October 6, 2010

10.2.10: Some Cranky Points

Herewith a few points about the 10.2.10 rally, held under the bland signboard, One Nation, Working Together. I emphasize the word “points”--this is not an actual summation. It is not undertaken collectively, based on an initial analysis and a plan on how to take part in what was obviously going to be one of the more significant political events of 2010. I hope different forces produce such summations for us to study, compare and learn from.

1. Solidarity Day comparison

My sense of things is doubtless jaundiced by decades spent slogging to DC for big protests, but I am not alone in making a comparison to Solidarity Day in 1981, the first year of the Reagan era. A deep recession was devastating the country and the newly elected president was going all out to break the striking air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO. The shaken AFL-CIO bureaucracy issued an unprecedented call for a national, union-led March on Washington, and a fired-up rank and file responded. Hundreds of thousands poured into DC for a determined and angry protest.

Objectively, the trade union movement is very different from what it was in 1981, and substantially weaker. That one had big, big contingents from the United Auto Workers, the Steelworkers and other traditionally majority male bailiwicks. Those unions, like the Meatpackers and too many others, are a shadow of what they were then, devastated by outsourcing, union busting, technological change

While I saw Machinists and Teamsters in good numbers, from far afield--Ohio, Pittsburgh, etc., it was the service unions which dominated last Saturday. The SEIU was clearly the biggest the biggest single force this time. The United Federation of Teachers was another with big member turnout.

While 10.2.10 reflected changes in the economy and the trade union movement, it didn’t really reflect probably the most significant change. There were certainly contingents from the immigrant workers movement, but where were the numbers and the spirit of the great levantamiento of 2006, where millions waged one-day general strikes that slowed or stopped city after city?

Participation in general was spotty. Some unions didn’t take part at all, or participated only in a token way. I didn’t see big contingents from the two largest postal unions, the APWU and the NALC, even though they are facing the combination of management attack, non-union competition and technological obsolescence (courtesy of the Internet) that devastated many of the old “basic” industries in the run-up to 1981. It’s possible that I missed them in a large crowd, but I know for a fact that my own former local, NY Metro, the largest APWU local in the country, didn’t send a single solitary bus to DC.

Finally, the spirit was different. Though conditions are worse than they were in the Reagan Recession, we have a smaller, feebler union movement, with less of a sense of itself as a sleeping giant roused to anger. 10.2.10 was not only less angry but more tentative.

I have had to go through my initial draft of this and insert the word “rally” in a dozen places where I originally wrote “march” or “demonstration” (and even, once, “protest”). Although it was sometimes billed as A March for Jobs, Peace and Justice, there was no march, no central show of strength. Folks streamed into the rally site, stood or milled, listening to the speakers--or not--and trickled out in a growing flow even as latecoming contingents continued to stream in.

2. The Obama problem

And there was no clear target.

10.2.10 had an impressive list of Good Things it was calling for (I can’t say fighting for)--jobs, education, real health care reform, curbing the NAFTA version of free trade, stopping giveaways to the big banks, immigration law reform, rebuilding the infrastructure, and even, in passing, “peace abroad.”

Yet the main people denounced in 10.2.10 literature and by those speakers from the podium I heard were Republicans in Congress, corporate lobbyists, and the whole Glenn Beck, Fox News and Tea Party “Take Back America” crew. For all the mess left by the Bush administration and the obstructions posed by Senate Republicans, the fact remains that if goals like these are to be won, they won’t come from that lot. They must be demanded from the Democratic President, the Democratic House and the Democratic Senate and fought for. Hard.

Meanwhile, it was clear that a great many of the workers present were not about to listen to a bad word about President Obama. On my half-filled bus from the NYC Central Labor Council, I saw three people wearing their pins from Obama’s 2008 campaign and a woman with a tee-shirt that had his picture and the words “Commander-in-Chief” writ large in gold sequins above it. The heart of this sentiment was captured in one of those loomed-acrylic throws that usually depict woodland scenes or poker-playing dogs. This one was being carried as a small banner by two Black women who came on the other CLC bus--It had a picture of Obama superimposed on his current residence and the inscription “From Slavery To The White House.”

You could see the contradiction vividly in the plaintive pre-printed signs some unions distributed: We Want The Change We Voted For. And you could see it in what can be characterized as the main demand of the rally, directed not at the powers that be, but at rally participants: we should go home and plunge deep into Get Out The Vote operations for the Democratic Party in the mid-term elections. The alternative, it was suggested, will be certain doom if the Republicans do too well.

