July 31, 2008

McCain's Bridge To Nowhere Good

The Associated Press service ran an article recently on bridge safety in the US. The article pointed out that relatively few bridges have been repaired one year after the Minneapolis bridge collapse. That collapse took the lives of at least 13 people and gave a wake-up call which triggered well-publicized bridge inspections and promises of help. Most of the repairs that were made were low-cost and do not alter the facts of the crisis. The AP story points out that 17 states planned to get and spend $13.7 billion on repair or rebuilding projects, but that only $8.3 billion of that amount has materialized. In the other 33 states and in Washington, D.C. even less has been accomplished. Something like $140 billion is needed to meet minimal bridge replacement or repair needs—money no state has--but Bush has promised to veto at least a part of that proposed incremental federal funding. This practically breaks a long-standing system of funding infrastructure with federal support. States are left trying to raise taxes and fees to pay for what is a national problem in scope and, potentially, another nationally tragedy waiting to happen.

Governors and local officials, many of whom have been Bush supporters, are saying that the Bush administration has acted irresponsibly. They look ahead to significant cuts in infrastructure repair with justifiable worries. The Katrina disaster showed what federal inaction can do to a region. Businesses often cut development deals with these politicians based on their infrastructure needs and low or no taxes.

It’s convenient and true to say that the wars are taking money away from social spending. It’s also true that the wealthy are either paying less in taxes and fees or relatively smaller amounts while the rest of society is paying more. But what is also at work is the redefining of government which has accelerated under Republican rule. Private businesses, contractors, homeowner associations, public-private partnerships and bond- or tax-financed public authorities are picking up much of the work previously done by local, state and federal government and many services are falling through the cracks or are being left to stressed state and local bodies.

When the trade deficit hits the $480 billion mark next year we will have the largest deficit ever in terms of real dollars. Hoped-for economic growth at 3.8 per cent over two years by itself will do little or nothing to stop a slide into a depression. Unemployment will continue to increase. The Bush administration seems okay with this. They may have accepted taking a loss in November, but they can still create or add to a crisis which will hit next year when Obama is President. From their point of view, such a crisis could force a retreat from a liberal agenda or cause a conservative-reactionary sweep in 2010 and 2012. Some Democrats seem ready to surrender now without a fight.

There are real questions here. Can the US rebuild or replace infrastructure quickly and well after so many years of Republican neglect, withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, experience the transformative effects of electing a Black president and giving imperialism a black eye and reverse the losses in civil and human rights in enough time to turn the political tide? How long will this take?

These questions are all about social reconstruction and the relative opportunities for reconstruction under McCain- or Obama-led administrations. The election is Obama’s to lose—still a very real possibility.

Even with an Obama victory, the next four years will be difficult. Obama’s compromises are being made in part under pressure to avoid civil strife and crises which may be provoked from the right. When we face the obvious needs to repair or replace outdated infrastructure or lower the deficit or get out of the wars we also face the possibility of the Bush and McCain forces working to hogtie even mild future liberal reforms. Right-wing reaction can assume new and more dangerous forms.

Winning even mild liberal reforms after so many years of backward steps and holding on to these reforms in the face of right wing sabotage and reaction will mean real sacrifices for most people for at least four years. The class struggle will have to adopt new dimensions and new forms and a new discipline. Constant mobilization will be needed. A renewed high-cost fight to keep and expand employment will be needed. A disciplined battle for democratic rights will have to extend from the forces now in motion to elect Obama to the courts and Congress. Under those conditions, society should come to see any attempt to derail social reconstruction as criminal.

July 30, 2008

Bob Jester, OYA, State Data Center, Workers' Comp, State Hospital, OSU---Workers say to the State: "We told you so!"

Bob Jester, director of the Oregon Youth Authority, has resigned under pressure as the investigation into wrongdoing at OYA's River Bend youth detention center continues. The scandals at that facility involve another OYA boss using incarcerated young people and agency resources to do home improvements. The River Bend scandal, bad as it is, is just one of many terrible events coming to light at OYA. The media could focus as well on the mistreatment of gay youth in OYA, sex abuse, inappropriate relationships occurring between agency bureaucrats, ghost employees, hiring done at the MacLaren facility through a local church, contracting out services and payoffs to contractors without quality services being provided, the misuse and underfunding of programs aimed at helping minority youth, lack of staff training, discrimination against union activists at OYA and questionable promotions of OYA managers.

Oregon's state data center in Salem is a $63 million project holding computer networks for a number of public agencies, boards and commissions. Consultants have made at least $13 million for their dubious help in assessing the center and moving it forward. Legislators heard one side of the debate over whether or not the center was needed and then voted for it in 2005. The projected savings have not materialized, and some agencies may be paying much more than they should for the center services. The project is moving much more slowly than planned and one agency has pulled out. Scott Hara seems to have become a fall guy in defending the project, but he has also used some remarkable doublespeak in talking to the media and legislators. When a state bureaucrat says efficiencies were "over-promised" you know that someone got paid to lie and someone felt okay being lied to.

Oregon Workers' Compensation Division (WCD) bosses folded under pressure from Liberty Northwest, an infamous leading insurance company, to make a major change in how doctors are paid to treat injured workers. The change got pushed through with minimal public discussion and under the threat that a paid provider organization working with Liberty Northwest might leave the state if they didn't get a rule change. Scott Hara and John Shilts, the workers' comp division director, previously worked together at the Department of Consumer and Business Services. Belinda Teague, the recently-appointed Human Resources Director at OYA, also comes out of DCBS. Her professed fascination with vampires gives these adventures a certain quirky dimension.

The recent breakouts at the Oregon State Hospital, one of which involved some violence and a car chase through downtown Salem, were portrayed in the media as the result of crafty inmates, bad policies and confused staff. The media is not making the connection between these breakouts and deteriorating conditions in the State Hospital as it folds up and the chronic understaffing which has adversely affected conditions at OSH for many years.

Oregon State University officially announced a partnership with Into University Partnerships earlier this week. Into is a multinational private company that recruits international students for American higher ed institutions. These companies, which are rapidly moving into higher ed in the US, make their money by charging either the students or their home universities and governments fees and then contracting with American institutions to house, feed and educate international students for some period of time. This new system undercuts already-existing international student programs on campuses, changes the nature of state higher ed systems by bringing private educational contractors onto campuses, creates a number of middlemen, locks public institutions into long-term contracts with these companies, puts faculty and staff jobs at risk or creates a race to the bottom where job security is concerned and does nothing to improve education. The deal with Into might be the next headline-making disaster for the state, though the story has plenty of competition and we have not heard the last about OYA, WCD and data center scandals.

These are five current examples of political and bureaucratic inertia or stupidity that take the breath away. They should illustrate the need for radical and comprehensive political reform, something more deep-reaching than oversight or a change in spokespeople and agency heads. In every one of these cases line or classified staff raised objections and spoke out and were most often silenced. Their unions also attempted to raise the issues but were either limited by law to dealing with wages, hours and working conditions only or have been placed in the difficult position of having to fight too many battles at once with too few resources. The state workers who did speak out may get some pleasure from saying that they predicted these scandals and disasters, but that short-lived pleasure pales next to their justifiable worries that the responsible bureaucrats and bosses will evade responsibility, blame them and cause further cuts in needed services. The media has covered these stories because workers in these state agencies spoke out.

July 26, 2008

Fantasizing A Peoples' Agenda

November 2008 does matter! In Barack Obama, the Democrats are putting forward a candidate who represents a clear difference from the right wing “politics as usual” of the last three decades. Obama is taking working class issues seriously. Health care is high on the agenda, as is education and housing.

Most importantly, our working class has had enough of three decades of moving the wealth upwards and is enthusiastically supporting the Obama candidacy in union halls, churches, and community events. As Marxists, Communists, and Socialists, it is our particular duty to work with the most progressive elements of our class, and at this time the progressive elements of our class are clearly and overwhelmingly with the Obama campaign.

