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Latest News
The GOPers Are Today's New Confederates, with Trump and Worse Waiting in the Wings.


We can criticize and oppose Biden where he's wrong and support him where he's right. But we must narrow the target and aim to defeat every Republican we can in the period ahead. It matters a great deal.
Biden’s Speech Pointed to a Possible
End to Reagan’s Rancid Legacy
Photo: President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the dais behind him.

BY William Rivers Pitt
Truthout

April 29, 2021 - Here in New Hampshire, the real governing is done at the town level by Boards of Selectmen, a council of elected officials who ride herd over the rawest, purest form of democracy practiced in the country. Majority vote rules, proposals are raised at “town meeting” and subsequently voted on by whoever raises their hand. Sometimes the room is packed, other times most seats go empty, but decisions are always made by the ones who show up.

Last night, for a brief moment, President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress looked like one of those New Hampshire town meetings. Here stands Biden, asking the Board for funds to purchase a new city plow so the streets can get cleared faster after a storm. Better for business and safer for families is his argument, and it is sound. Oscar Wilde would recognize the scene in an eyeblink.

The mirage, alas, was punctured by the image of Ted Cruz’s eyes rolling up in his head like a guy who’d spent too much time in Cancun. Yes, this was Congress in all of its squalid glory, the man at the podium was the president, but the difference between now and last year is the difference between a friendly shoulder rub and being devoured by a hammerhead shark.

“Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President,” said Biden as he began. Those words had never been spoken in that chamber before. It was an intense moment, a piece of long-awaited history, and seemed to promise a day to come when all three seats in that upper podium will be occupied by women.

As for the content of the speech, well, it was a time warp all its own. Biden’s list of policy proposals represents something of a rewiring of the American experience, from work to family to school to medicine and science, from transportation to elder care. Much of what he proposed came thanks to the sustained pressure of progressives, which started the minute Biden won the nomination.

It was that very slate of markedly progressive proposals that kept the Republicans in their seats as if they were nailed to them. Even behind his mask, the smile on Bernie Sanders’s face when Biden said, “Health care is a right, not a privilege,” could be seen from space.

Could Biden have asked for more in his proposals? Absolutely, and progressive members of the House are marshaling their forces to see if they can improve upon them. “Congressional Democrats are planning to pursue a massive expansion of Medicare as part of President Biden’s new $1.8 trillion economic relief package,” reports The New York Times, “defying the White House after it opted against including a major health overhaul as part of its plan.”

To underscore this effort, newly elected progressive House Rep. Jamaal Bowman offered a rare Democratic rebuttal to a speech delivered by a Democratic president. Bowman praised Biden for his accomplishments to date, before daring him to do more. “The proposals that President Biden has put forward over the last few weeks would represent important steps — but don’t go as big as we’d truly need in order to solve the crises of jobs, climate and care,” said Bowman. “We need to think bigger.”

“With Democratic control of Congress and the White House,” reports Sharon Zhang for Truthout, “Bowman said now is the time to pass the bold policies that he highlighted in his speech. He mentioned climate bills, such as the Green New Deal for Public Housing and Green New Deal for Cities, introduced earlier this month by fellow progressive colleagues, including Ocasio-Cortez, to provide funding for more climate-friendly public housing and cities. Bowman also drew attention to the THRIVE Act, a $10 trillion infrastructure and climate justice bill of which Bowman is a lead sponsor. The bill, Bowman said, could potentially create 15 million union jobs to help the U.S. economy bounce back while at the same time addressing the climate crisis and environmental justice issues.”

There will be more of this, you can count on it, because Biden to date has revealed a very important aspect of his leadership style: When it comes to some issues, at least, he can be pressured and he can be moved. Progressives in Congress intend to use their influence at this unique juncture to maximum effect.

Pundits on the non-Fox networks heaped praise upon Biden and his soft, unassuming delivery. After four years of screams and rants from that podium, an hour of just business, the people’s business, was a balm. Comparisons to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and even Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were bandied about.

The wind at Mr. Biden’s back, even with his slim congressional majorities, is the simple fact that his proposals are wildly popular.

The president can certainly take that as a compliment, but he ain’t no LBJ, and he ain’t no FDR. Not yet, anyway… and in a very important sense, he should hope to rise above those legacies if he can. Johnson’s grand plans were devoured by a ruinous war in Vietnam, and Roosevelt only achieved his lofty goals after cutting deals with racists and secessionists which exacerbated the horrors of the Jim Crow South.

The nose count does not favor the president at present. “Democratic senators had a 23-seat advantage during Roosevelt’s presidency and a 36-seat advantage during Johnson’s,” according to The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein. That, simply, makes legislative life a hell of a lot easier. Also, and not for nothing, but neither LBJ or FDR had a Joe Manchin lurking like a pulmonary embolism, waiting to find a place to clog up the works.

Biden’s slim majorities, and the short timetable to election 2022, make the road to fulfilling his intentions fraught with peril. Speeches like this are always wish lists. Last night, the president wished for the moon and stars. Now we see how much of it he can get.

The Republican rebuttal by Sen. Tim Scott provided a vivid counterpoint to the agenda set forth by the president. No policy ideas were offered beyond the rote recitation of right-wing culture war grievances. According to Scott, the violent divisions loose in this nation are the fault of Democrats. He said this in response to a speech delivered in the chamber that was sacked by hyper-violent Trump voters only four months ago. ...Read More
From the CCDS Socialist Education Project
New from Changemaker Publications

A China Reader
Edited by Duncan McFarland

A project of the CCDS Socialist Education Project and Online University of the Left
244 pages, $20 (discounts available for quantity), order at :


The book is a selection of essays offering keen insight into the nature of China and its social system, its internal debates, and its history. It includes several articles on the US and China and the growing efforts of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.

China's rise in the 21st century is of great significance for the world, socialism and communism, and the US Left, as well as the Chinese people. Yet understanding of China, even basic facts of Chinese history, is not good. The text provides historical background and political education by reprinting valuable articles and publishing new material. The book is based in the struggle and opposes imperialism, hegemonism and a new cold war on China. Contributors include activists, organic intellectuals and academics. We regard it necessary to consider both Chinese perspectives and US and Western views for balanced understanding.

Topics: New cold war and China's foreign policy; China's economy, socialism and capitalism; women founders of people-to-people friendship; towards a democratic and socialist way of life.

Authors and reviews include: Samir Amin, Gordon H. Chang, Carl Davidson, Cheng Enfu, Gary Hicks, Paul Krehbiel, Norman Markowitz, Duncan McFarland, VJ Prashad, Soong Qingling, Al Sargis, David Schweikart, Agnes Smedly, Helen Foster Snow, Anna Louise Strong, Harry Targ, Jude Woodward, Xi Jinping and others
Time to Choose: Democracy or Authoritarianism.
How to Stop Republicans from Stealing Elections

Senate Democrats have the power to end the filibuster and thereby allow the For the People Act to become law. It’s time for Democrats to unite on this, without hesitation.

By Robert Reich  
ROBERTREICH.ORG via Portside

April 29, 2021 -Republican-controlled state legislatures have introduced over 361 voter suppression bills in 47 states, and some states, like Georgia, have already enacted them into law. 

There’s only one way to stop this assault on our democracy. It’s called the FOR THE PEOPLE ACT, and the window for Congress to pass it is closing.

These Republican voter suppression bills are egregious—they shrink early voting periods, add onerous voter ID requirements, limit eligibility for mail-in ballots, ban ballot drop boxes and drive-through voting, and even make it a crime to give voters in line water.

The real purpose of these restrictions is to hamper voting by Black people, people of color, young people, and lower-income Americans.

The FOR THE PEOPLE ACT, on the other hand, would prevent these tactics and make it easier to vote. In addition, gerrymandering would be reduced and the power of small political donors would be amplified.

It could not come at a more critical time.

The Republican assault on our democracy is based on the lie that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Multiple recounts in battleground states like Georgia found nothing. Investigations by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department found nothing. 61 out of 62 courts found nothing.

Republicans claim they’re just listening to the concerns of their voters and restoring "trust" in our elections. Rubbish. The real purpose of these restrictions is to hamper voting by Black people, people of color, young people, and lower-income Americans. 

After Black voters and organizers in Georgia flipped the state blue for the first time in decades, the GOP is pulling out all the stops to prevent the same from happening in other states. The situation is even more dire given the upcoming once-in-a-decade redistricting process, allowing Republican-controlled states to further gerrymander congressional districts.

Their assault on the right to vote is a coordinated, national strategy led by top party leaders and outside dark-money advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation. That group is working directly with state legislatures to provide them with "model legislation" and gearing up to spend $24 million in eight states to advance these bills ahead of the midterms.

Unless the FOR THE PEOPLE ACT becomes law, these restrictive state bills will go into effect before the upcoming 2022 midterm elections and entrench Republican power for years to come. So it’s essential we protect voting rights now, while we still can. 

This is not a partisan fight. It’s a battle between forces that want to go backward to an era of Jim Crow, and the majority of Americans who want to build a more inclusive democracy.

Yet the FOR THE PEOPLE ACT faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of the archaic filibuster rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation.

The good news is Senate Democrats have the power to end the filibuster and thereby allow the FOR THE PEOPLE ACT to become law. It’s time for Democrats to unite on this, without hesitation. 

The stakes could not be higher. Simply put, it’s democracy or authoritarianism.

[Robert Reich, served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He is also co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." Reich's newest book is "The Common Good" (2019).] ...Read More

Perspectives from Havana:
Fouth Session: Poet and Writer Nancy Morejón


Week 4, May 4
 @ 6 pm - 7 pm Eastern


Like the rest of the world, Havana and Cuba have just completed
the first full year of Covid 19. It has done so with the full force of the U.S. embargo on its neck, including additional measures enacted by the Trump administration and so far not modified or removed by the Biden administration. What has Havana been like the past year? What is it like now? What have been the major challenges and achievements?

(only one registration is needed for the series)

Please join us to explore these and other questions with 5
leading voices from Cuba. All events start at 6 pm EDT.

