March 30, 2006

Christianity and Socialism--Second Reflection

In an earlier post I spoke of the gnosticism present in modern capitalist society and, in particular, present in the United States. I also mentioned certain idols of death present and worshipped in capitalist society. These reflections need to be developed so that we can better understand the liberating potentials and possibilities of convergence for Christianity and socialism. At issue is how we understand true faith and what it accomplishes. The methodology we use in our reflections is all-important.

Christians rightly believe that God exists, as it were, in two dimensions - both as ever-present and as beyond the present and all time and space, as amongst us and ultimately apart from us. This is something we have inherited from the ancient and pre-monotheistic world.

By itself this says very little. These attributes or categories become in some hands a series of platitudes or a kind of polytheism or they set us up for certain poles of unknowing which work against action and reflection. Agnosticism and atheism are logical responses to a Christian project which stops here.

Let us consider that these attributes or categories of God exist as opposites - ever-present and distant, in human history and beyond history, forever amongst us and ultimately Other. There is a tension here and we must ask ourselves in what ways these apparent contradictions are resolved and what this resolution means.

In Genesis we read:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In John we read:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Within and from those apparent opposing forces, then, something new is created that signals life and is owned or held by no one. We have the appearance of the material world and we have Jesus Christ. Within that material world in short order we have human beings with free will and human frailty. New, apparently opposing, forces are generated. Christ appears in human form at a specific point amidst these contending forces and says

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

and

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.

Christ's proclamation of a historically imminent Kingdom, constructed with the justice foreseen by the Old Testament prophets, and His ultimate triumph over death, which is imprinted into this Kingdom so that it may be shared by all, resolves certain oppositions but also create new ones. The days of the old world are numbered but the trappings of free will and human frailty remain, though they exist in transformed states. These resolutions and progressions are grasped in at least four fundamental ways by the early Christian communities.

They are grasped as unfolding historic liberation and linked to faith. We have seen this previously in Hebrews 11. Slavery and national oppression are opposed by God's people in wars of national liberation. A national consciousness, however contradictory, is part of the development of the salvific project. In Hebrews this is broadened to be expressed as a solidarity upon which salvation rests. This becomes an unfolding centerpiece of Christianity.

They are grasped on the personal level. In Romans we read

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The condition of personal alienation, then, is recognized as a condition, as something which may be transformed through struggle. It is sacramental to the extent that this struggle leads to salvation. It is politicized to the extent that this condition of alienation and our struggles with it are recognized and understood as being shared by all people. A door is thus opened to a new kind of solidarity and, in our day, to a form of ecumenism which finds its common ground in a struggle against all alienation which is both personal and political.

They are grasped in the Beatitudes given to us in Matthew 5.3-12. Ten affirmative and liberating blessings, each one leading logically to the next, stand as if they either replace or modify the ten prohibitive commandments of the Old Testament. Power and relationships, once each a locus and barometer of alienation, are redefined for the poor and powerless.

They are grasped in a social project dependent upon a redistribution of wealth and power. In Acts we read:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

We see also in Acts the account of Ananias and Sapphira who were struck down by the Holy Spirit for hoarding wealth and lying about it. We see in both passages a here-and-now fulfillment in human terms of all that has been prepared before; the project of salvation, greater than the redistribution of human wealth, will not be separated from that project either.

None of this would be possible or evident to us if God existed only in contradictory dimensions or actions. The actions and revelations described here presuppose both a divine energy and force and a method of sharing and transmitting this energy. God exists as Creator and God exists as Jesus Christ. This method of sharing and transmitting the creative and revealing force and energies of Creator and Christ - the force or person in which all that appears as contradictory within the Divine God is resolved - is the Holy Spirit. We speak here of a self-contained and self-revolutionizing Trinity which contains and shares unlimited energies within a divine and eternal relationship while also being in relationship with humanity and human history.

"Relationship" here assumes contradictions and oppositions, struggles, mutual responsibilities, paths and ultimately shared understandings between worlds and the justified hope that a fundamental transformation will take place so that humanity may share in the divinity of Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. All healthy relationships between parents and children or between freely consenting lovers serve as a paradigm or point of departure for understanding this greater relationship.

To speak of alienation here is to speak of how our energy, thinking, spirit and work are externalized - actually taken from us and reshaped - and how they become their own opposites, appearing to us as if they are the products of another person or beyond the grasp of human beings altogether. It is the loss of the affirming self and the triumph, however temporary, of that which negates the self and moves us into social arrangements which are neither of our own choosing nor of our own design.

Capitalism is, at its base, a system of organized but competitive alienation. The worker sells her labor power under the compulsion of fear of destitution and receives a relatively meager wage. The object or the service produced appears in society as something other than what she created because it appears with a price tag attached. It has been produced for profit and, as a secondary consideration, for use. Families, education, religion, art, entertainment, procreation - all adapt to the rhythms and possibilities of production and distribution. A "moral relativism" develops out of these conditions as relations of production and distribution stumble along.

