Monday, December 29, 2003

Michael Moore ends Dude, Where's My Country? with two chapters that suggest two things we can do to begin to reverse the rightward tilt in the U.S.

First ("How to Talk to Your Conservative Brother-in-Law"�), progressives need to learn how to communicate their ideas within a culture that is deeply conservative. Second, we need to do all we can to throw Bush out of office.

These are important goals, but they aren't enough.

Ask yourself this painful question: What happens if we don't get rid of Bush? A lot of people will conclude that all is lost, and throw their hands up in cynicism and despair. (I know a lot of people in DC who have said, "If Bush wins, I'm out of here," which is exactly what Karl Rove and Grover Norquist want to hear!).

I agree with the anyone-but-Bush strategy in 2004. Even if Dean turns out to be a centrist and corporatist (I'm more a skeptic of Clark than Moore, because he's kind of an autocrat in style, and less a peacemaker than is assumed, as Matt Taibbi explained in a recent Nation piece), the fact that he's a Democrat means that at least he'd be a speedbump against the accelerating rightwing hegemony that we face if the Republicans get all three branches of government (no serious observer of Congress has suggested the Dems can take back the House or Senate, esp. since there are only a dozen or so races that will be competitive and with at least 6 Democratic Senators planning to retire).

If we face 4 more years of Bush, it WILL be depressing. So I agree it's important to try to put someone in the White House whose natural instinct will automatically be to veto any bill that Tom DeLay et al. is drafting in coordination with the huge conservative coalition that meets every Wednesday morning at Grover Norquist's offices. (See Jan/Feb issue of Mother Jones).

That said, I'm afraid of the pitiful despair that many on the left will sink into if Bush wins. The crisis we face is systemic and not just the consequence of letting a neocon cabal take over our foreign policy and letting hypocritical libertarians run our domestic political economy into the ground by professing to want to cut taxes in order to cut back on government, ignoring the fact that the biggest part of government is the bloated Pentagon budget (has Grover Norquist ever lobbied against Star Wars?).

The point is, if we hang too much hope on the anyone-but-Bush strategy, without thinking about what we can do to build our movement from the base, we reveal the poverty of our imagination as political organizers.

Michael Moore got one thing right -- we are a predominantly liberal-leaning country. 80 percent of us believe in universal health care and racial diversity on college campuses. "I'm telling you, this country is so commie-pinko-weirdo, its conservative party can never get more than 25 percent of its recurring voters to join it, while the vast majority of its citizens define themselves as either members of the liberal party, or worse ... independent or anarchist (the latter just simply refusing ever to vote!)"

The problem, therefore, is not that we've become such a conservative country. The problem is that the conservatives are better organized and, maybe, better organizers. Which I guess is the subtext for his chapter on talking with your brother-in-law. But seriously, ask yourself, what's the best organizing campaign going on in the country right now? The living wage campaigns? The sweatshop movements? The anti-war movement? The global justice activists and black bloc anarchists who hop from summit to summit with little connection to everyday community concerns?

Is the left by definition doomed to be left out? Or can we ever imagine the most subversive thing being taking over the instruments of power? (What kind of message would show people how to use government as an instrument of their collective self-interest?)

The left has nothing like Norquist in Washington. Bob Borosage's Campaign for America's Future holds an annual conference. And the Fair Taxes for All Coalition is pretty big. But nowhere near as sophisticated.

Face it, it's not just the corporate cash that gives Grover an advantage (though clearly that helps!).

An old friend who is a better organizer than I once reminded me of Alinsky's old adage that "you can't take the Chinese army on in hand-to-hand combat." The point is that we're not going to beat the right wing by playing the same game it does, but better, or by following a gameplan that mirrors the Powell memo. We should undestand the Right's strategy, but we just won't ever have as many Richard Mellon Scaife's wiling to fund left-wing think tanks to compete with Heritage (although it was nice to see the Center for American Progress get up and running in 2003). We have to figure out how to involve more people with less money.

In addition to Michael Moore's book (and a rereading of Populist-era history, which I'll get to some day), I read two things recently that suggest how impoverished our imagination as organizers has become.

