was published in the Journal of Education and is available at JSTOR open access. My analysis of Haley’s speech, “Teachers, Unions, and School Reform: Examining Margaret Haley’s Vision,” published in Educational Foundations (1996) is now available on Academia. When I submitted the article on Haley’s speech to an educational journal, one of the editors, a prominent radical education activist and critical scholar, wrote to me privately that it was clear teachers unions had no progressive potential. The quote from Dennis Carlson that opens the 1996 article describes and explains the anti-teacher union sentiment that permeated much educational research. An absolutely essential corrective to my piece as well as much scholarship on the early days of teachers unionism is Kate Rousmaniere’s article “White Silence: A Racial Biography of Margaret Haley,” Equity and excellence in education (34.2, 2001), 7-15. Rousmaniere describes what Haley and the union she organized failed to see or address: segregation of the Chicago schools and its teaching force, which resulted in an intensified exploitation of Black teachers. Unfortunately, to my knowledge Rousmaniere’s article has not (yet) been made open-access.

Was there a Revolutionary Social Democracy?

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Finnish Revolution, 1917-18

Review essay of Eric Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy. Working Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917), Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2021 (hardcover), Haymarket Books, 2022 (paperback).

Sometimes one comes across an important book from which one learns about many matters while disagreeing with its main theses. One such work is Eric Blanc’s Revolutionary Social Democracy. Working Class Politics Across the Russian Empire (1882-1917), a book that is likely to become the focus of important debate on the left. This is a truly ambitious and encyclopedic history of what the author calls “revolutionary social democracy,” meaning the political trajectory of the various social democratic parties in central and eastern Europe that followed the politics of “orthodox Marxism” particularly identified with the early Karl Kautsky—a major Marxist theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at the turn of the 20th century, and editor of its journal Die Neue Zeit. Kautsky is best known for having been a leading opponent of the openly reformist “revisionism” proposed by his younger contemporary Edward Bernstein.  

Besides the SPD, Blanc also follows the trajectory of the socialist parties in the borderlands of the Russian Tsarist Empire, in countries like Finland, Poland and Georgia, and especially of the Marxist socialist parties in those countries, such the SDKPiL (Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania), the party led by Rosa Luxemburg; the Jewish Bund; and the left-wing of the PPS (Polish Socialist Party). His work challenges many misconceptions about these parties. One important example involves the SDKPiL led by Rosa Luxemburg, which Blanc shows to have been far more centralized and organized from the top down than the Bolsheviks, the party that Rosa Luxemburg so intensely criticized for that very reason.

For Blanc, one common denominator in the political trajectory of these parties is that they were seriously impacted by the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. It was that defeat, he argues, that pushed several Marxist parties to the right. Like the Russian Mensheviks, who adopted a more positive political orientation to the Russian bourgeoisie and ended up participating in the Provisional Government that was eventually overthrown by the October Revolution in 1917. Or like the Jewish Bund and the Ukrainian, Polish and Georgian Marxist parties, all of which followed the example of the Mensheviks in supporting the Kerensky government, which continued to support Russia’s participation in the war and failed to distribute land to the peasants. Elsewhere in his book, he points out that this conservatizing impact also led a significant number of Marxist “revolutionary social democratic parties” to support the involvement of their respective countries in WW1, with the exception of only three important parties: the PPS-Left and the SDKPiL in Poland, and the LSDP (Latvian Social Democratic Party), all of which joined the Bolsheviks in opposing that war (11). In light of the fact that most of the “revolutionary social democratic parties” supported the war, the question arises whether this was only as a result of their move to the right after 1905, or the result of long-term political and social traits of those parties preceding 1905.

What makes a socialist party a revolutionary party?

The fact that the majority of the above mentioned Marxist parties ended up supporting WW1, thus siding with the capitalist imperialist powers of that time, indicates that Marxist theoretical orthodoxy does not by itself make a revolutionary party. To qualify as revolutionary—in the sense of seeking to abolish capitalism—a party must also be a combat oriented party in both strategic and tactical terms. In strategic terms in the sense of adjusting its overall, long-term policies to its expectation that a socialist revolution will have to rely on the widespread use of force, primarily because of the violent opposition to it by those in power. In tactical terms, in the sense of being ready to engage in combat in the short run to respond to any violent attacks by the right or the “forces of order” against the party itself or, more broadly, against working class and progressive organizations and institutions.

The strategic revolutionary use of force may lead to a major or a minor amount of violence and bloodshed depending on various circumstances, one of which relates to the existing relationship of forces between the revolution and the counterrevolution. If this relationship overwhelmingly favors the revolutionaries, the counterrevolutionaries might give up and surrender, thus eliminating more bloodshed. This is fundamentally what happened in Petrograd at the time of the October Revolution in 1917, when the revolutionaries prevailed with relatively few casualties on either side of the conflict. But when the relationship of forces fluctuates undecidedly between the two sides, a lot of blood flows, as it happened in Moscow, where the counterrevolutionaries were stronger than in Petrograd until the revolutionaries were able to prevail. But what needs to also be taken into account regarding the level of violence in a revolutionary conflict is the one perpetrated by the government in power before the armed encounter with the revolutionary forces, like the Tsarist government bloody repression of its opponents before it was overthrown  in February of 1917.

In the case of the United States, any serious revolutionary socialist group must have a strategic long-term combat orientation given the very small likelihood that the ruling class will accept a peaceful transition to a socialist government. Even before that, it will likely dismantle the democratic political system the moment a socialist alternative becomes a real threat (a possibility that Karl Kautsky, in his better theoretical moments, contemplated for the Germany of his time). That is what the right-wing sectors of the ruling class are already trying to accomplish in the face of the comparatively much less threatening challenge to its political and economic power based on the substantial support coming from a decreasing white majority (found to have declined to 58 percent of the total population of the United States in the 2020 census). They are trying to accomplish this through a wide battery of measures aimed at restricting voting rights and vote counting safeguards, and by adopting extreme gerrymandering to sharply limit the political influence of racial and ethnic minority groups and white liberals, while propelling a vicious anti-immigrant agenda to make sure the narrowing 58 percent white majority does not soon become a minority. Faced with the increasing crises generated by the growing climate and ecological changes leading to massive flooding, food scarcities and pandemics, punctuated by recurring wars and major recessions, such as the one that occurred in 2007-2008, the US government will increasingly turn to “exceptional” undemocratic measures and further endanger an American democracy that even in the best of times was substantially curtailed by practices such as the undemocratic nature of Senate representation and powers when compared with those of the House of Representatives, the existence of the Senate filibuster, and the unequal representation built into the Electoral College.

The weakness of democratic institutions and the readiness of reactionary forces to limit and even abolish democracy has a long history in the United States, as evidenced by the fact that it took no less than a bloody Civil War to abolish slavery, and by the subsequent violent oppression of Black people to keep them “in their place.” Also witness the later persecution and jailing of socialists and anarchists during World War I, with the Palmer raids to deport foreign-born radicals shortly after that war was over, the dispossession and internment of Japanese Americans in WW2 and the impact of McCarthyism afterwards. It is these considerations that a socialist party should take into account in developing a long-term strategy to combat them, and to be tactically ready to respond in the appropriate conjunctures.

What faces us today are basically struggles for reforms and not for a revolutionary break, which is clearly not in the horizon. But what distinguishes the politics of revolutionary socialism in terms of their participation in reform struggles is its refusal to compromise the organizational and political independence, not only of working-class struggles, but more generally of the social movements fighting against various kinds of oppressions. This is paramount to preserve those organizations and movements as independent agents and prevent them from being co-opted and diverted into supporting the politics and priorities that are not theirs. This applies to joining coalition governments with pro-capitalist parties, labor-management cooperation schemes that move workers away from their adversarial relationship with the employers, no-strike pledges, and any other agreements that obscure the very real lines that divide the owners of capital from the workers.

It is precisely the combative perspective, in both the long and the short run, that is missing in Eric Blanc’s analysis of what he calls “revolutionary” socialist parties. The absence of this perspective not only tinges his treatment of the non-revolutionary character of many of what he calls revolutionary parties, but also affects his historical interpretation of revolutionary events, as in the case of Lenin’s famous “April Theses,” that he presented on his return to Russia during the early stages of the Russian Provisional Government in 1917. Blanc argues that supporters of Lenin are wrong in claiming that the Theses were an attempt to change the orientation of the Bolshevik Party from supporting the Provisional government to opposing it. Blanc notes that although on March 3 (shortly after the overthrow of Tsarism), the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee decided not to support the Provisional Government, it resolved “not to oppose the Provisional Government power in so far as its actions comply to the best interests of the proletariat and the broad masses of the democracy and the people.” That means, Blanc argues, that it is incorrect to claim that these Bolsheviks had adopted the Mensheviks position of unqualified support for the Provisional Government. Instead, their resolution merely implied that they did not immediately seek to overthrow the regime and would support any specific progressive measures it implemented. (373) Even if Blanc is correct in his interpretation of the Bolsheviks’ position preceding Lenin’s arrival in Russia, he misses the significance of the different assessment of the situation underlying Lenin’s implicit criticism of the Bolsheviks position. In contrast with the Petersburg Bolsheviks, his assessment assumed a far more unstable, precarious and short-lived existence of a Provisional Government that was not likely to endure given the existing crises provoked by the exhaustion of Russia’s continuing participation in the war, and whose political composition prevented it from delivering on the most elementary popular demands for land, peace and bread. It was in light of that assessment that Lenin was trying, through his Theses, to harden the Bolshevik Party, including the Petersburg Committee members, in order to prepare them for the imminent crises facing the Provisional Government and the whole country. In effect, he was attempting to move the Bolsheviks’s combat perspective from a general, strategic long-term orientation to a tactical one—a key transition, especially in the revolutionary situation they were entering.

Closely related to the absence of a combative perspective in Blanc’s analysis, is his notion of “defensive politics,” which he suggests is the way that revolutionaries do and should function, even asserting that the “October Revolution itself was also a ‘defensive revolution’ and (that) the Bolsheviks similarly cast their politics in defensive terms.” It is true that there were circumstances which forced the Bolsheviks into adopting defensive positions. It could be argued, for example, that was the situation in which the Bolsheviks found themselves in the 1917 “July Days,” a failed uprising that the Bolsheviks decided to support, not without misgivings, after it had broken out in the open. Or when the Bolshevik leadership practiced “transitional politics,” like when it joined the demand for the removal of the “10 capitalist ministers,” or non-socialist ministers, from the Provisional government in the early summer of 1917, as part of the Bolshevik effort to broaden their coalition to advance the revolutionary political agenda at a time when the situation was not yet ready for insurrection. However, the overall Bolshevik policy from March to November could hardly be considered defensive, as in fact it was strategically and tactically oriented towards a revolutionary insurrection.

Karl Kautsky

One of the purposes of Eric Blanc’s new book it to rehabilitate Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German SPD, or more precisely the pre-1910 Kautsky, as a “revolutionary social democratic” leader. How does the “good Kautsky”—the Kautsky before 1910, the year he started on a right-wing path that eventually took him to oppose the October Revolution—measure up as a “revolutionary” leader in theory and in practice? For Kautsky, the revolution would not necessarily involve any kind of forceful or violent confrontational break.  He did allow for the possibility of forceful ruling class resistance, but it is clear that he mostly expected a peaceful transition to socialism. As he stated in  The Road to Power (1909), his single most important work addressing the issue of the overthrow of capitalism, that overthrow would take place based on the growth of a highly organized  working class peacefully voting the bourgeoisie out of power against the background of a naturally decaying capitalist system: “we know that the proletariat must continue to grow in numbers and gain in moral and economic strength, and that therefore its victory and the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable.”  Kautsky’s belief in the inevitability of the end of capitalism and the ascent of socialism was hardly unique to him. But in his particular case, it was linked to a “scientific” evolutionism, described by Massimo Salvadori in his Karl Kautsky, as the “fusion of Marxism and Darwinism [that] served to inspire Kautsky with a conception of the revolutionary process as the development of an organic necessity.” (23) Kautsky’s application of natural principles to social phenomena was, and is, a far cry from the Marxist dialectic method posing the opposition between conflicting and irreconcilable forces and interests as the dynamics governing a society. Organic analogies and their teleological character do not match the historical record of a relatively open and indeterminate processes where the objective possibilities that capitalist crises open to the working class and socialist movement have never been certainties as they have been missed, mishandled, or crushed, thus leading to defeats rather than to inevitable victories.

Having known about the bloody repressions to insurrectionary workers’s and popular movements such as the classic case of the Paris Commune in 1871, Kautsky did allow for the theoretical possibility of a violent resistance by the ruling class. And yet, for reasons discussed below, he placed his expectations on a peaceful transition to power. That explains why he disregarded and even dismissed any discussion about the preparation and education of the working class to overcome the violent resistance of the ruling class to the overthrow of capitalism, and the role of the SPD in that confrontation, which as he stated in The Road to Power: “The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party…It is not part of our work to instigate a revolution or prepare the way for it…” (50)

Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Political Culture of his time

We cannot adequately understand Karl Kautsky’s un-revolutionary politics unless we place him in the context of the society and party of which he was a leading theoretician, which could not but have influenced his general view of socialist politics, including his view of revolution. Germany, one of the most economically developed countries at the turn of the twentieth century, and with the most important social democratic party of Europe, could not be fully considered to be a parliamentary democracy. The political system at the time was substantially less than fully democratic, with limited suffrage rights and dangerous militaristic and imperialist tendencies. From 1878 to 1890, only twenty years before Kautsky’s right turn, the SDP had been declared illegal under the Anti-Socialist laws, leading to the legal persecution of party activists many of who ended up in prison or in exile, an experience and memory that should have countered or at least tempered any optimism among its leaders despite the rapid growth in the party’s membership and its electoral success. Most importantly, from 1918 to 1923, Germany, one of the most industrialized and wealthy countries in the world, witnessed a series of major revolutionary outbreaks led by the working class and their widespread bloody repression involving the direct participation of the regular forces of German “law and order” as well as of paramilitary formations supported and staffed to a considerable extent by embittered veterans of World War I.

Eric Blanc argues that the semi-authoritarian political context prevailing in the Germany of Kautsky’s times led Marxists to adopt a strong educationalist ethos with an emphasis on building an organized proletarian subculture and patiently spreading the “good word” of socialism, rather than on promoting risky mass actions or winning immediate parliamentary reforms. (90-91) With this, Blanc is in effect conceding that Kautsky’s SDP was not a revolutionary party. Yet, he glosses over that when he writes, without questioning it, that Kautsky and other revolutionary social democrats contended that the persistent promotion of proletarian education and collective association was revolutionary in itself, as long as it was consistently linked to the assertion of the party’s end goals. (56)

That the assertion of final goals is not very meaningful unless these goals are continually nourished by the daily militant practice of party members and the working class, was not countenanced. Instead, the SPD put its focus on the growth of its parliamentary representation and of its unions, a growth that contributed to the rapid bureaucratization of the party—with the swelling of a party bureaucracy intent in playing the parliamentary game, and especially of a union bureaucracy intent in avoiding any risky militant actions in order to preserve its gains—and the development of a fairly conservative politics, particularly among its leading union leaders. Thus, for example, many SPD trade union leaders argued for moving what had become the traditional and important May Day strike to the Sunday closest to May 1, thereby making the strike a risk-free celebration instead of the symbolic but no less real expression of labor militancy. The union leaders also strongly opposed the expansion of the SPD youth movement that was well-known for its militant anti-militarist orientation (militant left-wing youth sections have been a frequent feature of conservative and bureaucratic social democratic parties.)