At a point in human history religion seems to have been itself a form of alienated production and distribution. The forced labor required to build the imposing temples to the gods meant that production and distribution themselves belonged to the gods, if only as indirectly or in illusory ways. The emergence of the Abrahamic faiths signals a rupture within an alienated form of production and distribution. The faith is present in new forms of alienation but begins to develop and inculcate among the faithful a consciousness of themselves in relationship to the One God. The relationship is one of mediated power and law, justice, compassion and mercy and the possibility that any person may experience some form of divinization or Theosis through inheritance, adoption, grace or struggle.

Marx's point that humans give life to gods and so lose or diminish their own lives is true in the case of idolatry, be it the idolatry of false gods or in the subtraction of anything from the liberating message and work of God. This message is often repeated in the Old Testament. The gods emerging from alienation are condemned as strongly as are the cultic practices of those who turn away from their experience of liberation. In both cases the prohibitions and condemnations directly concern the misunderstanding or distortion of God's transcendent dimension, that faculty of God which creates and transmits an energized relationship within a Godhead and with humanity. Affirming this dimension or faculty of God means affirming human liberation because it affirms God amongst us and in our history and as the means and end of salvation. Negating this dimension or faculty negates the icon or image of God present in each person.

In Exodus we find the golden calf, in 2 Kings the cultic temples and the rod of Manasseh, in Wisdom the unwholesome worship of nature. In Jeremiah and Isaiah we see that those who produce the idols do so under conditions of alienation and deal very much in illusions of power. The evil resident in what they produce is an evil which distorts or destroys nature and people. These books must be read in a context which admits and links both the spiritual and the political through an analysis and recounting of a peoples oppression and liberation. Thus read, we see that idolatry of any sort is linked to the conditions of oppression.

In the New Testament we find idolatry tied to greed and wealth and considered as a particular vice. Enslavement to nature, law and empire are similarly condemned.

With these readings we understand that "the tasks of making God real" entails a break with the mythic. It is not that god has commanded us to leave idolatry behind and so created a category of sin. The point is that a liberating historical process has been unleashed and that oppressive gods must be overthrown if that process is to culminate in Theosis. The mythical must pass on in order that true faith may emerge. This task of unmasking the mythical and living without illusions remains before us.

Along the path to its peculiar forms of idolatry American capitalism has developed or discovered a type of gnosticism. The old gnosticism has given way to the belief that the world is the dwelling place of conflicting powers, some of whom are evil and plot to keep the individual enslaved, while "gods" contend around us and a secret knowledge save an elect few. These elect and their followers speak or obey a secret language of power. The old gnostic fallen woman, the cause of the wreckage of the world, is now replaced by images of commercialized sexuality. If archeology and science do not yet consist of the study of emanations, the favorable or unfavorable movement of the planets, the spirit forces and magic words, they are certainly under pressure to solve the questions arising from certain distorted and politicized offshoots of Christianity and Christian zionism. The young, the lonely, the out-of-work, those forced into pessimism and those who search for meaning are targeted by the New Age industry which produces its theology out of alienation. It accompanies the theologies of empire and neo-liberalism which place their faith in markets, treaties and, ultimately, armies.

Certainly the practice of idolatry in regards to law and empire remain with us. The conditions of capitalist alienation call forth the worship of production, goods and accumulation. The very means of production, which are achieved through many sorts of compulsion and coercion, almost insure that this is so. They work to abstract from humanity a sense of ourselves and the experience of the truly sacred.

The problem confronting Christianity is not atheism as such, but a resurgent gnosticism and a capitalist-induced fetishization of idolatry which oppresses us. The retreat from politics by liberal Christians has ceded the ground to reactionaries and neo-liberals who have theologies of their own - gnosticism, idolatry, Christian zionism - and has helped to leave the oppressed almost defenseless against our oppressors.

March 23, 2006

The Triangle Fire

On March 25 we commemorate the 146 people killed in the Triangle Waist Company fire in New York City.

Triangle was one of the garment companies which had held out against the mass strikes which began in 1909. We remember these strikes as "the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" because of the compelling stories of the immigrant workers who constructed garment industry unionism with their political and middle-class allies. The politicians, opportunists and misleaders who over time used the immigrants and their unions for their own ends have largely been forgotten or judged critically by history, but the memory and legacy of the workers remains.

It has not been definitely established how the fire started. The factory lacked safe exits, complete and safe fire escapes and adequate water pressure and hoses needed to fight the kinds of fires then likely to occur in garment factories. Exits may have been locked or blocked.