Still, there is very little in the Obama campaign that is new. Solutions around health care still happen in terms of increasing the number of insured within a private healthcare market. Education will include more money and repeal of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” educational tracking system… Housing will include credit assistance to lending authorities and strapped homeowners (already deep in debt). In a nutshell, an Obama victory will markedly increase funding for peoples’ issues. On the other hand, the Obama campaign proposes nothing that would alter the currently existing social, economic, and political power structures and institutions.

As a Communist, I know that the Obama campaign is not enough. An Obama Presidency, even with a Democratic Congress will not be interested in the kind of social, political and economic restructuring that is necessary if we are really interested in a people friendly world (case in point, see Ethnicguy’s article below on Democratic film stars and “wrong way” politics).

So, not seeing the long-term solutions in the Obama campaign and Democratic Party, I’ve been engaging in fantasy thought… These are ideas of what a real Peoples’ Agenda might look like.

A Peoples’ Agenda:

First, lets nationalize the banks and put them under regional and national control through citizen governance. This would be socialized investment. Right now, the banks loan money for one purpose and that’s to increase the banks’ profits. Enough! What if we invested based on sustainability, environmental impact, decent wage structures, community impact and other non-profit factors?

Second, forget single payer:

Single payer still leaves most healthcare services in market hands, thus insuring that healthcare remains a profitable business and not a Right. So let’s socialize healthcare as a Right… Imagine the possibilities! We could build neighborhood clinics where folks can have access to healthcare services when needed and without financial harm and availability stresses. At the same time, we can have “state of the art” medical services available at easily accessed city, county, state and even national levels.

Housing as a Right:

Current situation is that we have increasing numbers of folks without a home, increasing numbers of houses that are empty, and direct housing costs that continue to increase. This is not a workable system for anybody except real estate speculators.

Housing should be capped at no more than 20% of a person’s income and should be managed as a resource, not through a market. There are plenty of empty homes out there. A lot of these homes need work. Why not a public works program to restore and build new housing?

Public Works:

There’s lot of work that needs to be done and is not being done because it’s not profitable. So forget profits. The better question is, what do we need to build and provide to make this a more people friendly world?

The needs are many. Cars and internal combustion engines are killing us, as are gas prices. Building an effective and user oriented public transportation system needs to be at the top of the “needs list”. Likewise, making adequate housing available is also a task that is perfect for an ambitious public works.

Public works jobs will of course pay real wages, to folks who are providing real services. There will be no prison labor or low wage forced “welfare” work.

A Working Class Floor:

Restructuring equals dislocation. Working class people out of a job or between jobs will receive no less than there regular pay for as long as it takes. If the previous job was low wage, unemployment benefits should be increased to a socially acceptable level. Finally, out of work workers will be offered public works employment commensurate with their skills.

Environment and Ecology Crisis:

Everybody knows rich people live on the hill and poor people live on the flood plain. This is a recipe for disaster for lots of folks. As we face ecological collapse particular attention needs to be paid to those folks who are most at-risk to this collapse. Such folks are for instance farmers whose farms are turning to desert.

All of the above stuff isn’t really all that new. My party, the Communist Party USA has including lots of the above “Peoples’ Agenda” items for years. The Party’s ideas are nicely contained in its book, Socialism USA.

So, I think the Peoples’ Agenda items above are exactly what we need to be doing if we are going to create a people friendly world. At the same time, there’s a problem. Many, many progressive folks, and folks who identify themselves as leftists will look at the above agenda, and while they’ll acknowledge that their hearts are with the above program, they will say it is just not possible. And if enough people say something is impossible, that will guarantee that whatever it is will not happen.

Thus, with the above in mind, I think our best slogan is. “All Power to the Imagination!” Even as we walk the streets for Democrats and even when we work within the box of the current political paradigm.

July 25, 2008

Kulongoski And Taylor To Star In Film

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Salem Mayor Janet Taylor have reportedly been offered starring roles in a remake of a film based on the life of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan. Corrigan was the airplane mechanic and pilot who flew from New York to Ireland in 1938, mistaking east and west and landing in Dublin instead of his scheduled destination of Long Beach, California.

Kulongoski and Taylor seem similarly confused. The Hynix closure in Eugene is making headlines and the stories are as much about the impact of the closure as they are about the tremendous incentives Hynix won from the state, Lane County and Eugene. We paid for that company to set up shop here in exchange for jobs and their contributions to charities. The jobs are gone and the company took its profits and split. As the company departs, blithely yelling the Korean equivalent of "Sucker!", Kulongoski and Taylor are turning their attention to airline service cuts affecting Oregon.

Kulongoski has put together a Commercial Air Service Coalition to maintain or increase airline service in the state just as these companies make cuts and curtail service. Rural Oregon takes a sucker punch from the big airlines and has no low-cost, environmentally-friendly means of transportation to fall back on.

Missing from the Coalition are the airline companies, who are either waiting to see what the Governor offers them or are too busy helping Hynix fill their cargo holds to meet with Ted. From a corporate point of view, the Governor must look like damaged goods as he waves goodbye to the last Hynix executive and then shuffles back to the closed facility to turn off the lights.

Taylor says that she sees plenty of reason for optimism here. If her pretended optimism doesn't win her an Emmy, her ability to whistle while passing graveyards surely will.

What are the suggestions put forward so far? Regional airlines suddenly look attractive. Turboprops. Travel banks paid for by businesses. And--you guessed it--incentives offered to the multinational airline companies. You can hear the corporate board room laughter from here to South Korea.

If business goes on as usual, in a few weeks or months these suggestions will have been trimmed down to crop dusters and hot air balloons, taxpayer-paid airplane tickets for executives from transnational corporations and landing strips being planned in tax-free economic incentive zones located on the edges of towns along the I-5 corridor. When the farmers protest about eminent domain being used to take their land for the landing strips, Lars Larson will call them communists and blame state workers and their unions and gay marriage for the protests and for the lack of airline companies in Oregon in the first place. "What executive wants to do business in a state that allows urban growth boundaries and unions?" Lars will chortle. Democrats will respond by calling farming a wedge issue.

Here's an alternative: a massive public works project to build a linking passenger rail, bus, boat and ferry system in Oregon, state owned and operated or run by a transportation authority which includes ODOT and the related state departments.

July 24, 2008

Hynix Semiconductor Clearcuts The High Tech Forest

Hynix Semiconductor got serious tax breaks from Lane County and Eugene to build their plant there in 1995. The plant builds 200 mm wafers and is part of a multinational corporation based in South Korea. This is the world's second-largest memory chip manufacturer. The company announced today that the Eugene plant will close in September. Rumors are that work done there may move to either China or to South Korea.

Sony shut down in 2003. Hynix closed temporarily for retooling in 2001. The plant promised secure jobs to workers and paid relatively good wages. The workers are not union-represented.

The plant employs about 1100 people and the annual payroll comes to about $62 million, making it one of the major local employers. The company pays well over $4 million in taxes annually and is the county's largest single taxpayer. Since 1996 it has received property tax waivers amounting to something like $67 million. Governor Kulongoski was quick to promise special state help to the affected workers in a feeble attempt to clean up the mess made by the company's departure. County and city officials expect that they will need to cut services and increase property taxes quickly and steeply in order to maintain the area's educational system and other basic services.

Company officials said that they would get back to the Governor, the local officials and politicians and the workers about their future plans if or when they feel like it.

Financial analysts around the world applauded the company's decision as a sound business move.

July 23, 2008

Tadic a hero? McCain an Albanian?