At the same time, the SPD created a dense network of schools, clubs, associations, and festivals that established an alternative world for the German working class. Some students of the German SPD, such as Guenther Roth in The Social Democrats in Imperial Germany. A Study in Working Class Isolation and National Integration (1963), saw this alternative world as a separate subculture walled off from mainstream institutions and values. Twenty-five years later, Vernon L, Lidtke, another student of the SPD, argued against Roth, in The Alternative Culture. Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany (1988) that the impressive set of alternative social institutions created by German Social Democracy, was in fact influenced by mainstream German culture. Specifically, Lidtke held that “ideological vagueness tended to win over theoretical precision and traditions from various segments of German burgerlich society and culture were carried over into the labor movement.” (191) Independently of Roth’s and Lidtke’s arguments, it is clear that the political culture sponsored by the SPD encouraged passivity rather than an outward looking militant stance aiming at establishing its political hegemony over German society at large.

The fact that the SPD’s bureaucratization and its alternative social world ended up encouraging in the German working class of the early twentieth century a culture of political adaptation instead of resistance to the imperial German social and economic juggernaut had been recognized by important thinkers outside of the socialist and Marxist traditions. Max Weber was highly skeptical of the revolutionary pretentions of much of the SPD’s leadership and denied that the SPD was a revolutionary party. Weber’s views were likely influenced by the work of Robert Michels, Political Parties, exposing, in great detail, the bureaucratic and anti-democratic character of the German SPD. Scholars Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Lawrence A. Scaff have noted that there was a close personal and mutual intellectual influence between Max Weber and Robert Michels, which was reflected in the structural, sociological influence of Weber on Michels’ major work.

Michels’ claim that his research on the SPD proved the existence of an “iron law of oligarchy” is highly questionable. What he proved is the existence of an oligarchical tendency in political organization that could be balanced and overcome by democratic counter-tendencies. That he later became a supporter of Fascism, does not detract at all from the validity and devastating character of his findings. Michels originally published his classic in 1911, which suggests that his research was mostly carried out in the years when the “good Kautsky” was proclaiming “orthodox Marxism” in an organization that had already gone a long way to become the very opposite of a “revolutionary social democratic party.”

Reflecting the predominant ideology of the SPD that viewed itself as a working-class bulwark but not as a party aspiring to acquire the political hegemony over all oppressed groups in the country, Kautsky’s politics, like that of most other SPD leaders, were “workerist” in that it grossly underestimated the need to address the problems of the rural population and the middle class  to win them over as allies of a working-class movement that would then function as a true “tribune of the people.” Instead, the SPD’s opposition to land distribution on the schematic grounds that it would reinforce capitalist social relations was blind to the social class and political realities of Germany. Compare this attitude with the Bolshevik’s shrewd decision to adopt the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) program of land distribution (in usufruct rather than as private property that could be bought and sold as commodities) as part of the program of the October Revolution. The political blindness of the SDP had enormously tragic consequences when it later facilitated middle class and rural support for the Nazis.

Eric Blanc knows all of this and much more. It is true that Kautsky should have kept present the lessons of the German anti-socialist laws and of the massacres that occurred after the smashing of the Paris Commune. But Blanc is familiar with that plus over an additional century of violent capitalist repression of rebellions and revolutions. It is true that capital has increased its huge capacity and power to crush revolutions. But by the same token, it is not tenable to put forward an ambiguous position regarding the possibility of a peaceful road to socialism or to maintain, as he does throughout this book, that an entirely defensive politics can be successful in gaining power.

The Failed Finnish Revolution of 1918

To prove the potential of the “defensive politics” of this “revolutionary social democracy,” Blanc points to the revolution led in 1918 by the Finnish Social Democratic Party. Blanc’s own analysis of the Finnish social democrats, including the party’s left, more radical wing, actually shows that their commitment to “defensive politics” regardless of circumstances led to do too little and too late to actually take power.

Finland, was, at the time of World War I, a small country attached to the Tsarist empire. It enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy under that regime. Its economy was mostly agricultural: while 15 percent of its labor was engaged in industrial activity, 71 percent was involved in agriculture and forestry, although half of the labor force in those areas were wage workers.

As Eric Blanc tells the story, since its foundation in 1899 the Finnish SDP had a parliamentary orientation and did not call for even the gradual contest of power, let alone for an empire wide revolution, but instead called for universal suffrage. The party considered the general strike a risky tactic and instead tended to see the legal system as a solution to many political problems. Pointing to the party’s development oriented to proletarian organization and electoral work, and downplaying mass action, Blanc argues that “while focusing on mass action proved to be indispensable for revolutionary practice in the rest of the Russian empire, the Finnish experience shows that there was no universal, ‘one size fits all’ approach for the most effective socialist balance of working-class association, education and action.” (139) But this poses the question of whether mass action is simply a tool among others, or whether it has a prominent strategic and tactical role to play in a presumably revolutionary party. Moreover, the prioritization of building the party with a focus on internal education and electoral work is likely to lead to political passivity.

The political situation of Finland under Tsarism at the turn of the twentieth century was similar to the one in Germany after the abolition of the Anti-Socialist laws in 1890. So much so, that, as in Germany, the Tsarist government allowed the SPD to run for Parliament. But when the SPD won a parliamentary majority in 1916, the Tsarist government blocked the parliament from meeting. After the February 1917 revolution in Russia, when as a result Finland was left without an army or even police, the SDP did come to power although in a coalition government with the bourgeois parties. In doing this, the Finnish SDP was clearly to the right of Karl Kautsky who had criticized socialist leader Millerand for entering the same type of coalition government in France. But when the Finnish coalition cabinet approved legislation that transferred all imperial prerogatives to parliament except for foreign policy and military affairs, the Russian Provisional Government led by Kerensky and with the support of the Finnish right, removed the Social Democrats from the government, an act supported by the Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary leadership of the Petrograd Soviet, the same people that, as Blanc points out, would a few months later denounce the Bolsheviks for dissolving the Constituent Assembly.

The dissolution of the Finnish parliament opened the road for a mass radicalization clearly leading to a revolutionary explosion. In the midst of this red-hot situation, elections were held the following October. Although the Social Democrats declared that the elections were illegitimate, they decided to participate in any case and lost the elections by a narrow margin. The SDP continued to insist that the elections had been illegal from the start and that their defeat was the result of electoral fraud. The Social Democrats’ narrow loss may have been due at least in part to the fact that the party chose to campaign just on the issue of national independence from Russia while saying little about its social objectives, an approach that was consistent with its long-time commitment to play down radicalism in pursuit of its purely defensive policies and methods. A major outcome of the October elections was the right-wing government’s decision to reestablish order and disarm the worker guards that had been established in September with the consent of SDP party and trade union leaders in the context of a mass radicalization exacerbated  by a worsening food shortage. (Risto Alapuro, State and Revolution in Finland, 48-49) At the same time, upper class forces began to create and develop their own paramilitary forces to restore order and protect themselves from widespread “anarchy,” which was the right-wing term for what was in fact an insurrectionary explosion.

Blanc addresses the critical question of why the SDP leadership at the high point of revolutionary agitation and strength after the SPD had lost the October elections, was unable to reach agreement on seizing power and instead called for a general strike on November 14, 1917. Blanc acknowledges that latter critics of the SPD leadership had good points to make regarding the party’s actions during those critical days especially because it allowed the bourgeois forces to build up their troops in the two subsequent months. He nevertheless insists that “there was no way of knowing during the general strike whether a more favorable moment for taking power might subsequently present itself.” (144) While undoubtedly an interesting analytical question from the point of view of an outside observer, it is dangerously irrelevant for those directly involved in the struggle from a tactical combat perspective. From this latter perspective, the decisive question was whether there was a reasonable chance for the revolutionary forces to prevail in an attempt to seize power in November or whether it would have been premature, if not suicidal to attempt to do so.

In fact, as the Finnish socialist Pekka Haapakoski has noted, in response to the actions of the right-wing government, during one week from November 14 to 19, when the general strike was at last declared, the power was de facto in the hands of the workers. Local strike committees controlled the situation, disarming and often arresting local authorities, and controlled food supply through their own channels. (Pekka Haapakoski, “Finska klasskriget 1918” Internationalen, #5-7, 1974 translated from Swedish by Hannu Reime.) For their part, the SDP leaders, although participating in the general strike, were not capable of seizing that key political moment because they had no vision of what would be done with the power they had obtained since their whole previous history had not politically or psychologically prepared them to engage in organized revolutionary action.  As Haapakoski also noted, the response to the Finnish right-wing backlash coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution in November. The Bolsheviks were not able to provide significant material aid to the Finnish revolution before its defeat in early 1918 mostly because after losing considerable territory to the German Army, they were then involved in peace negotiation with the Germans at Brest Litovsk under very unfavorable conditions. Nevertheless, the victorious revolution in Russia did contribute to the militant spirit of the Finnish working class.

As it happened, it was in January 1918 that the SDP leadership chose the revolutionary option, precisely at the time when the forces at their disposal were in fact much weaker than in November. At this time, the Red Guards were far from ready to wage war. The revolution had a defensive character as expressed by the passivity of the military operations with the socialists, unlike the Whites, devoting insufficient attention to the development of their military plans and resources. After Helsinki and southern Finland were under their control, the revolutionaries adopted a passive strategy to concentrate their efforts on administering this area rather than develop their military operations to occupy the whole country (157-158) It might very well be that in light of the substantial military intervention of the Germans the revolutionaries did not have a chance to win, but nevertheless the defensiveness, lateness and hesitations of the “revolutionary social democrats” did not at all help the revolution’s chances. Thus, while revolutionaries are often compelled to act in defensive terms, this approach is fatally flawed in the context of a revolutionary upsurge when defensiveness means acting too little and too late, and particularly not acting to win.

Blanc refers to an SDP left led by people like O.W. Kuusinen, who years later would become a leading figure in the Finnish Communist Party that in fact may have perhaps better represented Blanc’s “revolutionary social democracy” than the mainstream leadership of the party. Based on Blanc’s account, one cannot but conclude that this was a vacillating group since they first resisted the entry of the SDP into a coalition government with the bourgeoisie but, as Blanc put it, ‘eventually went along with the entry of social democrats into a “national unity” government in April 1917,’ although at the same time they refused to take political responsibility for it.

In the context of discussing the SPD left’s positive contributions to the party, Blanc criticizes the “Leninist” notion that revolutionaries should not participate in the same parties as reformists. In my view, however, this issue cannot be discussed in abstract general terms, but must take into account the relationship of forces between revolutionaries and reformists in a particular time and place. Such a key consideration may lead to the conclusion that revolutionaries, particularly if they are weak in numbers and strength, should definitely join those social democratic formations if these are real expressions of working-class consciousness and activity or have become a pole of attraction for left-wing activists. But that is not the end of the story, but rather whether revolutionaries should stay forever in those formations or whether substantially different social and political conditions may require that they split and form an independent revolutionary organization, particularly if, for example, a mass movement develops that the social democratic party opposes or refuses to support.

Finally, it is also important to point out that the defeated Finnish revolution while of course progressive as a democratic revolution, did not make any changes that could be considered to be socialist in any meaningful sense of the term. Thus, even when the Social Democrats issued a program called “We Demand” at the height of their strength in November 1, the central demands included the election of a constituent assembly, immediate action on food and employment, implementation of the reforms approved by the previous parliament, and the dissolution of the bourgeois civil guards.  Had the January 1918 Revolution succeeded, Finland would have then most likely become a progressive, democratic, parliamentary republic with a significantly regulated capitalist economy. Perhaps the most important social gain would have been the enfranchisement of tenant farmers and their transformation into small holders. In 1901, the tenant farmers had constituted 17 percent of agrarian households compared with 35 percent for landowners and 48 percent for agricultural workers. (Alapuro, 150, 158-159, 43).

Parliamentary democracy or Council Democracy?

An important component of any party, especially that of any socialist party, including Blanc’s “revolutionary social democratic” parties, is the kind of economic and political system they envision for the society they seek to attain. Yet, Eric Blanc, only glosses through that topic criticizing “the rigid parliamentarism and legalism of modern social democrats, not to mention Leninism’s dubious projection of soviet power as the universal mode of working-class rule,” and recommending a vague “strategic flexibility” on the issue. This will hardly do as an adequate answer, particularly in the light of his exhaustive historical account and analysis of what he calls “revolutionary social democracy.”

Many leftists and socialists regard a parliamentary system as a neutral institutional tool that can be used to democratically rule capitalist as well as socialist societies. Do Blanc’s “revolutionary social democrats” agree with this view? Does Blanc himself? Because as critical as he seems to be of what he calls the “modern rigid” parliamentarism, he seems to favor Kautsky’s politics primarily focused on a peaceful transition to socialism through a parliamentary elected majority of socialists. As equivocal or evasive as Blanc’s position might be on this question, it is worth posing it in the open: is parliamentary rule appropriate for a socialist democracy that involves not only political but also economic democracy? I would argue for entertaining the alternative Blanc ambiguously sidelines, the one based on workers councils, as the most appropriate institutional form for this new type of political and economic democracy.

What were the Soviets as the workers’ councils were called in the Russian language? At the turn of the twentieth century all illegal Marxist groups in the Tsarist empire expected an anti-Tsarist insurrection to be led by the political representatives of the working class, namely the Marxist groups and parties themselves. They were very surprised when during the 1905 Revolution, in the course of a strike wave that spread from Moscow to St. Petersburg in October of that year, the striking workers themselves began to elect, on their own initiative, deputies (starosti) from their respective factories to represent them in councils—soviets—that they formed to discuss and decide on a wide variety of political and economic issues facing the working class and the country. These soviets soon turned into a general political organ representing all workers, and their revolutionary movement in Petrograd.

The soviets re-emerged with the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917, in a fashion similar to that of 1905, along with workers control of factories and major industrial establishments, and with the elected delegates to these councils subject to immediate recall by their constituents. These 1917 soviets spread from Petrograd to other large cities, industrial towns, cities and later to non-proletarian, smaller and more remote locations, becoming, in essence, a rival “dual power” to the Provisional Government by increasingly taking over government functions. A number of political parties became very active and indeed dominant in the soviets. These included the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR), Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Anarchists and a number of smaller socialist groups. By the late summer and early fall of 1917, the Bolsheviks had obtained a majority in the soviets, which in turn became the political base of support for the successful October Revolution.

It is this organizational council form, or its close equivalents, that have repeatedly sprung up in many different revolutionary and insurgent movements since the Russian Revolution, whether during the Spanish Civil War, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Allende’s Chile of the early seventies and the Portuguese Revolution in the mid-seventies, as the work of the late Colin Barker has shown. It points to the fact that the grass roots insurgencies of workers and their class allies have repeatedly aimed for the kind of direct control through such mechanisms as the right of immediate recall of elected representatives that conventional parliamentary democracy is unable to provide.

Black Freedom & Land Insecurity in Baltimore

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Image courtesy of Black Yield Institute.

 

Baltimore is a category 5 hyper-segregated city or what Public Health scholar Lawrence Brown called “an apartheid city due to 105 years of racist policies and practices.” Brown wrote,

Baltimore’s hypersegregated neighborhoods experience radically different realities. Due to this dynamic, the White neighborhoods on the map that form the shape of an ‘L’ accumulate structured advantages, while Black neighborhoods, shaped in the form of a butterfly, accumulate structured disadvantages. Baltimore’s hypersegregation is the root cause of racial inequity, crime, health inequities/disparities, and civil unrest1” (2016a).

Following Brown’s observations, many scholars and journalists have gone so far as to describe the White L and Black Butterfly as two separate Baltimores: one of hyper-investment and capital accumulation and the other of hyper-disinvestment and decay. Perhaps this is why, while there has been a lot of scholarship written about East and West Baltimore (the “wings” of the black butterfly), the southern part of the city (majority Black and of color yet not a part of Brown’s “butterfly”) often gets left out of the historiography. Included in the forgotten south, is the neighborhood of Cherry Hill2 and included in Cherry Hill, is the Black Yield Institute (BYI). In what follows, we provide a brief history of the founding and evolution of Cherry Hill, before describing Black Yield Institute as the Black-led grassroots organization leading the fight against food apartheid, and the importance of the Green New Deal.

