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Memo to Peace and Justice Activists

Can We Create a Movement for Change?

by ROBERT ROTH

“If you want peace, work for justice.” 

- Pope John Paul IV

There are literally thousands of organizations in the United States alone working for peace and justice.  I would probably think of them as constituting a movement but for Alexander Cockburn’s occasional but repeated and for me, telling remarks to the contrary.   A couple of recent developments lead me to think there may be an opening for an appropriate catalyst to move these disparate groups and their activists, and those of us who comprise their membership and support, in the direction of becoming a movement.  Or perhaps more than one.

What is a movement?  While I invite help with my working definition, it seems to me a movement is a humongous number of people able to move collectively, more or less together, and thus magnify exponentially the impact of their actions, because they are motivated by a common vision, comprised of common values, goals, and perceptions of reality.  Not only do they hold this vision and its integral components in common, but they also articulate these things to themselves and each other in common terms.  They not only share them, but are aware that they do. 

Noam Chomsky says to produce change we need understanding, organizing, and action.  We arrive at understanding by research and other means of perceiving and analyzing reality – and learning to ignore the ubiquitous disinformation, including the overload of irrelevancies, dispensed by the instruments of propaganda.  Moving from understanding to organizing is a process of sharing that information and analysis, disseminating them to others who share our values, so that collective action becomes possible.  That’s what those thousands of organizations already are: groups of people with a common understanding of one or several problems and issues, organized by mutual understanding and shared values so as to be able to act together for their common goals.

Anyone with a mailbox who has ever made a donation to a few organizations dedicated to peace and/or justice has some idea what I have in mind.  Resist, Inc., alone has funded literally thousands of small organizations in its 40-year history, and receives hundreds of new grant applications every year.  And we all know of the big organizations.  They’re working for peace, or on environmental problems, or for social equity, for human rights, and so on.  But can we tie all this together?  And where to begin?  As Chomsky once remarked, in essence, in reply to someone who asked that question:  Anywhere is a good place to begin.  What we have been hearing for years now is that we have no interests in common, and that our own interests are best served by seeking wealth, ignoring all but self.  So any action that affirms that we have interests in common is a move against the spirit of the age and the machine, and for the common good. 

As for how we might begin to move together, recent events have included several over-arching developments of enormous scale that may be making popular consciousness more receptive than usual to the idea that we have interests in common, and may even facilitate agreement on common goals and actions we might take, by defining the elements of a program as well as illustrating how it might be achieved. 

In an extraordinarily illuminating and useful article in the November issue of Z Magazine (“Bush’s Ten Toxic Economic Legacies”), Jack Rasmus remarks that in the wake of the staggering expenditures occasioned by the global financial crisis, critical programs like health care reform, student loans, sustainable environmental initiatives, jobs creation and protection, mortgage foreclosure relief, retirement systems reform and funding, etc., will all likely be sidelined more or less permanently.  However, viewing this differently – and as I see it – Rasmus has outlined many of the core components of a comprehensive program.  And if you add tax reform, extended unemployment benefits and food stamp eligibility, plus funding to state and local governments to continue increasingly needed social welfare and other programs and at least slow down the process of contraction now accelerating throughout the economy, you have an agenda that would serve the needs and interests of young people, older people, workers, women, people of color, people with disabilities, people who breathe, eat food and drink water – all of whom the media and political elites call “special interests” – that is, the general population.

How is this comprehensive agenda a plus, without the funding?  Well, another key insight was provided in a recent column in CounterPunch, when Chris Floyd pointed out that perhaps the most striking fact revealed by the reaction to the global financial crash is the “staggering, astonishing, gargantuan” amounts of money that the governments of the world have at their command.   As Floyd points out, this revelation gives the lie to the argument that’s been made nearly ad infinitum and certainly ad nauseam over the years, that “we” simply can’t afford programs that meet the needs and serve the interests of the general population, because there just isn’t enough money.