3. The crisis of legitimacy

A much more recent benchmark for 10.2.10 than Solidarity Day was the well-publicized turnout for the Restoring Honor rally in DC called a month earlier by Glen Beck, teevee lunatic and semi-official Tea Party mouthpiece, I confess that it was heartening that the trade unions and their allies also drew in the low six figures.

Lorry nose, there’s been a lot written about the Tea Party phenomenon in recent months. We’ve seen articles--some concerned, some comic--that say that the movement is in essence is a white supremacist backlash, against Blacks, against immigrants, against Muslims. Or it is a sophisticated and well-financed Republican Party astroturfing operation. Or it’s elderly white nostalgics panicked by change, or broke-ass folks in a barely coherent tax rebellion or just a sorry reflection of a deep inability to think at all among too many people of this country. I am not about to argue with any of these worthy assertions here.

But one thing which has not been sufficiently noted is that the teabaggers have seized ownership of the deepening crisis of legitimacy in this country. Tens of millions of Americans feel that the system is broken and have a deep distrust of politicians as unprincipled, blowhard, money-grubbing liars. They have worked hard only to watch their mortgages go underwater, their jobs vanish, their puny investments and pensions savaged by the economic meltdown. And all the while, a bunch of rich bankers and businessmen are getting fabulously rich hollowing out companies and running Ponzi schemes and avoiding taxes.

That’s unarguable.

In such a situation the left should be ascendant. Key to our basic critique is the idea that this system is run by the rich for the rich, that the government and the electoral system and the courts and the laws do not serve the great majority, that the mainstream media is owned by and kowtows to billionaires, that uncountable trillions in tax money are spent on unjust and unjustifiable wars and on bailing out financial criminals while, for most of us, poverty is one layoff notice or hospital bill away, that the US has a higher percentage of its population in prison than the most repressive regimes and state spying on citizens is at unprecedented levels.

Yet it is the half-baked, anti-government, rightwing libertarian version of these ideas that is the leading ideological edge of the teahadists. By making “big government” rather than capitalist rule the issue, they have put many progressives and radicals on the defensive. Much of the left is thus today found explaining why regulation of corporations is a good thing, why utilities and roads and schools should not be privatized, why social security and Medicare are necessary, why your right to live trumps your neighbor’s inalienable right to test small thermonuclear devices on his Private Property, and so forth. Is our best answer to a crisis of legitimacy to defend the existing order as superior to some brutal government-free dystopia?

That 10.2.10 was unable to mobilize, or even unite with, that anger and that sense that the system doesn’t work for everyday people means that it will likely wind up only as a quickly fading memory for participants.

4. Socialism, war and the contingents

Part of the plan was that folks focused on particular issues could organize themselves into contingents of groups and individuals. A bunch of these mobilized at a remove from the main rally to be able to move into it in an organized fashion and make their point. This useful approach seemed to be undermined by weak outreach, an early departure from the announced gathering points and rapid absorption into the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. I want to make note of two of them.

The socialist contingent was the only one I actually ran into, with around 500 participants at that point. Called by a variety of groups on the socialist left, with the International Socialist Organization having the largest presence on the ground, its main message was that the Democrats suck as bad as the Republicans. Whatever the merits of this view, there was no way it was going to have much impact on the crowd.

The contingent was holding a mini-rally on the outskirts of the crowd when I arrived and the highlight was an excellent speech by Dan La Botz, the Socialist Party candidate for US Senator from Ohio. Paradoxically, the fact that Dan is the most prominent socialist candidate in this whole election cycle highlighted how little play any flavor of actual socialist politics has in the country in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The anti-war contingent had left 14th and Constitution, entered the crowd and dissipated before I got out of the RFK Stadium parking lot and onto the Metro, and from what I’ve heard was larger but not qualitatively so. Some excellent work was done around 10.2.10. Just days before. Veterans For Peace did a huge banner drop at the Newseum, right down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. US Labor Against the War distributed literature to and got the very useful “Why Are We In Afghanistan” video shown on scores of buses.

Still, recent polls show 58% of the people in this country already oppose the war in Afghanistan (a country never even mentioned in 10.2.10 literature). The figure at the rally must have been more like 90%. Yet the desperate urgency of ending the occupations and the catastrophic effect they are having in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan simply did not come across.