Cherry Hill History

Cherry Hill was a result of one of the “ugliest episodes of white rage in Baltimore’s history.3” (Noor 2019) This “toxic” and peripheral land was chosen by the city for the placement of a housing project at a moment when there was a housing shortage for industrial workers. Many Black people had migrated to Baltimore during the 1940s in search of decent industrial jobs. The Cherry Hill community was developed in an act of legislation known as the Servicemen Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI BILL, which assisted returning vets with employment, education, and housing. Baltimore City officials were compelled by political mandate, overpopulation, and a public health crisis to make the land and housing available for Black families. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) chose this site because of its isolation from the rest of the city given white opposition to integrated neighborhoods4 (Winbush et al 2015). The NAACP protested this location for the placement of public housing projects due to “unsuitable environmental conditions.” There were several industrial plants, the city’s Reedbird Incinerator, a landfill site, and many other environmental hazards already in the region. Despite the protests, however Cherry Hill was selected as the site of the first planned Negro Suburb, labelled by The Baltimore Sun, “The model Negro Village” (Winbush et al, 2015). In October of 1943, HBAC announced they would build 600 housing units for African American workers. And shortly after the war, all 600 units were converted into low-income housing.

The city–while demolishing public housing–found land that was “acceptable” for poor Black folks in the most isolated and toxic area of Baltimore. In 1950, the Baltimore City Council approved an urban renewal project which included the demolition of public housing and displacement of Blacks. The following year, in 1951, the HABC once again found reasons to continue building in the Cherry Hill area, rejecting 39 alternate locations seeing Cherry Hill as the “only politically acceptable vacant land site for Negro housing” (Winbush et al 2015). This was not an isolated event, but rather a policy designed to intentionally segregate, isolate Black people from white spaces. This was an environmentally “toxic community” built on toxic lands to house Black people; unlike other parts of the city where white flight led to segregated housing, this was “intentional segregation by design.”

In 2010, 94.7 percent of Cherry Hill residents were American African. 28.2 were unemployed (compared to 11.1 percent of Baltimoreans). 45.1 percent of families in Cherry Hill were living in poverty compared to 15.2 of families throughout Baltimore City. Cherry Hill has a life expectancy of 69 years and a Healthy Food Index score of 7.9, which is extremely low, compared to Mt. Washington/Coldspring at 28.5 (BNIA, 2018), a community with a Whole Foods Market in its borders. Over 50% of the community are renters (BNIA, 2018); most members do not control or own land in the community. There are 13 food stores in the neighborhood—two convenience stores, nine fast food/takeout vendors, one specialty food store, and one liquor store (Jackson 2019). While the Cherry Hill Town Center previously housed several supermarkets and grocery stores, today there is no full-service grocery store; there has not been a grocery store in 15 years. The space once occupied by several grocery stores is currently operated by a Family Dollar. The closest supermarket is about two miles away. Logistically, it is difficult to access transportation to these healthy foods, with relatively low car ownership and limited public transportation (Jackson 2019) and healthy food availability is very poor. Almost all of the food available in Cherry Hill is low in nutrients and high in preservatives, salt and fats . Food carry outs, corner stores and convenience stores provide most of this food5 (Jackson 2019). Structural barriers like zoning codes, transportation, and traditional economic development trends also impact food apartheid. These numbers make obvious decades of the city’s divestment from the neighborhood. As a result of this systematic disinvestment Cherry Hill is considered a food apartheid region.

Perpetual Land Insecurity and Placemaking in Cherry Hill

Cherry Hill’s very existence is characterized by external control and discriminatory city policies. From the founding of the community, the destiny of the residents was largely determined by elected officials, public servants, and private corporations. Anecdotes from descendants of previous occupants reveal that Black people, along with white folks, were displaced in order to create the community we know as Cherry Hill. The community, through various federal public housing projects, was developed along with a large number of Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC)-managed properties. This translates into over half of the housing stock and land being owned by the federal government. Since the 1990s, families living in public housing have been displaced; toxic soils (as a result of the city incinerator and landfill mentioned above) and the oversaturation of public housing have been communicated to community leaders by federal agencies as the reasoning for such actions. In addition to the city, private corporations own and manage a significant portion of the housing stock in Cherry Hill Hill (see the map).

Owner-occupied and renter-occupied housing, along with unoccupied and vacant units, make up the remaining portion of housing in Cherry Hill.

The Cherry Hill peninsula is home to a robust history of Black placemaking. In spite of the limited self-determination and control of the food economy, Black families have created social, political, and economic opportunities historically and contemporarily. The resilience, resistance, and revolutionary action displayed throughout the past eight decades marks this space as home to some of the most radical social movements in the city. The 50s and 60s ushered in the development of social and political groups for the purposes of securing and protecting community amenities prohibited merely because of race. Churches, civil rights organizations, and community associations were established as centers of community strength, mutual aid, and community organizing6 (Breihan 2003). The 1970s and 80s included community reorganization amidst demographic shifts due to policy and social changes. Environmental justice organizing took the form of a group called Interested Citizens for Equality, or INCITE, and they were aligned with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The Cherry Hill Coordinating Council disavowed the upstart organizations almost immediately, claiming they were “politically motivated.” The militant politics expressed by CORE, INCITE, and other Black Power organizations threatened to burst open the city’s typically staid municipal proceedings.

Madeline Murphy authored a weekly column in the Afro American weekly newspaper, and for years defended Cherry Hill in the press, while holding city officials accountable for their promises to rid the community of the Reedbird Incinerator7 (Cummings 2021). Organizations like the Cherry Hill Development Corporation were established in order to address the increasing issues facing the community. Schools, faith institutions, youth development centers and other groups continued to support families, children, and adults in various aspects of community life. In the 1990s and 2000s, organizing efforts converged in the establishment of new housing developments, inviting current, new, and alum residents of Cherry Hill as renters and owners. Many organizations continue operations and new ones emerged to address specific needs or social problems in the community. The Cherry Hill Community Coalition was established in an effort to coalesce the efforts of all of the community organizations doing work in the community and to execute the plans formed in the Cherry Hill Master Plan. Today, Cherry Hill is one of the most organized communities in the city of Baltimore. One organization working in Cherry Hill that emerged in the 2010s was the Black Yield Institute.

Black Yield Institute Forging a New Path

Black Yield Institute (BYI) is a Pan-African power institution in Baltimore, Maryland.” The work and mission of BYI is two-fold: 1) combat food apartheid and 2) build movement toward Black Land and Food Sovereignty. BYI’s work to combat food apartheid includes urban agriculture and food cooperative development. The movement building work of BYI includes political education, research and knowledge creation, and action network building.

According to BYI, Food Apartheid denies people the relationships with the producers of the food that they consume and the traditions that their ancestors have birthed and perfected through practice. Black people live in a state of separation and alienation from land stewardship. This type of food inequality is certainly the result of capitalism and white supremacy, which has denied closeness to many of the living systems that Black and Brown people in Baltimore and in Cherry Hill need to experience. Through the insidious human experiences within a food apartheid system, Black and Brown families are largely relegated to estranged relationships with other people and from the food and land that their ancestors intimately cultivated and stewarded. Black Land and Food Sovereignty organizing is necessary to restore these relationships and thus engage in radical intimacy. Additionally, organizing allows people to disinvest from oppressive systems that continue to disconnect us from our food sources, the land, and from ourselves. The primary goals are restoring and reclaiming relationships for the purpose of building power and establishing control of our food environments, food systems, and our own destinies.

The direct response to food apartheid is through building and maintaining power. Black Land & Food Sovereignty, which comes from La Via Campesina’s definition of food sovereignty—the right of people to healthy, affordable food and centering people’s food and land desires over that of corporations—seeks to reconnect the generational impacts of food apartheid to the land. Black Yield has taken this general concept and adapted it to include a hyper-focus on Black, African peoples and the use of ideological and practice frameworks throughout the African Diaspora and leads to power building and greater control of food and land in urban and rural contexts. The ultimate work that Black Yield Institute is doing and aims to do is to denormalize food apartheid through a humanization process that connects the people to land, cultural traditions, and foodways. BYI’s emergent praxis is restoring the intimacy between people, food, the land, and culture.

Black Yield works towards normalizing the practice of sovereignty by practicing and highlighting the significance of insourcing solutions to our problems created by imperialist practices rather than emphasizing the prioritization of outside sources of so-called help. An overall awareness of the role of self-determination in creating sustainable and healthy communities points us to the reality that waging struggle is the only way to bring about necessary shifts in the control of food, land, culture, and people.

Freedom Dreams and Policy Implications

Much of Black Yield’s political education (whether through Sankara Hamer Academy8) or the Black Food Research & Knowledge Creation scales up to influence and shape city-wide policies on land use and food access. In Cherry Hill, BYI and the larger community are organizing to create, what Ed Whitfield calls, liberated zones9 where the community can imagine and build the futures we want to see. Whitfield calls for us to “create freedom a little at a time” (Whitefield 2018). BYI is leading the charge to reimagine the use of land and the availability of culturally appropriate food for the purpose of freedom. The pursuit of Black Liberation through food sovereignty and land reparations is only possible through the activities and space that the organizers and the people create to practice freedom.

BYI is working directly on establishing liberated zones. expanding upon the food economy-work already being done in Cherry Hill. BYI’s multi-tiered approach includes investments in infrastructure for food production, retail and distribution in Cherry Hill and South Baltimore. BYI currently stewards the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, a 1.25 acre farm located on HABC land, and anchors the organizing for the Cherry Hill Food Co-op. By 2022, BYI plans to expand the farming operations to a six- to ten-acre plot of land, including a nursery, cultural center, aquaculture, and agrotourism. This expansion will allow BYI to create worker-ownership opportunities for workers in South Baltimore. Cherry Hill Food Co-op, a cooperative grocery store project at the development phase, will be erected and operational by January 2024, based on the project trajectory and projections. The project is currently engaged in community political education and outreach throughout South Baltimore. BYI is also engaging in community-based business planning and mapping. The next major step in 2021 is to begin a major capital campaign to fund construction, inventory, hiring, marketing, and other major aspects of the cooperative grocery store effort. The significance of this project is rooted in the fact that the community will have a grocery store after fifteen years and community members-owners of the co-op will build community wealth, while lessening the impacts of extractive economic ventures.

In terms of distribution, there are two major channels. BYI Marketplace is a community bi-monthly “pop-up” farmer’s and public market. Currently, the Marketplace is operable on the first and second Saturdays of every month. The initiative provides produce from our farm and others, while featuring other goods and services rendered by other local entrepreneurs. BYI will increase the frequency of the Marketplace as a permanent occupant of a newly renovated public market in late 2021. BYI will be able to increase their sales and access to more families as we expand the frequency of programmatic offerings and goods and services from Black microenterprises. POP Produce (pre-ordered produce) is a delivery service model that fashions logistics on a standard Community-supported Agriculture (CSA) framework. Within our model, elders and other community members can order produce from our list of available items on a weekly basis. BYI anticipates expansion of the initiative to the entire community in January 2022. BYI plans to reach over 200 unique households annually through the POP market.

Over the next three to five years, BYI is undertaking the expansion and development of enterprises that build power, provide food and ownership opportunities, and create a model of Black Land and Food Sovereignty at the hyper-local, community level. BYI’s plans are demonstrative of how community-controlled movement institutions can serve as liberated zones created to hold freedom dreams.

Black Yield has experimented with community-based participatory action research to develop targeted interventions. Their recent report, Community Control of Land: The People’s Demand for Land Reparations in the City of Baltimore,came out of a year and ½ of community dialogue, “listening sessions,” conversations, focus groups and a teach-in. What came out of this is: most community members believe that access to land is a human right, and that their current state of access is a violation of said right. In addition, participants across focus groups believed that access to a plot of communally owned land would create significant economic, public health, safety, and quality of life improvement potentials for their neighborhood10 (BYI 2021) In order to make Black neighborhoods matter, it became clear that city-wide investments in land reparations and tools, materials and resources for agro-ecology could drastically improve quality of life. It is also the role of government to protect residents from land speculators and predatory forms of development. Every neighborhood in Baltimore should have access to 1-2 acres of land: The city should be responsible for testing soils to determine the extent of the lots’ safety for community agricultural use, the city agencies should render no-cost land acquisition to Black communities as a form of reparations for the residual effects of redlining, and this should all be done with no strings attached (see Land Report, BYI 2020)

Instead of working against grassroots interests, this report highlights how the city could utilize its power to protect Black communities and Black people from predatory developers and land speculators and ensure long-term community ownership of land and means of production.

However, In 2021 BYI experienced an imminent threat to land security, as the farm they steward will be displaced by HABC in December of 2021. The decision to displace has been publicly communicated as a matter of compliance for The Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many community organizations have fought this and many other political debacles that have had adverse effects on community life, health, and wealth.

BYI’s land reparations report and their Black food sovereignty work resemble larger policy pushes for a Green New Deal, especially a Black and Red New Deal. Legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) push for a Green New Deal—which is a comprehensive plan for utilizing federal dollars to transition us away from fossil fuel industry and build urban and rural landscapes of renewable energy, guaranteeing climate-friendly work, no carbon housing and free transit. Ocasio-Cortez has suggested we need a Green New Deal for public housing which includes retrofitting all ailing and environmentally unhealthy infrastructure to provide social housing for the poor. Moreover, in July 2021 Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-NY) introduced legislation for a Green New Deal for Public Schools which includes some of the same proposals for ailing schools. This would put $1.4 trillion of federal dollars, redirecting $446 billion of grant funds, over 10 years toward decarbonizing and retrofitting the nation’s K-12 schools, particularly in high-need and socially vulnerable areas where schools represent another social and environmental hazard especially in poor communities of color. Bowman’s three impact areas are health and environmental equity, educational equity, and economic equity. The jobs will be given to local residents from construction to retrofitting to educating. These retrofits will turn schools into neighborhood resiliency hubs, making them key nodes of overall green community infrastructure, and of zero waste infrastructure.11 It is within this climate of progressive “squad” members proposing a Green New Deal that perhaps youth movements like Free Your Voice (an environmental justice youth movement in South Baltimore) can serve as a kind of model for how to do this engaged learning tied to environment and climate policy work.

What is clear from all these policy pushes is that the ideas and the vision for change must emanate from Black and Brown communities and from the grassroots. The policy at the city, state and federal level must be defined, shaped and even implemented by Black and Brown organizers—As Indigenous scholar and activist Nick Estes writes, “Red Deal, focusing on Indigenous treaty rights, land restoration, sovereignty, self-determination, decolonization, and liberation. We don’t envision it as a counter program to the GND but rather going beyond it—‘Red’ because it prioritizes Indigenous liberation, on one hand, and a revolutionary left position on the other12.” (Estes 2019) The Red & Black New Deal13 is an initiative that takes action to mitigate the impact of the global climate crisis on Black and Indigenous Lives. The fight for climate justice must be a vision emanating out from Black and Native visions of liberation to claim rights to water, energy, land, labor, economy and democracy.

The Green New Deal has the potential to connect every social justice struggle—free housing, free health care, free education, access to land and to healthy foods, green jobs—to climate change. However, if it is not guided by and coming out of the distinct historic experiences of Black and Brown communities, then, it will simply be co-opted by larger white NGO’s and white-led environmental organizations. Black Yield Institute and other Black-led organizations fighting for land reparations and food justice can be a model as we push for policy changes at state and federal level. For we are in a moment of climactic crisis, it is clear from the most recent IPCC report that we need action now. Instead of a top-down vision, we propose a bottom-up solution where federal funds support already-existing visions of freedom dreams, agro-ecology, land reparations, investments in education, and solidarity economics. The time is now and never has it been more urgent for Black and Brown communities to own the land, produce their own food, and create wealth that circulates back into their communities.