April 13: From the Perspective of an Economist – Estéban Morales

April 20: From the Perspective of Science & Healthcare – Luis Montero Cabrera

April 27:  From the Perspective of a Sociologist and Feminist – Marta Nuñez

May 04: From the Perspective of a Poet and Writer – Nancy Morejón

May 11:  From the Perspective of the Next Generation — David Faya

Each week will start with a short presentation, followed by plenty of time for questions and dialogue. The discussion will be moderated by Cole Harrison (Massachusetts Peace Action), Sandra Levinson (Center for Cuban Studies), and Gloria Caballero (Latin American Solidarity Coalition of W. Mass)

At the close of each session, you will be given information and options for action to lift the Sanctions and end the Embargo, as well as ways in which you can get involved with the organizations sponsoring and co-sponsoring the series or hold
events and forums in your own community, institution, or organization.

Introductions: Merri Ansara in Havana

Main Sponsors: Massachusetts Peace Action (www.masspeaceaction.org), Center for Cuban Studies (www.centerforcubanstudies.org), Latin American Solidarity Coalition of Western Massachusetts (https://lascwm.org)

Other organizations are invited to co-sponsor the event, be asked to disseminate the event and provide information on follow-up actions and activities for the audience participants.

Building Communities of Solidarity
Rethinking a Multinational Labor Strategy
Photo: Youth from the Florencia barrio of South Central Los Angeles arrive at Belvedere Park for La Marcha Por La Justicia, on January 31, 1971. Credit: Luis C. Garza - UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, Public Domain.


By Fernando E. Gapasin, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Bill Gallegos
Monthly Review

April 1, 2021 - Fernando E. Gapasin is a former professor of industrial relations and Chicanx studies. He was the principal researcher for the AFL-CIO Union Cities program. He has fifty-seven years of activism in the U.S. labor movement. He has led local unions and central labor councils. He is co-author, with Bill Fletcher Jr., of Solidarity Divided. Bill Fletcher Jr. is a writer, longtime trade unionist, and former president of TransAfrica Forum. Bill Gallegos is a longtime Chicano liberation and environmental justice activist. He is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.

Bill Fletcher Jr. and Bill Gallegos: What inspired you to become an activist?

Fernando E. Gapasin: I was inspired by anger. During the Second World War, my parents worked in the shipyards in Richmond, California, building Liberty Ships. My mother was a Rosie the Riveter. When veterans returned, women and minorities were laid off. We returned to the fields. We traveled as a family group up and down Highway 99. We usually camped together and when we arrived at any town, we always had to be sure to stay in the “colored” part of town. You had to be careful. Signs, like “No Mexicans, Filipinos, or dogs,” guided our travels. Getting beat up or even killed could be the consequence of being in the wrong part of town. At restaurants, Filipinos and Mexicans could only get food to go. I remember watching my father being refused lodging and how humiliating it was for him. I remember the lack of respect, the insults—greasers, beaners, monkeys, chinks. Whatever we yelled back never seemed sufficient. My father taught me to hunt, fish, and survive in the wild. He was a proud man. I remember throwing rocks at one of the white bosses who scolded him and treated him like a child. We were all fired and forced to leave the ranch. I learned to hold onto anger and channel it differently. My activism was driven by emotion, a visceral response to the humiliation suffered by my family.

I learned family history at social gatherings (adults drinking cheap wine and playing cards). I learned how my grandfather, a guerrilla commander in the Philippines, his brother, and one of my uncles died in the resistance against the Japanese. And from the old men who boasted about riding with Pancho Villa. Once when we were told to go back to Mexico, one of my uncles shouted that California was part of Mexico and that white people were the trespassers.

In 1952, we returned to the Bay Area. I grew up in an all African-American neighborhood. South Berkeley bordered West Oakland. When I was 13, my friends and I met brother Harold X. He taught us about the racial hierarchy in the United States and, using a broom as a prop, he taught us how racial hierarchy is socially created and—flipping the broom—could be recreated differently. He recruited us into the Nation of Islam. Later, after Malcolm X’s murder and Elijah’s death, there was a violent split in the Nation; brother Harold was murdered in his home. When I first studied Marxism-Leninism, I thought I had found the tools to change the racial hierarchy in the United States.

BF and BG: Philip Vera Cruz, the famous United Farm Workers (UFW) leader, was your uncle. What do you remember about him?

FG: He was a symbol of democracy. He was the international cochair in opposition to martial law in the Philippines. His teachings became part of my DNA, but I did not realize it until I was older and was introduced to socialist politics. Uncle Philip attended Gonzaga University, where he was introduced to the Industrial Workers of the World. He was the family intellectual, always reading and talking about capitalism, socialism, and building united fronts against attacks on immigrants. I was the only kid in the family who listened to him. He was a great orator. He organized farmworkers years before the UFW. He and his best friend Benny Vasquez were like Batman and Robin, heroes to campesinos in the tomato fields. Benny was shot twice by growers when he was organizing. I loved the action stories, but I never saw myself being an organizer. The war stories I heard from my relatives about jungle warfare and parachuting behind enemy lines in Korea were exciting, but I did not want to be a soldier either. Turns out, I became both. One, I try to forget about; the other became my duty in life.

BF and BG: Can you talk about some of your experiences with the UFW union?

FG: In 1974, I helped organize a strike of Mexican mushroom workers in Morgan Hill, a rural town, just south of San Jose. For two months, workers and community supporters walked the picket lines. Without telling us organizers, La Paz (UFW headquarters) called in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, la migra, on our strike. Cesar Chávez thought sin papeles (undocumented workers) were scabbing. In fact, because of the strong community support, our strike participation was 100 percent—no one crossed our line. Half of our strikers did not have papers. We were alerted about the raid from a local congressman’s office. We saved our people from it. The company did bring in African-American workers recruited from Oakland to break the strike. They rolled up with buses equipped with cow catchers. We formed a human barricade and blocked them. The scab contractor, Angie Davis, vowed to return with “hard heads” that would bust us up. With the help of our United Auto Workers (UAW) friends, the next day we mobilized one thousand people from the surrounding working-class communities to stop the scabs.

Violence erupted when the buses tried to run us over. We stood firm, with dozens of us going to jail. The San Jose Mercury called it the “Battle at Steakmate.” Steakmate got an injunction that limited our picket lines, but we continued to picket. The UFW ended the strike after four months, alleging violence and needing organizers for building the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and lobbying work in Sacramento. Our strike became a boycott of Purina products. The memory of the courage of the workers and community supporters standing together was branded into the souls of workers in Morgan Hill and, two years later, they organized again; this time they won. I learned that when a community cares about workers, they can win.

BF and BG: As well as being a labor organizer, you have also had an extensive career in academia. What caused you to forsake the academy to go back to labor organizing?

FG: Forsake is not the term I would use. Returning from a long vacation is more accurate. I became an academic because I was burned out. I wrote my dissertation as an attempt to understand what I learned as a union and Chicano activist. I participated in my first strike in 1963, when I was a 17-year-old dishwasher at Washington Township Hospital in Fremont. I became a union steward in the hospital kitchen when our union, the Hospital Workers union, later Service Employees International Union 250, struck for recognition. We won after nearly a month on strike. From there, I went to work at Ford Milpitas. I flunked out of college. I went to Vietnam as a combat medic. I returned to the world in 1968. I got married, built a family, and while finishing college got involved in the Chicanx movement. I went to law school and was part of the Chicanx movement in San Jose. I was part of the San Jose contingent in the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. I was expelled for striking against the law school to get minority admissions. I joined the Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida and learned about Marxism-Leninism.

After that, I dedicated myself to ending racism and building worker power by building democratic working-class organizations from the bottom up. I fought many battles, winning some, but mostly losing. I was a rank-and-file member organizer in several unions, such as the UFW, UAW, United Steelworkers, California Nurses Association, International Association of Machinists, and Service Employees International Union. I was part of the union caucus movement, specifically in the UAW and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

The caucus movements railed against undemocratic union bureaucracies, organized reform movements to “dump the chumps,” and moved to organize the unorganized. The caucus movement succeeded in bringing people of color and women into power in unions. The most well-known caucuses were the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, New Directions Caucus, and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The union caucus movements were also the impetus for the development of the Labor Research Review (a journal of insightful and practical labor research) and Labor Notes (publication and activist center of the U.S. labor movement).

In auto, I helped build the caucus movement, served on the UAW bargaining committee, and fought the concessions being negotiated by UAW leaders. I was laid off in the late 1970s. I then did some “hot shop” organizing and “salting” for the International Association of Machinists and Communications Workers of America and ended up like many laid off autoworkers at the Santa Clara Transportation Agency.1 As a mechanic, I became a member of ATU 265, which is where my real story begins.

It was there that I began to realize that the assumptions of Marxist-Leninist analysis were limited and, thus, I began to use what has been called an “intersectional” analysis. Namely, I saw how different forms of oppression, based on race, gender, and occupation, intersected to create the structure of a workplace. Using this analytic tool and the base created by laid off autoworkers and friends in the Chicanx movement, we organized the already growing, but divided, dissident movements within ATU 265.

For generations, the union had been run by white men. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the creation of the Urban Mass Transportation Act, ATU 265 grew from having 120 members to over 2,000, with people of color and women hired in large numbers. We also restructured the union constitution to include representation by occupation, which further aided racial and gender diversity. We negotiated the best contract in the ATU. More significantly, it made us influential participants in county, state, and national politics (such as when Bill Clinton appointed our central labor council business manager, Rick Sawyer, to represent the U.S. Department of Labor on the west coast).

ATU 265 was able to bring its new energy into the Santa Clara County Labor Council (CLC). This CLC had a long history of progressive politics, having led a statewide movement in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rank-and-file leaders like Virginia Muir and Fred Hirsch carried the traditions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and Business Managers like Peter Cervantes-Gauchi, Sawyer, and later Amy Dean brought the union movement into the leadership of the Santa Clara Democratic Party. ATU provided political money and activists.