Serbian President Boris Tadic waited two days and then reacted favorably to the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. His government took credit for the arrest, no doubt having weighed whether problems in Serbia were more or less important than international approval. U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Bosnia-Herzegovina Viceroy Paddy Ashdown were quick to make the same calculation and give credit to Tadic, painting him in heroic colors. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) gave Serbia a top investment rating for international capital as this love fest was unfolding. Hearing this, one could easily forget that Serbia has well over 18 per-cent unemployment, not counting people who work only to maintain social benefits and insurance or who have given up looking for work completely, and that Tadic's government may already be doomed. Holbrooke compared Tadic favorably to assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Dindic, which might make Tadic nervous given the mysterious circumstances surrounding his assassination and the unceasing chatter from the right wing that Dindic sold out Serbia before he was killed.

The Bush administration took the opportunity to press Serbia and the United Nations on Kosovo and call for "stability" there after meeting with the Albanian Kosovo leadership. A "stable" Kosovo, in Bushspeak, means a Kosovo without ties to Serbia and the projection of American democracy onto the Kosovo entity. There is also the troubling phrase "Kosovo and Serbia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations" and apparent American support for these aspirations making it into the media. Tadic drew only light applause from Bush.

The arrest of Karadzic and the support given by Bush to the Kosovo Albanians has the American media looking once more at Serbia and Kosovo. Former US Congressman Joe DioGuardi, the Republican Albanian-American from New York, keeps making statements which must be quite inconvenient for the Republicans as media research and scrutiny increase. DioGuardi gets quoted for saying things like, "Even in 1998...McCain did everything that we asked of him to the benefit of the Albanian people, including arming the KLA." The KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) was a terrorist organization which played a major role in attacking Serbs and Roma living in Kosovo and the Yugoslav and Serbian governments. They made at least some of their money through drug smuggling. Their people now run Kosovo. Kosovo has something like 60 per-cent unemployment, so Bush and the former KLAers and those with "Euro-Atlantic aspirations" in the region certainly have their work cut out for them. This has to be embarrassing for someone on the American far-right.

It's an odd constellation of power. Poor Tadic forms a center-right government and seeks American favor and gets rebuffed or compared to an assassinated Prime Minter who the Serbian right-wing publicly associates with the mafia. McCain and Bush go out of their way to associate with former terrorists at a moment when Tadic is trying to get favorable American attention. DioGuardi pops up telling inconvenient truths, thinking that he's helping someone. International capital, in the appearance of PwC, predicts stability and investment opportunities in the region while widespread unemployment there creates unrest. Karadzic, the mystical right-winger, sits in jail and appears to be taking some of the same route as Slobodan Milosevic did.

July 21, 2008

Karadzic Arrested, Sakic Dead and Serbia Sold

Yesterday I blogged about Peter Egner and Zvonko Busic. Both were connected to the fascists who occupied and terrorized Yugoslavia in 1941; in Egner's case the connection was direct and in Busic's case it was indirect. Egner may be deported from the US and Busic has been freed from prison and will be deported to Croatia. Both men, I think, belong in prison.

Coincidentally, the commander of the Jasenovac death camp that I referred to in my posting died in a Zagreb hospital today. Dinko Šakić fled Yugoslavia after the war and settled in Argentina. Argentina deported him to Croatia in 1998, where he was sentenced to a light 20 years in prison. In 1999 a Croatian court found him guilty of war crimes. He personally shot and killed prisoners and ordered others to be hanged and allowed his subordinates to do far worse. He spent his final days in Zagreb’s Clinical Hospital Dubrava.

Radovan Karadzic, accused of committing war crimes in Bosnia, has also been arrested today. Serbian security forces have turned him over to the War Crimes Court in Belgrade. The Serbian government is offering conflicting accounts of the arrest at this point, trying once more to walk a tight line between Serbian nationalists and international treaties and commitments they have made.

Karadzic is charged with committing genocide in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war. He was first indicted in 1995 and has not been seen publicly since 1996. His arrest has been seen as a precondition for Serbia getting much-needed international aid. It has been generally assumed that forces within the Serbian and Russian governments have been sheltering him. We'll see if the aid is forthcoming or not.

It is hard to believe that Karadzic has not been betrayed or sold by his one-time protectors--but in exchange for what? Serbia's new center-right government seems compliant with American and transnational interests. Their breast-beating over Kosovo is producing nothing and they have tamped down protests over the loss of the region. The loss of Bosnian Serb communities and Kosovo gives a hollow ring to Serbian nationalism. The government continues privatization and is being assured that there is a path into the EU for the country. In this context, Karadzic's arrest must be seen as a purposefully humiliating step towards "normalization"--which must be kept in quotes because of the imbalance of power existing between Serbia and American and transnational forces. In fact, this "normalization" amounts to betraying and selling the country to the highest bidder.

Busic served time and has lived to tell about it. What secrets did Sakic have? Vatican complicity in smuggling war criminals out of Yugoslavia and the warm welcome given to these criminals in Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Canada and the US was never news. Both men served time before the Internet, however. Will Karadzic live to tell his story and implicate his protectors?

July 20, 2008

Peter Egner and Zvonko Busic and their Oregon Connections

On April 6, 1941 fascist forces from Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria attacked Yugoslavia. In short order, regional leaders signed treaties with the invaders, the royal family fled into exile, and mass resistance began. The Independent State of Croatia, sponsored by the invaders and run by the Ustase party, came into being on April 10 and was fully operational by May.

The Ustase had been in existence since 1929 and were particularly brutal in power. Even the invaders were shocked by Ustase policies and their violence. German policy was to kill 100 Yugoslav civilians for every German soldier killed and to kill 50 civilians for every German soldier wounded. The Independent State of Croatia and the Ustase went further and had a policy aimed at killing one-third of the Serbian population, deporting one-third to labor and death camps and forcing one-third of the population to convert from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. Their principal victims were Communists, Jews, and Roma.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Independent State of Croatia was the death camp at Jasenovac. People were killed there in such large numbers and with such brutality that it is difficult to ascertain how many died there: estimates range from 300,000 to 700,000. Another death camp located in Zemun (or Semlin), near Belgrade, had at least 100,000 inmates. People held at Zemun were anti-fascists, Roma, and Jews. This camp was administered by Germans and is remembered principally for the large numbers of people asphyxiated there. Perhaps 48,000 people perished at Zemun.

Yugoslavia lost a higher percentage of its population during the war than did any other European nation. The war years were particularly bitter there and the people's eventual victory over the invaders and fascists came with a high price. On a visit to Serbia I heard a terrible story about how inmates at Jasenovac were lined up to have their throats cut or to be hit over the head with hammers and have their bodies dumped in a ravine. Two cultures and civilizations died with Yugoslavia's Sephardic Jews and Roma. Socialist reconstruction of the country was made incredibly difficult and never fully achieved in part because of the damage done by the war.

The Ustase fought their Serbian counterparts, the Chetniks, and the anti-fascist forces, but Ustase and Chetniks allied with one another to betray the country and loot it in the closing days of the war. Ustase leaders found their way to Spain and Portugal, to Latin America and to Canada and the United States with help from the Vatican. From these havens they engaged in a protracted terrorist war against socialist Yugoslavia and helped lead the extremist forces in the international anti-communist movement. They could not have done so without the cooperation of the American government.

Zvonko Busic was one of these Croatian terrorists with origins in the Ustase. In 1976 he was part of a plot to hijack airplanes and set of bombs. One of the bombs set by his group killed a New York City police officer and wounded several others. Busic was sentenced to life, served 30 years and was paroled this week. He will be deported to Croatia, where he will receive a hero's welcome from the fascists who have returned to the country or who surfaced there after Yugoslavia's disintegration. The country's flag and currency are remarkably similar to those used under the Independent State of Croatia.

Busic has been defended by Portland attorney Marc Blackman. Blackman has also defended "Dr. Death" Jayant Patel and, I believe, has also defended an environmentalist accused of taking direct action. By defending Busic, Blackman has undone whatever good he did with the environmentalists.