1 Lawrence Brown, Two Baltimores: The White L versus the Black Butterfly, June 28, 2016

2 Cherry Hill is a community located in the southern section of Baltimore, Maryland. The area is generally bounded to the North by Waterview Avenue/Hanover Street, Southeast by the Patapsco River, Southwest by the City boundary and West by Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The area is composed of census tracts 2502.03, 2502.04 and 2502.07. The community is located south of the Inner Harbor/central business district of Baltimore City (Morgan State Report)

3 Jaisol Noor, et al, Battleground Baltimore The Fight for Green Spaces, July 2, 2021.

4 Raymond Winbush et al, A Comprehensive Demographic Profile of Cherry Hill Community in Baltimore City, Morgan State July 2015.

5 Eric Jackson, Cherry Hill Food Co-op Readiness Report, 2019.

6 See John R. Breinham, Cherry Hill a Community History, Loyola College in Maryland 2003.

7 See Daniel Cumming, ​​ All That’s solid melts into Air: A Suburban Crisis, Toxic Incineration and the Wastelanding of South Baltimore 1943-1983, Dissertation, NYU 2021.

8 The Sankara Hamer academy is Black Yield’s school of political education with a focus on Black land and food sovereignty. The Academy entails monthly educational gatherings; community and organization-requested workshops; and a 15-week leadership development course.

9 Ed Whitefield, What must we do to be free? On the building of Liberated Zones, Journal of Social Equity 2(1): 45-58, 2018.

10 BYI, Community Control of Land The People’s Demand for Land Reparations in Baltimore City, March 2021.

11 Jamal Bowman, A Green New Deal for Public Schools, 2021 https://bowman.house.gov/_cache/files/2/9/297d4603-cabd-43bd-9ab0-044c21be7f7a/F58C35F28FBC115F0D531D7D185C9E01.gnd-for-public-schools-act-final.pdf

12 Nick Estes, A Red Deal, August 8, 2019.

13 For more on the Red, Black and Green New Deal, See https://redblackgreennewdeal.org/

Increased U.S. Military Spending Means More Militarism, Imperialism, and War

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Military budget of different nations.

This article was written for L’Anticapitaliste, the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France.

The U.S. Congress is completely divided, Republicans versus Democrats. Except when it comes to the military. Bills for working people can’t be passed. But there’s always money for the generals and the arms-makers.

Last week the U.S. Congress passed and President Joseph Biden signed the military spending bill for 2022 at a cost of $768 billion, $24 billion more than requested. The bill pays for ship, submarines, aircraft, and all sorts of weapons, as well as the pay for military personnel. The House passed it earlier in December by a vote of 363-70 and it clear the Senate 89-10. The no-votes came from more progressive Democrats who generally wish to limit military spending.

Among specific provisions of the bill are $28 billion for nuclear weapons programs, $7.1 billion to strengthen positions against China, and $4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative to resist Russia, which at the moment seems prepared to invade Ukraine.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also contained some element of reform. For example, calling upon the military to root out extremism after 38 of the 250 people charged for the January 6 insurrection turned out to have served in the military. It also made some reforms in the system of military justice because of the 20,500 cases of “unwanted sexual assault” (including anything from groping to rape) reported in 2018. The act did not, however, repeal the Iraq War resolution of 2002, used by Trump to assassinate Qasem Soleimani in January of 2020.

In general, the NDAA budgets are driven by the military commanders and by military contractors who stand to profit from the manufacture of war matériel. These military contractors contribute generously to the political campaigns of the politicians, a total of $47,149,042 in 2020. The biggest contributor, Lockheed Martin, which manufactures aircraft, gave $5,983,592, 47 percent to Democrats and 53 percent to Republicans. Only the banks contribute more to politicians.

Senator Bernie Sanders declared, “Many of my colleagues tell the American people, day after day, how deeply concerned they are about the deficit and the national debt. They tell us that we just don’t have enough money to expand Medicare, guarantee paid family and medical leave, and address the climate crisis to the degree that we should if we want to protect the well-being of future generations. Yet, tomorrow, the U.S. Senate will be voting on an annual defense budget that costs $778 billion – $37 billion more than President Trump’s last defense budget and $25 billion more than what President Biden requested…. As a nation, we need to get our priorities right. I will vote ‘NO’ on the National Defense Authorization Act.”

Before the bill passed, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortez made a number of specific amendments to deny funds to various governments: the specific Saudi unit that murdered Jamal Khashoggi, to a specific weapons contract for Israel, to countries that engaged in genocide or war crimes, to Colombia’s unit that suppresses civilian protests. Her amendments failed, and she voted no on the bill.

Shortly after the latest U.S. military budget was adopted, the New York Times published a study of military records regarding civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. While the military claims to engage in “pin-point bombing” with “surgical precision,” many civilians, including children has been killed. The times wrote, “According to the military’s count, 1,417 civilians have died in airstrikes in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; since 2018 in Afghanistan, U.S. air operations have killed at least 188 civilians. But The Times found that the civilian death toll was significantly higher.” Thousands more civilians than the military has accounted for may have been killed.

Still in Congress, no representative takes the historic socialist position of not a penny for militarism and war.

 

Liberals Look To Weingarten, Again, To Betray Teachers, Parents, and Students

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It’s revealing the only idea Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), gets right in the NYT interview with Michelle Goldberg, is a fact that was apparent two years ago to activists:  the Right has used the pandemic to undercut public education, fueling more privatization. What’s most important about this interview is that it shows liberals are looking to Weingarten to repeat the same game plan that teachers and parents had to overturn  to win a reprieve from the bipartisan drive to marketize education and control what students learn with standardized testing. Weingarten is once again doing the work of big money.

While teacher union activists were fighting against unsafe returns, in this interview Weingarten brags with faux modesty she “spent much of her energy, both in public and behind the scenes, trying to get schools open.” What this means  is that while activists were trying to expose to the public how the Right orchestrated demands to reopen schools to increase privatization, rev up the economy no matter what the cost, pit parents against teachers, and erode trust in public schools and teachers unions, Weingarten was using her political connections to undercut resistance to a movement funded by the biggest, darkest money.  Weingarten is portrayed as a hero in this piece, as she was  by liberal media when she defended use of scores of students on standardized tests to evaluate and fire teachers. Goldberg doesn’t bother asking for a rebuttal from any of the local union presidents who fought against unsafe reopenings, including one who is quoted defending remote learning, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second-largest teachers union in the U.S.  In fact, Weingarten betrayed thousands of teachers who were struggling against in-person learning until it was truly safe and equitable, fighting a  life and death struggle, for school workers, students, and families, and communities. In finagling to open schools – without permission of members who pay her salary –  Weingarten not only violated union members’ right to control policy, she carried out a strategy that worked against public education and workers in public schools.

Though Weingarten now points to how the pandemic was used to accelerate privatization and marketization of education with charter schools, she doesn’t mention the most chilling inroads in privatizing public education and destroying democratic control of our schools: use of educational technology to control learning and profit from student data, the colonization of public education with “platform capitalism.” The reason for this omission is that AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) are junior partners in the project, which is global.

Goldberg reports when “Weingarten became the A.F.T.’s president, [Diane] Ravitch told her it was her job to save public education in America.” Though this idea of union leader as savior is liberalism’s conventional knowledge, no statement could be farther from the truth or more dangerous for workers to believe. The fate of public education depends on teachers, mobilized as workers, along with activists in social justice movements, students, and parents using their collective power to force change.  One lesson school workers pummeled by exhausting work demands and attacks on their professional integrity can learn from this interview is that we need to address the admittedly formidable task of transforming the national unions.

What Weingarten doesn’t say even if she understands it is that capitalism has changed in the past fifteen years. Our opponents are more formidable than they were, and we cannot trust the national unions to lead. But we can resist successfully if we fight smart. In the first chapter of my new book, which New Politics will publish shortly, I delve into what that means. In the meantime, if you belong to an AFT local, it’s your right and obligation to ask why you weren’t consulted – to question why the Executive Council of the union allowed Weingarten to set national policy on a matter of life-and-death for so many people.

Michael Hirsch: In Memoriam

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The cause of socialist democracy lost a giant last week with the death of Michael Hirsch, a comrade with family roots in the Jewish working class of New York City as well as in the global youth radicalization of the 1960s.

Calling  him as a giant is partly tongue-in-cheek: Mike stood over six feet tall, and it comes as little surprise to learn he played basketball in his younger days. But more to the point, he had a big heart and an outsized personality — one unapologetically rough around the edges, often bouncing from genial to gruff and back again in the course of a single conversation.

An obituary points out that Mike was active in “the early Students for a Democratic Society, the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, the International Socialists, Ed Sadlowski’s campaign for leadership of the United Steelworkers of America, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Left Labor Project, and New Jewish Agenda.”

The list is not exhaustive. In recent years, Mike was also a member of the socialist organizations Solidarity and Tempest — and his comrades from the editorial board of New Politics recall with gratitude how he continued to write and edit articles for the journal even while in treatment for cancer, among other medical issues.

Mike was a prolific labor journalist and radical commentator. His first article for New Politics appeared in the Spring 1970 issue, and an archive of his NP articles from 2014-’21 is available here. The website for Jacobin magazine also carries a number of his pieces.

The Marxist literary historian Alan Wald offered a judicious assessment of Mike in a comment left on the obituary posting mentioned earlier:

“Michael set a high bar for socialist activists of our generation. With a rugged but magnetic aura, he was versatile in his interests, thoughtful in his commitments, and characterized overall by a determined resilience. Like many of us, he could be contentious, but more often an avatar of reason and calm. In conversation and writing I mostly found him compelling and lucid, with a level of fairness and objectivity that is needed more than ever in our challenging times.”

Mike’s many friends, comrades, and collaborators can only extend our deepest sympathy to his wife Lee and the rest of their family.

When Push Came to Shove

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New Politics editorial board member Michael Hirsch (1945-2021) was a young New Left radical when he came into contact with the journal’s founding editors, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson. The first of his many articles for it appeared in the Spring 1970 issue.


Push Comes to Shove: The Escalation of Student Protest by Steven Kelman. Houghton Miffin Co., Boston 1970.

Push Comes to Shove is a political attack on the student movement. Written ostensibly from the vantage point of three years at Harvard studying Politics with S.M. Lipset, it attempts to explain the cause of the “chaos and irrationality” during the spring ’69 occupation. Its market is obvious, it panders to those requiring a justification for political repression and for those liberals who need to rationalize their own failure around attacks on the left. As a document for the Movement, to serve as a mirror for self-criticism, it is useless—it was never meant to be that. Kelman is a polemicist against, not within the Movement.

Coming out of Dissent magazine, an “enfant terrible” with the mind of a brutalized ex-radical, his politics, absorbed whole from older, soured men, appear stark, hard, and simplistic. Kelman sees no structural problems in capitalism, no stress between its existence and his cherished, fetishistic notion of democracy-writ-large. Kelman’s mentors felt the need to choose years ago in the struggle between a bourgeois West and a static socialist East. Kelman chose, too, and the result is a burning antipathy for those of his own generation who scorn his lifeless definition of socialism and his managerial notions of detached scholarship.

If, as the theory goes, the West is chosen because of its civil libertarian position then defense of its class-dominated institutions becomes a necessity. A tactic becomes a strategy. The Right must be kept at bay and technocratic innovations adapted for the gradual transformation of those “flexible” institutions through strict adherence to one-man one-vote. The formalistic democracy espoused is reminiscent more of Bernstein than of Luxemburg, the scholarship more of Comte than of Marx.

Everything follows from the need to buttress existing institutions. A student left that long ago rejected this strategy as at best dubious must be characterized variously as “totalitarian, elitists, frenzied,” and worst of all “unreasonable.” Concepts such as “democracy” and “totalitarian” become things-in-themselves, without depth or historical context. One doesn’t encounter in Kelman a workable doctrine for a mass-based revolutionary movement capable of taking power so much as a religion where rigid forms precede any meaningful content. The rifling of Harvard files is more reprehensible than the contents of the files. The burning of a bank more heinous than the founding of a bank, ad infinitum.

For Kelman, the Left can only bring on fascism. It is not the inability of liberal capitalism to solve its inherent contradictions that necessitates a shift toward fascism, but provocation from the left. We are reminded by Kelman of the German example, of the precarious situation of German stability, and the fragility of its institutions. Would that Kelman really understood the German example, the bankruptcy of the Social Democracy in the face of the failure of bourgeois democracy and the objective needs of German capital for expansion and war. If any analogy exists, it resides not so much in Communist provocation but in Communist inability to formulate a workers’ front against both Hitler and the bourgeoisie.

Kelman fears “undemocratic” movements. What he actually fears are mass movements or those he cannot manipulate—movements breaking the bonds of alienating electoral “politics.” Given this inability to control movements he makes facile links between right and left, their authoritarianism, their irrationality, etc. But what really unites them is his inability to control them.

According to Kelman, S.D.S. grew at Harvard because it created a “false tension,” suggesting that SDS capitalized opportunistically on students’ fear of the draft, forcing them into larger confrontations. The abolition of ROTC was never significant in itself, but was simply an excuse to destroy. What was always clear for partisans in anti-ROTC struggles, but not for Kelman, was the actual depletion of an officer cadre from a particular university. It was never seen as a moral gesture, but as an affirmative political stance because of the overall effect of simultaneous struggles throughout the country. Anti- ROTC struggles were, as Sweezy and Magdoff have argued, the single most important anti-imperialist struggles that the Movement waged. The Harvard struggle accomplished the goals of serving as both a model for other struggles and depriving the military of a number of elite trained specialists.

Kelman will not discuss “power” or “control” (and not a word about “capitalism”) the very questions that produced a new-Left. “Alienation” is treated as a psychological phenomenon. Harvard remains a class-dominated institution in a capitalist society, but for Kelman this is irrelevant.

Similarly, revolution is treated as a fixation of the Left where the only conceivable, reasonable alternative is through electoral reform. Ironically, it is the French uprising of May-June 1968 that proves to him that “if there was no successful revolution there, we might as well forget about revolutions in advanced industrial society. They just aren’t going to happen, so we’d better start thinking about how best to bring change through reform.” (p. 152). But it was precisely this position that led the French Communist Party to betray the revolution, to orient a political strike along economistic lines. What France showed was the ability of people to emancipate themselves to “make a revolution.” It was the integration of precisely those workers’ institutions most responsible for legalistic reforms, the unions and the CP, (and not the workers themselves) that led to this failure. This is the strategy which Kelman advocates.


What is most offensive about Kelman is his incredible intellectual elitism— a detachment that flows from and reinforces his politics, and his reified notions of democracy. The Harvard strike further proved to him how politically innocent students can be galvanized by their unreasoning emotions into larger and more “violent” actions. An issue that affected them peripherally (the war) was linked to them personally (the draft), and Push Came to Shove. The catalyst for his distorted perception was SDS, viewed as action-freaks, by the detached cool-headed Kelman. It’s all so convenient. Why did people follow SDS? Their irrationality! Why did Kelman’s YPSL fall on its face- ditto. His alienation from people is extreme. The Movement in its entire evolution was never to his taste—a movement of “saints,” it quickly became one of “psychopaths.” In fact, neither was ever true, except in his own fantasy. A young movement, it based its politics on empirical judgments, rejecting rigid styles and what then passed for Marxism, as not so much incorrect as irrelevant.

In coming to terms with the American century, it rediscovered Marx, again on its own terms—terms admittedly too narrow. Now, when a discussion of alternatives in building a revolutionary left is critical, the diffusion of today’s movement is explained solely in terms of saints in a fall from grace.

Similarly, pot-smoking, the single most striking representation of the social dislocation of a generation, is compared to “goldfish-eating,” and Harvard becomes a benign institution with pretty women to make men happy. (SDS women are flat-chested, we are told.) Only during the strike is Kelman edgy— he complains of nightmares of surging masses, feeling an estrangement from events beyond his control. But Kelman’s alienation was the Movement’s freedom. All his intellectual sophistry to the contrary, he essentially remains afraid of people, counting personally and politically on their continued passivity.

Help Afghan Women. Do Not Recognize the Taliban Government.

An Interview with a representative of RAWA inside Afghanistan
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Frieda Afary conducted this interview with a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) via the internet.

