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Hope and Change…in Seattle
Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd/ Durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt / Wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung.
(And so we went, changing our country more often than our shoes, despairing, in the class war, when there was only injustice and no resistance).
-Bertholt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Who Will Come After Us) (1939)
The Battle of Seattle, fifteen years ago, was a landmark in the worldwide struggle against neoliberal globalization. However, the momentum that developed there dissipated quickly.
For one thing, nobody knew what to do next — except demonstrate more at future World Trade Organization meetings and similar events. For another, the authorities everywhere became more adept at repression.
Then the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon gave the Bush administration a pretext for intensifying efforts to control the world’s energy resources. The global class war has many fronts; after 9/11, the Middle East and central Asia took center stage.
And so, the last decade and a half witnessed wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, along with countless other military and diplomatic efforts to enhance American domination of the Muslim world.
“Old” Europe, France especially, objected a little — at first. Then, even before the Iraq War subsided (for the time being!), the entire “West” turned more popish than the pope.
Inequality and injustice intensify at home, imperial predations rage overseas, and hardly anyone anywhere, it seems, is fighting back.
Bush’s War on Terror – continued, absent the name, under Barack Obama – led to a general assault on the rule of law. Privacy rights have suffered especially. This too diminishes the prospects for a resistance adequate to the tasks at hand.
Even so, it is remarkable how quiescent “progressives” have lately become.
The wars Bush started led more than a few Americans to rally round the flag, while corporate media helped make dissidence unpopular.
But even after it became obvious to all but the most deluded that no good – and much harm — would come from the murder and mayhem Bush unleashed, very little changed.
Jingoistic enthusiasm subsided, only to be replaced by cynicism and acquiescence. What little resistance there was focused mainly on America’s wars.
Meanwhile, in America, unlike in other parts of the world, austerity got a pass after the Battle of Seattle. Other ruinous neoliberal nostrums did too, even as the neoliberal order nearly crashed in 2008 and 2009.
Opposition to capitalism itself — to the root cause of so much of the misery around us — was nil.
Almost from Day One, even the anti-war movement fell into a decline. The Democratic Party siphoned off and neutralized a lot of its energy.
There were a few large demonstrations, of course, but the first order of business was electing “anybody but Bush” (even John Kerry!).
When that failed, the focus on electoral politics only intensified. The objective, at first, was to gain control of the House and Senate for the Democratic Party; then it was to elect Barack Obama.
When Obama ran for a second term, most “malefactors of great wealth,” as they would have been called a century ago, preferred Mitt Romney, just as they had preferred John McCain in 2008. They were lucky to get Obama instead.
No one is as good as he at squelching opposition from the left. His method is simple: raise, then dash, expectations. Disillusionment follows, leading to yet more grudging (or mindless) acceptance of injustice.
McCain or Romney would have gotten progressives’ hackles up, as they were when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld joined George W. Bush at the nation’s helm. Obama brings progressives along.
Perhaps he could be forgiven for that had he genuinely been a lesser evil. We can never know for sure, but, in light of the available evidence, that seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, in 2011, a year before Obama’s second campaign got underway, the spirit of resistance somehow, unexpectedly, burst forth.
In states with venerable labor traditions – Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, even Michigan — newly elected Republican governors and legislatures, funded by viciously retrograde plutocrats, launched a no holds barred assault on public sector unions.
The unions fought back. They found allies everywhere. The depth and extent of the resistance took everyone by surprise. In the end, though, the people lost; the plutocrats and their flunkies won.
A few months later, Occupy Wall Street and a host of cognate movements erupted. At the time, these events seemed of a piece with the Arab Spring. It looked as if as if the world was finally waking up; as if real change, not the meretricious kind Obama had promised, was underway.
This impression didn’t last long — not in the Arab world, not in any of the four corners of the planet where Occupy Wall Street inspired resistance, and not in the United States. The forces of order made sure of that.
As the head of the world’s hegemonic power, Obama’s task was to put the genie back in the bottle.