A few of the 146 people who perished at Triangle on March 25, 1911 were managers and relatives of the owners of the company and office workers. Quite a few must have been strikers who had been forced back to work by economic necessity and by the fear spread by the thugs and police who had colluded in order to break the strikes. The majority were Jewish and Italian immigrant workers who held the dreams and fears and concerns common to all of us, and especially to immigrants and their children. They were neither especially heroic nor were they lacking in virtues; we know this because so many died together at the factory's crowded exits and by jumping out of the factory's eighth and ninth floor windows and either dying as they hit the pavement below or crashing through the glass panels of the basement skylights set in the sidewalk. A few died holding one another. Survivors told stories of mass panic and self-sacrificing rescues.

A reporter for the United Press news agency witnessed much of the fire.

"I learned a new sound," said the reporter, "a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk."

One worker helped a young woman to a windowsill as the flames and smoke came closer to them. He held her away from the building and then let go. She fell to the street.

"He held out a second girl in the same way," wrote the UP reporter. "Then he held out a third girl. They didn't resist."

The fourth girl he held out he embraced and kissed.

Then he himself jumped to his death.

He had done all that he could to save the lives of his workmates and a woman whom he must have loved deeply.

Six of the victims were never identified.

The owners of the factory were acquitted of charges of manslaughter.

Writing just a bit earlier than the fire, the great sweatshop poet Morris Rosenfeld set down this poem in Yiddish:

Ikh hob a kleynem yingele
A gibnele gor fayn!
Ven ikh derze im trakht zikh mir
Di gantse velt iz mayn.

Nor zeltn, zeltn ze ikh im
Mayn sheynem ven er vakht;
Ikh tref im imer shlofendig
Ikh ze im nor bay nakht.

Di arbet traybt mir fri aroys
Un lost mikh shpeyt tsurik
Oy, fremd iz mir mayn eygn leyb!
Oy, fremd mayn kind's a blik!

Ikh kum zuklemterheyt aheym
In finsternish gehilt
Mayn blaykhe vayb dertzeylt mir bald
Vi faym dos kind geshpilt.

Translation:

I have a little boy,
a fine little fellow is he!
When I see him
it appears to me
the whole wide world
is mine.

Only rarely, rarely I see him,
my pretty little son,
when he is awake.
I find him always asleep.
I see him only at night.

My work drives me out early
and brings me home late;
oh, my own flesh
is a stranger to me.
Oh, strange to me
are the glances of my child!

I come home in anguish
and shrouded in darkness---
my pale wife tells me
how nicely the child plays.

I do not remember a time in my life when I did not know about the fire. It never occured to me as a young person that Rosenfeld and his poetry might be forgotten or left on a dusty shelf. I ask myself always how we move from sentiments such as Rosenfeld's to the mass actions of the militant garment workers and why there always seems to be a Triangle-like disaster in the news somewhere in the world.

The Triangle fire remains as one of our collective stories. We are entitled to its poetry and myths so long as we grasp its horror and implications. David Von Drehle's best-selling book on the fire, published by Grove Press in 2003, has perhaps brought the fire and events surrounding it to the attention of the younger people who will not learn about this in the schools.

You can read more about the fire at www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/.

To my beloved Italian-American people, who I have earned the right to address with some despair and much sorrow, I want to say this today: have you forgotten our past? Is the present so kind to you that you cannot spare a moment to remember those who perished on March 25, 1911? Was it so long ago that our parents and grandparents were called "wop" and "dago" and treated so badly in factories and coal mines? Do not these memories call forth from you the solidarity and sympathy for others that have characterized our Italian peoples for so long? Can we not at least remember these people with a Mass or during Stations of the Cross? Remember that others are trying to make a life here now, are discriminated against and hated also. Do not turn your backs on them.

March 22, 2006

Christianity and Socialism---First Reflection

In my previous post dealing with Christianity and socialism I reflected upon the reemergence of liberation theology and the questions we face as we discuss and animate Christianity, liberation theology and socialism today. It is necessary to reference some basic questions before proceeding further.

The most basic questions before us concern the existence of God and the matter of God.

Readers can go to http://godisreal.blogspot.com/ for an overview of the classic evidences for the existence of God. These are essentially the arguments based in the works of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine and I suspect that they will not be familiar to many readers of this blog. These interrogations remain unequalled and unanswered even today in their logic and yet, as the compiler of the blog entry notes, they do not absolutely prove the existence of God and do not fully satisfy all intellectual curiosity.

We can only add to this that there exists among the oppressed the task of making God exist. By this I mean that we share a faithfulness to the Gospels and to Tradition as well as a consciousness and means to use the Gospels and tradition in order to provoke and struggle for justice. In that struggle the matter of God is revealed as both ever-present and distant, as intimate as Father and Comrade and as distant Unknowable Other. The only certain path to Theosis, individually or socially, is through this struggle. Other paths lead there, but none are as certain as the path of the loving struggle for justice. The matter of God is both Beginning and End, both Path and Destination. Constructing that path from a capitalist society forward is the task of making God exist.