What is the current situation of masses of women in Afghanistan both in the cities and in the rural areas?  There are reports that some parents are selling their infant daughters to pay for food. How common is this and what happens to the infant girls who are sold?

The situation of urban and rural Afghan masses and women is not so different. Both are suffering from war, fundamentalism, feudalism, poverty, and rape. The Taliban have banned high school, university, and work for all women, and women are not allowed to appear in media. Recently, the Taliban have assassinated some women such as Arzu, Frozan, Safi, and Nigar. They are brutally crushing all the women’s protests and try to suppress women’s voices. Although the Taliban are trying to present a “moderate” face to fool the world, so they can be diplomatically recognized, in reality, they haven’t changed. They are the same creatures from the Stone Age.

Yes, there are many incidents, where parents are forced to sell one of their children to feed the rest. It is solely done due to poverty and it is not a common practice. Mostly, the buyer pays half the money, and once the child gets a little older,  the remaining amount is paid, and the child is moved to the new house.

What types of expressions of solidarity has RAWA received from women in other countries,  both in the area and globally?

RAWA always calls on  freedom-loving women and men around the world to express their solidarity with the oppressed and tormented people of Afghanistan. We repeatedly say that you are our voices on the world stage, especially in this period, when the Taliban savages are trying to suppress the voice of every opponent, especially of women.

And thanks to the progressive organizations and individuals who are always expressing their support and solidarity with us. They have even arranged for protests and campaigns in solidarity with Afghan women and in particular RAWA. They arrange for fund raising events for us. Every day, we receive warm and encouraging messages of solidarity and support from around the world: Latin America, USA, Europe, Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, India, Australia,  etc. When the Taliban took over the country, we received hundreds of messages from around the world including from Hong Kong.

What do you think about the efforts of China, Russia, Pakistan, and some representatives of the U.S. and  European governments to justify diplomatic recognition for the Taliban in the name of  promoting humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people?

Afghanistan is like a cake and every big power and regional country wants to have its share/slice from this war-torn country. They are struggling for their own geopolitical gains and to have an upper hand over the country to take advantage of its strategic location, natural resources, and opium.

The claims of  governments to defending women’s rights, human rights, and civil freedoms are just lies. They are making these excuses against their rivals. The roles which the U.S, Europe, China, Russia,  and Pakistan have played in Afghanistan have been very destructive and militaristic.   China, Russia, and their allies are also competing with the United States and do not care about the plight of the Afghan people.  They are advocating diplomatic recognition for the Taliban to provide a cover for their support for this terrorist organization and to promote their own imperialist plans in Afghanistan.

The U.S.  used the slogan of democracy and “war on terror”  to promote an imperialist occupation and a corrupt U.S. -backed government for 20 years and to force this government on the Afghan people.  The U.S. has shown that it can make peace with the Taliban when it is in its interest.  All these governments use the very real need for humanitarian aid to justify diplomatic recognition of the Taliban.

So far,  the only large amounts  of aid sent to the Taliban have been from China and Pakistan. It is clear that the criminal Taliban government is not concerned about the abject poverty of the masses.  Taliban leaders have proclaimed that hunger is the will of God. If given access to frozen Afghan government funds,  the Taliban  would most likely help the families of their own suicide bombers.  So far, humanitarian aid and medical equipment sent to Afghanistan through the Taliban have been mostly distributed among their militias.

What are some ways of sending humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan without being dependent on the Taliban?

Relief aid and large donations can still be sent through the World Health Organization.  UNICEF has also been able to pay medical and educational staff without going through the Taliban network.    Those who wish to send smaller donations for Afghan women, can contact Afghan Women’s Mission which is based in the U.S.  The address is  https://www.afghanwomensmission.org/2010/08/make-a-donation/

Funds sent to RAWA through the Afghan Women’s Mission would be used to distribute basic food to needy families, especially to single-women headed households.  We also promote literacy among poor and rural women.  With more funds, we hope to establish underground clinics and schools for women and girls.   RAWA would also appreciate solidarity through the publication of articles that tell the truth about what is happening in Afghanistan.

 

Where Are We on Thanksgiving Day in America?

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Kermit the Frog of Sesame Street floats over the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade, wondering what we really have to be thankful for.

This article was written for L’Anticapitaliste, the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) of France.

Thanksgiving Day in America is a moment for national reflection since it raises the question: What do we have to be thankful for? The question is more poignant after the COVID pandemic that has taken more than 780,000 lives and an economic crisis that saw a 32.4% decline in the GDP and unemployment officially at almost 15 percent (though probably higher). While some were thankful others found that inflation had reached a 31-year high, with consumer prices up by 6% in October. Food prices had risen by 14% by Thanksgiving, and food pantries saw a 30% increase in need, while millions of homeowners and renters face the possibility of eviction.

Just as we were about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, a jury in Georgia found guilty of murder the three white men who had chased down and killed the black jogger Ahmaud Arbury, and most Americans breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks that for once justice had been done in a case of the murder of a black man.

Then too, after nearly two years of failed policies, resistance from conspiracy theorists and from rightwing organizations, almost 75 percent of Americans who are eligible have been vaccinated. In part, because of that, the economy has picked up. The GDP grew at over 2% and unemployment fell to its lowest level since 1968, though three million have still not returned to work. The improvement in the economy led to the Great Resignation as workers by the million quit their old jobs in search of better ones and we have seen an uptick in strikes and more efforts at unionization. We have for the first time in decades a socialist organization of 90,000 members—the Democratic Socialists of America—and we have a few people in Congress who call themselves socialists. So there’s something to be thankful for.

After the turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, however, we also begin to reflect on the larger context and national politics.

The Republican Party over the last year continued to move to the right, becoming in effect a far-right party that includes violent extremists. Many Republicans believe the last election was stolen and a third believe that violence will be necessary to change the direction of the country. Republicans, among them Q-Anon supporters, Christian Evangelicals, and armed militias, are going to school board meetings to protest vaccination, masks, and the teaching of black history.

The Democrats meanwhile are frustrated. The U.S. Congress passed President Joseph Biden’s infrastructure bill with a budget of $1.2 trillion, but the Democrats have so far been unable to pass the Build Back Better Bill that would deal with climate issues and help working families. Two conservative Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, have forced the Democrats to throw out proposals, cut the bill’s budget, and to drop the idea of taxing the rich to pay for it. Democratic Progressives and the few socialists have been largely dragged along by the moderate party majority. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to 44%, while 45 percent disapprove, and 11% remain undecided, suggesting the party could lose the mid-terms and end any chance for more progressive legislation in the last two years of Biden’s term.

Ironically, in a country known for its historic anti-Communist crusades and staunch opposition to even social democracy, to overcome the COVID pandemic and the economic crisis, the U.S. government has for the last year and a half provided vast amounts of money to businesses, states, and individuals. Today some 41% of all Americans now have a positive attitude toward socialism, while 68% approve of labor unions, the highest approval rating since 1965.

So as friends and family got their coats and went out into the cold and blustery November evening, I give thanks that there’s a chance that in the coming year we can begin to build a mass working class movement and an independent working-class political party.

U.S. Strikes of 2021 in Context : What’s Happening and Why?

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By now you will have read about the strikes of 2021. For one thing, there are more of them, some in industries where we haven’t seen many strikes for a while like retail, entertainment, or major manufacturing firms; others in areas that became more strike prone in recent years like health care and education: almost all where workers were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the more cautious commentators this has been an “uptick” in walkouts, while former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has imaginatively suggested it was “in its own disorganized way” a general strike.”[1] Most accounts of this visible surge in strike activity place it in the context of the recent economic conjuncture.

The immediate conditions encouraging strike action are mostly sought in the unique labor “shortages” in which (aside even from those down with the virus) workers have voluntarily left their jobs in search of better pay and conditions in record numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls these “quits” and records an unprecedented 4.3 million of them by August of this year. Those in trade, transportation, and utilities and leisure and hospitality alone accounted for almost half of these.[2] On the other hand, private sector layoffs are down from a year earlier and job openings up by over two-thirds to 9.6 million, while hirings are nearly flat.[3] Bosses need more workers and workers have gotten more choosey and assertive.

While some call it “The Great Resignation” due to all the “quits”, others have labelled it the “Great Discontent” for the underlying anger that leads to action whether a quit or a strike.[4]  For one thing, the quit rate had been growing more or less steadily since the first signs of recovery after the 2008-2010 Great Recession. For another, a Gallup poll in March 2021 found that 48 percent of “America’s working population is actively job searching or watching for opportunities,” far more than the 2.9 percent actually quitting.[5] So, job dissatisfaction has reigned throughout the work force for some time before reaching its all-time high in August 2021. For this reason, I believe it is more helpful to see the “quit” rate as a measure of job dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and the confidence to act, on the other, rather than a direct cause of strikes

At the same time, millions of under-paid workers have discovered, if they didn’t already know, that they were “essential” to society’s functioning—even as their bosses continued to abuse, overwork, and underpay them. This, too, contributed to the willingness to strike. On top of that, after falling during the spread of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, domestic nonfinancial corporate profits soared by 70 percent to a record $.1.8 trillion by the second quarter of 2021 so the employers have a harder time claiming poverty should their workers take notice and take a stand.[6] Matters were certainly helped by the 450 union contracts, many covering over 1,000 workers that expired in 2021.[7] Altogether it’s been a good time to strike.

But there is more to this apparent trend in militancy than a favorable labor market. To look a little deeper into this we need to examine what came before. The strikes of 2021 did not come out of nowhere. Table I shows the total number of strikes, those considered “major” by the BLS with 1,000 or more strikers, and the total number of strikers for the past six years.

Digression of Strike Statistics

Before analyzing these and related numbers, however, a discussion of strike figures is necessary. Since the Reagan administration discontinued the BLS count of all work stoppages after 1981, there is no official count of all strikes and lockouts. The BLS counts only strikes of 1,000 or more workers. Until 2021, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) counted all work stoppages directly involved in mostly private sector collective bargaining. So strikes such as those of the West Virginia teachers and others in in 2018 and 2019 were not included since they were in effect strikes against the West Virginia legislature. Neither were most public sector strikes unless the union or employer appealed to the FMCS for mediation. So, even combining the BLS major strikes with the FMCS figures would not necessarily produce a totally accurate count. The Biden Administration has let the FMCS count lapse and it is no longer available on the FMCS website, making matters worse. Strikes by railroad and airline workers are counted by the National Mediation Board under the terms of the Railway Labor Act. There have been none of these, however, in the years we are looking at.

This year, on the other hand, the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations program has begun tracking of all strikes via Google and social media. Even more recently, Jonah Furman of Labor Notes began recording strikes and organizing efforts in his “Who Gets the Dog” weekly online report. I have used all of these sources to produce the most accurate count of strikes possible with the existing materials, but it is likely some have been missed. It is these figures used in Table I and throughout this article which will differ at times from and are more accurate than the available BLS or FMCS counts alone. They are cited under Tables I and II and won’t be cited each time they are used subsequently.

_________________________________________________________________________

 

                                                  Table I                                                  

Strikes 2016-2021

Year                 Total #Strikes* #Major Strikes                       #Strikers         

2021**            194                               16                                 73,320

2020                66                                9                                    41,747

2019                89                                24                                 432,484

2018                76                                26                                 533,328

2017                98                                10                                 45,941

2016                99***                          20                                 115,050

*ILR Labor Action Tracker counts individual locations that are clearly part of a larger strike by the same union, as  for example at John Deere, as separate work stoppages. I count them together as a single strike.

**Jan-Oct.

*** FMCS counts 2016 SEIU Florida nursing home strikes 15 separate strikes, as they were simultaneous I count them as one.

Sources: ; Cornell ILR “Labor Action Tracker” , https://striketracker.ilr.cornell.edu/; BLS, “Major Work Stoppage” Monthly, https://www.bls.gov/web/wkstp/monthly-listing.htm ; Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, “Ongoing and Ending Work Stoppages, “ Monthly, 2017-2019; Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Annual Report 2009-2017; Jonah Furman, “Who Gets the Bird”, Weekly, September and October 2021, whogetsthebird@substack.com; National Mediation Board (airlines and railroads), “Strikes”, https://nmb.gov/NMB_Application/index.php/page/7/?s=strikes

Three things stand out from these figures. First, the total number of strikes in the first ten months of 2021 is far greater than those of the previous five years. On the other hand, the number of strikers is not larger than for all previous years. In general, the number of strikes has been declining since 1980 and fell even further after the great Recession of 2008, hitting a low of 76 in 2018. 2021 is, thus, the first year of a significant uptick in the total number of strikes. But as Table I shows, the number of strikers in 2021 does not even come close to match those of 2018 and 2019, which saw massive teacher strikes sweep the country. In fact, prior to 2021, the bulk of strikes have come from public school education and mostly private health care workers. These are workers who are less affected by economic ups and downs than most, although their quit rates also rose indicating significant job dissatisfaction. Of course, they are workers facing conditions common to much of the working class and their strikes count in the bigger class struggle as much as those of other more “industrial” workers.

Second, however, is a dramatic slump in both the number of strikes and strikers in 2020 as a result of the initial impact of the pandemic in general and the deep if brief recession it produced in the spring of that year. It should be noted, however, that many of the strikes that did occur in 2020 were those by non-union workers at outfits like Amazon, McDonald’s, and Instacart protesting unsafe conditions in the face of the rising pandemic.[8] The increase in strikes resumed, however, in 2021. Third, what makes 2021 in particular unique is not only the increase in numbers, but the increase in non-teacher, non-health care, mostly private sector strikes. There were 124 strikes by these workers across industries in 2021, far more than in any of the earlier post-Great Recession years. Table II show all those strikes by 500 or more workers This doesn’t include the 60,00 IATSE entertainment workers who reached a tentative agreement in October, but who have expressed dissatisfaction with the settlement.  Or others, like the 37,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers who may strike later in the year. Or, indeed, the many others facing contract expirations in the coming year. So, there is a broader “uptick” in strike activity following the dislocating impact of the pandemic.

Strikes of 500 or more workers in 2021 through October

Employer                                  Union                           # Strikers        

Hunts Point                              IBT                               1,400

Columbia U.                             GWC-UAW                 3,000

Allegheny Technologies         USW                            1,300

Warrior Met Coal                    UMWA                        1,100

Volvo Trucks                           UAW                            2,900

John Deere                               UAW                            10,000

NYU                                         GSOC                           2,200

Chicago local gov’t                 SEIU 73                       2,000

Belleville Schools                   NEA                             1,400

Nabisco                                     BCTW&GMU             21,000

Kellogg’s                                  BCTW&GMU             1,400

WA General Contractors        UBCJ                            22,000

Mercy Hosp. Buffalo               CWA                            2,200

Frontier Communications       CWA                            2,000

Puerto Rico Police Bureau                                           1,500

Keck Medical Center  USC    CNA                             1,400

Cook County Health Care      NNU                             1,200

Oakland University                 AAUP                             880

St. Vincent’s Hospital             MA Nurses                     800

New Car Dealers, IL.               IAM                                 800

Kaiser Permanente                   IUOE                               700

San. Francisco Maintenance   SEIU                               700

Frito-Lay                                  BCT&GMU                    600

National Aerospace                 Metal Trades Council    600

Peoria Schools, AZ                 Teachers’ Union             600

  1. Baton Rouge Schools NEA    600

ArcelorMittal                           USW                               500

Totals               24 (13% of Total)       60,280 (82% of 2021 Total)

Sources: Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker, , https://striketracker.ilr.cornell.edu/; BLS,” Major Strikes” Monthly Listing, Jan-Oct, https://www.bls.gov/web/wkstp/monthly-listing.htm; Jonah Furman, “Who Gets the Bird,” Sept-Oct, 2021.