What role, if any, he played in quashing the Arab Spring and similar movements around the world will become clearer in time. In the United States, he seemed aloof. There is little doubt, however, that he played a major role.
True to form, he “led from behind.” Uncharacteristically, he played his hand well.
Obama couldn’t have done it, however, without the unwitting collaboration of the people whose aspirations he quashed. Rebels without leadership flounder. Either their rebellions spontaneously expire or they become so diminished that they can be easily crushed. Neglect, judiciously applied, works wonders.
The Occupy movement was hardly a flash in the pan; its achievements continue to reverberate.
But it lasted not much longer than a flash. After a few glorious months in which America learned (or relearned) “what democracy looks like,” it faded away. With no next move in sight, all but the most ardent gave up, went home, and moved on.
Had the authorities relied more on violence, the repression might have backfired. But Obama built on what had been learned in Wisconsin and elsewhere: that the way to dissipate popular discontent in twenty-first century America is to wait it out and then, when the time is right, to channel it into contests between Democrats and Republicans.
Thanks to our semi-established duopoly party system, and to the nature of our semi-established parties, electoral politics in America is usually more effective than outright repression. This time, it surely was.
The Wisconsin case is especially revealing. The result of all the sound and fury in the winter and spring of 2011 was a recall election – held early the next year. When it finally took place, Obama and the national Democratic Party did almost nothing to help the Democratic candidate win.
Their passivity was so blatant that it is hard to believe that it wasn’t deliberately malevolent.
What could they have been thinking? Or rather what were the people calling the shots thinking? Maybe they thought they were on a roll.
Democrats are as business-friendly as Republicans; for that matter, so are American unions. But, in 2011, America’s titans of finance and industry, overcome by greed and smelling blood in the water, decided that business-friendly politicians and union leaders were not good enough.
They wanted the unions out of their hair, and they wanted democratic aspirations crushed.
That fateful spring, Republican governors were their boys. Leading Democrats wanted – and still want — to be their boys (and girls) too. Perhaps this is why they decided to stand apart from organized labor and from the burgeoning peoples’ movements, and to let events take their course.
But the rising indignation felt by increasingly large swathes of the population didn’t go away. First, in Zuccotti Park, then in countless other venues around the country and the world, the spirit of rebellion took hold.
The authorities waited that out too. Predictably, it too died down in time. Holdouts were then easily done in.
While it lasted, Occupy Wall Street seemed a breakthrough – more remarkable and unexpected even than the Battle of Seattle had been.
But because it too had no political direction, it too came to naught. Without a next move, there was no way forward.
Then, with another, debilitating election season looming, the Occupy phase of the class war ended. By 2012, only the willfully blind still harbored illusions about President Drone. But this didn’t stop lesser evilists from flocking back into his camp. Serious politics again went missing.
In retrospect, Occupy no longer looks like the dawn of something radically new. It looks more like the latest installment of the apolitical political style that has been disabling progressive politics in the United States and elsewhere for decades.
Perhaps in the future it will look like its last hurrah.
With all the familiar points of reference on the Left gone, and with neoliberalism on the rise, it was probably inevitable that politics would take an apolitical turn. Fighters for peace and justice remained as dedicated as ever. But, whether they realized it or not, they had gotten themselves bogged down on the proverbial road to nowhere.
Occupy Wall Street’s kind of politics is simply not up to the task of blocking, much less defeating, the forces propelling rising inequality and injustice — and war and preparations for war. The many, less spectacular, variations on the theme that emerged in recent years are even less capable.
However, manifestations of Occupy-style politics do more good than traditional electoral politics. They may lead to a dead-end, but at least they don’t neutralize dissent. Quite the contrary: they raise consciousness and mobilize indignation. What they don’t do is change the world.
When the best politics going leads nowhere, does it then follow that there is no alternative to despair? I think not. Change is still possible; indeed, it is now, finally, in the air.
Last week, Seattle showed the way.
At first glance, what happened there doesn’t look like much.