We taste this in Hebrews 11. The author begins by telling us, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible." There then follows a lengthy retelling of past struggles for liberation and a connection is drawn between these struggles and faith. The distance between those martyrs struggling for liberation and the world as it is or appears is underscored. The concluding verse says, "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." Neither oppression nor death, then, are stronger than solidarity and faith.

The arguments mentioned here constitute the strongest emerging intellectual arguments affirming God's existence, but they remain insufficient precisely because the Christian belief and faith in the matter of God is essentially irrational. The Christian mind is led by the heart or soul through faith, trust and belief to Theosis. The weakness and dangers of this progression itself, usually formed in crisis or through our traditions and values as working class people, argues or cries out for stronger communities of faith so that the believer is not crushed by the delusions fostered and ever--present in capitalist society or otherwise misled or given over to despair. The social corollaries may be obvious: a society or country in crisis either reaches for true faith or does not, may be both the subject and the object of its own and others' delusions and imaginings and is especially susceptible to despair and reaction. The presence, moral strength, structure and role of faith communities in these social circumstances are key subjective factors expressing the willingness of people to struggle against oppression or not. Their shared struggles predict or prefigure a "Social Theosis" which has not yet been grasped in its entirety by any movement or society.

The question of atheism arises at this point. We must acknowledge that atheism has been a dominant tendency, although not the only one, in the socialist movement.

Atheism has arisen to some extent in reaction to the logical and intellectual proofs of God's existence and the matter of God mentioned above. Western Christianity has surrendered something of its heartfelt irrationality and has compromised or shelved some of its most liberating aspects; the liberalism of the rational approach has not withstood historical development, despite its good and logical intentions. A certain emotional side of Christianity, which the faithful have missed and searched constantly for, has been appropriated by conservative forces and has resurfaced in the developed world as an essentially reactionary political tendency with religious trappings. A god is being worshipped, but it is a god of insecurity or of empire. We must distinguish between these tendencies of atheism, logic and rationality and the appropriation of religious rhetoric and trappings.

We must also say here that centuries of deism - the idea that God exists outside of a Trinitarian relationship with its own energies, as totally Other, as only all-powerful and commanding---have helped to create atheism. The absence of a Trinitarian concept creates a void which is filled by a false and dramatic oneness and there has been no room in this oneness for the feminine (represented by Mary) or for the saints. Death is final for all but this male Other. Who could love and be in a healthy relationship with such a rationalized and authoritarian God?

We must also say that capitalist rationalization demands a form of agnosticism and does not admit the existence of the God of Life and limits or attempts to commodify our relationship with this One True God. It does this by demanding more of our time and segmenting our time, turning into commodities our ability to labor and all that we produce and the time required for our labor, creating situations in which fallible human beings compete unnecessarily, creating and maintaining a chimerical logic that holds that human and labor power naturally serve other ends than their own and God, and creating the means of producing ever-new idols and cultures of idolatry. It is only this last necessary point which prevents capitalist societies from becoming officially and legally atheistic; the idols of death are predominant because they are linked to the means of global production and distribution and militarism.

Genuine atheism, then, is rare. It is not the product of real inquiry. It is a reaction, sometimes quite healthy and understandable, to an over-intellectualization of faith and the absence of an understanding of the Trinitarian God and Mary and the saints. It may also be a tragic outcome of capitalist rationalization.

What cannot be resolved in intellectual debates has been resolved in the praxis of the poor. Writing with a much different goal in mind, but making an applicable point for purposes of this discussion, Marx says in his Theses on Fuerbach that "The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question."

The question of whether or not God and the matter of God exist is "purely a scholastic question" which has been settled in the "revolutionizing practice" of the poor as we attempt to build a socialized humanity. This practice calls forth and experiences the Holy Spirit. What remains for us on the theological level is to fully comprehend this practice and act on it. This becomes an essential of liberating prayer and a people's church.

The immediate question before us as workers is whether we worship a God of Life or idols which bring death, either directly through the destruction they cause or by subordinating human power to mere objects or by expressing alienated humanity through forms of political, economic, cultural and religious idolatry.

Change To Win: Six Months After

During the past summer, the US Labor Movement, for about a week, seized the headlines of the mainstream media. For once, Labor was on the front page! No, it wasn't a strike, a national lockout, or any other kind of David vs. Goliath confrontation with the forces of corporate America.

What the mainstream media was hailing as the biggest event in Labor's last 50 to 75 years was the July 25th-29th, 2005 National AFL-CIO Convention where SEIU, The Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE-HERE, the Carpenters Union (which had already left the AFL-CIO) and The Laborers left the AFL-CIO to form a new national labor organization called Change to Win.

With the help of the public relations departments of the Change to Win unions, what was being touted in the mainstream media was a bold and daring break on the part of some unions to reverse Labor's steady history of declining numbers and declining effectiveness.

