January 20, 2009

The Road Ahead As Obama Takes Office: A Green Light, A Roadblock, And A Bridge That Isn’t There

[UPDATED: Now with key links.]

With Barack Hussein Obama making history today as he takes the oath of office and a wave of optimism engulfing the country, it is a good time to review what faces us on the road ahead. (The “us” I refer to includes Reds, revolutionaries, socialists, activists, progressives, and all the rest of us who (a) believe a better world is possible and (b) know that work and struggle is the only way to get there.)

Let’s just stipulate one thing from the start. President Obama will be heading up what Karl Marx called the “executive committee for administering the affairs of the whole bourgeois class,” the modern state. He would not be where he is today if he weren’t seen as suited to the job by those whose affairs he will be administering.

But it is also undeniable that there are major differences between Obama and the last crew entrusted with that job. Things after today will be different in very important ways from what they have been over the last eight years. I want to flag three features of the road we are heading down over the coming months.

  • First, there is a green light for struggle to advance on many fronts.
  • Second, the anti-war movement, by contrast, faces a huge roadblock to moving forward.
  • Third, as far as the economy goes, the bridge is collapsing and we are on it.

A Green Light for Struggle

Since November 4, there has been a dramatic uptick in popular struggle in this country. The election of Barack Obama, and the massive mobilization of people from all parts of the US and all sectors of society that made it possible, have created a vastly different terrain of battle than that of the last 8 years. Last month, I heard “Si Se Puede” and even “Yes We Can” chants rising from within a crowd of hundreds of SDSers and other serious young militants mobilized to defend college students who were carrying out an occupation (overall successful) of the New School in NYC.

The emotional highlight of the last few months has been the victory won by another occupation. Union workers at the about-to-close Republic Windows & Doors plant in Chicago seized control of their factory and won nationwide sympathy, including a statement by President-elect Obama affirming the righteousness of their cause and ignoring the illegality of their tactics. When they won their demands, the UE members left the plant chanting, yep, “Si Se Puede” and “Yes We Can.”

Now a wave of protest against the police murder of a young Black man, erupting at times into outright rebellion, has shaken Oakland, CA. Police departments across the country are reviewing their “deadly force” policies and training--and updating their riot preparedness plans.

Any one of these can be dismissed by the cynical as an isolated particular. Let me instead suggest a look at the broadest protest movement which has broken out since the election--the battle which followed the passage of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. This ballot initiative, a little gem of rancid bigotry, not only denied same-sex couples the right to wed, but even officially “un-married” tens of thousands of lesbian and gay Californians. It was hands-down the biggest bummer of Election Night, 2008.

But look at what has ensued!

First, there were a couple of weeks of near-spontaneous demonstrations, pulled together by email, instant message and Twitter. Often thousands strong, they reached all 50 states. Many protesters quickly--and correctly--identified and focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) as the main target. Rallies took place in front of Mormon temples not only across California and in other modern-day Sodoms like NYC but even at LDS Central in Salt Lake City.

The effect has been profound. The demonstrations gave rise to an incredible cultural flowering in defense of gay marriage, from the movie-star-laden YouTube micro-musical “Prop 8: The Musical” (starring Jack Black as Jesus) to the tongue-in-cheek petition drive launched in Princeton, NJ for an initiative forbidding Princeton freshmen to walk on town and campus sidewalks.

Major media outlets and think tanks undertook investigations which showed that, just as protesters charged, LDS money and machinations were at the center of the Prop 8 campaign. Boycotts of tourism in Utah and of Mormon firms, as well as other businesses run by Prop 8 backers, are underway. Members have quit the church or spoken out publicly against its embrace of bias.

On the political front, Obama has felt the heat, especially after his inaugural invitation to Prop 8 supporter Rev. Rick Warren triggered a spasm of revulsion even among his loyalists. One response to the pressure has been his unexpected and unequivocal pledge to move rapidly to end the Armed Force’s homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

To grasp the new mood of struggle, try and imagine the scene if Proposition 8 had passed during the grim 2000 or 2004 elections. The anger would have been swamped in the overall angst and depression. The flowering of protest and culture would never have taken place. Most important, we would not have the current mood, the overwhelming optimism that the passage of Prop 8 is just a bump in the road which will soon be behind us.

A Roadblock for the Anti-War Movement

The exception to this generally very favorable climate for struggle is unfortunately a crucial one: the wars of aggression the US government is locked into in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The anti-war movement has been the single most powerful opposition force in this country during the last six and a half years. The fact that 70% plus of the American people want the war over with, and pronto, owes much to the tireless and thankless work of tens of thousands of anti-war activists. In fact, the coalescing of broad popular sentiment against the war was perhaps the single most important factor in the Democratic Party’s 2006 victories and 2008 landslide.