* * *
Kshama Sawant, a gifted and charismatic City Councilwoman, led a successful fight to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. Sawant had run for office as a member of a still little known organization called the Socialist Alternative Party. The $15/hour minimum wage figured prominently in her campaign.
The federal minimum wage now is $7.25/hour. Obama says he wants it raised to $10.10/hour, but don’t count on him doing much to raise it. That is not his way – except when the plutocracy insists.
A $15/hour minimum wage would substantially improve the condition of the most poorly paid workers; and, contrary to “the business community” would have people think, it will almost certainly not decrease employment or otherwise diminish overall prosperity.
This is so obvious that even Robert Reich — a recovering Clintonite – agrees. Reich was the wannabe First Hubby’s first Secretary of Labor.
Three cheers therefore for the reform Sawant got through.
Decades ago, there were fighters for peace and justice who would have insisted that we should hold back a cheer or two on the grounds that raising the minimum wage is reformist, not revolutionary. Decades ago too, reforms like this one were not as rare as they have since become.
Before the world embarked on its neoliberal turn, last week’s victory in Seattle would not have stood out as much as it now does; it would not have seemed a big deal.
But, in the United States today, it is a big deal. It is a harbinger of changes coming – not so much at the policy level, though this is possible too, but in the politics of popular movements engaged in struggles to make the world more egalitarian and just.
Ever since the early days of the French Revolution, when the more radical delegates to the National Assembly took seats to the left of the speaker, “Left” has designated an evolving, but historically continuous, political orientation dedicated, as the slogan goes, to “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
Jesus is supposed to have said: “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2). The metaphor aptly describes the historical Left. The term designates an array of political configurations, many of them at odds with one another. What they share are common values and aspirations, and a common historical tradition.
With the end of Communism, the crisis of Social Democracy and the rise of neoliberalism, the Left tradition became frayed. One result of this is that today’s Left is much diminished. Another is that it has lost its bearings.
A lot of useless and counter-productive baggage has been discarded; this is all for the good. But most of the changes the Left brought upon itself have been disabling.
By the mid to late eighties, the two hundred year old Left tradition seemed to have expired. Struggles for peace and justice continued, of course; but, except for a few surviving dinosaurs, no one any longer attached much importance to what had been its most longstanding and secure points of reference.
For those who came of age politically after the turbulence of the late sixties and early seventies subsided, these fixed points hardly mattered at all.
Teaching at the University of Wisconsin, still one of America’s most politicized campuses, I lived through the transformation. Here are two signs of it:
* In the early and mid-seventies, a renowned historian of European socialism, Harvey Goldberg, the author of a well-known biography of Jean Jaurès, taught a course regularly attended by over six hundred people. Besides enrolled students, there were always auditors; often there were overflow crowds. Political groups set up literature tables at the door. It was a phenomenon. Goldberg was an outstanding, indeed mesmerizing, lecturer. But the main reason why his course was so extraordinarily popular was that students, many of whom came from deep in the American “heartland,” sought a connection to the global Left tradition – not out of any antiquarian interest, but because they sensed its pertinence to their lives, or rather to what they wanted their lives to be.
* In the late eighties, I taught a course called “Alternatives to Capitalism.” Needless to say, the number of students attending was smaller by many orders of magnitude, and would have been smaller still had not several surviving sectarian Left student organizations – Madison still had its share – attended (mainly to straighten me out and enlighten the others). At first, I was wary but, before long, I became grateful they were there because, as one thoughtful member of the ISO, the International Socialist Organization, was kind enough to point out: most of the students who were actually enrolled, the counterparts to many of Goldberg’s students a decade and a half earlier, had no idea why I was talking about socialism and other historical relics; they were there to learn about alternatives to a social order that they considered unseemly but unavoidable. As the ISO comrade put it, they wanted to think about alternatives to hanging out at the mall. This was a facetious way to make the point; but it was a helpful comment, and it was on track.
In What Is To Be Done, Lenin proclaimed: that “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary practice.” In the days when the sectarian left still flourished, it could seem that everyone disagreed with everyone about everything. But no one disagreed about that.