In 1984, I was elected secretary-treasurer, the second-highest elected position. Our local political clout advanced our organizing and vice versa. Our downtown organizing project brought together core activists from different unions to organize all the major hotels and most of the restaurants in downtown San Jose, in some cases using “card check” elections.2 During much of this time, the union that had jurisdiction, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union 19, was out of commission, so organizing took place under the name of the Santa Clara County Labor Council. In 1996, my CLC became the model for the national American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO) Union Cities project.

I was urged to run for political office. I was introduced to Silicon Valley executives and Democratic Party leaders statewide. I was convinced to run for the San Jose City Council. Local business interests and the funders of the Democratic Party began to tell me what they wanted for their support. I went to one too many cocktail parties hosted by the rich white folks in Santa Clara County and decided to drop out of the race. I was not ready for all the slime. I felt like I was losing my revolutionary soul, so I decided to go into academia.

While in graduate school, I organized professors for the AFT. After my PhD, in 1994, I went to Penn State as an assistant professor of industrial relations. I was advised that it was the best place to start to eventually get a job in the Ivy League. At Penn State, I met Howard Wial, a brilliant Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Yale lawyer, who also believed that unions were essential to U.S. democracy. We conducted a national study to determine the capacity of labor councils to implement labor organizing projects like the ones in my CLC. Our findings were published in Organizing to Win, a book that was instrumental in moving the AFL-CIO toward an organizing model. Our piece, “The Role of Central Labor Councils in Union Organizing in the 1990s,” captured the attention of the new AFL-CIO leadership because it framed the labor federation’s potential for community and regional organizing. Consequently, I was hired by the AFL-CIO as the principal researcher to assess the potential of the 602 CLCs to conduct organizing campaigns and build labor’s political power.

My research revealed eight characteristics of successful CLCs that became the pillars of the Union Cities project: (1) Organizing for change, changing to organize, (2) mobilizing against anti-union employers, (3) building political power and community coalitions, (4) promoting economic growth, protecting our communities, (5) educating union members in pocketbook economics, (6) generating support for the right to organize, (7) making sure our leadership mirrors the faces of our members, and (8) encouraging all local unions to increase their membership. (See “The AFL-CIO’s Road to Union City: A Bold Plan to Move Unions to the Left” in WorkingUSA 13 [2010]). I helped organize John Sweeney’s “coming out party,” a thirty-thousand-person march through Watsonville, California, to support UFW strawberry-worker organizing in 1997. Placed in a historical context, I believe Union Cities created a cultural foundation for strategies that are and will advance social and economic justice and organize workers.

Union Cities began in 131 communities. Los Angeles was a pivotal city because 17 percent of the U.S. economy passed through its Alameda Corridor. Since its inception, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor had been led by conservative union leaders who followed George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO. Union density in the city in 1996 was about 12 percent compared to the national average of 15 percent.

The principal officer of the CLC, James Wood, had just died. After a contentious, racially charged process, Miguel Contreras (former organizer and boycott leader in Canada for the UFW and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union National Representative) emerged as the new executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LACFL). If Union Cities succeeded in Los Angeles, it could be a model for the rest of the labor movement. I joined the University of California Los Angeles labor center and became an associate professor at the Cesar Chávez Center for Chicano Studies. I also became president of a child care union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 1108.

BF and BG: Those positions connected you to the Chicanx liberation struggle, as well as to the local labor movement. What are some lessons from that experience?

FG: Renaldo Macias, chair of Chicano studies at the University of California Los Angeles, and I had an ongoing discussion. I believed that the UFW belonged, ideologically, to the Chicanx Movement. Macias felt these were two movements that had sympathetic interconnections but were distinct. I argued that strategic and theoretical errors are made when one tries to separate issues of race and class in the United States. I used the Steakmate strike as an example. I never stopped believing that the UFW was part of the Chicanx movement.

At the university, I helped the students establish a permanent Chicanx Studies Department, the Cesar E. Chávez Center. I became the Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicana/Chicanos de Aztlán (MEChA) faculty advisor because of my history in MEChA. I soon became the Southern California chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies. I was also a founding member of the New Raza Left, an initiative to unite different sectors of the Chicanx left around a liberatory vision and program. Macias appointed me as service/learning coordinator and tasked me with developing classes that would link students with Los Angeles community issues. My students became part of the Union Cities project. ...Read More


The Cybernetic Socialism of Norbert Wiener
 

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise—who knows? –Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, 1948

By Greg Adamson
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal 

These profoundly radical words from Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) echo Malcolm X’s call to address structural racism in society “by any means necessary”. Yet Wiener is hardly known as a revolutionary. In fact, by the beginning of the 21st century his name was hardly known at all. Given that he is arguably the foremost 20th century thinker and commentator on the relationship between technology and society, this is unfortunate.

Norbert Wiener was a child prodigy, a postdoctoral student of Bertrand Russell, and a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) academic. Following World War II, Wiener founded the field he called cybernetics, publishing a book by that name in 1948 that made him a global celebrity. Cybernetics has since entered the English language through words such as cyborg (cybernetic organism), cyberspace, cybersecurity, cyber-physical, and many variations.

Significant thinkers who reflect his influence include Jawaharlal Nehru, Margaret Mead, Kurt Vonnegut, Marshall McLuhan, Amar Bose, Philip K Dick, and Donna Haraway. Technology fields he significantly influenced include artificial intelligence, control systems theory, chaos theory, measurement theory, and filter theory (used for many purposes, including the measurement of gravitational waves). Terms he popularized include system, black box, and feedback. 

Wiener was also a highly aware social critic. He was a founder of the field of computer ethics (which is increasingly important politically), a thoughtful anti-racist, an anti-imperialist in foreign policy, and a commentator on environmental destruction, which he linked to capitalism. He spent much of the 1950s raising awareness about the effect of automation on jobs, including personally approaching trade unions and discussing the implications of technological change on entire fields of work. His disappearance from popular discourse shortly after his death in 1964 can in large part be traced to his call for scientists to reject military funding, part of his larger attack on what he termed “megabuck science”.

Global perspective

Much of Wiener’s writing on technology and society concerns the field of ethics. This is highly relevant in the current era of trillion-dollar social media monopolies. Wiener’s writings on manipulation are far more sweeping than those of most modern commentators, reflecting his “systems” approach to society, as well as to technology:

  • This policy of lies—or rather, of statements irrelevant to the truth—will make him buy a particular brand of cigarettes; that policy will, or so the party hopes, induce him to vote for a particular candidate—any candidate—or to join in a political witch hunt. A certain precise mixture of religion, pornography, and pseudo-science will sell an illustrated newspaper. A certain blend of wheedling, bribery, and intimidation will induce a young scientist to work on guided missiles or the atomic bomb (1948, p.186).

Along with other leading intellectuals, Wiener was appalled by the United States’ use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in 1945. He was unusual among technologists, however, in generalizing this concern as a theory stating that technologists have an individual ethical responsibility for the uses made of their work. In a letter published as “A scientist rebels” in the January 1947 Atlantic Monthly he writes:

  • The policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the established custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may inquire of him. The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends with the responsibility for having put unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use. It is perfectly clear also that to disseminate information about a weapon in the present state of our civilization is to make it practically certain that the weapon will be used… If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples—and I most certainly do not—I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas (1947).

Wiener also made an observation that continues to haunt military organizations today: “… in the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies” (1954). Even if the enemy is unable to spy, steal, coerce, observe or in some other way discover the design of the weapon, its very existence proves the weapon’s feasibility. The cost of weapons development is largely spent establishing such feasibility. Applying that knowledge to then build the weapon requires far less effort.

Wiener was also fiercely critical of the international division of labor that relegated old technologies and inferior jobs to the Third World. Working with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis at the Indian Statistical Institute, he actively sought to assist India in developing modern industrial techniques, and his influence can be seen in the success of the Indian IT industry: 

  • The automatic factory makes its demands on human efforts not at the bottom but at the very high level of the scientist-engineer and at the relatively high level of the small group of highly skilled trouble shooters and maintenance workers. It is quite in the cards that India can supply both of these within a matter of decades ... (1956, p.354-56)

Wiener and politics

What were Wiener’s political views? While declaring his atheism at the age of five (1953, p.42), he took care to avoid political labels. His own term, cybernetics, created and defined by himself, provided no hint. Wiener refused to engage in red-baiting and attacking Communists, and threatened to resign from MIT if they sacked a colleague for Communist affiliations. At the height of the Cold War he wrote:

  • That after the defeat of Nazism the Communists have become the chief fear of the West and that they have behaved with much of the tyranny of the aggressors that they have replaced does not change in the least the fact that some of the things they stood for in the period between the wars belong to the attitudes of every decent man (1956, p.219).

Under Stalin in the post-war period, Soviet science was entangled with the pseudoscience of Lysenko. This drove a wedge between the Soviet Union and Western scientists. Until the mid-1950s cybernetics was attacked as a “bourgeois perversion … to transform workers into an extension of the machine” (Conway & Siegelman, 2005, p.315). Wiener summed up his view as follows: “The thesis which I wish to maintain is neither pro- nor anticommunist but antirigidity” (1964, p.84).

Cybernetics later achieved significant attention in the Soviet Union, while struggling with bureaucratic governmental structures (Gerovitch 2002). Beyond the Soviet Union, one of the most successful early cybernetic applications was in Chile under President Salvador Allende, led by English business theorist Stafford Beer (Medina 2011). Halted by the coup in 1973, the communication network provided early internet-style connectivity in coordinating national production in the face of anti-government industry sabotage.

Given that Wiener himself refrained from using standard political labels, it is necessary to look at Wiener’s approach to political and societal events to classify his views. His views were thoroughly documented. A child prodigy, Wiener suffered bouts of depression throughout his life. In the 1950s he was advised to explore autobiographical writing, prompting two books, Ex-prodigy and I am a mathematician. Combining his blunt style of popular writing and his extensive thinking on social issues, Wiener expresses his views in unambiguous terms.