The problem facing the anti-war movement now is a grimly ironic one. Despite its enormous contributions to the changed political atmosphere in this country, the movement’s demands --Stop the War! Bring The Troops Home Now!--seem today most unlikely to be met by the Obama administration.

The brutal underlying contradiction remains what it has been since the invasion of Iraq--the US ruling class cannot afford to stay in Iraq and they cannot afford to leave. To stay is to extend an insanely costly occupation indefinitely, in the face of popular hatred, with chaos always around the corner and the sketchiest prospects for a stable hegemony. To leave is to give up the prospect of a US hand on the world’s second largest oil spigot and to accept a drastic defeat for US military power and geostrategy.

We are left with two unknowns about Obama’s intentions regarding these wars, and one known.

Unknown #1 is how far he will go toward pulling out of Iraq. Obama’s goal, in practice, appears to be to finesse the contradiction, by pulling out a majority of the US troops and reducing the combat role of the tens of thousands who will remain. This risks further undercutting US ability to dictate what happens in Iraq, while leaving US troops, bases and other assets more vulnerable to insurgent attack or the re-eruption of civil war between Iraqi forces.

Unknown #2 is how far he will go in honoring his pledge to win in Afghanistan. The pledge was made, and repeated incessantly, to make Obama look tough and highlight the Bush administration’s failure to hunt down al-Qaeda’s leadership. Still, Afghanistan doesn’t have the same strategic importance to the US as Iraq and there are excuses aplenty to step back--corruption in Kabul, NATO allies pulling out, the need to conserve funds and rebuild the military.

The thing which we do know is a simple fact of political life: whatever his intentions, inside of six months, these wars will be Obama’s wars, not Bush’s wars.

It is remotely possible that he will actively try to end them both, but there has been no sign of this since Election Day. Appointees of his in the State Department,the national security apparatus and the military are all publicly saying that a too-rapid withdrawal from Iraq is risky and impractical. Continuing the occupation of Iraq or even dragging out its end will continue the bleeding, actual and economic, there and here.

Moving to double down in Afghanistan threatens major catastrophe. There are reasons that Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires--25 centuries worth of reasons.

All of this leaves the anti-war movement off balance, with hard choices before it.

Should the anti-war movement attack Obama now, or not? There are some in the liberal wing of the movement who, in a touching combination of wishful thinking and denial, want to give him a long honeymoon as a chance to follow through on his promises. Most activists are far more skeptical.

Very sensibly, though, most are also reluctant to launch an all-out assault on him and risk alienating the great swaths of his ardent supporters who so far still believe that he will bring the occupation of Iraq to a close, who will keep believing it so long as troop levels are falling, and who don’t know much about Afghanistan.

With Iraq less and less visible on the country’s radar--none of the Big Three teevee networks even has a Baghdad correspondent any more--some argue that we should seek to end the war indirectly by directing our main attack on the bloated military budget. I think this is a mistake and plays into the hands of those, including those in the new administration, who want Iraq off the radar. People need reminding that there are still 142,000 US troops in Iraq, not help forgetting it.

In my view, the best option is to keep on keepin’ on--continue to protest, step up outreach to our friends and neighbors and rattle the cages of elected officials, especially when appropriation-for-occupation time rolls around again. As Iraq becomes Obama’s war, Obama will increasingly be the one the people hold responsible for its continuation. Even if he should actually begin substantial troop reductions, as promised, that doesn’t oblige the movement to drop the demand that all the troops be brought home. Now.

Should we raise the profile of Afghanistan in anti-war work? The anti-war movement is playing catch-up, in a sense, after keeping its focus rather strictly on Iraq. But with the situation changing rapidly, the occupation’s outlook “grim” (according to the latest national Security estimate) and the promise of the US force there being doubled, to 60,000+ this year, we have no choice. And any step by Obama to escalate the US occupation of Afghanistan or to maintain the deadly status quo there should be opposed directly, with all the vigor possible, as education around that occupation is stepped up.

No Detour Past the Collapse of the Economy

I’ve had a little trouble with my roadway metaphors for this one. I thought about the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis (with overtones of The Bridge To Nowhere), Given all the rebuild-the-infrastructure talk, it seemed a natural.

But what the new administration is facing today is a collapsed global financial system and a rapidly crumbling global economy.

In other words, the actual fact is that we are, all of us, sitting on that metaphorical bridge right now while it comes apart beneath us. Furthermore, it is unclear where a rebuilt bridge might (or should) wind up anchored.