First, there's an interesting interview with Bernard Cassen of ATTAC in the January, 2003 New Left Review. Second is a collection of essays recently published by the New Press about Lula and the Workers Party in Brazil.

ATTAC is a leader in the European civil resistance to neoliberalism and corporate globalization. Formed in the late 1990s to fight the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, they were also instrumental in organizing the first World Social Forum, in partnership with South American (especially Brazilian activists).


"...representation from Asia, Africa and even the United States was so weak. I personally made no particular effort to ensure a strong American presence, or to hinder it. But when the American NGOs, who had been informed just like all others throughout the world, arrived only in small numbers, I was not worried. Globalization is essentially an American-led process, and it was important that anti-globalization not be American-led as well. So in my view it was strategically vital that the Forum started along a Franco-Brazilian, and then more broadly Euro-Latin American axis, which the Americans were welcome to join once the ground was well prepared. Otherwise there was a risk that American NGOs would immediately dominate the proceedings." And why would anyone have faith in our ability as organizers, given what's been going on in our country?

There is much to consider in the interview in terms of perspective on the struggle we face. If we frame the battle around Bush, we shouldn't forget that in the real war we may not be able to win through electoral politics until the optimal conditions are created, until people are educated to understand what is at stake (i.e. have a certain level of political and economic literacy), until our communities are organized enough to withstand the misinformation the corporate media spreads and compensate for the crushing economic burdens of federal cutbacks in social services (in the U.S. just as they have come via structural adjustment in the poorer countries). Until we are able to overcome the issues that divide us (e.g. race) in order to build true grassroots networks and institutions to whom our candidates are accountable.


"Our [ATTAC's] fundamental aim, as I have often said, is to decontaminate people's minds. Our heads have been stuffed with neoliberalism, its virus is in our brain cells, and we need to detoxify them. We have to be able to start thinking freely again, which means believing that something can be done. For the overwhelming conviction at present is that, politically speaking, nothing can be done. That is why our slogan, "Another world is possible," amounts to something like a cultural revolution. It means that we are not condemned to neoliberalism, we can envisage other ways of living and organizing society than those we have at present."

Cassem and ATTAC understand that local organizing projects must somehow be networked to a global movement:

"A global constellation is coming into being that is beginning to think along the same lines, to share its strategic concepts, to link common problems together, to forge the chains of a new solidarity. All this is now moving with astonishing speed. There has just been an Asian Social Forum in India, an area with which we hitherto had virtually no contact. In Brazil, the government's agenda is set by all the problems identified at Porto Alegre. What will Lula do about the enormous debt that is crushing the country? He has said, of course, that Brazil will be meticulous in meeting its obligations. But will it actually be able to? I believe that a moment of truth is arriving in Argentina and Brazil."

Perhaps the closest equivalent we have to ATTAC's decentralized structure in the U.S. is the Cities for Peace network established by IPS and the National Priorities Project. Yet networks like this need to build upon an understanding of the links between war and economic policies whose pain is felt most acutely at the local level. The activists and political networks that pass resolutions against the war are the same ones that have supported a living wage and, in some cases, backed the World Bank bonds boycott. The problem is that the institutional interstices that allow for continuity and stability are lacking, so that the linkages between domestic economic policies like tax cuts and pressures on state and local budgets and foreign policy issues are weak. Part of that has to do with our two-party system. No party is committed to building the institutional infrastructure to respond to this crisis or even push an agenda the frames our understanding around these questions.

The U.S. left could learn not just from the ATTAC movement in Europe, but also from the Brazilian Labor Party's (PT) formation of a National Mass Movements Secretariat and National Forum of Democratic and Popular Organizations, which both promote links between the different parts of the social movement. (Where's the U.S. equivalent? The Democrats seem too ossified and anti-ideological to care, while the Greens are still too green to provide significant enough leadership. It's a shame that Ralph Nader didn't enter electoral politics much earlier and that Jesse Jackson's 1986 campaign left nothing like this kind of cross-issue, multicultural organizing infrastructure behind, because by now something significant might exist along these lines.)