With the AFL-CIO mired in a sea of indecision and complacency, the Change to Win unions were marching into the ranks of the low-wage American workforce to organize new members in a way which hasn't happened in the United States in 75 years, or so the Change to Win unions said and the mainstream media repeated in trumpet tones.

It's now been six months since the Change to Win unions left the AFL-CIO. Since the July headlines, the UFCW, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers have formally disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO, and the United Farm Workers have joined the Change to Win unions too.

On the other hand, how much has really changed since the formation of Change to Win? As this author looks back over the last six months, the answer that comes to mind is, "not much."

And this is no surprise. Given the lead up to the July 2005 split, the internal arguments and the proposed solutions, Change to Win is in a tough position to carry through on its July promises.

Inauspicious Start:

Following the July AFL-CIO Convention, Change to Win can't really be said to have hit the track running; the reality was more like a bang and a splat.

While Change to Win had put its primary agenda forward as a new direction for the AFL-CIO, that is, to organize America's most vulnerable and oppressed workers into the unions, Change to Win was immediately caught up in the trip wire of the good old way of doing union business in America - good old Democratic party politics!

The trip wire, bang and splat in this case was Change to Win's disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO itself. While the Change to Win leadership had arrived in Chicago more than ready to announce a public disaffiliation from the National AFL-CIO, the Change to Win unions had no intention of leaving the AFL-CIO's state federations or local labor councils.

Related and second big mistake was the Change to Win leadership's failure to take into account the vindictiveness and personal animosities of the AFL-CIO presidents towards the Change to Win leaders, and it seems, in particular to Andy Stern of SEIU.

So, the dynamic was this: Change to Win announced that it was leaving the sclerotic and backdated AFL-CIO to re-build the labor movement. The AFL-CIO retaliated with a message that said, if you leave the national AFL-CIO body, you're out of the organization at the state and local levels too.

From there, Change to Win accused the AFL-CIO of wrecking union solidarity, and the bold new step forward becomes an embarrassing semi-public three to four month negotiation between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions regarding under what terms the Change to Win unions would be allowed to participate in the AFL-CIO at the state and local levels.

Anybody who knows how American unions work knows that labor's primary political work happens at the state federation and local labor council levels. Thus, while Change to Win was ready to break with the AFL-CIO as representative of the American Labor Movement, it appears Change to Win was not ready to break Labor's "turn out the vote" machinery, ala' work at state and local levels.

Then there was the September 2005 Change to Win founding convention itself. Blogger Jonathan Tasini referred to this founding convention as a "dog and pony show."

What Tasini was referring to was the thorough lack of debate, the hand-picked delegates, and the rah-rah public relations nature of the event itself. From the start, Tasini has seen the whole Change to Win/AFL-CIO spit as nothing but a power play on the part of the Change toWin unions.

Fellow blogger Eric Lee, who takes a far more positive view and sees real promise in the Change to Win agenda, acknowledged many of Tasini's criticisms, and found a few oddities himself.

Lee, however, chose to take the Change to Win leadership at face value (no slight to Brother Lee here, he's being fair); thus a more positive view of Change to Win in its beginnings.

View From Below:

Meanwhile, back in July, while the heads of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions were posturing for the best at the AFL-CIO National Convention in Chicago, a couple of Chicago Tribune reporters, Barbara Rose and Erika Slife (July 27, 2005, "For Many Workers, Change Sounds Fine"), were out interviewing some of Chicago's rank and file union members regarding their take on the Change to Win split and the Labor Movement in general. The below is from their article:

James May, 47, a shipping clerk, says, "I'm not so much pro-union as I used to be because they make a lot of promises that don't pan out". May evidently joined a union seven years ago when his job was under sub-contracting threat. He still has his job. May knows he's a member of Local 681, but he doesn't know the name of the union.

"I know that they take our money and give it to the Democratic Party," said Barbara Woodson-Silas. Barbara goes on to say ... "To me, the union used to be strong in the day. But today, it's not."

Dan Lasota, 58, a Chicago Building engineer says, "...you can go around this neighborhood and there's been strike busters." ... One right next door here, they were striking there for three months. It didn't do any good." ... And you know, years ago, unions were strong. Now they are nothing."

When asked about what he thought was happening at the AFL-CIO Convention, Byron Dumas, an SEIU doorman, said, "I've been almost completely in the dark." ..."I've seen my union mentioned, but I don't know what't going on." Dumas is a committed unionist. He says, "I'm probably one of the few people who carries their union card with them."

The article written by Rose and Slife is telling.

While the presidents of America's unions and a handful of delegates were debating the Labor Movement's future in Chicago, Chicago's rank and file union members are telling tales of powerlessness, distance from their unions, and a sense of having no idea what was going on. Rose and Slife's interviewees are not an odd exception.