On discrimination, he wrote: “With my wide acquaintance among scholars of many races and many countries, I had not been able to discern that scientific ability and moral discipline were the peculiar property of those of blanched skin and English speech” (1956, p.301). He argued this view as part of his wider perspective: “I do not pretend to assign a normative value either to language or religion or race or nationalism, and least of all to mores” (1953, p.9). 

Beyond asserting the value of all people and cultures, Wiener attacked racism in his own country. Speaking about the goals of communication in a social sense he wrote: “I will not say that this ideal of communication is attained in the United States. Until white supremacy ceases to belong to the creed of a large part of the country it will be an ideal from which we fall short” (1954, p.50).

In much of his work, Wiener expressed anti-racist views based on his personal interactions with others:

I had read enough of Kipling to know the English imperialist attitude, and I already had enough Hindu friends to realize how bitterly this attitude was resented. My Chinese friends spoke with me very frankly concerning the aggressions of the Western nations in China, and I had only to use my eyes and ears to know something of the situation of the Negro in this country, particularly if he aspires to be something more than a farm hand or an unskilled worker (1953, p.154-55).

In the first volume of his autobiography, Wiener described the evolution of his views on prejudice, after discovering at 15 that he was Jewish. This example shows both his naivety, and the consistency of his thought once he determined a path of investigation. The conclusion he reached was one based on humanist principle rather than self-interest:

  • The net result was that I could only feel at peace with myself if I hated anti-Jewish prejudice as prejudice without having the first emphasis on the fact that it was directed against the group to which I belonged. I felt anything less than this as a demand for special privilege by myself and by those about me. But in resisting prejudice against the Oriental, prejudice against the Catholic, prejudice against the immigrant, prejudice against the Negro, I felt that I had a sound basis on which to resist prejudice against the Jew as well. For a long time I had been interested in my fellow students from the Orient and from other foreign countries, and I now saw their problems as parallel to my own and, in many cases, far deeper and more difficult (1953, p.155).

He did not equate opposition to prejudice against Jews with support for Zionism. He summarized his disagreement with the founding of the state of Israel by citing his father: “My father foresaw the difficulties which have arisen since then from the superimposition of a Jewish colony upon a Moslem background” (1953, p.56).

By the conclusion of World War II, Wiener’s views had moved from personal experience and general concern to an outspoken position that remains profound nearly seven decades later:

  • Now we hear news statements to the effect that when the United States used the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, it took a calculated risk. Who, may I ask, were the actuaries who determined this risk? To employ the atomic bomb involved an estimate not merely of its killing power, but of its emotional impact on the Japanese and, even more, of its emotional impact on all those members of non-European races who were quite sure that the United States would employ it differently against Asiatics and blacks (1993, pp.113-14).

Here he shows us the method he applied to technology and social questions, and which provided the basis of his radical views: “If a theorem merely looks grotesque or unusual and if your maximum effort cannot discover any contradiction, do not cast it aside. If the only thing that seems to be wrong about a proof is its unconventionality, then dare to accept it, unconventionality and all” (1956, p. 359).

Wiener and the progressive movement
Wiener’s concerns, particularly regarding the future of work under capitalism, were widely, if briefly, cited in contemporary progressive publications. For example, references to Wiener during his lifetime on the Marxists.org web site (http://marxists.org) website are universally positive. Wiener on several occasions engaged with the union movement in the United States over the impending impact of automation. He approached a leader of the typographers’ union with a warning that the profession would be automated in a generation (which it was) but was basically ignored. He later commented, “The union official comes too directly from the workbench, and is too immediately concerned with the difficult and highly technical problems of shop stewardship, to be able to entertain any very forward-looking considerations of the future of his own craft” (1956, p.308). ...Read More
Key to Strategy #1: Know Your Enemy

Photo: On a day that saw Minnesota break a record high of 8,703 COVID cases, far-right conspiracy theorists QAnon and “Stop The Steal” followers stood maskless shoulder to shoulder outside the Minnesota State Capitol. Speakers led the crowd in bizarre COVID/election chants. Taken in St. Paul, MN, Nov. 14, 2020. Photo by Chad Davis, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

To 'know' our enemy, we need to grasp its essential character, its strengths, and its vulnerabilities. That translates today into getting the clearest possible picture of the racist and authoritarian coalition that has 'Make America Great Again'.

By Max Elbaum
ORGANIZING UPGRADE

April 26, 2021 - Sun Tzu’s famous dictum about how to prevail in war applies to politics too. We have to know our enemy and know ourselves.

For the know-our-enemy part, understanding the underlying system we are up against is essential. But it is only a starting point. On the terrain of politics, partisans of social justice do not fight capitalism as such. Rather, we contend with specific political actors who have agendas different from ours. First and foremost, we square off against whatever specific bloc constitutes the biggest obstacle to winning the democratic and socio-economic gains that are the flashpoints of contention in any given period.

To “know” that enemy, we need to grasp its essential character, its strengths, and its vulnerabilities.

That translates today into getting the clearest possible picture of the racist and authoritarian coalition that has “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on its banner.

THE GOP IS A PARTY-FOR-DICTATORSHIP'

The MAGA bloc has many features, but its core is identified in a recent article by Bill Fletcher, Jr: The MAGA movement has captured the Republican Party and turned it “from being a hard right-wing party to becoming a party-for-dictatorship.”

Today’s GOP disdains democracy and aims to impose long-term rule by a minority of the population. Republicans’ unanimous support for voter suppression is the clearest example. As the Washington Post put it:

  • “The GOP’s national push to enact hundreds of new election restrictions could strain every available method of voting for tens of millions of Americans, potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men.”

The classic authoritarian weapon, the Big Lie, fuels the GOP’s campaign to prevent millions from voting. Despite copious evidence to the contrary, 60% of Republicans say the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. And as Trump continues to push this fictional justification for voter suppression, 81% of Republicans maintain a favorable opinion of him, and the GOP Senate leadership gave him their newly created Champion of Freedom Award.

MAGA MANTRA: THE 'GREAT REPLACEMENT'

The passionate loyalty to facts-be-damned thinking in the core of the MAGA bloc is rooted in racism. Even the racist bullhorns that replaced earlier dog whistles are no longer enough for top MAGA spokespeople: Fox News star Tucker Carlson, whose name has been floated as a possible Trump-backed 2024 presidential candidate, now overtly links the curtailment of voting rights with the “Great Replacement” theory.

According to Carlson, “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”

Carlson’s remarks were too much even for groups as backward as the Anti-Defamation League. ADL head Joseph Greenblatt noted the Replacement Theory’s roots in the fever swamps of racist and anti-Semitic hate-mongers and called for Carlson’s resignation. Fox News defended Carlson, Republican leaders stayed silent, and Media Matters reports that since Carlson opened the door the Replacement Theory is “all over” Fox News.

WHO IS A 'REAL AMERICAN'?

The GOP’s transformation into a party of racist authoritarianism did not start with Donald Trump. It’s been underway since the backlash against the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s began five decades ago. But the Great Recession following the 2008 financial crisis and the way the election of the first Black President catapulted demographic change onto the consciousness of racially anxious whites created a tipping point.

Trump’s succeeded because he was willing to burst through previous “norms” and make sentiments that had been cultivated among Republicans for decades the centerpiece of his drive for power. Those sentiments – which define who is a “real American” in a very particular way – are rooted in how white supremacy was structured into U.S. society from its inception. Finian O’Toole in the New York Review of Books explains:

  • “It is not wrong to call the allegations of a rigged election the “big lie” of Trumpism…But it’s a lie that was already there.… it is both old and mass-produced, made by fusing the idea of entitlement to privilege – which is being stolen from white Americans by traitors, Blacks, immigrants, and socialists – with the absolute distinction between real and unreal Americans. The concern is not, at heart, that there are bogus votes, but that there are bogus voters, that much of the U.S. is inhabited by people who are, politically speaking, counterfeit citizens.”

MAGA CORE: MIDDLE- AND UPPER-CLASS WHITES

Despite endless punditry about Trump’s base in the working class, the forces driving the Trumpist project are predominantly from the middle and upper classes. A cohort of right-wing billionaires and chieftains in the fossil fuel industry have bankrolled Trumpism’s ascent from the Tea Party through “Birtherism” to the presidency. The owners and leading figures in the right-wing media machine (Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax, Sinclair Broadcasting, Talk Radio) are swimming in dollars. The social layer that is most committed to turning out when their cult leader issues the call is revealed by a recent study of the January 6 “insurrectionists”:

  • “Most of the people who took part in the assault came from places… that were awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture… You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.’”

Large numbers of workers who are white also have gathered under the Trumpist banner. All too many have embraced its most racist and conspiracy-mongering aspects. And many others are vulnerable to endlessly repeated GOP arguments. But except in the rhetoric used by some of its pitchmen, MAGA is not a movement driven by a workers’ upsurge from below.

A RIGGED SYSTEM

The “survival-of-white-Christian-America-is-at-stake” belief that permeates today’s Republican Party is a powerful force. And it doesn’t act only in the electoral arena. The MAGA core has an armed wing: a combination of non-state militias and members of police forces, ICE, and the military under its influence. Throughout U.S. history, denying the vote to people of color and repression via state and non-state violence has been the combination of choice for defenders of white supremacy and capitalism.

But for the next four years and likely longer, the outcome of electoral battles will determine whether the country descends into dictatorship or takes a path toward multiracial democracy and economic transformation.

The electoral terrain we are forced to fight on is rigged in the GOP’s favor. The structure of both the Electoral College and the Senate favors small-population states that are overwhelmingly white. The Electoral College skew allowed Trump to win in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by three million. If in 2020 fewer than 100,000 votes had switched columns in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, Trump would have won re-election despite losing the popular vote by double that amount. The Senate is split 50-50 but the 50 Republican senators represent 41 million fewer people than the 50 Democratic senators.