Peter Egner, formerly of West Linn, served the Germans at Zemun. His attorney says that Egner did not kill anyone: this remains to be seen. Neighbors remember him as a good guy. He lived here among us, undetected for many years.

Why does it matter that anyone thinks that Egner was a good neighbor or that Busic has served enough time? Had their sides won the war, the death camps at Jasenovac and Zemun would have been extended and fascist states like the Independent State of Croatia would have been set up elsewhere. Busic's group repeatedly attacked a legitimate government, terrorized people and took the life of a cop. Egner's unit was successfully engaged in genocide. They were part of the forces which eventually caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that came with it. Busic and his group prefigured Osama bin Laden and the Taliban by one generation.

There are many people serving long prison sentences for progressive causes who will never be paroled. The Cuban 5 committed no violence and worked against terrorists operating in the US, but they are collectively serving four life sentences and 75 years. Among all of these people there are also folks who are good neighbors or who committed youthful errors or who are as steadfast in their thinking as Busic seems to be. Why allow Egner to live among us for so long and grant Busic parole but not pardon honorable political prisoners from the left?

July 16, 2008

Oregon State Workers--Their Stake In The Election

Most of Oregon's state government workers are doing better than the general population in terms of healthcare, wages, working conditions and benefits, but that says more about how poorly everyone else is doing than it says about how good state workers here have it. And what matters most to many state workers is that they do not have the resources, means or time to get their jobs done well. Most people know that state workers are not the greedy and lazy bunch the far-right makes them out to be.

State workers have, or should have, some real stakes in November's elections. Locking in healthcare would mean a great deal and healthcare policy is a strong factor in these elections. For most workers the state pays just less than $1000 per worker per month for state worker's healthcare. The benefits are good to a point for most of the workers, but even at these rates many important services are not fully covered or covered at all. This says less about how good state workers have it and more about what a mess healthcare becomes in a capitalist society.

If we could get a public solution for healthcare which covers everyone--even a stop-gap measure that holds down healthcare industry charges and profits for awhile--we could go a long way towards making more money and resources available for needed state services. If we can get something like a worker-friendly or government-services-friendly majority elected to the legislature in November we can transform most discussions about services, government and workers into demands for more and better state services and more jobs.

The next legislature will be dealing with some real problems. Oregon is about $200 million short in covering existing state services or maintaining current service levels. About $60 million will be needed to cover the timber tax loss. Another $60 million will be needed for community mental health. Another $20 million will be needed for public sector liability coverage. Add to that the money needed to protect the state from the worst effects of the recession, transportation needs and education needs and more. Two Oregon counties could dissolve; it's amazing that we're even discussing this. These are serious hits that we're taking. This is what's behind part of the push for year-round legislative policy making or year-round legislative sessions. Cutting state services is not a rational response to the regularly occuring budget crises under any conditions.

The main union contracts covering state workers will be under negotiation as the November elections take place. A political win for Oregonians on maintaining and expanding state services, healthcare, housing and jobs will translate into easier contract negotiations for state workers.

Whatever happens in the 2008 elections will settle very little in Oregon in the short run, but the outcome of these elections will either give us the means to assert a working-class agenda between now and 2010 or not. What is "a working class agenda?" It's a sharper and more focused program of action that calls for more and better state services, more and better jobs, taxing the wealthy, ending the wars, ensuring democratic rights, ending racism and sexism, protecting the environment and putting people before profits. "Sharper and more focused" than what? Than what we have now--a reliance on other political forces which represent political and economic interests other than our own working class interests. Where does this reliance come from? It comes from particular weaknesses--low union membership, a lack of union and working class solidarity, an absence of realistic political alternatives, the strength of the capitalists and their allies and the corresponding weaknesses of working class organizations, the understandable desire workers have under these conditions to work for incremental change and fight only defensive battles, a lack of vision among ourselves--and it must eventually be transformed into a more aggressive strategy and tactics which put working class interests first.

The most advanced unions in Oregon are calling for federal healthcare legislation to be signed by President Obama within 100 days of taking office and put into effect by September of 2009. These unions are also working at the state level for universal healthcare coverage because the forces who could get this through after November either may not win or may demobilize or divide after a win in the November elections. While there are coalitions are in place now for universal healthcare coverage in our state, Oregon labor seems to be very much on its own in this fight. The terrible reality that Oregon hospitals made about $400 million in "excess revenue" in 2007 and that they now want to soak taxpayers for $2 billion more to pay for something like near-universal coverage has not yet served to mobilize masses of Oregonians behind a progressive program for healthcare for all. If we do not take a major step forward in 2009 on this issue, it will be some time before we can recover lost ground and win healthcare for all.

Oregon state workers and their unions are being pushed forward as leaders in many social struggles now. The workers are asking for very little for themselves and have it relatively well; they don''t have to take leadership, but a certain social solidarity is at work among them and it mixes with altruism and a sense of service or mission to create at least a liberal trade union program for change. The right-wing is responding with a series of ballot measures specifically aimed at killing or curtailing unions and union political power, aware of how divided society is and can be and how much they stand to lose if even liberal reforms go into effect. A loss for unions in November will be a loss for all of the broad social struggles Oregon's unions are taking on and for all workers, people of color, family farmers, youth, students, women and others as well.

Death and Re-Birth of The Imagination

Ever had the feeling that the “wheels are coming off”? That the glue is melting fast? So, I’m looking at the news… and feeling the pulse of everyday life… And it don’t feel good, no siree!

It’s hard to put my finger on. It might be the feeling I’m getting when I go to pay the power and the gas bills. There seems to be a sense of hostility and fear in the air. The customers are a little testier and more afraid… The roughly $15 per hour (guessing on the wages) clerks are getting testier and angry back, from spending 8 hours per day around a lot of scared and angry people.

The feeling I’m getting might be too from the “deer-in-headlights” look on the “middle class” driving their SUV’s to the grocery store… or from elderly folks in the pharmacy line.

Inflation is definitely being felt at society’s lower levels…. Like 80% of us… Gas prices are taking their toll at $4.19. Housing is outrageous…. Food is starting to get real steep. And unemployment and under-employment rise… And wages are flat. Indeed wages have been flat so long that big chunks of the working class think a raise is a good deal from the “Payday Loan” thieves.

Then I look at the surrealism of the mass culture news media.

Federal Reserve Chair, Ben Bernanke is saying publicly that the economy is tanking and inflation is here for quite a while. For me, this is weird, because this guy is supposed to prop up the economy… Bad economies are bad for Business! What’s this guy doing?

Meanwhile, Senator Phil Gramm, the consummate spokesperson of the U.S. ruling class, is saying, “it’s all in folks heads”. This has got to be the most pathetic line since Herbert Hoover dismissed the 1929 stock market and bank collapse as a temporary ripple in the American economy!

So jeez, it seems it was four or so months ago that the housing debacle became an issue in the Congress… I seem to remember this weird debate about which people who are losing their homes are worthy of government help… I mean it wouldn’t be right of our government to assist the financially sloppy and credit strapped… Would it? Yet four months later Freddie Mac and Fanny May, the nation’s biggest mortgage holders, are “Going Under”. With the speed of Mercury, the Federal government couldn’t be asked to write a blank check faster. It’s like my dad used to say, “If you owe the bank $20,000, the bank has a debtor. If you owe the bank $20 million, the bank has a partner”. So whose government is it?

Yet in spite of the above sad state of things, Presidential candidate Barack Obama, the hope of progressive America, is playing to the right and the official institutions of reform are on the defensive.

Think I’m nuts? Look at the news:

In the last week, Obama’s got himself in a twist. He’s announced that yes indeed; he will be “tough” on Black people. This must be a sequel to the Obama’s Pastor is a “race radical” story of the early spring. The issue certainly sits well within the context of three hundred years of American ethnic manipulations and race hate.