 

A slightly broader way to see this trend is as a long term “recovery” from the deep dislocation of the Great Recession of 2008-2010. The number of strikes recorded by the FMCS and the BLS had been falling for decades. In the late 1990s those recorded by the FMCS ran at an average close to 400 a year, falling to about 300 annually from 2000 to 2005 and slumping to a low of 103 in 2009. Major strikes measured by the BLS fell from 39 in 2000 to an all-time low of 5 in 2009. The number of strikes in this BLS account fell from 394,000 in 2000 to an incredible low of 12,500 in 2009. So, while none of the pre-recession figures represent historically high levels of strikes comparable to the 1930s, 1940s, or 1970s, the Great Recession did represent a fairly sharp downturn in strike activity. Seen in this way, the figures from 2018 to 2021 taken together and averaged can be interpreted as a return to pre-recession levels of strikes and strikers.

Seen in another way, however, workers learn from the victories of other workers and from the perception that their own conditions are shared by others across society. The education workers of 2018 and 2019 were, indeed, teaching others that when the conditions are right, the time to strike and win has come. Along with the many health care strikers taking on corporate giants they were also showing workers across industries that the experience of years of stagnant income and the stresses of lean, just-in-time work were the maladies of an entire class. If they could fight back, so could you.

The Accumulation of Grievances v. the Accumulation of Capital

There is, therefore, reason to believe that strike action and militancy in general will continue if we understand the “uptick” of 2018-2021 as the result not only of pandemic and conjunctural conditions, but of the accumulation of grievances over a long period. A period that is the result of capital’s desperate efforts to increase profits and off-set falling profit rates that returned soon after the recovery from the collapse of 2008-2010.[9] As British labor historian Eric Hobsbawm put it in his study of worker upsurges, “explosive situations” are the result of “accumulations of inflammable material which only ignite periodically, as it were, under compression.” [10] The inflammable materials are the declining conditions of pay, work, and life and the accumulated grievances from these over many years. While such worker “explosions” are impossible to predict with any accuracy, they are always preceded by rising protests, strikes, and sometimes new or expanded organization often accompanied by other active social movements. Well-known examples include the strike waves before and after World War One, that during and after World War Two, and the strike wave that lasted from the mid-1960s through the 1970s during the Vietnam War era.

Each of these strike waves was not only disrupted and then driven by the social and economic impact of a war but accompanied by and interrelated with other major social movements in addition to that of unionized and unionizing workers. In the years around World War One these were the movement of women’s suffrage and the rise of civil rights activity mainly through the NAACP and of Black Nationalism. In the years following World War Two it was not only the massive strike wave of 1943-to 1946, but the less visible yet important stirrings of civil rights activity often led by black veterans. The Vietnam war era saw the anti-war movement, the rebirth of feminism and the mass women’s movement along with Black Power and the LGBTQ rights movement. Today’s “uptick” occurs, of course, in the wake of a renewed women’s movement, the immigrant workers’ movement, the movement to halt climate change, and the rise of Black Lives Matter and its various off-springs. It is already a period of considerable social activism. The strike “uptick” is possibly the precursor to a more substantial “explosion.”

While many of the declining conditions of working-class life and the grievances they have spawned are well-known, it is worth looking into them and how they might interact to produce a continued upswing in working class militancy and activism. Perhaps the most obvious and grating issue is that in real terms despite some recent wage increases due to the labor “shortage,” in September of this year the average private sector production and nonsupervisory worker was making the same $9.73 an hour she would have made in the spring of 1989, while labor productivity rose by 88 percent over those years, including even significantly during the pandemic. [11] You might not know the official figures, but you surely knew the situation by now.

As the pandemic hit in early 2020, some two-thirds of the lowest-paid workers and only about half of those at the bottom 25 percent of the wage scale, or about 13 million production and nonsupervisory workers had no paid sick leave at all, while over 31 million persons under 65 had no health insurance.[12] Not surprisingly, the impact of the pandemic was not socially neutral. A study by the Journal of the American Medial Association Network published in May 2021 revealed that the incidence of COVID-19 infections and deaths was greater in those US counties with relatively high-income inequality.[13]

Alongside this gruesome economic reality, years of lean just-in-time work intensification, standardization, and quantification have taken their toll in stress. Looking at the US and Canada during the pandemic in 2020, a Gallup poll found that 57 percent of workers experienced stress, 48 percent worried, and 22 percent felt anger all of them “a lot of the day.”[14] Stress, worry, and anger, moreover, were on the rise well before the pandemic hit. The percentage of Americans who said they had experienced these “a lot of the day,” rose over the post-Great Recession period from 44 percent in 2008 to 55 percent for stress in 2018, 34 percent to 45 percent for worry, and 16 percent to 22 percent for anger over those years.[15] An earlier poll taken in 2006 showed that 72 percent of the stress experienced in the US came from work-related causes.[16]

Stress, however, was not the only source of emotional distress and discontent. Years of increasingly visible income and wealth inequality exploded during the pandemic revealing a picture of obscene net worth of the nation’s growing cohort of billionaires. According to a study by the Institute for Policy Studies, the number of US billionaires grew from 614 in March 2020 to 745 in October 2021 as the pandemic surged, while their accumulated wealth soared from $2,947.5 billion to $5,019.4 billion over that period. The well-publicized antics of many of these titans of exploitation have made it all but impossible for the working-class public not to notice how these high-profile individuals have profited off the overwork, underpay, stress, infection, and even death of the majority. In fact, even before the pandemic took hold a majority of 61 percent said there was “too much economic inequality in the U.S.” On average only 42 percent of those questioned thought tackling this inequality was a “top priority”, but among these with lower-incomes 52 percent thought it a top priority.[17]  For many at least, this astronomical growth of inequality was one more reason to strike and one more building block in class consciousness.

At the same time, even before the pandemic was sighted, 70 percent of Americans felt that “big corporations and the wealthy have too much power and influence in today’s economy, according to a poll taken by the Pew Research Center in late September 2019. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they also thought politicians had too much power. The feeling that powerful “interests” have too much economic power and political influence is, of course, also grist for right wing Trump-style populist mills as well as a potential source of class consciousness. In any case, watching the Democrats in Congress fight each other as much as the Republicans and corporate lobbyists as they whittle down even the initially inadequate programs that might help working class people is likely to kill whatever hope some might have had that help would come from that quarter. On the other hand, only 31 percent said labor unions had too much power and most of those identified as or leaned Republican.[18] In fact, approval rating of unions have been climbing in the post-Great Recession era from a low of 48 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in August 2021.[19] This, too, indicates both increased discontent and class awareness—and the immediate means by which to fight effectively.

Given the accumulation of grievances and the poor contracts union workers have seen for decades now, it is not surprising that the pressure for strikes and better contracts has come largely from the ranks. Rob Eafen, President of the BCT&GMU local at the Kellogg’s plant in Memphis told Time “The movement to strike was a groundswell, from the people.”[20] The groundswell was visible across many of the unions whose contracts expired in 2021 as members voted by huge majorities to strike. In October, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at John Deere rejected a contract offer by 90 percent and voted to strike by 98 percent, as did UAW members at Volvo truck plants who rejected inadequate offers twice by 90 percent and struck. Communications Workers (CWA) at Frontier Communications in California voted by 93 percent and then struck for a day on October 5. [21]  Members of IATSE, the union of workers behind the production of movie and TV shows, voted by 98 percent to strike in early October. A tentative agreement was subsequently reached, but many IATSE members expressed dissatisfaction with the offer.[22]  21,000 nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser Permanente in California voted by 96 percent for strike action if necessary, with thousands more Kaiser worker in 20 more unions set to vote as well. [23] There is little reason to believe that this sort of pressure from below will disappear.

Crises such as wars, depressions, and pandemics expose all kinds of fissures in the economic system. The COVID 19 pandemic has simply magnified and broadcast the accumulated inequities of society and the grievances they spawn, but also the vulnerability of capital. The recent collapse of global just-in-time supply chains, for example, is the proximate cause of a crisis long in the making. Ports are clogged up in part because container ship capacity has out-paced container port capacity 63 percent to 42 percent from 2010 to 2020, followed by a sharp increase in container shipping demand in 2021. This was due to the switch of consumers from services to goods during the pandemic.[24] There were also pre-existing shortages of railroad cars, engines, and workers, as well as local and long-haul truck drivers and warehouse workers; that is all along the supply chains.[25] The impact of these sources of congestion and bottlenecks in the world’s supply chains were intensified by the combination of the pressures and vulnerabilities of just-in-time delivery. There is no mystery about either of these problems. Speed increases the impact of any supply chain disruption,[26] while years of low wages and benefits, combined with the results of work intensification mentioned above have kept workers away from the stressful and dangerous jobs involved in moving the worlds goods, as they have from other areas of work such as health care as well.

At the same time, this is a reminder of the power of labor to disrupt the accumulation of capital. A study of the impact of “disruptive events” on the supply chains of 397 US firms between 2005 and 2014 showed that for three-months after the disruption an average impact on sales of only -4.85 percent produced an operating income decrease of -26.5 percent and decline in return on assets of -16.1 percent. [27] This impact was before the pandemic brought an increase in the rise of goods consumption compared to services along with even tighter inventories and, hence, increased dependence on supply chains and logistics that are not likely to end for some time.[28] Clearly, labor-produced disruptions such as strikes or work-to-rule actions can have a significant impact on the accumulation of capital of any given employer.  An upsurge can force retreat on the entire capitalist class. And that could be a starting point for a new working-class movement in the US.

[1]Alex Press, “US Workers Are in a Militant Mood”, Jacobin, October 15, 2021, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/10/american-workers-labor-militancy-covid-19-strike-unions ;  Robert Reich, “Is America Experiencing an Unofficial General Strike?”, The Guardian, October 13, 2021,  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/13/american-workers-general-strike-robert-reich

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quits rate of 2.9 percent in August 2021 an all-time high”,  TED: The Economic Daily, October 18, 2021.

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Job Openings and Labor Turnover-August 2021,” News Release, USDL-21-1830, October 12, 20210, Tables 1-6.

[4] Vipula Gandhi and Jennifer Robison, “The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Really the ‘Great Discontent,’” Gallup, July 22, 2021, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/351545/great-resignation-really-great-discontent.aspx

[5] Gandhi and Robison; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quit rate”.

[6] Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 6.16D. Corporate Profits by industry,” September 30, 2021, https://apps.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=19&step=3&isuri=1&1921=survey&1903=239#reqid=19&step=3&isuri=1&1921=survey&

[7] Rand Wilson and Peter Olney, “Swarming Solidarity: How Contract Negotiations in 2021 Could Be Flashpoints in the U.S. Class Struggle,” Labor Notes, January 14, 2021, https://www.labornotes.org/2021/01/swarming-solidarity-how-contract-negotiations-2021-could-be-flashpoints-us-class-struggle.

[8] Bridget Read, “Every Food and Delivery Strike Happening Ovoer Coronavirus,” The Cut, May 27, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/2020/05/whole-foods-amazon-mcdonalds-among-coronavirus-strikes.html; Celine McNicholas and Margaret Poydock, “Workers are striking during the coronavirus,” Working Economics Bog, Economic Policy institute, June 22, 2020, https://www.epi.org/blog/thousands-of-workers-have-gone-on-strike-during-the-coronavirus-labor-law-must-be-reformed-to-strengthen-this-fundamental-right/.

[9] For profit rates see Michael Roberts Blog, “Profits call the tune,” June 17, 2021, https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2021/06/17/profits-call-the-tune-2/

[10] Eric Hobsbawm, “Economic Fluctuations and Some Social Movements since 1800,” in Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 139.

[11] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Real Earnings – September 20201, Real Earnings New Release, USDL-21-1832, October 13, 2021, Table A-2; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees, Total private, seasonally adjusted,” 1972 to 2021, Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject, extracted on October 25, 2021; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economic New Release, Table 1Business Sector Labor Productivity, September 2, 2021, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/prod2.t01.htm; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Nonfarm Business Annual Series” All Employed Persons, Index 2012 = 100, 1947-2020, xlxs, https://www.bls.gov/lpc/#tables.

[12] Elsie Gould, “Two-thirds of low-wage workers still lack access to paid sick days during an ongoing pandemic,” Economic Policy Institute, September 24, 20201, https://www.epi.org/blog/two-thirds-of-low-wage-workers-still-lack-access-to-paid-sick-days-during-an-ongoing-pandemic/; National Center for Health Statistics, “Health Insurance Coverage,”   FastStats, October 19,2021, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/health-insurance.htm.

[13] Annabel X. Tan, MPH; Jessica A. Hinman, MS; Hoda S. Abdel Magid, PhD; Porene M. Nelson, PhD, MS; and Michelle C. Odden, PhD, “Association Between Income Inequality and County-Level COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US,” JAMA Network OPEN. May 3, 2021, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2779417.

[14] Gallup, State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report, (Washington DC: Gallup, 2021), 28-30.

[15] Julie Ray, Americans’ Stress, Worry and Anger Intensified in 2018,” Gallup, April 25, 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/249098/americans-stress-worry-anger-intensified-2018.aspx.

[16] The American Institute of Stress, “Main Causes of Stress, “ 2006 StressPulse Survey, 2020, https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress.

[17] Pew Research Center, January 2020, “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call it a Top Priority,”https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/

[18]  Pew Research Center, “70% of Americans say U.S. economic system unfairly favors the powerful,” January 9, 2020, https://www.oewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/09/70-of-americans-say-u-s-economic-system-unfairly-favors-the-powerful/

[19] Gallup, “Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965”, September 2, 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/354455/approval-labor-unions-highest-point-1965.aspex

[20] Abby Vesoulis and Julia Zorthian, “Workers Are Furious. Their Unions Are Scrambling to Catch Up, “ Time,  October 25, 2021, https://time.com/6110014/worker-anger-unions.

[21] Jonah Furman, “John Deere Workers Are Ready to Strike on Wednesday,” Jacobin, October 12, 2021, https://www,jacobinmag.ocom/2021/10/john-deere-workers-uaw-contract-vote-strike; Jonah Furman, “Deere Strikers Mean Business,” Labor Notes 512 November 20201, 1, 3, 15..

[22] Jonah Furman and Gabriel Winany, “The Strike Wave Shows the Tight Labor Market Is Ready to Pop,” Labor Notes, October 18, 2021, https://www.labornotes.org/2021/10/strike-wave-shows-tight-labor-market-ready-pop; .

[23]  Suhauna Hussain, “Kaiser Permanente workers vote to authorize strike, citing staffing and safety concerns,”  Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2021,  https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/kaiser-permanente-workers-vote-to-authorize-strike-citing-staffing-and-safety-concerns/ar-AAPojIZ?ocid=BingNewsSearch

[24] Statisa, “Capacity of container ships in seaborne trade from 1980 to 2020 (in million dead weight tons)”  and “Container capacity at ports worldwide from 2002 to 2019 with a forecast for 2020 until 2024 (in million TEUs),” 2021, https://www.statista.com/search/?q=global+port+capacity&Search=&qKat=search; Peter Sand, “Container Shipping: Records Keep Falling As Industry Enjoys Best Markets Efver,” Bimco,  June 21, 2021, https://www.bimco.org/news/Market_anaysis/20210602_container_shipping.aspx; Paul Krugman, “The Revolt of the American Worker,” New York Times, October 14, 2021,  .

[25] Jared Faker and Rich Austin, Jr., “Dockworkers are available 24/7—others in supply chain should be, too,” The Seattle Times, October 25, 2021, https://www.seatlletimes.com/opinion/dockworkers-are-available-24-7-others-in-supply-chain-should-be-too/; Abba Bhattariai, “Warehouse jobs—recently thought of as jobs of the future—are suddenly jobs few workers want,” Washington Post, October 11, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/10/11/warehouse-jobs-holidays-seasonal-hiring/

[26] Kim Moody, “Labour and the Contradictory Logic of Logistics” Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisaton 13(1) (Spring 2019): 79-95.

[27] Milad Baghersad and Christopher W. Zobel, “Assessing the extended impacts of supply chain disruptions on firms: An empirical study,” International Journal of Production Economics 231, January, 2021: 8.

[28] Peter S, Goodman, “How the Supply Chain Broke, and Why It Won’t Be Fixed Anytime Soon,” New York Times, October 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/22/business/shortages-supply-chain.html;  Krugman, 2021..