A federal system that gives considerable power to state governments likewise favors the GOP. Gerrymandering gives the GOP extra power in a society where Democratic and progressive voters are concentrated in compact urban areas while rural and exurban areas are largely Republican. This increases GOP representation in the House and tilts state legislatures in their direction. The result is today’s epidemic of state-level attacks on voting rights and moves to criminalize protest movements of all types.

STILL NOT ENOUGH FOR GOP TO WIN

But even in a system rigged in their favor, the MAGA core falls short of what it takes to ensure dominance through electoral means. With only 35-40% of the electorate, they need to win additional constituencies to vote their way. The GOP leadership has all but given up on gaining a popular majority nationwide. But they do aim to win enough support from wavering sectors that – combined with suppressing the votes of others – can assure them control of every branch of the federal government.

Key GOP operatives use sophisticated means and messaging to accomplish this goal.

Latino voters have long been a particular target. Libre, an arm of the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity” effort, has been working for a decade to bring Latino voters into the Republican column. Well-funded, with an extensive field operation and systematic cultivation of small business owners and churchgoers, Libre claims credit for Trump’s better-than-(some)-expected showing among Latinos in 2020, especially in Texas and Florida.

Methodical work in specific geographic areas – impoverished rural communities, “rust-belt” cities – is also a GOP staple. Where once-strong trade unions or Democratic Party organizations have atrophied or disappeared, the GOP has moved in. For many residents, mainly but not only whites, but mega-churches linked via their ministers to right-wing politics are also the only civic organizations available. Voting for the GOP is not an on-ramp requirement, but after being in the fold for some time it can simply become another feature of belonging to that community.

MAGA strategists and media stars have mastered the art of spreading disinformation and fanning people’s fears. Niche efforts are aimed at Black men saying that immigrants are taking their jobs. Campaigns are focused on specific Asian or Latino nationalities casting the GOP as their defenders against a repeat of what were, for some, traumatic many feel were oppressive experiences under left-led governments.

The latter build on decades of messaging from both major parties that equates socialism and communism with dictatorship. The current campaign to demonize China is only the latest iteration of this longstanding pattern. Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns dented the power of that prejudice somewhat. But there remain millions of Americans of all races and nationalities who support specific programs advocated by the left but still regard socialists as dangerous and power-hungry.

GOP leaders also excel at coordinating their tactics in Congress with their long-range drive for political power: Obstruct every step that might benefit working and poor people; starve and undermine government programs and services that do anything for the public good; and then use the failures of those under-resourced programs to promote privatization and demonize Democrats or progressives who support social programs. It is also the GOP’s lockstep commitment to obstructing everything that gives undue leverage to the most backward Democratic congresspeople (such as Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema), yielding the GOP both policy and political gains.

CHINKS IN THE GOP ARMOR

For every MAGA move to expand their base, though, there is a corresponding vulnerability.

There is a tension between supplying enough racist red meat to keep the diehard MAGA core happy and keeping needed sectors of peoples of color in the GOP tent.

It is risky to rely on demonizing the Biden administration to win votes when a significant proportion of the GOP base supports its legislative initiatives. (About 40% of Republicans supported the American Rescue Plan.)

A party that places its biggest electoral bet on a shrinking demographic sector (older white people) while giving less attention to growing sectors of the population and to youth tends to be on unstable footing for the medium and long run.

Obstructing every step that might give even a small measure of economic benefit to working and poor people while fighting for tax cuts for rich people is not easily squared with Republicans’ current attempt to rebrand themselves as the party of working-class America. U.S. history includes moments when the combination of hardship and contact with organizers who work for the liberation of all has spurred many whites to question pre-existing prejudices and turn in the direction of cross-racial solidarity. The number of people today grappling with how to repeat them with even greater strength and durability is larger than at any time since the 1960s.

KNOW OURSELVES

Developing a battle plan to neutralize the MAGA movement’s strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses – and then successfully implementing it – is a big challenge. It is further complicated by the fact that among those opposed to Trumpism, the progressive and left forces are only one contingent, and not (yet) the strongest one at that. To formulate the outline of a winning strategy, therefore, requires an assessment of the balance of forces among those who are fighting authoritarianism as well as between the “party-for-dictatorship” and all those against it.

So the next installment of this column will take a look at ourselves.

Max Elbaum has been active in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since the 1960s. He is an editor of Organizing Upgrade and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018). ...Read More
NEOLIBERALISM IS EXHAUSTED

Hewlett Foundation announces new, five-year $50 million Economy and Society
Initiative to support growing a movement to replace neoliberalism

December 8, 2020  - Menlo Park, Calif. — The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation today announced a five-year, $50 million commitment to help develop a new intellectual paradigm to replace neoliberalism—the framework that has dominated our economic and political debates for more than forty years. The new Economy and Society Initiative will help develop a new “common sense” about how the relationship between governments, markets, and people should be structured to meet society’s biggest challenges.

“Neoliberalism’s emphasis on free-market absolutism has outlived its usefulness, as evidenced by the fact that it’s worsening some of our biggest problems, like skyrocketing wealth inequality and the unfolding climate crisis. But addressing problems like these requires more than one-off policy ideas, activist pressure, and incremental change. We need a new way of thinking about policy, law, and the proper role of government to shift the underlying terms of debate and open up space for solutions that neoliberalism is currently choking off,” Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer said.

The Hewlett Foundation undertook an exploratory grantmaking effort two years ago to learn more about growing movements to forge alternatives to neoliberalism. It found academics, think tanks, advocates, and others—on both the right and left, in the United States and internationally—advancing such ideas. Proposals being investigated included the end of unchecked free trade; renewed interest in industrial policy and antitrust; “pre-distribution” rather than redistribution efforts; and solutions to climate change that go beyond what markets can do. But these ideas and their proponents have yet to cohere into a holistic intellectual framework and movement in the way neoliberalism did a half-century ago. So, in addition to funding the generation of creative new ideas, the Hewlett Foundation will work to tie these ideas together into a coherent intellectual framework and movement to supersede neoliberalism, one better capable of addressing society’s most pressing problems, from economic and racial inequality, to climate change.

In launching this new initiative, the Hewlett Foundation is mindful of how an earlier generation of funders helped create, nurture, and promote neoliberalism. The remarkable success of their philanthropic effort was enabled by their focus on big ideas, and it offers valuable lessons for our work today. Just as philanthropy effectively spurred the development and ascendance of neoliberalism, the Hewlett Foundation will support an ideologically diverse set of ideas and thinkers capable of leading a shift every bit as widespread and profound.

“The Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative is joining a growing movement of ideas. We want to support the people and organizations building a new understanding of how the economy works, the aims it should serve, and how it should be structured to serve those aims,” Jennifer Harris, director of the Economy and Society Initiative, said. “It’s not our job to come up with the final form of a successor to neoliberalism, it’s our job to seed the debates, ideas, and iterative thinking that can get us there.”

The Hewlett Foundation is joined by a growing group of funders interested in nurturing a movement to supersede neoliberalism.

Since 2018, the Hewlett Foundation’s exploratory effort to develop new ideas in economic and political thought has awarded nearly than $20 million in grants to a diverse set of recipients, including Oren Cass of American Compass, Rev. William Barber II’s Repairers of the Breach, and the Roosevelt Institute, led by Felicia Wong. The new Economy and Society Initiative will continue to support the cultivation of ideas for replacing the current paradigm—wherever they come from. The Initiative will fund thinkers and organizations in the United States and abroad, with the aim of supporting ideas that reach beyond America’s shores. ...Read More
The Crisis of European Social Democracy
The neoliberals are not the only ones in trouble
Why have parties of the center-left come unstuck across Western Europe since the turn of the century, asks historian Donald Sassoon in an extract from his new book, Morbid Symptoms: Anatomy of a World in Crisis.

From Versobooks.com
April 2021

By 2020 it had become obvious that traditional social democracy had been comprehensively defeated throughout Europe. Will it survive in some form or other, after the pandemic? Perhaps in Sweden, where it is still in power, but it is in deep trouble even there.

If, as Gramsci said, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’, what is the ‘old’ that is on the way out? And is there something new on the horizon? Identifying the defunct ‘old’ is relatively easy. The ‘old’ that has gone is the kind of social-democratic and liberal consensus that prevailed in the West in the thirty years after 1945, the so-called Soziale Marktwirtschaft, the social market.

The social market was supposed to create a national community which, though its members were still unequal in income, wealth and educational level, was sufficiently cohesive to make living under advanced capitalism better than living under any other kind of social system. The cost was not huge at a time of full employment, in what were the golden years of capitalism, the Trente Glorieuses as the French economist Jean Fourastié labeled them in 1979.

This almost generalized unity began to break up in the 1980s and 90s, but only in the last twenty years or so has it begun to affect the post-war party system by weakening the traditional center-left and center-right. In 1997, social democratic and labor parties had been in power in eleven out of the fifteen states that were then EU members. Just over twenty years later, these parties were barely in power in only a handful of countries. The social crisis has turned into a political crisis: morbid symptoms galore.

Setbacks in Scandinavia

If the once celebrated Swedish model now makes a sad spectacle for social democrats, the rest of Scandinavia can only be described as an iceberg of tears. Under the Social Democrat prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, an exponent of the so-called ‘Third Way’, Denmark participated in NATO bombing missions in Libya, cut taxes for the rich as well as welfare payments, and in 2014 sold shares in DONG Energy (a state company) to Goldman Sachs and others (who made a 150 percent profit when they sold up three and a half years later).

The sale wrecked the government and, a year later, Thorning-Schmidt was out of power, paving the way for a weak center-right coalition supported by the far-right Danish People’s Party. Soon there was a new shift to the left and in 2019 the Social Democrats were back in power in a coalition government which includes various left and center-left parties, but this party has been unable to obtain much more than a quarter of the vote in the past twenty years. Its presence or absence from government depends on the performance of other parties.

In Norway, the Labour Party was for a long time regarded as the natural party of government. Becoming more and more enamored of the market economy, it privatized public assets, cut the health service and helped the rich to get richer. In the 2001 election it obtained its worst result ever (24.3 percent). It has been in opposition since 2013.