Obama’s going toe-to-toe too with Republican candidate, John McCain, over who’s toughest in the Middle East. “We will win in Afghanistan”, says Obama. And never a word about the US supported regime of Mohammed Karzai and it’s total lack of credibility with just about every Afghani outside his Presidential Palace.

But I don’t blame Obama for his recent plays to the right. The guy really doesn’t have much of a choice. There is no “push from below”. So, the mainstream media goes hand in hand with the McCain campaign and has Barack Obama dancing defensively to every hurdle it chooses to set up. And with every hurdle set up by the right, Obama can’t help but lose support and momentum. Corollary is this; momentum is not built through dodging issues that have been defined by your opponent and laid out there at your opponent’s convenience.

What’s scary about the above is that for the first time, I am seeing that is possible that Obama and the Democrats could lose the November 2008 election. You can feel (and see, look at the polls) the “slip” now… and there’s four months to go.

The Imagination:

Like every presidential election since Lincoln, the progressive candidate is stuck in the position of having to play Moses. As Moses, the “blind masses” pin all their hopes on him, expecting that our political Moses will take us to the Holy Land.

The problem is that Obama ain’t Moses. He’s just a guy running for President. And without a political base that knows what it wants and how to get it, Obama as Moses will be open to each and every attack from the right, and our Moses will be reduced to a regular guy dancing to qualify every statement he makes.

All of the above and all the dynamics involved are what the world looks like when the imagination is dead. Folks are getting scared and viscerally mean. The so-called middle class has that “glazed” look precisely because they feel the dog’s breakfast that is our world, yet have no ideas, thoughts, approaches, even the capacity to imagine that a different world is possible. And without being able to imagine a different world, we are also unable to see that our old world is no longer possible (or desirable)…. And between these two inabilities lies the prospect of an even greater hell.

This is not a “rah-rah get the troops out” article. Over the next four months there will be plenty of folks out there on the streets going door to door and manning the phone banks. What I’m trying to get at is more fundamental. It’s about our capacity to see the world in terms of what is really going on, and our capacity to imagine and construct a different world. If we can’t develop this capacity, this being the re-birth of the imagination, then I’m afraid by November (and well beyond), half the folks in our country will choose to ride the McCain train to hell just because McCain represents the current reality and that’s the only reality folks can imagine… Sort of a default loss… Like 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992… and how far do I have to go back?

Regarding the re-birth of the imagination, there’s a couple of words that are sticking in my mind because of their sheer relevance. Both these words seem important because of their current usage and how that varies with these words’ beginnings…

The first word is “economy”. “Economy” derives from the Greek word “econos”, meaning, “the ordering of the household”. As I look at the current economy in terms of “econos” (household), what I see is a world which places its highest value on a dynamic where parents would steal the food off their children’s plate and bill their kids for the heating of their rooms in the winter… And it’s all justified and OK: Hey, it’s competition! Right? But is this the world we want? It’s certainly the world we have…

The second word is “radical”. “Radical” derives from the Latin word “radix”, meaning, “root”. To me, it’s already past time to be radical. To be “radical” means to go to the “root”. To go to the “root” requires imagination. Without being able to go to the “root”, a different world isn’t possible. Think about it…

So, I don’t know… Think about it….

July 12, 2008

Oregon State Board Of Higher Education: How We Are Governed In A Time Of Crisis

The Oregon State Board of Higher Education (OSBHE) met in Portland on Friday. These long and boring meetings provide examples of how the ruling class governs in a time of crisis. These meetings are much less about democracy, problem-solving and getting work done and more about relationships and maintaining power. The Board ostensibly met to work on the 2009-2011 budget and to transact routine business.

Watching the Board transact its business, I get the sense that in the past there was a particular disdain for politics in the upper reaches of the system, which lingers on, but that the Board was forced to engage in politics in order to get and keep funding. This distasteful political work was assigned to individuals and teams who have since either taken over control of higher ed or who want to. You don't face the bourgeoisie in these meetings, but you do face people who are mindful of what political and economic forces stand behind them and who maintain the mindset needed to manage education on behalf of the ruling class and insure the kinds of results which maintain and inculcate bourgeois values.

The budget the Board is creating does not yet set clear goals and results or returns. Corporate and political relationships are in flux and the Board needs flexibility in a time of crisis driven by the loss of timber tax revenues. Whatever stop-gap budget fixes the Board does come up with may only postpone a pending crisis. For now these short-term fixes will primarily affect Extension services. This budget runs behind where higher education was ten years ago. The Oregon University System is seriously underfunded, but the System's funding and educational priorities are a mixed bag. The Board is asking the state to pick up more of its funding while revenues from other sources also need to increase if the System is to continue on much as it has. These funding questions are totally political questions at heart. These questions arise because corporations are trying to shift additional costs onto the state and tax payers as part of an income redistribution effort.

Oregon's higher ed enrollment will grow over the next two years, but in ways that the Oregon University System is not geared to supporting. Rather than change to accommodate underserved state populations and students, the System seems to be struggling over its devolution.This could lead eventually to a situation in which the three largest schools throw the four smaller schools overboard; the president of Oregon State University, along with the economic and political interests which support OSU, plays a stronger role in the System; and labor costs are cut. For now, the smaller schools are being maintained or are being "rescaled" as a kind of low-intensity conflict goes on between the University Chancellor's office and the university presidents. Devolution will be gradual.

A number of conflicts and contradictions were apparent at the meeting:

*There is the need to attract students and tuition while county and local systems go into crisis over the loss of timber tax payments.

*Traditional concepts of higher education conflict with pressures to train for available jobs.

*There is a defensive regionalism at work which prioritizes the state's economy and Oregon's students and workers while the reality of the transnational economy and transient workers sets in. Board hypocrisy runs amok here. There is much hand-wringing about relatively low faculty salaries, but new faculty will have to come from outside of Oregon. The Board ignores the blue collar, pink collar and semi-professional workers who tend to be native Oregonians.

*The perceived need to hire and retain faculty at higher salaries clashes with the reality of the present world economic crisis and all of the developments in recent years which have worked to make faculty transient and to undercut faculty job security.

*There remains an unresolved contradiction between higher ed and K-12 funding. Higher ed needs a strong K-12 system, but the two systems compete for funding. The contradiction is aggravated by the differing structures: the OSBHE is appointed while most of the boards and bodies overseeing K-12 are elected.

*Ballot initiatives coming from the right and the overall economic crisis make state budget planning difficult while education and service budgets have to be built and long-term planning has to be done.

*A university needs at least 5000 students to "gain critical mass" financially but there is a declining graduation rate for Oregon high school students underway. Limited resources, the results of past budget cuts, means competition between the seven universities for students and the strongest institutions (that is, the ones with strongest corporate and political backing) are best positioned to survive this competition. Rural Oregon and undeserved communities are not strong factors in how OSBHE works to resolve this contradiction.

The highpoint of the meeting came at its conclusion when a classified staffperson from Western Oregon University took the floor to read a statement from her union co-workers protesting a recent study aimed at consolidating certain services and creating certain efficiencies. It's not that we're against efficiency. the worker said, but we should have been included in the discussion and the four regional universities do a good job of serving communities and non-traditional students. The chair of the meeting tried to intimidate her and frowned through her presentation. The bureaucrats were quick to apologize and the vocal student representative on the OSBHE supported the points the worker made. And then the meeting was declared closed.

The old mole of class struggle made it into the room and got to the table.

July 9, 2008


When I was a kid there was a popular Italian expression: "Not even in the third book of Capital!" someone would exclaim in surprise or in order to emphasize how obscure a point was. The reference was to Marx's classic Capital, although I bet that many people who used the expression didn't know that.

Capital is one of those fundamental books we should read but we never get around to. It's basic to Marxism. There are shortcuts, and no one gets docked for not reading it, but life is so much better if you try. And even better if you succeed.