Whether or not Lenin was right, his point is hardly apt at a time when the very idea of “revolutionary practice” seems hopelessly outmoded or romanticized or both.
Nowadays, it would be far more relevant to say something like: “without a connection to an actively evolving, but historically continuous, Left tradition, there cannot even be a truly ameliorative reformist practice. There can only be expressions of indignation and unfocused, mainly expressive and ultimately ineffectual, efforts to set the world aright.”
This is why the struggle to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour in Seattle is so significant.
I don’t know what the connection is between Sawant’s socialism and the many strains of socialist theory and practice that used to populate the political landscape. Whatever it is, it is surely very attenuated, since those socialisms, without exception, defined themselves, in one way or another, with reference to Soviet and Chinese Communism.
With Soviet and Chinese Communism gone, the old sectarian disagreements have become moot.
Not so, the socialism of the pre-World War I period in the United States. For nearly a hundred years, that once mighty tradition has been in partial eclipse — living on only in forms that seemed too anodyne to have much appeal. But it wasn’t anodyne a century ago, and it needn’t be anodyne now.
Could Sawant and her co-thinkers be channeling the energy and vision of that long ago period – reviving it in a form that is serviceable today? It seems that they are.
Sawant is the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle since 1916, when Anna Louise Strong was elected to the School Board there. Strong is a renowned figure in socialist history, who went on to garner worldwide fame as a progressive journalist. Her writings on the Chinese Revolution remain indispensable.
Thanks to Sawant and the Socialist Alternative Party, the spirit of Anna Louise Strong now seems reborn. This is a reason – the first in a very long while – not to despair.
The genius of the $15/hour minimum wage is that news of it cannot be suppressed. The business press has to discuss it because it affects the bottom line of the readers they serve. And what is news for business, is news tout court.
Therefore, the filter that normally blocks out or otherwise minimizes reports of developments detrimental to the interests of the plutocrats our government serves won’t work in this case – not, anyway, with its usual thoroughness.
Because there were a few violent incidents associated with it, news of the Battle of Seattle got past the filter too. Corporate media love violence. It is titillating and always useful for discrediting opponents of injustice and inequality.
There is no comparable way to discredit a $15 dollar/hour minimum wage campaign, except by trotting out free market theologians to proclaim, for the umpteenth time, that whatever defies “market logic” is counter-productive and naïve.
By now, though, even people dumbed down by clueless pundits and narcotized by electoral politics have grown weary of free market theology. Like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Free Marketeers is dead.
The news may not yet have reached all quarters and its implications still haven’t registered fully even where the news has spread; but the fact remains.
Seattle is where the $15/hour movement first took hold. Socialist Alternative now has Chicago in its sights. A victory in the Second City, where Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is mayor, would be monumental – especially now, as Emanuel and his fellow Democrats are hard at work mustering their forces to foist Hillary Clinton upon the world.
But even if the movement goes no farther than it already has, what happened in Seattle is of enormously important if only as a source of inspiration for progressive politics in the months and years ahead. It shows what is still possible even in the Age of Obama.
It is exhilarating to hear a socialist office-holder in a major American city proudly identifying with the working class. This hasn’t happened in years. The more the class war rages, the more reluctant progressives have become even to name the sides.
The problem is not just Democratic Party politicians and their media flacks; union leaders too spout forth self-effacing, politically disabling, Clintonite prattle about “the great forgotten middle class.”
Even when they (gently) chide Democrats for promoting neoliberal trade policies that do grave harm to working people, it is, they say, for the sake of preserving “middle class jobs.”
But in Seattle, a proud socialist finally said enough – the time is past due for workers to recover their identity. How, after all, can they prevail, or even survive, in the class war, if the sides aren’t even properly named?
Sawant speaks as cogently as anyone has in recent years about the relation between battles, like the one in Seattle, and the larger aim of ridding the world of the evils of capitalism. This is precisely what Americans need to hear – working class Americans, above all.
“Despairing… when there was only injustice and no resistance.” We have had more than our share of that in recent decades. But not in Seattle, not last week. There a way forward became clear.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).