In Iceland, one of the countries hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis, the Social Democrats, who had over 30 percent of the vote as recently as 2003, were reduced to 5.7 percent at the 2016 elections, their worst result ever, gaining only a miserable three parliamentary seats. They regrouped a year later, but were now the third party. Complicated negotiations followed, leading to a government under the Left-Green Movement leader, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, in coalition with the Independence Party and the center-right Progressive Party. It is a heterogeneous and precarious alliance.

In Finland too, in 2015, the Social Democrats obtained their worst results with 16.5 percent, becoming the fourth party, and muddling through in opposition. At the April 2019 elections they slightly recouped, becoming, by a whisker, the first party. The Social Democrat leader Sanna Marin formed a five-party coalition leaving as the only opposition the Finns Party.

Ups and downs in Portugal

When we move away from what used to be regarded as the stronghold of European social democracy, matters are even worse for the traditional left. Sometimes it loses to the far right, sometimes to the far left. In Portugal in the late 1990s, the Socialist Party was in power, continuing with alacrity the privatization policies of its predecessors. It was eventually able to meet the criteria for membership of the eurozone with the kind of creative accounting that prevailed in Greece and Italy.

At first, under António Guterres (now UN secretary-general), there was substantial economic growth, but this had abated by 2002. Then the Socialists were out of office and the conservatives (the Partido Social Democrata) under José Manuel Barroso (once a Maoist, later president of the European Commission, and now non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs), formed a coalition. This achieved almost nothing and made way for the Socialists’ landslide victory in 2005.

The Portuguese economy slumped even further, wages barely increased (and remained well below those of the rest of Western Europe), while unemployment shot up. The global downturn of 2007–08 made matters even worse. The Socialists almost lost the 2009 election. At the 2011 elections they were comprehensively trounced.

In 2015, on 32.3 percent of the vote, the Socialists were able to form a government only because the Eurosceptic ‘Left Bloc’ and the equally Eurosceptic Unitary Democratic Coalition of Communists and Greens agreed to support them. In spite of widespread skepticism about the stability of this ‘left’ coalition Portugal has done relatively well, with a reasonably high pre-pandemic growth rate. The government engineered an economic recovery, halved unemployment (though it was still high) and eliminated the budget deficit in 2018 for the first time in over forty years.

The Socialists consolidated their position in the 2019 election, while the conservatives had the worst result in their history. The situation remains extremely unstable, not only because Portugal is poor and its economy in difficulty but because voter turnout has shrunk spectacularly: from over 90 per cent when democracy was established in 1975 to only 48.6 per cent in 2019.

Implosion in Spain

In Spain disaster struck the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español – Socialist Workers’ Party) in 2011, when it suffered its worst defeat since the return of democracy. In April 2019 it celebrated as a ‘victory’ the 28.7 percent it obtained. Yet in 1982 the party had 48 percent of the vote, one of the highest percentages ever gained by a social democratic party in post-war Europe.

Popular discontent with the socialists as well as the conservative Christian-democratic Partido Popular (People’s Party, PP) manifested itself with the surge of two new parties, the leftist Podemos and the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens). This led to the collapse of the two-party system. In 2019, after four elections in four years, the result was a weak coalition between the PSOE and Podemos.

The economy played a major part in the crisis of the established political parties in Spain. In the twenty years prior to the global financial crisis, Spain grew more rapidly than the EU average. The opposite happened after 2007: growth plummeted, unemployment massively increased, there were more poor people, and the distribution of income was even more unequal, while private debt skyrocketed. Austerity policies simply made things worse.

Manoeuvrings in Italy

In Italy the Partito Democratico (PD) was part of the social democratic ‘family’, and heir to the Communist Pary. But it was soon completely ‘de-communized’. The unrepentant communists survived in formations such as Rifondazione Comunista, but to secure parliamentary representation Rifondazione has had to forge alliances with other even smaller entities.

The PD itself is hardly a ‘real’ social democratic party, whatever that may mean, since it is a melange of ex-communists and various groups, parties and remnants of parties, including progressive liberals and Catholics who have no roots in anything resembling a socialist tradition.

The 2018 Italian elections were dominated by the immigration issue, even though the main problem was unemployment, especially youth unemployment. The results were a victory in percentage terms for the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement), but the center-right coalition won the largest number of seats, though not a working majority. The leading party within this coalition was now the far-right Lega, which outdistanced Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and this party, in alliance with Movimento Cinque Stelle, formed a government.

Not for long, however, since Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, assuming he could force a new election and outdistance the Movimento, was ousted by the Movimento itself, which simply switched sides and forged a shaky alliance with the center-left Partito Democratico. So shaky it was that it collapsed in 2021 – another victim of the debacle over Covid – and the former head of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi, became the prime minister of an even more unlikely coalition which includes almost everyone except the far left and the far right.

Disaster in France

At the French presidential election of April 2017, the official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, only managed to obtain 6.3 percent of the vote and was out in the first round, coming fifth, after the ‘neither left nor right’ candidate Emmanuel Macron, the far-right Marine Le Pen, the moderate-right François Fillon and even the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Two months later, in the first round of the legislative election, the Socialist Party along with its allies achieved 9.5 percent, less than the Front National and Mélenchon’s ‘La France Insoumise’. This was the most disastrous result for the Socialist Party in the entire history of the Fifth Republic, with the exception of Gaston Defferre who got only 5 percent in the presidential elections of 1969.

In Germany it was no better.

The SPD spent twenty years either as a junior partner in a Christian Democrat-led coalition under Angela Merkel or in opposition. At the general election of 2017 it mustered a miserable 20.5 percent of the vote – its worst result ever, half what it had in 1979. The true winners were the far-right AfD, who became the third party. The anti-establishment vote was particularly pronounced in the former East Germany, where the far-left party Die Linke did better than the SPD, while the AfD did better than the CDU.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats too had their worst results since 1949 and found it difficult to form a government with liberals and Greens once the SPD decided it would not be part of a new coalition. Then the SPD changed its mind. After over five months of painful negotiations, a new CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’, or GroKo, finally emerged. Today Germany is gearing up for a general election. With ‘mutter’ Merkel gone, instability will be exacerbated. Opinion polls suggest a poor result for the CDU while the Greens might emerge ahead of the SPD.

The situation is even more dismal for the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). At the 2021 elections it obtained 5.7%, the same as in 2017. It is now the sixth party in the Netherlands, well after four parties of the center, center-right and far right, and even just below the leftist Socialist Party.

A wrong turn

It is always risky for a political party of the left to accept so much of the agenda of the right. Most social democratic parties sooner or later embraced a policy of austerity, allowed wages to stagnate and inequalities to increase, and privatized public services to an extent unimaginable thirty years ago. They allowed inequalities to increase and did not dare to tax the prosperous beneficiaries.

In the UK relatively few households receive an income well above the average GDP per person. The top 0.1 percent number only 50,000 people in a population of 65.5 million. Since no one can win an election by favoring the top 0.1 percent, let alone the top 10 percent, even conservatives are worried. In fact, the UK is much more unequal (in terms of the ratio of the top 1 percent to median income) than Germany, France, Italy or Spain.

The struggle against inequality could have been an obvious social-democratic card to play. Instead, these parties opted for what they thought was caution: pandering to the dominant pro-market ideology. And so, they lost the game. Politics has become a circus in which everyone turns to whoever is available, following Bismarck’s cynical dictum (in a letter to his wife): ‘One clings to principles only for as long as they are not put to the test; when that happens, one throws them away as the peasant does his slippers.’ ...Read More
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Would-be Whitmer Kidnappers Now Face Life in
Prison with Latest ‘Domestic Terrorist’ Charges
Photo: Michael Null (R) and William Null (L) arrive at the American Patriot Rally, organized by Michigan United for Liberty, to demand the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30, 2020.

Other men are unidentified. - Thirteen men, including members of two right-wing militias, have been arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and "instigate a civil war", Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced on October 8, 2020. The Nulls were charged for their alleged roles in the plot to kidnap Whitmer, according to the FBI. The brothers are charged with providing support for terroristic acts and felony weapons charges. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

By David Neiwert
Daily Kos Staff

April 29, 2021 - Among the militiamen who protested at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing in April 2020 were members of the 'Wolverine Watchmen,' including William and Michael Null, far left and far right, who were later arrested for plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Federal prosecutors have been reluctant for decades to use references to “domestic terrorism” in their charges and filing papers in crimes involving right-wing extremists, but that appears to be changing now, in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. The latest filings in the case involving the 14 militiamen who plotted last year to kidnap and murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer make that plain.

A superseding indictment from the grand jury in the case filed this week by the Justice Department—adding new charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, based on the men’s plot to use a massive explosive charge to destroy a bridge near Whitmer’s summer home—is quite clear: “The defendants engaged in domestic terrorism.”

The same plotters—who called themselves the “Wolverine Watchmen”—had a much wider-ranging original plan, which included invading the Michigan Statehouse in Lansing with 200 armed militiamen, taking state officials hostage, and then holding televised executions. When they realized the logistics of such a plan were overwhelming, they reverted to the simpler plot to kidnap Whitmer.

This week’s indictment focuses on four men—Adam Fox, 40, of Wyoming, Michigan; Barry Croft Jr., 45, of Bear, Delaware; Daniel Joseph Harris, 23, of Lake Orion; and Ty Garbin, 25, of Hartland—who conducted surveillance and bought explosives in preparation for carrying off their kidnapping plans. They were charged with conspiracy—joining codefendants Kaleb Franks and Brandon Caserta, who already were indicted on that charge—while Harris and Croft had additional weapons charges added to their case.

Garbin entered a guilty plea in December 2020 to the original indictment charging him with conspiracy to kidnap the governor and now awaits sentencing; he is reportedly cooperating with investigators as part of the plea deal. He appears to have been a primary source of the information in the indictment, along with the federal informant who provided most of the original evidence.