The Trillions that are being thrown at Wall Street and other investor servants and interests on a daily basis gives the lie to that argument.  Moreover, the general public is keenly aware of it, as evidenced by the veritable tsunami of opposition that arose overnight to the Bush-Paulson bailout plan – to the point where it was even defeated on the first go-round in Congress, before new, improved disinformation undermined the opposition. 

Of course, some of these Trillions remain to be borrowed, and questions are being raised in some quarters as to whether foreign central banks and others who have thus far financed the already staggering US budget and current account deficits may throw a monkey wrench into the proliferation of bailout plans by withholding their cash.  In that case, the Treasury could wind up printing the money, leading to hyperinflation.  None of this is to be too easily denied, but I think there are no less than several plausible answers to it.

First, it’s becoming increasingly clear that at least near-term and for the foreseeable future, investors worldwide have become loathe to put their cash anywhere else but in government bonds, despite the massive pending supply and persistently low yields.  Financial Times 11/14/08, p. 25.  Second, perhaps investors being asked to finance continuing US deficits – I have in mind here foreign central banks in particular – might have less disincentive to do so if the payoff is to be a rebuilt America whose consumers can go back to buying their products.   After all, a major reason for the global impact of our current slow-motion train wreck is that US consumers are totally tapped out, and thus no longer able to buy the foreign stuff, our purchase of which has been helping to keep the economies of Europe and emerging countries such as China going and growing.  Throwing Trillions down a rat hole in a vain effort to re-inflate the global bubble economy might well be an unwise investment.  On the other hand, genuinely rebuilding the US middle class, manufacturing base and infrastructure – in the process fostering the growth of community and a more equitable society – would be a much wiser use of capital, apart from its immediate benefits to Us the People.

Will that approach fly?  Well, it remains to be seen, of course.  But I think it has a lot more going for it than much of what is presently being done, which both serves the interests of no one but Wall Street and appears to be in the process of failing on a truly grand scale.

But there’s yet another place to look for the hundreds of billions it will take to rebuild our country (and of course, the two are not mutually exclusive):  the defense (sic: empire, hegemony and war; in a word, military) budget.  Granted, hundreds of organizations working to promote peace have been making this point for years.  But the general public wasn’t staring into the abyss of what may become the Really Great Depression until now.  Recent events should – with the right focus – throw a spotlight of a somewhat new and different hue on the $600 Billion we spend each year on goods and services that are wholly unproductive from an economic viewpoint, and indeed contribute massively both to our national decline and the destruction of “the environment,” aka planet Earth and the only home we have.  That’s where the hundreds of peace organizations come in:  There are many ways to promote peace, but perhaps right now a concerted focus on the military budget, on its gargantuan size and its utter uselessness (and worse), is the most productive approach and one on which there might be substantial agreement among peace organizers and activists.  There is also a natural potential symbiosis between peace and environmental preservation and restoration.  

Finally, we have the promise of Change in which so many people came to believe that they almost seem to constitute a movement.  Perhaps they were, but it’s a movement that will not maintain coherence or momentum of its own accord, and I haven’t seen signs the Obama campaign that facilitated its creation is working to keep it intact.  Others have made the point that if the Obama administration is to achieve the potential its supporters among the general population (as opposed to elite interests) desire, those who supported Obama’s election will have to stay focused and active.  That means, in part, organized.  

There you have it:  The power structure has disclosed it has access to truly vast amounts of capital.  Very recently, there was a mobilization of enormous popular opposition to a bailout focused on Wall Street, and more bailouts continue to unfold.  Pretty much the entire population has some understanding and considerable fear of the economic catastrophe in process of unfolding, and there is seemingly universal recognition of the need for massive government intervention to minimize its severity and duration.  Enter the thousands of organizations already working for peace and justice, who might – possibly? – perceive these events as the occasion for concerted focus and action on a common theme, and in particular, the hundreds of organizations specifically devoted to peace whose organizers and activists can highlight another source of funding for such programs.  Could we build a movement or two from these components, under these circumstances?

