November 29, 2007

Oregon State University & Football Capitalism--Part 2















Football capitalism:
students competitively recruited out of high schools by universities solely to play ball; corporate sponsorship of university sports and athletics department staff; lucrative university and corporate contracts covering athletic facilities and stadiums, logos and branding, media coverage, travel, etc.; channeling of university profits into expanding athletics at the expense of other departments and the mission of the university; using or directing athletics-generated profits to underwrite other university programs through a political process; selling or leasing university athletic resources and space to corporate and private bidders; awarding game tickets, stadium space, university housing and other university resources to corporate and private bidders; partnering with hotel and resort chains, construction companies, airlines and bus companies and other companies to support and expand university athletics; using alumni and alumni centers for aggressive athletics-driven fundraising; hiring spouses or children of faculty into no-show or little-show jobs in athletics departments to subsidize low faculty salaries; practically exempting athletics departments from financial, regulatory and contractual oversight; paying coaches and athletics department staff over-market salaries; disregarding the needs and rights of student athletes and not providing them with quality educations; over-funding some university teams while under-funding others; giving some student athletes special exposure and privileges while not fully supporting others.

I am not saying that Oregon State University does all of these things. I am saying that I suspect that the behind-the-scenes managing bureaucracy of OSU has its historic roots in the peculiar logic, economy and politics of university athletics and that this bureaucracy is tempted to cross the line and engage in the activities listed above. Fallible human beings cross such lines every day.

I am also not saying that OSU athletics is inherently at fault. If 18th century English literature could be turned into a cash cow and used to support other projects and push a political and economic agenda which would benefit the bureaucracy they would jump on it. I don’t believe that OSU is unique; it just happens to be close by and in the news.

Let’s look at the OSU bureaucracy. There is the University President and various vice presidents, there are department heads and managers and there are people who work with infrastructure, student support, alumni, planning and fundraising and wealth management. There are faculty and staff and human resources people. There are also people who liaison with other universities, with state agencies and with the legislature.There has been a developing trend at OSU away from teaching faculty and towards non-teaching faculty. Many of these people do research, but many also work as department managers at relatively high salaries. The people they manage—OSU staff—fall into several categories. Physical plant staff and unskilled staff positions have been decreasing in number, but not in workload, while the numbers of so-called “semi-professional” staff have seen slight increases. OSU staff is not properly a part of the OSU bureaucracy because they have little or no decision-making power, little job security over time and little or no immediate political impact on the direction or mission of the university.

The OSU bureaucracy I have been speaking of seems to feel and understand a shared identity, a kind of class consciousness. Many of the most prominent bureaucratic actors attended the same colleges and universities or worked in them at one point or another. They were fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. They have ties to the same, or similar, corporations and legal firms. Their resumes look and sound remarkably similar. Some work behind the scenes to insure a certain direction for the university and the success of those efforts. Others are front-line supervisors overseeing as few as three workers in some departments or a similar number of supervisors. They feel a strong sense of accountability to one another. Conversely, they do not seem to feel accountable to others.

Every bureaucracy has as its origins an economic and political base. I’m arguing here that money from OSU’s athletics department funded at least a part of this bureaucracy in the past and gave it a certain political coloring. They could support limited privatization of state services, some educational funding packages, a unified university system to the extent that it directly benefited them, a vision of the mission of the university which linked OSU to agribusiness and the timber industries and the hometown or homegrown politicians who supported them. Their presence at OSU has meant stability.

The union and the civil rights and progressive movements at OSU have won some concessions from this bureaucracy but each battle has been hard fought. The campus cultural centers are a visible sign of our efforts. The very existence of a union representing classified workers at OSU is another sign. The destruction of the small “people’s park” on campus a few years back signaled an attempt by the bureaucracy to rid itself of us.

The slow but steady rise or recuperation of the zoology, wildlife sciences, plant pathology, forestry, pharmacy, agricultural and engineering departments at OSU is being built from a different economic and political base. These are departments which more directly serve private industry and its competitive needs. Moreover, this rise or recuperation comes at a time when public-private partnerships are being used to loot state and federal resources nationwide and give certain industries advantages in the global marketplace.