The first effort at shoring up the bridge was a failure on an epic scale. Trillions have been spent to bail out the banks and get credit flowing again. Instead, Citibank and Bank of America have just followed AIG back to Uncle Sam’s free money window for seconds. Globally, whole countries are insolvent or facing bankruptcy.

The most intriguing thing about the Obama administration during the transition months was his immediate post-election pledge to create 2 million new jobs (by late December bumped up to 3 million) by 2010. How? “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

This is interesting indeed. It suggests that some in the new administration have concluded what most economists and commentators are still eager to deny, at least in public: we are in a depression! That’s the only reason to contemplate adopting a massive industrial policy/public works program like this.

But if the US (along with the rest of the world) is already the early stages of a full-fledged depression, this is desperately insufficient. Employers are sloughing off between half a million and a million jobs every month these days. 3,000,000 jobs won’t stop the hemorraging, let alone reverse the trend. It does, however, set the precedent for further government jobs programs.

However, the other major steps the new administration has announced to deal with the economic meltdown will only deepen it, and place the burden on working people, now and for generations to come.

First, Obama’s people pledge to continue the doomed effort to rescue the banks by throwing more money at them, although this time trying to figure out how to make them start lending. This just won’t work. The reason the banks need more money is to avoid having to admit that they have gone broke. (All of the UK’s banks are “technically insolvent,” the Royal Bank of Scotland reported yesterday.) They are holding, and hiding, so much “bad paper”--unsaleable toxic assets like CDOs and other fancy speculative instruments--that they need to hoard cash. They certainly won’t loan it to other banks they suspect or know are in the same boat, or to consumers who are themselves already up to their ears in debt and at risk of layoff, or to businesses which depend on the spending of those consumers.

Second, Obama’s appointees are trying to jack up consumer spending as the only fast way to break the meltdown’s downward spiral. Any cut or rebate for regular taxpayers (even with its impact boosted by crude oil prices now less than a quarter what they were only months ago) is likely to be used to pay down debt or hoarded as a shield against bad times, not pumped into reviving the cycle of compulsive purchases of unneeded stuff that fueled the credit bubble in the first place.

Third, all of this can only be funded by trillion dollar deficits “for years to come”, as Obama put it. This amounts to putting off the day of reckoning into the future, when all the IOUs the Treasury issues now to finance this “rescue” of the economy have to be paid off by our children and our children’s children. And that’s assuming that buyers can even be found for all the debt the new president is talking about issuing. If you are an investor from China or the United Arab Emirates or the US, for that matter, how enticing does this proposition sound: Loan us trillions so we can throw it at banks which will hoard it to keep staggering around a little bit longer before going belly up?

Obviously government policies can make an enormous difference in how deep the depression goes, how long it lasts and who bears the burden. What it cannot do is bypass the depression.

Look at the last two months. Broke consumers, many with credit cards canceled or limits reduced, sat on their wallets during the holiday shopping seasons. Sales dropped to their lowest since figures were first published, in 1969. Naturally a wave of small store and chain outlet closings is underway, and soon more big chains will be following Circuit City into the boneyard. That means more broke unemployed folks, of course. It also means that the highly leveraged commercial real estate market is tanking fast. That’s the folks who brought you all those malls now starved for customers and covering empty shop windows with brown butcher paper.

And guess what? All the commercial loans and mortgages the developers and management firms took on have long since been bundled, split into tranches, overvalued and sold off to eager banks, hedge funds and speculator--just like residential mortgages. Now there’s another pile of steaming toxic waste which has to be kept hidden in the vaults of the banks. And another turn of the downward spiral takes shape.

From the standpoint of the ruling class, whether they grasp it or not, two things have to happen for this depression to end. First, the global financial system has to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that can only happen on the rubble of the huge, flat-broke banks currently acting as parasites on national economies the world over. Isn't dread that this will happen the best explanation of why desperate financial firms, bleeding money and with stock prices tanking, opted to become the biggest donors to Obama’s $50 million Inauguration?

Second, the huge overproduction--of consumer goods and of means of production--has to be destroyed. That’s what’s starting to happen in the auto industry right now. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be over soon.

From the point of view of everybody outside the ruling class, this gives us one task, crystal clear. Resist! Every single bid to dump the crisis on ordinary working people must be resisted with determined struggle, preferably of the pitchfork and torch variety. Plant takeovers and organizing drives in the workplace. The pillorying of cut-minded local officials like Philadelphia’s mayor when he tried to close eleven libraries. Campus protests like the coordinated demonstrations in the California higher education system. Hounding Wall Street bigwigs when they dare to appear in public.