Now you can study Capital in the privacy of your own cyberspace. Go to http://davidharvey.org/ and check out what's there.

This is a great resource!

July 8, 2008

Rush Limbaugh And I Drive To Corvallis

Rush Limbaugh, well-known right-wing fanatic, recently signed a $400 million deal with Clear Channel's Premier Radio Networks. This includes a $100 million signing bonus and meets and surpasses what Howard Stern, another right wing fanatic, took home from Sirius Satellite Radio in 2004. The two nutjobs have more in common than their artificially high salaries, of course, but that's a good place to start.

Limbaugh's prized commodities are hate speech and himself, though not necessarily in that order. We get a Limbaugh morning show, the Limbaugh Letter, a broadcast website and a subscription service all featuring the man for that $400 million. Premier Radio underwrites it all and will do so for many years to come.

It's stunning to think that anyone in the world can get that kind of money or that anyone thinks that a fanatic deserves that kind of funding.

One of the claims made by Limbaugh & Co. is that he is the only conservative voice on the radio, or the main conservative voice on the radio. I tested that proposition today as I drove from Salem to Corvallis by way of Monmouth.

On FM radio I heard four or five decidedly conservative radio stations and two or three stations that might be considered liberal or left. I'm counting the conservative religious stations which run people like Dr. Laura and James Dobson, Limbaugh competitors. Several of these stations appear two or three times on the dial, so the number is really more like four or six. I'm also counting as liberal the two OPB stations I picked up because today there was an OPB program with John Edwards on. They seem rather conservative to me, however, and they are definitely giving McCain a pass. KBOO is proudly on the left, of course, and carries that by itself.

On AM radio I picked up fifteen conservative talk radio stations, again including the religious stations, Dr. Laura and people like Sean Hannity. I also picked up two OPB stations, KPOJ and KBOO as I got closer to Corvallis.

I don't know why people call Dr. Laura and expect anything other than humiliation. Besides her advice, which is almost always disempowering and focused on blaming victims, her style of communicating is inherently oppressive. Hannity uses the same tricks over and over again: tell the audience you're on their side and against the bullies who want to keep them ignorant, keep creating a "them," bait and humiliate the folks who disagree with you and then cut them off and go quickly to the advertising. It's a simple formula used by Mussolini and Hitler. The religious stations do a slightly milder version of this. We get Dobson, Falwell wannabees and the most conservative of theologies without debate or discussion. Have you ever heard a station give you Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Fr. Michael Pfleger or liberation theology without censorship?

Country stations hit patriotism, sexism and lily-white nostalgia--sometimes all in one song. Rap and rock stations recycle hopelessness and sexism. All of them are reaching for the advertising dollars which is, after all, the real point. There's nothing liberal or left there.

Can you get Al-Jazeera, BBC or CBC for different perspectives? Without differing perspectives, how do you form your opinions?

If Rush & Co. don't consider the religious stations conservative, their problem is more with religion than with liberals or the left. If Dr. Laura, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity are competitors on the low road created by Rush, he can't blame liberals or the left if his voice gets lost in the mob.

So Rush is simply dishonest when he claims to be in a minority and a lone conservative voice saving us from liberal and left ideas. Parts of America hear his voice and tune in because he and so many others like him dominate the airwaves--and not because he's popular or because he has a particular message, but because he has the money behind him and there is nothing much left to listen to.

July 4, 2008

Obama And The Left--Part Three

The ultra-left, the Socialists and the Greens are instinctively correct in pointing out the shortcomings of Obama's program, his backtracking on key political questions and the failures and inherent conservatism of the Democrats. Their philosophical and practical errors, however, do not allow them to go further than focusing on the negatives and imposing upon themselves a critical distance and isolation from workers and key social movements. This becomes for them an essentially moralistic refusal and inability to grasp the dynamics of the present political moment, negotiate and lead and, ultimately, to take power on any level. This may prove true even for those Greens who hold political office but who do not advance a pragmatic radical political program in cooperation with contending social forces like labor.

The idea that the main area of debate or struggle now exists between center forces represented by Obama and the left is flawed in both its theory and its application, despite the good work done by the left and social and political movements over the last eight years and the natural and justifiable suspicion workers feel towards both the Democrats and the Republicans. Against all of this good work and working class realism or pessimism, after all, is a world capitalist system sliding into chaos, a self-contained capitalist-monopoly elite which is reaching beyond its historic role and position, several major wars taking place, continuing and deepening environmental crises, extreme barbarism being inflicted upon the Third World and the global south while racism asserts itself in new ways in the developed countries and in the global north, an absence of working-class self-organization and leading political alternatives and a disappointing lack of unity at the working class base which limits our ability to struggle and win against the monopolies and for democratic rights. Under such circumstances we cannot expect people to go "from zero to sixty" and intervening with a political agenda which calls on them to do so is only a step backwards.

The pragmatic left understands the forces and world events at work very well and knows from its own valuable historic experience that working class pessimism cannot be relied upon to build something positive and enduring. There is a special understanding of how destructive racism is and how so much of this election is really about racism, imperialism and war. We also understand better than the ultra-left, the Socialists and the Greens the weaknesses of class-consciousness and workers' organizations today. We understand why and how people, and especially workers, are looking for incremental change now and how fragile and contradictory these hopes are.

The left-wing response to the ultra-left and to the Obama candidacy has been to only see the positive sides of Obama's program, to ignore or defend his backward steps, to hope that Obama and the political center can be moved to the left later, to work exclusively at the grassroots as foot-soldiers for the Democrats and (mirroring the ultra-left) to refuse taking principled and critical leadership in situations which might make obvious our disagreements with some of Obama's thinking. This response is understandable and comes with gains and losses for the left, with opportunities and with dead-ends.

The left will gain by learning again how to talk to and organize with people in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This new emphasis in working primarily at the grassroots can give to the left a new base and a needed decentralization. The challenges we face as Obama moves to the right help us to rethink our assumptions and arguments and can force us to improve left-wing media. To the extent that we openly identify ourselves as socialists and communists, we can help people get over remaining cold war prejudices and acquaint them with truly left-wing programs which speak to their needs. The Obama campaign forces us to confront racism within others and in ourselves. Each day that we work with the center political forces is a test for us, individually and collectively, and these tests should teach us how to negotiate, lead and take power. These tests are necessary because they are precisely where we win or lose the right to lead others.

Many of these positive advancements are put at risk or deprived of their meaning when we overlook the political and strategic shortcomings of the Obama campaign and the political center and when we are silent before them. Seeing only the positives here mirrors the philosophical errors and poverty of the ultra-left and can lead, through a much different route, to the same sort of isolation and irrelevancy the ultra-left, Socialists and Greens are choosing for themselves.

Obama moved to the left in order to influence or capture some of the core forces which might either have gone to Clinton or sat the election out. It was an easy move for him given his base and his charisma. Now, closer to the election and with the core social forces either supporting him or with nowhere else to turn, Obama can move more safely (for him) to the right and encourage a cult of personality around him. If this is not inevitable, it at least appears to be unavoidable given the peculiar structuring of American electoral politics. This takes place as Karl Rove's forces are taking over the McCain campaign and centralizing their power and their forces. Their attack against Obama once this centralization is complete will be racist and under-handed and will have the cooperation of the Bush-Cheney administration. Whatever distance Obama travels to the right will be more than matched by the right's march towards barbarism.

Our main hope now in preventing a further slide to the right by the center, including Obama, is in building for a landslide win by the Democrats in November and doing so in such a way that we also win power and influence for the independent forces like the labor and peace movements. Actively encouraging the nomination of a progressive Vice-Presidential candidate and focusing on all of McCain's many faults and the right-wing danger he represents is key. These efforts require a base at the grassroots which works for a win every day, but it also requires that that base be built upon our left-wing principles and a willingness to explain these principles to the people we work with and then negotiate with them.