Folks who have spent time in the trenches of the US Labor Movement will recognize many of the comments made by these interviewees as a pretty standard reflection of where lots and lots and lots of union members are at these days.

It is important to remember too that the discussion leading up to the Change to Win split included only the officers and heads of the AFL-CIO unions themselves.

Thus, the thousands and thousands of stewards, bargaining committee members, local union presidents and officers, activists and other leaders were never included in the discussions around revitalizing labor and were never invited at any level to any of the discussions that lead to Change to Win.

Is this important? I think so. These are the people who make the labor unions function as institutions; these are the people who do the unions' work.

Put to the Test:

Whether Change to Win will be able to effectively deal with U.S. Labor's 60-year slide to powerlessness might become clear sooner rather than later. Here, I am referring to Change to Win's campaign to organize the North American hotel industry, lock, stock and barrel.

In most ways, the 2006 hotel campaign represents the best that Change to Win has to offer. Lead by UNITE-HERE, this campaign will tackle some of the world's nastiest corporations on an industry-wide basis.

The strategy seems solid. The approach involves labor confrontations with hotel industry capital in major North American cities where union density is at its greatest, and where conventions and tourism bring in super-large profits from super-large convention and hotel centers.

Further, this ability to confront has been in the works for quite a while, with UNITE-HERE attempting to negotiate common contract expiration dates across the industry, or, such as in San Francisco, working without contracts in 14 major hotels and thus preserving freedom of action.

Finally, the Change to Win/UNITE-HERE strategy includes a strong global component absolutely essential as the major corporate players such as the Hilton, Marriott and other major chains are first-rate global corporations.

Yet I am uneasy, and here's the crux of it: For the first time in the roughly 250 years of western industrialized society, a handful of unions are attempting a major assault against dominant corporate institutions in the context of a non-existent Labor Movement.

"Of course there's a Labor Movement!" many will say. "We have unions ... That's the Labor Movement!" But all of that is a bit simplistic.

When we talk about a "movement," we are talking about masses of human beings with common aims; people and organizations with a wide social impact, with a social voice which extends across the full range of a society, with an analysis, purpose, aim and goals.

And it is this meaning of movement which unfortunately doesn't exist in our current national historical context.

Workers of the World, Unite!

This thing about "movement" is where comparison made by the Change to Win unions with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) 70 years ago becomes a bit odious.

In 1935, the social context facing the CIO was of a whole different nature. When John L. Lewis and the CIO unions walked out of the AFL to organize America's industrial workers, a class war had already been raging for five years.

While the AFL stood aside in its ideology of craft-based Americanism, the IWW was organizing autoworkers in Detroit, the Communists and the TUUL unions were organizing unions and building towards industrial actions in a number of industries, the Socialists were actively engaged in organizing tenant farmers and lumber workers, every major city had an active unemployed workers' council, a broad left with deep roots among working class folk was speaking society-wide about what was wrong with capitalism ...

And to an extent, the ruling powers-that-be were alarmed ... Working folks were making serious trouble!

Compare this with now:

When New York's transit workers struck for a couple of days around Christmas, where was the AFL-CIO? Where was Change to Win? It's a rhetorical question, but when the transit workers were being hammered with fines and threats of jailing, there was not a word said from a wider labor movement at all.

Airline workers have eaten cut after cut after cut, yet the mainstream dialogue around these workers involves little more than an analysis of the vagaries of bankruptcy court.

That America's working class is getting poorer and poorer always seems to get lost in the news of the growing ranks of billionaires, and so on and so on.

Most importantly, 70 years ago, neighbors stood on the side of striking workers whether they were union members or not. At this stage of the game however, scabbing is epidemic; every strike and job action represents little more than a new job opportunity for a scabbing non-union set of workers.

All the slogans we used to hear - an injury to one is the concern of all or when you take one of us on, you take all of us on - is the language of a movement with clear notions of unity. In practice, however, how far does this rhetoric really extend?

The Missing Movement:

All of the factors mentioned earlier - workers disconnected and ignorant about their unions, a sense of powerlessness, the thousands and thousands of union activists and leaders who have never been part of any discussion around revitalizing labor, a schism where 5 or 6 million unionized workers have left the AFL-CIO based on a pissing match involving maybe 100 union presidents - were all mentioned for a reason.

Purely and simply, all of the above are strong indicators that a real labor movement, a movement as social force, does not yet exist in the US.

Unfortunately the lack of a real labor movement, and more importantly, the need to build a labor movement, has never been on the agenda of either the AFL-CIO or the Change to Win unions.

Indeed, a key concern on this author's part is that the Change to Win unions, in the context of great resources, slick strategies and public relations work, and an emphasis on top-down campaigns and events, have decided that maybe a movement and sense of mass social solidarity are no longer necessary ingredients in pulling off social change.

Summing Up

There is a difference between building a labor movement on one hand, and preserving a group of deeply vulnerable organizations (read unions) on the other.