The watchword of the Obama campaign was “Hope.” Well, if all we do now is sit back and hope, we are going to find ourselves hoeing one very hard row.

Hope will not make President Barack Hussein Obama and the Democratic Congress (much less Republican congresscritters) turn their backs on the banks and corporations--on their lobbyists, on their campaign donations, on their bought-and-paid-for media, on the think-tanks and “experts” they fund. Only struggle, and the fear it engenders in their hearts, will do that.

Pitchforks.

Torches.

Struggle.

7 comments:

JK said...

I'm heading out to the garage to sharpen my pitchfork now.

Right on! (Does anyone say that anymore?)

sida 2008 said...

Thanks for shouting out our library struggle in Philly! This is a great article and is helping me figure out what is going on in the big picture.

Just fyi though, it's 11 libraries, and there's a big chance they will still close... we are fighting it though!

Carl Davidson said...

You're off base on a few topics here, IMHO, even though generally on the right path.

First, the times call for organization-building as the central task, more so than fanning the flames of the spontaneous outburst of struggle. The crisis will produce a never-ending series of these. The question is how to build strength within them, as new base communities and new alliances.

Second, the question is not 'attack' or 'honeymoon' Obama on the war; it's connect the wars to the crisis, and demand 'Out Now, Yes, We Can!' on both of them, as well as cutting defense, in order to help pay for the depression-busting projects here at home. Just organize people on what's to be done, and take it to every level of government, all the way to the White House. If you want some messaging, try 'You asserted it in the campaign, we've got your back, now deliver!' No need to attack, just tell them what must be done.

Third, gay marriage is fine, but it doesn't make my top four concerns. Start with HR 676, then EFCA, then 'Out Now', then 'Green Jobs. That is, if your concern is building a labor-centered new alliance at the base, and working to mobilize it for a march on DC. You don't have to liquidate gay marriage; just keep it in perspective, instead of just worshipping the spontaneous outbursts.

You're also too one-sided on the crisis solutions. Yes, we should demand zero public funds to pay off Wall St gambling debts in derivatives; yes, we should oppose supply side tax cuts. But they're all Keynesians at the top now, and the two-line fight is in that arena.

We need to spell out our side of it, saying that what productive business needs right now are purchase orders, not tax cuts. They need the burden of health care costs taken off their backs via HR 676.

Then the local fight becomes 'purchase orders for what?' We need to say schools, hospitals, and green energy infrastructure, with contracts going to those who pay union scale to local labor, and we need to form a high-road alliance between labor, community and local high-road businesses to get it. That aims the main blow at low-road speculative capital, the cause of the crisis.

The left also needs to propose buy-out, not bailout, as structural reform that points to Economic Democracy as the bridge to the 'successor system.' Read David Schweickart's 'After Capitalism' for the theoretical case.

That's just for starters, but let's get it on...

Jimmy Higgins said...

A response to Carl Davidson:

You're off base on a few topics here, IMHO, even though generally on the right path.

Carl, I can't actually recall ever having been on base, except once maybe when I was hit by a pitch, but by all means, let's stir the pot a little here. As usual, you and me will probably appear in this exchange to be further apart than we actually are. So be it.

But instead of bouncing back and forth, let's leave it open for a day or two to see if other folks want to weigh in.

First, the times call for organization-building as the central task, more so than fanning the flames of the spontaneous outburst of struggle. The crisis will produce a never-ending series of these. The question is how to build strength within them, as new base communities and new alliances.

In the abstract, it's always time for organization building, even when it's not the central task. I am arguing from a particular understanding of the economic meltdown here, though. My basic position goes, in extremely condensed and one-sided form:
1. The crisis is hitting very unevenly with very different particulars in different parts of the country, industries, etc. In Las Vegas, collapsing housing market. Detroit, really scary unemployment. Cali, huge public service cuts, etc.
2. Only immediate and widespread and visibly angry responses to particular attacks will strike sufficient fear into the hearts of policy-makers before they dump more resources into rescuing the banks and the rich. A big one-day march in DC many months from now won't.
3. This won't necessarily happen without organizing, which you know as an inveterate and indefatigable organizer yer own self. Folks can get pretty beat up before "fight or flight" kicks in.
4. Any push to build broader and national forms and campaigns first is, I think, misguided. Those will be orders of magnitude stronger if they are built based on the experience of local battles, and involving the advanced fighters who will come forward in such fights.
5. The main, not only, task of the likes of us today is exactly to fan them flames at the local level.