The willingness of the center to move to right before November can be read as an inability to fight or as an unwillingness to fight and win. This is the critical and repetitive failing of the Democrats and it does not win them elections. Once surrendered, the ground lost by the Democrats seems nearly impossible to recover and the task of recovering lost ground seems to have fallen largely on the shoulders of African-Americans, labor, immigrant workers, women and the peace movement. A reliance by the center and parts of the left upon a charismatic leader to the practical exclusion or diminishing of an activist and critically-thinking base makes organizing, fighting and winning more difficult and makes recovering lost ground in the absence of that leader much more difficult. The left needs to recover its history quickly and its ability to teach others how to fight.

Win or lose in November, we need to prepare now for a national conference to be held in the Spring of 2009. That conference should unite the left which worked for Democratic victories with the best forces in the labor, civil rights, immigrant, peace, womens', gay, and youth movements under a shared and fully accountable grassroots leadership. If Obama wins, the focus should be on an aggressive plan to hold him to his early and progressive promises and to guide the US through the likely traumas that withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and confronting racism here will bring during a time of economic crises. If McCain wins, the focus will need to be on key mass protests, protecting the most vulnerable segments of the population and civil liberties from further attack and labor and community organizing.

We need that national conference and we need unity.

July 3, 2008

Obama And The Left--Part Two

Yesterday I looked briefly at the so-called “ultra-left,” the Socialists and the Greens and their reasons for not supporting the Obama candidacy. I used a kind of political shorthand to lump them together. Readers can investigate the differences between these groups on their own.

There is nothing pragmatic in these groups. They can see only the negatives in the Obama campaign and so they reject the possibilities that Obama or the movements around him could move to the left in any meaningful way, or that the left could support the Obama candidacy in a principled way. I tried to show that this is philosophically untenable, and even a departure from what we know of the natural world.

Nothing is so absolute or static that it does not contain opposing forces within itself which can eventually gather the capacity to transform the thing itself. The pure and the absolute exist only as philosophical abstractions—and useless abstractions at that. If this applies in the natural world, it also applies to society. And if it applies to society, then it applies to the left and to Obama and to the movements around him. When the ultra-left presents the Obama candidacy only as a negative and acts on that (mis)understanding, it violates logic and the key philosophical and practical assumptions of the historic left.

There is a pragmatic left which supports the Obama candidacy. The reasoning and logic of this support are stated roughly as follows:

We need to be mindful of negatives of Democratic Party candidates and Obama and we should find ways to indicate differences on one or another issue. The only issue is how we do this.

The big thing for us is the larger dynamics of the elections- -the movement that is taking shape, the expectations for change among millions, the political leverage that can come with a landslide victory. It is these dynamics that are the driving force to turn our country around, to chart a new course.

It is hard to see how we can turn things around without electing Obama and bigger democratic majorities in Congress. Most of the problems confronting working people cannot be resolved in the collective bargaining arena, at least in any fundamental way. It requires a qualitative shift in the balance of political forces, which is what we hope will happen in November. The movements need leverage to press their legislative agendas in 2009. We will then be positioned to go on the offensive, to punch rather than counter punch as we have been doing the Bush years. Our relations with Obama and a Democrat-controlled congress would be both contested and cooperative. What the exact balance will be is not possible to determine at this moment, but there will be elements of both.

Obama is not a left candidate, nor are the American people on the left despite changes in their thinking over past years. Obama is a candidate of a broad coalition, most of whom occupy the center in American politics. Given this, and given the right wing attack machine, it is hard to imagine that he won't take some positions that we disagree with. He has to assemble a broad voter constituency to win against McCain. We have to give him some wiggle room as well as find better ways to take issue with some of his positions. The main contrast in this election isn't between Obama's program and the program of the left, but between Obama's positions and McCain's. We should worry about the vacillating of Obama, to be sure, but it should be in the context of the urgency of defeating McCain. McCain's election would constitute an enormous blow to the labor-led people's movement.

There is good reason to think that the movement won't go into hiding in the election's aftermath. Too much has happened over last 30 years and too many expectations have been aroused in this campaign--conditions are different than in 1992.

If the “ultra-left” looks only at the negatives of the Obama candidacy and seeks the essentially moral ground of not participating in electoral politics in any meaningful way while core social forces go into electoral action, the pragmatic left tends to see only positives in the Obama candidacy and follows behind these core social forces as they move into political action. This pragmatic left is searching for a way of advancing criticism of Obama’s positions while still mobilizing against McCain. An excellent example of such criticism is Joe Sims’ recent piece on Obama’s Father’s Day backsliding.

There remains in the pragmatic left a certain philosophical poverty, despite its efforts and work.

This pragmatic left has something to lose by supporting the Obama candidacy without criticism. Liberal political agendas most often form as incomplete and defensive responses to the unavoidable crises of capitalism and the right-wing. It is a difficult matter for the left to support a liberal candidacy now and later distance itself from a liberal agenda in power, especially when that agenda is not fully carried out or when it falters. That necessary distancing can easily become a moralistically driven refusal to take power and do the work which goes with holding power at any level. It can also lead to unnecessary compromises, splits, and the practical drafting of the left by more conservative forces.

Since the American political spectrum carries within it so many contradictions and points where sides blur, liberals in power are often able to undercut protests from the left and the labor movement. Can a pragmatic left criticize Obama, as a candidate or as a president, and later count on being able to win over and mobilize the forces now supporting Obama in any meaningful way? We will see after November, but liberals have been quite good at dismantling or sidetracking movements that they cannot control.

The pragmatic left is correct in pointing out that “the main contrast in this election isn't between Obama's program and the program of the left, but between Obama's positions and McCain's.” We do not live in a time when the left has the kind of currency needed to successfully challenge the liberals. To put this in context, we have to see the Obama candidacy as being in part the product of the peace movement which has developed since the invasion of Iraq, the mixed record of the labor movement under Bush, the immigrant rights mass mobilizations and the relatively low level of civil rights and Black mobilizations in recent years. Where one movement has stepped forward, another has stepped backwards and so we have a liberal candidacy which fumbles, and movements around that candidacy which maintain high hopes but lack clarity. Most of the left activists working at the base of the campaign have experienced this and are learning new ways of comunicating and organizing.

The pragmatic left is also correct in pointing out the need for a Democratic landslide. A narrow win by Democrats or by Obama gives the Democrats every reason to slide further to the right. It must be remembered that all of the Democratic weaknesses, Obama’s included, pale besides the horrors of the Republican agenda and the possibility of a strike against Iran, a widening war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a continuing occupation of Iraq. A win by a large margin by centrist forces could give labor and other movements the self-confidence needed to move forward and also take away liberal fears and excuses for not working for a more progressive social agenda.

Where the left begins to fail here is in not asserting itself or its agenda more forcefully. It has been so long since the left and labor movements have had major wins that we may no longer know what victories are or how to define them. Both the pragmatic and ultra-left suffer from this. In the case of the pragmatic left, this means following the movements supporting Obama rather than leading—and since these movements lack clarity, the pragmatic left also becomes confused. It remains to be seen how or if this left can emerge from this shared confusion to lead or to leverage power in 2009.

The right seems more worried about the forces Obama's candidacy may unleash than about the man himself. They have good reason to worry. The pragmatic left grasps the potential of the moment and the movement. The liberals try to ride these forces and may eventually try to apply the bit, the stirrups, or the whip. Only the ultra-left is incapable of seeing what is before everyone.

To paraphrase Marx, the Socialist Party and the Greens (and, for that matter, the ultra-left) seem to believe that people are products of circumstances and history, and so different circumstances will produce different people. With their utopian hopes and “revolutionary” programs they are unable to locate a point with people—with core political forces in society—where people are themselves making history, i.e. changing society. They locate the tipping point of the main contradictions in society between themselves and society at large or those now in power. Thus, their parties and programs carry a kind of magical quality for them.