Unfortunately, the commonality between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win is that both are operating out of the latter rather than the former intent; both seem equally oblivious to the history of their own movement.

It is this which leads me to suggest that the formation of the Change to Win coalition doesn't represent much in the way of real change.

Does this mean that a labor movement is impossible? Absolutely not!

Movements develop out of mass action and how the participants and observers make sense out of raw events. If Change to Win develops into a real movement, through a series of hard-fought campaigns where organization is built out of the widest possible participation, it wouldn't be the first time that workers have set the direction and prevailed in spite of the limitations of their leaders.

Finally, we socialists must be involved. Our first loyalty must be to our class. When picket lines happen, we need to show; we need to participate in the e-mail campaigns, we need to be at the meetings; most of all, as socialists we need to make the point over and over again that it's all about class and how workers deal with it ... in the widest sense! Maybe that's our entree as participants in building a real labor movement.

March 21, 2006

Christianity And Socialism--Introduction

The questions of how and why Christianity and socialism might relate to one another are not new. If the questions and relationships themselves have been eclipsed in recent years by the practical demise of "already existing socialism" and the setbacks, in particular, of the Latin American popular Church, they have also reemerged with popular protest responses to globalization and neo-liberalism and the struggles to maintain and expand upon the positive gains of Vatican Two and the conferences of Latin American Bishops at Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979). They reemerge as Latin America and parts of Europe turn cautiously to the left. We are forced to interrogate the times in which we live, to discern where the Holy Spirit is present in the "globalization from below" which we are seeing develop and to ask what it is that God wants us to do in this historic and theological moment.

These questions carry a different weight and reemerge in a much different context than they did when Christian committment found its deepening expression in the peasants' and workers' movements of Latin America one or two generations ago. Then it was a matter of discovering with and through the Holy Spirit what the Biblical option for the poor meant, finding the expression of the Holy Spirit in solidarity, developing an "integral humanism" within Christianity which could exist in creative tension with both Tradition and new social movements, naming and analyzing the idols of death, echoing a call for salvation and liberation and acting prophetically against oppression. By the early 1980s we could call this a theology of liberation.

These tasks have not been completed, and neither have they run their full course. Moreover, we can point to some failures from those days which cry out for correction even now--the inability to fully translate theology at the base with the people, the failure to develop a theology of liberation among industrial workers and in the most industrialized societies, the problems which come when theology and politics mix, the inability of white people to learn from South African theologians who gave so much to the anti-apartheid movements and African-American theologians who form part of a progressive intelligentsia. These matters might have been set aright, or at least framed differently, had the generation of theologians and activists who consciously developed theologies of liberation not faced such terrible repression which was at the same time both intellectual and nearly genocidal.

Today we have both the tasks of the unresolved past and the demands of the present before us. Globalization and neo-liberalism constantly work to revolutionize, rationalize and commodify relationships where they can. Those areas of the world where they cannot penetrate either suffer unimaginably from famine, war and ecological and health disasters---all either quite preventable, or at least containable---or are being deprived of influence and markets. Africa, the home of Christianity, suffers like no other continent, for a self-sufficient and independent Africa could point a way forward to all of the colonized peoples.

We cannot say that there is even a stalemate at this point between reactionary and progressive social forces; resistance to the empire adopts either the cautious fears and compromises of social democracy or the mad logic of the empire itself. Our inability to more fully grasp and express the Christian project of salvation, the coming of the Kingdom and Theosis is very much tied to these circumstances, which appear as both crisis and crucifixion. Our sins and our enemies have left us nearly defenseless, but also in a situation where we must put our hopes fully in the God of Life.

In the United States we must now contend with Christian zionism---unthinkable and untenable one or two generations ago---and the accompanying theologies of empire and apocalypse. The supposed decline in the numbers of faithful and the growth or recuperation of fundamentalism are more intrinsically linked to one another and to the world crisis and the crucifixion of the poor than we have realized previously. They represent for us both the triumphalism of an insecure empire and a weak attempt by Americans to hold on to a swamped raft of illusions which have grown in number and import since the end of the Second World War.

We are passing through a stage in which the visible Church becomes a mustard seed. It is our task to remain faithful and nourish the seed so that it grows into a resurgent popular church of the oppressed.

That said, we must also rcognize that attempts to separate spirituality, theology and politics from one another---and to separate all from the lived experience of the oppressed---are also signs or symptoms of decline and crisis. The right holds the political moment in its grasp, however precariously, in large part because it has a political and theological praxis of death---and nothing carries such certainty, illusion and fear as death does. Christianity cannot answer that praxis with disinterested transcendence and still be Christianity.