The men had held their first paramilitary training exercise to prepare for their plan in July 2020 in Wisconsin. They attempted to detonate a couple of improvised bombs but failed. They continued building similar devices—which included a balloon filled with steel ball bearings. When the men gathered again in September for another session, they had greater success, setting off a couple of the bombs in the vicinity of silhouette targets shaped like humans, and were satisfied with the resulting damage caused by the shrapnel.

Preparing for that later session, Garbin in an encrypted text message to his fellow conspirators suggested “taking down a highway bridge near the governor’s vacation home.” After the training session, the men drove to Whitmer’s summer home to conduct surveillance.

Along the way, Fox and Croft “stopped to inspect the underside of a highway bridge near the vacation home for a place to mount an explosive charge,” the indictment said.

Afterward, the men ordered $4,000 worth of explosives from the FBI informant, who was posing as someone who was capable of providing the men with such materials. Fox, Franks, and Harris drove to Ypsilanti, Michigan, to make the down payment.

If convicted of kidnapping conspiracy, the five defendants face life sentences in prison, while the conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction also includes a maximum of life in prison.

Whitmer on Thursday told CNN that each gradual revelation of the plot’s details is increasingly “disturbing.”

“I’m incredibly grateful to the FBI and (Michigan State Police) and that gratitude only grows with more revelations about how serious and scary this group was. And how intent they were on not just harming me but harming our law enforcement, harming communities,” Whitmer said on New Day. “The rhetoric has got to stop. We’ve got to all rise to this challenge and stop vilifying and encouraging these domestic extremists to hurt our fellow Americans.” ...Read More
This Week's History Lesson:
Decades Before the Civil War, Black
Activists Organized for Racial Equality

An illustration from an abolitionist paper shows the divide in border states like Ohio, where a small African American minority petitioned for change. (Newberry Library)


Though they were just a small percentage of the state’s population, African Americans petitioned the state of Ohio to repeal racist laws



By Kate Masur
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

MARCH 24, 2021 - In summer 1836, white residents of Cincinnati rioted, not for the first time, against their black neighbors. On this occasion, the Ohioans rallied first against the city’s newly established abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, destroying editor James Birney’s printing press and throwing the pieces into the Ohio River. From there they rampaged through black neighborhoods, attacking businesses and looting private homes.

Ohio was a free state, but African Americans living there were subject not only to periodic white lawlessness but also to explicitly racist laws. The so-called “black laws,” which the state legislature began passing in 1804, required black residents to register with county officials (which included showing proof that they were legally free, getting landowners to post bonds on their behalf, and paying a fee), forbade African Americans from testifying in court cases involving whites, and reserved public education for white children only. Separately, the state constitution declared that only white men were entitled to vote.

Despite such strictures, Ohio and other destinations north of the Ohio River looked promising to free and enslaved black people hoping to leave the states where slavery was legal. According to U.S. Census figures, the black population of Ohio grew steadily in the first half of the 19th century, climbing from 9,568 to 17,342 between 1830 and 1840, for example. While this population only amounted to one percent of the state’s total population, the activism of black Ohioans, both in its success and failures, offer a window into this country’s first civil rights movement.

'Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction' is a groundbreaking history of the movement for equal rights that courageously battled racist laws and institutions, Northern and Southern, in the decades before the Civil War.

On arriving in southern towns and hamlets, Black Ohioans immediately began building institutions and working to educate their children. The state’s first independent Black church was founded in Cincinnati in 1815; by 1833, the state was home to more than 20 AME churches with a total membership of around 700 people. In 1834, African Americans in Chillicothe formed the Chillicothe Colored Anti-Slavery Society and announced it in a local newspaper. Black Ohioans were active in Freemasonry and organized myriad self-help societies. Wherever they could, Black men and women helped fugitives from slavery make their way to safety, sometimes risking their own lives in the process.

Still, direct protest against racist state laws was risky. As a new phase of anti-slavery organizing began in the 1830s, white abolitionist lecturers often faced violent mobs seeking to silence them and run them out of town. For black Ohioans, the danger was even greater. Vulnerable to being fired from work, mobbed and driven off their own properties, African Americans’ precarity was heightened by the fact that the law prohibited them from testifying in court cases involving whites.

Those circumstances make it all the more remarkable that in 1837, more than three decades after statehood, African Americans mobilized to petition the general assembly to repeal the black laws and support schools for their children. The movement began in Cleveland.

Located on the banks of Lake Erie, the city had begun to grow in earnest when the Ohio and Erie Canal, completed in 1832, connected the Great Lakes to the state’s interior. Cleveland was newer and smaller than Cincinnati, but it was also a safer place for African Americans to begin organizing a statewide movement. One of the leading figures in Cleveland’s tiny Black community was John Malvin, a Virginia native who had migrated to Ohio in 1827. Starting around 1832, he began the work of establishing private schools for the city’s black children. Malvin was an ordained Baptist minister who sometimes preached in the city’s white-led First Baptist Church, where he waged a struggle for racially equal seating.

In January 1837, Malvin and other Cleveland black activists met to consider “the expediency of petitioning” the general assembly for repeal of the black laws. Petitioning government for redress had long been considered a right available to all people, not just to “citizens” or those who were white or male. The Cleveland group’s efforts were part of a national trend in which northern black activists and their white allies turned to petitioning to demand changes that existing majorities in state legislatures, and in Congress, would likely never deliver if left to their own devices. Two years earlier, black activists from across the nation had met in Philadelphia and had recommended, among other things, that free people of color petition Congress and their state legislatures “to be admitted to the rights and privileges of American citizens.” ...Read More

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‘The Walls Have Ears’ — and Eyes
WEEKLY BULLETIN OF THE MEXICO SOLIDARITY PROJECT
APRIL 21, 2021 
THIS WEEK’S ISSUE/ MEIZHU LUI, FOR THE EDITORIAL TEAM


The old expression “the walls have ears” made perfect sense years ago when eavesdropping involved putting an ear to a keyhole. Back then, you could still whisper behind the walls of your room and keep your secrets.

Not anymore. Today’s walls have eyes as well as ears. In fact, forget using a wall as any kind of shield from the gaze of unknown and unwanted watchers. Those who would surveil us have infrared devices for detecting body heat, motion sensors, and facial recognition technology. They can tap into our mobile phones and computers. They can place cameras in drones or balloons overhead. A wall offers no safety or security.

A wall may also be the least effective method to detect and deter migrants crossing the border, the core reality that made Trump’s “build the wall” mantra nothing more than a political gimmick. President Biden, meanwhile, is talking about a “smart” or “virtual” wall to control the U.S.-México border, a dangerous turn in his administration’s migrant policy. Today’s surveillance technology, after all, can indeed be “effective.” Just look how this high-tech has helped the military target and kill “persons of interest” in the Middle East.

We are already giving away our private information freely and for free. Websites inform us — in the fine print — they can use what they learn about us however they want. Our online corporate giants are chasing after profits and reaping windfalls, selling the vast amounts of data they extract from us to police and government agencies. Our tax dollars are, in effect, stripping us of privacy, leaving us naked and exposed.

If we continue to shrug off the high-tech surveillance focused on migrants, that surveillance will overtake all our lives. We’ll come to resemble Jim Carey’s character in The Truman Show, living lives secretly televised without our knowledge or consent. We need to turn our own eyes and ears on Big Brother, before he focuses, ever so tightly, on all of us. ...Read More
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Book Discussion: 'The Sum of Us': Progress for People
of Color Doesn’t Come at White Folks’ Expense

A conversation with Heather C. McGhee about the zero-sum thinking that has long dominated American attitudes to race and wealth—and how to organize to secure public goods for everyone.


Heather McGhee talks with Archon Fung 
Boston Review

In this interview, political scientist Archon Fung speaks with Heather C. McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The former president of Demos, McGhee is a public intellectual, policy analyst, and political advocate who works on solutions to inequality. She currently chairs the board of Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization.

Archon Fung: Heather, your new book has been getting a huge amount of well-deserved attention. Out of its many contributions, two struck me as especially important. First, I think you really effectively talked about racial injustice and inequality at the same time. I know a lot of people have been trying to do that, including myself, but it’s so hard for us to avoid this mental habit of either saying, “It’s race that’s doing the work,” or “No, it’s class that’s really doing the work.” Many people I talk to think that the fundamental social problem in the United States is racial injustice. Others think that the fundamental problem is class and that if we could just tackle economic inequality, racial justice would take care of itself. That you speak to both is huge. Second, I think that a lot of us have a very negative and critical perspective these days, but when I read your book, I feel very hopeful. You offer a really compelling vision of the great good that would come if we could only get, as you call it, the solidarity dividend. We’d get the solidarity dividend if we could overcome our zero-sum thinking about race and economy. Am I reading your book correctly? Are these two of your big ideas that you want to get across to folks?

Heather McGhee: That’s exactly right, Archon. It came from nearly twenty years of being in the scrum of trying to build coalitions and convince policymakers to make better economic policy decisions. Race was always this sort of submerged iceberg blocking our progress, but we were often unaware of exactly its depth and the extent to which it was really blocking us. We were discouraged from talking about it explicitly. It ended up being divisive instead of unifying, seeing that so many of the issues that bedevil this country and lead to its dysfunction—so many of the head scratchers about why the greatest country on Earth is unable to do basic things for its people—come down to this one block.

When I set out on the journey to write this book, I took numerous trips around the country over the course of three years. During these trips I talked to hundreds of people, both everyday Americans and experts in fields that I had not previously studied, such as sociology, public opinion, psychology, and social psychology. This made clear that this zero-sum thinking—the idea that we’re on different teams, that there’s an “us” and a “them,” and that progress for people of color has to come at white folks’ expense—is really the big block. I couldn’t help but notice this everywhere. However, I saw places in the country where people had overcome that divisive thinking and had rejected the zero-sum thinking that keeps us divided, where people have been able to accomplish great things. 