The logic of these forces demands that universities like OSU centralize finances and administration under business centers, become fully accessible to corporations and fully responsive to the globalized marketplace, adopt competitive internal mechanisms or markets and pare down to the bone in order to compete internally and externally. There is no room in this model for separate university departments or for a unified state educational system, or for university-run athletics or for a looking-backwards and inward-looking bureaucracy. And so it is that four cultural centers at OSU may be relegated to a “cultural street option” designed by an out-of-state architectural firm run as part of a public-private partnership and then be quietly chloroformed if we relax our vigilance and pressure.

November 28, 2007

Oregon State University & Football Capitalism--Part One
















Oregon State University has four "cultural centers" on its Corvallis campus which exist to build and protect national or ethnic diversity on the overwhelmingly white campus. After recent racist incidents---a black-face event at a football game and a noose displayed in a fraternity yard--these centers are perhaps getting some extra attention. And they are also getting redesigned and, perhaps, relocated.

Funding for the restoration or renovation projects has been set at $200,000 and this money will come from the University's Raising Reser fund. An architectural firm from from Seattle has been engaged to move forward. I believe that the Raising Reser fund came out of athletic funds and donations, although I may be mistaken about this. The architectural firm is somehow linked to the Seattle Schools Building Excellence Team. That Team program manager is Donald King, an architect from yet another architectural firm. His company has been associated with Seattle schools for many years and has been involved in a number of complex financial transactions with the school system there. Why OSU had to go out of state and into what is apparently a public-private partnership to deal with campus design and diversity centers is unclear.

Accessibility to the centers and the needs of the centers are being mentioned as the projects are being discussed, but perhaps only as afterthoughts by OSU administration. The architectural firm is presenting some different building options. Some of the options may centralize---I'm reading ghettoize---the centers onto a "street" or campus corridor of centers.

For many years money from OSU athletics paid for all sorts of unrelated programs and helped to create and fund what has become an unmanageable OSU bureaucracy. But "unmanageable" does not mean "unprofitable" because this bureaucracy has become relatively well-paid as well as self-perpetuating. It remains predominantly white and male and always self-satisfied and self-protecting. It troubleshoots, lobbys, fundraises and transacts the business and politics of the corporation or private entity OSU is becoming (or has become).

The publicly unspoken deal has been that excess money coming from athletics and related funds would be used to pay the freight for part of this bureaucracy and also to underwrite the image of OSU as a place for diversity, critical thinking and intellectual exploration. Past OSU administrations and the current decision-making bureaucracy have been forced to accept the cultural centers and what they represent, but this acceptance has been formed out of political necessity and comes grudgingly.

Profits from university athletics and bookkeeping tricks can only run so far, however, and university athletics represents a political and economic trend as much as it does a passion for sports. Other departments also compete for money, resources and attention and OSU engineering and science programs seem to winning the battle as the University receives less state and more private directed funding. Indeed, only about forty per cent of OSU funding comes from the state at this point. OSU is, in effect, a private university. And as an essentially private university it is excelling nationally in wildlife science, zoology and forest resources just as private industry needs critical research and development in these areas. These departments bring with them political and economic outlooks and biases different than those associated with athletics.

One sign of the internal bureaucratic competition taking place at OSU is the coming centralization of certain campus operations. The University is moving towards creating campus business centers which may centralize some of the management and infrastructure functions now dealt with at the college or department levels. While this may be a rational response to the top-heavy bureaucracy that has grown at OSU and the questionable business practices this bureaucracy has developed, the first people to feel negative consequences from these business centers will be non-tenured (that is, non-union) faculty and union-represented staff.

It is likely, I think, that the non-tenured faculty and OSU staff will be forced to compete for resources and recognition as the business centers are introduced. OSU has a faculty shortage and faculty salaries are relatively low. OSU faculty have been saddled with management functions and their work has been redefined to include all sorts of non-teaching and non-researching jobs. The creation of the centers may free up more time for teaching, but will more teaching be done and how will assignments be handled? OSU staff, meanwhile, may either face layoffs or job redesigns and may inherit many of the management functions now done by faculty. Two groups of workers are slowly being brought into competition with one another.

The projected savings from the business centers will not go into lowering or holding the line against tuition costs and worker salaries and benefits will not increase. Tuition at OSU remains high because so much of it is appropriated by a management structure which fights for its own interests at the expense of students, staff and faculty.