Getting rid of Bush would be a salutary step, and an important one that people around the world would thank us for. But the crisis goes much deeper and our response must be based on a bigger vision. The election of Dean would probably result in political gridlock. A lot of blame would be thrown at Dean and liberals. Any compromises would at best be a step back to Clinton-era neoliberal politics. Yes, it could stall the right-wing's plans for more wars and the privatization of social security. And that's good. But, we could be facing a backlash -- and could only be biding time before a disgruntled electorate decides that at least the Republicans know how to get things done in Washington. To prevent right-wing populism, we face a significant organizing challenge.

With a ballooning budget deficit caused by a skyrocketing military budget and deep tax cuts for the rich and corporations, state and local governments are beginning to face painful budget decisions that will only get worse as federal social programs are cut further. Bush et al. would love to use the right (including its religious ideological shock troops) to channel the coming popular discontent into a populist right-wing movement. The left needs to beat them to the organizing punch.

There's an interesting example at the end of Lula and the Workers Party in Brazil by Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski. In the final chapter, Hilary Wainwright describes Porto Alegre's struggle to create a bottom-up approach to city government (especially through the participatory budget process).

Despite the election of Lula and the Worker's Party in 2002, Lula has continued to follow neoliberal policies dictated by the IMF, largely to avoid an immediate crisis. As a result, the federal government has strengthened central control over public spending and has cut the funds going back to the cities whose citizens pay the taxes. Funds going to local authorities were reduced from 17 percent of the revenue received in 1990 to 14 percent in 1999, and have been cut deeper since.

Porto Alegre, which depends on federal funds for its budget (like most cities in Brazil) has struggled to improve health, education, infrastructure and job creation. But its ability to do so is tied to national policies.“ thus the city that hosted the first two annual World Social Forums is under siege, part of the front line of a global economic and political war that we Americans are also facing at the local level. National governments the world over, many of them under the thumb of the IMF, have willingly cut back their capacity to meet the needs of the poor by cutting public spending and lowering taxes on the rich. While in the U.S. we face an increased reliance on the culture of "volunteerism" and religious charity (the logical alignment of corporate and right-wing ideological interests), in cities like Porto Alegre, the conscientious involvement of people in local decision-making builds a base of resistance to neoliberal program. (The government of Porto Alegre's willingness to host the World Social Forum reflected an understanding of these dimensions to the struggle and the need to link between and among communities directly).

When the urban planning process involves a conscientious effort to involve people in the workings of their own government (each year there are hearings in the budget process that are used as a way to prioritize community needs), there is a reduction in bureaucratic inefficiency and municipal corruption. This is a sharp contrast to what happens when corporate charity comes along and takes over different aspects of the "social economy," from childcare to recycling to schools. In Reclaiming America, Randy Shaw describes how neighborhood organizations in the U.S. (patronized by municipal distribution of corporate largesse) have been hollowed out as a driving force for participatory decision--making, becoming less able to stand up for the rights and needs of their communities. Wainwright suggests the same thing can happen in many parts of Brazil: "They will become in effect minnows keeping the water clean for the big fish." Instead, the Porto Alegre participatory budgeting process allows for challenges to corporate perks, and has led to significant concessions for infrastructure improvements and social improvements (e.g. training programs for young employees) that are the complete reverse of the kind of corporate welfare (e.g. TIF districts, tax breaks, etc.) typically given to the Wal-Marts and corporate developers.

Here in the U.S. the process of corporate control over the political process is so advanced that it's difficult for us to even perceive all this, and what the possible alternatives are. Constructing the kind of participatory mechanisms that are on display in Porto Alegre will be a long and difficult challenge. We've essentially become so colonized politically and psychologically that the first step is to recognize that there is such an alternative.

Thus our challenge goes way beyond the 2004 election. We shouldn't set ourselves up for despair if he wins. And face it, should Dean win, we'll still have to pressure him hard to give him the impetus to make the right decisions. Either way, the real task is assembling some sort of infrastructure through which we can begin to revitalize our democratic ideals.