If we don’t do it, who will?  And if not now, when?

ROBERT ROTH is a retired public interest lawyer who worked on civil rights for institutionalized people, antipoverty energy policy, and financial fraud and consumer protection during his 35-year career.  He can be reached at Robert.roth99@gmail.com.     

There are of course other views.  For example, a special issue of WIN, the magazine of the War Resisters League, titled “Where To From Here?” reports on WRL’s Listening Process, a project of interviews with nearly 100 grassroots organizers and activists from across the country assessing the state of the antiwar movement.  Contact WRL at 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212) 228-0450.  

It’s a question beyond this essay to articulate our common values, or even to assign labels to our politics.  In recent years I’ve come to think compassion and justice may cover it all, but you may have your own formulation.  Nor is it clear to me that “progressive” describes my vision entirely, since it has many conservative components.  While I don’t necessarily agree with him in all particulars, I recommend Robert Jensen’s articulation of his political philosophy in his Writing Dissent, pp. 9-16, both as an outline of values I find substantially congenial personally, and as a model of one way in which it’s useful to articulate our politics.  I also like Riane Eisler’s suggestions in The Real Wealth of Nations, and especially recommend the section at pp. 146-164 titled “From Capitalism to Socialism to Partnerism,” for a discussion of values and an alternative vision, as grounds for a politics that may be as useful as it is beautiful.  As for analysis, while there are of course many excellent ones out there, the best with which I’m familiar is Chomsky’s, whose Understanding Power, Hegemony or Survival, and Failed States (among his dozens of invaluable volumes) together present an analysis and critique of systems of power that is systematic, comprehensive and deep, and of course well documented.     

“The God That Failed, 10/13/08. 

Of course, such a rebuilt America, if it were as profligate and destructive as the old one, would present its own problems.  But those are issues for another day.  Getting from here to there is hard enough, and besides, there are bound to be differences, indeed fundamental ones, in an America rebuilt on the blueprints I’m suggesting.  See also and further, Eisler’s Real Wealth of Nations.  Another alternative vision I find helpful is presented by Sharon Astyk in Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front, or, One Woman’s Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times.  Sharon also has a great website at http://sharonastyk.com/.       

And of course there are other promising places to look, such as the billions in annual subsidies to increasingly dysfunctional and destructive agribusiness.  See, e.g., the writings of Wendell Berry. 

Apparently the Obama organization sent a survey to supporters on 11/18/08 asking how they would like to see “this organization move forward in the months and years ahead,” and asked them to rank four objectives:  helping the Obama administration “pass legislation through grass-roots efforts”; helping elect state and local candidates “who share the same vision for our country”; training others in the organizing techniques perfected by the campaign; and “working on local issues that impact our communities.”  This is not the place for a full discussion, but suffice it to say that, much as I wanted Obama to defeat McCain, I do not see him as having consistently articulated a progressive agenda, and am wary of the many Clinton people around him now.  For what I would call a real progressive agenda, I’d suggest the excellent outline of issues at the website of the Nader 2008 campaign, http://www.votenader.org/issues/.  Nader’s issues constitute a comprehensive program, with which Obama was not in agreement on any point that I’m aware of.  So I’m thinking more in terms of encouraging or pressuring the administration and Congress from the left than of working with them, though of course the latter is preferable if we agree on goals.  It’s clear that even the sort of modest goals Obama did adopt during the campaign will encounter opposition of enormous force from the right.  See, e.g., Thomas Frank, “It’s Time to Give Voters the Liberalism They Want,” Wall Street Journal, 11/19/08 (regarding the business interests’ plans to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, aka “card check,” which a Chamber of Commerce official has dubbed “Armageddon,” and Bernie Marcus, co-founder and CEO of The Home Depot, has lamented as “the demise of a civilization”).  I’m sure they’re not the only one, but Progressive Democrats of America is one group I’ve heard from that intends to try to maintain the momentum from the left.