Against their best and most tested instincts, the pragmatic left seems to see only abstract movements marching forward with Obama and they trust this movement with our political future. It is as if they now believe in an unguided spontaneity and can no longer define or find their proper place in an alliance with labor and centrists. Their programs are reduced to policies and slogans and contain little of the magic and dreams which people in motion conjure up from the capitalist nightmare.

July 2, 2008

Obama And The Left--Part One

I’m not going to offer any profound or new thoughts in this series. I want to lay out some of the emerging differences on the left regarding the Obama candidacy and movement and make an argument for why we should support Obama and do so without illusions or hopes.

Some of our readers will not understand what “the left” is. That’s a good place to begin.

When I speak of the left, I am speaking of groups and individuals whose politics derive, consciously or not, from the historic socialist, egalitarian and radical democratic movements and parties. The left spectrum in my thinking begins with Democratic Socialists of America and groups like it and runs to the so-called “ultra-left” of the anarchists. We are probably talking about thousands of people who can mobilize tens of thousands given good issues and resources and effect debates and elections in major way--a significant number and force of people.

To hear the right-wing talk, the left begins somewhere around Edward Kennedy or Obama or Al Gore. I’m not sure if they sincerely believe this or not because, on the face of it, this simply isn't possible. The right is known for red-baiting and drama. A recent newspaper column by Charles Krauthammer carried just such an attack by attempting to paint Obama as a dishonest, flip-flopping communist. Liberal columnist Joe Conason provided an essentially aggressive answer to Krauthammer’s attack but, in a move typical of liberal journalists, he dismissed the left and quite wrongly claimed that the Communist Party is defunct.

When I was kid the old people would say, “Labels are only good for cans of soup.” In our case, then, we have to acknowledge that individuals—and perhaps even organizations and movements—can contain contradictory or competing impulses which can push them to be radical-left on one social question and conservative on another. And in some cases we see organizations and movements which use a left form of organization—a labor party, for instance, or a struggle for broad democratic rights—but adopt conservative or reactionary politics. The figurative spectrum of the left, then, is incomplete and may be used only for quick summary. I will try to speak in these articles of the organized left and the people I know on the left only.

From here in Oregon it’s hard to say if a majority of the left nationally supports Obama or not, or to what extent this support exists. There is a strong philosophical feeling on the ultra-left—among the anarchists and others—that one president is the same as another, that government and capitalism remain the essential problems and cannot be reformed and that only a full-frontal attack on economic and political authority carries validity. The means and the goals are total spontaneous revolution.

From there we step to what are essentially moralistic arguments on the left against any participation in elections at all or any cooperation with the Democrats or reform forces. If the problem is the system, if the system cannot be reformed, if you are a member of a sect that sees only this and the times and the people are not with you then you are stuck on the holy ground of your convictions. The Socialist Party, for instance, makes a point of saying that they support “electoral action independent of the capitalist-controlled two-party system” as the revolutionary path. The Freedom Socialist Party neatly dispenses with the issue by saying that “the trade unions must be freed from the stranglehold of the class-collaborationist bureaucrats and from dependence on the twin political parties of big business.” The Greens echo these sorts of claims and are not shy in running candidates against centrist Democrats. What is at work here is a real poverty of experience, thinking and engagement and I’ll say more about this later.

From this side of the left only the Socialist Worker, to my knowledge, has grown beyond moralistic arguments and developed a workable analysis dealing with why the left should not support Obama. In a series of articles they have tracked the right-turn he is making, his lack of response to crises in Black communities, his caving in to zionists and right-wing Cubans, the Democratic party’s concrete failures and Obama’s ability to appear anti-war while attracting to his side a number of policy makers and advisers who will not—cannot—be forces for peace.

More could be said. The left cannot give Obama a pass on supporting the death penalty, his position on gun control, NAFTA, the absence of Arab-Americans and Muslims in his ads, healthcare and immigration. Obama is not a candidate of the left and he will continue to move towards the right-center as November comes closer. Liberal and left forces may rejoice in his victory in November, but it may also turn out that he will have to discipline the most progressive forces within the Democratic party either before or immediately after the election in order to win and to govern.

Why, then, would I continue to support Obama?

The fundamental problem with the ultra-left criticism—and I am including the Greens and the Socialist Party here for the sake of expediency—is that nothing changes fundamentally because it is acted upon from outside or from the margins. A thing changes because it is in motion and develops within itself and from this motion something within it that forces it to change. Even if the sun melts the ice, we understand nothing about what has occurred unless we understand the properties of each and the relationship existing between them; we know little or nothing about one until we understand the other and how they came into contact with one another. Moreover, the fact that a piece of ice melts under the sun does not mean that moisture cannot be collected and reconstituted as ice or that the qualities of moisture and heat disappear. And so it is with society.

Society is in constant motion and it will only fundamentally change when the motivating forces within it can do nothing other than confront one another in a struggle to determine the force and direction of that motion. In the US right now, those motivating forces are, on the one side, the working class, people of color, women and youth and, on the other side, the capitalists, the military leaders and those who govern and rule on their behalf.

From within the confines of our society these motivating forces move in relation to one another and come slowly into conflict. They take bold or dramatic leaps when they are forced to, and even then only in relation to one another. Each makes the history it is able to in its time; each is sometimes less and sometimes more of a historical agent of change. Even when each appears as a solid bloc there are, just under their surfaces, doubts and disagreements and opposing interests at stake which work to push society backwards or forwards. It is the job of the left to understand this movement and to operate within it, being always the force for forward movement. A step outside of this process is a step to the irrelevant margins.

Obama and the movement around him come very much from the motion and clashing within society. It is the moment—and not the man or even the movement—which is up for grabs. The workers, people of color, women and young people are moving incrementally towards the social confrontations which inevitably take place under capitalism. Today this an incremental movement, but will it be so tomorrow? The modern left has well over 100 years of experience behind it and is the only positive force in society with such a past to draw on during such a pregnant social moment. To surrender the opportunity to influence or lead motivating forces in society would be criminal.

From these principles develops a number of others: the need for a positive relationship between the left and progressive mass movements, the need for left-wing accountability, the need to set aside naivete, the responsibility of taking power and what accompanies power, the need to confront racism, the need to defeat imperialism and more. I’ll try to get to some of these tomorrow.

July 1, 2008

Capitalism, Imperialism & Socialism: The Basics

I'm reading Y. Varga's Politico-Economic Problems of Capitalism. It was published in Moscow in 1963 and is definitely a period piece set on refuting Stalin and the economists who came of age when Stalin was in power. Parts of the book remain relevent despite all that has happened politically and economically during the intervening 45 years.

Varga states this as the basic law of capitalism:

In appropriating the surplus value produced by the workers, capital concentrates and socialises production through accumulation and centralisation, creates the material prerequisites for socialism, exacerbates the contradiction between the social character of production and private appropriation. This contradiction, which is only temporarily resolved by the periodic crises of over-production, makes the rule of capital ever more unbearable for working people throughout the world and, by means of a proletarian revolution, steers capitalism towards its inevitable downfall.

He then formulates a basic law of imperialism:

By abolishing free competition, dividing up markets and coalescing with the state, monopoly capital secures super-profits, subjects the whole capitalist world to its power and deepens the rift between the rich imperialist and the economically underdeveloped countries, between the finance oligarchy and the working masses, transforms an ever greater slice of the population into hired workers and capitalism into moribund capitalism, pushing it inevitably towards a proletarian revolution.

The 1960s were times of optimism and change, the book reminds us, no less for the USSR than for the rest of the world as well. The optimism of the times could make people speak in terms of inevitabilities.

Minus these inevitabilities, which do not ring as clearly today as they did in 1963, these remain fundamentally sound paragraphs.

If you agree with these descriptions and live here in Oregon's Willamette Valley, you should join Willamette Reds.

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