The Two Souls of Aplutsoc

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[Editor’s note: We continue discussion of this vital controversy and invite other contributions. The editorial board has taken no position on these questions beyond encouraging debate.]

In a letter to Dan La Botz and New Politics, dated November 1, 2021, the editorial committee of Aplutsoc displays two faces of the group :

– on the one hand it asks for correction of what it considers as two factual errors in my article about the anti-pass movement ;

– on the other hand, it says the alleged misrepresentation leads to supporting repression against dissidents, as the Stalinist slanders of insurgents in Barcelona in 1937, helped their brutal suppression by the bourgeois Spanish Republican state.

Aplutsoc is a small far-left group in France which describes itself as a “political center”. In this reply, I will deal only with the two alleged factual errors and avoid debates about how to assess the “real movement of the masses”, the impending worldwide revolutionary upsurge, the systematic betrayal of the masses by all trade union bureaucrats at all times, the contempt of petty-bourgeois intellectuals for the unwashed unvaccinated masses, and the comparison between the situation in France and Italy. The two specific issues are what I said in my interview on September 16, 2021 about the attitude of various currents of the police towards the Saturday demonstrations, and the extent of punitive measures against health workers who were not vaccinated.

Briefly first on punishment of health and other workers. In my interview, I summarized one of the five demands of a Covid working group as “ – against the sanitary pass; due process for employees threatened with punitive measures for not presenting the pass or not being vaccinated ”. I obviously agree with this. Health workers, many of them women, underpaid, fed up with cuts in hospital staff, overwork during the pandemic and deceitful government statements about the Covid situation, are among the “employees” targeted that need to be defended. The punitive measures foreseen by the government varied over time, between their first announcement and beginning implementation on September 15, and depended on the professions, the extent of contact with the public, with patients, and the initial reaction of local management and trade unions. The balance sheet of these punitive measures on November 1 is obviously more precise than on September 16.

Aplutsoc seems to project their knowledge of November 1, back to early September, apparently in order to give some weight to their totally unfounded accusation that I display indifference or contempt for the plight of the approximately 25 % of the French population that is still not vaccinated (figures of November 5, 2021). That such contempt exists among some workers and upper middle class layers is undeniable (but it is clearly not the point of view expressed in the interview which calls for defending victims of repression).

The reverse phenomenon also exists among the antivax : many young, educated, culturally active, “free”, individualist, restaurant and theater goers assert their contempt for the “credulous masses” that believe the lies of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment and government and submit “like sheep” to the evil vaccination process and pass control. A complicated situation for progressive activists; divisions that make a rapid and impetuous rise of a united protest against the essential policies of capitalism today more difficult.

Second on the attitude of the police. The writer of the Aplutsoc resolution makes this point a very fundamental aspect of my interview and invents out of whole cloth the statement that “police trade unions played an important (my emphasis J.B.) role in the massive demonstrations that took place in over 200 French cities during the summer vacation” (J. Barzman écrit que les “ syndicats de policiers ” joueraient un rôle important dans les manifestations massives qui ont eu lieu dans plus de 200 villes françaises pendant les congés de l’été). In fact, my interview calls attention to the attitude of policemen and police unions as the sixth of seven “currents that caught my attention”. My intention was to ask for discussion of this observation by others. Aplutsoc’s violent rejection of this observation led me to review my initial evidence based on eyewitness impressions and a contextual survey of police movements.

My personal testimony remains. At the August 14 demonstration in Le Havre, I discussed with four people who came as a group, one of whom openly identified himself as a policeman, and the other three who seemed to know in detail and support his arguments. In addition, as we approached the central square, I heard a man on the very loud sound system, who spoke with authority, in a military manner, say something like this (from memory): “I call on the members of the armed forces and of the police who may be assigned to this demonstration to point their weapons to the ground and not use them against their brothers in the demonstrations… Honor and Glory, Honor and Force, long live the police”. In fact, no policemen in uniform were visible around the Town Hall (Hôtel de Ville) or around the demonstrators.

This led me to review the context, that is the evolution of police demands in the recent period. After the beating of Gilbert Zecler, a film director of mixed ancestry, by the police on November 27, 2020, Macron promised a reform of police procedures through consultations known as the security “ Beauvau ” (Beauvau is the square where the Ministry of the Interior is located). In these consultations most police unions (there exists a small minority of progressive police unions linked to the CGT, to SUD or autonomous) put forward demands for increased funding and technical equipment for the police, faster judicial procedures for people arrested by the police, and less citizen oversight of the police. This pressure culminated with the famous May 19, 2021, police demonstration before the National Assembly, supported by almost all parties including of those of the left (except Mélenchon), and rightly denounced by Aplutsoc editors. Negotiations between the government and police unions continued, but in a new relationship of forces.

Then after Macron’s announcement of the sanitary pass on July 12 and the first demonstrations against it on Saturday July 17, most police unions (notably Alliance) made statements hostile to any requirement that the police itself be forced to obtain the sanitary pass and asked that the additional work required by control of the pass among the general public be compensated by additional pay, staff and other material concessions. Their arguments were quite close to those of many Saturday demonstrators; although they generally stuck to their very corporatist policy of avoiding overtly political issues, their position was not incompatible with participation by individual members in the rallies, and the demonstrations clearly strengthened their bargaining hand with the government which needed a reliable police force if the anti-pass movement chose to take the path of the Gilets Jaunes.

Remember that the Gilets Jaunes movement had organized undeclared demonstrations and threatened the Elysée Presidential Palace in December 2019. At that time, the government seems to have panicked and immediately granted the police new advantages (notably exemption from the retirement reform), to insure their loyalty. In July and early August 2021, there were very few police attacks on the growing Saturday demonstrations. Sometime around late August and early September, police attacks on demonstrations increased. Then on September 14, Macron spoke at the national police school in Roubaix, announced the end of the Beauvau round, and a number of material concessions to the police. At the same time, the number of vaccinations advanced steadily, labor confederations announced the October 5 demonstrations, and the numbers at the Saturday rallies began to decline. My point is that this contextual analysis of the movement needs to be taken into account.

My statement about the unholy alliance of Gilets Jaunes and the police (“ The predominance of the slogan “Freedom” in the abstract allows the unholy alliance of Gilets Jaunes who were brutalized by the police, and policemen who want to be liberated from burdensome citizen control. ”) in no way implied a formal agreement at the top. The Gilets Jaunes remain a disparate movement with no clear central leaders. Alongside a majority interested in social and democratic issues, they include a far right component which admires virility, force, the army, the Nation, glory, honour and other such “values”. The dominant Gilets Jaunes culture prohibits identification with political parties and trade unions, seen as “rotten”, which makes it difficult for leftists to obtain a clear separation from the far right. The fact that one strand of the Gilets Jaunes called one of four separate demonstrations against the pass in Paris on September 24, shows a will to differentiate from the demonstration called by Florian Philippot, leader of the far-right party “ Les Patriotes ”, but it also shows a rejection of the search for a united front which openly accepts the participation of clearly identified trade unions and democratic organizations. The unholy alliance to which I referred was an informal cohabitation and silent mutual support at the local level, for example in Gilets Jaunes meetings open to Reinfocovid and others, or “ informal ” meetings to plan the Saturday demonstrations.

My intention was to goad the more democratic-minded Gilets Jaunes into proposing clear demands against police brutality. This is where my criticism of the abstract slogan “Liberty” as the central organizing theme for the Saturday demonstrations, as opposed to the earlier “Against the sanitary Pass” is relevant. In the precise context of a necessary campaign for massive vaccination, free of charge, the abstract slogan “Liberty” can be interpreted as freedom to refuse vaccination, a step backwards from the earlier slogan which included “Yes to vaccination, No to the Pass” among its supporters.

My interview carefully separates the “broad social and semi-political layers” from “issue-oriented groups and clearly identified ideologies and organizations”. I cite two of the latter : Reinfocovid and Civitas. I do not include the Gilets Jaunes or the headquarters of the Alliance police trade union, which have different dynamics, in that latter category of organized rightists present in the movement. The accusation that I say the movement as a whole, or its Gilet jaune component, is “complicit” or “compromised” with police union organizations is false. It transforms “compatible with”, “sharing common slogans with”, or “influenced by” into an explicit, conscious joint intervention, which never existed. Here again, a complicated, difficult situation for progressive activists. Here again a misunderstanding by Aplutsoc of what I said, perhaps due to an overly rapid reading, perhaps to a desire to construct a straw man, a petty-bourgeois, reformist, intellectual, anti-working-class left, of which I am perhaps the more palatable exponent, that Aplutsoc bravely exposes and combats.

I would hope that Aplutsoc will in the future stick to informative analysis and exposition of its differences and abstain from overextending and distorting the arguments of those it disagrees with to compare them with the Stalinists in one of their worst moments, Barcelona 1937.

Social Resistance to the Health Pass

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[Editor’s note: We continue discussion of this vital controversy and invite other contributions. The editorial board has taken no position on these questions beyond encouraging debate.]

To comrade Dan La Botz and to the editorial staff of New Politics

Dear friends,

We are writing to you these few words about the way in which the current French situation is presented in your journal. In addition to the article we sent you this summer, you published an interview with Comrade John Barzman, from Le Havre, which was obviously intended to contradict our analysis of the French situation. This debate is legitimate and necessary, but the Barzman interview contains two errors, or inaccuracies, which will distort your readers’ perception of the French situation.

  1. Barzman writes that the “police unions” played an important role in the massive demonstrations that took place in more than 200 French cities during the summer holidays — while mentioning only one other previous political event, the police demonstration of May 19 — suggesting a rapprochement between police and protesters. And he affirms that there was, in the anti-pass demonstrations, an “unnatural alliance of Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) … and the police,” embodied in the slogan “Freedom.”

Barzman’s readers, especially Americans, will get the impression that there is a certain political kinship between the police demonstration of May 19 and the anti-pass demonstrations, and that there are connections between the organizers of these demonstrations and police agencies of the far right. These are serious fabrications. In fact, the leaders of the official left (Socialist, Communist, and Green parties) supported the scandalous police demonstration of May 19 organized by the far right, and they condemned anti-pass demonstrations and often treated them as fascist. Moreover, no connection or contact between Yellow Vests and police organizations  within the framework of  these protests has been reported or denounced anywhere in France. In fact, John Barzman’s New Politics article is the only place we know of where such allegations are found.

On the other hand, J. Barzman writes that health personnel were required, “beginning on September 15, to verify vaccination or alternatively a recent negative test.”  NO, this is wrong: even  when they test themselves, which they do, unvaccinated staff are liable to suspension without pay!

Altogether, these inaccuracies can lead American readers to believe that in France, health workers are anti-vax and even anti-test, and that anti-pass demonstrations are linked to the police and to the far right, even though they have often been repressed by the police, and even though anti-pass demonstrators, especially in Paris, have distinguished themselves from far-right groups and worked with Yellow Vests and trade unionists — important facts  about which this article does not  say a word.

The discussion is necessary but it must be based on facts. It is wrong that a negative test allowed health professionals to keep their jobs, because they tested themselves massively, and it is wrong that the Yellow Vests in the anti-pass demonstrations were complicit with police officials. American readers should know that nearly 300,000 workers, and above all working women, are threatened with suspensions of contracts without wages, which would weaken hospitals and shut down services, which are in fact already shutting down.

After Barzman’s article, another article by Christian Mahieux dealt with the day of trade union action (CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires) on 5 October. He explains the failure of the action —  for it was a failure — by saying that the union leadership did not have much to do with it, but that the “militant teams” mismanaged it. We look in vain for the words “Macron” and “sanitary pass” in this article. The day of action of October 5, decided — in reality at the beginning of July — had the function of prohibiting all national inter-union action before October 5, while Macron implemented the so-called health pass and tried to suspend without pay nearly 300,000 workers. And the day of action was a failure, not because the workers are not combative, on the contrary: the real movement of the workers, with a wave of strikes over wages and also with the continuation of the anti-pass demonstrations every Saturday, takes place outside the calls of the national union leadership, without them, and in spite of them.

This article is a good reflection of the ideas of certain left-wing trade union sectors, who have supported (or, as here, are silent about), the attacks carried out by Macron since July 12 under the pretext of health, and who feel they form a kind of militant milieu in solidarity with the national union leadership. This political orientation caused tensions, particularly in the trade union federation Solidaires, which held its congress at the end of September. This congress was boycotted by the union SUD-Industrie, and SUD-Commerce did not participate. These constitute all the Solidarity unions in private companies, and not in the public or para-public sector.

This shows the tensions created in the unions by three months of inaction, maintained on the grounds that there would be an “October 5,” and it forecasts other crises in the unions, which suffer enormously from the refusal of their leaderships to confront Macron.

Today, major social struggles are taking place in Italy, with mass strikes in ports and in logistics against the so-called sanitary pass. What allowed the eruption in Italy of a strike movement against the pass was the refusal of the unions affiliated with the rank-and-file center, COBAS — unlike SUD-Solidaires in France for example — to  fall into line with support for the government, for ” social dialogue”, and for the pass which threatens six million workers, instead of 300,000 as in France,  with dismissal. At the same time, a fascist provocation took place against the CGIL headquarters in Rome at the beginning of October, and the main trade union leaderships, which endorse the Draghi government and support its health pass, called for demonstrations “for democracy ”and  “for participation,” in an attempt to amalgamate the anti-pass demonstrators and the strikers with the fascists. This failed because, from October 11, the strikers in the ports of Trieste, Genoa, and Cagliari, also denounced the fascists.

We are talking about Italy here because, if the present Italian situation, which is important for all of Europe, were presented in New Politics as the French situation was presented  apart from our article, that would mean: not a word on the anti-pass mass strikes, emphasis placed solely on the CGIL’s “anti-fascist struggle,” silence on its support for the government of national unity  by supporting the sanitary pass, amalgamation between the far-right and anti-pass demonstrators. Comrades, this is unacceptable!

When we start either to remain silent or to present workers’ movements as reactionary phenomena, there is danger. Of course, national situations differ. We understand very well that in large countries with strong class struggles, where there is hardly any national social legislation, like the United States or even Brazil, employers and reactionaries responded to the pandemic first by denial and the rejection of safety measures, wanting workers to work even if they fall ill. In France or Italy, social legislation has strongly protected workers from the epidemic, despite government failures. Macron and Draghi are not Trump or Bolsonaro, and they use the epidemic differently. On the one hand, they too put workers at risk by weakening the health system through their “reforms.” On the other hand, they use the health pretext to attack the labor code and lay off workers. The health pretext serves as a justification for the support of their policies by the left and the union leadership. In France, Macron is pursuing his presidential candidacy and re-election in this affair.

We understand your fight against Trump and the rejection of vaccination and masks all the more because we are of course for vaccination and have carried on and are carrying on the same fight in France. But using it as a pretext to fire or suspend thousands of workers who have regularly tested themselves without pay is not a health measure. Do you seriously imagine that these tens of thousands of nurses, orderlies, housekeepers, who are outraged by what Macron is doing, are followers of QAnon and worshipers of Trump? Come on! No more than the striking Cagliari dockers are “fascists”!

By regarding the massive social resistance to the so-called health pass as a confused, obscurantist  movement (but what great social movement does not have its confusions?), a movement compromised with who knows what police  agencies, we end up minimizing or condoning repression — and by reinforcing confusion that can only be combated by being with the workers. Other things being equal, let us remember the Stalinist slanders against the workers of Barcelona in 1937. Frankly.

Fraternal greetings.

Adopted Nov. 1, 2021 by the editorial board of Aplutsoc (Aplusoc is the abbreviation for the collective Arguments for the Social Struggle. )

https://aplutsoc.org

Tenure is the Easy Target but the Wrong One

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A rising fight that focuses on tenure

Disaster capitalism is being applied to colleges and universities at all levels, cutting classes while expanding casualization of the faculty. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has chosen to focus attention on tenure, not on the overall conflict in the higher ed industry.