AF: Toward the second part of our conversation I want to focus on those positive examples and discuss how they can grow. But before we get there, I want to just begin with the cover of your book. The cover provides a powerful metaphor that organizes a lot of your analysis. As I look at it, I see a drawing of two children playing in a swimming pool. One, who looks like a white boy to me, is jumping off of a diving board. The other, who looks like a Black girl to me, is climbing out of the pool on a ladder. Why did you pick this image for the cover of your book?


HM: I’m so glad you asked, because I have many opinions about the cover. First of all, I didn’t want it to be a typical cover for a non-fiction book about race, economics, and politics. These typically use primary colors, often a lot of black and red, and big block letters that signify masculinity in terms of the branding and marketing. This often signifies that a book is about your mind—that a book is going to be cut and dry and present facts that will stop you in your tracks. Of course, I tried to cram as many of those facts as possible in my book, but the notes are 102 pages long. It was important to me to reach a broad audience with this book, people who had never read a Demos white paper, and I wanted that to start with the cover.

I wanted the cover to be an image of what should have happened—this is the world where little white kids and little Black kids are swimming together.

The cover art is an original painting done by this wonderful British artist, David McConachie. I wanted it to be around the pool because the pool is the central metaphor of the book, specifically it’s about the drained pool, the negative story of what happened. I wanted the cover to be an image of what should have happened—the world we didn’t create and the world we could still create. This is the world where little white kids and little Black kids are swimming together, a world where we never drained the pool and it was a place for our people to come together and learn how to trust one another, how to play with one another, how to feel akin to one another. And actually there is an image of the drained pool as well. I commissioned a friend of mine, Frances Tulk-Hart, to do chapter illustrations—there’s more art inside the book. In the chapter “Racism Drained the Pool,” there is an image of a drained pool with sort of overgrown weeds. So you do see both. But I wanted the cover to be hopeful, inviting, emotional, and to suggest a future that we did not create when we had the chance, but we could still create now. 

AF: This implies that we could have better pools and everyone could have the experience of swimming. So why did we drain the pool? It just seems so unbelievably mean. 

HM: In the 1930s and ’40s we had this huge nationwide building of public amenities. Some of these were New Deal pools, right? WPA pools. There was also a lot of local and county construction. It was part of this government ethos that said, “the government has a role in ensuring a higher standard of living for our people.” That was just the world view coming out of the crucible of the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. It was, of course, evidenced in public goods such as Social Security, high labor standards, and a massive investment in housing across the country. This was the case through to 1944, when the GI Bill put a generation into college for free. It was the idea that we would create a broad middle class and government would have a role in offering these public goods and business standards.

And, yet, virtually all of these public goods were either explicitly or through disparate impact only for whites. For example, the GI Bill should have served lots of Black veterans, but didn’t because of segregation in the housing market and in higher education. This is what created a broad, secure white middle class.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Black families began to advocate and litigate saying, “Those are our tax dollars funding those pools. Our children should be able to swim, too.” I traveled in the book to Montgomery, Alabama, which was one of many places across the country, not just in the Jim Crow South, where the city decided to drain its public pool rather than integrate it. They literally drained the water, backed in truckloads of dirt, and seeded it over with grass. Oak Park is this beautiful park in the middle of the city. It also had a zoo. They closed down the zoo. They sold off the animals. They closed down the entire parks and recreation department for a decade. It was almost 1970 before the people of Montgomery had a parks and recreation department, all because of resistance to integration. This is obviously an insane story, yet it was replicated in Washington, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, and all over the country. It’s almost like a Black thing, right, knowing that white people, once they had to share the pool, or the water fountain, or the schools with us, didn’t want to have it at all. 

AF: They’d just rather not have it at all.

HM: Exactly. Before I began writing the book, when I was in the field working at Demos, I was trying to convince white progressives that race had something to do with their central concern, which is what happened to the economy. What happened to the formula for shared prosperity, high wages, high taxes, high regulation, high public investment? It was kind of obvious. We, Black people, wanted in, too. That’s what happened to it.

In 1956 and 1960, over two-thirds of white Americans believed that the federal government ought to guarantee a job for anyone who wanted one and a minimum income. These are radical, left-wing ideas in today’s politics, but they had nearly 70 percent white support in 1956 and 1960. By 1964, according to the NAES, that share of white Americans had dropped in half to just 35 percent. It has stayed low ever since. Black Americans thought it was a great idea and still think it’s a great idea. You still see that racial gap in the public opinion and support for these economic guarantees. So, what could have happened between 1960 and ’64 to have the majority of white Americans turn on a dime from two out of three supporting to two out of three opposing?

I realized, of course, that in 1963 there was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which demanded those two guarantees, high minimum wage and a job guarantee for everyone. Of course, it was Black activists filling the mall and demanding that. Then, of course, you had Kennedy going on his big media campaign around civil rights, firmly associating the mostly white New Deal party with civil rights. We know that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, after signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, would be the last Democrat to ever win the majority of the white vote.

It really was a draining of the pool. The majority of white Americans turned away from the formula that had created the great middle class and, in particular, turned away from the vehicles of collective action, principally government, that had insured countervailing power to big business. As progressives we often tell the story of what happened only by talking about the how, the changes in tax policy, labor policy, and public spending. But progressives don’t really talk about the why—why the majority of white Americans would have gone along with something that now, fifty years later, we know did not work. We know, from public opinion research, that discourse around government aid, social policy, and welfare is deeply racialized. So many times when people talk about government assistance, they’re thinking about unjust redistribution to people of color. 

AF: Your account turns that on its head and says, look, you drained the pool—the pool not just being “the pool,” but universal healthcare, accessible higher education, affordable housing. It’s not that all of that aid was shifted to people of color, it’s not like the whole pool was going to people of color. That was never in the cards. That was never going to be the social policy. But white people bought into a narrative that said that was happening, and chose to drain resources entirely—these resources being affordable housing, affordable higher ed, and more generous healthcare for many people. That is such a powerful message. I hope it gets out to many Americans of all races and beliefs. ...Read More
Film Review: 'Cliff Walkers,' a Spy
Thriller as Red Noir, Chinese Deco
Zhang Yimou’s first spy thriller sends an ace team of Communist agents into the WW2 Japanese stronghold of Manchukuo.

By Deborah Young
Hollywood Reporter

Another classy Chinese action thriller whose dazzling style seems to take place in a deliberate narrative void, Cliff Walkers (previously titled Impasse) marks leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s first foray into the espionage genre. Following on the heels of his censorship-plagued One Second, which was abruptly withdrawn from the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and only came out in China last November, the new film would seem to the naked eye to have nothing for the censors to object to; in fact, it is dedicated to “the heroes of the Revolution.” What foreign audiences will take away is not the negligible storyline but a visually entrancing parade of attractive actors in a pleasingly fluid spy-counterspy dance.

Though bound to make most of its millions domestically, aided by its well-known cast, Cliff Walkers is being released day-and-date in China and the U.S. on April 30. Having one big English-language co-production under his belt — the Matt Damon-starring, U.S.-China historical fantasy The Great Wall — the director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern continues his exploration of genres in an essentially visual mode that is probably intended to pose no cultural obstacles to international audiences.

But what the film is actually about is something of a head-scratcher. It is set in the 1930s following the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, a northeast puppet state that was once Chinese Manchuria. The atrocities committed by parts of the Japanese army during this period were recently dramatized in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy (best director award at Venice 2020). Here, again, the action is premised on the urgent need to get information out for the world to judge and act upon. In this case, the sole survivor of a Manchurian death camp must be smuggled out of China as an eyewitness to Japanese war crimes.

The Communist party sends in a Mission: Impossible team of four secret agents, who have been highly trained in the Soviet Union and who are ideologically determined to succeed. We meet them parachuting through the snow over a forest of fir trees and falling gracefully through their branches to the ground in a mesmerizing opener. This lyrical intro sets the scene for some soulful cinematography and atmospheric sequences that will drive the film in place of a convincing spy story.

The four are so bundled up, it takes the better part of the film to figure out who they are, given their lack of characterization and close-ups. Though the dialogue and editing need to be much clearer, we eventually discover they are couples: the married pair Zhang (Zhang Yi of Operation Red Sea) and Yu (Qin Hailu), and the younger Chuliang (Zhu Yawen) and his waif-like girlfriend Lan (Liu Haocun). Zhang, the team leader, remixes the couples, and they take off in different directions, heading for the northern capital of Harbin, where they are to rendezvous with the eyewitness.

But first, there are obstacles to overcome, codes to decipher and a bewildering series of turncoats, traitors and counterspies to unmask. The agents board a train to Harbin incognito and wait for a signal from an accomplice, but are double-crossed by a possible traitor. Fisticuffs follow. After that, the narrative becomes intricate enough to be safely ignored, especially since Zhang and Quan Yongxian’s screenplay doesn’t take the story nearly as seriously as the staging of sophisticated set-pieces. Many scenes enjoyably salute cinema past, from Charlie Chaplin’s potato dance in an excerpt from The Gold Rush, to a whistling tune heard in front of a firing squad that tips its hat to Sergio Leone.

Yu Hewei appears late in the tale as embedded secret agent Zhou, who has to liaise with the team while sidestepping the ambiguous sector chief and head torturer, Gao (Ni Dahong). Though at first she seems like an add-on ingenue to the mission, young Liu Haocun (who also appears in One Second) eventually comes across as the most individualized member of the team, capable not only of deciphering deep codes but of feeling pain for the tortured fates of others. Qin Hailu, who starred in Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian, has a memorable maternal moment.

Apart from the sassy costumes, the production design by Lin Mu re-creates the old streets and buildings of Harbin with an aura of nostalgia, and it is with a sense of wonder that one views the elegance of a Chinese bookstore of the '30s. Making the most of the freezing Harbin winter, DP Zhao Xiaoding dusts the entire cast with crystal snow, particularly their black hat brims. And snow becomes the key element in a gangster-ish chase scene in period cars, while the good spy/bad guy occupants eye each other, keeping one hand on the trigger. ...Read More
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