Today we must also recognize and enter into a dialogue with the poor who are drawn to Islam and their social movements. We do so while wars and repression continue with a ferocity which we had not previously thought possible in advanced capitalist societies. We must integrate into our theologies of liberation a special love and defense of the environment. The Christian "integral humanism" of the past must be reconstructed as a bridge which connects us to others struggling against idolatry. The points where that bridge are moored are the points where people struggle to realize Theosis, partaking in the Divine Nature to become god-like. Put another way, perhaps, they are also the points at which the people often struggle to make God exist.

The gnosticism and mysticism which today characterizes so much of American culture works to obscure the radical potential and ever-present reality of these struggles. It appeared in the US among youth entering the labor market around the time of the recession which followed the war in Vietnam and, later, among young people seeking work as the US deindustrialized. Perhaps it is a more twisted form of American individualism. Both gnosticism and individualism today appear as essentially forms or symptoms of social devolution, as theological and political accompanyists to the right-wing attacks on the basic assumptions of civil society. They react to the dominant feel-good theologies and gospls of success so prominent in the US as corrosive chemicals might react to one another. This social corrosion helps propel capitalism forward so that even gnosticism and mysticism are undermined by new forms of alienation.

These tasks and understandings, then, effectively revolutionize liberation theology by requiring that it respond to current conditions in light of the Holy Spirit. The effort to do this and the arrival of liberation theology in the present help to create new theological moments. I am not saying that liberation theology has died and must be rebirthed. Even less am I conjuring it to exist in the present. Where the Holy Spirit is present a continuous renewal is taking place and it is a task of all of us to discover this place amongst us, reconcile ourselves with it and within it and animate its path and its truth.

There is a great library of books dealing with possible relationships between Christianity and socialism. This on-going reflection will offer a little that may be new to the discussions but will not reach definite conclusions. In the next reflection we will begin with some basics of faith and then return to the points raised here.

March 20, 2006

The Font of all Evil is Now Belarus

Looks like the next axis of evil on the capitalist West's list of evil-doers is Belarus and its President, Alexander G. Lukashenko. The UE and the United States are increasing sanctions against Belarus, and the United States has flatly declared the March 19 Presidential Election to be fraudulent.

It's not exactly that irregularities are rife in Sunday's election. It's more a matter, according to UE and US propaganda, "a climate of intimidation". Nonetheless, the independent pollsters were predicting an easy win for Lukashenko, and well, strange as it might seem, it appears that Alexander Lukashenko is popular in Belarus, even if he's not in Washington and Brussels!

Anybody who thinks the United States and the European Union have a deep concern about democracy in Belarus, are, well, sadly deluded. I mean the United States wasn't all that disturbed last month in Haiti when whole piles of votes for the U.S.'s not so favorite son were found in the city dump. The UE and US have never had a problem with Croatian, Bosnian, or Albanian dictators; just Serbian dictators evidently. Indeed, the list of European and U.S. involvement in "regime change" and manipulations is far too long to list here.

I suspect the real concern about Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko is this:

It seems that four fifth's of Belarus citizens are employed by the state, paychecks come out on time, and the amount of the checks are going up. Belarus is the only one of the ex-Soviet republics to have largely maintained the Soviet economic model and Soviet era social protections and services. In short, Belarus's economy is adequately taking care of its citizens, and thus, the problem is this: Belarus is just not a good model for the UE neo-liberals and their corporate backers as they contemplate a cheap-labor role for the old Warsaw Pact nations.

So I'm waiting to hear if Alexander Lukashenko eats babies and puppies, or he just has bizarre sex cravings. Stay tuned ...

Revolt in France

I'm wondering if a major showdown is in the works in France. Here, I'm referring to the de Villepin government's attempt to foist a "kids as cheap labor" law down the throats of French youth and the working class.

This new piece of neo-liberal legislation would allow French bosses to fire kids up to I believe age 26 without cause or explanation. If the law goes through, French employers would have every incentive in the world to replace a regular and legally protected workforce with a vulnerable young workforce that can be dismissed without cause, and therefore are wide open to intimidation from their employers.

Demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of the new law began amongst university students about a week ago. Since then, actions have escalated to events in over 80 major French towns, which now include large working class contingents. French unions are calling for a general strike next week.

On the other hand, French employers are demanding that De Villepin hold firm on the government's new employment laws. The New York Times, on March 20 suggested the new law might force a confrontation between neo-liberal and working-class forces similar in scope to Margaret Thatcher's smashing of the British unions in 1984-85.

An interesting dynamic in all of this, is this: In key votes this past year, the French and Dutch people solidly rejected the neo-liberal model for Europe in UE Constitutional referendums, de Villepin's new employment law is opposed by two thirds of the French public, the UE's efforts to de-regulate European ports was solidly defeated through combined political action and job actions, the abhorred Bolkestein Services Directive was passed by the UE Parliament in a watered-down, yet still unacceptable state, in spite of large protests. Yet, in spite of overwhelming rejection after overwhelming rejection, the neo-liberal political forces and their corporate sponsors are right back again with another round ... of well, infinite crap.