Why is tenure being attacked?

The very word “tenure” reeks of privilege, which makes it an easy target, but the attacks on it are really just part of an orchestrated attempt to lower labor standards by decreasing job security for workers across the board while weakening higher education (especially public higher education) as one historic source of critical thought, disseminator of the influence of science in society, and origin of many opposition movements. The attacks are ginned up to appeal to envy – why should some workers have a job for life (one that is perceived as easy, pleasant, and benefited) when the rest of us are tumbling around in the scary labor market?

But tenure is not in fact “a job for life.”

What is tenure?

Tenure is a particular kind of job security known as just cause dismissal protection.  It means you can’t get fired (discharged) or disciplined (punished) for no good reason. “Just cause” means a good reason accompanied by investigation into the evidence for that reason plus due process for the accused. For academics, the word for this is tenure (from the Latin, tenere, meaning to hold on) because of the belief that it was socially good for educators and researchers to be able to hold on and pursue and teach the truth as they saw it without fear of reprisal.  This kind of job security —  just cause dismissal for discipline and discharge– is a common feature of union contracts in workforces in those areas that still have unions.  It is the opposite of “at will” employment, which is what we all work under if we don’t have a collective union contract.

In academia, tenure has also carried with it historically the right of faculty to have a meaningful voice in the academic governance of their institutions.  Tenure has not been, and is not today, a guaranteed job for life that protects people against discipline and discharge for good reason. Tenured faculty can and do get fired if there is a good reason. (They also get fired for bad reasons.)

Yet these attacks on tenure make breaking news

Just from recent weeks: Molly Worthen (no relation) writes a guest essay in the NYTimes blaming the tenure review process for overspecialization in a lot of academic fields.  Then Harvard reports that a commission on the topic has found their process opaque but “structurally sound.”  The Regents of the University of Georgia propose and pass a policy that modifies its post-tenure review process to effectively weaken it. Kansas and Iowa are just two states where bills to eliminate tenure came up in the state legislature. Even mainstream TV gets into the act with tenure review being one of the subplots for The Chair. This is all in addition to the normal drumbeat of academic managers decrying tenure as an obstacle to administrative flexibility.

… but they miss the point

While the rising attacks on tenure are important (and important to oppose), they miss the point. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are only 25% of total higher education faculty – fewer, if you count all those who are doing faculty work like graduate student employees.  What really matters is the conditions of the majority for whom tenure is the impossible dream.  These are the 75% of faculty who are hired as contingents, their semester-to-semester appointments “contingent” on funding, student enrollment, and the whims and favoritism of administrators.  While 20% of these contingent faculty are in unions (and may have some degree of job security in their union contracts) that leaves the 80% of the hundreds of thousands who have to balance their commitment to their students against the chance of “pissing someone off,” as John Hess, a leading organizer for the California Faculty Association, put it.

Where the conflict really lies

The real conflict is with those who would benefit from living in a society where they and their children and grandchildren are taught by people who do not have sufficient job security to speak the truth as they see it.  This “truth as they see it” is not just the question of whether dinosaurs and human beings co-existed: it includes issues like climate change and its causes, science in general, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, evolution, critical race theory, socialism and others. Then there are issues like class size, zoom instruction, grading and masking that pit faculty against managers who themselves are under pressure in an increasingly profit-seeking industry.

Who should have just cause for discipline and discharge-type tenure?

While “tenure” refers to academic and education workers, the justification for just cause job security applies to all types of work.  People in every kind of job need to have the power to critique their jobs as they do them, to their fellow workers and the public. The way that academics are special is that we deal almost exclusively in the realm of ideas.  That is our service: providing people with concepts and the skills for manipulating and applying them.

At this moment, a major new voice for better labor conditions for all workers in higher education – not just faculty but also clerical workers, blue-collar and the increasing number of contracted-out workers– is HELU, Higher Education Labor United, which came out of a campaign ignited by Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education and massive rage at student debt. This culminated in a broad-based and union-sponsored summit held last July. Influenced by young student campus employees involved in the Sanders campaign, HELU successfully lobbied to get labor conditions into College for All and is now working to support the Build Back Better bill with labor improvements and the necessary link to the infrastructure bill intact. HELU’s vision statement https://higheredlaborunited.org/about/vision-platform/ is one that should be a guide for a future, and better, higher education in the US.

Job security for all workers, not attacks on tenure, should be where the media focuses attention. Otherwise, the future is gig work for most of us.

The Suicidal Democracy

House of Cards Being Blown Apart
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The Freedom in the World 2021 report, released by Freedom House, has unveiled 2020 to be the 15th consecutive year of decline in democracy across the world. Despite occasional breakthroughs and regional variations in experiences of democratic erosion, the glaring loss of democratic assurances can no longer be pushed under the rug by civil society. Is democracy edging towards its built-in ending? The answer is no, and that makes this a topic of utmost priority. Democracy is not ending but is being hollowed out of its principles to serve as a powerful ideological weapon legitimizing violence and domination.

In a vulnerable world wrecked by the pandemic and divided by populist forces, the future of democracy rests on its ability to confront these challenges and emerge successful without altering its core principles. The following session is devoted to an analysis of the three fundamental challenges that threaten democracies. Much akin to prison with locks inside, these challenges are a product of democracy too- fruits of ideological fallacies inherent in democracies that were overlooked in the pursuit of glorifying a mediocre solution.

Political Ignorance and Erroneous Judgements

Democracy is understood to be the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But the pertinent question is, are the ‘people’ presented with meaningful choices and equipped to make informed decisions in a democracy? The death of democracies shall be the ordinary people, manipulated by the power-hungry political parties, handing over the reign to divisive forces and self-serving interests which are legitimized under the pretense of democratic decision making. Thus, democracy is reduced to majoritarianism, which given time, takes a turn for authoritarianism in the guise of democracy. Ignorance and conforming to the majoritarian ideals can even be bliss for voters, since adopting a critical attitude comes with the moral responsibility of swimming against the tide which can be quite exhausting and at worst, deadly. This is highlighted by Bryan Caplan in his work The Myth of the Rational Voter, (2007) when he states, “What happens if fully rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters — specifically, voters with irrational beliefs about the effects of various policies? It is a recipe for mendacity.”

This is the major reservation against democracy expressed by several political philosophers, from Plato of ancient Greece to Jason Brennan of the 21st century. Plato equated democracies with demagogues, and hence trusted only educated and specially trained philosopher kings and queens with ruling his kallipolis. A less utopian suggestion came from J. S. Mill, who gave extra votes to educated citizens. Despite arguments for epistocracy gaining momentum, this was eventually rejected due to its denial of the right to participation for all. However, the debate is revived by Jason Brennan in his work, ‘Against Democracy’ (2016), which pointed out that the right to participation in today’s democracy is translating to the right to impose one’s wills on others. “Democracy does not empower individuals. It disempowers individuals and instead empowers the majority of the moment,” he states. Herein lies the first challenge of democracy- How to set a criterion that defines ideal voters, taking into consideration the historical and sociological conditionalities? 

Rise of Populism and Majoritarianism

The current upsurge of right-wing populist forces is a reality cemented by Trumpism in the United States and the chain reaction set off. The relation between democracy and extremism is not a recent phenomenon. Democracy can be self-destructive by enabling the voting out of democracy, and the rise of fascist forces of Hitler and Mussolini out of democracies stand testament to this.  Today, several established democracies, despite the varying cultural and physical contexts, are characterized by one thing in common- power relations forged by mobilizations on the line of majority-minority distinctions, often marked by an arrogant and hurt majority and a volatile and disposable minority. While the political leaders and parties reap dividends from this divisive agenda, it is democracy and rights that pay the price.

Established democracies that have recently come under the scanner for the erosion of democratic ethos is a long list, containing celebrated names like the United States, the world’s longest democracy, and India, the world’s largest democracy. The regime of Donald Trump in the US was the lived depiction of Plato’s nightmare. The xenophobia, white supremacism, mistreatment of minorities, and pathological egotism that marked the Trump regime, and the public support he enjoyed proved by the highest vote share to be garnered by an incumbent president despite being voted out, resonated in the rest of the world. Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, are some popular ‘democratic’ regimes across the world that have inculcated the spirit of authoritarianism. With the battle lines drawn on the lines of ethnic and religious identities, the “clash of civilizations” predicted by Samuel Huntington (1996) has already commenced, as shown by the susceptibility of democracy to terrorism, riots, and pogroms. The majoritarian support they enjoy and silencing the voice of the minority presents the second challenge to democracy. In an era where authoritarianism is masquerading as democracies, how to revive its true nature and fulfil promises of liberty and equality for all?

Paradox of Democracy and Capitalism

Democracy and capitalism have often been portrayed as the proverbial twins of modernity. Their concomitant conquers of the world contributed to the claim that neither can flourish without the other. But the glaring theoretical and practical fallibilities in this argument are very evident today. The juxtaposition of capitalism with democracy reveals them to be antagonistic forces, with democracy on the losing side. While democracy exudes principles of equality through the provision of political rights, capitalism heralds widening inequalities that undermine these rights. Capitalism is profit-oriented while democracy aims to serve the common good. Capitalism concentrates power in the hands of a few who possess the majority of resources while democracy attempts to disperse power among a wide spectrum of citizens. While the simultaneous rise of democracy and capitalism can be attributed to historical contingencies, countries like China and Russia are contemporary examples of thriving capitalist economies which are miles away from being democracies.

The ever-widening chasm between the rich few and the poor many results in the undermining of democracies to oligarchies as the state becomes puppets in the hands of large corporations that pour money into their wallets. The poor and the middle class are presented with Hobson’s choice since the interests of the wealthy continue to be served even after regime changes. Political theorist Karl Polanyi, in his magnum opus, The Great Transformation (1944) had pointed out how this conundrum leads voters to shift allegiance to fascism, which was reflected in Hitler’s Germany. The current rise of far-right forces and the popular support garnered by them can be traced to the skewed and iniquitous distribution of wealth in liberal democracies and the disillusionment of the majority of voters with the economic progress promised.

Trajectories for Redemption of Democracy  

The decline in democracy, or rather the dilution of democracy, is no longer a threat looming in the future. It’s the reality of the day which demands acknowledgement and adoption of redressal mechanisms.

The advent of democracy was given the required propulsion by the promise of economic progress by capitalism and socio-political progress by the human rights agenda. Both have fallen short of providing the necessary impetus to boost democracy today.

The growing awareness regarding widespread and deepening inequalities in the capitalist world is no longer limited to the academic circle. Capitalist economic order is highly unstable and has built-in suicide points of its own, from which it is dragged away by state intervention. The first and foremost nostrum to heal the ills of democracy shall be to retain democratic control over the economy. This requires a revival of welfarist measures and distributive mechanisms. COVID-19 pandemic has reasserted the necessity of the state retaining its control over the provision of essentials and social security blankets. An active state that is held accountable should replace the nightwatchman state and social democracy must be secured.

The human rights promised by democracies are turning to vacant statements due to their selective application. The Human Rights agenda of democracy is a double-edged sword. Despite having the best interests in mind, behind the façade of its rosy picture lies the sanction granted to the state for pursuing violence in the name of democracy. Akin to ‘white man’s burden,’ powerful democracies often take it upon themselves to impose their conception of democracy over others, using it as a shield to render themselves impervious to any censure. The misadventure of the US in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and countless other countries is the product of arrogance that arises out of democracy. The power granted to the state and the majority population it represents can easily be misused, and blind acceptance of the measures taken by a democratically elected government can only be the doom of true democracy.

Hence, there is an immediate need to understand the fallibility of governments formed through democracy and emphasize substantive rather than procedural democracy.  This requires a strong civil society constituted by educated and informed citizens. This constitutes the second panacea to the evil of populism.  Modern technology has constrained citizens to various echo-chambers where one only hears what one agrees with. Critical thinkers are dwindling species and intolerance to differences is on the rise, with both government and people becoming more thin-skinned than ever. ‘We’ constitute the heart of democracy, and to defend our liberties and rights, ‘we’ have to break out of filter bubbles, expose ourselves to differences of opinions, confront erosion of democratic institutions and reform ourselves to informed citizens.

To conclude, democracy is very fragile today. While we have 167 democracies in the world at present, how many of them are democratic in the true sense of the word? Not many. Erosion of substantive democracy within established democracies is an unfortunate reality that makes one question whether democracy has reached its built-in end after all. Democracy is always theoretically defensible, but in practice, it is only a fine line that distinguishes democracies from lesser desirable authoritarian regimes. True, one can still argue democracy is better than the rest since folly in the jungle is always better than peace in the zoo. The survival of the suicidal ‘true democracy’ in these tumultuous times comes down to the question of human nature. Are we noble enough to meet and maintain the standards of democracy or too flawed to be cursed to live with a repressive regime in a dog-eat-dog world?

Verdict in Rittenhouse Vigilante Trial Leads to Protest by Left and Jubilation on Right

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Kyle Rittenhouse carrying his assault rifle through the streets was not stopped by police.

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old vigilante, traveled on August 25 last year from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin where he shot and killed two men and wounded a third during Black Lives Matter protests.  there was found innocent of all charges on November 19, a verdict leading to outrage and protest on the left and to jubilation and new organizing on the far-right.

The events began on August 23 when Kenosha police, arresting Jacob Blake on charges of sexual assault, tased him and then shot him seven times, leaving him paralyzed. His shooting led to Black Lives Matter protests, some peaceful, some involving window-breaking, arson, and confrontations with the police. A rightwing militia group, called the Kenosha Guard, then put out a call widely circulated on social media for people to come to defend Kenosha from BLM. White men, among them the fascist Boogaloo Boys, started showing up in Kenosha carrying hatchets, baseball bats, and guns.

Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old boy who had previously participated in police cadet programs, responded to the Kenosha Guard by taking an AR-47 assault rifle and going to Kenosha. He took his gun and began to walk the street where he was confronted by white activists from the anti-racist protests. When the men caught up with Rittenhouse, he shot them, killing two unarmed men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, who had a pistol. Having shot the men Rittenhouse walked through the streets, his gun across his chest, and though several people told the police that he had shot someone, the police did not arrest him.

Later arrested in Illinois, Rittenhouse was extradited to Wisconsin where he was charged with two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide, two counts of reckless endangerment, one count of unlawful possession of a firearm, and one count of curfew violation. He was released on $2 million bail was provided by rightwing lawyer.

The judge prejudiced the case in Rittenhouse’s favor. The judge’s phone, which rang during the trial, had a ring-tone that played “God Bless America,” a song played at rallies of former president Donald Trump. During the trial, the judge dropped the lesser charges of illegal possession of a firearm and violation of the curfew. He also refused to admit prosecution evidence that Rittenhouse had spent time with the fascist Proud Boys.

The defense argued that Rittenhouse had only defended himself against injury or death by his assailants. Rittenhouse claimed that Rosenbaum, the first man he killed, had threatened to kill him, the second man was video-taped hitting Rittenhouse with his skate board, and the third man turned out to have a pistol. The jury believe Rittenhouse’s self-defense plea and found him innocent of all charges.

Fox News praised the verdict, which they called was a victory for the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment that gives people the right to bear arms. Republican Representatives offered Rittenhouse congressional internships. Rightwing militias have been energized by this verdict. There is also a surge in anti-Semitism, since right-wingers argue that Jews control the media which they say worked to convict Rittenhouse.

Black and Progressive organizations and politicians criticized the verdict. Black activists and leftists such as the Democratic Socialists of America and small Trotskyist groups held demonstrations of hundreds Portland, Chicago, and New York condemning the verdict. In New York where I joined the protest, one woman carried a sign reading simply, “You know it’s wrong.” Another had photos of the two unarmed men killed reading, “It’s now open season on civil disobedience and protests.”

The Rittenhouse verdict has encouraged and emboldened America’s fascists—and they are taking advantage of it. We need a more effective response than we have at present. We need a militant, mass anti-fascist movement.

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