A slow move towards divisions, rather than colleges, is being made here. The College of Liberal Arts is unprepared for this transition and it is difficult to imagine CLA surviving the creation of the business centers, much less the eventual creation of divisions. Each business center will have a Human Resources person on site managing the workers. We are not talking about less bureaucracy, but about a different kind of bureaucracy with different funding and different political motivations.

Corporate-backed science departments are struggling with corporate-backed athletics at OSU, a relatively stable behind-the-scenes managing bureaucracy may or may not be able to manage through this period, another bureaucracy may be emerging and everyone else has the choice of either lining up behind one or the other blocs or falling by the wayside. To miss the economic and political motivations at work here is to miss the point.

The question of where the business centers will be located on the Corvallis campus is potentially a big question. Will the cultural centers be pushed into neighborhoods or corridors--- ghettos---on campus to make room for the business centers? Is there a message here for students of color, staff and faculty on the OSU campus? Will football capitalism be forced to give way to something more scientific and rational and even more concerned with a bottom line?

November 26, 2007

Oregon--Native Languages And Our Struggle

The November 25 issue of The Sunday Oregonian ran an interesting article on efforts to keep the Siletz language, Coastal Athabaskan, alive. The article tells us that more than half of the 7000 languages now spoken around the world are expected to die out in the next 93 years and that every Native language in our region is considered endangered or dead. We live in a "global hot spot" for languages which either are or are becoming extinct.

The article focused on the efforts of a Siletz man who is trying to teach Coastal Athabaskan with support from his tribe. It's tough going not because of lack of interest, but (according to the article) because of the lack of tribal resources and basic needs. The tribe is caught in a hard place: the struggle to makes ends meet takes people away from their culture but the culture can't survive unless people are getting by. Most tribes have not been able to get to the point that the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde have with stable language and cultural programs.

The languages and the cultures mentioned in the article were intentionally undermined by the settlers, the federal and state governments and a host of settler-colonialist institutions which generally cooperated in their efforts to commit what has amounted to genocide. That anyone or any remnant of the tribes has survived is a miracle.

We have to keep in mind that the settler-colonialists and their institutions did not create out of the tribes a modern proletariat. No new progressive means of production and distribution came into existence to replace what had been taken away. Existing societies had not run their course when Europeans invaded. The wars were not primarily between two existing forms of production and distribution in the sense that vulgarized leftism has understood the terms. The Native peoples got everything they didn't want: no land; no autonomy; no reference points for survival; no fixed position or relationship to capitalism and, therefore, no benefits from the class struggles taking place around them.

Two points may apply here. First, that our struggle in the US may indeed become a struggle for less so that others may have more or enough. That is to say that at some point Americans--and I am thinking primarily of white Americans--will have to give up even relative privileges and ownership so that everyone, tribes included, can gather the means to live peacefully and independently. At this point we can envision a democratic future in which the tribes have the means to decide how they will develop and a social solidarity which puts all of us to work insuring that the chosen paths of development work. The question of language and culture then can take on new meanings and new possibilities and fall solely and fully into the hands of the tribes. The struggle to maintain the cultures and languages, therefore, should be viewed by us now as part of the larger and all-necessary democratic struggle and should have our full support.

Second, our understanding of science has not been broad enough or universal enough to include and comprehend the methodologies and wisdom of the pre-capitalist (and even pre-feudal) societies and their sciences. Our chauvinism has not allowed us to admit that we have a great deal to learn from these societies. We have taken this view because we are often tied to unrealistic and a-historical understandings of the stages of social development and national and class struggles. One consequence of this has been that we have been unable to find a place in Marxism for native peoples or even to allow them a seat at the table deciding what Marxism in the US can look like. One consequence of that, in turn, is that oppressed peoples in our region have ceded progressive leadership to other forces.

The article in The Sunday Oregonian mentioned that the Siletz teacher had worked previously as a logger and millworker. It should not surprise us that a working class person should take the lead in a democratic struggle for language and culture. It also mentioned that he was influenced by the American Indian Movement and the struggles for indigenous rights in the 1970s. A careful reexamination by the left of the class, national, cultural and political forces at work in these democratic struggles is needed.

November 18, 2007

Pacific Greens?