Second, the question is not 'attack' or 'honeymoon' Obama on the war; it's connect the wars to the crisis, and demand 'Out Now, Yes, We Can!' on both of them, as well as cutting defense, in order to help pay for the depression-busting projects here at home. Just organize people on what's to be done, and take it to every level of government, all the way to the White House. If you want some messaging, try 'You asserted it in the campaign, we've got your back, now deliver!' No need to attack, just tell them what must be done.

I don't think I said to do either in my paper, Carl, but we are confronted with a problem here. Simply calling on Obama to honor his promises elides the fact that two of those promises were to add 70,000 men and women to the military and to send 30,000 more combat troops (with how many in logistical and support roles?) to Afghanistan--this year. We'd better not have his back on this one, we'd better be all up in his grille, without unnecessarily pissing his base-level supporters off.

Likewise, we should, of course, connect the war to the depression and argue from the expense, but we are not against the war principally because it's too pricey. I don't think military Keynesianism is a possible solution to the crisis this time, but it's a complex argument, and plenty of pols and pundits will be pushing the "It was war spending from '39 on that ended the Great Depression" position.

Third, gay marriage is fine, but it doesn't make my top four concerns. Start with HR 676, then EFCA, then 'Out Now', then 'Green Jobs. That is, if your concern is building is building a labor-centered new alliance at the base, and working to mobilize it for a march on DC. You don't have to liquidate gay marriage; just keep it in perspective, instead of just worshipping the spontaneous outbursts.

I think you really missed what I was saying here. The fineness or non-fineness of gay marriage isn't the point, nor is its relative importance or unimportance in forging "a labor-centered new alliance at the base". Alas, we don't get to tell people what to get mad about and launch into struggle over. How is it "worshipping the spontaneous outbursts" to cite the national-level anti-Prop 8 outburst as a spectacularly heartening response that shows the greatly improved conditions for struggle since Obama took office?

You're also too one-sided on the crisis solutions. Yes, we should demand zero public funds to pay off Wall St gambling debts in derivatives; yes, we should oppose supply side tax cuts. But they're all Keynesians at the top now, and the two-line fight is in that arena.

We need to spell out our side of it, saying that what productive business needs right now are purchase orders, not tax cuts. They need the burden of health care costs taken off their backs via HR 676.

Then the local fight becomes 'purchase orders for what?' We need to say schools, hospitals, and green energy infrastructure, with contracts going to those who pay union scale to local labor, and we need to form a high-road alliance between labor, community and local high-road businesses to get it. That aims the main blow at low-road speculative capital, the cause of the crisis.

The left also needs to propose buy-out, not bailout, as structural reform that points to Economic Democracy as the bridge to the 'successor system.' Read David Schweickart's 'After Capitalism' for the theoretical case.


Before we get to crisis solutions, we need some rough agreement on what the nature of the crisis is. I hold that we are in the early stages of a depression, that it is a crisis of overproduction intensified by the use of government, corporate and consumer credit to delay its onset for years, with the result that the global financial system is smashed and will have to be rebuilt.

I am pitifully ignorant in the economic arena, but one implication of my analysis, not present in your prescription, is that we should call for nationalization of the banks and bankrupt corporations. Screw "buy-out"--if it's broke and it retains potential social utility, take it over and let capital eat its losses.

I'll toddle down to the library this afternoon and put a loan request on Schweiker.

That's just for starters, but let's get it on...

Brage said...

I guess the column is allright. Very american, though. It kinda lacks perspective of the european left. That's the great thing about George Bush - he's an easy enemy. The world wide struggle against US imperialism, not only in the sence of warfare, faces a setback with Obama. In Norway he is described as some kind of social liberal/social democrat, often compared to Martin Luther King. We will be facing great difficulties in explaining that in general he stands for the same policies as Bush.

Jimmy Higgins said...

Brage, I know that living in the belly of the beast, we owe a lot of amends and reparations to the people of the world. Still, I'm damned if I'm going to apologize because getting rid of Bush & Co. makes it harder for revolutionaries in other countries to build sentiment against US imperialism!

Rahim on the Docks said...

Hey there Jimmy, "Ra on the Docks" here. I know, I know, I still owe an in the streets report from the Inauguration in DC, but I wanted to toss one though into the blender.

NJ's Alan Reilly-Gene Glazer Chapter )21 of Veterans for Peace has issued a call to President Obama for a special prosecutor to investigate BushCo™ war crimes. While it is clear that Obama's policy of "inclusiveness" probably forbids attacks on the previous administration (in a way that the Bush-Cheney Gang never behaved toward their predecessors), the call to investigate these crimes may give the people's movement an interesting way to keep the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the fromt burner.