5. Think I’m too cranky? Holler back!

Let me stipulate that it was a good thing that the One Nation Working Together rally was held, that the mobilization was fairly impressive, that the crowd was magnificently diverse and that many of the people attending were jazzed by it and even felt determined to take action, electoral or otherwise, in the coming period. I may well have missed other positive features of the rally or other possibilities arising from it.

Blog posts I have read and comments I have heard from other participants tend to be more upbeat, if short on specifics. And my views are certainly colored by a pessimistic sense of the historical moment we are in, but I also know I’m not alone. In an hour-long discussion I fell into with a couple grad students and an IT consultant from DC and a science teacher and a postal worker from Boston, the consensus seemed to be drifting toward “we are well and truly fucked.” Nothing any of us saw on 10.2.10 was enough to transcend that sense of where we are at now.

What did you see?


Anonymous said...

I think it's a good idea to separate the dominant national mood ('we are well and truly fucked') from the feel of the protest ('this hasn't changed the fact that we are well and truly fucked.') The latter sense of frustration existed well before the current crisis. That's because there is also a widespread sense of resignation about the current economic situation that doesn't have any direct connection to the fortunes of the left.

The question of why the Democratic Party doesn't seem to have any real solutions hasn't, if you ask me, ever been resolved in a compelling way. I don't think arguments about corporate influence are really that useful, since it's hard to distinguish them in practice from a more resigned argument about why 'things don't change around here.'

The funny thing is, this kind of point of view is very widespread, but at the same time, most people still know that the political leadership is accountable in principle for their decisions-they don't behave like people who've acquiesced to a dictatorship, for example. 'People' (e.g. the 'abolish the Fed' current) both think that the existing political structure is responsible for its errors and think that it is impervious to change.

But for a citizen of a democratic state, this is just a contradictory attitude-an incompetent or unaccountable government is by definition not responsible. I don't know-but I suspect-that the 'wait and see' conclusions that often come up in these situations-to give only one example-are the result of these contradictory premises.

In any case, I think that posing the question in terms of 'support the democratic party' or 'don't support the democratic party' fails to confront this kind of subjective contradiction.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you are cranky enough. So the Dems and their apparatus held a rally. It was uneventful, unfocused and irrelevant. It's aim is to fire up the mid-level supporters to go get out the vote next month.

There was a lot of talk about the "movement" behind Obama. Which was generated, controlled, lied-to and manipulated to put an imperial Reaganite in the white house. No doubt those union professionals will be doing it again, and no doubt they could give a rat's ass if the whole country collapsed into a sinkhole.

SEIU gave tens of millions of dollars to pro-NAFTA candidates. They are the ground apparatus of the neo-liberals running the Democrat Party and helped pay the bribes to destroy american manufacturing. Andy Stern's goons could give a damn about working people. Everybody knows this. Which is why they can bus in tens of thousands of people, but can't get a fraction of that to participate meaningfully.

Believe what you want, but by any OBJECTIVE measure, Obama is everything awful about Bush plus he has managed to completely and totally evaporate any left opposition. Mission Accomplished.

Why is that surprising? All the "progressives for Obama" went out on a limb, lied to people and now have jack shit to say except fear-mongering about sixty-year-old revanchists venting their spleen.

Anyone on the left who didn't go along with Obama was attacked, marginalized and mocked. The antiwar movement was actively attacked from its own so-called leaders, seeking to avoid any "embarrassment" to their dear leader. Those who were more radical were subjected to smear campaigns such as those launched against ANSWER and World Can't Wait. And then, shocking, it was the far right that picked up the slack...

So, here you are. More war, austerity, and the same leftish hacks running the same "fall in line" rap. I'm not part of "one nation". Sorry. One world. Down with this sordid empire and it's sorry-ass apologists. Elections and government parties are mind-control technologies and they will not work to ANY good end in our current period.

I suspect if all those socialists decided to actually build something like a unified movement with balls, they might actually gain traction among the strong minority of the population who shares their objectives and beliefs. But so long as they remain apologists for the ruling class, expect the far right to gain. (which is the exact opposite position taken by the "pretend Obama isn't actually in charge" brigade of professional progressives and dissent brokers.

The Democrat Party does have "solutions" — austerity, war and demagoguery. They have a backbone, too: they sure told every single person at the "one nation" rally to "go fuck themselves." And by sucking up to Obama once again, they followed orders just fine.