We have an on-going discussion in our small ranks about political action. The current round began when Mike Beilstein sent us the following:

I will make this argument which you have probablyheard before. I think that the appropriate political affiliation for leftists in Oregon today is the Pacific Green Party. I registered as a Socialist voter around 1996 when Trey Smith and others in Salem were reviving the party and working for ballot access. In 1998 the Socialist Party of Oregon lost statewide ballot access because they failed to receive 1% of the vote in a statewide election. At that time the leadership of the SPO decided to "merge" with the Pacific Green Party. I welcomed this decision and changed my voter registration to PGP, along with hundreds of socialists. I had been advocating the merger for several years because I noticed that all my friends were registered as either SPO or PGP. The SPO people were no less concerned about environment issues and the PGP people were no less interested in social justice/labor issues. It seemed to me that there was no programmatic difference, so it was better to have one party that represented a unified "left." The loss of ballot access was the immediate motivator, but the merger was a good idea. I maintained my affiliation with the SPUSA, but not SPO. The former leadership of the SPO became the leadership of the PGP. Many SPO voters never heard about the merger, so they retained their voter registration as SPO. Others didn't want to give up the name so they deliberately stayed SPO. I think the SPO also had guaranteed ballot access in two Congressional Districts, so at least in those CDs they were capable of functioning as a political entity. I think it would be best for the movement if communists/socialists came over to the PGP and added their vigor to a viable political party that represents their concerns and world view. You have probably heard this argument before, but I'll ask once again. In the 2008 election PGP has a "peace voter strategy." We intend to run a candidate in each Congressional District committed to ending the war in Iraq- no more supplemental funding appropriations. In a few CDs that might be a Democrat (possibly Wu or Blumenauer) if they will take the pledge. But if the Democrat, or Walden in CD 2, won't promise to vote against funding the occupation we will give them a candidate who will. It could only strengthen this campaign to have the participation of voters and candidates who are now staying out of the PGP because of loyalty to the names of socialist or communist. I agree that those names have power and tradition, but the action is with the PGP for now.

Or comrade Czeslaw replied:

Like Mike, my mate Ania and I are registered with the Pacific Green Party and have been for several years. When I say "registered" I mean that our State of Oregon voter registration cards say "PGP" on them next to our names. Also like Mike, we had both been registered previously with the Socialist Party, but changed our voter registrations to PGP around the time that Mike reportedly changed his, in response to a letter that we received from leading members of the post-merger PGP. Personally, I think that Mike's argument makes a great deal of sense. Keeping mind that what he is proposing at a minimum (if I understand correctly) is a particular voter registration status with the State of Oregon (namely, registration as a member of the PGP). This does not necessarily preclude or otherwise displace any other membership affiliations that you may have, including other political party affiliations. For instance, I am also a registered member of the Labor Party of the United States of America, and have been since its inception in the mid-1990s. But the Labor Party, unlessI am mistaken, is not available as a voter registration option for partyaffiliation in the state of Oregon. Neither is the CPUSA available, nor is Socialist Action, nor is Solidarity, nor is the International Socialist Organization, etc. These are respectable parties and groups with many dedicated socialists within their ranks, and I certainly would not advocate against membership in any one of them (although I would argue that some are more effective than others). My point is that as of now, there is no "checkbox" for any of these parties on the voter registration form for the State of Oregon. So registering with the PGP makes sense. Simply maintaining that registration status strengthens the best independent, working-class electoral vehicle currently in existence for our state.
Now, on second reading of Mike's message, it seems to me that Mike may be arguing for something more than a mere voter registration status with the PGP, namely, a serious, active participation in the political life of the PGP. That is a credible argument in its own right, and it merits serious (and recurring) consideration, but it isn't my argument here. My argument is much "smaller", so to speak. I am arguing that socialists and communists in Oregon should be registered --on the official voter rolls -- as members of the Pacific Green Party. That registration status alone -- even if it is effectively a mere "paper membership" -- is still a significant political act, at minimal personal cost in terms of time and effort, because it serves to preserve official state recognition by the electoral commission of the most significant working-class party currently available on the registration form. My two kopeks...

Some thoughts from me:

It is difficult to ignore former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney coming to Oregon on behalf of the Greens, although her primary visits seem to be in the exceptional Eugene and Medford-Ashland areas and there is no record in the media of her speaking out on the racist incidents at Oregon State University. Her visit underscores that Greens are needed and are not the enemy. In a few places in Oregon they have elected local candidates, which is for the better. Real unity against the war, racism and the the ultra-right--and for equality, peace, health care, union jobs for all and civil liberties--has to include the Greens as a part of some kind of progressive coalition in Oregon.

It is one thing to say that we need unity with diverse forces. It is another matter entirely to attribute to the Greens socialist or communist politics or to see them as a working class party. My experience with Greens in the workplace has been that they remain aloof from union struggles and do not take leadership in working class struggles when they can. Moreover, their program (found at http://www.pacificgreens.org/doc/10-key-values/) is really a series of questions without answers and lacks anything like a class or socialist analysis.

In the Peace Slate page on their website (http://www.pacificgreens.org/cat-campaigns/peace-slate) the Greens seem to target Democrats as the problem, saying little or nothing about the right wing. This raises the question of who the Greens are addressing directly. It also raises a question in my mind of the validity of their political analysis. In attacking the Democrats at this moment are the Greens a force for unity against the right or not?

From this comes another question. What does it mean to be recruiting another left candidate in the race for Senator Smith's seat now? A left vote will then be split between Novick, Merkeley and a Green candidate and Smith, or some other right winger, would likely win. Novick is a genuinely left candidate and Merkeley will get strong labor support. Why split the field further?

I suspect that many people go to the Greens because it is an open and easy option. We have something to learn here. On the other hand, is it not disingenuous and unprincipled for so many socialists to be led to hiding their politics behind a party which is not a socialist party?

Like Czeslaw, I see some advantage in having or keeping a Green registration in Oregon. The counter-argument would be that participating in Democratic primaries allows us to move sections of the center to the left and maintaining a Socialist registration allows for an explicitly socialist campaign at some point. I'm less concerned about how people register and more concerned about what we do. If we're successful in our organizing, ballot access will take care of itself. Activism in, or with, the Greens is a viable option for some people, but for many of us it would mean jettisoning our ties to the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Is it worth that cost?

November 16, 2007

Salem, OR. Moves Forward On Immigrant Rights

A large gathering of people of faith, labor activists and workers and local civil rights activists gathered today at St. Vincent De Paul's Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon to commit to building a larger regional immigrant rights movement. The ecumenical church service and press conference held afterwards drew strong media coverage. The service and press conference took place as Oregon's Democratic Governor moved towards making Oregon a "legal presence" state, taking away driving privileges from immigrant workers. Tens of thousands of people working in Oregon will not be able to drive after the state's Driver and Motor Vehicle (DMV) department drafts rules requiring people to produce a valid Social Security Number at DMV offices in order to get a driver's license. These rules may be drafted as early as February.

The church service commemorated the brutal murders of human rights activists in El Salvador and linked the murders of these activists to immigrant rights in the United States today. The gathering formed in response to recent INS raids in the region and the need to press for immigrant rights. The reinvigorated local movement is based on the demand for "fairness and respect for all people," said one minister. Today's gathering came after two large meetings with immigrant workers. This is "not just about saying things, but doing things" as people of faith, said another minister at the press conference.

The local movement committed today to educating the public about immigration, urging solidarity actions, offering EASL and citizenship classes, training legal observers in preparation for future INS raids, assisting immigrant worker families, raising funds for legal and immigrant family aid, creating an immigrant family center, creating places for sanctuary for immigrants, building a presence in local media, pushing for positive political change and building solidarity against racism.

Those present at the church service and press conference represented a major section of the Salem, Oregon religious communities. Labor and religious activists announced that they will launch a regional protest campaign around the Governor's Executive Order, calling on him to reverse the damage done by the Order and to repudiate racism.

November 15, 2007

The Communist Party's National Committee Meeting



I attended the Communist Party's National Committee meeting as a guest last week. People attending saw a PowerPoint dealing with the coming national elections; heard Sam Webb, National Chair of the Communist Party, give a political analysis; had the chance to comment on that report; and dealt with the internal business matters basic to any progressive political organization operating today in the US.

I was particularly impressed by the high levels of accountability and mutual trust leading Communist Party members have developed. It occurred to me at the meeting that democracy without trust and accountability is less than a slogan, that perhaps the most fundamental form of democracy resides in accountability and trust. At a meeting of Communist Party District Organizers, which I was also able to attend as an invited guest, I saw a strong blending of this dynamic when the chair of the meeting moved from more-or-less informal-but-structured conversation around an issue to more formal parliamentary procedures in order to get a vote taken and move forward. She did a great job.

Accountability, trust and democracy also reside in who participates and to what level. Women and people of color may be under-represented on the National Committee, but women and people of color also led the body.

Our Willamette Reds group got some recognition during the sessions, which is a bit humbling given our size and our shortcomings. We will have a report on the sessions at our next Willamette Reds meeting.

Here is a link to the "On The Road Again" report given by Sam Webb and adopted by the National Committee after some debate. It will--as it should--provoke some discussion and disagreement across the left. What we should also consider as we read this is what people in the "small l" left and in the various labor and progressive movements will think of the concepts being presented. I believe that we should see the points made in this report as a waystation on a longer journey; this is not the last stop and it allows us to dream a bit more freely of our destination.


http://www.cpusa.org/article/articleview/859/1/146/

November 14, 2007

The Communist Party of New York State

The Communist Party of New York State has a great blog reachable at http://newyorkcp.blogspot.com/. There is a thought-provoking article there by Libero Della Piana about how and why a communist party grows and becomes necessary. Check the blog frequently for updated postings!

November 7, 2007

The Russian Revolution, Healthy Kids and Measure 49


Today we mark the victory of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. A Bolshevik-led revolt toppled the Provisional Government and gave power to the councils, or soviets, as one important step in the Russian revolutionary process. There followed a civil war and reaction from within and from outside of the revolution.

Nothing I say here can be so profound or can add anything to the many books written about the Russian revolution. For my part, I have gained much from reading Victor Serge's first-person account of the revolution and John Reed's classic work.

The National Public Radio report I heard this morning had nothing good to say about the revolution, of course. That the revolution took place as the first World War was raging and that it was a revolution made by fallible human beings under desperate circumstances was somehow forgotten by the reporter. The emphasis was on a supposed rebirth of "Stalinism" in Russia, minus Stalin, communism and the presence of a leading revolutionary party and revolutionary process. KBOO had nothing better.

We offer the standard apologies now to the world and to ourselves for why things went the way they did in Russia and in the USSR. Instead of heroic marches today, many of us will be numb to the day and to the event itself.

On the other hand, there remains something heroic which should commend the day and the event for us. The workers and peasants who took power in Russia in 1917 must have been caught between the exhilaration of their moment in the sun and the fear that they would not succeed and survive. Their revolution happened during a world war which carried with it previously unparalleled barbarism, but it also took place as one of many revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, as one more hesitating attempt to set things right for the majority of humanity. Their struggle for survival naturally outlived their exhilaration. If we do not see our own choices and actions in the Russian revolutionaries of 1917, at least we do see something of ourselves and our best desires in them.

I'm not certain how much we can take from the Russian revolution and put to use today. Certainly the tremendous spirit of the revolution and the work and optimism which drove it forward should remain with us. We still need a workers communist party, forms of governance which look and function as councils, radicalized trade unions which prepare workers for taking power, a workers press which does not flinch at the truth, cadres of workers prepared to take risks for revolutionary change, the skills of the intellectuals used to benefit the people and the sense of irony and patience which attends any historical event. Workers need to come to grips with our shared responsibility to support working class goals and to eventually do the work of taking power and governing.

Beyond that, though, I'm not certain what more we can get from 1917 as a self-contained and historic event.

Measure 49 passed in Oregon last night. It won because people here are looking for ways to control land use and are pushing against the limits imposed upon us by capitalist rules. We see unplanned developments taking over the land, farms and farmers getting squeezed and one ecological disaster after another occurring. It is an attempt, however weak, to affect and limit the misuse of private property. The struggle for Measure 49 came right up to the gates of the most reactionary forces in Oregon. They lost today but they will be back with a more aggressive agenda in the coming months.

Measure 50, the Healthy Kids Program, did not pass for two reasons. First, the tobacco companies outspent forces supporting universal health care for children 4 to 1 and intervened in the political process with a reactionary agenda all of their own. Second, universal health care is not national health care and it comes with loopholes and unknowns which leave people cold. The movement for universal health care is a back-up from a movement which was aimed at creating a national and comprehensive system; in backing up, the movement yielded to uncertainty and fear. Pardon the over-used pun, but universal health care is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

Say what we will about the mistakes of the Russian revolution, children (and everyone else) there had health care and land use and development were under some form of popular or public control. The legacy of 1917, then, is that the struggle continues and that it continues to teach us.

November 1, 2007

Listening To Grace Lee Boggs In Corvallis

"Grace Lee Boggs was born in Providence, Rhode Island of Chinese immigrant parents," begins the program introduction to the lecture given this evening in Corvallis. To people long associated with the left--and particularly to the Detroit-area left--Grace Lee Boggs probably needs no introduction. To a younger generation of activists, however, she has not been a familiar name. She is perhaps best known for the work she and James Boggs did together and for the books they co-wrote.

Grace Lee Boggs began her lecture this evening by stating her basic conviction that the planetary crisis and the American constitutional crisis intersect and force us to create a new concept of "active citizenship." She believes that the planetary crisis arises from over-production and over-consumption. These are not especially radical concepts or, by themselves, particularly well thought out. The audience of several hundred people responded warmly to her references to the constitutional crisis.

Grace Lee Boggs' early influences were the Workers' Party, a trajectory of American Trotskyism, and the March On Washington Movement, generally associated with A. Philip Randolph. In Boggs' recasting, these emerge as activist citizenship movements, as something other than distinctly political currents. The introductory brochure mentions C.L.R. James, the heterogeneous Black thinker, as a friend and as an influence on Boggs' thinking, but she did not refer directly to James during her talk. She dealt with revolution abstractly, and at one point went so far as to say that the point of radical political activism is not to win, but to struggle.

Boggs has given up on Marxism and is clear in expressing this. What she has not given up on is thinking dialectically, even if she does mistake the means of working through the current leading contradictions facing people living under capitalism and is vague about where her means lead us philosophically and practically. She posed the question of how and why we can move beyond rebellion, without analyzing where popular rebellions are taking place or what contexts popular rebellions occur within at the present historical moment. Without this analysis, talk about moving "beyond rebellion" seems almost pointless.

I do not want to sound as if I'm looking for reasons to criticize Boggs or as if there was nothing positive in her talk. Her passing mention of tying past Black rebellion in the US to anti-colonial and socialist struggles internationally was positive. Her point that cities should be humane places organized around human life is well taken. Much of her approach is values-based and this helps set community and union organizing on a firmer path. I especially agreed with her when she said, "We have allowed ourselves to be privatized." Her brief or passing mention of spirituality deserves more work and attention. Phrases such as "self-healing civic groups" and "respiriting" need definition and discussion. Her belief that the capitalist crisis is driven by over-production and over-consumption should spark debate.

But Boggs cannot link her call to impeach Bush and Cheney to the rest of her program or thinking easily. On the one hand she rejects Marxism, rallies, and building a mass left political party. She is ambiguous about science and scientific methods, and talks about looking backward to pick up and work with what was discarded by rising capitalist society. On the other hand she seems to favor small local businesses, local markets for goods and services and community gardens no so much as means but as ends. When asked, she could provide no programmatic way to move forward for the antiwar movement or for the anti-Bush forces. If she believes that the point is not to win and take power, then she should discuss how we deal with reaction by the almost fascist Bush-Cheney forces. If she believes that Black rebellion in the US was--and still can be--an expression of international Black consciousness, then she should discuss how this may be expressed organizationally. And when a young woman of color in the audience asked her for examples of autonomous struggles taking root, now she gave the floor over to a fellow who talked about Oregon State University campus sustainability. So it is that a leading Trotskyist has moved from the theory and practice of revolution to something resembling, or recycling, the lifestyle politics of the anarchists and then turning this back into an argument for civil society.

On a day when Chrysler announced mass layoffs and part of southern Mexico is drowning--talk about the intersection of planetary crisis and political crisis!--Grace Lee Boggs had no class analysis and barely dealt with class struggle at all. She added almost nothing new and closed her talk by equating past victorious socialist revolutions with capitalism.

The closing paragraphs of Marx's "Theses on Fuerbach" answer Boggs best in saying, "The standpoint of the old type of materialism is civil society, the standpoint of the new materialism is human society or social humanity. Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."